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Ed Burns on Creating 'The Wire'

Writer and producer Ed Burns draws on his experience as a former Baltimore detective to create the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, now in its fourth season. It's a crime drama with a central theme of surveillance technology used to capture drug dealers.

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Transcript

DATE November 22, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: TV writer and producer Ed Burns talks about his HBO
series, "The Wire"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Just about everyone I know who's ever watched an episode of the HBO series
"The Wire" can't stop watching it. Here's what Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate
magazine, quote, "The Wire is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in
America. No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one
does, namely to portray the social, political and economic life of an American
city with the scope, observational precision and moral vision of great
literature," unquote. The series is set in Baltimore's inner city and city
hall and follows several groups of people: the drug lords, the kids they use
to sell drugs on the street corners, the cops who patrol the streets, the
detectives who try to penetrate the drug trade through wiretaps and the city's
politicians. One of the compelling story lines this season deals with an
inner city junior high where a former cop has become a teacher.

My guest, Ed Burns, is a producer and writer for "The Wire." Many of the
stories in "The Wire" are based on his experiences. He served with the
Baltimore City Police Department drug control unit. He specialized in
homicide investigation and working on inner city drug gangs. He retired after
20 years on the force, then taught in Baltimore middle and high schools for
seven years.

Ed Burns, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I know you've been a cop and a teacher.
Did you feel more vulnerable as a teacher than you did as a cop?

Mr. ED BURNS: I felt at a total loss as a teacher, and that's because I
never taught. I was in the classroom, but teaching is not what you do when
you're teaching in the inner city until you get to a school where it's
possible, and I did manage finally to get to a school where it's possible.
But it just--it was the most powerful experience of my life.

GROSS: Why is that? I mean, you'd been on the street. You'd been dealing
with drug dealers and homicide. Why was being in an inner city school more
powerful than that?

Mr. BURNS: Because when you're on the street, you see adults and you see
where they're coming from and how they're acting, and you can sort of
understand it. But when you see the same mind-set in kids and there's no way
you can reach past what that mind-set is, then the tragedy is that much
greater because you're looking down the future. You're looking where they're
going to go. In the first year, I taught at Hamilton Middle School. We had a
group of 220 kids in the seventh grade and 13 had been shot, two of them
twice. So, you know, it's that kind of despair that you just--it's sort of
there for you. It doesn't cripple you in any way, you know. In fact, you can
use it as an energy, but it's still there.

GROSS: And in school, in this junior high school, I'm sure you had a lot of
kids who were acting up a lot in class and, you know, maybe even violent in
class. On the street, you can arrest somebody, you can threaten them with
arrest. In school, what do you have? `I'm going to send you down to the
principal's office'?

Mr. BURNS: Well, that's the normal thing is you can send them to the
principal's office. The other way of doing it is to try to put the onus on
the kid, and I look at teaching sort of as a boxing match. You get in the
ring and when the bell rings, you throw the first punch, so you have to get
them off balance. And you keep punching because if you stop punching, then
they'll counterpunch, so you've got to keep them off balance. You've got to
keep moving. You've got to keep challenging them. And you've got to show
them who you are because these kids will respect you for who you are. They
don't respect the institution so much but they will respect you as an
individual. So once they sort of know who you are, then the violence doesn't
really happen that much in your classroom. It'll happen in the halls. It'll
happen in other people's classrooms but they'll give you a break, I guess,
because they see you trying.

GROSS: Now the character in "The Wire" who's a cop-turned-teacher in a junior
high school, it's very difficult when he first gets to that school to keep
order in the classroom, and the kids are doing all kinds of things to just
kind of like test who is he and can he keep control of the class, do we want
to respect him? And he can't keep control at all early on. But there's this
woman teacher who is--I mean, she's hardly physically imposing. Her name's
Mrs. Parson, and every time she walks into the classroom, the kids like
nearly salute her. I mean, they just kind of like come to order. They do
whatever she says. What does she have? I'm sure this is based on something
that you went through when you started teaching. What does a teacher like
that have that gets the kids to just respect her?

Mr. BURNS: She has...

GROSS: Whether they like her or not, they're going to respect her.

Mr. BURNS: Right. And they do respect her. What she has is she projects
the persona. She has `the look,' and the look is deadly. Some teachers never
get the look and it's a shame, but the look is one that just cuts to the very
center of the child's being and says, `Stop.' And you need the look but she
also, as a team leader, has some authority. So she has two things going for
her, both of which Pryzbylewski doesn't have.

