The Guy Who Wouldn’t Write a Hit: An Interview with David Simon

Phil Penman

David Simon, August 2018

In the world of cookie-cutter television program-making, writer and producer David Simon is a creative maverick. For a quarter of a century, Simon, now turning fifty-eight, has been making unconventional dramas about the political and social problems of modern America.

The Wire (2002–2008), a five-season serial centered on the failings of Baltimore’s police, schools, unions, politicians, and news media, is widely seen as one of the most remarkable achievements in all television history. “Few series,” wrote Tim Goodman in the San Francisco Chronicle, “have explored the plight of inner-city African Americans and none—not one—has done it as well.”

In a four-season serial, Treme (2010–2013), Simon traced how the beleaguered citizens of New Orleans had recovered, or hadn’t, from the catastrophic inundation of Hurricane Katrina. His current HBO series, The Deuce, recreates 1970s Times Square in the moment when the underground pornography industry moved into the mainstream.

What characterizes all David Simon productions is his quirky fusion of Paddy Chayefsky, Italian neo-realist cinema, and old-fashioned big-city journalism. If the New Journalists of the 1960s brought fictional techniques to journalism, then Simon, once a news reporter himself, brought the techniques of journalism to televised fiction.

Simon, who lives in Baltimore with his wife, the detective writer Laura Lippman, was in New York recently shooting the final segments of the second season of The Deuce. We spoke after a day of filming. What follows is an edited and condensed version of a four-hour conversation.

—Claudia Dreifus

Claudia Dreifus: You started your professional life as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. How did journalism prepare you for a television career?

David Simon: It gave me a feeling for structure and how to tell stories. Journalism has its own rigor. In newspapering, you learn how to approach a world that is not your own, process it, and explain it. And to do that quickly.

When you begin—I got to The Baltimore Sun around 1983—I must have, in the first year, had 300 bylines. A lot of them were about the weather or “the police said yesterday…” By doing them accurately, I could say, of an infinitely more complicated story, “this is what is known as of 10 [o’clock] tonight.” I just got really adept at what the form was and what you had to do to accommodate it. So that was an incredible structure in my head.

Most important, at the Sun, I acquired another America. I was a suburban white kid from Silver Spring, Maryland. When they made me a police reporter in a majority black city, I realized I needed to listen to people who spoke in cadences that were not my own. That included African-American kids, and white Irish and Italian cops, and black cops—and their way of viewing the world.

Journalism gave me a kind of exoskeleton for maneuvering through the world. Even when you didn’t know the answer to questions, people opened up and you acquired their lives. So everything I learned—including servicing my ear about how people talk, and how they behave, and how they rationalize—came out of the newspaper.

Writing professors always exhort “Write what you know.” Why not write about Silver Spring?

My own life is particularly uninteresting to me. I grew up in a suburb of Washington. There, I had a completely normal dynamic with the world. I was politically angry at times. I liked to argue. In my family, arguing was a sport.

When I got to Baltimore, the situations I encountered were something Silver Spring hadn’t prepared me for. This was a hyper-segregated city. I had gone thirty miles north, but I had gone south. I’d walk into a white bar in Dundalk [in east Baltimore] and the shit one would hear!

The work was exhilarating, though. Once you had the story, you were like a kid running back to the campfire. “I have a story. Here are the names. Gather around the campfire and listen to me.” As a young reporter, I thought, “Oh, there’s that much vanity in that.” Then, I read an essay by George Orwell where he said something like, “I’ll tell you why I write. I want everyone to know that I’m the smartest guy with the best story. I’m showing off.” He copped to it. I don’t think I even aspired to be that person until I acquired better and more interesting stories than my own.

Did you harbor a secret plan, as many print journalists do, to someday take those acquired stories to film or television?

I had no plans to go into television. I didn’t watch it much and I had no training in film. My plan, if I had one, was to be a newspaperman in a world where newspapers were still at the center of political discussion. I thought I might write a book every two or three years. Those books would make a better reporter and, after producing them, I’d come back to the paper and do more reporting. It was what H.L. Mencken called “the life of kings.”


So how did this detour happen?

Long story. My first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about the professional lives of Baltimore death investigators, came out in 1991 and my agent sent it around to producers. It circulated for months without much interest. Finally, I said to my agent, “Have you thought of sending it to Barry Levinson? He is from Baltimore—and he does make movies.” I was being sarcastic.

That was about the only thing I did right in the whole process because it turned out that Barry Levinson had a deal with NBC to make a pilot of whatever he wanted. He went for Homicide.

Did you write the pilot?

No. People from Levinson’s office offered it to me, and I said, “I don’t know what you guys do. I’ll screw it up.” Paul Attanasio wrote the pilot.

Later, after they got the order from NBC for nine episodes, I was offered a shot at a script. Tom Fontana, the executive producer instructed, “I want you to follow a case from the murder all the way to death row.” The first thing I thought was, “Death row? That could involve fourteen years of appeals. You can’t do that in one show.”

