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After 'The Wire,' Taking On New Orleans In 'Treme'

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After 'The Wire,' Taking On New Orleans In 'Treme'

After 'The Wire,' Taking On New Orleans In 'Treme'

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

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 nonfiction book about a year in the life of an inner-city neighborhood. The NBC series "Homicide" was based on Simon's nonfiction 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 band.

(Soundbite of television program, "Treme")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) That ain't right. It should be 10. The price was 12, bro.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Say, bro, the 1,200 for eight piece. You said you were was going to have Shorty kicking it with you.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Shorty gonna make it.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Yeah, well, he ain't here tonight, and I see y'all ain't got but the one (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Look, we already cut our prices, and we now have seven to step off.

Unidentified Man #2: (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 #3 (Actor): (As character) How much water ya'll get up here?

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor) (As character) You see the line over my head: six, six and a half.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Look, I feel for you all, but less than 200 a man, that (bleep) ain't right.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) Say, baby, (bleep) was right, you think we'd have to scrape up a couple of dumb nuts to do this (bleep)? You think we all be parading on the same day? Come on, bro.

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor). (As character) Most of us are wearing last year's suits.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible), to pay for these fedoras.

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor): (As character) Y'all do look all right, though.

Unidentified Man #8 (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 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 Katrina?

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 undertaking.

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 Sidney Bechet 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 beautiful 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, thats 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, Vernel Bagneris, 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'�tre 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, so...

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, huh?

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 sets 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 have 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 Named 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 Mo' 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. OVERMYER: Yeah.

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.

GROSS: Wow.

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 tonight.

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 precise.

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: ...in "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 WWOZ.

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 city.

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 was...

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 manmade disaster, not a natural disaster and that its the fault of the engineers and the government and everything, for having levees that couldnt withstand a hurricane. And so he gets a phone call from the press and he really hates the press. Weve seen that, but its 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 Companion."

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 didnt want, you know - he was willing to let me follow him but I didnt 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 shouldnt get into this lightly because he, you know, he was 15 and, you know.

In any event, we got - we hit that point where the Baltimore station, 92-Q, this hip-hop station lost - started to fade 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 dont remember what the, you know, if it was Guy Noir or whatever, but at some point...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: ...you 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."

Well 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 youve spent a lot of time in New Orleans. But still, its a different - there's just like different, there's different slang, there's different accents, some different expressions.

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 youve 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, its 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 didnt want that thing that usually happens down here where people are doing bad southern accents or like "The Big Easy," bad Cajun 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 didnt 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 dont you probably shouldnt 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 correctly.

(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 aspect.

GROSS: So something that a Baltimore cop would say that a New Orleans cop would not?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. God, I'm trying to think of some - Eric, say something and Ill 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 youd 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 youve 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. OVERMYER: Yeah.

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

GROSS: Well, its 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 freshair.npr.org, 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.

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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.

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