GROSS: There's an incredible scene this season in "The Wire" in
Pryzbylewski's class, where, like, one of the girls who's been teased by
another girl gets like so angry and out of control that she takes a razor
blade and slashes that girl across each side of her face, and then the girl
who's been attacked is just kind of lying there and you know, blood going all
over, it's a horrifying scene and--is that scene be something that actually
happened in one of your classes?

Mr. BURNS: It didn't happen in my class. It happened in the cafeteria at
the school. And it happened after the two girls had fought and both girls had
been suspended for short periods of time. So it took about almost a week and
a half before the second eruption occurred, and it was mayhem, as you can
imagine, just like in the scene that we portray. You see the way the energy
of the act transferred itself to the kids who are watching, and they go way
over the top, and you don't know when these things are going to happen and you
don't really know why. They just suddenly erupt and seem spontaneous but
actually it's very, very premeditated because each of these kids has a street
persona. It's the only thing they have in their life. It's the shards of
their individuality. They keep this close to themselves and they know an
infraction. They sense an infraction immediately, and they train themselves
to react, and the reaction can come instantaneously or a month later, but it
will come, and that's the thing. It sort of gives the appearance of being
spontaneous but it's not. It's very, very practiced, at least in their heads
what they're going to do.

GROSS: I want to play the scene in which the students first ask "Prez" the
teacher if he was a cop before he became a teacher because they've heard that
he'd been a cop, and they want to find out for sure, and this is a day shortly
after that razor fight in the classroom, and Prez is determined--he figures
his kids are traumatized by it, and he wants to talk to the students about
what happened, just like kind of talk it through with them. So here's the
scene where he's trying to talk with them about the razor fight, and they want
to know if he'd been a cop.

(Soundbite from "The Wire")

Unidentified Actor #1: (As "Prez" Pryzbylewski) OK. Listen up. I'd like
to--everybody, everybody, I'd like to talk--listen up. Now we all know
something unpleasant happened here Friday and, look, I know some of you are
still trying to get your heads around it.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As student #1) Hey, my head has a big old gash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Actor #1: (As "Prez") And I'd like to discuss...

Unidentified Actor #3: (As student #2) Is it true that you're police?

Actor #1: (As "Prez") What?

Actor #3: (As student #2) Is Carmody up in the office? Hey, Mr. Pryzby,
you're police.

Unidentified Actor #4: (As student #3) Are you police, man?

Unidentified Actress #1: (As student #4) You ever shoot somebody?

Actor #1: (As "Prez") I think we should talk about...

Unidentified Actor #5: (As student #5) He ain't shot no one. Look at him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actor #6: (As student #6) You ever bust a man named Masachi
Grant?

Actor #1: (As "Prez") Sometimes when something bad happens...

Unidentified Actor #7: (As student #7) That your dad?

Actor #6: (As student #6) No, my brother.

Unidentified Actress #2: (As student #8) Why can't you tell us if you shot
somebody or not?

Unidentified Actor #8: (As student #9) What kind of gun you carrying?

Unidentified Actor #9: (As student #10) A knockoff.

Actor #1: (As "Prez") I used to be a police. Now I'm a teacher, but being a
police isn't just about carrying a gun.

Unidentified Actor #10: (As student #11) Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Actor #1: (As "Prez") It's about working with the community.

Unidentified Actress #3: (As student #12) The community? You all haven't
been in my community in a lot time, except to whale on people.

Unidentified Actor #11: (As student #13) Yo, Mr. P, you ever been shot, I
mean like `Pow!'?

(Soundbite of class noise)

Actor #1: (As "Prez") That's enough.

(Soundbite of class noise)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a scene from this season's "The Wire" on HBO, and my guest, Ed
Burns, is a writer and producer of the series.

You know, by setting some of the story this season in a junior high, you get
to see kids at that transitional stage where they can either get sucked in by
selling drugs and gang warfare and the thug life or they can maybe grow in a,
you know, in a healthier and safer, more productive direction, and you see
that toughness taking hold of them but you also see that vulnerability buried
underneath their public face. Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to
set part of "The Wire" in a junior high school this year?

Mr. BURNS: It was. We want to show you where the Bodies and the Stringers
came from. We depict middle school because it seems to be a time of
vulnerability, and it's where you can, you know, perhaps still have some
actors who have range. In truth, middle school, the game's already been
played. It goes way back to elementary school where you really have options,
if you have any options there at all. But setting these kids up as being
vulnerable, being childlike, you then buy into them and you want the best for
them. You want them to succeed.

