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'Treme': A Haunting Snapshot Of Life After Katrina.

After profiling Baltimore's citizens, politics and problems in the HBO series The Wire, David Simon heads south to New Orleans — to look at the city three months after Hurricane Katrina. TV Critic David Bianculli reviews the series, which he says is "like a haunting piece of jazz from the French Quarter."


Other segments from the episode on April 5, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 5, 2010: Review of the television show "Treme"; Interview with David Simon and Eric Overmyer.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
After 'The Wire,' Taking On New Orleans In 'Treme'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This weekend, HBO
premieres "Treme," the new dramatic series from David Simon, who also created
"The Wire." That ambitious dramatic series was all about Baltimore, its
citizens, its politics and its problems.

For "Treme," Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer head further south to New
Orleans. On today's show, we'll speak with both Simon and Overmyer, but first a
preview of "Treme" from our TV critic, David Bianculli.


The first thing you see at the beginning of "Treme" are the superimposed words
that define the setting for this New Orleans drama: three months after. It
doesn't say after what, and it doesn't have to. It's 2005, three months after
Hurricane Katrina, and the residents in the buildings that are left are both
extremely tough and extremely fragile.

They include college professor Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, who
is called upon to give voice to the people, as in this interview with a
visiting TV journalist, who takes Bernette out to a levy to film him, but even
with a professor's young daughter watching off-camera, he can't talk long about
the flood without having his own temper rise.

(Soundbite of television program, "Treme")

Mr. JOHN GOODMAN (Actor): (As Creighton Bernette) The explosion people heard
was actually an unsecured barge ramming into the canal wall, not dynamite.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) People think there was a conspiracy
to breech the levies.

Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) To what end, drown 80 percent of the city? In whose
interest was that? Why displace so many working-class folks, black and white?
It makes no sense.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Are you saying this was a natural disaster,
pure and simple?

Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) A natural disaster?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) A hurricane is.

Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural
disaster, a hurricane pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man-
made catastrophe, a federal (BEEP)-up of epic proportions and decades in the

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Daddy.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) We can edit that out, no worries.

Mr. GOODMAN: (As Bernette) The levies were not...

BIANCULLI: In the opening credits, we see the interiors and exteriors of
building after building, all of them discolored by flood markings. The
characters in "Treme" have been marked just as clearly, but they're all
determined to move ahead and reclaim their lives and their city. And while the
location shooting in New Orleans is an absolute necessity to the success of
"Treme," that was no guarantee of success.

Shortly after Katrina, the Fox Network gave us "K-Ville," a short-lived drama
that filmed in the Gulf but never captured it. "Treme" does capture it
beautifully by being understated, by letting the beauty and the devastation,
the music and the eerie silences bump up against one another constantly.

And the secret weapon of this show is its cast. It may take a while to get to
know these characters because we're thrown into their world without explanation
of apology, but because of their past TV roles, we're already on their side and
ready to go.

John Goodman may be the most prominent name here, with decades of good will,
but he's by no means alone. His wife, attorney Toni Bernette, is played Melissa
Leo from "Homicide: Life on the Street." Kim Dickens, who plays a struggling
restaurant owner named Janette, played prostitute Joanie Stubbs on "Deadwood."
And lots of the players come from what might be called the David Simon
Repertory Company: Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters from "The Wire," Khandi
Alexander from "The Corner."

Pierce, who played Bunk on "The Wire," has one of the juiciest roles here, as a
trombone player named Antoine Batiste, but every character and every actor is
excellent. It's a sign of a great TV series when you don't care which
characters are onscreen because you're interested in them all, and very
quickly, "Treme" establishes itself as that type of series.

Best of all, perhaps, is what it does with the music. Without getting sappy or
preachy about it, "Treme" demonstrates, early and often, how organic music is
to the culture of New Orleans. Real-life musicians like Dr. John and Elvis
Costello make the rounds in the recording studios, and music is everywhere,
from funeral parade lines to tunes on the radio and songs from street buskers.
Music is always lurking in the background, and every so often, it rises to the
surface, takes center stage and all but takes your breath away with its defiant

There's a very sad subtext to "Treme" because one of its writers, David Mills,
died suddenly on the set last week. He also worked with David Simon on "The
Wire" and "The Corner," and his script for Episode 3 of "Treme," the first of
his contributions to this series, ends with a funeral.

But it also includes a lovely moment, one that typifies not only the grace of
Mills' writing but the beauty of "Treme" and the spirit of New Orleans. It
happens when trombone player Antoine, played by Wendell Pierce, is leaving a
strip club after playing a depressing one-night stand there as a fill-in member
of the house band. Outside, he comes upon a female violinist who is busking for
coins, and even though he's too tired to blow his horn, he loves what she's
doing enough to sing along. At the end of a bad night, the music remains

(Soundbite of television program, "Treme")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): (As Antoine Batiste) (Unintelligible).

Mr. PIERCE: (As Antoine) (Singing) I need your love so badly. I love you oh so
madly. But I don't stand a ghost of a chance with you.

