Treme is the new HBO drama series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. From executive producer David Simon (best known for his work on The Wire), the 10-episode first season follows musicians (Wendell Pierce), chefs (Kim Dickens), Mardi Gras Indians (Clark Peters) and ordinary New Orleanians (including Khandi Alexander, Steve Zahn, Melissa Leo and John Goodman), as they try to rebuild their lives, their homes and their unique culture in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane and the levee failure that caused the near-death of an American city.
At its heart, Treme, named for the New Orleans neighborhood where jazz was invented, is a series about the people and the culture that survived and, at times, it is so authentic and raw that you forget you’re watching actors merely speaking from a script.
We recently spoke to show co-creator/writer David Simon, about his passion for the unique and eccentric city, how he sees it taking four or five years to tell the story of these characters on Treme and how he could never work in network television. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: Were there specific things about the city that you looked at, in developing this series?
David: I think everything that happened in New Orleans after the storm is grist for our mill. There are certain things that aren’t represented, like there being no sense of crime, in a city that is saturated with crime. But, the truth was that the crime didn’t come back for several months, until the spring of ’06. Crime dropped dramatically in New Orleans.
I looked into the point at which certain initiatives showed up, and will show the extent that they affect the lives of our 10 major characters. The school system didn’t reopen, in any capacity, until spring, but education can only be dealt with peripherally, in the sense of what children there are, going to school in Baton Rouge or elsewhere. We are really following the lay of the land, in terms of how the city tried to come back or not. In the pilot, there is actually a cameo by Elivs Costello, which is historically accurate because that was the first recording session that came back to the city. Elvis Costello’s collaboration with Allen Toussaint, on “River in Reverse,” was an emotional deal for the musicians there, so we reference that.
How will your story play out, from episode to episode?
David: We pick up three months after the storm, and we conclude after Mardi Gras, on St. Joseph’s Night, somewhere around March. We are always going to be following that fall-to-spring calendar, for a variety of reasons. First of all, it gives us carnival season to measure by. The first carnival back was its own unique enterprise. It was very local and very small. In some ways, it was very emotional for the people of New Orleans.
You can measure that by subsequent years. By using the same events with each subsequent season, if indeed there are subsequent seasons, we have an opportunity to take some measurements with the city. But, on practical terms, we don’t even have a lot of standing sets. It would be easy for us to just chuck everything in a truck and go to Shreveport, if a hurricane were coming, but the insurance companies make filming during the hurricane season cost-prohibitive. So, we are always going to be starting up after the hurricane season in November and finishing up before the hurricane season in June. We may go as far as the Jazz Fest one year, but basically, we are going to be following that track. In regard to the crime, specifically, the first vestiges of it started showing up in the spring of ’06, and it became quite dramatic in ’06/’07. That’s when it spiked.
How long will you stick to the immediate aftermath of Katrina?
David: For the second year of the show, we’d be 15 months after. The third year of the show, we’d be 27 months after. I don’t see the show going more than four or five years, at best, because all the questions about Americans in urban America, and what we’re capable of and what we’re not capable of, should be answered. It’s organic. We’re watching what’s going on in New Orleans now. We’re there, so if something extraordinary happened now, in 2010, I might argue, “No, it has to go for six years because we want to get to 2010 when this happened and the city was transformed by X or Y.”
Like another major hurricane?
David: I wasn’t even thinking that, but there have been all kinds of theories and plans and what kind of New Orleans is going to come back, and the Disney-fication of it. Are the casinos going to move in? If there was some dramatic coda that we could put on the seasons by waiting a year, then maybe I’d be arguing for six, but right now, I feel like a lot of the things we want to say were already evident on the ground by 2009.
You wouldn’t jump ahead?
David: I don’t think so. I think we need to be honest with the story.
You obviously really know Baltimore, as was evidenced by “The Wire.” How hard is it to get into another city?
David: Well, I was never in the marine corps and I was never a recon marine. What you do, when you don’t know something, is admit what you don’t know. The same thing applies to New Orleans. I’m doing the show with (executive producer) Eric Overmyer, who’s lived there for 20 years. I’ve been going down there since my late ’20s. And, we’ve also brought Tom Piazza, a novelist from down there, onto our writing staff, along with Lolis Elie from the Times-Picayune. You have to leaven the project with people who are local and know what you don’t know. You don’t try to write from ignorance.
Do you ever miss the in-your-skin knowledge you had of Baltimore?
David: Yeah. It goes faster when you can reference stuff out of your memory, than having to turn to two other guys or your researchers, and say, “We need to know this. When did this happen? When it happened, what did the U.S. attorney think?” It goes slower, but reporting is reporting. When you get sent on a new story and it’s not your beat, you can still manage to write a coherent, 30-inch weekender, but you’ve actually got to get the report and read all the background clips. It’s a pain in the ass, but that’s what it is. It just takes longer.
Are there individual stories of survival you can explore with this?
David: We’re not really coming in right after the storm. We made a very purposeful decision to start the story three months after the storm because I think the national media did a very good job of actually responding to Katrina, better than the government did, and giving people a meaningful knowledge of what the immediate aftermath of the storm was. But then, at a certain point, about two or three months out, the cameras went elsewhere. There was the next debacle somewhere in the world and the residents of New Orleans were left looking at the long term prospects of their city.