GROSS: But again, it gets to the difficulty of trying to reach somebody like
that because there's so much toughness on the exterior. You have to really
kind of go deep inside to find that vulnerability and to find the kind of like
decent kid underneath all that.

Mr. BURNS: You do. We all operate from like certitudes of knowledge, and
the great certitude that comes with the corner life is the idea that you can't
be chumped. You have to be tough. And all that certitude of being tough
shapes who you are. It's actually--in my thinking, it's actually another
culture, and it works perfectly on the corner. The problem is it doesn't
translate to the other world but...

GROSS: Well, I just want to say there's so much from the other world that
doesn't translate to the corner or to the inner city junior high that you
taught, and what I'm thinking is, you know, in order to claim dignity and
self-respect, you have to be really tough. You can't compromise. You can't
give an inch. It would be seen as weakness. But, like, in my part of the
world for instance, there's compromise, there's self-deprecating
humor--self-deprecating humor is like not--you know what I mean?--not going to
work for you when it's all about, you know, that kind of toughness and power.
Did you have to kind of readjust your compass to both comprehend what was
happening in the world that you worked in as a cop and as a teacher? And also
to adjust your sensibility to it?

Mr. BURNS: What I learned from being a cop was you have to know the people.
You have--you know, you're just there as a visitor. So you have to know the
people. You have to develop informants. You have to develop people you can
talk to, and you have to start seeing the world through their eyes, and when
you see the struggle that takes place daily, it's just--it's heart-wrenching,
and it helps break down the certitudes you have when you first come on the
job. Cops, when they're in this position, have two ways they can go. They
can go behind the shield of the law and just play it from there. That's the
guy who pulls you over and gives you the ticket and you look at him and he's
got the sunglasses on and your eyes are reflected back from the sunglasses.
You know, he's not bending. And then there's the other cops who try to make
an adjustment between the law and what they're seeing on the street. And I
sort of fell in that second group.

GROSS: What kind of adjustments did you make?

Mr. BURNS: Well, you make all sorts of adjustments. You overlook crime
because you know in West Baltimore and East Baltimore, murder's the big deal.
The murder rate here is astronomical, so you don't cut your nose to spite your
face by locking some guy up for, you know, possession, when you can get to
know that guy and, through him, understand the corner, and once you understand
the corner, then you know who's doing what you're looking at, which is the
major crime. So you've got to keep yourself open to all sorts of criminals.
Even when you catch the guy who did the murder, you want to talk with him and
help him out, because even though it's a murder, it's a murder from a way of
being, you know, so you're sort of trying to get a handle on everything so you
can react to it.

I got into doing violent drug gangs and, you know, I used a lot of wiretaps.
I used a lot of grand jury type work to do this, and the only way you can do
it is if you have people talking to you. So you've got to keep yourself open.
You've got to just keep breaking down who you are so you can more and more
appreciate the world that you're looking at.

GROSS: My guest is Ed Burns, a writer and producer for the HBO series, "The
Wire."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and teacher who's now a
writer and producer with the HBO series, "The Wire."

You know, in the series, "The Wire," the police commander, played by Bob
Wisdom, finds the drug-dealing situation so hopeless that he creates an
alternate way of dealing with it. Every corner, it seems, in the neighborhood
has, you know, drug dealers on it, and so what he does is move them off the
corner into three free zones, and these are three areas that are, like, so
bombed-out and so abandoned that there's nobody really living there anymore so
there's nobody to disturb. So he creates these three free zones, rounds up
all the dealers, and what does he tell them?

Mr. BURNS: Well, basically, he gives them a pass. He says, `You move down
here and you can sell your drugs and nobody will bother you.' That was David's
idea. David Simon's idea. And I remember when we were riding the corner, we
were walking up Vine Street on one of those days where everybody around us was
high, and David said, `You know, this is what we should do. We should, you
know, do it like Amsterdam. We should just move them all into one area and,
you know, let them have it, you know.' He then took that idea and nurtured it
for years, and then it came out in this `Hamsterdam' of Bunny Colvin. The
word Hamsterdam, I think, George Pelecanos came up with that one. And...

GROSS: Because it's like hamsters in a cage or experimental...

Mr. BURNS: Well, it's like--no, it's more like when the cops were trying to
explain it to the kids, Herc said to one of the kids, you know, `You know, you
move down here, it'll be OK. It's like Amsterdam,' and when the kid heard it,
he heard `Hamsterdam.' And he said, `I ain't going to no damn Hamsterdam,' and
so it became Hamsterdam, and that name sort of made it happen.

