David Simon cut his teeth as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun. When the newspaper industry began to collapse, Simon started writing for television. The Wire was born, and Simon hasn't gone back. Simon has a much larger platform now for sharing his strong opinions on the U.S. war on drugs, but he admits he still misses reporting.
Alec Baldwin: Some critics called The Wire the greatest television show of all time.
The HBO series explored Baltimore's drug scene and the corruption of the city's social, governmental and media institutions. Fans of The Wire seemed most attached to its authentic characters. People like Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, the Greek who smuggle drugs and humans. Middle schooler Dukie Weems, drug kingpin prop Joe and of course, Omar.
When you ask David Simon, the show's creator and my guest today, which character he loved writing most, he invariably answers 'Baltimore.' Baltimore looms large in Simon's life.
A resident for over 30 years, he got his start as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Simon wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets about his time spent with the Baltimore police Homicide unit. And then he created The Coroner for HBO, a miniseries based on his book about the open air drug market in West Baltimore.
You might assume David Simon grew up in Baltimore in a family with a tradition of law enforcement. He didn't. He was raised in Washington DC in a family where the tradition was words.
David Simon: My father was a professional Jew, by which I mean he was the PR director for B'nai B'rith which is like a Jewish service organization. He did that for thirty years.
Alec Baldwin: In Maryland?
David Simon: Out of DC. Argument was a way of communicating. Rhetoric was prized in my household.
Alec Baldwin: Simon's father had been to be a journalist. He'd studied it in college but with a growing family, he opted for the security of public relations. His son David inherited his dad's passion for newsprint.
David Simon: Once he saw that I was interested in newspapers as a teenager, he was like throwing Swope and Damon Runyon and, "watch what he does here. " And then once I got involved with The Sun, he threw Mencken at me. And so I was reading old guys who, a kind of newspaper style that isn't even allowed anymore. I'm not sure Mencken could get published.
Alec Baldwin: David Simon wrote for his high school paper in Bethesda, Maryland and continued writing in college.
David Simon: I worked on the college paper at Maryland and I sort of wrote my way onto The Sun. I was a stringer for a year and sort of paid thirty, forty bucks a story. And I had so many bylines that the unions had to sort of formally complain and said you got to hire him if he's writing this much. I had like 100 bylines. And the Metro editor told the union quietly look, when he graduates, we are going to hire him.
Alec Baldwin: And they did.
David Simon: And they did. I didn't have to do the three, four years in Roanoke or at a smaller market paper to get to a major metro daily. I got lucky. And that's –
Alec Baldwin: What were you writing under those hundred bylines when you are at the school? What were you writing about?
David Simon: I was still trying to get out of – by the time I finished editing The Diamondback, which is a broadsheet five days a week paper at Maryland, I had maybe sixty-five credits. I failed out so many times; I was the editor so I failed out two semesters in a row just for laughs.
Alec Baldwin: You are a professional newspaperman who was hiding in a college, basically.
David Simon: You know what? I tried to say that to my father but he has pissed away the tuition checks.
Alec Baldwin: He is still burned how you didn't play properly in college.
David Simon: Yeah, I'm not sure he bought it. But I got in, so I still had to get a degree even after I finished editing the paper. I was on the five year plus summer plan.
Alec Baldwin: But what did you write about?
David Simon: And while I was there, I became their stringer. I don't know that I was looking, you know it wasn't like I had the world as my oyster and I could have chosen a daily. As soon as I got hired at The Sun it was like, hey, ok, that's where I'm going.
Alec Baldwin: It was understood.
David Simon: But I didn't know Baltimore at all. Baltimore was one of those places I drove through to go visit relatives in New York. And you would drive that 895, the Harbor Tunnel and auto graveyards and rusting peers and you'd think 'My God, you take a wrong turn if you end up here.'
Alec Baldwin: But you began at The Sun in 1980? Was it 1980?
David Simon: No, later than that. '83.
Alec Baldwin: '83. So in 1983, you start at The Sun and you developing a very deep understanding of Baltimore.
David Simon: Slowly, I would say the first few years I was just trying to figure out how to do reporting.
Alec Baldwin: What did you write about in the beginning?
David Simon: It was the same thing I wrote about at the end. The joke is I never got promoted. I was a police reporter. I started as a night police reporter which was very reactive. You come in at 4:00 PM and you leave at 2:00.
It's all what happened yesterday, police said, police said, police said. And eventually I sort of graduated to covering crime as an issue or the drug policy stuff as issues. But I never really got out of the crime game.
Alec Baldwin: Did your attitude toward the police and policing evolve over the time that you were the reporter?
David Simon: Yeah, I learned to respect good policing and I still do. And eventually I learned that I had to move away from the singular point of view of the cops because it's very easy when you're a reporter in the beginning to embrace who's giving you information. So if you're covering the courts, you're listening to lawyers.
And if you're covering the station houses, the cops - it was much more accessible to go to the western district and have their version of the events than to go to the 1400 block of Carrolton and talk to the neighbors who didn't trust The Baltimore Sun to begin with. It's a predominantly black city and most of the crime was rooted in the black community.
And so I'm a white guy who grew up in the suburbs so I've got almost no skill set when it comes to – but there's an awful lot you can accomplish by just coming back. You know showing up is a little bit of the battle and then being willing to ask a stupid question.
