David Simon, co-creator of HBO's Treme, on how culture saved New Orleans
I have a review running in Sunday's newspaper of HBO's Treme (pronounced tre-MAY), an amazing look at the effort by residents of New Orleans to rebuild their city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And I admit in advance that I can't really look at the project objectively, because I spent five days in the Crescent City five months after Katrina' impact, working on what would become one of the best reporting experiences on my career -- charting the return of the New Orleans' Times Picayune newspaper and how its struggle reflected the city's battles.
Co-creator David Simon was kind enough to call me while in the car running from one event to another, enduring my gushing over a show which neatly covered every storyline I stumbled on during my time in New Orleans -- from the struggle for housing, to the disappearance of some people arrested during the storm to the world's seeming ignorance that the hurricane didn't hit the city and what nearly killed one of America's oldest communities was the failure of its levee system.
Said Simon: "If you look at how the city has come back in the last few years, it’s come back through its culture. Not through any political leadership, not through any economic leadership. The thing that saved New Orleans was – the city was saved by drummers and trombonists and the Mardi Gras Indians and sou chefs. People who refused to live anywhere else and give up any aspect of their culture. They took the city back one moment at a time, one parade at a time, one mural at a time."
Deggans: Condolences on the loss of your longtime friend and fellow producer David Mills (he died March 30 of a brain aneurysm on the set; here's my tribute to him and here's HBO's tribute). What did he bring to the show?
“He was a real thinker. Someone who in his own way loved to argue. He was great in the writers room – just wanted it to be better. Disagreeing but never being disagreeable. Just a very special, special guy. If you have a good friend, and you haven’t expressed in some kind of way how important the friendship is, do it now. I’m getting it all after the fact."
David was a great fan of funk music and R&B. Did having him on board help with that?
“Strangely that wasn’t where David contributed the most. (He was) there as outside ballast..We needed was somebody to stand outside and challenge us in terms of story. Say – all this Indian Mardi Gras stuff is great, but what’s the story? Creative outsiders can do that. David was fighting for story – he was comprehensive about it – he held the locals to account when it was becoming too specific and held us to account when it was becoming too warm and affectionate. That was his authority – if you had a storyline, it had to strike David as good drama.”
The series almost feels like a sly recounting of all the problems New Orleanians faced when they tried to come back to the city.
“Not everything became an issue right away. The first season is dominated by 'Where am I going to live?' Housing. Who comes back? Who can find a place? Who can afford to come back? How far out is your place? What happened to your house? Insurance? Even then, stuff like the road home money and lot of federal assistance, that doesn’t even show up until much later. So we had to go back and do a chronology on the wall of what happened when. Five years later, everybody’s memory is skewed. We're really dealing with what was first at stake between November ’05, and March of ’06, which is the time period we’re covering.”
Are you surprised at all the attention and press you've been getting?
“We’ll see if people are reacting so strongly, I hope that’s true. A lot’s been said about Katrina fatigue. I think in some ways, the media did a very good job of covering the immediacy of the storm, raising questions at the beginning about federal control of New Orleans; what was done and what wasn't done. Somewhere along month two or month three, most of the national media drifted."
You've got John Goodman almost serving as the voice of the average New Orleans resident, pissed that people don't understand Katrina flooding wasn't a natural disaster.
“I’ve been reading some reviews saying 'That’s Simon; that is his politics you hear.' But in truth, that notion that they were the victims of an engineering failure rather than a natural disaster is a) supported by the facts and b) widely accepted as the truth in New Orleans. They’re not wrong. A lot of critics around the country are looking at it saying that sounds paranoid – it’s not paranoid, it’s the facts. The storm missed New Orleans. The storm veered away. (Levees) failed on a massive level. That’s the voice of passion – the voice of (comic and local resident) Harry Shearer, the Times Picayune editorial board."
You do have a reputation for passion on such subjects.“Look, I’m a Obama supporter – I always will be. For the first time in my life, I went to work for a campaign. I couldn’t bear not to. I put fliers up in York, Pa. (So) I’m not saying this with any partisan rancor; Obama came down for a half a day after he was elected. He talked about the Gulf Coast being hit by one of the world’s worst natural disasters. New Orleanians heard that and winced. For more than 40 years they have been scuffling to get people to focus on flood control and the (Army) Corps of Engineers. The apoplexy over that one comment by Obama got Harry Shearer started trying to do a documentary – and that’s from a politician I admire.”
“It's really funny; when you actually voice something as a New Orleanian would, it's assumed it's either my rage or some freakish end of the dial ideologue not representative of New Orleans. But this has happened all the time over the last 40 years.”