David Simon: 'Treme is a story about how American urban culture defines how we live'
The creator of The Wire discusses Martin Amis, Baltimore accents and Treme, his upcoming TV show
Tell me about Treme, the show set in New Orleans you're currently producing.
It's a very different piece from The Wire. We're not trying to do a crime story or a political story. This is a story about culture and how American urban culture defines how we live. New Orleans is an extraordinary and unusual culture, but it comes from the same primal forces in American society of immigration and assimilation and non-assimilation and racism and post-racialism that really are the defining characteristics of this melting pot society. What is it about Americans that makes us Americans? The one thing we have unarguably given the world is African-American music. If you walk into a shebeen in South Africa, or whatever version of a bar they have in Kathmandu, if they have a jukebox, you're going to find some Michael Jackson, some Otis Redding, some John Coltrane. It has gone around the world. That is the essential American contribution to worldwide culture. The combination of African rhythms and the pentatonic scale and European instrumentation and arrangement. That collision of the two happened in a 12-square block area of a city called New Orleans that had a near-death experience in 2005.
What shape is New Orleans in now?
Before the storm, the city had the highest ratio population in America of natives, because nobody left. But people have not been able to get back. I would say only about two-thirds have returned. The housing stock is still diminished. The political infrastructure is still dysfunctional – it still has lots of crime problems. But the culture is resurgent and right now the city is ecstatic. Mardi Gras has just finished but also the Super Bowl has brought the city together. There was an allegiance over the Saints march to the Super Bowl that transcended all other arguments over race and class. How long that lasts is another thing. But right now the city's riding a peculiar high that's wonderful to be around.
There were plenty of in-jokes in The Wire, with local figures like the real police commissioner cast in an unlikely role. Do you get up to similar antics in Treme?
Yeah, we do. There are references to locals and some lines that only New Orleanians will get but they won't interfere with the contextual understanding of the scenes as a whole for viewers outside New Orleans. But for people in the music community and in the cuisine culture, these lines are going to be inside jokes. It's one way of saying that we want the show to be written from within rather than without. When you write from the inside, it creates a credibility for the piece for a whole. There were lines in Generation Kill that only a marine would laugh at.
Martin Amis was an early fan of yours. Do you reciprocate that interest?
Before I got together with my current wife, we were co-workers in prior relationships at the Baltimore Sun. One day she came back from interviewing Martin Amis and he had been reading Homicide in preparation for writing Night Train. To her, I'm the ink-stained schnook and she came up to my desk and said: "You're not going to believe this but I've just interviewed Martin Amis and he thinks you're the bee's knees." Because I was so ignorant, I said: "Who's Martin Amis?" She ran through his canon and I got nothing. And she goes, "Kingsley Amis's son?" And I go, "Who's Kingsley Amis?" Last year we went out to dinner with Martin – I've since read a lot of his books – and I told him that story by way of saying, "This is the ignorant unread ass I was and, look, she still married me!"
Your work pays a great deal of attention to authentic detail. It was surprising to discover, therefore, how many British and Irish actors you cast in The Wire.
Sometimes a guy comes in and nails a part in an evocative way and you think he can do it. And when you get a read like that, you hear the accent and the cultural differences and you say, "Well, can we get there?" That's what happened with Dominic [West], Idris [Elba] and Aidan [Gillen]. None of them was able to get a Baltimore accent. But none of the black or white actors from New York or LA was able to get a Baltimore accent. It's the toughest. There are people who tell me it is reminiscent of what you hear in Devon and Cornwall. I went to see War Horse in London last year. When the woman who played the Devon farm wife came out with her first line of dialogue, my son and I turned to each other and we both said: "She's from Baltimore."
Any compromising stories about Dominic West?
His first season in Baltimore seemed to suggest that bacchanalian feats would be legendary and the town would never be the same again. Then Dominic hooked up with his wife midway through our run, and he became as quiet and temperate as a church mouse. The thing is, Dominic is really smart and he hides it. There's a degree from Trinity College there and a lot of book learning and a lot of cultural points that do not elude him. He plays the Jack the Lad character, but he directed for us and he did a good job. I want to use him on Treme if we get a second season.
How do you think Obama is doing?
I'm a little disappointed, but actually what I'm most disappointed in is the Democratic leadership in the Congress. This new administration's own inexperience, coupled with some really ineffectual law-making, have conspired to grind the body politic to a halt. The money interests have managed once again to make us inert.
You've gone from the desert to a flood, a biblical transition. What's next up, pestilence?
Yeah, or frogs, or vermin, or death of the first-born. The next project, in terms of producing, is this mini-series based on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It was an act of terrorism in war time that shocked the entire nation and it resulted in some very rational immediate reaction on the part of the government and then some other things that were irrational and destructive, right down to military tribunals. It has a lot of parallels to the 9/11 moment.
Interview by Andrew Anthony