Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for WE OWN THIS CITY

Host Geri Cole talks to David Simon, co-creator and showrunner of the new HBO miniseries WE OWN THIS CITY, about how he sees the mini-series as the coda to his legendary show, THE WIRE; the lessons he learned as a journalist that have helped him as a television writer; and why the drug war is one of America’s worst policies and needs to end.

David Simon is a Baltimore-based screenwriter, journalist, author, and television producer. A former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, he is the author of two books of narrative nonfiction—Homicide and The Corner—and is the creator of the celebrated HBO series THE WIRE, which depicts the political and socioeconomic fissures in an American city. His other television credits include the NBC drama HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET and HBO’s THE CORNER—both adaptations of his nonfiction books—as well as HBO’s GENERATION KILL, TREME, and THE DEUCE. He was a 2010 MacArthur Fellow and has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including an Edgar Award and multiple Emmy and Writers Guild Awards.

His latest project is the crime drama miniseries WE OWN THIS CITY. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by fellow Baltimore Sun alum Justin Fenton, the show details the rise and fall of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force and the corruption surrounding it.

The six-part miniseries premiered in April 2022 on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.

Seasons 7-11 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received a Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys.

Listen here:

OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

If you like OnWriting, please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to rate us on iTunes.

Follow us on social media:
Twitter: @OnWritingWGAE | @WGAEast
Facebook: /WGAEast
Instagram: @WGAEast

Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi, I’m Geri Cole and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series, talking about the writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen and so much more.

Geri Cole: Today, I’m speaking with David Simon, co-creator and showrunner of the new HBO mini series We Own This City. In the interview, we talk about how David sees We Own This City as the coda to his legendary series, The Wire, the lessons he learned as a journalist that have helped him as a television writer and why the drug war is one of America’s worst policies and needs to end.

Geri Cole: This story is wild, but also unsurprising, which I feel like is just the nature of news these days.

David Simon: Surprising. It’s stunning in its details, but, but the overall theme of it is, in some weird way, inevitable.

Geri Cole: Yeah. And, it’s based off the book of the same name by Justin Fenton, who I also feel like is following in your footsteps in a way of coming from the Baltimore Sun and background in journalism. But, let’s talk about how this project came together. What made you want to return to Baltimore and your storytelling into this story, in particular?

David Simon: I backed into the television part of it. It was sort of a one-two punch, and I didn’t intend it in this sense. I read the stories contemporaneously in the Baltimore Sun, I live in Baltimore, and so I was reading Justin’s coverage on a day to day basis while the scandal was unfolding. And at a certain point, because Justin has the gig as the police reporter there that I used to have and we talk and we’ve talked about the gig about the beat before, and we were on friendly terms and I just called him one day and I said, “This is a book. You need to think about writing this as a book,” And I even gave him the name and number of my book agent. And then, I called my agent and I said, “There’s a guy going to be calling you named Justin Fenton and he’s sitting on something that is really worthy of a long nonfiction narrative.”

David Simon: And that’s it, that’s all I thought about. I didn’t think about television or doing it for television, I was thinking A, journalistically, I guess I was thinking about it and secondly, I was thinking about Justin and it was that point in his career. And I thought, I wish somebody had come to me points and said, take a step back, this is more than you think it is. And so, that was it for me. And then inevitably, maybe, a year, maybe a year and a half after that, my long time writing partner, George Pelecanos, he got a call from HBO, from Carrie Antholis, who was in charge of miniseries and who I’d worked with before, but Carrie and George are friends, as well, and Carrie had the manuscript from Justin.

David Simon: He said, or he said to George, “You should do this as a mini long form.” And George then came back to me and Nina and said, We should get The Wire crew back together to do this. because it speaks to what The Wire’s original themes were.” But, in some fundamental way, it’s a coda for the drug war, what The Wire was trying to argue. And, of course, at that point it was quite obvious to me it was, but it had to come back to me through George saying so before I actually considered coming back to Baltimore to do any more business in this milieu.

Geri Cole: Hmm. So, what was that pre-production process like and did you have to do sort of original research, or any additional research, and did it like coincide with the writing process?

David Simon: We always try to do more if we have the time and we had plenty of time because of COVID. This fell into that place where no one could quite figure out, the protocols hadn’t been developed for shooting during COVID so there wasn’t a lot of production going on, so we were in the writing mode and the researching mode, for maybe longer than we otherwise would’ve been, and that was the luxury. We brought back on Ed Burns, one of the key elements and key writers on The Wire, and also bill Zorzi, who covered politics in Baltimore for many years. We also brought on D. Watkins, an East Baltimore writer, who’s really made his bones lately with books of essays and journalism about coming up in East Baltimore and he had distinct memories dealing with the people from the Gun Trace Task Force on the ground, he took a kick to the ribs from Daniel Hersl on the basketball court one day.

Geri Cole: Wow.

David Simon: I’ve been friendly with D. From the point of which he started writing for the Baltimore City paper and I’ve been trying to encourage him because I thought his voice was really very direct and really interesting. And so, right away, I thought of him, because I thought, it’s fun to get The Wire crew back together, but in these days of greater inclusion, with which I agree, and also the dynamic of wanting to feel the people who were being so badly policed and harassed and at some points, endangered, by this level of corruption in the Baltimore department, D. Felt like an appropriate add to The Wire crew. So, the five of us, plus Justin as a consultant, that was the writer’s room, and off we went, but Bill took the effort, at our behest, to do additional reporting and to try to establish a very delicate and very accurate chronology of what had gone on for purposes of, because we were going to split time, we were going to move backwards and flashbacks flash forwards, we were going to do some adventurous things, so we really needed to understand the chronology and what was possible and what was not. And Bill, you walked into the writer’s room, we had documents everywhere and timelines and who reported to whom and who was in what unit when, we did a lot of extra reporting, but we also Justin in the room as well.

