David Simon: Reality Writing

David Simon talks about developing scripts, creating dialogue and why you should look for the bigger meaning in your writing.
By Kinney Littlefield | Published: November 13, 2012


If Charles Dickens lived today, he might be top TV scribe David Simon. Like the masterful 19th-century novelist, Simon is a creator of sharp-eyed, social-issues drama – couched in finely nuanced characterizations and street-smart dialogue. Simon’s seminal HBO seriesThe Wire (2002-2008), set in drug-ravaged Baltimore, rivals Dickens’ Little Dorrit and Oliver Twist for its tough take on enduring urban problems such as pervasive poverty, educational and political dysfunction, and media callousness and collusion. Simon packed all this truth-telling into a compelling crime story that showcased some of TV’s most memorable anti-heroes: flawed cop Jimmy NcNulty (Dominic West), righteous perp Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) and refined drug mogul Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba.)

Now Simon has turned his unflinching gaze to another deeply troubled city, New Orleans, in his gripping series, Treme (pronounced Tre-may), now in its third season on HBO. Co-created with Eric Overmyer, and named after the music-steeped New Orleans neighborhood called Faubourg Treme, the sweeping ensemble series features Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters, Melissa Leo, Wendell Pierce, David Morse, Steven Zahn and numer-ous others as resilient New Orleanians struggling to renew themselves post-Hurricane Katrina.

Simon’s yen for reality-based television drama dates to his stint as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter from 1983-1995. In 1991, Simon honed his mean-streets experience into the notable narrative-nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about a year spent with Baltimore’s homicide squad. NBC developed Homicide into the critically lauded seriesHomicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999), which Simon eventually joined as a writer/producer. With Ed Burns, Simon also co-wrote The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), a portrait of a drug-drenched section of Baltimore. The Corner became an Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries in 2000, with Simon executive-producing and adapting for television. He also executive-produced and adapted the HBO miniseries, Generation Kill (2008), about U.S. Marines at the start of the second Iraq War, based on Evan Wright’s nonfiction book of the same name.

Part idealist, part creative contrarian, Simon, 52, was named a prestigious MacArthur Fellow in 2010. Always a straight-talker, he recently shared his trenchant take on TV writing. The following is an edited version of our exchange.

Q: How did you start writing for television?

There was really no long-term plan. The Baltimore Sun offered a buyout in 1995, and at that time, the new management of the paper was emphasizing a kind of journalism that I regarded as callow and insubstantive. When HBO picked up The Corner as a miniseries and allowed me to write and produce it, I delayed my return to prose journalism. HBO asked if I had any other ideas, and Ed Burns and I floated the first Wire scripts.

Q: With Treme, were you looking for a more “upbeat” story to tell after the dark themes of The Wire?

I was just looking for a different story. I’m pretty indifferent to the idea of “upbeat.” The Wiretook nine years of my life to execute. So the last thing I’m going to do is give those themes any more traction because I’ve said what I had to say. I went from The Wire to Generation Kill, which is a very dark story, so I wasn’t looking to lighten the mood. Treme to me is a piece about what the American city, the American experiment, can yield. The affirming part of it for me is in the argument that the American city is worth saving – which is something that some people watching The Wire might have misinterpreted. I’m shocked that some people didn’t understand that with The Wire it was always implied that we’re either going to figure the city out, figure multiculturalism out, or we’re not going to survive as a first-rate society.

And so Treme, if we do it right, is an argument for the American city and multiculturalism. It’s a show about ordinary people, living in an extraordinary place in an extraordinary time. What New Orleans also has is this incredibly vibrant, regenerating, ever-expanding culture, the music and dance and cuisine and street life. That’s the story of post-Katrina New Orleans, the culture bringing the city back – the cul-ture sustaining the city.

Q: Describe Treme’s writing staff.

There are four writers on staff fulltime: myself, Eric Overmyer, George Pelecanos – I’m giving you this year’s roster – and Lolis Eric Elie. And then there are additional writers who are responsible for an episode or half of an episode – sometimes it’s split – who come in and engage in the planning of the episode, the preparation, the writing and then the editing. There’s also a support staff that is sometimes called upon to write a specific scene if it’s something that is very specific to the culture of New Orleans.

Q: How does Treme’s writing process work?