BIANCULLI: That moment sets a magical mood, but moments later, that mood is
shattered in a surprising and disturbing way that leads to something else

"Treme" from the start is like one of those haunting classic pieces of jazz
from New Orleans. Get one taste, and you're not likely to forget it.

DAVIES: David Bianculli writes and teaches television and
film at Rowan University. Coming up, we hear from David Simon and Eric
Overmyer. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Terry spoke with the creators of "Treme," David Simon and Eric
Overmyer, last Tuesday, just hours before David Mills' death. We'd initially
planned to air that interview last week, but it seemed inappropriate to run it
so soon after Mills died. We're going to hear that interview now.

David Simon co-created the HBO series "The Wire" and "Generation Kill." He
adapted the HBO series "The Corner" from his non-fiction book about a year in
the life of an inner-city neighborhood. The NBC series "Homicide" was based on
Simon's non-fiction book about Baltimore cops.

Simon met Overmyer when they were writers for both series. Simon later brought
Overmyer in to work on "The Wire." Overmyer also wrote for "St. Elsewhere" and
"Law and Order" and has written several plays.

Music plays a central role throughout "Treme," even in this opening scene, in
which two men are negotiating over the fee to be paid to musicians in a parade

(Soundbite of television program, "Treme")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) That ain't right. It should be 10.
The price was 12, bro.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Say, bro, the 1,200 for eight
piece. You said you were was going to have Shaw(ph) to kicking it with you.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Shaw is gonna make it.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Yeah, well, he ain't here tonight, and I
see y'all ain't got but the one (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Look, we already cut our prices,
and we now have seven to step off.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Hey, baby, seven don't get you 12. Seven
get you 10, seem to me. Hey, look around. Look at this damn place.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) How much water ya'll get up here?

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor) (As character) You see the line over my head: six,
six and a half.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) Look, I feel for you all, but less than 200
a man, that (BEEP) ain't right.

Unidentified Man #6: (As character) Say, baby, (BEEP) was right. You think we'd
have to scrape up a couple of dumb nuts to do this (BEEP)? You think we all be
parading on the same day? Come on, bro.

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor). (As character) Most of us are wearing last year's

Unidentified Man #8 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible), to pay for these
fedoras. Y'all do look all right, though.

Unidentified Man #9 (Actor): (As character) Well, we got to, baby.

GROSS: That's a scene from the first episode of "Treme," and David Simon, Eric
Overmyer, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's like in the very first scene, the
characters are negotiating about the fees for the pay for musicians in a parade
band, and it ends amicably, unlike in "The Wire," where when there's
negotiations, it's usually over drugs, and it doesn't always end so well.

So it's like in this very first scene, you are saying: this is not "The Wire."
This is not about drugs. I mean, this is – it's about music. It's about New
Orleans. It's about struggling after the flood.

Mr. ERIC OVERMYER (Co-creator, "Treme"): Well, we spent almost a decade, just a
little under a decade, working on "The Wire," so the idea that we would do it
again is just, you know, there is a different story here in New Orleans to
tell. And we were - we're very intent on that. And, you know, there are some
things that may echo a little bit in terms of our production logic or how we
approach doing a show, but it's really a very different story entirely.

GROSS: So David, why did you want to do a series set in New Orleans, just after

Mr. DAVID SIMON (Co-creator, "Treme"): Well, actually, Eric and I, going back
to the time when we worked on the show "Homicide," we talked about that as
being a fantastical notion, but one that we liked to imagine ourselves

Mr. OVERMYER: Yeah, I don't think we ever really, actually ever thought we'd
get a show done in New Orleans, but we thought, wouldn't it be nice?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, because I mean, Eric was already living down here part of the
time, and he was very familiar with the city, and I'd been coming down since
the late '80s. And we discovered that we were sort of in love with the same
things. And we used to talk about we should do it, but then it would always
dissolve when we would try to imagine trying to go into somebody's - some
network executive's office in Los Angeles and trying to explain New Orleans.

Mr. OVERMYER: And we didn't just – we didn't want to do another cop show. We'd
both done many cop shows, and if you don't do a cop show in New Orleans, what
do you do? So we were always stuck at that point.

GROSS: You said you were in love with the same things about New Orleans. What
were those things?

Mr. OVERMYER: The music, the food, the way people talk, the street names, the
culture, high and low and all points in between, the light, the way the city
smells — everything.

Mr. SIMON: It's not – they're living in a different world down here.

GROSS: So did the catastrophe of Katrina help you sell the idea of a show in
New Orleans because suddenly it was a drama that the nation was fixated on?

Mr. SIMON: Well, for a brief time, they were fixated on it, and that's when we
got into the office and pitched it.

Mr. OVERMYER: And I think more, it gave us a way to frame the show because that
summer, David had invited me to do the fourth season of "The Wire," and we
started talking about it again. I think David was looking forward to life after
"The Wire." And one day, he said to me on set, well, you know, it could be a
show about musicians. And I said, oh, okay, that sounds good. So that's sort of
the whole idea we had at that point.

