Tavis: David Simon has established himself as one of television’s most-heralded writers and producers, with seminal series like “Homicide” and more recently HBO’s “The Wire.” His upcoming project for HBO is one of the most-anticipated new shows of the year. It’s set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The series is called “Treme.” It premieres this Sunday, April 11th. Here now a preview of “Treme.”
Tavis: David Simon joins us tonight from New Orleans. David, good to have you on the program, sir.
David Simon: Thanks very much for having me.
Tavis: The title “Treme” comes from?
Simon: One of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the United States, just back of the French Quarter. It was the first location in which there were African-American homeowners.
Tavis: Why settle on that title, for all the things that it could have been called? Why “Treme?”
Simon: Well, everybody who comes to New Orleans is aware of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street or the Garden District. The rest of New Orleans is pretty much undiscovered country for the rest of America, and that’s what this show is about. It’s about the cultural heart of a very unique place, a very unique American city.
Treme is also the home of Congo Square, which is generally regarded to be the birthplace of jazz, it’s the place where jazz music had its origins.
Tavis: Tell me how one goes about designing, creating a show that is unapologetically set in post-Katrina New Orleans. That means what, exactly?
Simon: Well, Katrina and the engineering failure that followed it or that resulted from it was a profound event in the history of this city. It was a near-death experience for New Orleans. Five years later, the city is well along the path to recovery, although not all the way there and in many fundamental ways there are still profound problems.
But it was by no means an assured circumstance that the city was going to come back at all, and one of the things that brought the city back even more than any political or economic dynamic, because there were a lot of political failures in terms of the response to Katrina, but one of the things that clearly worked and worked in the city’s favor was its culture.
The culture refused to die. That was the first thing that came back, was the second-line culture, the Mardi Gras Indians, the jazz, the musicians. These things, they just refuse to quit. It wasn’t a political act for these things to come back, it was just what people who were involved in that culture needed to do.
They couldn’t be themselves in Austin or Baton Rouge or Houston, they had to come home.
Tavis: For the sake of argument, David, I could give you a list of things that suggests that the American people have Katrina fatigue.
Tavis: Americans came together and did a lot after the storm, but five years later, I could argue with you that Americans have Katrina fatigue. I raise that to ask, then, how you go about convincing a major network like HBO that we should do a series about a city that America is fatigued about.
Simon: My last project was on the Iraq war, “Generation Kill,” and I wouldn’t change a word of it. We said what we thought needed to be said about American involvement in Iraq.
I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a project yet wondering about whether people will watch it or not. If it was a story that I felt was worth telling, that was meaningful to me as a writer and to the other writers working on the project, that’s it. You’re talking to somebody who hasn’t had a hit yet, so how I get HBO to keep giving me enough rope to hang myself is an open question.
I don’t know if anyone’s going to watch this show either, but it was a story that Eric Overmyer and myself passionately wanted to tell, so here we are.
Tavis: So for all the characters that one could choose from, tell me more about the casting process. How do you go about deciding what the cast – who the cast is going to be made up of? I don’t mean just in terms of the actors, but in terms of the roles, the characters.
Levin: Well, we’re trying to capture every element of a very unique culture. We know that we have to go and address ourselves to the workaday musicians, of which there are thousands in this city. The level of musicianship in New Orleans exceeds any other American city, even New York and Los Angeles, I believe, and a lot of those guys are starving, but they’re nonetheless great musicians.
For that we chose Wendell Pierce. Those who know him from “The Wire” will know him as the character Bunk. Wendell is from New York, Pontchartrain Park is his neighborhood. His family actually lost their home in the story. I think if we tried to do this without Wendell he would have hunted us down.
Then from there we looked at the Mardi Gras Indian culture and we’re trying to find somebody who has the ability to convey the incredible sense of performance that is required and tradition required to be a Mardi Gras Indian chief. We looked at Clark Peters, also on “The Wire.”
After that it really wasn’t about “Wire” alumni. We really opened it up and looked for the best actors we could get. I’m going to forget people here, but John Goodman, Ken Dickens, Melissa Leo, Steve Zahn, Khandi Alexander. We’re really blessed with an incredible cast here and if the show falls down it won’t be their fault. (Laughter) Blame the writing.
Tavis: When you talk about a city like New Orleans, it just seems to me – you’re the expert here, not me, but it seems to me like this is a series that’s ripe for cameos for all kinds of real live people connected to this city.