Alec Baldwin: When do you finish writing for The Sun? You stop when?
David Simon: '95 I took a buyout.
Alec Baldwin: And why?
David Simon: Well, the paper was going in a bad direction. It was the beginning of what was happening in newspapers but it was not –
Alec Baldwin: And you mentioned that there were limitations put on you and the work you were doing. What were those?
David Simon: What they valued in journalism I had very little regard for and what I valued, I was unable to convey the importance of it to them. We were speaking different languages. The guys who came in once we were bought up by the chains. And it wasn't that they wanted mediocre things, it was they actually had deep ambitions.
But they were sort of the prize culture ambitions. A five-part series, The Baltimore Sun has learned that it's better if it's unsourced even if the source would go on record; it makes it sounds like we did more work. There was almost like a formula.
I was much more interested in how the city actually works or doesn't work. And that stuff is complicated and if you are trying to slice off a five-part series or a three-part series of outrage in order to win a prize, you have to discard the stuff that is maybe going the other way where it makes the issue complicated.
One of the editors at The Sun who became predominant when I knew it was time to leave; he'd won a couple Pulitzers in Philadelphia. One of them was for – and I'm sure they were very good stories but one of them was very literal, it was the K-9 unit of the Police Department, the dogs are biting too many people. They're biting more people than in other cities.
And I'm sure the series has its merits but not everything is, the real issues facing American cities aren't if we could just get the dogs to stop biting - I was much more interested in why isn't the drug war working?
Alec Baldwin: The priority shift.
David Simon: Yeah, yeah. Like why are we doing the same things over and over again and having less and less –
Alec Baldwin: What did you think was wrong with Baltimore? What do you think were Baltimore's biggest problems?
David Simon: Nothing that isn't wrong with most of urban American policy at this point which is – but I mean one of the more fundamental problems was they were committed to a national drug prohibition that is just incredibly destructive.
Alec Baldwin: And if you stop in '95, you said, is when you took the buyout from them?
David Simon: Right, it was the third buyout.
Alec Baldwin: And then were you a television person, were you a television watcher?
David Simon: No, no.
Alec Baldwin: So how the hell did you end up –?
David Simon: It was a mistake. It's really been a hilarious mistake. One of my dear friends who died while we were working on Treme was David Mills and we worked on the college paper together. And I remember being on the college paper, this was the time of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere and those shows. And I could admire the craft of those shows and see that something sort of fresh was happening. But I was in my early 20s and I wasn't hanging around to watch, I could never get in front of the television set on the right nights. So I caught a little of it here and there.
But David, we would be rolling the paper at 10 o'clock at night and it's like we are just trying to get the pages out to get them printed and David would go hold on, I have to go watch Hill Street and he would go into the office and sit down with a little black and white TV and watch it as if it mattered. And we'd tease him. It would be like –
Alec Baldwin: Some people like TV.
David Simon: "Dave, you have pages that are going to roll because///"
Alec Baldwin: God bless them.
David Simon: Right, God bless them. So I watched sports and I watched reruns of Bilco and the Honeymooners with my dad. It was a sharing experience, that's it. The newspapers had privacy in my house.
Alec Baldwin: Sure, this was back when people got more than one paper.
David Simon: Right, we got the Star.
Alec Baldwin: A morning and an evening paper.
David Simon: Washington Star, Washington Post, Times on Sundays.
Alec Baldwin: So when you leave The Sun, what do you do?
David Simon: Well, I had a bunch of opportunities there. I was working on a second book. I had written a book called Homicide when I was a reporter and it was a nonfiction narrative of the year I spent in the Homicide division.
Alec Baldwin: Who is your publisher?
David Simon: Houghton Mifflin. And once I said the police department in Baltimore was letting me into the Homicide unit for a year, that access sort of guaranteed that I was going to get some kind of advance that I could live on while I researched the book. And so there was a little bit of an auction, small, enough that I got enough to live on.
And I took a year's leave of absence from the paper, went into the unit, wrote the book, came out in '91 and Barry Levinson, the filmmaker from Baltimore, he bought it. And he was looking to make a show at NBC. So they made Homicide. And it was this weird stepchild because I went back to The Sun; I didn't think much of it.
Alec Baldwin: You weren't involved.
David Simon: No, no. I just sold them the book –
Alec Baldwin: My brother Daniel did that show.
David Simon: That's right. Of course.
Alec Baldwin: He lived in Baltimore.
David Simon: And we were going to get there eventually. But yeah, yeah. So this stepchild from my book is existing and I go back to being a reporter. Gail Mutrux offered me the chance to write the pilot and I said - maybe wisely, maybe not - wisely because I didn't know what the hell I would've been doing. I said, “Get somebody who knows what they're doing to do this. I'm a newspaper man.” But maybe unwisely when I saw the per episode royalty that went to that guy.
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
David Simon: And I said once you have some scripts together, send me so I will see the template and maybe I will try to write one instead.
Alec Baldwin: And did you?
David Simon: Yeah, we wrote one late in first season it was so dark and so depressing that NBC wouldn't make it. The show starts running and I wrote this one script with David Mills, like when they gave me the assignment, when they said “Yeah, take a script,” I said, “Well I don't know TV from Adam. But David loved this stuff.”