I called up my old friend Dave Mills, a pal from our days together on the student newspaper at the University of Maryland. Dave was at The Washington Post, and he loved television and understood it. We locked ourselves up for two weeks and wrote something that went from the murder to the arrest. What we filed was so depressing that NBC refused to make it.

From the beginning, I found it hard to take the conventions of network television seriously. You had thirteen minutes for the story. Then you had to sell soap and blue jeans. Homicide: Life on the Street was actually a well-written show. It was made by people who were playwrights. They taught me how drama works. They made me read plays to learn how to write scripts. They’d hand me Chekhov and Pirandello and say, “Read some fuckin’ plays. Don’t be a moron. Read them like you actually have to achieve something close to them.”

These guys wanted to tell mature stories. But the form was immature. It felt flawed to me—and it was flawed because you had to pull punches because you had to hold a mass audience. At Homicide, people worried because we weren’t beating a show called Nash Bridges.

Nash Bridges?

A Don Johnson vehicle. It was fluff. And Homicide wasn’t. But we were constantly pressured to write in life’s “victories” on a show about urban homicide, and not to write too many black victims and black suspects. The feeling was that the racial dynamics of violence made everybody uncomfortable. They were cleaning up the world. The journalist in me had no vibe for that.

Phil Penman

New York City, August 2018

Given your reservations, how did you end up spending the next twenty-five years in that world?

What happened was that Homicide began airing in 1993. Around the same time, I began thinking about leaving The Baltimore Sun. Out-of-town ownership had begun running it into the ground. Under that management, the Sun became a “profit center”—with less talent, less copy, and more profit. These people had figured out how to make shittier newspapers and more money. When, at the end of 1995, a buyout offer came, I took it.

I soon went on staff at Homicide. At the same time, I had this standing offer from The Washington Post, which I expected at some point to accept. But first, I had to finish up my second book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood. It was about a Baltimore drug corner and about the diaspora created by the War on Drugs. The book was taking longer than planned—three years, not one. I was writing Homicide with one hand and The Corner with the other.

Sometime in the midst of all this, maybe around the end of 1996, Tom Fontana showed me early cuts of his prison show on HBO, Oz. This looked different. It had no commercials, no ads. The material was very dark. By the fifth episode, some Aryan brotherhood guy was carving a swastika on some actor’s ass.

I thought, “TV can do this?” And I found myself saying, “Tom, do you think HBO would be interested in a mini-series on a drug corner?” And he was like, “I’ll set up a meeting.”


What made HBO different?

They’d gotten rid of the advertisers. Instead of commercials, they made their money from subscriptions. This changed everything. As long as you had to go for the mass audience, you couldn’t have stories that were dark, that vexed people, that had lead characters who were morally inconsistent, unlucky, or tragic. You couldn’t write tragedies that any self-respecting Greek might recognize.

On network, every story was predicated on the idea that the audience might not come back every week. Each episode had to stand alone. You ended up presenting a lot of disconnected short stories with no real relation to one another. On the premium cable channels like HBO, your story could evolve over twenty-two episodes. You could do Ulysses instead of Dubliners.

The other thing that was different about premium cable was their video and later DVD sales. If viewers didn’t find my Iraq War show, Generation Kill, when it aired, they could find it a decade later in a boxed set. HBO was effectively a lending library. Once a mini-series was on their shelf, it was part of their library.

So as a writer, you were now charged with creating what in books might be called a backlist?

Right. Who knew there was such a thing as a backlist in television? But that’s what Netflix, Apple, and others are. They are the largest backlist money can buy. The notion of when a television show airs is becoming less and less relevant.

What became of your journalism career?

It just kind of fell away. At HBO, I developed a sinecure as a writer/producer. Production was a way of getting more control over the story. This is going to sound like bragging, but it turned out I had a latent talent for management. A lot of people who knew me as just a ranting newspaper guy, with his feet up on the desk, were surprised by it. I was good at harnessing resources and motivating people.

So I kept saying I was going back to journalism. But after we finished The Corner, we did The Wire. Then HBO asked me to do a series about the Iraq War. Ten years passed. One day, I realized, “Oh my God, I’m not a news guy anymore.”

The shows you produced employ large casts of African-American actors. Is that your way of answering the bias you encountered at NBC?

It wasn’t deliberate. What that came from was that I’d been a city desk police reporter in a city that is 60 percent black. When I did The Corner, and later The Wire, I was trying to replicate Baltimore. I’ve always been fascinated that some people thought The Wire was about race. Race comes up for the characters. They talk about it. But the show was about how power and money route themselves and why we’re no longer able to solve our problems as a society. It’s a critique of that.

How do the network police procedurals deal with issues race and crime?

They clean it up. How often do rich white people get murdered?

On Law and Order, quite often. Their murderers are Park Avenue matrons and spoiled private-school kids.

