Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Q&A: David Simon (pt. 2)

Before excelling as a TV drama writer, David Simon stood out as a newspaperman and a book author. He changed the course of his destiny (and mine) in 1992, after Barry Levinson acquired “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” to make into a television series.

Levinson and Tom Fontana, almost as a courtesy, offered Simon a first-season “Homicide” script to write. As a lark, he accepted. And because Simon knew I loved TV, he brought me on as a co-writer. Our episode, “Bop Gun,” ended up launching the second season in January of ‘94. They got Robin Williams to guest-star in it. Simon and I won a Writers Guild Award for the first script either of us had ever written.

I quit my job at the Washington Post to follow my dreams to Hollywood, while Simon stayed with the Baltimore Sun and undertook the reporting and writing of his second book, “The Corner.” Cut to 1999; he brought me on as a scriptwriting partner again when HBO turned “The Corner” into a miniseries. Simon and I copped two Emmys apiece.

I owe that man a blowjob.

When we spoke last week, I took Simon down memory lane.
DAVID MILLS: It was 20 years ago that you conceived the idea for the “Homicide” book. How did that idea hit you?

DAVID SIMON: Nineteen-eighty-five, I believe it was, Christmas Eve, I went up to the homicide unit and I brought a bottle as a gift, to basically say thanks for all the hassles. You hassle these guys all year long on five dozen murders, you’re always dependent on them to take your calls and give you the facts they can.

I was thinking of writing a little column about Christmas Eve in the homicide unit. It seemed like an amusing little irony. At least it did to me as a police reporter. I went up there and I hung around for the whole evening. …

While I was up there, Bill Lansey, a detective who later died of a heart attack, actually said at 4 in the morning – It was back when there was no cable [TV] up there. So the Christmas choir that’s always on at, like, 3 in the morning, the Yule log – there’s this choir singing. And everyone’s sitting around. When they got done with all the work, everyone was taking a nip off the bottle. And Bill Lansey said, “Man, the shit that goes on up here, you could write a book.” He actually said it. And it was the first moment where the idea clicked.

But I sat on it. I didn’t feel secure enough or capable enough to do it. I was 25 at the time. And I sat on it until we had a strike in ’87 for less than a week. I was so mad at management because [of] givebacks – at a time when the newspaper was making a lot of money – that I didn’t want to go back to the paper right away. I was looking for a leave of absence. They had to give you leave if you could think of a book idea and sell it. So those two things came together.

MILLS: The cop beat, in newsrooms, is considered a beginner’s beat, it’s not a prestige beat. Did you always see the value in it? You weren’t looking past it?

SIMON: When I was given it, I did not see the value in it. I had to acquire the value from doing it. But yes, at the Baltimore Sun you covered cops, and if you showed yourself to be clean and accurate, they would maybe send you to a county for a couple of years. If you could write your way out of a county bureau, you might become the third guy covering the state legislature, then you might work your way up to the second guy. … At some point you might go to Washington or overseas; those were the big prizes. So the idea that somebody would try to stay on cops seemed almost hilarious.

When “Homicide” came out as a book, there was, on the part of a lot of the older reporters who had come up under that hierarchical Sun system, there was almost a bemused moment of what-the-fuck? Like, “Who’s Simon and what did he write?” “Imagine that. The police reporter wrote a book.”

MILLS: I’m fascinated by pivot points in history. Before Barry Levinson ever contacted you, William Friedkin called you about the book. Tell the William Friedkin story.

SIMON: It wasn’t pivotal because Friedkin wasn’t gonna buy it. As I recall, there was somebody who offered me, like, $10,000 to make a movie out of “Homicide.” That was the only nibble that CAA got when they were trying to sell the book. It was not a book that had a lot of weight behind it, or a lot of talk. And the literary agent at CAA, they were ready to sell it off for peanuts.

So one day I’m on the metro desk. I’m back at the paper, I’m working rewrite. The phone rings. Dave Ettlin says, “Simon, for you.” I say, “Who is it?” He says, “Somebody named Friedkin.” And I think, you know, it’s probably some dentist from Pikesville.