So I call him up. He was at The Washington Post at the time. We'd gone on to different newspapers. And I said “How you been? How is it going? We're going to write a TV script. We got about two weeks.” And so we hold up and we turned this thing in.
And about half of it was our stuff. It had turned out to be an episode that Robin Williams was in. They cast Robin Williams in sort of the lead guest part. And once they cast him, they had to give him more scenes. So some of our stuff got tossed but about half of our stuff, 50 percent of it was probably our pages. So I thought we'd failed miserably.
If you are half rewritten on a newspaper, if half of your story isn't your words, if the re-write man had to come behind you for that much, you screwed up. So I was sort of ashamed and I was like well, okay, I guess what we didn't do what they wanted. But they came back and offered us another script.
So at some point, there is this buyout from my newspaper on the table. And the newspaper is going in a direction I don't admire. And they offered me a job in that window. So I wrote two scripts in the course of a month, one for NYPD Blue and one for Homicide. And I admired both shows and they were both very fair offers. Tom Fontana said, 'I'll teach you how to do this. And you're going to want to learn how to actually produce.'
Alec Baldwin: And did he?
David Simon: Yes. He kept that promise with a vengeance.
Alec Baldwin: What did you learn from Fontana?
David Simon: Pretty much everything.
Alec Baldwin: He's one of the most successful TV writers in the last fifty years.
David Simon: Yeah, yeah. And in the end, Tom was as good as his word in the sense of, at first all you are doing is writing and you were moving scenes and you are filling in. But eventually set coverage and protecting the writing when it's onset and troubleshooting.
Alec Baldwin: In what way?
David Simon: Well, you want to make sure that you're getting the attention of the scene because merely because it's a script, doesn't mean it's headed for anywhere good. You have to protect it while at the same time giving the actors and the director a chance to make it their own as well. But you have to keep the core value of what the story is.
And I have come to believe that if you have a good crew if you have good actors, everybody is kind of a well sharpened tool. And if they know their business, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. But somebody has to look out for story as a whole and protect story as a whole, particularly in an intricate drama that's -
Alec Baldwin: Some sets that I've been on, the actors are better at keeping their eye on the story as a whole than the writers themselves.
David Simon: I've not found that. That may be something that you and I are, we're going to differ on until the end of time. Everybody has to settle for, at certain points, for 85 or 90 percent or even 80 percent of your intention as you go into the day's work. There comes that moment when you are fighting to get 60 percent and then there's trouble. Then it has to be resolved because that's not enough. But I think in some ways, you have to leave room for everybody to be creative. And that's a real delicate thing. So I learned that.
And then somewhere at about a year and a half, I was summoned to New York to sit by the avid and watch what Tom did when he cut. And that was another education. At a certain point, you get sent to casting. There's a whole skill set of show running that –
Alec Baldwin: And when did that end? When did you walk away from Homicide?
David Simon: Homicide ended in '99.
Alec Baldwin: So as Homicide is winding down and you either sense that it's going to end; or did it end abruptly or you kind of knew it was coming, they told you? David Simon: Well, I took the job with Homicide thinking, “I'll do this while I-“ I was working on a very complicated manuscript of my second book which was about a year spent on a drug corner. It was a follow-up to Homicide.
Alec Baldwin: The Corner.
David Simon: Yeah, a drug corner in West Baltimore.
Alec Baldwin: So was The Wire something you are cooking up while you were developing and/or shooting and/or posting and/or debuting The Corner?
David Simon: A lot of people think The Wire came in the wake of The Sopranos, but when we wrote The Wire scripts for the first season, we hadn't seen The Sopranos. We were writing it in the absence of The Sopranos, we were writing in the shadow of Oz. Oz was the first time that HBO had ventured into this hey, we'll put it on TV and you've never seen it before on TV territory. So that was – when I saw the pilot of Oz, I went to Tom and I said, "you can do a show about a drug corner.
And for reasons that are elusive to me now, Tom and Barry were joined at the hip and Barry didn't want to do The Corner. He didn't want to send it up for a series. I think Tom wanted to but – and I think to give Barry credit –
Alec Baldwin: Did that end up being a good thing for you?
David Simon: Yeah. I mean, Tom set up a meeting.
Alec Baldwin: You gave less of a piece of it to Tom.
David Simon: Right, at the time I was like oh, now I've got to walk into a room at HBO without Tom.
Alec Baldwin: And did you?
David Simon: Yeah, Tom set the meeting up.
Alec Baldwin: And what happened?
David Simon: Well, I got in the room and they had already read the book which was a miracle by LA standards.
Alec Baldwin: They wanted to be in business with you.
David Simon: Yeah, two of the three people in the room had actually read the book. And I was trying to sell them The Wire. Finally, Kary Antholis, who was the head of miniseries at the time said we just want you to do the book. Can you just do the book as the book is as a mini? And I said okay, better than nothing. So I was in the miniseries business.
The only caveat they had was we happen to notice you're not black. And your co-writer who is Ed Burns, the former police detective on The Corner, he's not black either. Can you get a black – do you know any guys –
Alec Baldwin: Literally.
David Simon: And I said well, there's this –
Alec Baldwin: Can you get a black guy in here?
David Simon: Yeah, can we make a marriage?
Alec Baldwin: What'd you do? What'd you do?