Our writers’ room is, I think, like writers’ rooms everywhere. The only difference might be withTreme, that we’re committed to working off of the actual history of post-Katrina New Orleans. So while we can make up certain events around our fictional characters, those events must comport to actual events. For example, this year we were filming fall 2007 to spring 2008. When we get to, say, Episode 7 of 10, and we’re now at Mardi Gras, we’re actually trying to pick certain events that happened in the Mardi Gras of February, 2008. What actually happened on the ground in New Orleans in that time frame is our given, and that timeline is up on the wall in the writers’ room.

Q: How do you delegate writing responsibilities?

Eric Overmyer and I are responsible for the first and the last two episodes of the cycle [season]. George Pelecanos is responsible for two. And then we’re looking at the junior staff to fill the remaining four episodes. To some extent that’s freelancers coming in, taking a shot. With this year’s Mardi Gras episode, for example, we wanted Chris Rose, a former columnist for the Times Picayune of New Orleans, who had not written for us before, to take a shot at it. Eric had already written his heart out on one Mardi Gras episode, and I’d written my heart out on the second one. We wanted to have somebody else look at Mardi Gras fresh for this third pass, and bring in new memories and thoughts about what Mardi Gras is and means and will be. So we purposely gave that to the new kid on the block, somebody who hadn’t been in the writers’ room yet.

Q: How do you work with new writers?

On Treme we do have a bible but it’s sort of in-house. We don’t lay that on new writers because at this point after two seasons it’s so thick with detail on all the characters and history that you could drown just reading it. We expect that new writers have seen all the episodes up to that point. And we hand them the scripts that haven’t been filmed. If they get something wrong in the first draft or if they’ve misapprehended something, there’s the second pass. We send new writers off with a beat sheet saying, “This is what should happen in this episode, here’s where your characters can cross, here’s what they should experience.”

A beat sheet is about two or three pages, paragraph by paragraph, character by character, about what should happen next in that episode’s arc. We use storyboards and color-coded cards, and then we reduce that to a memo, which is basically what we call the beat sheet. Often there are 50-60 beats. And they roughly correspond to the number of scenes in an episode, but not really. Sometimes a beat can be two or three scenes, or there might be a set-up scene or a transitional moment. Sometimes a beat and a scene can be the same thing. But every writer leaves at the end of the story meeting for [that] episode with the contents of a beat sheet. It’s not like we’re handing this to them from on high, they’re in the room while the beat sheet is created beat by beat.

Then they go off and they write. And it’s our responsibility as the producers and the lead writers to make what they write copacetic with what’s already happened in the show. So that’s editing that we expect to do.

Q: Why split an episode between two writers?

For writers with less experience, we’ve often found that a 60-page, multi-point of view episode for a drama as ornate and detailed as Treme attempts to be, is often overwhelming. It means you have to keep in your head the voices and story arcs and the characterizations and details of a variety of storylines, plus the accurate story of New Orleans of this period. It’s an awful lot. I’ve found that writing 30 really strong pages, and working half the storylines, a young writer will do better.

So we basically pair two writers together and say, “You guys figure out how to divide it up. I don’t have to know who writes what. You can tell me later if you want.” And then they synthesize it all together and reconcile what kind of script they’re building with each other and make some hard decisions about what stays, what goes, what leads into what, where the transitions are, and then they present me with a finished whole. We try to pick two writers who we think will work well together. You also get two voices in the writing room from the earliest stage, so some of the weaker ideas get shot down right away. There’s a voice in the room arguing with you at all times, and I’m of the belief that argu-ment makes it better.

Q: Looking back, did you have a mentor when you started writing for television?

Tom Fontana, [executive producer of Homicide: Life on the Street] was the mentor. Tom taught me everything he could about television writing and production. He was very generous in that way and I am right out of his school, he and Jim Finnerty, who was his line producer. Tom sort of abhors solid rules and with every episode of Homicide, he was OK if one of them was vastly different from the next. He wanted to stretch the boundaries of the show. At the same time he understood that he needed to bring people back after each commercial, and episode to episode, and so he was obeying certain fundamentals of the medium. But within that context he was also arguing for real creativity on the part of his writers.

Q: Did your journalism background help you write the true-to-life dialogue of Treme andThe Wire?

In journalism, of course, you have to quote people accurately. When people have verbal idiosyncrasies, your job is not to clean those up. You’re almost being clinical about how people talk, to be fair to the material. That was peculiarly good training for developing an ear. My ability to meet people on their own terms and gather not only facts but voices, mood, character and spirit. That comes out of reporting.

Q: How do you develop and flesh out your TV characters?

