“We’re Not Very Good at Sharing in This Country”: David Simon on Show Me a Hero, Public Housing Today and Moving from Journalism to Television
David Simon (Homicide, The Wire, Treme) has a new miniseries on HBO, Show Me a Hero, and it’s about the fight for public housing and desegregation in Yonkers, N.Y. in 1987. And if you think that doesn’t sound dramatic or exciting, you’d be dead wrong. I watched all six hours straight through and found the series riveting from the first scene to the last. After watching the series I read the book (of the same title, by Lisa Belkin and equally riveting). The book has been out of print, but is being re-released with an introduction by Simon, in which he writes:
National health care, gun violence, the death of the working class, draconian law enforcement and mass incarceration, global warming — is there a problem in this country that we are capable of facing squarely, much less addressing? Not if the right people can be paid and the wrong people frightened. Our politics has seen to it.
Yonkers in 1987 was a microcosm, a perfect preamble. It was us, all of us, in this very day, and at this very hour. It has been us, similarly fated, since an American president took office declaring cynically that we, the greatest and wealthiest nation on the planet, had fought a brief war on poverty and that, hey, poverty had won. From that ugly moment forward, it’s been two Americas and every man for himself. And, make no mistake, this is the best we as a people can do.
Money. Fear. Politics. Race. Class. America.
On Show Me a Hero, Simon teamed up with Paul Haggis, who directs the series, bringing to it a different look from Simon’s previous work. The two attracted an all-star cast, with the main character of Nick Wasicsko played by Oscar Isaac. The youngest mayor in America, Wasicsko inherited a problem when he became Mayor of Yonkers: the city of Yonkers was under court order by Judge Leonard B. Sand (played by Bob Balaban) to build public housing in the borough’s east side (read: white side). The councilmen and citizens of Yonkers refused to comply. Wasicsko had no idea what he was about to step into.
Look around America today — this is unfortunately, a story that continues. The title of the series should indicate that trouble lay ahead. As written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the full sentence is: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
Show Me a Hero airs its final two episodes tonight, August 30, on HBO. I spoke with David Simon, who was in Baltimore, working on his next project.
Filmmaker: So what are you working on now that I dragged you away from?
Simon: I’m prepping a pilot that films in New York in October for an HBO series that may or may not go. It’s about Times Square when it went to hell — when pornography effectively became legal, when it became an above-the-counter product. Times Square became the early headquarters of the sex industry. Not merely the prostitution, massage parlors and all the street trade, but also the beginnings of pornography as an open industry, as an openly transmitted product. That’s pretty much what the story is about. You know, we encountered somebody who was one of the mob fronts for a lot of that stuff, and the stories he offered us were so astonishing and so human that George Pelecanos and I tried to write something that came out of that world. It’s going to be shot by Michelle MacLaren, who did Breaking Bad. Right now we’re in the middle of casting, but one of the leads is going to be James Franco.
Filmmaker: And what years is that set in?
Simon: It starts in ‘71, or so, and it will end in ‘86. If they pick it up it would be three seasons. The first one would be early ’70s, the second one would be late ’70s, and then the last one would be the middle ’80s.
Filmmaker: I moved to New York in ‘86.
Simon: That’s when they were shutting it down and getting rid of it. It’s all become Disneyfied now, or most of it has become Disneyfied. Midtown Manhattan was an astonishingly debauched and volatile place in the ’70s.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Show Me a Hero. I watched it straight through like a six-hour movie. And then I read the book by Lisa Belkin, which I also think is fantastic. When did you come across the book?