Geri Cole: I do maybe want to jump to my question about structure because you do jump between different timelines in order to tell the story. Did you have any sort of rules and/or guidelines of how to navigate that movement and when you would jump?

David Simon: Yeah, it’s actually carefully structured, but it may feel a little bit like, Whoa, what are they doing? We’re willing to sustain that, we’re willing to take a little bit of putting the viewer back on their heels, and we’ve always been a little bit, perhaps even belligerent about you don’t need to understand everything exactly right away as long as you’re moving forward emotionally and understanding the general theme, and then you’ll catch up to what we’re intending. And by the end, I think it pays profoundly to have done this. The reason to do it is if you just make it about here’s some bad cops and here’s what they’re doing bad and now they’re under investigation and I wonder if they’re going to get caught and I wonder how it’s going to feel when they get caught, we’ve seen that show. That show is who, what, when, where, how in the journalistic sense. It lacks the one thing that makes journalism and all narrative, I think, really an adult game, which is the why. We were really interested in why, structurally and systemically, something like this could happen.

David Simon: And for that, you have to examine, not just these guys, but the culture in which they came up and things that were ongoing in the department before many of them even came to plain clothes and you need to examine basically some of the history, the recent history of Baltimore policing. And so for that, you had to go back prior to the story of the Gun Trace Task Force, and there we found our vehicle in the career, the longer career, of Wayne Jenkins, who had come on earlier than these guys, he’d come on in 2003, which was sort of the height of mass arrest under then-mayor O’Malley who wanted to be the governor and was willing to arrest a 100,000 people a year in Baltimore if it would only clear the streets and possibly reduce the murder rate and the Fourth Amendment and everybody’s civil liberties be damned.

David Simon: So, that was a distinct storyline that had to start contemporaneous with our main story but also, we had to bounce back and forth between this earlier dynamic of the making of Wayne Jenkins and then the story of the Gun Trace Task Force. And then the other thing we added was the idea of these guys at the end of their run, all of them in maroon jumpsuits in the detention center having their proffer sessions where they’re basically all cooperating, except for Jenkins, never really did, and that got us a sense of reflection that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. They could speak to what they had done looking backwards, and they could, in some ways, assess themselves and each other and their roles in this disaster with a little more, if not honesty, because I think at every point they’re still rationalizing, but at least a little bit more clarity about the scope of what they did and the fact that they did it and what they were feeling when they did it and that seemed to add something else that was profound.

David Simon: So, by breaking time, I felt like we delivered more than who, what, when, where, how, we delivered the why of why is American policing reached this point? And the answer for us is the same as The Wire, which was you have to end the drug war. It’s the most dystopic, destructive, ineffective, ruthless and incompetent endeavor that this country’s maintained for a period of 50 years. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything this stupid for half a century, certainly not as policy unless you… Certainly, we’ve had social-

Geri Cole: Yeah. Yeah.

David Simon: We’ve had moral and social equivocation that have gone on for centuries, but in terms of an actual the government thinks they’re doing good and they have a campaign against a presumed evil and they just keep doing more and more damage. The drug war kind of stands alone, certainly in modern American history.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Wow. Oh, man. I’m going to be honest, this was a little bit difficult for me to watch because it feels triggering to sort of see the level of corruption and sort of the violence against the predominantly black population. But, I think one of the things that sort of makes it easier to process is because you do sort of get, it’s not just like watching this, this violence or this corruption, it’s like you are seeing why and the reflection that really does help.

David Simon: We’re not doing street board, we didn’t want to do that and on some level, it’s fascinating, it feels distinctly racial, and yet, the Baltimore department is now majority minority and it’s led by African American command staff and it’s under the authority of an African American mayor. And that leads us to something even more profoundly disturbing, which is that certainly the war on drugs, or narcotics prohibitions. If you date them back to the first one, which would’ve been the 1880s and it was the anti-Chinese, the Yellow Peril and the opium dens on the West Coast, they’ve always been structured and created as a means of social control over people of color or the poor, in general. But at this point, they endure with a different overlay, which is of classism, of this is keeping the people, the have-nots, vulnerable and on the outs, keeping one America away from the other. And it as brutal in certain quadrants of Baltimore and poor whites as it is otherwise. But, clearly there’s something even more profoundly disturbing about seeing that unit was two thirds African American officers, they were as complicit as anybody else. It came to getting paid and it came down to us against them and class war.

Geri Cole: Which is like, there’s so much wrong, there’s… Yeah, there’s-

David Simon: It’s like it outlasted the raw racism of an all white department or of a majority white. The Baltimore department of 1966 was terrifyingly racist, and structured that way. And, in 1961, ’62, I knew officers who, when they came on, couldn’t get into a radio car, they weren’t allowed to ride the radio cars.

Geri Cole: Wow.

David Simon: They were taking black officers to walk foot in black neighborhoods, but they weren’t letting them in the cars or letting them have radios. That’s where we came from, you get to a point where it’s majority minority, there’s a black police commissioner and you’re still embracing the drug war with this kind of fervor, mass arrest, militarization, it’s just terrifying.

Geri Cole: Yeah. So, what approach did you take to writing real people? Do you feel like there was sort of a line that you had to stay true to the individual or do you just sort of do what’s needed in order to serve the story?