That’s what really interests us, not the immediate response to the emergency. That was covered amply, and we all have that imagery in our head. What I don’t think anybody has in their heads, and what is really interesting to me, is how the city came back or not, and on what terms. That’s really a story over time, and it’s gradual. Listen, 60% of the city is back, but 40% isn’t. There are a lot of people who can’t get home.
To me, it’s fascinating that, before the storm, New Orleans was a place where the highest percentage of people who lived there had been born there, of any place in America. If you were born there, it was like, “Where else am I going to go, where I can live life on these terms that I’m used to?” It’s so different from the rest of America. Now, for the first time in a long while, a lot of those people can’t get home, and there are amazing incongruities. Many of the housing projects in New Orleans were not damaged. They didn’t take water. The Lafitte homes took very little water on the first floor. They were built in the ’40s and were rock solid with Sicilian slate roofs, but they just put up a fence around it. They never re-opened it. Even with people living on air bases and in Motel 6s in Oklahoma, they didn’t open up.
David: I don’t know. The question that has never been successfully answered is, “Why couldn’t the federal government bring itself to re-open the projects that would’ve been housing for so many people?” People in New Orleans can’t figure it out.
Has the philosophy of public housing changed since that was built?
David: Absolutely. The projects were slated to come down, as they did in Chicago and Baltimore. The trend is inevitable. And yet, when 60% of your population is scattered from Atlanta to Austin and beyond, living in Quonset huts on old air force bases, you’d think they would do something about that. I don’t mean to make this political, but the problem is that everything is political.
Does John Goodman’s character represent the truth-telling?
David: Well, he’s roughly based on a gentleman named Ashley Morris. You can look him up and look at his blog. I didn’t know him, but I read him. He was a actually a professor in Chicago and commuted. But, the character is not Ashley Morris. It’s Ashley Morris’s voice, and his writing about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. He was a very passionate, very blunt, very funny, but very honest voice about the anger and the isolation that the people in New Orleans felt.
To read him was to understand the deep cut that New Orleans had sustained, not so much by the storm, but by the national response to the storm. When you read Ashley Morris, you can’t help but think, “Man, I’d love to have a character that could access some of this.” So, I’d be wrong to say that John Goodman is Ashley Morris, and I owe the Morris family that much distance, but I’ve talked to them and they’ve been very kind, in letting us use some of his writing.
Does it serve a purpose of rumor control?
David: In a way, yeah. He gets to be a truth-teller, at times, but because we’re writing him as a human being, there are times when he also goes over the top.
How did you find a narrative thread for this project? Obviously, it’s broadly the recovery of New Orleans, but how did you decide what the stories would be within that?
David: The “broadly” is what helped. We started with the idea of following the actual history of New Orleans, post-Katrina, and then constructed our stories based on what we wanted to say about that. It really needs to be a story of something first. And then, after that, you start thinking about what characters ought to be in the piece that help you tell that story. The question was about how the city comes back or doesn’t, and what comes back, on what terms.
New Orleans is not just the party. There’s a lot of dystopia in that city. In some ways, the party and the dystopia may be intrinsically connected. So, we thought about all the content, and then we started constructing our world. That was, of course, based on things that we wanted to see and wanted to capture in New Orleans.
What is the state of the city now? Shooting the show there, can you see a tangible economic impact?
David: The city, for me, feels like it surprises you with this one moment of just incredible beauty or wit or class, and then it follows it up by doing a pratfall or something darker. The dystopia of that place is tangled up in the joy, and they come from the same place. Even going back to its origins, 25% of the population died of yellow fever. There is a very dark undercurrent to New Orleans, and it’s what makes the art of the place so intense. Would you rather have a functional school system, or would you rather have Mardi Gras, because it may be that you can’t have both. What makes New Orleans great, in one sense, also makes it problematic in another, but that’s to be examined.
How much do national politics play into the show?
David: It’s involved in this sense: We are three months after the storm, and it has certainly affected the coming election, on a municipal level in New Orleans, which came right after the storm. And then, it affected the statewide elections. On some level, it was a topic of some currency, in the national election that followed. An argument could be as to whether or not the lack of response to Katrina was one of the things that truly undid the Bush administration. I think it certainly had an effect.
That’s in the ether. Some New Orleans residents were quite angry, and some of them are quite angry still, and not without cause. It enters the conversation, at appropriate points. And, there are others that are just going day-to-day and trying not to lose themselves in the political aspects. It’s in there in the proportion it should be. There should be a certain amount of political awareness and a certain amount of political response, and then, like ordinary people everywhere, they are worrying about how to get to tomorrow and where they are going to be.
Is Spike Lee involved with the show, in any way?
David: Spike read the pilot, early on, and I had very favorable conversations with him. The only thing of substance, where he kicked in an opinion, was actually with the casting of Phyllis Montana-Leblanc. He said, “You know, I think she could do one of these roles for you. She’s great.” And so, we read her and he was right. It was a good casting choice, and all credit to him for that. But, that’s the extent of his direct input. That and the fact that I do admire a lot of what he did in When the Levees Broke.
Do you come back to HBO out of loyalty?
David: No, I can’t get my stuff made anywhere, but on premium cable. But, it’s certainly been a good working relationship.
So, you think that a lot of networks might not have kept The Wire going then?
David: A lot of networks wouldn’t have let it get on the air at all. With the work I do, I can’t really work in network. Because of the form itself, I would not be able to get a show on the air, on network.