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“I Definitely Tried to Shoot This Series Like a Six-Hour Movie”: Reinaldo Marcus Green on We Own This City

We Own This City

by
in Directors, Interviews
on May 10, 2022

“An elite Baltimore police task force spent years plundering the city and its residents for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, drugs, and jewelry” is how a 2018 Vox article began its explainer of the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) of the Baltimore Police Department. Nine officers took part in the multi-year scandal, with two detectives, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, being convicted for their crimes, while another four pled guilty alongside two sergeants and one officer. All remain currently imprisoned.

The severity and expansiveness of the GTTF’s crimes documented in Baltimore Sun journalist Justin Fenton’s 2021 book, We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption, now adapted into a six-episode HBO miniseries from frequent collaborators David Simon and George Pelecanos (The Deuce, Treme, and the Baltimore-set The Wire). Starring Jon Bernthal as the hot-tempered Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, We Own This City is both procedural and thriller, toggling back and forth in time to show what lead to the GTTF’s elaborate crimes, how they were covered up and the fallout from everything finally coming crashing down.  

Having premiered on April 25th (an episode airs each Monday evening thru Memorial Day), We Own This City is directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, a filmmaker whose most recent work was last year’s Academy Award-winning King Richard (and who is no stranger to shining a spotlight on stories of police brutality). The morning after episode two premiered, I spoke with Green about directing for television, his familiarity with the issues facing Baltimore and the trickiness involved in depicting charismatic but flawed cops on screen. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to begin by asking if you had any familiarity with Baltimore’s GTTF and the events documented in Justin Fenton’s book before being offered this series to direct. Had you previously read Fenton’s book?  

Green: No, I actually read the scripts [for the series] before I found out about (and subsequently read) Justin’s book. While I think everyone was aware of the police fallout from the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015 (hearing rumors or certain anecdotes about policing within Baltimore, with some having direct knowledge of the issues occurring in and around the city), the details of the investigation into the fallout of the GTTF were pretty fresh [to me]. In addition to the scripts and Justin’s book, I also read I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg, which was also highly informative. 

But I remember reading Justin’s book to see how David and George had adapted his very specific, dense, journalistic reporting. While the approach was great, it was often told from the perspective of the GTTF itself, whereas I Got a Monster was told from the perspective of the victims. These two books were essentially interesting takes on the same material, both providing a holistic point of view. Of course, David and George had court documents and ballistic reports and manuscripts and everything else you could think of in terms of research materials, including items from the Sean Suiter case detail [a homicide detective who died under suspicious circumstances one day prior to his planning to expose corruption within the GTTF]. We had everything at our disposal to look through, and part of my research involved familiarizing myself with those materials. I also [became familiar] with D. Watkins, who’s also a writer on the show, and his amazing Salon piece about [the events] and that lead me to stumbling across his other work as a writer and artist living in Baltimore. All of these things helped immerse me in the recent events that were happening in and around the city, especially those specific to the GTTF.

Filmmaker: I know D. Watkins wrote episode three of We Own This City, and I believe there’s also a podcast component to the series that Watkins hosts?   

Green: There is.

Filmmaker: When he was brought aboard, was he looking to get involved in different ways?   

Green: It felt like a perfect marriage, with D. being a prolific journalist and already having been brought on to be a writer on the series. He’s spoken about having had interactions with many of the members of the GTTF, and that even Daniel Hersl had once stolen money from him. These are real things that happened to D. He’s someone that literally has had face-to-face interactions with the people that we depict in the series, so to get him involved in different ways and have him share his perspective brought an extra level of authenticity [to the project]. As someone who grew up in Baltimore, his perspective was enlightening to us.

Filmmaker: And how were you first made aware of the series being greenlit? Were you looking to get back into television directing [Green had previously directed three episodes of the Netflix series, Top Boy], this time with the added benefit of directing an entire series? Did you go in for a meeting with David and George to get their approval? 

Green: To be honest, I had heard that the show was moving forward and that [they were looking for a director], but I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a window for me to do it. I was finishing King Richard at the time and had just signed on to direct the Bob Marley biopic [Green’s next feature, due for theatrical release in 2024]. Although I knew that there was still work needed to be done on the script, I didn’t know if their window was going to line up with my availability, so I didn’t even want to get [my hopes up]. It felt like the experience of going into a store and not being allowed to buy something. I didn’t want to read through the script only to be disappointed that I couldn’t sign on.  

One day I got a call—a text, actually—out of the blue from Jon Bernthal, whom I had just finished working with on King Richard [Bernthal had played the role of tennis coach, Rick Macci]. He was like, “Dude, have you read these scripts?” I asked him why and he asked me again, “Well, have you? Are you going to do it? Read them and call me later.”  