And then after the storm, that kind of gave us a way to frame a notion of just
ordinary people rebuilding their lives in the city and the city struggling to
come back, and would or wouldn't it?

Mr. SIMON: And tactically, you could walk into someone's office in Los Angeles
and say there's a drama there now in the fact that this city, a great city, had
a near-death experience and what that's going to mean going forward, which at
that time, you know, we didn't know how the story was going to play out. That
was five years ago.

GROSS: So why did you choose Treme as the neighborhood to set the series in?

Mr. OVERMYER: Well, we both felt that the downtown Creole fouburgs, as they're
called, the sort of neighborhoods around - old neighborhoods around the French
Quarter were really the seedbed of musical culture in New Orleans. It's where
Sydney Bechet(ph) comes from. He comes from Treme. Jelly Roll Morton comes from
the Marigny.

They were places where black and white folks met and mingled. And we felt Treme
was a very word, a very important historical community, as far as music and
culture goes, and a good stand-in for the whole city. But as you've seen, the
show is about the whole city, but Treme is emblematic of what's best about New
Orleans and also what's problematic and struggling about New Orleans.

GROSS: What do you mean by problematic?

Mr. OVERMYER: Well, Treme is a very – it's a poor neighborhood. It's buffeted
by all kinds of forces, from gentrification to urban renewal to just being
knocked down by bulldozers. It's got all sort of the urban ills of any modern
American city, but it also has this very rich musical tradition that's passed
down through families, which is the thing about New Orleans is that culture
lives through families and is passed down from generation to generation. And
Treme, it really embodies that.

GROSS: Eric, what neighborhood do you live in, in New Orleans, when you live
there? I know you live there part-time.

Mr. OVERMYER: I live a few blocks away from Treme, in a neighborhood called the
Marigny, which is, again, one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans,
that’s French Quarter, and it's just off the edge of the French Quarter. It's
also part of the Seventh Ward, which is historically the neighborhood of free
people of color and is sort of what's Creole, which is a contentious term, but
people who self-identify as Creole, who are people of mixed ancestry, often
Catholic and French-speaking and so on. So it's a fabulous neighborhood, too.

GROSS: How was your home affected by Katrina?

Mr. OVERMYER: We had to replace our roof, but we were lucky. We didn't have any
water damage, and you know, we were on the natural high ground along the river,
the old city, which didn't flood. So all the old neighborhoods didn't flood.

Really, the city, if you look at a map of 1870, it's almost a footprint of the
flood because all the neighborhoods that flooded were, at that point, Cyprus
swamps that hadn't been drained and subdivisions that hadn't been built back
then. So the old city along the river was on the natural levy and didn't go
under. So we were lucky.

GROSS: There's some tension brewing in "Treme" between the residents of the
neighborhood and the police and also the National Guard, who are still there.
And I'm wondering what kind of stories you picked up on about that tension or
what you witnessed yourself.

Mr. OVERMYER: Well, this is probably a good place to say that while "Treme" is
not "The Wire," and it really is trying to tell the story of New Orleans and
the post-Katrina recovery and what came back and what hasn't come back and how
things came back or how they didn't, and it's trying to do that through
ordinary people.

I mean, you know, we're not having the points of view of police chiefs and, you
know, and drug lords and mayors, and it really is about ordinary people. But
what – when they encounter something, we want that to be factual, and we want
it to be credible to the chronology of post-Katrina New Orleans.

For example, there was no crime to speak of for a brief period after the storm.
All the crime had gone elsewhere, along with a lot of the people. It came back
with a vengeance, of course, but not in the timeframe that is our first season.
So, you know, we're being honest about that.

So there are underlying tensions. The police department down here is – you
know, I'm from Baltimore, and you know, there's a lot about New Orleans that is
dystopic beyond even my imagination. You know, there's a lot that's gone wrong
in terms of law enforcement, in terms of corruption, and the school system. You
know, there's a lot in this city that is struggling. And we have to deal with
that, and we have to deal with it through the lives of the people.

GROSS: You cast a lot of real musicians in "Treme," including Dr. John, Kermit
Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello makes an appearance or more, Vernell
Bonarice(ph), and how did you cast the musicians who were going to be in it?

Mr. SIMON: Well, we really had no choice.

Mr. OVERMYER: I mean, who are you going to get to play Dr. John? Who are you
going to get to play Kermit Ruffins?

Mr. SIMON: You know, we're trying to demonstrate what the culture actually is.
So while the drama needs to be propelled by professional actors, almost the
raison d'être of the show is to try to define New Orleans. And you can't do
that without addressing yourself to the heart of the music, and that's – that
would be - you can't get anybody to come in and pretend. So you need to, in
some ways, get a little bit of acting out of your musicians and a little bit of
music out of your actors and go from there. That's really – that's the weird
alchemy of the show.