They’re protecting the franchise. Those stories are more interesting to the white consumerist audiences coveted by advertising executives. The truth is that violence follows economic deprivation. The vast majority of murders have to do with people who don’t have a lot. They’re chasing after the scraps falling off the table.

I often think about the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds whose lives I followed with Ed Burns in 1993 for The Corner. DeAndre is dead. Overdose. R.C. is dead. Overdose. Dinky was shot to death. Boo, shot to death. He was fourteen. Tae went to prison. Herbie, I think, is dead. Wayne’s dead.

You are sometimes called “the Balzac of Baltimore.” What’s your take on the title?

When people say that, I go, “Did you just call me a ball sac?” I usually goof on that. I haven’t read all of Balzac. There’s a lot. I will say that Balzac empathized with everybody he turned his pen to. He came from this high place in Parisian society and whatever part of Paris he went to, he could not find anything but human beings.

Much as I admire that quality, George Orwell speaks more to me. I’ve been reading a lot of him lately. The power of Orwell is that he’s one of these guys who just can’t stop telling the truth, no matter who’s buttering the bread. In Homage to Catalonia, he’s going, “No matter what brought me to Spain, I can’t help but tell you what happened here.”

It’s funny because, right now, I’m trying to get the money to do this piece on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I think Orwell might appreciate some of what I’ve come up against.

Such as what?

It’s been tough to find financing. At the moment, we’ve got thirty cents on the dollar. That came from a Catalonian investor, a total lefty, but a separatist. When that was announced, people in Madrid went nuts. They went, “How dare this asshole American, David Simon, make an alliance with this guy?” Meanwhile, in Barcelona, people were going, “Oh, this will be fun.”

Where do you find your story ideas?

In the case of the Lincoln Brigade, I’ve long been interested in the subject. Hollywood, because of its own history, hasn’t much dealt with it.

Sometimes, a book will give me an idea. HBO sent me Generation Kill, and the minute I read it, I felt, “Gotta make this—it’s the best book on Iraq.” I read Show Me a Hero, about segregation and integration and why we still live in a hyper-segregated society. I didn’t care that it was an obscure thing about a federal housing suit in Yonkers. I was like, “This could be a story. It could add to whatever the shelf of shit that I’m putting out there as my little library of ‘This was who we are.’”

I keep slicing up society, taking a different slice each time, thinking, eventually I’ll have a cake. That’s Balzac. That’s what he did. What I never do is raise my hand and say, “This could be a hit. Make this because this could be a hit.” The minute I do that, I’m done as me.

Frankly, I’ve never been good at writing to the common denominator. I’m still not. I haven’t done one show that was a huge ratings hit. And at this point, I’ve done about 130 hours of television. The Wire, for all the critical praise, didn’t have big ratings.

Can you imagine a guy on one of the networks and he hasn’t had a big hit, but decades later he’s still working? That’s a career that doesn’t happen there.

Phil Penman

New York City, August 2018

Do people pitch you ideas?

Sometimes. The series I’ve just finished shooting, The Deuce, about Times Square in the 1970s and how pornography became big business, happened that way. There was this fellow named Marc Henry Johnson who was as an assistant locations manager on Treme. Johnson knew this guy, a bartender from Bay Ridge, who was deeply involved in massage parlors in the 1970s. He kept saying, “The next time you’re in New York, you’ve got to hear his stories.”

When you make a series, it’s a commitment of two or three years of your life. The last thing I wanted was to get locked into a porn show for three years. Nonetheless, when George Pelecanos, my co-producer, and I went to New York to edit Treme, we met Marc’s source. The guy, he talked for three and a half hours, and it was gripping.

We weren’t there ten minutes when we both took out our notebooks and started taking notes. He was like The Last of the Mohicans and his stories tended to end badly. It was never, “Oh, Candy? She married a podiatrist. She lives in Scarsdale.” I said to George, “Looks like we’re going to write a goddamned porn show.”

Your subjects are always topical. Do you think, in some lefthanded way, you’re still doing journalism?

No. I write about people, time, moments, and places. I try to capture them as they existed, as best I can. What I do is rooted in the real, in an attempt to capture a shard of the real. It’s not journalism. It’s drama.

That’s still a little different from what people who go to film school, or who want to get into television, bring to the table. It’s also what damages me with a network programmer. They’ve got to be saying, “We’d love to be in business with David Simon, but we’d rather be in business with a David Simon who could write a hit.” But the things that make a story interesting to me are often the things that thwart the perfect franchise.

Can you foresee a time when the party ends?

I don’t know if this is going to last forever. For the last twenty years, I’ve waited for them to tell me, “It’s time to pack. Nobody watches your shit. Go home.” If that happens. I’m ready. I’ll write books. I’ll go work at one of the surviving newspapers. They’ll probably let me in the door. I still know how to write. I’ll be fine.

The first episode of season two of The Deuce premiers on HBO on September 9.

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