Filmmaker: I’m guessing he had already signed on to play Sgt. Wayne Jenkins?  

Green: Jon had essentially been cast or was deep in negotiations for playing the lead, yeah, and told me, “You’ve got to come on and do this with me.” Jon and I had become family on King Richard and truly, in that way, we’re very close, almost like brothers. When I finally read the scripts, I now read them with Jon in mind, and from the opening monologue, I was instantly hooked. I thought the role, although based on a real person, was tailor-made for Jon, as it had each of the elements I’d seen in his other work. He’s played the tough guy before, sure, but it’s also a role that requires him to be more sensitive and caring, much like his character in King Richard. I felt that the role of Wayne Jenkins encompassed all of these characteristics. It was a complex, nuanced look at someone that had gone down the wrong path. Jenkins was a husband, a father, a football coach—but he also had clearly taken the law into his own hands. 

After I finally read the scripts, I told my team, “I’ve got to do this. We’ve got to make the [timing/scheduling] work.” That’s what got me into the room with David and George and [producer] Nina [Kostroff Noble], and I was able to pitch my version of the series and how I felt I could add value to what they already had. I think that value comes through perspective, right? I grew up in New York on Staten Island and my father worked for the Department of Investigation. I made a film in 2017 (which premiered in 2018) called Monsters and Men that dealt with similar subject matter to We Own This City. A lot of my very good friends, to this day, are New York City police officers—people who I’ve come up with, played high school baseball with, high school football with, etc. To this day, some of the people in my closest of circles are cops. I have a lot of love and admiration for them and a lot of respect for the job and for people who wear the badge and do it right. However, I also have a lot of disdain for some of the job’s practices and for the systematic issues that have clearly gone wrong. 

This project allowed me the opportunity then to dive into the subject matter in a way that I couldn’t have in Monsters and Men. With only 90 minutes at my disposal, I felt that I only skimmed the surface with that film, and this series was going to be a much deeper dive into another chapter of that story, at least for me personally. I think that perspective was important, that I wasn’t necessarily out to villainize cops, no matter how bad some of the things they do might come off. That was not my objective here. The objective is always about the gray, about the complexities and striking a balance. It’s up to the audience to see if we struck that correctly, but that was always our approach. It has to start with love.

A lot of the things that we depict in the show are factual. These guys did these things and their actions are not embellished for the show. These events are based off of real accounts from real court documents and eyewitness testimony. However, given that the series had to be adapted into six episodes, some dramatic liberties were taken. For instance, the character Wunmi Mosaku plays, Nicole Steele, is completely fictional, a composite character created to be the conscience of the show. There are certain elements like that that had to be fictionalized for dramatic purposes, but many of the stories are rooted in their real-life counterparts.

Filmmaker: Was the narrative structure, juggling multiple story threads that hop back and forth in time, always in the script? Were you shooting as chronologically as possible? And, as the director of the entire series, were you able to frontload/group together different kinds of sequences, i.e. scenes featuring indoor meetings and interior “walk-and-talks,” then shooting exterior sequences deep in Baltimore with the task force?  

Green: The jumping of timelines was always in the script, as was the [narrative device] of beginning certain scenes by showing a character’s “run sheet.” The non-linear storytelling was always there in the writing. I knew that would be a challenge to [keep track of], but our executive producer, Nina Noble, whose work with David Simon dates back to the HBO miniseries, The Corner, in 2000, is a savant. She came up in her career as an assistant director and she’s now an executive producer in the truest sense of the word. Nina was a big force in helping to guide our crews and making sure that we hired locally and that they were the right people for the job. The most [recurring] collaborators Nina and David work with are people they’ve worked with for years, and that includes Dona Adrian Gibson, who did wardrobe for us, and Debi Young, who did makeup. They’ve been working with David and Nina for over 20 years, and they brought a long history of working together [to our set]. We had thousands of costumes on this series and, while the work was immense, Nina was very helpful in keeping track of and organizing those different timelines.

We then had to get creative in how we were going to shoot within these spaces and make them come to life. Much of that work came via collaborations with my production designer, Valeria De Felice, and my director of Photography, Yaron Orbach. Those spaces are not intended to be fun. You can see when the character of Nicole Steele walks into the Department of Justice and you see the piece of paper that [her department’s office name] is written on…it’s supposed to be no frills. And when you walk into an interrogation room, it’s purposely no frills, right? We tried our best in making these spaces come to life and, for me, you do much of that work in the casting process. If you care about the characters who inhabit these spaces, everything else comes to life. As a viewer, if you care about the characters you’re watching and feel that they’re interacting with you, then we’ve done our job.