GROSS: Did you have to make sure that the musicians who you wanted could
actually do some acting before you cast them?

Mr. OVERMYER: To a certain extent. I mean, yeah, and some of them turn out to
be quite good on camera, Kermit Ruffins a primary example. He's fantastic,

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, I mean, you give – you try to give people what they can
handle, and some people are – you know, it's not easy even being yourself on
camera. It would seem that it would be, but it's not. And so, some people are
adept at turning the corner and giving a performance that is credible, and
other people maybe a little less so. So you maybe, you give them a little less
work, but you try to keep them in the shot, making music, which is the reason
they're there.

Mr. OVERMYER: Can I add some of the musicians, too, we – are wonderful
improvisers. You can imagine Dr. John. We don't really write dialogue for Dr.
John. We just suggest something, and then something much better comes, emerges,
much more ornate.

Mr. SIMON: I wrote the word confusement, trying to write in the voice of Dr.
John in the script. I had him use the word confusement, and I think he looked
at that and said, oh, you're trying to do Dr. John. You know, I'll have to show
you a little something. And he changed it to confusementalism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: He went beyond, you know, and showed me a little something about Dr.
John in the process.

DAVIES: David Simon and Eric Overmyer, creators of the new HBO series "Treme,"
speaking with Terry Gross. They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

We're listening to an interview Terry did last week with David Simon and Eric
Overmyer, creators of the new HBO series "Treme," about New Orleans in the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Simon co-created the HBO series, "The Wire" and "Generation Kill." The NBC
series "Homicide" was based on Simon's nonfiction book about Baltimore cops.
Simon met Overmyer when they were both writers for that series. Simon later
brought Overmyer in to work on "The Wire." Overmyer also wrote for "St.
Elsewhere" and "Law and Order," and has written several plays.

In this clip from "Treme," Clarke Peters plays a chief of the Indian tribe
Guardians of the Flame. He's returned to find his home destroyed by flooding.
He's set up shop in a local bar, and is asking a member of another tribe to
help him with repairs.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")

Mr. CLARKE PETERS (Actor): (as Albert Lambreaux) Not so many back over here,

Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): (as Antoine Batiste) Water was up to your waist.
Most of these shotgun people waiting on insurance, those that got it.

Mr. PETERS: (as Albert Lambreaux) You got yours squared away.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Yeah, I'm making money - $200 every truckload
I clear off them New Orleans East Streets. That's FEMA contract.

Mr. PETERS: (as Albert Lambreaux) FEMA, huh?

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Mm-hmm. It ain't good for most, but if you got
a hauling business, it's good enough.

Mr. PETERS: (as Albert Lambreaux) Speaking of which, I got a ton of money
(bleep) that I hauled out of the ballroom need to be dumped. I'm asking as a
chief here?

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Albert, all do respect, you ain't my chief. My
chief Mulbudrow(ph). I've been Golden Eagle all my life. You know that.

Mr. PETERS: (as Albert Lambreaux) Well, I need the ballroom for practice.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Ain't none of your gang even around.

Mr. PETERS: (as Albert Lambreaux) Practice is Sunday.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) You out your damn mind. Everyday, I'm over New
Orleans East on that government contract. I'm making six to $800. Nah, I'm
sorry, homes.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. PETERS: (as Albert Lambreaux) Thanks for the beer.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) You welcome.

GROSS: Now two of the stars of "The Wire" are in "Treme," Wendell Pierce, who
played the cop, Monk in "The Wire," plays a trombonist who's always broke and
looking for gigs. And Clarke Peters, who played a cop, Lester, in "The Wire" is
a Mardi Gras Indian chief who returns to his home, and his home is just kind of
- the interior is destroyed. I mean, it's just all like horrible and moldy
inside. So he sits up shop in a bar, and I guess I'm interested why did you
want to bring these two - of all the great actors...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...from "The Wire" who you could've brought into your new series
"Treme," David Simon, why did you choose Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters?

Mr. SIMON: Well, Wendell's from here, and his family actually lost their home
in Pontchartrain Park, in that neighborhood, and he's a native of New Orleans.
And I think if Eric and I had tried to do this show without Wendell, he'd of
hunted us down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: And that's just as simple as that.

Mr. OVERMYER: Yeah. Our lives wouldn't have been worth anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: And Clarke - the thing about Clarke is Clarke is a song-and-dance
man with a lot of experience on the London stage and, you know, he developed
the musical "Five Guys Name Moe" about Louis Jordan. And...

GROSS: He developed that?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. He developed...

Mr. OVERMYER: He was also in the London production of "One More Time," since
we've been speaking about Vernel.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. That's right.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. Right. Yeah.

GROSS: That's Vernel's review, his, like, Vaudeville review.


Mr. SIMON: That's right. And has done, you know - I mean I've seen him on the
stage. I saw him do "Chicago."

Mr. OVERMYER: And "Porgy."

Mr. SIMON: And "Porgy," right, in London.