Simon: I came across the book in 2001, maybe 2002. It was sent to me by Gail Mutrux, who was a producer on Show Me a Hero. She was actually the person who read my first book, Homicide. She then gave it to Barry [Levinson], and they made it into the NBC show. And then I worked with her when I went to NBC as my baptism in television writing. I was basically a police reporter at the Baltimore Sun until the moment that she found my book. Given that she did that for me, I’m kind of beholden to read any book that she sends me after that, you know? So, I read it, and I saw the value of it in terms of a political parable and an allegory for race. Then it was just a matter of boiling down the story into six hours and also finding the time to do it because, as it happened, other projects intervened — either because they were closer to important news. [For example], Treme needed to be done closer to Katrina, and Generation Kill needed to be done closer to the Iraq war. The dynamic of Show Me a Hero is such that it just keeps happening over and over again. It’s happening various places in the country right now. Same demagoguing, same political rhetoric, same arguments. You could always put it on the back burner and know that when you picked it up a year or two later, it would still be happening. That’s sad to say.
Filmmaker: I grew up in D.C. and felt embarrassed by the segregation of the city. I think I became aware at a young age of racial segregation in a city and also of politics. In D.C. you are surrounded by politics. But like you said, it’s unfortunate that it’s so relevant to everything that continues to happen. I am interested in the fidelity of your film to the book. As an artist how much do you feel a responsibility to reality when you are doing something that is non-fiction?
Simon: Well, you’re always boiling it down because even 360 minutes of time on film is insufficient to deliver a complicated story that takes place over years. You’re always boiling the pot and reducing, and there’s stuff you can’t explain. Or you have to combine three different meetings into one — that’s always happening. But when I am working on a project that is being sold to people as non-fiction I feel the fundamental requirement is that I not cheat the story and make it more than it is. I might constrict the story. I might simplify some of the characters. I might reduce the number of actors we need and the number of stories we need to tell. But I feel like I have to represent the actual reality of what happened.
Filmmaker: I would have loved to have heard anyone other than you pitch a show about public housing in Yonkers and have people realize how exciting it would be.
Simon: It was pretty funny to hear me pitch it too. I mean, it’s on projects like this where there’s no denying that… you know, I’ve had HBO behave as if they were the Medicis. They know that there’s a ceiling to projects [like this one], and they do them anyway. When I first came there [the executives were] Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss, Now they’re Mike Lombardo and Richard Plepler. I think if I had to examine it, I’d say that I add something to the brand, and what I add is some sort of socio-political component that is another facet of what they are offering when they say “it’s not TV.” They certainly know I’m not offering big numbers when I do a piece on public housing and segregation.
Filmmaker: Although from the very opening scene the show couldn’t be more dramatic.
Simon: I’m glad you think so.
Filmmaker: How did you decide on which scene you wanted to open with?
Simon: I just knew I wanted to start when Nick had no sensibility for what was going to overwhelm him, when he was just a council member. I wanted to define Yonkers and then go to City Hall when they were doing routine business so that you could see what the routine was as opposed to what’s about to envelope them. You know, you’re crediting me, and you’re crediting the scripts, but the truth is it’s a Paul Haggis film. He was very dutiful about working off of our scripts, and he was very careful with what we were trying to convey, but, he had his own aesthetic you know? And it was different from mine. It pushed me in some directions that I hadn’t gone to in previous work. Some compromises were necessary. I ended up using a score a little bit in this, which I’ve never done before. That was Paul. That was Paul pushing me a little bit.
Filmmaker: I wasn’t going to overlook Paul because I think there is a definite look to the film that propels the drama, so I was going to ask you about that. Other than the score, were there things that you feel you wouldn’t have done on your own?
Simon: I like the camera a little less elegant. I think Paul would like it more elegant. I think he came to me a little bit, and he has a lot of shots, particularly in the meeting scenes and the conflict scenes, that are, to his manner of thinking, imperfect, not perfectly framed. There’s foreground movement, and people are slightly blocked. There’s an amazing shot that I love and that he went with. It’s when we’re at a diner with Spallone, and Spallone’s face is blocked for some of his lines — I love that stuff. For me, that’s the verite of the real world. I think Paul, left to his own devices, would make a very elegant film. He’s very conscious of how the camera can move. The entrances and exits that his camerawork makes are often quite beautiful. I tend to chop more of those off, and I tend to throw dialogue over the beginnings and ends of scenes to suggest that things keep going on and that they are not perfectly framed. We met somewhere in the middle. And I think it was a good place for this material, because this material needs a little more… It’s such a dry universe in some ways. You know, council hearing room, offices, projects, townhouses — there’s not a lot of hyperbole to the universe. In some respects it needed more elegance. It needed the camerawork to be a little bit less quotidian. I think he was the right director.