David Simon: We had to stay with the facts of the case. The truth is, we know certain things and there was a lot of testimony and there was a lot of proffer sessions, which you can rely on to a fairly healthy extent because these are people who are cooperating and now if they leave anything out or if they lie, they can endanger their federal plea agreement. So, they can get stuff from wrong or they can omit stuff and you know, you have to think about what they’re telling you, but by and large, there was a lot of material by which we could construct a narrative and know that it was accurate. There are moments where you go into a room with two people and they dispute the narration is different on what happened in the room or there is no narration, somebody’s dead or neither side is talking about what happened.

David Simon: It’s not something involving the actual defendants or it’s not something that they were queried on in the proffer sessions. And there, as all writers, are you have to construct a scene, you have to have dialogue, you may know why they went in the room, you may know what they did after they came out of the room, you can surmise what was said and what was agreed upon or what was not agreed upon. But, it’s not a documentary, you can’t know exactly what was said and there you basically take your best shot. And there are other places where we decided to use a composite character, I think one of the few places was Nicole Steel’s character, the DOJ investigator for the Civil Rights Division. She represents an entire team of who were on the ground working up that consent decree.

David Simon: And we were just running out of space. We could not devote as much time to the interior reality of that office and the scope of what they did, but we needed somebody who to be the eyes on the process and to be the inquisitor of what was going on as an outsider. And so, that character basically takes on the role of several people. I think it’s accurate to what the consent decree process was and how that report was prepared and how those people worked on the ground, but she’s carrying a lot of water for a lot of people. So, that’s just a choice structurally and dramatically.

Geri Cole: I feel like you actually just answered my next question, which was were there parts of the history that you sort of had to leave out in order to service the story and the series. Was there anything else that you feel like you had to sort of…

David Simon: If I was writing a book about the Baltimore department, I would love to go back into the origins of the drug war. And in fact, it’s funny, I say that because I have such a project on the books as a prose work, as a non-fiction narrative, and Bill Zorzi and I have been working on that for years. But, that goes back to the 1950s and the origins of a modern narcotics war. And, in some respects, that’s a lot of flesh to hang on a skeleton. We picked it up from the point of which mass arrest and a collapse of the department ethos, a complete collapse, the Fourth Amendment and what police work actually is supposed to be, we picked it up from that point, which would’ve been the early aughts, in using Jenkins’ career as a backstory.

David Simon: And, I think that’s sort of sufficient to explain why we got to this degree. The police department that I covered, which would’ve been through the mid ’90s, from the ’80s all the way through the mid ’90s, and then continued to observe while we were doing The Wire and while we were reporting the corner, you knew there were certain corruptions. There had been since the ’70s, since the ’40s or ’50s, the same things that happened when you hit a numbers drop and you kicked over a mattress and you found $5,000, $4,000 might make it to evidence control, you might hand $500 back to the guy you were arresting, squawk and you pocket $500 and call yourself lucky. That’s been police work in America and it’s always existed and it’s one level of corruption.

David Simon: There had always been street level brutality where it was the officer’s word against somebody else and what happens in an alley is, the officer’s word is going to prevail unless there’s a plethora of unimpeachable witnesses that he can’t knock down. Those two things had always been true and they were true when I covered the department and you knew stuff was going on and only if somebody screwed something up or if they did something grandly, egregious and left behind a trail were you going to find out about. It’s kind of as if the Hercs and Carvers of The Wire, if you know those characters, it’s as if they became the colonels and majors in this next generation of policing, because you got to remember, it’s been 15 years since we wrote the last word on The Wire. And when I was coming to the department, you did not have wholesale units that were going out hunting to rob people to do home invasions, to rob civilians, not even drug dealers, but just people they decided I can take this money from you and you’ll never be able to explain why you had it and I won’t say I took as much as I did and I’ll turn in $50 and I’ll keep $500. And you certainly didn’t have any units that were getting the drugs from Doug and then putting them back on the street.

David Simon: That’s a level of cynicism and dystopia that it required another generation of existential collapse, another generation of drug waring and mass incarceration. Before you were training cops, there was no remaining belief system in protect and serve. And when the department I covered, you had your petty graft and you had your street level brutalities and you had some terrible mission creep into the drug war, the real policing was dying and the drug war was subsuming everything. That was the theme of The Wire, but we hadn’t hit bottom yet, and the Baltimore department did. And, it’s a generation later because you got to remember the average police career is 20, 25 years, then you retire, the average cop is not on for 30, 40 years. At 20 years, you’re dealing with a whole new police department in some very basic ways, at least at the street enforcement level. And the guys who were the Gun Trace Task Force, most of them came on well after we were done with The Wire. Jenkins, didn’t get the plain clothes until we were pretty much on our last season of The Wire and he’s the oldest. So, this department had miles to go on some bad road. It’s profound, that’s kind of the reason we went back is, as I said, it felt like a coda.

Geri Cole: Mm, yeah. Existential collapse. Actually you kind of also answering my next question, which is, I feel like this show does such an incredible job of showing the difficulties in, I feel like it’s fair to say, the reform of an institution like policing. What is your hope that how this show will affect the national conversation?

David Simon: Reform will not work to the degree we need it to work in America. Listen, there’s a consent decree. Now in Baltimore, some of the more egregious practices have been prohibited, there’s probably a more aggressive response from the Internal Investigation Division, or Internal Affairs. I’m sure they’ve been knocked back on their heels in terms of doing the kinds of unsupervised insanities that were there five, six years ago, but you will not actually reform and improve upon police service to vulnerable communities and vulnerable cohort and by that, I mean poor people and people who are struggling in the places where crime is endemic. You won’t do that unless you end the drug war, you must end the drug war and it’s as simple as the fact that everyone can see, if you’re a good progressive, you can see that the drug war has harmed cities and communities and neighborhoods and families and people, and it hasn’t achieved anything.