David Simon: I said, I thought about it and I said I know this guy Dave Mills –
Alec Baldwin: Vondie Curtis Hall came sprinting into the room to co-produce with you.
David Simon: I had Dave Mills in my pocket. We'd been friends since college. So I said, “I know this guy Mills.”
Alec Baldwin: But literally they call for the credibility of the series, you needed to have an African-American voice.
David Simon: I don't think they'll deny it to this day. They were nervous about presenting depictions of African-Americans that were rooted in the underclass.
Alec Baldwin: And probably very smartly so.
David Simon: Right. And I don't blame them. Television –
Alec Baldwin: So who did you get again, who was your –?
David Simon: Dave Mills, the guy from college. Dave Mills was black. So Dave Mills and I – and I walked out of the HBO building into Century City and I basically got on my cell phone and I said 'Dave, what are you doing for the next year?'
Alec Baldwin: Dave, I need a black guy. Get over here.
David Simon: And he said 'What do you mean what am I doing?' I think he was on LA Law; he was doing episodes for LA Law at the time.
Alec Baldwin: God, that's funny.
David Simon: And I said, 'Well, you're writing a miniseries based on The Corner.' And he goes, 'I am?' I said, 'Yeah.' And he goes, 'How did that come up?' And I told him. He was laughing his ass off. He said, 'All right, this will be good.' So I ended up doing that.
Alec Baldwin: How many hours – oh, go ahead, I'm sorry.
David Simon: It was six, it was six hours. And it did okay. Nobody watched it. It's the underclass and it's America. It's not like people were dying for –
Alec Baldwin: Did you like it?
David Simon: I thought we did very well with it. It was very true to the book. It was very honest with the book which I cared about.
Alec Baldwin: So both projects thus far are linked to books.
David Simon: Yeah. And I'm thinking, now I'm going to go back and write another book which believe me, if my book editor, God bless him, John Sterling is listening right now, he's just, he just spit out a couple teeth. But I'm thinking I'm going back to books and I'm going to go to a newspaper and I'm going back to journalism.
Alec Baldwin: You are going to go back period.
David Simon: Yeah, I'm going back. And now the window's, now that I finished The Corner and Homicide's over, it's a nice skill set to have learned but I'm not looking for – I'm looking to go back. Then the fateful words.
Alec Baldwin: But why?
David Simon: I like reporting. I love reporting. I like actually the time spent, even on a fictional story, the time spent in research.
Alec Baldwin: But there's something about you, not that you have to answer this, that you like it a little less glitzy. Were you getting kind of fatigued by that?
David Simon: I am an East Coast guy and I will tell a story on myself and George Pelecanos, one of the novelist writers, a good friend of mine. We're in LA for - I think we are going to some meetings and maybe an awards there. I'm in LA usually six days a year for meetings.
George wanted to go to The Ivy so we got a reservation at The Ivy and of course we were down on the sidewalk for forty-five minutes waiting and then the beautiful hostess comes down and looks around and says, after they have taken every other actor and says, pelican party? Pelican party? And I turned to George and I said, “We don't belong here.”
Alec Baldwin: They just sat Ruth Westheimer before us.
David Simon: Right, let's go home. I have very little patience for that stuff. Not because – it sounds arrogant, it sounds oh, he such a down to earth, Baltimore under his fingernails.
Alec Baldwin: Well, you go out there and you realize it's not for everybody.
David Simon: No, it really is not. And listen, there's a lot to love about the entertainment industry.
Alec Baldwin: Especially when it goes well.
David Simon: Nobody is throwing the money back when the residual checks come to your mailbox; you don't throw them out on the ground in disgust.
Alec Baldwin: No one ever says, "no thank you."
David Simon: Yeah, no one ever says, "no thank you." But I was supposed to write towards argument. The stuff was supposed to be about something.
Alec Baldwin: Was it in The Corner?
David Simon: Yeah, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And you were going to go write another book about - ?
David Simon: I think the next one was supposed to be in my head; I wanted to do the working class. It was what we cannibalized for season two of The Wire. First I had asked, I had made some quiet inquiries about going to Beth Steel, the steel plant which was still sort of operating a skeleton shift in Baltimore, but a very big steel plant; and also the GM factory, about whether they would let me work the line.
I can't help it, I'm from a different planet which is journalism and what I'm really interested in, or even as a filmmaker is the argument that can come as a result of the narrative.
Alec Baldwin: I certainly don't know you but judging from your work, Homicide and The Wire and Treme, you seem like someone who comes from a comfortable middle-class existence and an educated background., the plight of the poor is something that gnaws at you, correct?
David Simon: I'm interested in a story that has political import and that can say something fresh and worthy of argument. I'm not sure I ever sort of saw it as being –
Alec Baldwin: Socialism.
David Simon: Yeah, well, and yet I would say my politics are to the left of the Democratic Party. I'm probably in Europe what would be called a democratic socialist. But having said that, I think I was very fair as a reporter.
Some of poverty is about personal responsibility and some of it is not. Some of it is systemic and a result of societal forces that are profound. And you can't ignore either. And I think the reporting in The Corner and also some of the implications of The Wire. Alec Baldwin: People I know who like The Wire loved The Wire. David Simon: Well, but that came very late in the run and it came as a result of things that I don't think we anticipated which were sort of power watching through whole seasons at a time. Once On Demand and DVD sets became –
Alec Baldwin: Right, binge viewing.
