David Simon and Eric Overmyer are longtime friends and collaborators who first worked together on the TV drama Homicide: Life on the Streets. Their series The Wire, which spotlighted the inner city drug scene in Baltimore, won the Peabody Award, was called ‘a masterpiece’ by the San Francisco Chronicle, and ‘a staggering achievement’ by Entertainment Weekly.
Both producers have wanted to do a series about New Orleans and its culture for a long time – Overmyer has been a New Orleans resident for 20 years, while Simon has been a frequent visitor since the late 1980s.
Their new series Treme (pronounced trem-AY) spotlights the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and follows musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians and ordinary New Orleanians as they try to rebuild their lives.
Can you talk about the decision to call the series Treme? Most people will mispronounce it.
Eric Overmyer: Treme is a neighborhood near the French Quarter. It’s one of the neighborhoods called the Faubourg Treme where American music and American culture was born, and we felt it stood for a state of mind and a part of the city that didn’t show up usually in projects about New Orleans.
The show is not that neighborhood, but it’s about that musical spirit. We talked about putting the accent over the last ‘e’ but it seemed fussy. So we figured people would catch up with it sooner or later.
This is broadly about the recovery of New Orleans, but how did you decide what the stories would be within?
David Simon: The ‘broadly’ is what helped. We started with the idea of following the actual history of New Orleans post-Katrina and then constructing our stories based on what we wanted to say about that. It really needs to be a story of something first. And then after that, you start thinking about what characters ought to be in the piece that helps you tell that story.
Were you concerned about the wider appeal of Treme?
Eric Overmyer: Yeah, I think we always have been. When we were talking about this, we thought, well, a lot of movies have shot in New Orleans, and some television shows have been set there.
But we never felt that they got the city right or that they showed much of the city beyond the same six locations that everybody seemed to use, Bourbon Street, the streetcars, the Garden District.
But we’ve always been concerned about how to translate New Orleans or convey New Orleans. So, yes, we were concerned. We’re hoping that through the characters and through the characters’ stories people will invest in that, whether they’ve been in New Orleans or not.
What is it about New Orleans that makes it such a fascinating city?
David Simon: New Orleans, to me, represents a place where it’s a triumph of American urban culture. It’s the best that an American city can be and also the worst in a lot of ways. But it has created a culture that has gone around the world.
If you look at what our greatest export would be culturally, politically or socially from the American experiment, you’d have to put African-American music probably at the top of the list.
So this is a city that is essential in the American psyche, and yet we all witnessed the near destruction of it. It was the closest thing to the destruction of an American city since the San Francisco earthquake (in 1906) and yet it’s coming back on its own terms as best as it can with a lot of concern from some quarters but a lot of indifference from much of the country.
In a way, The Wire implied what was at stake with the American city, but Treme is actually an examination of what living as disparate and different people compacted into an urban area can offer and not offer.
Will you be spotlighting any of the building spearheaded by celebrities like Brad Pitt in the series?
David Simon: I think everything that happened in New Orleans after the storm is grist for our mill. For everyone who saw the first episode, there were certain things that weren’t represented. There is no sense of crime in a city that is saturated with crime. But the truth was the crime didn’t come back for several months, until the spring of ’06. Crime dropped dramatically in New Orleans.
We are really following the lay of the land in terms of how the city tried to come back or not. In the pilot there was a cameo by Elvis Costello and that’s historically accurate. It was the first recording session that came back to the city.
And it was an emotional deal for the musicians, Elvis Costello’s collaboration with Allen Toussaint on River in Reverse. So we were referencing that.
And that, I guess, would be what you were talking about with a charity effort. It wasn’t charity so much, but it was homage to New Orleans from this English recording artist.
How will your stories play out from episode to episode? Will days pass or weeks?
David Simon: We pick up three months after the storm. We conclude after Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night, somewhere around March. We are always going to be following that fall-to-spring calendar for a variety of reasons.
By using the same events with each subsequent season, we will have an opportunity to take some measurements with the city.