GROSS: OK, so there's the scene where the police commander learns that one of
the reporters has gotten wind of what's happening in Hamsterdam, so he figures
like he'd better tell his superiors before they find out in the paper. So he
holds off the reporter for a little bit and does a slide presentation to the
people he reports to in the city, and I want to play that scene in which he's
doing the slide presentation to the chief of police and other officials in the
city.

(Soundbite from "The Wire")

Unidentified Actor #12: (As Major Bunny Colvin) Nelson Pulaski, the photo was
taken at 4 PM, prime time for a street-level dealer. And that
is...(unintelligible)...Calhoun, Mountain Fayette, Emerson and Bryce. It's
your old foot post, deputy.

Unidentified Actor #13 : I know where it is, Major. What I don't know and
very much want to know is where is the West Baltimore drug trade?

Unidentified Actor #14: I hope, Major, these are not staged photographs
you're showing us.

Actor #12: (As Major Bunny Colvin) No, sir. They're not. No, deputy, I
found another approach.

Actor #14: I'm all ears, Bunny.

Actor #12: (As Major Bunny Colvin) I moved them off the corners.

Actor #13: Damn it. Don't be coy with me, Major. I can see that. What I
want to know is how the (censored) you managed to move them and where the
(censored) they are now.

Actor #12: (As Major Bunny Colvin) Deputy, I don't know quite how to put this
but we--I mean, I--I began by identifying those areas of my district where
drug traffic was least harmful and proceeded to push all street-level dealing
towards those areas. Now, at first, dealing with the juveniles on them
corners, I had little success, but, ultimately, by rounding up all the
midlevel dealers in my district and making an offer they couldn't refuse, I
was able to...

Actor #13: You made them an offer.

Actor #12: (As Major Bunny Colvin) Yes, sir. Either they move their people
to one of three designated areas where drug enforcement was not a district
priority or they'd face the wrath of every able-bodied soul in my district.

Unidentified Actor #15: Major, I don't understand. The only time we can hold
a drug corner is when we assign officers to stand there. Your slides don't
suggest any concerted deployment on any corners. How were you able to...

Actor #13: Jesus Christ, you nit. Don't you see what he's done? He's
legalized drugs!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Ed Burns, what is your opinion of the commander's plan here to get the
dealers off the neighborhood streets by moving them to three free zones?

Mr. BURNS: What's my opinion as far as legalizing drugs? I'm in favor of
that or decriminalizing them. It was a real interesting process we had to go
through as the writers to sort of figure out how to make this happen, that it
was credible and how the information didn't get downtown quicker so that it
would follow the other arcs in the story. It turned out great, and it made
Bunny Colvin the reformer. That was the season of the reformers. He was
playing opposite Stringer Bell, who was trying to reform the drug world. We
had the two reformers, and everybody else was a pseudoreformer, so Stringer
had to die--reformers die--and couldn't kill Bunny, so he was fired, which was
another form of death. But it was great.

GROSS: Ed Burns is a writer and producer for HBO series "The Wire." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Ed Burns. He's a writer and producer for HBO
series, "The Wire," which is set in Baltimore's inner city and city hall. It
follows the drug gangs, the police who try to bring them down, the students
and teachers at an inner city middle school and the city's politicians. Many
of the stories in "The Wire" are based on Burns' experiences. He served on
the Baltimore Police Department's drug control unit and after retiring from
the force taught in the public schools.

What made you feel most hopeless as a cop using the tactics that you had at
your disposal to fight the war on drugs?

Mr. BURNS: I never felt hopeless. I really enjoyed what I was doing because
I had a chance to find what I thought was the most dangerous group in this
city and then work one. So I was taking down guys that, you know, were doing
all sort of murders to further their drug activities, and where the
frustration would come in was the fact that, you know, there was no follow-up.
So you would go into an area, you would take down a guy who controlled, say,
the towers in a housing project, and you would basically reduce the murder
rate there to zero for maybe a year or so, but then it would pick back up, so
there was no effort to try to stabilize the area once you'd gotten one of
these violent gangs out. These gangs, they control big chunks of Baltimore
and big chunks of northern Philly and all over, and you have to go after these
guys because they're the mayors, they're the lords. So it's fun to go after
them in my world to bring them down, but the thing is it's like pulling
dandelion. You pull up one, and you turn around and there's another one.

