Having made the Oscar Isaac-starring HBO miniseries “Show Me A Hero,” David Simon visited Barcelona recently to receive a career achievement award at its third edition of TV fest Serielizados. The creator of the “The Wire” and “Treme” and a two-time Emmy winner, Simon delivered a master class in a packed Blanquerna University Auditorium, which was conducted by film director, author and now TV series creator David Trueba. World premiering AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” and showcasing the European premiere of Neil Berkeley doc “Beauty is Embarrassing,” Serielizados is one of Spain’s multiple TV festivals. The Simon master-class was one undoubted 2016 highlight. Variety talked to Simon about “The Deuce” and projects such as “Legacy of the Ashes” and the ramp-up in TV drama production.
As Cannes MipTV underscored – and Paris’ Series Mania will probably be no different – a young generation of writers and directors in Europe are saying they have found inspiration in U.S. shows to in order to renew Europe’s TV fiction. What are U.S. shows exporting in terms of story-telling?
David Simon: I think TV took a leap forward when it got rid of advertisements. On network television, you couldn’t have shows that depressed people or left them with an ambiguous feeling or concerned about their world because the next every ten minutes you had to stop to sell them blue jeans, iPads, beer…. So that was an incredible corrupting mechanism to be operating in the storytelling, you could only affirm. We were over-selling a lot of redemption, happiness, happy endings and comedy – there’s a place for everything, I’m not suggesting all stories have to be dark – but if you wanted to do a story that was in any way saying that the society had problems that it was not pretending with or that it were facing a future that was in any way other than one where you should buy and consume a lot of stuff, you were fighting the purpose of the media: The real purpose of the media was to sell something.
So you think with cable shows, TV took a step forward….
Television grew up, yes. You won’t find me defending this moment as being more than that. I think there is also a lot of money in maintaining the biggest audience, not writing it pure for what its worth. If your audience wants more of X, you give X and if they don’t want Y you write less of Y. There’s a lot of shows now in this so-called Golden Age of TV that I find to be incredibly derivative. We can use bad words now, we can be explicit with violence, more explicit with sex. We do that. It seems to me there’s a lot of people who are very excited about having the chance to have a franchise, but they are not really thinking about what story it is they are trying to tell. There’s a lot of shows that I’m watching and thinking: “They’ve figured out what can maintain an audience in longform TV, but do they believe in the story they are telling?” And I have my doubts. In some ways, the economy of scale is still what it is. It is still a mass medium. And if it’s a mass medium, garnering the most audience means that you have to trade in the currency that gets that, and that means sex and violence.
You carry journalism in your DNA –meaning that there was a realistic base to the conception of “Homicide” and “The Wire,” for example. Why do you think there’s a rebirth of 50’s realism in contemporary series? Because of a loss of credibility of the media, or of power of classic journalism? Do you think that now a good series or film – “Spotlight” for instance – offer more possibilities to create a social or political conscience in people?
It’s certainly true that television is now aligning as a more political, more provocative part of the argument. I believe film has been a provocative part of the argument for a long time and is now run aground on its own financial ambitions. Nobody is happy to be making two or three million dollars anymore in a small independent film. They want to make 200 million dollars on a franchise. So I think sadly the feature industry is falling back into more and more nonsense. But television seems to have part of that place where it is starting to, just starting to, engage in dramatic planned argument and I think that’s interesting. However, I don’t think it can ever take the place of journalism. And if it does we are all in trouble. I worry about the media for its own sake, it’s being eviscerated by the loss of the revenue stream, by the internet, the transition to digital that has been so badly managed by newspapers and the magazines. I’m very worried about that and I don’t think what I’m doing has any remote connection or provides any relieve at all for that.
Years ago, audiences saw a chapter of one show once a week, now there’s many different ways to see a whole series. Do you have the feeling that this is affecting storytelling strategies?
It only works I think as premium. I think I’ve proved it doesn’t quite work for episodic. I never been able to glean an audience for these things while they’ve been on the air. Once they are all done, people start looking at them and then they notice that you may have built something and the word-of-mouth goes around. Nobody learned a lesson from “The Wire.” Nobody said: “While we were watching it, it didn’t seem like it had a plan, it didn’t seem like it was much and it built and built. and finally it was about something. So I’m going to watch the next show he’s doing.
So people watched two episodes of “Treme” and they said: “It’s not going anywhere?” If you got to the end and you saw what we built, there’s a different dynamic. So now you start hearing people saying: “I actually watched and it was O.K. They knew where they were going, but you did not hear that while “The Wire” was happening. So I think in some ways, Netflix and Amazon the idea of just dumping the season and saying “here it is. Watch it at your own pace.” That may be the future: TV could be the lending library rather than the broadcast, the medium that it is now.
“The Deuce”: We know the cast – James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Carr, Margarita Levieva, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Emily Meade and Dominique Fishback. It’s been co-written by George Pelecanos and Richard Price, and novelists Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz and is an HBO drama about the sex industry in the 70’s Could you give us some more details?
It’s roughly based on the story of the actual people who were there, some of the people that were the pioneers when pornography came out of the brown paper bag and became an open industry. Suddenly, a lucrative and provocative industry came out of nowhere soon to become a billion-dollar industry and a culture [impacting] right down to commercials to sell beer that became more and more overt right down to the sex education of a twelve-year-old with a laptop. We all live in a different world. There’s a cultural revolution here. But there is also a market story. It is a story about market capitalism and the rise of a new industry and what the world is like now when something is not supposed to be sold openly suddenly becomes legitimate and legitimized.
James Franco plays two roles, doesn’t he?
He plays twin brothers actually. His character is based on somebody who passed away in January, the last brother, but before that while we were developing the project the guy came to us and he told his whole life story to Marc Henry Johnson and he told it again to George [Pelecanos] and myself. He and his brother were deeply involved in the rise of all of 42nd street.
What’s the state of the series?
The pilot is already shot, they’ve ordered the series. We are supposed to start shooting the remaining episodes of season one beginning of May.
It must have been a remarkable effort in terms of budget and production to recreate 70’s New York.
The pilot was around $12 million. I confess we shot just enough to show you what the CGI could do. We used the computer generated enhancements in a couple of scenes and then we turned it on with the work undone on other scenes because why spend the money unless HBO is going to pick it up? Actually, we had to go back and finish the pilot with CGI. That’s pretty typical.
What would be your next project after or alongside “Deuce”? You mention several in your blog
Possibly “Legacy of Ashes” [a story of the Central Intelligence Agency. Based on a 2007 non-fiction U.S. National Book Award winner by Tim Weiner]. Ed Burns and Dan Fesperman have taken that. It’s in turnaround at the BBC. They want to do the show. They acquired the scripts from HBO and they are doing the show. We are taking another pass at the scripts because they want us to add a certain amount of U.K. stuff. A certain amount of MI6 along with CIA. The reason HBO was gracious enough to give them the scripts is because the BBC said: “Look we will find some of the funding as it’s a very expensive show as you can imagine. We will find some of the funding and we will get back to give you the chance of a first look, to be the American partner.” It’s gone from HBO leading it and the BBC is developing and they are getting back to HBO when the script’s next pass is done. Then HBO will get the chance to say yes in a situation where they are not bearing the whole cost.