Mr. SIMON: I mean, that's the stuff he was never able to do, and we really
didn't find a use for that in "The Wire," unfortunately. He never was able to
break into song in the squad room. So, you know, we knew that that was there,
latent. And there's something about him that also has the demeanor, the meaning
of a Mardi Gras Indian chief, in a way.

Mr. OVERMYER: He has a regal bearing...

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, that's right.

Mr. OVERMYER: ...that a Mardi Gras Indian chief needs.

Mr. SIMON: That's right.

GROSS: I want to play a scene with Wendell Pierce and his girlfriend, with whom
he has a baby. He's separated from his wife. So, you know, he's a trombonist
who's always trying to get gigs and always cheating when he needs to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so...

Mr. OVERMYER: Which is most of the time.

GROSS: Yeah. So he's just convinced...

Mr. SIMON: He's a musician.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He's just convinced Kermit Ruffins to give him a gig, and then to give
him an advance on that gig so that he can, in part, pay the cab driver, who he
has lied to. So then he goes home where he lives with his girlfriend and their
baby, and he gives some of the money to his girlfriend.

Now, Wendell Pierce also has children from his former marriage and he hasn't
been paying any attention to them. So here's a scene with Wendell Pierce and
his girlfriend. She's played by Phyllis Montana LeBlanc.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Treme")

Ms. PHYLLIS MONTANA LEBLANC (Actress): (as Desiree) Your son called.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Which one?

Ms. LEBLANC: (as Desiree) From Baton Rouge. Older one.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Now, see, what he want?

Ms. LEBLANC: (as Desiree) Told him you had a gig.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) I was backing up Kermit Ruffins at bars

Ms. LEBLANC: (as Desiree) You played with Kermit?

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) He asked me. Yeah. And I'm leaving this right
here, girl, knowing that that last 50 is mine. Can't be taking a bus into town
from Jefferson-damn-Parish.

Ms. LEBLANC: (as Desiree) This will cover the gas and electric. Another 30, you
don't keep a dime on in here.

Mr. PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) Hmm.

GROSS: Okay, that's a scene from the new series "Treme." The creators are my
guests David Simon and Eric Overmyer. So there's an interesting story behind
casting the actress that we just heard. Do you want to tell that story?

Mr. SIMON: Phyllis is one of the - is it right to say a star of a documentary?
But we will, for purposes of this anecdote. She's one of the stars of Spike
Lee's "When The Levies Broke," his remarkable documentary that he made for HBO.
And I think he's actually updating it this year. Her performance in that - it
wasn't really a performance. She was just being. She was being Phyllis - was
incredibly dynamic, to listen to her tell the story her post-Katrina sojourn.

And when we talking to Spike earlier, early in the process, you know, there was
some talk early on maybe he would direct or, you know, it didn't quite work out
for a variety of reasons, mostly scheduling. But the one thing he said to us
was he thought Phyllis could play a part, that she could actually act. And he
said this just on the basis of his encounter with her doing the documentary,
and he was dead right.

Mr. OVERMYER: Yeah. And she turns out to be quite funny, too, as you will see.
She's also a member of the Montana clan, which is a very important family in
New Orleans. I think her great uncle was Tootie Montana, the Indian chief of
all Indian chiefs, and a very important figure in the city.

GROSS: So how did you figure out that she could act? What kind of audition did
you create for her to make sure that Spike Lee was right?

Mr. SIMON: She read a scene. We wrote a scene, and she came in and read it and
it was there. You know, I didn't want to have to tell Spike he was wrong, so I
was really glad...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: ...I was really glad it was there. But, no, he - Spike saw
something, and he was right. You know, Phyllis really - she just - she's very
at ease within herself, and she - Eric's right. Her comic timing is genuine and

DAVIES: David Simon and Eric Overmyer, creators of the new HBO series "Treme."

We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded last week with David Simon
and Eric Overmyer, creators of the new HBO series "Treme."

GROSS: Now, I have to say, my favorite character in "Treme" is Steve Zahn's
character. He plays a DJ at one of the two public radio stations in New
Orleans. Unfortunately, it's the station that does not carry FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But it's - the station is WWOZ, which is the jazz and heritage station.
And he's kind of a jackass, but he's, like, really into the music and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...really into the musicians and wants to be a great musician, even
though he's probably not great, as his on-again, off-again girlfriend points
out: You're not a musician. You're a DJ.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: Yeah.

GROSS: So, I want to play a scene. I love this scene. This is a scene at the
radio station. He's about to start his shift, and he's talking to the DJ who's
signing off about how Earl King came to him in a dream and suggested a theme
music for his radio show. And David, who's Earl King?

Mr. SIMON: An R&B guy from New Orleans, the late-great Earl King, the composer
of "Big Chief," one of the most famous Mardi Gras songs.

GROSS: So in the middle of Steve Zahn's description of his dream, the other DJ,
as we'll hear, hands him a paper with new instructions about the playlist. So
here's that scene.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Treme")

Mr. STEVE ZAHN (Actor): (as Davis McAlary) So Earl comes at me with his
political relevance, which is weird because Earl wasn't that way in life, but,
hey. It's my dream, right? And Earl brings it.