David Simon: Drugs are as pure as they’ve ever been, there as available as they’ve ever been, the rates of addiction [inaudible 00:19:43] what they were before we started fighting this insanity 50 years ago, that’s all true. But, the corresponding truth, which it seems counterintuitive, but it’s not at all, is that it’s destroyed law enforcement. To do that job properly, and I’m somebody that covered it and paid attention to the better end of police work where it mattered, where you were solving felonies and putting the right person, all that kind of police work requires skill sets that are profound in their own way. You need to cultivate informants then use those informants and not be used by those informants, you need to testify in court without perjuring yourself, you need to know how to canvas, you need to know how to talk to people, you need to know how to interrogate people, you need a certain degree of understanding of what’s possible forensically, in terms of physical evidence.

David Simon: In order to solve a crime and shepherd it through court, you need to know a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, we didn’t bother teaching the last two, two and a half generations of police any of that, because all they had to do was go up on the corner, grab a bunch of bodies, throw them against the side of the cut rate and go in their pockets, that was police work. So, they can’t get up in court and testify without perjury, they don’t know what the Fourth Amendment is, they don’t know how to write a coherent police report, some of them. What they do know is how to collect bodies and throw them in wagons and those cases didn’t have to go to court. As we show in a series, the state’s attorney just stationed an assistant state’s attorney down at the jail doors and basically said, “Look, if you signed this form saying, you won’t sue us, you can go home tonight. You don’t sign the form, you’ll have to wait to see a court commissioner on Monday.”

David Simon: And people signed the form and this insanity went on until, at some point, the ACOU sued the city and, 100,000 arrests later, the Mayor stood down. But that taught a whole police department how not to do the job. So, that’s my argument is until you end this and stop rewarding this and stop giving promotions and overtime and parking spaces and take home cards, this, which is the antithesis of good police work, you’re not going to get good police work. Which is why, in a city where they were arresting 100,000 people a year, a city of 600,000, 100,000 arrests a year, the clearance rates, the arrest rates for murder, rape, robbery, assault, collapsed. The murder rate, when I was in that homicide unit, was 70% the clearance rate, it’s now 35%. Which is why, in Baltimore now, instead of having 220, 230 murders a year, which used to be what we average with less population and with better shock trauma care, we now have 350 murders a year. We’re the most violent we’ve ever been.

Geri Cole: Wow.

David Simon: That’s what the drug war did. So, for me, it’s just end the drug war, take the resources and do the police work that people need. And, this is not an argument for defund the police or abolish the police, because you talk to people in those neighborhoods they don’t want the police abolished, they want the police to come and get the guys who are hurting people and they want the police not to harass them and betray them and brutalize them over that which doesn’t matter. And they see the one and they don’t see the other and they that’s what they can’t abide. And so, the rhetoric on either end of either back the blue or zero tolerance or on this side, the rhetoric of abolish the police or defund the police, change the mission, that’s it, change the mission, until we do that, nothing good is happening.

Geri Cole: Hmm. Do you ever hear from police and police unions about, about The Wire? Any feedback on sort of the statement your series has made?

David Simon: In very casual conversations, since The Wire began airing years ago, I’ve had lots of conversations with good working street police who have said the same thing to me go, “We lost our way in the drug war, we lost our way. You got that part right,” and they’re willing to concede that part. I’ve never gotten it from anybody above the rank of Captain who was currently serving, although I sat across from the guy who was the director of Public Safety, who’d come up as a narcotics detective and who had fought the drug war his whole career and who had been part of the policy of prison construction in Maryland, Bishop Robinson, the late Bishop Robinson. I sat across from him at an Italian restaurant one day after he retired. And he said, “The drug war was a disaster. We bought into that, it screwed everything up. It screwed us up.” But, of course, he was retired and he was talking to me over his pasta in his retirement.

David Simon: At the time that people are invested in this, there’s a hierarchical point at which they’re not going to tell me that. Listen, there’s other street police who think they’re doing the Lord’s work whenever they grab a guy and they catch vials of coke, they think they’ve done something. And, we were making fun of that, going back to The Wire, we made fun of the phrase “Dope on the table.” “What’d your case do? It put dope on the table?” Drugs on the table for a press conference, or even guns on the table in a drug or gun saturated city, is the most meaningless metric.

Geri Cole: Mm.

David Simon: Lock a shooter up, somebody just shot four people in the last two months and you haven’t gone and gotten them and stopped them from shooting more people? That’s why you have 350 murders a year. Put him on the table, that’s police work, but dope on the table became the metric by which cops were paid and promoted in Baltimore, that’s what they did.

Geri Cole: So, I’m long believed that film and television has the power to affect change, I would argue more so than a lot of things in some policies and I feel like that’s sort of where we’re getting at. Can we talk a little bit about that about? Because it’s like, what will make it change? And I feel like it’s…

David Simon: I don’t know we did The Wire for five years and the drug war, it didn’t even flinch, so I’m not sure that I believe that I’m going to write something and they’re going to pass a better law or build a better mouse trap as a societal entity. You write for Sesame Street, the ability of television, all narrative, but television is a very potent medium. To effect change within an individual, I totally credit you’re doing it with kids at a found level at a critical age and I think in some ways, if I could credit The Wire and whatever effect this current piece has, I think there’ll be a larger percentage of Americans who will turn away from the next shit spinning politician who says he’s going to be tough on drugs or tough on crime, no more prisons, there will be some greater percentage of resistance to that.