GROSS: Tell us about one of the big drug dealers that you brought down.

Mr. BURNS: I would take the guy who's doing--it would always come out of a
murder...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: ...because murder's a good energy force to sort of get the bosses
to at least look at, you know, what you're trying to do. They're--I don't
know. There was a bunch of guys. There's a guy named Warren Bordly who
controlled Lexington Terrace. He was a young guy, probably had maybe a couple
hundred people working for him. He was doing murder-for-hire plus the drug
dealing, and we used an informant that we developed to bring him down, and we
used that and a series of grand jury probes to finally bring him down. It
took two years. It was a joint FBI-city project, and it was one of the most
difficult cases I ever worked on because of how smart Warren was and how tight
he was into that neighborhood. He's sort of like the Marlo character we
brought on in season three.

GROSS: What was an example of him at his smartest?

Mr. BURNS: Well, he didn't use phones at all. He stayed in the projects, so
he didn't make the mistake of doing the money trail. He didn't start buying
things. He didn't start showing wealth. And he just hung down in the
projects, and, you know, the projects are such that you can't get there very
easily to see anything, and there he would be and that was his world. He
didn't aspire to anything other than to wear the crown, which is what Marlo
does. He just wants to wear the crown. He doesn't want to go, like Stringer,
to another level and sort of go with...(unintelligible). He just wants to be
there and to be the man.

GROSS: Did you work in a wiretap unit?

Mr. BURNS: We didn't have a wiretap unit. I created my own wiretaps.

GROSS: You created your own--how do you create your own wiretaps?

Mr. BURNS: You begin by--as we explained in the first season, you begin by
looking at your target and trying to get your target in legitimate ways,
straight-up ways, the standard police ways, and when those all fail, then if
you can show that they're using electronic means to interact, then the law
allows you to go in and do that, and we pushed it to--in one case where we
actually went from bugging the house to putting a camera in the house, and we
watched this, you know, huge cocaine distribution--heroin cocaine distribution
operation where they were just cutting the dope on the table and the camera
was picking it all up, and, you know, you were watching cut all night long,
and when they were finished, they would have a, you know, two laundry baskets
full of dope for the street, and you saw money coming in where they would wrap
it up, you know, into nice squares about a foot-by-a-foot, and when the guy,
Cookie, was finished wrapping the squares, he threw that lump of money over
his shoulder and started again. And, you know, you can do all this, if you
have, one, the OK from the department and the time. Then you can build these
cases. You always find the prosecutor who wants to do it. The problem is if
the police department doesn't want to do it.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. BURNS: Because that's not what they're into. They're into stats. If it
took me two years to bring down, say, a Cookie or a Warren or a Rudy
or...(unintelligible)...guy, that's one stat, one guy, you know. I can go up
on the corner in one day and pick off five or six guys, no problem. There's
no way to--point scale system in the game. Each guy is just a guy. But if
you try to generate stats, then you're not going to do it well if you're just
spending two years catching maybe 30 guys.

GROSS: You have some fantastic writers on "The Wire," and I'm thinking of,
you know: Richard Price, who's probably most famous for the book and the
movie "Clockers"; Dennis Lehane, who's most famous for the movie and the book
that it's based on "Mystic River"; George Pelecanos who has several series of
crime novels set in the Washington, DC, area. What's your method of working
with them? You've kind of cowritten every story of this season, nearly every
one of them. What's your way of interacting with the writers? You have the
experience on the street, they're the professional writers.

Mr. BURNS: Well, we all get into a room: Dave Simon, George Pelecanos,
myself, Bill Zorzi, the former political editor for the Sun paper in
Baltimore. And we just--you know, we just start working with the arc, the
story, and shaping the story, and then when Richard comes down for his episode
or Dennis comes down for his episode, they participate in that story-creating
process, but it's kind of tight because we know where the story's going so you
don't have a whole lot of latitude, but within that latitude, it's amazing
what people like Dennis Lehane and Richard Price can come up with. I mean,
Richard Price is so sharp, it's unbelievable. And his mind just races. He's
a one-man, you know, comedy act. It's incredible how smart that guy is and
what he knows, and the energy in that room just blossoms the story, and you
know, sometimes it's not the nicest place to be because there's a lot of
yelling and screaming because people are talking about different directions
and stuff but, in the end, the product is what it is, and I think it stands up
to the test of at least the critics.