Unidentified Actor: Brings what?

Mr. ZAHN: (as Davis McAlary) The mafia.

Unidentified Actor: The mafia. That's your theme?

Mr. KAHN: (as Davis McAlary) Dude, the mafia is way better equipped to run New
Orleans than the United States government, the state of Louisiana...

Unidentified Actor: Used to run it. The Marsalis used to run it all.

Mr. KAHN: (as Davis McAlary) Yeah, (bleep) if isn't time to bring them back. I
mean, hey, do you think the mob would've dragged ass the way FEMA did, left the
little old ladies to rot in rooftops? I mean, look how good Carlos ran things
when the mayor, the governor and everybody else was in his pockets. Look at the
Lafitte, beautiful Sicilian roof slate. They did fall over? Did they flood?

Unidentified Actor: But music.

Mr. KAHN: (as Davis McAlary) Louis Armstrong, managed by Joe Glaser, who had to
pair up with the mob. Feel me? From there, I segue into Louis Prima, who is
managed by the Sagrada Family, after which I'm close enough to some old school
R&B, get up in the Cosimo(ph) shops, start spinning some Ray Charles, some
Spiders, Lee Allen, may - oh, you have got to be (bleep) kidding me. One in
every three songs from a pledge drive compilation?

Unidentified Actor: It's that time of year, bro.

Mr. KAHN: (as Davis McAlary) Well, here we are supposedly the greatest
alternative radio station in the greatest musical city in this sad, failed
history of the planet. We're playing the same - admittedly, great - 20 tunes
that everyone hears on every (bleep) Big Easy, Crescent City Care Forgot
compilation ever released? The (bleep) New Orleans (bleep) canon? Please.

Unidentified Actor: Yeah. And you got to plug the CD at every break. Darnell
said so.

Mr. KAHN: (as Davis McAlary) "Iko," "Tipitina," they - that's for you. Yeah,
yeah (bleep) yeah. (bleep). Darnell Nichols and his (bleep) pledge drive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I really love that.

Mr. OVERMYER: I wonder why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OVERMYER: Yeah. That one goes over good in public radio.

GROSS: Well, you know, in the final season of "The Wire," a newspaper figured
very prominently in it, and I'm delighted that public radio's in...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: "Treme." How did you decide to have, like, a DJ at the station? I
guess it makes sense, as there's so much about music.

Mr. OVERMYER: Well, and WWOZ is so important to the musical culture in New
Orleans, we really couldn't do a show about music in New Orleans and not use

Mr. SIMON: Which, you know, I mean, it really - it's the heartbeat, musically,
of the city, in some very basic ways.

GROSS: I just want to give a shout out to the other public radio station in New
Orleans, WWNO.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you, guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OVERMYER: The other heartbeat, which is also very, very important to the

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: But, I mean, to be honest, that character comes from a person who
has become something of a muse for this piece, a fellow name Davis McAlary, who

Mr. OVERMYER: No, that's the name of our character.

Mr. SIMON: I'm sorry.

GROSS: That's the name of your character. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OVERMYER: You're confusing reality and fiction now.

Mr. SIMON: It's been a long shoot. What can I say? Davis Rogan, who did a - had
a very, actually, inventive brass band - brass funk band in the '90s called All
That, and then had put out an album called "The Once and Future DJ" because he
was a DJ at OZ, and he put out an album of sort of straight R&B. But it was
very idiosyncratic. The lyrics were very much about New Orleans and its
politics and its tone.

So, you know, it was the kind of record that would only sell in New Orleans,
because nobody else would get the references. And when we were down here
researching it, the album actually won the Offbeat magazine album of the year
for 2005. So I picked it up in the store and, you know, who is this guy? I
don't know anything about him, and I sort of - you know, I heard something in
his voice that felt like it ought to be in the show somehow. So I cold called
him at the time. He managed some gig where he was in...

Mr. OVERMYER: Provence or somewhere. Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. I think the Loire Valley.

Mr. OVERMYER: Yeah, right.

Mr. SIMON: He was some artistic director at some...

Mr. OVERMYER: Oh, it was Eleanor of Aquitaine's chateau at the...

Mr. SIMON: Right. Yeah. I said are you really - I mean, I reached him - he
called me back from France, you know...

Mr. OVERMYER: That's where he evacuated to after the storm.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. Exactly. And I said are you really calling me from Loire
Valley? And he said yeah, dude. They've got, like, Eleanor of Aquitaine buried
around here somewhere. I swear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: You know, so, I mean, you know, there is a lot of - there are other
things that we've added. And, of course, Steve Zahn has taken it in his own
direction. But the origins, really, there is a character - well, in New Orleans
there's always a character. That's the thing about the city.