Geri Cole: Hmm.

David Simon: But there will be others who see it as just rhetoric and they see the advantage of being hard on these issues. Until we basically as a society reckon with this institutionally and systemically, it doesn’t matter how good the individual is or how many you have, until we actually pass change the laws, and I’m not talking about legalizing, but decriminalizing, making this a health and mental hygiene matter rather than a law enforcement matter, would be a long day’s journey for us. But, we’ve tried to do it by virtue of a few rational individuals getting hold of the problem and trying to be a little bit sane about it. In Obama’s second term, Eric Holder told all the US attorneys around the country to not bring in drug cases unless they had a reason to bring in a drug case, unless it involved violence or cartel. There were exceptions, but basically he said, “Let’s stop filling federal prisons, at least, with drug defendants.”

David Simon: And they did that, of course in the second term, because if they did it in the first term, somebody would’ve counter programed them politically. They did it in the second term, but of course, they were followed by Trump and Jeff sessions who wanted to lock everyone up for marijuana. So, everything was countermanded because they didn’t actually uphold the laws. And to be fair to that administration, they didn’t have the votes in Congress to change the laws. But, these things, they’re an overlay to not only create social control on the people who don’t have by the people who have, but they’re also there to disenfranchise people. Because, of course, everybody with a drug conviction has a felony conviction and they can’t vote. People like Sessions, they understand the validity of this politically for their purposes. And, you’re not fighting a moral battle here over a moral issue of drugs, that’s not what this is about, it’s not about whether people take drugs or they don’t take drugs. It’s about what can we do politically with a wedge issue they can advantage us politically,

Geri Cole: Man. There’s so much, there’s so much, there’s so much. Yeah. Yeah.

David Simon: I sound like a broken record on this stuff, but it’s-

Geri Cole: No, but it’s-

David Simon: It’s the one thing I wanted to argue with The Wire and why we came back with this piece. And, if you’re asking me if we’re any closer to a systemic change in this country, I’d say no.

Geri Cole: Wow. So, let’s actually talk a little bit about your background because you came from journalism. I read that you became disillusioned with journalism and that’s sort of what led you to become a novelist and then a screenwriter. Can we talk about that period?

David Simon: I had the opportunity open up to me, which is to say, I wrote one book. I spent a year in a homicide unit in Baltimore following a shift in detectives and Barry Levinson, the film director, he bought it and he turned it into the NBC show Homicide that was on in the ’90s. And that’s where I learned to write a little bit of television, they gave me a couple scripts, and then at a certain point, my newspaper, which had been bought by a chain, we used to be locally owned when I started working there and, at first a seemingly benign chain, the LA times Mirror, but then eventually it started becoming less and less benign, and finally it became hell. Even before it became hell, even when it was just starting to become a process of retrenchment and they were having [inaudible 00:30:24] reporters, I started to find some of the journalism to be completely, the people from out of town who were running my newspaper, it felt like there was less of an organic belief in the process of journalism and more of a let’s put together a very simple and two dimensional outrage and over-report it and see if we can win a prize.

David Simon: That became the operate model at my newspaper, that sort of prize grubbing. There was a particular formula to it that I felt great contempt and my reporting had become something that was going in the other direction, it had become very people oriented, I started to spend time in places where I was doing a lot of hanging out journalism, not just from the book, but I was on the way to… And, by this time, I had reported The Corner, I was still waiting to publish it, but I had reported The Corner in ’93. So, my feeling of what journalism could be was changing and my feeling of what journalism was happening in my paper was very different and they offered a buyout to anybody who had 12 years or more. So, I had a year’s salary if I left and Homicide offered me a job.

David Simon: So I ended up working for TV, but did I think I was going to become a TV writer, TV producer? No. I thought, I’ll do this for a couple years and I’ll learn this skill and they’ll pay me, which would be kind of fun, I’ll know something new, and then I’ll go to a better newspaper, I’ll try to get on the Washington Post, and I actually had an offer from the Washington post and I’ll probably do that after I finish writing The Corner. The Corner was published in ’97, HBO, by then, had agreed to do The Corner as a mini series. So, I was like, okay, I’ll do that. And then after The Corner aired and did well for them, they said, “You got anything else?” And, Ed Burns and I, who had written the corner, Ed was a former detective and former school teacher in Baltimore who felt about the drug war as I did, we started writing the pilot for The Wire.

David Simon: And somewhere, about eight, nine years later, I had to admit, maybe I’m not going back to this. And it was really that accidental. I kept saying, I’m a journalist, but I’m doing this for a while and then, at some point, I had to admit, I’m probably going to keep doing this for as long as HBO lets me. I developed the interest in it and the skillset. I regret leaving reporting at some points, but at other points, I do not.

Geri Cole: Can we talk a little bit also about your process, what your writing process is like, if you have any sort of like rituals? Especially, because I feel like coming from journalism, which is a different skill set than sort of screenwriting, what skills do you feel like serve you best in screenwriting?

David Simon: Journalism allowed me to do a couple things that. And for one thing I can write in the loudest coffee shop because I used to write in newsroom, so I don’t need silence and you can slam doors loudly and you can have kids screaming behind me and I won’t budge. The other thing that journalism gave me was, I was a white, suburban kid from Silver Spring, Maryland, I grew up just over the district line and out of college, I got hired at The Sun after being their college stringer at University of Maryland, and they threw me under the police beat in a majority Black city. And so, between the Irish and Italian desk sergeants and neighborhoods that were predominantly Black, I had to learn to talk to people and listen to people whose cadences and whose realities were different than my own.