GROSS: I want you to elaborate on something that I read you say in an
interview. In fact, I think this interview's on the HBO Web site, but you
were saying that when casting for the teenagers who were playing the junior
high school students in "The Wire," you didn't want the kids to have just kind
of like studied like hip-hop--you know, to just do like hip-hop gestures and
you know, hip-hop mannerisms. What were your concerns with this?

Mr. BURNS: Well, what we were looking for was four real kids. The problem
with hip-hop, it's so invasive, it shapes the way kids are acting today, and
you have to look below that because on the corner, you know, hip-hop's not
where it's at, I mean. On the corner, it's about everyday life, so you have
to have something underneath that. A lot of times when you were watching
these kids, every move that they made was the same as the one before it and
the same as the one after. So you're looking for kids who you sensed had the
ability to expand the range and I think we looked at about 500 kids to narrow
it down to the four that we eventually used and those guys--each one had an
extraordinarily difficult task and each one just did a magnificent job getting
it done.

GROSS: My guest is Ed Burns, a writer and producer for the HBO series, "The
Wire."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ed Burns, and he's a writer and
producer for the HBO series, "The Wire."

I think the spookiest character this season is a teenager nicknamed Snoop,
who's basically a young teenage hitman or hitwoman. I mean, when I saw this
character, I kept thinking, `Is it a girl or is it a boy? It's a boy,
definitely a boy.' It turns out it's a girl. And she has this way of speaking
that is so kind of like both slangy and mumbly that it's almost hard to make
out what it is she's saying though you always get the gist of it because it's
usually about killing somebody. Can you talk about the actress and how you
found her?

Mr. BURNS: The actress is Felicia Stokes, and Felicia was at a club with
Michael K. Williams. Michael was there, separate from Felicia...

GROSS: He's one of the actors in the series.

Mr. BURNS: He's the one who plays Omar, phenomenal actor. And
Felicia--Snoop came up and starting rapping to him and then sort of reached up
and sort of grabbed him by his neck and pulled him down and says, you know,
`You ain't going to believe this but I'm a girl.' And Michael didn't believe
it. Michael's eyes, you know, got real big, and he said, `You've got to be on
the show.' And he took her to Perry, head of security, and Perry got in touch
with me, and I came down, and I took a look at her, and she started talking,
and I said, `Sure, let's give it a try.' Went back and David was all for it,
and we wrote a part for her, just slid her in as Chris' accomplice, and the
first time she didn't show up, which is fairly typical because, you know,
there's a lot of pressures on people, and, you know, acting is just a dream
for a lot of them. But she called me up. She had gotten locked up in a
stolen car in New York. She wasn't the driver. She didn't know the car was
stolen, and you know, she begged for another chance, and we said, `Sure, come
on down. Try again.' And she did. And from that point on, she has been on
the mark, every episode, doing a phenomenal job. Just an incredible job, and
she is the real thing. She is the quintessential street.

GROSS: So does she speak that way--the way she does in the series, does she
speak that way in real life?

Mr. BURNS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what she brings to your writing is
that when she says it, you know, she'll change a word, you know. She's very
nice. She'll come up and she'll say, `We don't really say it that way.'
`Well, how do you say it, Snoop?' And then she'll say it and you go, `Well,
that's much better. We'll go with that.' She has that kind of knowledge and
she's fabulous, and the thing about her is that you can just see the
projection, you know, even when she's just in a scene but not talking. She
can radiate that character and you can really feel it.

GROSS: Well, I'd like to play a scene that she's in, and this is a great
scene from the very beginning of this current season of "The Wire," and she's
in a hardware store, one of those big kind of stores. It's called Hardware
Barn, and she's looking for a drill, and we find out later the reason why she
needs a drill is because she's nailing shut dead bodies, the bodies of people
that she's helped kill in abandoned houses and she nails them shut with this
drill. So she's in the store looking for a drill, and the salesman comes up
to her, thinking that she's just, you know, another customer who's doing, you
know, some kind of construction job, and here's the scene. And I should say,
her language is not the kind of language you could get away with on the radio,
so you'll be hearing a lot of blips in this.

(Soundbite from "The Wire")

Unidentified Actor #16: (As salesman) I see you've got the DeWalt cordless
nail gun. It's DeWalt Cord 10.

Ms. FELICIA STOKES: (As Snoop) The trouble with...(unintelligible)...the
battery don't hold up, you know?