Filmmaker: How did you guys come together?
Simon: HBO was willing to let us make it, but I think their initial sense of it was, “Just do it like it’s The Wire, and use your regular people, and get whatever actors you think are right.” I don’t think they had any belief that we could pull an A-list cast with this kind of material. And Nina [Kostroff-Noble, executive producer] and I, we kind of took that as a challenge. And one of the ways you try to pull an A-list cast is by getting a feature director who’s pulled an A-list cast before. Paul has done that. I thought, if I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, which is go try to find feature actors to make a six-hour miniseries on public housing and desegregation, then the first piece I need is a director who won’t be intimidated by that kind of cast and who will at the same time, seek it out and help me recruit it.
Filmmaker: Well you certainly succeeded. The whole cast is amazing. I don’t think I have seen Oscar Isaac take a single misstep as an actor.
Simon: He’s incredible. From his first scene I wasn’t worried about anything. I knew his arc would be there. It was an embarrassment of riches. Once he signed on, it made it very easy for us to start pulling people like Winona Ryder, Alfred Molina, Catherine Keener, Peter Riegert and LaTanya Richardson. There was no place you could point the camera and get hurt. It was just a beautiful synthesis of people who were all doing great work in the spirit of an ensemble. I really believed that we were in Yonkers, and I believed it everywhere the camera turned.
Filmmaker: You mentioned something earlier that I want to go back to. It’s that first moment with Nick, played by Oscar Isaac. You see what’s about to happen to him — you see it before he does — and your heart just sinks. He seems like the main character. But then, as each character got introduced, I began to feel that there was no single heart — that it is an ensemble heart at the center of the drama. I don’t know if “an ensemble heart” is even a saying, but you know what I mean.
Simon: And by the end I think people will feel that way even more. I think people will have that sense of it at the end because a lot of the people in the projects, and Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), they don’t make their turn until the last couple hours. The housing has to get built for their stories to pivot. So I think at the end the piece as a whole pivots and other stories begin to add fuel to the fire. I think that was one of the tricks of the book, which was you have these disparate stories where people in the projects have no real agency, they’re not really involved in the government fight, they’re not at the courthouse, they’re not at City Hall, they’re just living their lives waiting for the opportunity to maybe have their lives get a little bit better. Or in Mary Dorman’s case, to have their lives confronted. And then when it happens, suddenly those characters that have been effectively divorced from the main storyline begin to define not only their own stories but the main storyline as well.
Filmmaker: I found the character of Oscar Newman (Peter Reigert) and his storyline about what kind of housing gives people agency and a feeling of humanity in their lives, and his idea of how architecture influences people’s behavior — that I found fascinating and maybe lesser known to people.
Simon: I’m proudest that we’ve included the bureaucrats in our list of heroes because normally you hear the word “bureaucrat” and you think to yourself, “Well that’s not only boring, but he’s kind of the enemy.” But I covered enough government [as a reporter] to not believe that. I knew a lot of bureaucrats who were very, very good public servants. And Oscar Newman was right about defensible space and about scattered-site housing. You know, he’s kind of maligned among a lot of left-leaning advocates for the poor and for public housing in retrospect because of certain outcomes that he didn’t have anything to do with, really. Or it was an unintended consequence of his very accurate argument. Because Oscar was saying, “Look, if you stack the poor in these tall housing projects, or these vast low-rise projects, so that you have this incredible density of poverty, you’re going to have bad outcomes. You’re going to destabilize communities, you’re not going to be able to control the environment, you’re going to have bad outcomes.” And he was right. He wasn’t in any respect arguing against public housing. He was arguing for more public housing of the scattered-site, defensible-space variety — much more, in fact, than we have done. Where Oscar’s argument runs aground of actual policy is that because his argument was so credible the federal government, particularly certain administrations of the federal government, did an awful lot of tearing down of the big housing projects, like in Baltimore, where they’ve taken down every high-rise project we had. And they haven’t put up enough scattered-site housing and enough defensible-space housing to help the poor. So, that wasn’t Oscar Newman’s argument or the intended consequence. He wanted to see the big troubled housing projects of the ’70s and ’60s replaced with a commensurate amount of better housing, and that hasn’t happened. And there are some people who blame Oscar Isaac for opening that door.