I say, “Yeah. Simon.” And he says, “This is Bill Friedkin. I just want to say I think your book’s really great. I just read it. It’s a wonderful read.” “Well thank you, sir. Appreciate it. Can I do anything else for you?” I wasn’t getting it.

So finally, he said something like, “This is Bill Friedkin. I did ‘The French Connection’ and ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ I directed those.” And I said, “Alvarez, stop fucking with me.” I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” And he goes, “No, no…” Then there was this pregnant pause where I wanted him to say: “And I’m gonna buy your book and I’m gonna make it into a movie!”

Very kindly, he said: “I just wanted you to know, you did a great job. It’s a wonderful read.” “Well, thank you.” “All my best.” And he hung up.

MILLS: (laughs) Okay.

SIMON: But that did get me thinking about one thing. “Why don’t they send this to Barry Levinson?” [CAA] hadn’t sent it to him yet. I said, “Send it to Levinson, because, uhh… he’s from Baltimore.” (laughs) It was that pathetic of a moment of clarity. And Barry at the time had this deal with NBC to start doing television. So then it happened.

MILLS: Even when that show jumped off, you didn’t abandon journalism. You weren’t looking to abandon journalism. Was it that you thought so highly of journalism or you thought so little of TV or –

SIMON: Both. I just didn’t take it seriously. I remember you even calling me, after you were working on “Picket Fences,” and saying, “You should come out here. You will not starve if you do this.”

I thought the Sun at that moment was getting more vibrant, not less, and that this is what I always thought of myself as doing. I was a reporter. So writing that script with you was an amusing sidelight, it was a nice distraction, but I was not looking at it as a career choice.

MILLS: Now, having done TV, is there still a part of you that thinks: “Well, when I write a novel, then I’ll be a real writer”?

SIMON: Absolutely.

MILLS: In your mind, is there a hierarchy of writing? And where does television fit into it?

SIMON: I was proud of a lot of the work I did on “Homicide,” once I went to work for that show. I felt like it was at the higher rungs of episodic television. But I did feel as if it was a very imprecise storytelling device. It was a show that was trying to sustain itself as an entertainment, in an entertainment model. My impulse is not to provide entertainment.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t require, in my own mind, that anything I write needs to be entertaining. It does. But I felt that way about the books. If you pick up “Homicide” or “The Corner,” you will be, I hope, engrossed in the story just as an entertainment. At the same time, the impulse behind it is journalistic. And the journalism is what mattered and what I was devoted to. … I regard “The Wire” as rooted in a journalistic impulse even though it’s fiction.

I feel like there’s a place right now for me to stand in TV and respect my original intent when I walked into the Sun’s newsroom. … Primarily because of the HBO model. They’re an entertainment company just like any other. But their model is such that it gives me enough room, right now – the window is open just wide enough for me to crawl in, with all my history and impulses and desires, and be able to stand there making television. If at some point I can’t do that, then I gotta go back to books.

The entertainment industry is moving so fast in so many directions, I can’t anticipate when the floor is gonna fall out from under me, or when the window’s gonna snap shut.

MILLS: I think you’re unique because – Nobody knows what’s gonna happen in the television industry, but almost everybody else is ready to dig their claws into the concrete, once it tilts, so they don’t slide out of this business.

SIMON: I feel like it’s an accident that I’m in this business. It’s been a series of accidents. If you look at the construct of how I got to be running a show for HBO –

I go to these seminars, right? And there’s all these hungry screenwriters – “How do I get into television?” They ask these questions, and I look at them with all the honest empathy I have, and I say, “Well, first, go be a police reporter at a metropolitan newspaper for 10 years. Then write a book about something. Then sell it to a director who happens to be making films about the same city. And then have him and his cohorts teach you how to do television production…”

I start saying this, and it almost sounds like there’s something abusive to it. But I’m really saying to them, “I have no plan for you, as I had no plan for myself.”


SJ said...

I don't get it, The Corner won two Emmys but The Wire has only one nomination.

I guess it's too big of an expectation for most of the Emmy voters to watch the show consistently.