David Simon: And, I found that I had a decent year, I could hear how people talk and that’s not all just sort of racial diversity, a lot of it is cultural and class, and also the cohort of you how cops talk or later on how recon Marines talk or how school teachers talk. Every profession, every existence, has its own dialectic, its own idiom. And, I found that I was pretty good at acquiring it and holding it and hearing it. And, you would think that would be for a lot of reporters, they got to quote everybody, but I found that a lot of people were cleaning stuff up in their brain to make it sound like themselves and had to reproduce it, even fictionally. It would either come out stilted or it would… So, I found that I was okay writing different people and that was a skillset that was 80% of television writing is dialogue, 60% of its dialogue. The rest of it’s all structure, but dialogue’s a big deal, and so, that probably helped me.

David Simon: What’s different, I guess, is the structure, is the dramatic poise of piece, is the pace, every line having to justify itself, every scene having to justify themselves, you can’t go that far aside before you start to die. You can’t go miles out of your way for a joke, and also people don’t say exactly what they mean. Chekhov wrote whole plays in which people don’t say what they mean, and that’s how people are is they talk around what they want to say a great deal at the time. So, I found that I could basically reproduce worlds that I had seen or worlds that I had studied and at first it was just I had all these years on the street in Baltimore, I can do that. But, you give me Yonkers housing officials and city councilman and a political milieu that I never covered before and I’ll just talk to enough people or I’ll gather enough information or I’ll do it with context of my writing partner, we’ll do it together and away we go and I found that I was pretty good at that.

David Simon: So, that synthesis of the real is something that I took for granted when I was a reporter, but I don’t take it for granted now. It’s something that I just happen to be fairly decent at.

Geri Cole: I feel like listening and talking to people is I don’t think a part of everyone’s process, especially when you’re trying to write about something and/or a place very specific where you got to go talk to people there and listen.

David Simon: Right. And also, you really want to learn from people, you have to be the fool, you have to start out as the fool, which is a great interrogative technique of reporting. I came to it naturally, which is I was willing to be the butt of the joke, any situation, as long as you let me stay and take notes. and years later, the kid who was no longer a kid, but he’d been the main kid in The Corner, Deandre McCullough , he said to me, years later, when he was 30 and we were years past that project, that book, he said, “You know why I decided to talk to you?” because, at the time, he was 15 going on 16, and he was sort of a street kid and he was selling drugs on Vine Street. He said, “You were standing out there on Vine up at Monroe and, man, everyone was just twirling around you and it was all going on and you just looked so stupid and I just felt so sorry for you that I decided I was going to talk to you.” And I was like, “Well, that worked. I said, “DeAndre, did it ever occur to you that I was trying to look stupid because I was hoping you would talk to me?” And he just got quiet and then he just started laughing.

David Simon: But, there was a famous reporter for the New York Times, and earlier The Herald Tribune, named Homer Bigart, terrible stutter. In fact, his stutter was so bad that The Herald Tribune, when he was coming up, they thought he was an idiot, as people used to think about people with speech impediments and they wouldn’t let him be a reporter, he was a copy boy into his 20s. And, finally, they gave him a story, he turned out to be great and he ended up winning a couple quote surprises. Anyway, years later, he was writing on the business page of The New York Times, and the head of Exxon or some major company, is having lunch with punch Sulzberger, the publisher, and he says, “I can’t believe the idiot that you sent to interview me the other day, some guy named Bigart.” And Sulzberger raises an eyebrow says, “Oh, what happened?” He says, “He didn’t know anything. I had to explain everything to him.”

Geri Cole: It’s like basically The Usual Suspects, the way it was playing…

David Simon: Right, right.

Geri Cole: Playing the idiot.

David Simon: It’s a powerful technique. You don’t know how many reporters I worked with who didn’t want to be the fool. They didn’t want to ask the question they didn’t already know the answer to, which is no way to report.

Geri Cole: Mm. Oh, wow. That’s a good and interesting tip. Also, I’m curious, because I feel like we’re running out of time, so I do want to make sure to get to a few other specific questions. But, I feel like you deal with such heavy topics and like the dramas, do you have to like do anything to sort of lift yourself back out of, after immersing yourself in this world or in sort of these issues, how do you…

David Simon: I do the same thing, I watch the game, which isn’t so much help because I’m an Oriole fan and they have… And, I hang with my kids and I watch old movies and try to get to the gym. I do the same things everyone else does when they’re trying to… Listen, I trained as a reporter, my natural inclination is to go try to find a story on the fault lines.

Geri Cole: Mm.

David Simon: Where society has its fault lines. So, I’m always looking for trouble, in that sense. Would I like to do other kinds of writing? I’m not sure I could. I like to think I’m a funny guy and that I could write a half hour and it would be really funny, but I don’t think so. My son writes comic pieces and he’s been published for them and he’s funnier than I am, he’s just funnier than I am and I have to finally admit it. I guess the one tone that I man have managed to achieve, almost as a, how should I describe it? It’s basically just a small bit of performance art that I do when I’m waiting for them to move a light, there’s a 40 minute delay on set or when I’m stuck waiting for 15 minutes for my kid to get out of school so I can pick her up and take her to the doctor and I’m stuck there, is I get on my phone and I yell at trolls and bots or whoever on Twitter seems like a fun target.