Filmmaker: Oscar Newman.
Simon: [laughs] Yeah, no one blames Oscar Isaac for that. Some people blame Oscar Newman for opening that door but you know, that was political opportunism that didn’t really have much to do with Newman’s original theories.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that, unfortunately, this is not something we can point to as “in the past.” I followed your recent writing on Baltimore as current events have unfolded, and I’m wondering if you’d talk more broadly about political, racial, and housing issues now?
Simon: Well, yeah, the story keeps going, I mean Baltimore had the Moving to Opportunity program. They tried to use scattered-site housing in Eastern Baltimore County to integrate some poor folk into middle-class neighborhoods. And the political opposition was a mirror image of what happened in Yonkers. It’s going on in Dallas right now, where the federal government is not showing the stomach to actually pursue it the way they did in Yonkers. They’re sort of pulling up stakes, sadly, I have to say. It’s happening in Tarrytown, which is two towns North of Yonkers on the Hudson River. Wherever you look, wherever somebody tries to address the hyper-segregation of the country in ways that have a shared societal responsibility or a shared societal cost, the same dynamic kicks up. We’re not very good at sharing in this country. We don’t share physical space, we don’t share power, we don’t share geography, we certainly don’t share wealth. We’ve got a real problem with that, and at a certain point it leads to a coarsening of the society as a whole. I live in Baltimore, a city that’s incredibly hyper-segregated and where the poor are entrenched in certain areas. They’re policed differently, they’re housed differently, they’re connected to the economic engines in very different ways, and the outcomes are very different. These are two Americas that are living side by side but not sharing the same future.
Filmmaker: Yes. And so I was asking you before about your sense of responsibility to a single piece of work that you’re translating for the screen, but what do you feel as a broader responsibility when there is this crisis going on to make work that addresses it?
Simon: I just want to engage in the argument. I want to find what’s worth arguing about in my opinion, where the fault lines are for the society I’m in, and I want to argue about that. I felt the same when I was a reporter, and I feel the same making television. It’s a different framework, there’s a different ethos, there’s different purposes. I have to be a dramatist when I am doing the second job, and I can’t be a dramatist when I’m doing the first job. There’s a different equation that has to be employed, but my purposes are the same: I want to find the place where the fault lines are, where the problems are, and argue about them. Present an argument that I think is legitimate.
Filmmaker: You’re talking about the shift from journalism to filmmaking. When you made that shift, what did you have to learn or teach yourself or start to understand about the different kinds of storytelling?
Simon: I had to learn what was possible and impossible as per production. I had to learn pacing of scripts; scripts are written differently than prose. As a reporter, the one thing I had going for me was I was very good with dialogue. I would get the way people talked. I would be able to recreate their quotes accurately. And I would get the different cadences from different people. I had a good ear. That, and an attention to detail, were the things I carried from reporting into screenwriting. But aside from that, the pacing was totally different, and what works on screen doesn’t work in prose and vice versa. And I had to unlearn a lot of stuff that worked with writing books or magazine articles but doesn’t work with film. I had to learn new stuff that only works in film. I learned to shut up. Every line has to justify itself, and sometimes the best scenes don’t have any dialogue at all. Those lessons, some of them came faster than others. The beginning of the process, Tom Fontana, who was the producer of Homicide, which was based on my first book, he took me under his wing. He and the people I worked with on Homicide, they showed me how to do this. I also read a lot of plays. Once I got to the job at Homicide I thought, “You know what, is there something I should read?” Jim Yoshimura handed me a compendium of Chekhov and said, “Read how his characters never say exactly what they mean. They talk around the truth. They demonstrate the truth but they talk around it.” That was a big lesson.