Filmmaker: And what was your personal familiarity with Baltimore before coming aboard this series, either through various forms of media or your own life experiences/memories? As you’re a big baseball fan, were you an Orioles fan growing up?

Green: I was not an Orioles fan, but I was a fan of the Orioles stadium.

Filmmaker: Oh yeah, I love Camden Yards

Green: I’d been to Camden Yards a few times and it’s an amazing park, but I had never really spent much time in Baltimore, so coming onto this show was an eye-opening experience for me. While I had grown up in rough neighborhoods in New York, I’d never quite seen the devastation that hit a city like Baltimore. When you go further away from the Inner Harbor, you begin to see the real widespread devastation. At the same time, you can be on a block where there’s a brownstone (that would typically go for $12-15 million in New York) that has a tree growing through the bottom floor all the way up to and through the roof and see someone living in there. You can be walking on an entire block of brownstones and, while the entire block is boarded up, every house is still occupied. Public transportation is still a problem there too. 

We saw a lot of these things during production, but we also saw the hard-working, resilient folks that live in Baltimore. The problems that the city faces aren’t unique to just Baltimore. And while Baltimore is a microcosm of a lot of cities in America, if you’re not in New York or L.A. or Miami, it’s a different [story]. These smaller American cities face a lot more devastation and are given a lot less resources. We were definitely confronted with that reality while filming. My job is to listen to those whose story we’re telling, and our actors did too—listening to what the people are trying to tell us about their city. I don’t want to say, “Oh, this is how you feel…” I want you to tell me how you feel and allow me to help express that cinematically. In a lot of ways, you’re trying to let those voices do the work, and hopefully the camera feels put in places that best help to tell their story.

Filmmaker: Did your filming locations match the real-life locations? Like the Red Roof Inn where an arrest takes place early in the series, was that the actual Red Roof Inn of the real arrest?

Green: Yes, we shot there and filmed at many of the real life locations, whether that be for a “car stop” recreation where we would be on the same street where actual car stops were conducted, or when we needed a specific site that a specific incident occurred on, we would be on those same streets. However, it was different for the filming of interiors inside municipal buildings, as the real buildings either no longer existed or were still active locations. Getting access to film inside a real courtroom was difficult, primarily due to them still being active courtrooms. In those instances, we had to recreate the space, but for the most part, we filmed at the real locations, often on the real streets or cross streets.

I think the beauty of a George Pelecanos/David Simon show is that the specificity is second to none. These men are as particular about the papers lying across the desk in a scene as they are about a specific line in the script. There are no accidents. Everything is purposeful and methodical in a way that makes the authenticity feel paramount. That’s what they’ve built their brand on. 

Filmmaker: Since you directed all six episodes and they’re being released one episode per week, were you tackling this project as a six-hour movie? Even knowing that their are cliffhangers and specific narrative breaks that conclude each episode (that I assume were written into each episode’s teleplay), were you trying to maintain an overarching pace or flow that would feel relatively seamless to someone who might choose to bingewatch all six episodes in one sitting? Is that something you’re consciously aware of when filming something that’s going to run over 360 minutes in length? 

Green: Absolutely. Hopefully every time we introduce a character, they feel introduced via the standard “cinematic language” of how you would introduce a character [in a movie]. For example, take how we introduce the Daniel Hersl character. We start with the camera on his badge before slowly panning up to his face. Actually, we start on his eyes in the rear-view mirror in a car before we get to what I’ve just described, and at this point, you’ve already heard about him [from other characters] before we give you a slow reveal of who this person is. We definitely took care in introducing our characters in a way that felt cinematic. Hersl is made to immediately be a menacing presence—you’re looking in the rear-view mirror, staring at his eyes and seeing [that]. Similarly, with the introduction of the Nicole Steele character, we’re placed in her car alongside her as she’s approaching the first protest on the street. And for the Momodu Gondo character, we come off of an [establishing] shot of him [via security camera footage] and pan down to him at the table. You hear his voice before you actually see him.

I definitely tried to shoot this series like a six-hour movie, and I thought about the kinds of movies that I loved, from Goodfellas to Sicario, and shows like True Detective, that made me say, “This is the shared cinematic language that we’re trying to go for with our series.” We wanted to add a lot more grit to the look, but hopefully in a way that didn’t feel overly invasive. David and George let me make the show I wanted to make, in terms of its cinematic language, and those reference points were helpful.