Actor #16: (As salesman) Yeah. The cordless will do that. You might want to
consider the powder-actuated tool, the Hilti DX460 MX or the Simpson PTP is
two of my Cadillacs. Everything else on this board is second best, sorry to
say. Are you contracting or doing some work around the house?

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) We work all over.

Actor #16: (As salesman) Full time?

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) No, we had about five jobs last month.

Actor #16: (As salesman) At that rate, the cost of the powder-actuated gun
justifies itself.

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) You say power?

Actor #16: (As salesman) Powder.

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) Like gun powder.

Actor #16: (As salesman) Yeah. The DX 460's is fully automatic with a
27-caliber charge. Wood, concrete, steel to steel, she'll throw a fastener
into anything, and for my money, she handles recoil better than the Simpson or
the P-3500. You understand what I mean by recoil?

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) Yeah, the kickback...(unintelligible).

Actor #16: (As salesman) That's right.

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) Twenty-seven caliber, huh?

Actor #16: (As salesman) Yeah. Not large ballistically, but for driving
nails, it's enough. Any more than that, you'd add to the recoil.

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) My (censored) I say no time
(censored)...(unintelligible)...plenty of these, man...(unintelligible)...like
a pinball (censored) rip those up. Big...(unintelligible)...break your bones
and say (censored). He-he-he. I'm going to go with this right here, man.
How much I owe you?

Actor #16: (As salesman) Six sixty-nine plus tax. No, no. You just pay at
the register.

Ms. STOKES: (As Snoop) No, man. You go ahead and...(unintelligible)...for
me, man. And keep the rest for your time.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a scene from this season of the HBO series, "The Wire." My
guest, Ed Burns, is a writer and producer of this series.

This is really a heck of a scene because, you know, as the hardware salesman
realizes how really kind of crazy and dangerous this kid is, he just--I mean,
he just doesn't know what to do and his whole expression changes, and he's
completely disturbed by it but feels, I think, helpless in figuring out how he
should respond. Was this scene, Ed Burns, based on anything that you'd
witnessed?

Mr. BURNS: No, this is--we talked about this scene. David's the one who
wrote it, and the beauty of it is you're looking at two people, again, from
two different cultures, you know...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BURNS: ...in a position where they've crossed the chasm. She's coming
to this--you know, into our world, and the salesman is trying to, you know,
give her every courtesy, and the Snoop character is responding to it. She
even gives him a bump at the end, extra money. At the end of that, she goes
back and hooks up with Chris in a very nice way.

GROSS: Who's the senior hit man.

Mr. BURNS: Who's the senior hit man, who--in a very nice way, she, you know,
says to him, you know, `He said Cadillac but he meant Lexus,' you know. So
she was forgiving of him that this guy didn't really know that much about her
world. She was able to understand that, and the great...

GROSS: He describes this as the Cadillac of drills and she...

Mr. BURNS: Cadillac of drills.

GROSS: ...says the Lexus of drills. Yeah.

Mr. BURNS: ...and you know, which `he meant to say it's the Lexus of
drills,' which is not only the character but that's something that Felicia
herself can do. It's extraordinarily rare because she grew up in a very, very
tough neighborhood, in a very, very tough world and spent a lot of years in
prison. She has this ability to step outside of herself and to be able to
laugh at herself and to see who she is, and that is so rare in that world.
It's just--you don't find that many people. I'm like--in 20 years of being a
cop, I might have met like three or four who had that whatever it is, whatever
genetic bit of information allows you to do that. She has it and it's intact,
considering where she came from, it's just an amazing thing to see.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another character on the series, and that's a
snitch who's named Bubble. He's a guy who has a lot of street smarts and
verbally facile, but he's an addict, and he's physically weak so he's always
getting beaten up by somebody. So did you create this character and did you
have any snitches yourself or anything like him?

Mr. BURNS: I had tons of snitches, and he's sort of crafted upon a guy who
was really Bubbles, who died of AIDS back in the late '80s, and he was a guy
who was, as you said, facile on the street and quick and stuff like that, but
weak. And he would use the police to sort of right wrongs, you know, that he
saw and so that's who the Andre Royo character is based upon. Andre...

GROSS: Explain what you mean by that, using the police to right wrongs.