Mr. OVERMYER: You know, the real, the Davis Rogan that was the springboard for
the Steve Zahn character is always - often referred to here as a music
scenester. That's his profession, a music scenester. And that sort of describes
the Steve Zahn character, too, I think.

GROSS: Now, I just want to mention - I'm sorry for sounding self-involved here,
but there's another NPR mention I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: John Goodman plays a character who's an English professor and he's just
really angry. He insists that Katrina's a man-made disaster, not a natural
disaster and that it’s the fault of the engineers and the government and
everything, for having levees that couldn’t withstand a hurricane. And so he
gets a phone call from the press and he really hates the press. We’ve seen
that, but it’s from NPR so he's going to do the interview. And he says the N in
NPR stands for nuanced.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OVERMYER: Yeah, that was a good line and I was proud of that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I just have to ask you, there is a scene in "The Wire" where two of
the teenaged drug dealers are driving from Baltimore to New York to meet their
connection and they're listening to a "Prairie Home Companion," and I've never
understood the - why "Prairie Home Companion" showed up in that scene. So David
Simon, please explain.

Mr. SIMON: Oh god. I have to go back to that? Well...

GROSS: Yes, you have to, because they'd never be listening to a "Prairie Home

Mr. SIMON: I mean we're fans of NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: We are fans of NPR. It's fair. By the way, Roy Blount, Jr. has a
cameo coming up in "Treme."

GROSS: Great.

Mr. SIMON: So there's a little WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME! Action coming.

GROSS: Very nice.

Mr. SIMON: But we are, you know, we're consumers of NPR. But the thing about
that one scene was I actually, when I was doing the book "The Corner," at one
point, to make it real to this particular kid, DeAndre McCullough, 15-year-old
kid who's slinging drugs on a corner of West Baltimore, I didn’t want, you know
- he was willing to let me follow him but I didn’t want him to do it without
really believing it was a book. So a couple months into the process I actually
drove him to New York to meet the editor of the book at the publishing house in
New York. I wanted him to see that there was really going to be a book and so
he shouldn’t get into this lightly because he, you know, he was 15 and, you

In any event, we got - we hit that point where the Baltimore station, 92-Q,
this hip hop station lost - started to fad out and then we started to pick up
the Philly stations, you know, near Delaware or something. And he, having never
been outside of Baltimore, he expressed that same amazement and we ended up
listening to - because it was right sort of down at the end of the dial there -
we ended up listening to "Prairie Home Companion." At that point I think he
thought that the world had gone insane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: He was listening to, you know, Garrison Keillor talking about Lake
Wobegon and, you know, and...

Mr. OVERMYER: It was probably on WHYY.

GROSS: That's right. That's where our station, our show comes from.

Mr. SIMON: Probably right. Probably right.

GROSS: Yeah, our Philly station.

Mr. SIMON: But he was looking at me like, get me back to Baltimore as fast as
you can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OVERMYER: What's this Lake Wobegon?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, I'm not going to say it delighted him
or that he sudden - I don’t remember what the, you know, if it was Guy Noir or
whatever, but at some point...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: know, he got interested enough that we listened to it for a
good half hour. And, you know, those moments used to happen all the time - I
have to say, all those sort of cross-cultural moments. And, you know, you just,
you put them in your back pocket and you hope you'll have a chance to use them
some day.

DAVIES: David Simon and Eric Overmyer, creators of the new HBO series, "Treme."

We’ll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded last week with David Simon
and Eric Overmyer, creators of the new HBO series "Treme."

GROSS: Now, David Simon, when you were writing "The Wire," you were writing for
a language of your city. You live or lived in Baltimore; you know all the
languages spoken there, all the dialects spoken there. So I know you’ve spent a
lot of time in New Orleans. But still, it’s a different - there's just like
different, there's different slang, there's different accents, some different

What was it like for you to try to pick up the language? And Eric Overmyer, I'd
like you to answer that too, although I think you’ve spent more time living in
New Orleans.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, I mean, one of the things we did right away was in addition to
Eric, we brought in Tom Piazza and Lolis Elie - who are local writers. And
Lolis, a native and Tom, a long-time resident to try to as ballast to try to,
you know, make sure that the writing staff in the writer's room had strong
local representation. But at the same time, I wouldn't have wanted everybody in
that room to have been from Orleans even if we could have managed that —
because in some ways, the city's very seductive. And you can fall in love with
a lot of its charms and idiosyncrasies and not be asking yourself the hard
questions that drama sometimes requires.

And so, actually it was the dynamic of the people from New Orleans interacting
with people like George Pelecanos or David Mills in the writer's room, who are
outsiders and who are acquiring the culture cold. That's really what gave the
piece more gravitas and what helped us ground it. So a little of the outside, a
little of the inside actually is kind of where you want to be. But as far as...

GROSS: But just in terms of the language - the dialogue - what did you have to
learn in order to feel convinced that this sounded authentic?

Mr. OVERMYER: Well, the one thing that helped enormously was that we cast local
people. You played that - the very first clip you played, I was listening to
and thinking maybe this needs subtitles because, you know, it’s a very, that
sounds like New Orleans and nowhere else, that scene where they're negotiating
over the price of the band.

