Writer-producer talks of 'criminal' past, current projects

Writer-producer Tom Fontana returned to the smallscreen Aug. 19 with BBC America’s “Copper,” a co-creation with Will Rokos (“Monster’s Ball”) about policemen in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood as the Civil War is winding down. Randee Dawn spoke with Fontana about his “criminal” past, his legal future, and why he never wanted to be a cop himself.

Randee Dawn: You’re based in New York City, but “Copper” films in Toronto.

Tom Fontana: Listen, I wish we could have shot in New York, but we had 12 budgets — one for Dublin, one for Detroit, one for New York. The studio we’re doing it with is a Canadian company (Cineflix Prods.) and they wanted to shoot it in Toronto. There was space there to build the entire Five Points, and that became the reality of the situation. Would I have preferred to shoot it around or in New York City? Yes. But what are you going to do?

RD: New York’s incentives just got revised, and are better than ever. Is that enough to bring you back?

TF: I can’t tell you. We are doing some of the post in New York, and that helps us enormously. We’re doing all the post here in New York for “Borgia” (Fontana’s other series, on Netflix) too. We’re trying to get writers included in the rebate — not writers like me, but middle-class writers who have families and rent — so it can create an environment that allows them to stay in the area.

RD: Did you have to police yourself, content-wise, for BBC America?

TF: They’ve been pretty good about letting us go the distance with the storytelling. Perry (Simon, BBC America general manager for channels) got into this (project) knowing it was Levinson and Fontana, so he knew we would be doing what we do with a certain amount of grittiness. It’s not like you’re sitting there and wondering how you can get away with stuff. There was a period when I was younger where I was trying to get away with stuff. But I’m an old man now, and I just want to tell good stories.

RD: Why return to crime drama?

TF: You get offered a lot of crime stuff, having done “Homicide” and “Oz,” and every once in a while you say, “That’s a way I haven’t done it before.” Being a New Yorker and a historian wannabe, I love this period of time in Manhattan. You can’t do all the “CSI” gizmos because they didn’t have them, so you fall back on natural sleuthing.

RD: Why do audiences always like police shows?

TF: You want to believe that if some crime was committed against you, your family or friends that there is some kind of justice out there. We’re fascinated by characters who go to extremes. We all live lives of normalcy where we say, “I’d like to punch that guy in the face, but I don’t punch people in the face.” But you want to watch other people punch guys in the face.

RD: Did you ever want to become a policeman or lawyer yourself?

TF: God, no. The fact that I get to be a writer and wake up at 5 a.m. and create, then put on a pair of jeans and go into an office — who would want to trade that? I don’t want to get shot at, I don’t want to have judges yell at me. I’m very blessed. Of course, the only reason I get up at 5 is that’s the only time the muse is available. She’s booked at David Chase’s house at 6:30.

RD: How has your producing partnership with Barry Levinson lasted for 20 years?

TF: He goes off and makes a movie, then comes back with a whole new fresh energy and perspective, and I go off and make a TV show and come back the same way. That’s what keeps it going; we sort of lean in and out of each others’ lives creatively. The old story is that when we originally met (to create) “Homicide,” he said, “I want to do a cop show without gun battles or car chases,” and I said, “That’s impossible; I’m in.” It seemed insane to me, and we’re still challenging each other.

RD: “Oz” has been off the air nearly 10 years. Do you ever regret getting the tattoo of the show’s logo (on his right shoulder) that’s featured in the opening credits?

TF: No regrets. I got it the way you’d get a tattoo in prison, by the way. It was not a gentle, loving thing. In fact, I’ve now decided I’m getting all my shows on my body. I’ll walk into studio offices and show off my resume on my body. I’m happy to bleed for my shows.

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