For The City: David Simon Q&A
No spoilers today. Those seeking #43 talk should click here, here, and here, but not before experiencing our exclusive Q&A with David Simon himself. I emailed him seven brief questions about the program’s interaction with the community and lo, he sent back several thousand words worth of prime Wire insight and information. Out of deference, we’re presenting his responses uncut and image-free; we’ll return to our usual screaming on Tuesday.
Bethlehem Shoals: What’s the dynamic between the show’s production and the neighborhoods it’s filmed in?
David Simon: It’s relatively comfortable at this point.
That’s a testament not only to the practice and behavior of The Wire crew, but of the folks who worked on Homicide and The Corner earlier—some of whom are the same folks.
Generally, Homicide didn’t do a lot of shooting in the heart of the East or West Baltimore ghettos, hewing more closely to the Fells Point and Canton areas. But the idea that there was a television show being routinely filmed in Baltimore allowed people to get comfortable with the ordinariness of the enterprise. By the end of Homicide’s seven-year run, it was possible for Andre Braugher to sit in The Grind on Thames Street and enjoy a cup of coffee and his morning paper without being bothered for a solitary autograph. We Baltimorons are very much affected by the chip on our shoulder; sandwiched between New York and Washington and vulnerable to all kinds of inferiority complexes, the last thing we want to do is go all fanmag on some actors.
With The Corner, though, we began the process of learning to shoot film in the neighborhoods that were truly struggling, the places where these stories are actually rooted. There was some trial and error to that—but all in all it went remarkably well because of the temperament of most of the Baltimore crew, the nature of the story we were trying to tell, and ultimately, the credibility of Charles Dutton, who, of course, came up in East Baltimore and is widely admired in those neighborhoods. Hardly a day of filming went past when someone from Dutton’s past would roll up on him for an embrace and some conversation. Sometimes those moments were warm and heartfelt for Roc, but on other occasions—when it was clear that people from his past were struggling with life on the corners—it was agonizing for him. In any event, he handled it beautifully and he projected to those neighborhoods what was obvious from the work he did on The Corner: this was going to be a story genuinely and carefully rendered.
With The Wire we have continued to film in the same template as The Corner. We are careful to remember that we are guests in every neighborhood and we leave our sets a little better—and certainly no worse—than we find them. We are an inconvenience for a day or two parking-wise and to the occasional pedestrian, perhaps, but then we move on. Our locations people make contact with neighborhood leaders and we try, at points, to direct some of our resources to neighborhood projects, particularly those involving children. As an overall effort, The Corner and The Wire have raised more than $500,000 for the Ella Thompson Fund of the Parks & People Foundation of Baltimore, which augments the limited rec programming by city government and sponsors programming for inner-city neighborhoods.
Occasionally, we have an awkward moment. There are folks who do not appreciate the show and do not wish us to settle on their street. There are people who feel the entire enterprise is parasitic. And although we have consciously utilized residents of these neighborhoods as speaking-role actors and background in various episodes, and in some cases taken on interested residents, hiring and training them as crew, there is always a sense that we are outsiders. Most of the membership of the Baltimore locals—which are drawn from the region as a whole—is white. And though we are always trying to improve on that, and always giving some preference to African-American union members, we are, in effect, whiter than we wish we were.
On The Corner—a limited-run series—Dutton had the gravitas to demand that HBO bring in more black crew members from out-of-state to darken the complexion of the enterprise, and we producers were, in fact, tacitly delighted that he did so; he threw his weight nicely and to good effect. In our own conversations with HBO, we told execs that Dutton had a point and should be taken quite seriously. But of course, HBO agreed to the additional housing and travel and per diem costs on a limited, six-episode basis. To do such a thing on a continuing show—and one with limited profitability from HBO’s perspective—is problematic. So we have endeavored to encourage more minority participation in the Baltimore-Washington locals and we give preference where we can. To the extent that residents of these neighborhoods see crewmembers and continuing cast and realize that they were their friends and neighbors, we gain credibility. To the extent they feel that we are outsiders, with little continuing interest in their city, we lose credibility. So this matters to us and we do our best with it.
Lastly, we get a lot of basic fan response from some residents, most of them younger: “Hey, it’s Omar. Omar! Come rob me, yo!” or “Yo, Bubbles. You try the pink tops? Shit is a bomb, yo.”
From those close to the game, I suppose, we gain a certain allegiance for even trying to tell a story that is so intimate to them.
BS: Do bystanders ever offer advice? Advice about authenticity?
DS: Occasionally, but this show is pretty well-researched and we go onto set knowing what we are going after. More often, what we get are walk-up encounters with people who have some sense of a character or an event or some casework of Ed’s that we used in the previous plotting. Especially when we film on the Westside. Seems like someone is always coming up and introducing themselves and explaining their own past involvement with the real, and how they remembered whatever phone code or murder scenario or player we used as a reference point. Sometimes, when we can, we honor such survivors with a cameo or two.
BS: Has anyone ever gotten involved with the show by just wandering onto the set?
DS: As above. The answer is yes, particularly with regard to background. Often times, casting will send us local SAG actors for background who, well, do not look as though they should be on a corner in West Baltimore. And when that happens, Nina or one of the A.D.’s runs around offering a day’s pay to folks round the way, asking them to fill a scene. Sometimes, someone who works background for a scene will ask if they can continue working with the show. We always say yes and have them fill out casting info. We always call them back. When they continue to show up, we continue to use them and then, when appropriate to the script, we give them a chance to read for speaking lines. And we hire those who audition well. In some cases, if the acting (or their true-to-life look) is strong enough, we put them in continuing roles and sponsor them for SAG. We have taken some fines from the local, too, because of our pursuit of the real. Obviously, the union is more interested in their existing membership getting the work, regardless of the credibility of the casting.