Simon: That’s exactly right. We need to honor the real New Orleans, and we need to also use professional actors to convey our story. But one of the things we did with “The Wire” which we delighted in was we used real people, real police, real politicians, real street folk from west Baltimore and we mixed them in with the actors, and we got a dynamic that we thought was very credible to what Baltimore felt like.
Even more so with New Orleans. There’s no – who are you going to cast for Kermit Ruffins other than Kermit Ruffins? Who are you going to cast as John Besh, the great chef from the restaurant August other than John Besh? Let New Orleans be New Orleans. We have to do a certain amount of that in order to be credible.
Tavis: I know, as you said earlier, this is not a story – a series about crime like “The Wire” was, but yet we read the news every day and we know that New Orleans has a crime rate that they’re not happy about. How do you balance out telling a story that really does, to your point, David, celebrate the culture but doesn’t cover over the ugliness?
Simon: Right. We’re going to have to address ourselves to all of New Orleans’ problems, and there are many. This is one of the most dysfunctional cities in terms of civic enterprise.
I’m from Baltimore, I’m used to a certain amount of dystopia, but New Orleans has its own vibe when it comes to mismanagement. The school system has been in disarray for many years. Now there is no public school system, there’s an amalgam of emergency school system and charter and it’s crazy.
The police department is under investigation by the federals – by the FBI for a variety of incidents all at once. There’s a lot of dysfunction down here and it all has to be addressed.
I guess the one thing that is true is that in the first season of our show, which we’re depicting ’05 – we’re starting three months after the storm and going through the first Mardi Gras – there was no crime in New Orleans at that point, or very little crime. It had all migrated to Houston, as had much of the population.
There was this strange situation in which people felt as if the crime had gone away until summer of ’06, so I think you’ll start seeing us addressing that particular problem in the second season, god willing, if there is a second season.
Tavis: I can’t imagine the fun that one could have when you get to that part of the story where the Super Bowl victory plays into all kinds of uplift, emotional, psychological, spiritual, throughout the city of New Orleans.
Simon: I was here for that. I had the great fortune to be here when they won. Obviously I’m a Ravens fan but it’s hard not to root for the Saints in this environment. There’s no reason not to. I have to say it was one of the most joyous things I’ve ever seen, for them to win.
It has lifted the city, it’s brought the city together. I don’t know how long that lasts – it is only a sporting event – and yet it’s been profound and a delight. Yeah, that would be about season five of our show. (Laughter) In fact, one of the problems was we were filming a lot of stuff against the backdrop of Mardi Gras this year and trying to use some of it as Mardi Gras in 2006.
One of our great problems film-wise was keeping the amount of Saints gear – (laughter) because all the players – all the Drew Brees jerseys and Colson jerseys – just keeping it out of shot because those guys weren’t around in ’06. That was a battle. We’re spending a lot of money on CGI to get rid of that stuff. (Laughter)
Tavis: So the sunny side is that if you can last long enough into seasons four or five you can get to the good stuff. That’s the sunny side. The slummy side, if I could put it that way, of course, is Katrina itself. I know this is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but to what extent is the storm a character in the series?
Simon: The storm is sort of an implied character. The first season is in many ways about the people not there, about the people absent. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, fewer than half the people were able to get back. There were whole neighborhoods in which rebuilding had not started. The FEMA effort was marginal and slow, the Road Home money didn’t arrive for – without a lot of paperwork and a lot of wait.
The insurance industry was nonexistent in terms of a meaningful response – or I guess they had a meaningful response; it was “Thanks for the money, but we’re not paying.”
You pick it up at the point where people are unwilling to let go of the idea that this is their home and this is their culture, and yet very little help is coming in. I don’t want to suggest that everything is as it should be now. There’s a fight going on now to save Charity Hospital and to not have whole tracts of the city given over to redevelopment when in fact that redevelopment would not be in concert with what New Orleans is, culturally.
The fight for what New Orleans will be is still going on even now, so as writers we’re sort of taking note of what’s happening right now in the hope that we’ll go forward and be able to tell this story fully by following the events on the ground.
Tavis: David Simon is the guy behind the new – we’ll claim it right now, the new HBO hit, “Treme.” David, good to have you on the program, sir.
Simon: From your mouth to God’s ear. Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you on.