Behind The Wire
David Simon on where the show goes next.
Simon: Until now, Baltimore had no Hispanic population. And all of a sudden now we do—a large Central American population. Here's this remarkable new trend and it's also relevant to the life of the city. Two things preclude me to keep me from jumping up and down with HBO: One, I just did everything I could for Season 5; two, none of us is fluent in Spanish; none of us is intimately connected to the lives of Hispanics in Baltimore. None of us could do it with the degree of verisimilitude we demand of ourselves. We don't have that world in our pocket. By time we did the research, The Wire would have been off for two years. It's one thing when we take six months off to learn how the port works; we're still in the world we know. But I did no decent journalism about East Baltimore, where most Central Americans are living. It would be great if we could. When I saw the idea in print, I think I reacted as you did: Oh shit! Someone came up with Season 6! For all I know, David Mills mentioned it to me a few years ago, but it didn't have the import then that it does today. Someone should get to that story. It's very typical of Baltimore in that we would be late on that. Until now, Baltimore had never had this kind of population—it was only 2, 3 percent Hispanic.
Slate: How far in advance have you scripted out a given season? In mapping it out, do you know what the end will be? Or do you go from the beginning forward?
Simon: There are discussions during Season 3 that happen on the fly, in which you need to remember which characters need to be where for Season 4. For example, Prez. We knew we needed to have Prez in the schools at the beginning of Season 4. So, you know that Prez will be a teacher and that you'll be hiring kids. But what themes? What do you want to say about the education system? The first step is sitting down and figuring that out. We kicked that around a lot in the writers' room. This year Ed was predominant in the writers' room, because he had actual teaching experience. David Mills came and helped. He did this because George Pelecanos couldn't be available; he was working on The Night Gardener. (Though he did do one episode.) And myself and Bill Zorzi and Ed and Chris Collins and Eric Overmyer, who was on this year as a producer.
And then at some point, when we feel we've got the themes ready, we start to look at the characters and where we need to send them by the end of the run. We know what we want to say. We know what we think is fair and just to say about economic opportunities for these kids. But we don't know which kid is going to say what about those opportunities; that's all argued out, and this season we went through various scenarios. There was a lot of debate about what should happen to Dukie, for example.
There's always someone in the room saying, "I've seen that before." (George's favorite line.) Or another line is, "But what are we saying?" You get to the end, and someone comes up with a great ending, but you ask, "But what does it mean? What are we saying?" Which is not to say that you want the characters to be devices for your didacticism. But you want to be true about what you say about equality of opportunity.
Slate: The show brings in a lot of different high-profile writers and directors, including Richard Price, for example. How does that work?
Simon: There is a lot of arguing. There's a lot of ego in the room. There are a lot of authors in the room with a lot of success in different media. George Pelecanos knows how to write a book with a beginning, middle, and an end. So does Richard Price. Ed Burns co-wrote a nonfiction book [The Corner]. Not to mention that I can be a pretty big shithead myself. All of us together, it can be miserable for a while. But what attracts everyone to it, even though they've got their own gigs, is a fealty to the entire story, to the whole. You don't have people being protective of the single episode or idea; you have people being protective of the whole story.
We let all the writers know what's happening, the larger arc. Not the actors, of course—then they'd telescope. We want their characters to be living in the present tense.
Slate: What role, if any, do actors themselves play in the dialogue they speak? Is a finished episode relatively faithful to the original script?
Simon: Pretty faithful. Ninety-five percent or so. One of the writers is always on set. If someone comes up with an ad-lib or a different intonation and it doesn't work, or it's not our intention, we bring them back to the book. If someone comes up with something, and it's good, it serves the story, or it's just generally funny, we let it ride. But because the story is so ornate and because we're looking at this thing as a 66-hour movie, when we're done, it's the writer, the people with the constant awareness of the story as whole, who need to make decisions as to whether or not an ad-lib would work.
Slate: I'm interested that you said you see this as a 66-hour movie. One thing that has attracted me, like many viewers of the show, is that its sheer length allows you to show in detail many things you just never see in cop films.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Photograph of David Simon by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images. Photograph of Michael K. Williams on Slate's home page by Paul Schiraldi/HBO.