David Simon: People take that persona as me, which I also sort of weirdly enjoy that they think I’m everybody’s bete noir. But, really, I’m doing it for comic effect. So many years ago, because of the way I write drama or journalism, that is somebody, very cynically I think, said I was the angriest man in television. And I thought about that and I said, “The second angriest man in television is Cold Water Canyon on a house on the side of the hill looking over LA, got a kidney shape pool and he’s screaming into his phone because his residual checks are late. What is the angriest man talking? But, I took it to heart in one way, which is I can at least personify that guy for comedy, for the sense of. But do I take that seriously? I do not. I do the same things everyone else does to have fun.

Geri Cole: Do you ever, though, in also dealing with this material and because you said are attracted to stories on the fault line, are you ever scared? Because I remember, actually, I was going to Towson while you were shooting The Wire and I remember hearing people like this is not a set, they are shooting in these very dangerous neighborhoods.

David Simon: And, we had some stuff happen near where we shot in The Wire and we had some stuff happen a little bit near Homicide, but Homicide we stayed pretty close to Fell’s Point, we shot most of that stuff over in Southeast. Jimmy Finnity, the line producer, wouldn’t let us go into the sections of Baltimore where we shot a lot of The Wire. I didn’t feel that way when we were filming, no. Filming is a different dynamic and you come with your calling card and people want to know why you’re there. There were times reporting where I felt like, man, I’m kind of out over my skis here. There were times where I needed to go talk to someone face to face in the high rise projects, back when Boulder ran highs, the Murphy homes or the Terrace or whatever.

David Simon: And, you sort of gauged it like, Well, on the run in, nobody’s going to know if I’m a social worker or a cop. I’ll probably be able to, but I hope the elevator’s working. I don’t want to have to go up that stairwell because that north stairwell was rough and there were calculations you made as a reporter. And, when I was reporting The Corner, we got robbed and it was wasn’t pleasant, but what do we expect? Ed and I were two white guys and we were standing on Fayette Street after dark with Gary McCullough and we looked like we were there to buy drugs. The only confusing moment for the people robbing us was that, each of us had $2 in change and they couldn’t figure out why we were down there if we didn’t have any money, so we disappointed them and that was it.

David Simon: But, by and large, I don’t want to act like I covered Beirut or something. You go to these neighborhoods and most people are they people and they’ll talk to you or they won’t, but either way, as long as you explain your mission, most people were pretty benign about it. And even, when Ed and I went up to that drug corner to write that book, we told everybody what we were doing and I passed out paperback copies of my first book. And, we later found them all water logged in the shooting gallery and stuff. But it was a way of saying, we’re not cops and we’re not lying and we’re really just trying to write a book about the drug war from the ground up and this neighborhood. And, most people, if not right away, because there’s a certain amount of distrust, but most people over time, if you keep doing the same things every day and saying that’s what you’re doing, most people are pretty benign about it.

Geri Cole: Because I do want to also ask you about, you were saying getting The Wire crew back together, you have some frequent collaborators and George Pelecanos, I feel like I’m saying that wrong and Ed burns. What do you look for in your collaborators and what do you think sort of makes these partnerships so successful?

David Simon: I keep not hiring TV writers. If you grew up anywhere in America and you said, “I want to write for television,” I weirdly don’t trust you. That’s not fair, it’s not fair, there’s probably great people who write for television, but I don’t look for people who can write a spec script based on a show that they think I want to read. I’m usually looking for people who have an area of expertise in what we’re writing about and then I say, “You come into my writer’s room, I’ll give you a script or I’ll give you a piece of a script, if you’re not ready for a whole script, but what I really want to have is your voice in the room.” So, sometimes that’s a frequent collaborator and sometimes it’s, with George, if it’s about urbanity or policing, I can always rely on George, he’s got those voices from the work he’s done as a novelist in DC.

David Simon: But on this project, we really needed somebody like D. Watkins. And, when we were doing The Deuce, which was about misogyny and the male gaze, sexual quantification, it couldn’t be a bunch of guys in the room, we needed to talk that room with women. So, everybody from Megan Abbott to bringing up Stephanie DeLuca as a new writer and we very much wanted to have a dialectic that was men and women in that room, it wouldn’t have worked otherwise. So, you’re bringing people in A, for the cohort they represent, but B maybe they have some specific knowledge. When we did Treme, so Lolis Elie and Tom Piazza, Mari Kornhauser, people like that, but you bring people on who know New Orleans, who lived in New Orleans.

David Simon: Eric had lived there for years, Eric Overmeyer, and I had visited routinely for two decades, but that wasn’t enough, we needed people who had soaked in it, and then you hire a ton of consultants, as well. So, I’m always looking for people who actually know the material and then it’s, “Give me that and I’ll show you how to write a script and maybe you’ll be interested in TV writing. But, either way, if you struggle with the script, I can fix those things. What I can’t fix is the lack of interior knowledge of the subject matter.” It’s probably terrible, as an employer of TV writers, I say this on a WGA podcast. That said, at times we’ve hired people who felt that they were right for a project, who felt like they could help us advance stuff and they were writing television already and they’ve turned out fine. So, maybe I just need to lose my inherent bias towards either journalists or people who’ve lived the event.

Geri Cole: I think that’s super encouraging to hear and I would imagine it is for a lot of folks who may listen to this podcast. And it’s one of the things that I’ve always believed, as well, where that every experience you have is valuable. All that time that you’re not sort of living this dream as whatever you think your ideas of your life is as a TV writer, that time somehow not valuable because you’re not in a sort of living…

David Simon: Lived experience. By the way, there’s a reason that I think a lot of sitcom riders, who write half hour comedy, are in their 20s. They’re really quick, they’re really funny, they they’ve got their pulse on the current wit of the culture and they can sit in a room and come up with the best possible joke for the best possible moment they can banter and they’re fast. And, I think rooms are populated by people in their late 20s and early 30s, whereas a lot of drama, it’s written by people who’ve had some loss in life. It’s hard to write drama if you’ve not suffered real loss and had some doors closed on you and made the inevitable mistakes of life. That makes it really much easier to write drama and write character and characters going through stuff. So, I think it’s sort of quite natural that a lot of drama rooms are a little bit older, at least mine are. It’s just people have fucked up more.