Mr. BURNS: Well, if you're getting--one of the thing that Bubbles used to do
is he used to be a arabber. He used to sell food off of a cart, you know, a
horse-drawn cart through the neighborhood where you can still get through the
back alleys in Baltimore. And he used to keep his dope--he'd take a gourd and
he'd hollow it out and put his dope in the gourd, and he got bumped off by a
couple of stickup guys, you know. Well, he couldn't deal back with these
stickup guys. He didn't have that kind of weight. So when I ran across him,
you know, we got to talking, and he said, `I know two guys that carry guns.'
Well, that's a big deal, and, you know, he gave them up, I found them, locked
them up, and then eventually he would tell me, you know, what the story really
was, why he was willing to give these guys up so. Andre plays a great role
with that. The real Bubbles you couldn't understand. It took me almost a
year to be able to understand how he spoke, especially when he got excited.
He made no sense whatsoever. Andre's a lot clearer, when it comes to speaking
anyway.

GROSS: My guest is Ed Burns, a former cop and public schoolteacher, who's now
a writer and producer for the HBO series, "The Wire."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and teacher who's now a
writer and producer with the HBO series "The Wire."

One other character on "The Wire" I have to ask you about, and that's Omar.
And he's this guy who's like stickup guy but he holds up drug dealers and he's
gay, and he has this kind of like gold robe that he wears and actually walks
through the neighborhood in it. And very unique character. Is he based on
anybody?

Mr. BURNS: Well, one of the best sources of information a cop can have is a
stickup artist who's doing drug dealers because once you start sticking up
drug dealers, you have to carry a gun because they're after you. So if you
can catch up with them before the dealers do, then you can work out some kind
of accommodation with this guy, you know, before the judge, and this guy can
go to work for you. So I used to hunt down these guys quite a bit because
they were always willing to talk, and so I knew a lot of them, and when David
and I were creating the character, we--you know, we wanted to make this
character the one guy who stood up against the institutions, the one guy who
has suffered from the institutions, and as we crafted him, we decided that he
would never cuss and just to make it that much more difficult for the audience
to accept him, he would be gay, and Michael K. Williams has just done a
phenomenal job with this character.

I remember the first time that Michael stepped on a set. It was a small
little scene where he was going to, with his running buddy Brandon, they were
going to go do a robbery, and the scene was that he was going to pop open a
shotgun, put a couple of shells in it, flip it locked, and Brandon was going
to cuss and Michael was going--Omar was going to put his finger on Brandon's
lips and say something to the effect of, you know, `Such foul language
shouldn't come across such beautiful lips.'

So in preparation for the scene, the propmaster brought the shotgun, and I was
standing right there, and he stands it to Michael, and he turns and walks away
basically, and Michael says, `Wait, wait, wait a second. How do you open
this?' And I'm thinking to myself, `Oh, my God! He doesn't know how to open a
shotgun? What's going to happen?' And, you know, the director said, `OK,
let's go,' and Michael stepped out there and you would have thought that in
his crib, he had at least one shotgun if not two. He handled it with just
such knowledge and just such a familiarity, and that's what this character can
do. The actor is so good, and I don't know know how he transforms himself
because Michael K. Williams is just one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet,
and yet there's a veil that comes down over him that makes you feel that he is
a stickup artist. And, of course, that was the scene where they kissed, which
was not scripted either.

GROSS: Hmm. Were you surprised then?

Mr. BURNS: I was surprised. It was great. It was a great moment, and we
kept it in. It was just those guys trying to do for the characters what they
thought they should do.

GROSS: So how has it changed your stature? You know, I mean, you've had
three roles in the community, you know, detective, teacher and now
producer/writer for "The Wire," so, you know, how has this changed the amount
of respect that you get to be one of the main guys behind "The Wire"?

Mr. BURNS: Well, it gives you a certain of credibility in places where I
couldn't go before. One is, you know, I'm tighter now with the gangsters than
I've ever been as far as them being willing to talk to me. They even forgive
me my being a cop at one time. And the policy-makers suddenly think that
we're smart, you know. It's like--so people are starting to ask us, you know,
`So what's the problem in Baltimore?' and things like that, and in that sense,
it's good because it gives us a chance to come from a point of view that most
people don't come from and to cause that frustration that might, you know,
spur an idea that's not really on the horizon right now.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ed Burns is a writer and producer for the HBO series, "The Wire." The
next new episode will be shown Sunday night.

(Credits)

GROSS: All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy Thanksgiving. I'm Terry
Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: "When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your
back. Well, I beg your pardon, walk the straight and narrow path. If you
walk with Jesus, he's going to save your soul. You've got to keep the devil
way down in the hole. He's got the fire and the fury, and he is the man.
Well, you don't have to worry if you hold onto Jesus' hand. We'll all be safe
from Satan..."

(End of soundbite)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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