David Simon: Yeah. We were still locked into the "man, we hope they watch it on Sunday nights or the re-watches when we first came on the air." All the other platforms didn't exist. So we didn't know that it would have a long tail. And at the time, it was really about begging to let us finish the narrative.
Alec Baldwin: How many seasons of The Wire did you do?
David Simon: Five. Five.
Alec Baldwin: And how many episodes?
David Simon: Sixty? Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: What did you learn before – and even though the collaboration with Tom in particular and with Barry was a good one, now this is your house and this is your thing. The Wire is you. And what did you, what was your personal touch that you wanted to put on? What were things that you wanted to do that you weren't able to do before?
David Simon: I thought Homicide was an exceptionally good show; really well acted and well-written.
Alec Baldwin: It was a TV drama nonetheless.
David Simon: Right.
Alec Baldwin: Whereas most people agree that The Wire was something that was much more bristled with authenticity; the dialog.
David Simon: Well, what The Wire had going for it was there was nobody to appease. There was nobody looking over your shoulder. I remember when we pulled – we had good numbers, we had okay numbers first season. We had even better numbers second season. And then third season, the numbers dove. That was the first season that NFL started programming Sunday night football.
Alec Baldwin: Goddamn that Sunday night football.
David Simon: So and then Desperate Housewives was on another channel so we were getting the crap kicked out of us. And I remember calling Carol and thinking "man, they may cancel this." And I said, 'What was the number that last Sunday?' And she read it back to me and I said, 'Oh, man.' And she goes, 'Oh, come on. It's a cute little number. I don't want you thinking about numbers.' That's astonishing. That's astonishing.
Alec Baldwin: So what did you want to do differently? What were some things that you thought if I had my own show, I'd do what?
David Simon: Yeah, I guess that was where we got in on this. And I think the one thing I wanted to do was I looked upon Homicide as being twenty-two, it was like a collection of short stories. Whenever I compare stuff to books, people think I'm saying oh, The Wire is as good as Moby Dick or whatever. And I am never saying that.
I'm always just using books as okay, Homicide was Dubliners. It's all connected but it's James Joyce's Dubliners; these delicately connected stories about a place and an ethos and twenty-two separate stories. And there's some story lines continue but there is a fresh theme for each. It was short story writing in a television sense.
And I really wanted to see what would happen if you sort of applied the logic of a novel and so like stuff that happens in the first couple chapters might stay relevant or have –
Alec Baldwin: The old style of TV which is what we don't have now which is now everybody wants a one-off. Why are these police procedurals like NCIS and everything so popular? Because you watch one episode and so –
David Simon: Right. Oh, listen. I'm not sure that it doesn't present its own level of problems. But I have to say –
Alec Baldwin: But it plays well into the binge viewing thing where if you are going to connect everything like a novel and I can sit down on an afternoon and I can watch three hours of your show, it plays well.
David Simon: Although it plays well in retrospect, you have to have a certain number of viewers get to the end and start talking about it and say you got a go get the box set. You've got a go watch all these.
I look at these TV things as being a chance to have a discussion about something more than I wish these two characters would get together. I wish that he wouldn't have gotten killed. I understand that viewers experience it that way and they are not wrong but man, if all you are doing is being entertaining, then I've sort of, I don't know that I can look sort of the ghost of my father in the eye at night and say that leaving newspapers was, that I am anything but an apostate.
Alec Baldwin: In fact, David Simon has become increasingly vocal in his opinions about our country's drug war. He said he hoped The Wire would move 'from the entertainment pages to the Op Eds.' Last year Simon appeared in The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki's documentary about drug policy in the US.
Alec Baldwin: Talk about Jarecki and how you met him.
David Simon: Well, one of the things that The Wire was clearly intended as is a critique of the drug war and drug prohibition. So I spoke very bluntly about what I had thought had gone wrong with the drug war. And at some point, when people would call me and say the magic words which is, I'm doing the story or I'm doing a documentary or I'm doing, can I interview you about the drug war, I always say yes.
And in fact, and all the public speaking I do, I always come back to one of my fundamental arguments which is if you are an American citizen and you believe in any kind of democratic ideal, you might want to seriously consider jury nullification.
If you are picked on a jury for nonviolent drug offense of being one of those Americans – refusing to put another American in jail over drug prohibition. You are not helping solve the problem and you are leading to an incarcerative American ___.
Alec Baldwin: You are feeding the problem.
David Simon: Yeah, you are feeding the problem. Since I don't think there is any political leadership that is going to get there in advance of actual popular sentiment, I think it's very much like for example gay rights. I think by the time the politicians lineup, change is already inevitable.
And so I think the drug war is the same thing and that's how Prohibition finally fell on its ass which was they couldn't find twelve Americans to put a thirteenth in jail for making bathtub gin. So I always take the gig and I always argue for jury nullification. And it's happening in places like Baltimore.
Alec Baldwin: In a minute, David Simon and I reminisce about our worst pitch meetings involving Abercrombie & Fitch models and the origins of the Chesapeake Bay.
David Simon: – and I realized once again, I'm in the wrong place.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin. The city of Baltimore is still a character in David Simon's life. He and his wife, writer Laura Littman, live there with her three-year-old daughter. He also has a nineteen-year-old son.