As to crew, it’s trickier because hiring someone as a production assistant means that they have to be punctual and endure the travails of a working set, with long hours and all the attendant aggravations of an entry-level journey through a long day’s hell of filming. A lot of people wash out of the gig—not just neighborhood people with limited work experience, but people in general. The first few rungs on the film-industry ladder are the hardest ones. But one story I should tell: many years ago, I wrote half of an episode for the fourth season of Homicide, which we filmed in the then-still-standing Lexington Terrace towers. A young kid, 12 or 13 years, followed us around in the December cold and stood behind the monitors, making friends with Kathy Bates, the director. She began letting him call a cut or a roll or two. Then she asked him a few questions about authenticity. He kept showing up. And the next season, at other locations around the city, we would encounter him routinely. Soon it became clear that he was calling the production office to get our call times and locations. When he was old enough to pass labor laws, I hired him as a P.A. on The Corner. Today, he works as a wardrobe coordinator on The Wire. I remember that my co-writer of that original Homicide episode, Anya Epstein, said to me once, long ago: “Wouldn’t it be great if when DaJuan [Prince] grows up, he gets a job and has a career in movies.” I shook my head, a true cynic, and told her that this was Baltimore and it just doesn’t work that way. Anya, darling, my apologies. . .
BS: This season, Robert Chew is serving as the acting coach for Felicia Pearson and the teens. Has he worked with anyone in the past, and did you see him doing this when he was first cast?
DS: No, we knew that Robert worked with a local theatre troupe, and from more limited work on Homicide and The Corner, we knew he was a smart, elegant actor. But as to his mentoring abilities we young actors we were unaware. As The Wire progressed, however, Robert’s theatre group began providing more and more talent for the show (Rashad Orange as Sherrod is a notable example) and so it was natural, after the young actors from this season were cast, to involve Robert in the scenework that took place as a routine part of prep. Not to take anything away from Maestro, Jermaine, Tristan, Julito and the other kids—they are wonderful talents—but Robert really helped them to focus on their characterizations and the nature of the story they were telling.
BS: When it comes to “traditional” actors, do you seek out those with some Baltimore/Maryland connection? If so, how’s this different from using Pearson, Jay Landsman, or, to some degree, Anwan Glover?
DS: No, we don’t look for the Baltimore when hiring actors for major roles. It is hard enough finding the right people for certain parts when casting the widest possible net and too much is stake to worry about whether someone’s accent will sound Baltimore, or whether they know how to pronounce Bentalou Street. The first job is to cast an actor who can convey the totality of the character with all possible range and credibility.
If we find out that the best possible actor has a Baltimore connection—James Ransome as Ziggy Sobotka grew up here and had the Balwmerspeak nailed—then, yes, we tell them to put on the Bawlmer. We love it when we can be authentic to the local, but it can never become the priority.
Best local (Balt-Wash-tidewater) accents in the show: Snoop, Lamar, Prop Joe, Poot, Slim Charles on the one side of town. Lieutenant Mello, Marcia Donnelly (“three in math, an’ four in syence”), Ziggy on the other.
Funny story about the accent: Eric Overmyer worked on an NBC show called Days And Nights of Molly Dodd several years ago and the actor John Glover played her cousin from Baltimore. Being from here, I am told, Glover elected to play the accent. NBC got much mail: “Love the show. But what’s up with her cousin from Baltimore. Is he retarded or something?”
With supporting cast, we want as much of the cast to come from Baltimore-Washington as possible for a variety of reasons: Yes, it leavens the project to have local faces, accents and credibility. Yes, it is fun to run some inside jokes among the cameos (Kurt Schmoke as city health commissioner, Melvin Williams as The Deacon, the Rev. Frank Reid as the Rev. Reid Franklin). But also, we can’t afford to bring the entire cast from New York, L.A. and London. We have to lean hard on Pat Moran and local casting to fill the show.
BS: I doubt I’m the only person who’s been thinking about The Boys of Baraka throughout this season. How did some of those kids end up in the show, and what did Richard Keyser do when he worked on the set?
DS: They came through the casting office in the usual manner. We were unaware of the Baraka project at the time we made our choices and saw the movie only at a later point. A marvelous documentary, though.
What did Richard do? You mean, other than what he was supposed to do? As far as I know, he didn’t light anyone on fire or beat up a Teamster. But maybe word just didn’t get back to me.
Note from Shoals: I’d read somewhere that Richard worked on the set as well as appearing in the show. I was fishing for a story like the one about DaJuan T. Prince related earlier.
BS: Unrelated, and out of personal curiosity: do you see sports (in particular basketball) fitting into The Wire‘s urban tapestry?
DS: Hoops are elemental in this city. Football somewhat present, and baseball not at all, sadly. Boxing is big. We have hit on boxing and we used basketball somewhat in first season. We could use it more, but organized basketball—even at a rec league level—is, of course, an effort to stage. And you need actors who can play, of course (I must note that Wood Harris really can dunk; man has some game). Easier to fill a boxing gym than the bleachers at Dunbar, if you catch my drift.
Thanks. And thanks for hosting such an intelligent website. We’ll try to keep worthy of all the commentary.