When it came to directing the performances….it was interesting. I have an improvisational style/preference to how I work with actors, but here I was working with scripts by some of the best writers in television and it’s always a tricky thing to reassure writers like, “no, no, trust me, just let me do it the way I’m going to do it and I’ll get to the version that feels the best.” Once they saw how I was working, I think they appreciated it because they saw the pearls come out. Their writing is impeccable, of course, but it still has to feel natural for the actors and sometimes we have to try a lot of things to get to the words, and I think that’s what you feel in the end result. If the performances feel natural, it’s because I think our working styles ended up being a good marriage.

Filmmaker: When I last spoke with you in December of 2021 as you were doing press for King Richard, were you still putting finishing touches on We Own The City to make the April premiere date? Was that process one long post-production grind or were you breaking down post-production, episode by episode, to make it more manageable? 

Green: The way post is structured in television is that the directors will typically get a week per episode to deliver their cuts. But because I’m also an executive producer on the project, I was also involved in the conversations that followed those [delivery due dates]. So, I hand in my edit of an episode, and from there it goes to the showrunners and the producers to finish the cut, and I’m being updated on the progress of those cuts, always staying in touch with my editors throughout. It was very fluid. The showrunners and producers and I had a good working relationship and thankfully so, because I think they were very inclusive and wanted to hear my voice. Some narrative elements definitely got shifted in the edit, often for clarity purposes, and some things were made more linear, but it was a continuous conversation. HBO gave great, smart notes and collectively we came up with what you see, and we’re proud of that finished product.

Filmmaker: And did you push for your King Richard composer, Kris Bowers, to score this series as well? 

Green: Oh, you see Kris Bowers’s name on there…[laughs]

Filmmaker: I thought, “OK, there’s Jon Bernthal, there’s Kris Bowers…”

Green: Anytime I can bring along my team that has helped me so much in my career, I’m going to do that. Kris is remarkable and Jon is too. I love our ensemble cast on this series, and that includes all of the fresh faces as well as all of the returning folks we brought back from The Wire.

Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned being in production on Monsters and Men in 2017 while much of what We Own This City covers was taking place. The issue of police brutality is prevalent in We Own This City, of course, and it’s also present in Monsters and Men and Stop, your short film from 2015. There’s even a scene in King Richard where news of Rodney King’s assault by the hands of the L.A.P.D. captures the attention of Richard Williams (resulting in the acquittal of the four offending police officers, the verdict of which was given thirty years ago this week). The subject of police brutality is one you keep returning to, albeit in different ways and via different mediums. And while We Own This City takes place at a specific moment in time, the parallels to the present are easy to spot. As a filmmaker, what has brought you back to feeling the need to come back to this issue of police brutality again and again? Is that a need you have?

Green: Yes, I do, which is why I think I’ve tried to find different ways to engage with that subject matter while still keeping it entertaining. We are making a television show for HBO, and I’d much rather be making a show about something than making a show about nothing. When I was presented with the opportunity to make a show about something, I was proud to put my name on it. It’s an important subject matter, but I never want to be fatigued to the point that I can’t talk about issues that are important to my community. I never want to be too tired to talk about it. The sentiment of “Oh c’mon, we’ve seen and heard this all before…” is part of the problem. That sentiment means that we’ve given up or have forgotten about it or are just now too tired or discouraged to engage. I understand that that’s a fair thing to feel. We don’t want to see the same thing over and over again, I get that, but that’s why it’s up to us to find new ways to talk about it. That’s part of the challenge for me.

With We Own This City, everything was inherent in the setup. Oftentimes, you’re not going to take the Goodfellas approach and follow the bad guys, but this series was set up in a way where it felt like Goodfellas was leading things here. We’re telling this story through the GTTF, not through the perspective (or not solely through the perspective) of the victim. In my opinion, that’s an interesting way to engage with this particular subject matter. Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Training Day and that wasn’t an accident. His character is doing some of the most vile, heinous things anybody has ever done on screen, and people are literally rooting for him. Well, perhaps you’re not rooting for what he’s doing but you’re rooting for him to get caught. But because Denzel’s performance is so compelling and he’s playing so rich of a character, you, as a viewer, are on board with him. We tried to do that same thing with this series. 

At the end of the day, these officers are human beings. In my opinion, no one signs up to be a police officer to do the things that the GTTF ultimately did. This is something I truly believe in my heart. There’s not one police officer that signs up to be a bad police officer. What happens is that they enter a system where, for lack of a better analogy, there are a ton of “Code Reds.” There’s the uniform, of course, and if that person is wearing the uniform, then everyone wearing the uniform is complicit and that level of complicity and toxicity permeates throughout many of our institutions. This isn’t just prevalent within the police force. As you see in the series, these issues run deep within the justice system too. Being able to show this over the course of six episodes…well, I’m very proud of the work. I’m happy that I got to engage with subject matter that is important not only to me, but to the people in my community. I hope we did it some justice.

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