Mr. SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OVERMYER: So, you know, we both spent a lot of time here and we had all
these local people. We had lots of consultants and we were casting local people
who sounded like themselves. We also told everybody who came in not to do an
accent. We wanted their own accent - that we didn’t want that thing that
usually happens down here where people are doing bad southern accents or like
the "Big Easy," bad Cajon accent.

You remember Cher, you know, and Dennis Quaid in "The Big Easy" always saying
Cher, Cher this and Cher that. So we asked people just to be themselves and New
Orleans has 55 different accents and people from all over the world too. So for
instance, the Kim Dickens character, who plays the chef, Kim is from Alabama so
we made her character from Alabama so that she didn’t have to try to do a New
Orleans accent and we could explain why she sounded the way she sounded.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. I mean as far as the vernacular and you know, listen,
everything has its own interior dialogue and you pick it up as fast as you can.
You know, my skill set was as a reporter and I had a good ear for quotes. And,
you know, I spent the first 15 years of my professional life, you know, writing
down the way cops talk or the way street guys talked on, you know, bar napkins
or notepads and you, when you hear something you savor it; you enjoy language.
If you don’t you probably shouldn’t be writing dialogue.

So, you know, is the stuff getting a little better here at episode 10 than it
was at the - I hope, you know, but everything's a learning curve. And the truth
is, we started thinking about this show seriously I mean, you know, five years
ago so there's been a lot of trips to New Orleans and a lot of interviews and a
lot time spent. But, you know, every now and then I write a page and all the
New Orleans guys in the, or I should say the New Orleans guys to pronounce

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: That they, all those guys in the writer's room jump on it and say
no, they might say this in Baltimore but that's not how we talk.

GROSS: Can you give me an example of something they corrected you on?

Mr. SIMON: Oh, you know, a lot of it tends to be like whenever we get - the
trouble is whenever we get to cop speak, there's a lot of stuff there because I
have all this baggage of how Baltimore cops reference stuff and the way things
would work. And I just assume that, you know, police are police everywhere and
I find out that no, New Orleans has its own dynamic. And so, generally
speaking, the places where I've sort of over-learned vernacular are the places
where I get beat up pretty good because that's where I'm sort of leaning into
the punch. It's not ordinary dialogue. It's more stuff in people's professional

GROSS: So something that a Baltimore cop would say that a New Orleans cop would

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. God, I'm trying to think of some - Eric, say something and
I’ll try to think of something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OVERMYER: Well, there was a lot of comment about the phrase stroking - I
had to stroke in the ticket.

Mr. SIMON: Oh stroke a ticket. Yeah. Yeah. When write a guy a ticket, I stroked
him a ticket. That's what a Baltimore cop would say.

Mr. OVERMYER: And all the New Orleanians said, ooh, I never heard that.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. I stroked him one. Yeah, which means I wrote a ticket and or a
humble. You know, an arrest that you’d give somebody in Baltimore, you know,
because they talked back to you or disrespected you as a cop, when you get off
the corner, that's a humble. And, you know, the first time I used it around a
New Orleans police officer he just, a what, you know? I mean it landed like a
dry bagel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: So, you know, it was what are you going to do? The trick is is to
have other people in the room that call you on it.

GROSS: So what's a good expression - a good cop expression from New Orleans
that you’ve learned?

Mr. SIMON: Okay. Well, this is almost a civic term. I mean civilians would say
the same thing. But in Baltimore and in most places in America, the grassy
place in the middle of a street is known as the median strip. In New Orleans,
for whatever reason, it is the neutral ground. And so I had a police officer
telling me a story about how these Indians were coming down the neutral ground
and they were creating a disturbance and, you know, this is why the problem
started between the police and the Mardi Gras Indians and he kept referring to
the neutral ground. And, you know, at some point I just, you know, what? Like,
is this like a gang war thing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: You know, and all he was talking about was...

Mr. OVERMYER: The median strip.

Mr. SIMON: ...the median strip.


Mr. SIMON: Anywhere else in America, the median strip. So, you know, wherever
you go you’re somewhere new.

GROSS: Well, it’s great to talk with you both. I'm going to let you get back to
your set and to your show.

Thank you so much for taking some time for us. I really appreciate it.

Mr. OVERMYER: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. SIMON: Thank you.

DAVIES: David Simon and Eric Overmyer are creators of the new HBO series
"Treme;" it premiers Sunday. You can find links to all of the previous FRESH
AIR interviews with actors from "The Wire" at our Web site,
where you can also download Podcast of our show. You can join us on Facebook
and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Nearly a year ago, Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips became the
first American seaman to be captured by pirates in two centuries. He tried to
escape but was caught and beaten. Five days into the ordeal, Navy Seal sniper
shot and killed three of his captors. He has a new memoir.

On the next FRESH AIR, we hear Captain Phillips' story.

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)

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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