New Orleans Gets Wired: David Simon Turns His Sights on the Big Easy
On a late spring day in the early 1990s, a Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon wandered into the now-defunct Funky Butt jazz club on North Rampart Street in New Orleans, where Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias were burning through a scorching set of percussive funk. “From the outside, it was like some kind of Tex Avery cartoon,” Simon says, “where the house is dancing and the window shutters are popping out to the beat.”
The room was sweaty, heaving and oppressively hot, and the undulating waves of collective body movement made dancing mandatory. Simon perched against the back wall atop a chair with a wobbly leg, and lost himself in Magnolias-induced euphoria. “Then the show ends,” he says, “we all stagger out, and it’s like 71 degrees with a light breeze. I just thought, ‘How the fuck did that just happen?’ By the way, if I’m this exhausted after an hour and a half, those two motherfuckers dancing in those Indian suits that weigh 30 pounds—that’s some fucking heroism. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. That was something.’”
The Crescent City had seized Simon’s attention, and it never let go.
Nearly two decades and dozens of visits later, Simon, the brilliant storyteller behind The Wire, The Corner, Homicide: Life on the Street and Generation Kill, is manifesting his New Orleans fascination with another gritty, soulful television show, Treme. HBO has green-lit the fictional drama for at least one 10- to 12-episode season. Shooting will begin in November, at the end of hurricane season, and HBO is eyeing 2010 for the show’s debut.
The chronological series will explore life in New Orleans starting three months after Katrina devastated the city. If HBO orders more seasons, they’ll pick up a year after the first left off. Much like Simon’s previous shows, Treme is an exploration into American urban dystopia—but he hopes to one-up his earlier work while celebrating New Orleans’ virtues with the fervor of a high-stepping brass-band parade.
Treme is named after, but not based in, the city’s most historically significant and musically influential neighborhood (pronounced “truh-MAY”), home to the legendary Congo Square and the Rebirth Brass Brand, among others. Through the eyes of the people that live within its signature milieu of parades, jazz funerals, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, bars and restaurants, the show will trace the city’s collective efforts to get back on its feet. “You’re going to watch the city being rebuilt, or not being rebuilt, year by year,” Simon says. “The whole thing is thematic to what New Orleans is, to what it represents in the American psyche. It’s an affirmation of why cities matter.”
As devout Wire fans would expect, Simon intends to train his sniper-like eye for detail and authenticity on New Orleans, just as he did with Baltimore. But he readily admits that—while he sees similarities between the two cities—New Orleans is as bewildering to newcomers as any in America. Although he’s been visiting for 20 years, Simon isn’t kidding himself—he’s still an outsider. If he was to get New Orleans right for Treme, he needed to assemble a team of local writers, actors and consultants. Simon cold-called musicians and chefs, met with cops and politicians, and approached bandleaders like Kermit Ruffins before gigs. He tracked down eccentric New Orleans DJ/musician Davis Rogan while Rogan was an artist-in-residence in the Loire Valley in France.
He also leaned heavily on his longtime pal and collaborator, part-time New Orleans resident Eric Overmyer. The pair had been mulling over a New Orleans show for years, ever since they discovered their shared love for Crescent City music, from The Iguanas and The Subdudes to Professor Longhair. They also got help from Wendell Pierce, the native New Orleanian who played detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire. During the six years of filming that show, Pierce constantly dragged his castmates down to his hometown, knowing they had to experience it to understand it. “There’s no explaining New Orleans, which is part of the challenge of the show,” Simon says. “You have to be thrown into the middle of it. There’s nothing like being at Orleans and Claiborne in the middle of a parade or following a band and finding yourself 40 blocks from where you meant to go.”
Pierce went to high school with Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, a scholar of local history who seems to know everyone and everything in the culinary scene. In the 2008 documentary Fauborg Tremé : The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, Elie chronicles the unheralded historical importance of his neighborhood. Simon has brought Elie on as a writer, joining himself, Overmyer, Wire writers George Pelecanos and David Mills, and Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters. “It can’t be, ‘Let’s get all of the New Orleans voices we have and strain it through this thing called a television show,” Simon says. “Nor does it work to have only people who are outsiders to the New Orleans experience. I think we have a pretty good mix.”
“You’ve got a bunch of incredible writers and intellects,” Elie says, “but only enough ego to be practical.”
Many of the people Simon consulted with while developing the show have had characters loosely based on them. Ruffins plays himself, the leader of a band that features trombonist Antoine Batiste, played by Pierce. Kim Dickens plays a struggling restaurateur dating a character loosely based on Rogan, played by Steve Zahn. To shape that character, Simon drew heavily from Rogan’s real-life 2005 album, The Once and Future DJ.
“You couldn’t possibly sell a copy of that album outside of New Orleans,” Simon says. “But there’s a ton of wit in it. It’s salty and angry and funny. A lot of New Orleans music is not topical, but here’s this album that’s almost offering the voice of a Greek chorus.”
That chorus will have plenty to shout about: governmental ineptitude, the re-opening of the school system, public housing, the giant Mid-City medical center that will displace residents, and, of course, crime—which dissipated after Katrina but eventually came back with a vengeance in the face of a bungling police department. Now four years removed from the storm, Simon is comfortable telling the story with vigor, but not hyperbole.
Simon cautions that Treme will not be The Wire: New Orleans. Its seasons will not be loosely divided by subject, and the show will provide a smaller, more intimate focus on people picking up the pieces without much help. Simon went to one of the first post-Katrina second-line parades, and witnessed unbridled resiliency and a longing for home; many attendees drove in for the day from wherever they sought refuge from the storm. “The band started up and people were crying. It was like they realized, ‘Oh shit, this is what I’ve been away from,’“ he says. “They had come to do a four-hour second line, and then they got back in their cars to drive back to Baton Rouge or Atlanta or Houston.”
Simon’s track record speaks for itself, and his reputation for nailing the nuances of Baltimore and its myriad problems has earned him the benefit of the doubt from New Orleanians—for now. “We’ll get some shit wrong—and if we get some shit right, other New Orleanians will tell us it’s wrong anyway,” he laughs. “But really, if we fuck up, it’s our fault, not New Orleans’ fault. New Orleans has done nothing other than to deserve a well-made television drama about it.”
Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc is already convinced Treme will get it right. The firebrand’s unbridled spirit jumped off the screen in Spike Lee’s 2006 Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, and she and Lee became great friends. Upon Lee’s recommendation, Simon picked Montana-LeBlanc to play Antoine Batiste’s fiesty, live-in girlfriend. On her first visit to the set, she got an unwelcome jolt back to the devastation of late 2005. “As I turned the corner, I said, ‘Why are the waterlines still on the homes?’ I got a headache, stomach pains and my chest was hurting. That’s how real it was…I relived it all over again,” she says. “David’s going to shine his light on us and put that fire under the city that we need. New Orleans needs this show.”