But Baltimore no longer takes center stage in his work. Simon produced Generation Kill, an HBO series about the invasion of Iraq and is working on the fourth and final season of Treme, also for HBO, a drama that follows a neighborhood in New Orleans as it struggles to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Simon says working on Treme made it even clearer to him what works and what doesn't in television.
David Simon: Two things are still the great currency, even in this golden age of television; sex and violence. If you have hot people hooking up, then you've got one, then you're spending one currency.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, then they're going to turn to the next page.
David Simon: Yeah. And if you're blowing shit up and killing people, then you got something else going for you. Well, The Wire was what it was about and it was something we wanted to tell a story about but clearly it had the currency of being a gangster story underneath, at least on the surface that's what it was. It was a crime story. And The Corner was that and Generation Kill had Marines blowing shit up.
There have been very few television shows that embrace the idea of real human beings on a real human scale. It's really hard to do. It's hard to keep people interested. I'm not saying Treme succeeded in any grand way because I think it's been a very quiet show and I am hoping it will stand for what it is and people will find it.
But we were not interested in being hyperbolic with the show. We weren't interested in tarting it up and we weren't interested in the violence that there is in the show actually corresponds to the dynamic of violence in the city of New Orleans.
It's really a show about the role of culture and bringing a city back and what it means to live in a pluralistic society that is capable of creating pluralistic culture which is what better form for it than American music? Roots music, jazz, blues, whatever.
How many shows can you name that are really – maybe like the first couple seasons of Northern Exposure or these shows that basically are studies of place and time and character. There are people who the moment that they realize that you are not going to – no vampire is going to show up or nobody is going to be fucking, it's like, "waiter, check please."
So I never want to do one more pitch than I have to do in life. Those meetings are –
Alec Baldwin: Do you have another show up your sleeve?
David Simon: I'm in this little cocoon of HBO and I hope they take something that I'm interested in, we'll see.
Alec Baldwin: Do have some ideas?
David Simon: Yeah, but it's not even worth talking about. I mean, you know how many things-
Alec Baldwin: No, no. I don't want to pick your brains about it. I'm just saying, do you have some things your -
David Simon: No, I'm just saying it's not worth talking about. Until something gets a green light, it's just not really worth –
Alec Baldwin: Right, exactly.
David Simon: But I can tell you that I did do the round-robin of like I have an idea that I really care about and I went to all the little meetings with the development companies. And I remember telling one a very delicate true story about Baltimore that I really wanted to do as a small movie.
And I remember having one meeting after another and the last time I actually uttered anything about it was I was at this movie over in one of the lots or this meeting, and they listened really intently. And I'm laying it out with the character, and then this happened and I knew this guy and when he died – I'm bleeding out. They listened patiently for twenty-five minutes after which the guy says to me, 'Have you ever thought about where the Chesapeake Bay came from? You're from Baltimore.' I said, 'The Chesapeake Bay?' He said, 'Yeah, do you know where the Chesapeake Bay came from?” I said, 'Well, it's kind of this long estuary. I think it was sort of where – they think it was probably a meteor strike. It's that sort of –'He goes, 'That's right.'
And I remember looking at him and going, 'And that's the story? A meteor strike?' And he nodded firmly. And I left thinking, 'what an idiot.' I can't believe I just wasted half an hour in there. What a freaking moron. Cancel all the meetings, I'm just going home. Like the other studios all had meteor movies and this guy – and I realized once again, I am in the wrong place.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, people sitting in a crab shack saying the meteor is coming! They've got their bibs on. They've got their -
David Simon: Yeah, but a very sentimental and romantic version.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, very. I remember I was in a meeting once years ago, this was many years ago; the mid-90s. And I thought oh, the movie business. This is such a drag. It's so painful. I really had this crisis of faith.
And I go to this meeting with some pretty big people at Warner Brothers Television. And I say to this guy, he says, 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'Well, I have an idea for a television show. I want to refurbish the FBI, the old Quinn Martin. I want to do the FBI. And I want it to be - And I want to put together the most elite team of actors I can think of; the greatest actors that I admire today. It's me and Andre Brower and Treat Williams.' And I had this list of all these really tough guys that seemed like FBI guys that could throw a punch and shoot a gun. And they just don't even move.
And as a joke, as a complete joke I said or, I'm like the Michael Conrad character in Hill Street Blues. I come up and do the shape up in the morning. And it's me and like six Abercrombie & Fitch models are my staff. And I sit there and say, 'Be careful out there.' And they go out and have crimes and –
David Simon: And every episode ends with a beach volleyball game.
Alec Baldwin: And every episode ends with like Team America, like two plastic looking, gorgeous people having sex. And the guy literally went, he goes, 'Now that show I want to make!' I'm not kidding, without an ounce of irony. He goes 'Now that I want to make. That's a great idea.'
David Simon: Sign that one up.
Alec Baldwin: He said let's do that FBI.
But one last thing, you have a child who's nineteen. What's he doing now?
David Simon: He's in college.
Alec Baldwin: What's he studying?
David Simon: He's a freshman so I think he's –
Alec Baldwin: Has he got the bug?
David Simon: What bug?
Alec Baldwin: Show business.
David Simon: Oh God, no.