In the beginning, there is the story. What story are you trying to tell? What characters are required to successfully achieve that story? It is the writer’s responsibility to treat the character as a complete human. After that, the writing is just organic. You believe in the character and you write for that character.

Q: How do you build the rhythmic, collage-like pacing of Treme?

We really are trying to capture the day-to-day life of people. That means we have to accept a different kind of pacing. You’re basically saying good-bye to all the ticking time bombs and dramatic gunfights and stuff blowing up and soap opera that a lot of television uses to sustain itself. There are a lot of scenes of people talking, cooking, being, and now and then someone plays a song. The pacing that we’re looking for is much more delicate than a lot of TV is used to. I tend to look upon stories as having a build and a pace and a structure that is similar to a multi-POV novel. And that’s an indulgent way to tell a story by television standards.

I’m aware that the optimum way to structure a TV show is to keep people constantly excited or terrified, to provoke at all points, but I really don’t have any interest in making entertainment just to be entertaining. My models are prose models. And that may mean that if you watch some of these episodes individually you don’t think anything’s happening. It’s only when you give yourself over to the process and you watch them in totality that you see the whole – which by standards of prose is a sensible way to tell a story.

Q: How do you successfully incorporate so many actual musical performances intoTreme’s scripts?

It’s tricky. You can only stay on the music for so long before the episode becomes a music video. You must first serve the POV of your characters and the story. But at the same time, the music that results is part of the point, it’s part of the recovery of the city, part of what is sustaining the characters as they maneuver through the world in the years after Katrina. So it’s kind of the point of the show and yet you must glance at it, you must never give in totally to it. We’ve come to a sort of formula that says if you’re not seeing narrative develop within the context of the musical performance, your characters probably can only stand there or dance along, or play the music, for about 45 seconds to a minute at most. And we’re not dubbing anything. This is how the music is actually performed in the actual streets and clubs of New Orleans.

Q: Describe your personal writing process.

I’m not one of those people who likes writing. I just have to do it. I can write in a coffee shop, in an office, on an airplane. I’ll use whatever I can find to write on. I can’t write with music on. My mind follows the music and doesn’t concentrate on what I’m doing. Sometimes I can write if the music is classical or jazz, but if it has vocals, I have to turn it off.

I tend to pace around and think about scenes, I tend to take a nap in the middle of the day. I tend to struggle to stay at the computer. Or I’ll stay at the computer and research a point heavily. I’ll be Googling some history of some rhythm-and-blues artist, trying to find out something that I can use in dialogue. I’ll flail around for an hour and a half to get two small phrases that I’ll end up cutting anyway. It’s not really dawdling, because all that time thinking about it, worrying about it, is me coming up with better ideas or throwing out bad ideas. And then when the script is finally due I’ll be spitting it out as fast as I can.

Q: Was the character of creighton Bernette on Treme – the professor who struggled unsuccessfully to write a novel and committed suicide – a personal comment on writer’s block?

We’ve all had moments of writer’s block, I’m sure. So I think all the writers on the show took a little bite out of that storyline and added something. There was a much higher incidence of suicide after Katrina, and we needed to address that in the story and that was how we chose to address it. Also there were some underlying fears that as a creative soul Creighton had shot his bolt. That fear is probably latent in every writer. You stare at the page for the first time and if you’re honest at all, you know there’s a little part of you screaming, “But what if I can’t do it anymore?” And then you start writing, and usually the first things are not great, and then you try again and eventually you’re off and running. But every time, there’s that first moment of vague terror.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers for television?

One piece of advice would just be this: Don’t tell a story because you’re sustaining a franchise. Don’t tell a story because they’ve given you hours to make a TV show, and you want to have an audience. That’s the problem with most episodic television, which is that once you get a show up you think that the meaning of your life is to keep the show up at all costs. So if audiences want more Omar, give them more Omar. If they want more Stringer Bell, give them more Stringer.

So the greater questions, which I think a lot of writers in television don’t ask themselves, are: Why are we telling this story? What does the story mean? When you can answer the big questions, then you are ready to write. The idea is paramount.

Q: What TV series are good examples of writing about ideas?

The Sopranos was a very smart show about the human condition. I think Deadwood was a notably brilliant exercise in discussing the nature of community and society. If I turn on the TV and I find an old episode of The Honeymooners, I can’t turn it off. There’s a show out of Canada that I think was brilliant. It’s called Slings & Arrows, about a Shakespearean repertory company. It was very smartly written.