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An Authentic Love Letter to New Orleans

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David Simon, Treme’s writer and executive producer, brings the city’s traditions, trials, hopes and triumphs to HBO

Before it aired back in April of 2010, New Orleanians waited with baited breath for the debut of Treme, HBO’s new series spawned by David Simon and Eric Overmyer and filmed in
New Orleans, which focused on working class residents of the Tremé neighborhood, from chefs to musicians to Mardi Gras Indians, and their struggles to rebuild their lives, their homes and their unique and indelible culture in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Season 1 indeed delivered, garnering critical acclaim, scoring several Emmy and Grammy nominations and best of all, earning many a thumbs up from locals eager to see an honest and accurate depiction of life in New Orleans. Consequently, season 2 of Treme is set to premiere on Sunday, April 24, and New Orleans looks forward in great anticipation to following the show, which presents the events relevant to the return of the city after Katrina’s brutal blow, and soaking up more of the community, craziness and culture that forms its very lifeblood.

New Orleans Living caught up with Simon, writer and executive producer of Treme, during Mardi Gras, right after he had been so warmly parodied in the satirical Krewe du Vieux’s parade with his very own float, courtesy of the sub-Krewe of Spermes, an honor he realizes comes with doing something right in this city. After finding success as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, authoring books such as Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and creating television series such as The Corner and The Wire, New Orleans is fortunate to have Simon turn his attention toward her and use his skills to craft an ornate story about traditions, trials and the hope of triumph, one that serves as both an entertaining and educational engine of renewal for the city.

Thank you so much for creating this sort of authentic love letter to New Orleans in the form of Treme.

Aw, no, the thank you is to New Orleans for letting us do it. It’s been a delight.

That’s great to hear. And it’s always great for us here to watch something on television where we’re not enduring characters from New Orleans having accents from Georgia or Lafayette, or keeping pet alligators on the front porch and such.

(Laughs). Yeah, well people come here to make a feature film, and everyone’s version of New Orleans is what they know, and that’s the stuff around the French Quarter and the more basic tourist motif. When we first got to town, a lot of people in the local film community’s impulses were often to show us the stuff that’s been regurgitated; it’s sort of like their expectation of what we wanted. And it’s like, no, show us the shotguns!

And you always try to uncover the authentic bones of any show you’re working on.

There was something organic; I had been coming down here for a couple of years and Eric (Overmyer) had lived here for a couple of decades, so we had the benefit of falling in love with the place over time; it wasn’t a quick study, like what are these Mardi Gras Indians? Great, great, get them in the show! It wasn’t like that. We’ve had many a carnival to observe them. I’m not going to suggest that I’m a New Orleanian or that I know it as well as one, but we weren’t stepping in cold. That was one of the reasons we wanted to do the show, because we thought it spoke metaphorically about what was going on in America, and the response to Katrina is almost an allegory for the way the country’s reacted to any number of catastrophes; two years later the financial system of the entire country collapsed. The selfishness and greed that underscored that and the response to it is entirely allegorical to the levees falling. The levees are in fact a metaphor for all the protections and responsibilities that are supposed to underlie an intelligent and healthy financial system. So you look at the way the country is going; there’s a reason to make the show that has nothing to do with New Orleans, but there’s a reason to do the show that has everything to do with New Orleans.

And local music is obviously central to Treme …

Oh listen, it’s essential to doing the show. The show is a celebration of American roots music. Eric and I like music; it’s hard to love New Orleans and not like music. This is the first
musical city in America, and almost singular in its importance in terms of the invention of the truly American musical form. If you’re uninterested in music, which some people are, and I’m not being judgmental about it, then this is probably not the show for you. If you fast forward through the songs, you missed it. It’s sort of like “Waiter! Waiter! There’s soup in my soup!”

(Laughs). How has it been working with Kermit Ruffins and all of the other artists?

Oh that’s a delight with all of the artists. With only a few exceptions, the musical community came to understand very quickly what we were attempting to do, and came to regard our effort as sincere, and have contributed not only their talent but their time and effort to making the show better. We just filmed a funeral sequence for Dinerral Shavers, the Hot 8 drummer who was so tragically murdered around New Years of 2007, and we asked a lot of musicians from the brass community to attend the funeral so that the pews of the Fifth African Baptist Church would be full of the musicians who actually attended that very essential event in terms of post-Katrina history. It was a very early call for lots of musicians, but the church was packed with everyone from Kermit to John Boutté to the Treme Brass band; it was really startling to see. There was a sense that they were creating something that was really important to the music community, remembering Dinerral and the losses after Katrina, and I was impressed by the willingness of people to kick in; it’s been remarkable.

That’s nice to hear. And people are fascinated with cops, lawyers and doctors on television, and here you are depicting life you’d find around Tremé, such as DJs, chefs and Mardi Gras Indian chiefs. How much fun is it to write those characters?

It’s a delight for the television writer, because the great undiscovered country is ordinary life, even if it’s a creative and artistic life as it is with the case of musicians or chefs, instead of someone who is wheeled into an emergency room or is gunning someone down or is sitting in the Oval Office deciding to go to war. When you take the stakes and make them the stakes of ordinary people living in even an extraordinary time like Katrina, stakes that don’t destroy the notion that they are ordinary people, the initial impulse from people who suck heavily on the tropes of television is to say, “Nothing is happening,” but in actuality, the plot is proceeding exactly how it’s supposed to; somebody’s about to lose their restaurant, somebody is about to cheat on their husband because it’s Mardi Gras, and because they are emotionally undone. These are the ordinary journeys of ordinary life, in an extraordinary place and time. That’s what Treme is. And it’s not like we say, “It would be more exciting if we take the trombone out of Batiste’s hands and put a gun there.” At that point we’re not making a show we think has meaning.