But what the hell, I'm just glad that the show will be able to last 5 seasons.

Undercover Black Man said...

SJ: With The Corner, fortunately for us, there just wasn't a ton of competition, as there never is in the miniseries category. (There may not even BE a miniseries category anymore.) Whereas Best Drama Series has got to be the most competitive of all Emmy categories, and getting tougher all the time with all the cable shows.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much UBM, for everything.

Dave said...

Thanks UBM for the interview with David Simon. Referring to pt 1 and some of Simon's comments, I have to agree with what he says. When season 4 started I was a little worried where it would take me but he's 100% correct about these kids and their lot in life. I have long been a supporter of the fact that children, more often than not, become what surrounds them. My sister wrote her Master's thesis on a group of women imprisoned for various felonies in order to feed their respective addictions (booze, drugs, gambling, etc.). She determined it was all a result of their upbringing and their surroundings and lack of education and support. On the surface we persecute and punish adults for wrongdoings, but if that's all they've known their whole lives then how can they do the right thing when they don't know what it is? I'm not saying we give them a break after the fact, nor is ignorance an excuse, but it starts with the kids, and at a very young age. That's where society needs to focus to improve the situation.

Thanks for the Wire, I look forward to season 5 and will never forget the entire series. I hope one day to be able to relate such statements myself be it film/television or print.

David Duval

SJ said...

Congrats for getting nominated for an Edgar award in the TV movie/mini-series category. You guys have a really impressive writing cast.

Now that I think about it, each season of The Wire is more like a mini-series.

Mapeel said...

Sleuth TV has been rerunning Homicide at what I call the "dark night of the soul" timeslot: 3:00 a.m. (although now it has shifted to 4:00 a.m., just a little lighter darkness).

I don't have insomnia often, but there have been some bouts in the last year. Putting the TV on and finding Homicide focuses my attention. It turns a mindset that could devolve into temporary despair into happy thoughts about excellence in writing, directing, acting, especially those early seasons. Such is the power of art.

Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Homicide Box Set coming out looks awesome.

peter said...

Have just finished Season 4 of the wire. It's only available on an obscure pay cable channel over here in the UK and so The Wire has recieved very little publicity even compared to Homicide which had quite a following on channel 4. I eneded up downloading seasons 1-4 off the internet...sshh don't tell anyone.
IMHO the Wire has to be the best TV show that has ever been made surpassing The Sopranos and Homicide itself. I've not seen a show with a majority black cast did the show go down with the african american community in general?
I very much enjoyed your interviews with David Simon thanks for that and belated congrats and thanks for the shows that you wrote together. I can't wait for season 5 and will have to find The Corner somewhere.

Montaillou said...

Great interview - both parts. I'm another UK viewer, also without access to said obscure cable channel. Having just listened to the director's commentaries on the Season 1 DVD, I feel better about the fact that originally I also downloaded all four seasons (which I now intend to buy the DVDs for!), since DS jokes at the end about how he and his co-commentator (Pelecanos, I think) don't see a penny of the proceeds, and says that everyone should go ahead and download it.

The Wire just breaks entirely new territory in terms of TV writing. The acting is consistently excellent, and the show's visual style has a refreshing directness: but it's really all about the writing.

I remember Dennis Potter ("The Singing Detective"; "Pennies from Heaven") - interviewed not long before he died, and in one of his less optimistic moments about the television viewer - commenting that he sometimes felt that TV just substituted for the campfire: that people often watched just because they were comforted by "the play of light on their faces".

By taking the chances it has - the long, novel-like structure; the absence of narrative spoonfeeding or manipulative music; the commitment to telling a great story by means of compelling characters - The Wire really does elevate the form beyond its former confines.

It would be great to think that it has staked out new territory to be explored with equal confidence by many writers to come. Given the economics of television, though, there's a serious danger that it we'll look back on it in the way we do Beethoven's late chamber music: a miraculous experiment with no real successors.

That last bit was horribly pretentious - sorry! But anyone out there familiar with both The Wire and the Grosse Fugue will know what I'm talking about!

Anyway, to those involved, thanks for the show.