Geri Cole: So, with that, I guess, is there any lesson, hard won lesson, we’ll say, that you appreciate now that you really wish you had appreciated earlier?

David Simon: I think I’ve gotten better about shop, I’m writing for a visual medium. I came into this business, obviously no film school, I came in as a newspaper reporter who was given a chance to write for a television show. And the first time they sent me to set, I didn’t know that the guy who was turning a knob next to the camera was focusing the lens he wasn’t looking through. I found that to be so profoundly insane for about a week that somebody was focusing the camera without looking down the lens and that was a separate job to pull focus. Now, I certainly didn’t know about lenses, I didn’t know what a French over was, I didn’t know anything. And, once I started doing my own stuff, I had Bob Colesbury the late Bob Colesbury, who basically took care of that stuff for me. And, that poor man, if he explained to me crossing the line once, he explained it 10 times. Salt shakers with ketchup bottle here, when the camera moves this way, if you do this, you have to show yourself. And I’d be like, “Got it. I got it.” And then I’d come back two days later and go, “Bob, explain it to me again.”

David Simon: But there came a moment where, after Bob had passed away, Season three of The Wire, in fact, where I realized I was looking through the monitor, I was on set, and I realized I had a problem with camera movement and I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what the problem was. So, I had to sort of sit there with the director and say, “No, no, no, I need coverage and you have to go in and you can’t use that shot.” And he said, “Why not?” It was this shot, it was a low shot through the weeds of these guys, long shot in the alley and they’re planning their strategy for how they’re going to jump out on this drug corner. And, the three guys were squatting and their drawing a play with a stick in the mud, kind of like the way kids would do with football play. And one of them was standing over them and he is looking down, and then he has a funny line and the camera went up to catch his funny line. And it bothered me and I didn’t know why it bothered me, except it just felt incredibly false.

David Simon: And then, finally I realized, how did the camera know that he was about to be funny? It’s one thing if the camera gets there late after the line starts, but how did the camera know that the guy standing up was going to be funny? So, it raised up and caught the line. Can’t do that. The camera now knows more than it should and it knows more than the viewer, so the camera becomes a lie. And, when I realized what I was bothered by, the DP came up to me afterwards and she said, Hitchcock trafo.”. And I said, “What?” I hadn’t read Hitchcock, but, that’s how the camera’s supposed to move. But it’s there rules to it. And there’s there’s [inaudible 00:52:56] to it and there’s an economy of scale and a reality to what the camera can and can’t do if it’s going to be part of the storytelling that I had to learn.

David Simon: And, I made no effort to learn it until Bob was gone, the guy who was my right hand, visually, in my early projects, had passed away and then I had to learn it by scratch. But, I’ve gotten better at it and you’re not looking at somebody who’s about to say, “Oh, I’m ready to direct” or anything like that. I still don’t know my lenses, but what I do know is I can look through the monitor and I can tell you if we’ve covered a scene properly. And, listen, for the guy who was the night police reporter at The Baltimore Sun, that’s a journey.

Geri Cole: I want to make sure to get to one question that I always like to ask everyone who comes on the podcast and that’s a question about success. Because I feel like, in creative professions, success can feel elusive or the idea, the feeling, of success when something looks like success, it may not actually necessarily feel that way. So, I’m curious about how you define success for yourself and how that may evolved over time.

David Simon: I consider myself successful because they’ve let me do the projects I want to do consistently. And I’m grateful to HBO, in particular, where I’ve been now for 24 years, I’ve been working with them 24 years. I’ve probably got the longest run of any of their showrunners at this point. And they let me do what I want to do, they give me the resources to do it and I’ve never felt the success of having a hit or a big audience, and if I wanted those things, I should be designing different shows. Shows should not be attempting to do what they do, and they should be attempting to do other things that they fail to do. So, a long time ago, I abandoned certain metrics for success and I retained only one, which was, Can I do the next thing? Can I connect on the show that I actually am interested in?

David Simon: And, it extends at this point to such improbabilities as HBO gave me money to do six hours on federal housing policies in Yonkers, New York. Hyper segregation and public housing, that was the topic that HBO actually let me write a mini series on it. They let me write another mini series on the rise of fascism as an allegory for Trump using a Philip Roth novel from the 1940s. And, I am really grateful for the [inaudible 00:55:35], I don’t think a lot of people in television have been granted that kind of latitude or forgiveness. Since I don’t produce Emmys, I don’t produce viewers, people find the shows after they’re on the air, people finding Treme now. But, I’m grateful because I got to do what I wanted to do so far and it’s been a long enough run that if at some point HBO came to me and said, “Kid, we took our best shot with you, you’ve given us 150 hours of TV and nobody seems to watch it when we first broadcasted, so I don’t know what we’re doing here,” shook my hand and sent me out the door, I’d still cross the street to thank them, it’s been a long run. But that’s the only way I can define it.because the other metrics by which people are successful in television, I’m not particularly good at, but I haven’t had to be.

Geri Cole: Wow. Well, I think that’s a beautiful place to end. Thank you so much for your time.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online and you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

Back to top