I hear that the infamous food writer Alan Richman will make a cameo appearance this season and even better that chef and author Anthony Bourdain will be writing that storyline.

Yes. Alan will be making a cameo, and Tony Bourdain is writing that story line, not just about Alan Richman but he’s writing Janette Desautel’s storyline – she’s now lost the restaurant, she begins the show in another place, and Tony, he’s not exactly enamored of Alan Richman and Richman isn’t enamored of him. If you’ve read one of Tony’s latest books, he went after Richman in a big way and when Richman heard that Tony was writing it, he was dubious about participating, but in truth I think Tony has been very blunt but fair about that whole episode and about Richman’s article in Esquire. And Richman, to his great credit, has been very sportsman-like about participating. There’s something very professional going on, since they’re definitely on the opposite side of a lot of things. I don’t think they’ve gotten along since Tony was the chef at Les Halles.

Many locals remember Richman’s post-Katrina food article, where he suggested perhaps Creoles were fairies since he never met one, although Leah Chase is quoted in his article, and how he would try to keep perspective after a sommelier at August brought him the wrong bottle of wine, since there were houses on top of cars in the Ninth Ward.

Lolis Elie is on staff with us, and he’s done a lot of food journalism for the Pic and he’s fairly passionate about it, but we’re looking back four years, and I would say everyone has risen to the occasion in terms of creating a little bit of drama and comedy out of that very confrontational moment. I know how the article made everybody feel down here. It was provocative to say the least and I think that view is represented by characters in the show. I think Alan Richman would certainly defend it on journalistic grounds but I don’t think there is any denying how New Orleans felt when that article came out.

Nope, Richman’s still on the blacklist as far as some of us are concerned so that’ll be interesting to watch! So David, tell us about your float in the Krewe du Vieux parade this year. …

I showed up on the route, because I knew that the Mystic Krewe of Spermes was going to goof on the show. My wife (Laura Lippman) was marching with Mama Roux, so I showed up on Elysian Fields and walked down to see the float and they recognized me and they immediately stuck a hat on my head and handed me a sperm on a stick and I marched with them part of the way, and marched a little bit with my wife, although at that point I was dressed for the wrong sub-krewe, and I had a great time. If you’re being parodied in the Krewe du Vieux parade, you’ve either done something a little bit right if it’s affectionate, or you’ve done something a lot wrong if it’s not. So I think we got off very lucky. I wasn’t made to be an Alaskan husky peeing on Louisiana while being whipped by Sarah Palin, so I’m OK being “David Semen;” it’s not so bad considering what I saw happen to Bobby Jindal on two of those floats. I’m OK with it! (Laughs).

(Laughs). So do you think the rest of the country has enjoyed making their way through the gumbo of New Orleans culture that you present in Treme?

I think lots of people who want to know everything the moment it comes on the screen, or they think they know everything before it comes on the screen and have no patience for landing in a genuinely alien culture and acquiring that culture by degrees, people in that frame of mind are not going to enjoy the show. And I don’t know how to write for them; I’ve never known how to write for them. I don’t know how to write recon marines for them or Baltimore drug dealers. When you tend to hear from people in cultural centers, where they’re pretty convinced they’re at the center of the universe, the notion that there is an alternate universe and that people have intense local pride about a place and believe that place to be unique and magnificent and in desperate need of salvation, and then you add the notion that that place has suffered a near death experience and you show the passion of those people, it doesn’t land on some folks in cities that I really shouldn’t name, New York, (laughs) in ways that induce empathy. In fact, what it creates is a sense of “Oh get over yourself,” and a tonality that says, “How dare they speak so bluntly, how dare they have this chip on their shoulder after their city nearly died,” never remembering how righteous and passionate New Yorkers sounded after 9/11, as they should have, as the rest of the country understood that they had genuine standing.

And I guess people who didn’t show empathy after Katrina are the same people who have problems showing empathy for a depiction of New Orleanians after the storm.

It’s always amusing to me when they say, “Oh, that’s David Simon’s anger!” They look at John Goodman screaming. But we’re showing someone using the hyperbole that was in the air in New Orleans who felt they were abandoned and were desperate and frantic to see their city come back, and yet the struggle is always that people want to interpret everything they think they know about the political purposes of the piece. There are people in this country that will never get Treme, and they’ll never get New Orleans, and if they come here they’re going to go to Bourbon Street and sneer at the drunkenness; they’ll never get out of the French Quarter then they’ll get on a plane and say, “Oh, what a decadent town!” That’s always been what 5 percent of New Orleans is to the world, and the only way to get around that is to make a television show about it, but it’s hard. But the reviews have been remarkably good and by the end of last season, people realized we had a plan and we were going somewhere and it was just a matter of watching the show rather than looking for The Wire 2. You can only make the show you want to make; you can’t say, maybe we can draw more people in if we adjust things this way. You either believe in what you’re doing or you don’t.

-CHRISTINE FONTANA