Alec Baldwin: No.
David Simon: He's actually a musician. He plays jazz piano at a very high level.
Alec Baldwin: He hasn't even started yet and he wants to go back.
David Simon: Yeah, that's right. So far, that hasn't happened. Now the young daughter is a performer already.
Alec Baldwin: Now, what's that like for you because I'm in the same boat. I've got a 17 ½-year-old daughter and a baby coming. How is fatherhood for you part two?
David Simon: Well, okay. Let's be honest. You feel it when you have to get up off the floor. It's easy to get down there and play with them when they're two years old but it's different than it was when I was in my 30s. I'm now in my early 50s.
And when I get down on the floor, it's like get the derrick to get me up because you feel it in the knees. All of a sudden it's like man; I'm a fifty-year-old parent.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, sure. You realize you can actually lay there and watch Mary Poppins over and over again. You're fine.
David Simon: Right, my wife says that, and I think very aptly that when you're younger and you're parenting, you can go without sleep, you can be physically exhausted, you have stamina.
Alec Baldwin: And still perform and work.
David Simon: Yeah. You have stamina you didn't know you have because you're young. When you're older, hopefully if things have gone a little bit right and you are an older parent, you've got enough money so that there's somebody there to help you with six or five or four hours of childcare a day because man, I definitely feel like I'm in my 50s.
Alec Baldwin: Well, as my friend Michael Lally the poet said to me who had a son later in his life, he said 'It's great.' I said, 'You had a kid, you were right around my age.' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Has it been everything you hoped it would be?' He said, 'Yes, it's great. It changed my life and reprioritized my life. I was so ready for fatherhood; I think I'm a good dad. I have a great relationship with my son.'
He said, 'There's only one thing I remind people who are my age to keep in mind and that is, when your kid goes to college, make sure that they attend a University where the commencement is held at a wheelchair accessible facility. That's the only thing you have to remember.' And I try to keep that in mind.
David Simon: Yeah, I fear the future in some respects. But on the other hand, once you go across the threshold, no giving it back and I wouldn't if I could.
Alec Baldwin: Well, my last question for you is because to me The Wire was about an authenticity which was often missing from television drama, which, they've their formula, they've got their edicts and everything. They've got their recipe that works for them.
But yours speaks to, it makes me think, you're ripe to make movies. Do you ever want to make movies?
David Simon: Well, get the writer off the set. The reason that the writer is in charge in television, in drama anyway is the need for continuity, the need for character continuity. You can't fire the son of a bitch because episode eleven follows from episode ten.
And so I've had a few bites of the apple and I've written some things – and listen, it's also, I'm not saying that I'm –
Alec Baldwin: But what if they gave you the script and we're in the age of the fully realized writer/director. Everywhere I turn around they say Evan is going to be directing the script. And I go oh, okay.
David Simon: See, I know what I'm not good at.
Alec Baldwin: You don't want to direct.
David Simon: I see shot comps - I would do a very pedestrian job of directing. I understand how to turn the camera around. I understand what you need to leave with in order to have coverage. But the really creative and elegant directors I've worked with, they have a skill set that I don't have.
Alec Baldwin: That's a very interesting thing for you to say. I feel the same way.
David Simon: And I really respect it.
Alec Baldwin: I didn't care enough.
David Simon: Right. Like I understand when I'm watching a performance that isn't working because it's not getting the intention of the scene or because I don't believe in something; either the background or the actor. If something is not working, I know it's not working. But how to solve the problem sometimes, I can be diagnostic, I can't be prescriptive when it comes to a camera.
Alec Baldwin: I would watch some of the greatest cinematographers and I would say truly that probably the most gratifying part of my film work was to be around these highly gifted monastic men.
David Simon: The first time I showed up, like one minute I was a rewrite man and crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and the next moment I was working for the show Homicide in my paychecks were coming from NBC.
And I go to set for the first day and I'm looking around and I don't even know what stupid question to ask. And it was like three weeks into going to set and seeing them do it that at some point I said what's Boots over there; the guy's name was Boots. I said, 'what's he doing turning that knob next to the camera?' And Henry Bromell actually, I remember turned to me and said, 'He's focusing the camera.' And I looked at him like, I said, 'You mean the guy who focuses the camera isn't the guy looking through the camera? How does that work?' That can't possibly work.
Alec Baldwin: People are unprepared for how collaborative filmmaking is.
David Simon: Right, exactly. So respect the depths and I do which is to say I kind of want to have the story turn out – I don't want to put my name on something where the story, you went in with a script you believed in and you came out with drek. But at the same time, I don't want to relinquish control, but I have to acknowledge features is very different from TV.
Alec Baldwin: Doing the television series, doing 30 Rock where we shot 120 something episodes, we were there hour after hour after hour. My version of, so long as you know, was they'd say to me do you mind if we move the camera? We're going to move the camera over here so when you turn, we need you to lean˜ on your left leg. And I would look at them and I did it 1000 times and I said, 'I really don't care what you do.' I said, 'Cause it's not going to change what I'm-'
David Simon: I'm going to be in this moment.
Alec Baldwin: I'm going to stand here and say this line this way. You want me to lean on my left leg? Great. Otherwise, I really don't care.