Filmmaker: I’ve always been mystified by this frenzy over optioning Pulitzer Prize-winning books because I agree with you: film and television are different mediums. And it seems like — and I’m talking about fiction now — sometimes things that are successful as books aren’t going to translate to film necessarily. But people rush to option these books.
Simon: Well, recently, somebody came to me with the rights to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, an American classic. Maybe one of the most important books on race that we have. They were interested in — did I have a take? Did I want to try to write a screenplay? And I re-read the book, and I thought, “My God, there’s so much of this book that is in the interior thought process of the protagonist. If I tried to make this into a movie, I think I’d butcher it.” I’m not good enough, or the book is too much a book.
Filmmaker: I don’t think it’s that you’re not good enough. I think it’s that the book is too much of a book.
Simon: Right. And you screw up Ralph Ellison’s only novel, a book as fine as Invisible Man, you know, you deserve to be called an asshole. I couldn’t see a way to do it. I mean, I could see a way to do it badly. I couldn’t see a way to do it well.
Filmmaker: I want to talk more about the process of making Show Me a Hero.
Simon: Again, I want to credit Haggis for bringing his own sensibility to the film because he really did. There are things that I’ve learned doing television and about the camera that I had no reason to know because I was trained as a journalist. And then I honed my craft as a prose writer, and I had nothing but a consumer’s interest in film. I went to the theater to see good movies but I never thought about the making of [them]. Camerawork, film editing, stylistic choices were not an area of interest to me. Then suddenly I was thrust into this place where I had to understand a little bit more about the camera. I still can’t tell one lens from another; the technocracy of film is still completely elusive to me. Obviously I haven’t been to film school. But I did learn over time how to edit. And I did learn what works for my kind of storytelling and what doesn’t. I learned what I wanted to see the camera do and what I was afraid to see the camera do. And I had a lot of help with that.
Filmmaker: I feel like the editing is the part of the process that is the closest to writing because you are writing, you’re just writing it in film. Making edits.
Simon: Right. It is. Well, also the sensibility is there for what to leave in and what to take out and why. Since it’s a frame-by-frame decision it has a certain logic as creating a written version of something, but film is its own creature as well, and so there are added complications. But, I mean, I came in with such ignorance. I understood story, and I understood my purposes, but how to get from here to there, I needed a lot of people to hold my hand for a long time. When Bob Colesberry, who did The Corner with me and then did the first couple seasons of The Wire and then tragically died way too early, was around I could speak to him in my useless newspaperman vernacular about what I wanted to see shown, and he could then translate that to the D.P. or to the director and make it so. But I didn’t even have the vocabulary for it. When he died I realized I had to find my own vocabulary that could be understood because I didn’t have a translator anymore. But it was Bob, that poor guy, who showed me. He explained “crossing the line” to me 10 times if he explained it once before I finally understood it. He had the patience to do it because he was dealing with somebody who was a novice but who realized that the only way to protect the story, to protect my writing, was to produce. And if I was really going to be a producer, I had to know how to cut this film, and I had to know what I was getting even before I got to the cutting room. So [it was] Bob Colesberry, Nina Noble, and before them Tom Fontana and Jimmy Finnerty teaching me how to stay within a budget. It’s a skill set that a lot of people in this industry don’t have. I’ve never been involved in a project that went over budget. I’m not saying it’s unheard of, but it’s unusual at HBO, I’ll tell you that. Part of keeping a franchise up is spending only the money they give you to spend. You make yourself and your project vulnerable if you can’t service that goal. When Nina comes to me and says, “Look, we can’t have that location because we can’t move the trucks twice on the day, can you do the scene somewhere else?” I listen. Part of it is being an artist and pretending you’re an artist and thinking about it as art. And part of it is getting to the end of the day and not killing the crew.