David Simon: I don't know how anybody hits a mark. I don't know how anybody hits the mark, I have to admit it. But I watch that show, I had to say I am a fan of that show. My wife turned me onto it years ago. The reason that that show is so unique in terms of comedy is it does something that you haven't seen since like the Howard Hawks comedies. It's funny but it's operating at a speed that I would call His Girl Friday speed. The lines rapid fire.
Alec Baldwin: Don't wait.
David Simon: Yeah, don't wait, don't wait. It's like we're not waiting for a laugh track.
Alec Baldwin: We all kind of huddled up at one point. It was unspoken but we said, 'We really have to play this fast. And then if we slow down, it's dead.'
David Simon: It has the same level of rapid-fire banter as the best sort of Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell type. The speed at which –
Alec Baldwin: Tina's good.
David Simon: Well, it really works and it's unique.
Alec Baldwin: Tina's good.
David Simon: There so much that is so much more careful in language and so is to my taste is less funny. I like it to be fast.
Alec Baldwin: Well, I look forward to seeing what you do next. I can't wait. Rethink that movie thing. I think you can make some good movies.
David Simon: Yeah, listen. I may be back to you about that FBI show.
Alec Baldwin: I've got an idea. Tell your son to go to film school. Then the director is your son and he wouldn't dare touch your script.
David Simon: Oh, believe me.
Alec Baldwin: Am I wrong about that?
David Simon: Yeah, he'd be out of the will in two years. That's a recipe for – at some point, and my wife is a novelist and at some point, George Pelecanos, a guy I work with routinely, we were looking at a project and he says, 'we really need a good strong female writer in the room'.
And he said, 'Why don't you ask Laura to come into the writer's room on this?' I said, 'Why don't you just call the lawyer now? I'm going to be in the writer's room - George, you know how badly we treat each other. Can you imagine trying to do this with somebody' – and he has been persistent.
But there has to be something, there has to be some – every child should go off and find their own joy and they should not be burdened by - he can play Thelonious Monk to death and he's nineteen. And I can't figure out how he is doing his quarterly ___.
Alec Baldwin: My daughter is 17 ½ and you try to explain this to them and it's hard. I say, 'You're going to turn around at my age and you're going to realize that you postponed doing certain things to be happy.' And I say to my daughter now, I say, 'Don't postpone that journey or that consideration of what makes you happy,' because I'm doing this and it doesn't always make me happy what I'm doing this in this business. It's a job. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does.
David Simon: Well, the trick in this business is knowing when you are no longer – at least if you are operating as a writer, and this may not be – but I think it's probably true for an actor, too. When you are no longer doing work that the journey itself is interesting and when you're doing work that is, you are saying either the same thing that you already said before or you're saying the same thing to no purpose; like well, this is what they are paying me for today. It's like, that's the point at which it's time to do something else.
And it's like the one thing that David Mills told me and he died, the guy who I wrote my first script with came with me on Treme, was a producer one Treme. And he died of an aneurysm before the show came out; onset, collapsed. I miss him to this day.
But he told me something, he said, he goes the only reason that you're – he went out to LA full-bore and tried to get network shows, development deals, he went through the whole route. He said the amazing thing is, and he told me don't lose this is, 'You are okay if they come to you and say, “it's all been very nice but nobody watches your shit and we're going to go somewhere else. We're done with you.”
And it's like at no point, if somebody has a hit with a courtroom show, everyone is running around trying to figure out how to do a courtroom show. If everyone has a medical show – you are the only guy in this freaking industry that basically is okay if they throw you off, if the plate spins and you fall off the plate.
And I've always had that in the back of my pocket, it's like the wandering Jew of I've got a bag packed. When there is no longer a place for what I'm trying to do, it's okay.
Alec Baldwin: It sounds like in one sense that a show business career, although the shows were not – these television shows haven't been these juggernauts let's say like Bochco or what have you.
David Simon: Not by any means.
Alec Baldwin: No, but that aside, I'm just saying that doesn't matter. They have been very well-regarded and very well respected. I told you, people who love The Wire; it's like hashish to them. They love this thing. And for you, you have this, it seems a very healthy attitude because this was all an accident anyway.
David Simon: Right, I feel like I'm on borrowed time since the moment I got into this industry.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, this is not how you were sailing your ship to begin with.
David Simon: And I feel the guilt of an apostate who has had a marvelous run since he left the religion. So it's okay – if HBO were to come to me and say we're never making another hour with you and good luck and God bless, I'd still cross the street to give them a hug if I saw them coming the other way three years later and if I never worked.
It's like this has been something that was totally unexpected, that it happened at a time where newspapers were collapsing all around me. It was just fortuitous because there was a part of me that was really torn when this started happening. To this day, I miss reporting. So it's okay, whatever happens.
There are a lot of people in this industry that staying on top at any cost and they'll find themselves telling stories they don't actually care about because that's the story that somebody else wants. And that to me is like a journey into hell. And I can see how it happens and let's face it, there's a lot of money in this industry. So it can happen. But man, the only thing healthy - he said, 'You've got a lot of unhealthy shit in your head, Dave.' But the one thing Mills said was that you're okay if it ends.
Alec Baldwin: It's highly unlikely that end is coming anytime soon. But until David Simon creates his next series, fans will have to settle for re-screening episodes from their boxed sets. This is Alec Baldwin. Here's the Thing comes from WNYC radio.