For the creators and actors of HBO’s Treme, it’s clear that the series is more than just another television job. Creators and executive producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer (who has lived in New Orleans part-time for 20 years) are telling the story of city where magic is inseparable from tragedy. For show star and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, Treme represented an opportunity to play a role in the community’s post-Katrina healing and to be part of an authentic depiction of his complex and beloved city.
We caught up with all three gents earlier this year at the Television Critics Awards; here’s what they had to say about Treme, New Orleans, and their hopes for the series.
David Simon on how they shaped the show
"We started with the idea of following the actual history of New Orleans post-Katrina and constructing our stories based on what we wanted to say about that. It really needs to be a story of something first. And then after that, you begin thinking about what characters ought to be that help you tell that story… New Orleans is not just a party. There’s a lot of dystopia in that city. In some ways the party and dystopia may be intrinsically connected."
Wendell Pierce on whether New Orleans has a universal meaning
"New Orleans is one of the most unique American cities, one of the most unique cities in the world. And we were uniquely part of one of the greatest disasters in the country. I personally believe the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. People will see, in the stories of Treme, struggles that they may identify with and have a better understanding of the humanity that happened within this disaster and also an appreciation of culture. How culture serves the world in everyday life. And I think that we in New Orleans display that more than in any other city. Culture is an everyday thing. We sing when we say hello."
Eric Overmyer on portraying New Orleans accurately
"Movies have been shot in New Orleans and some television shows have been set there. But we never felt that they got the city right or that they showed much of the city beyond the same six locations that everyone seemed to use: Bourbon Street, the streetcars. We have always been concerned about how to translate New Orleans, to convey New Orleans."
Pierce on how New Orleans residents will react to the show
"I was concerned, like all New Orleanians, about the authenticity of it. A lot of times you see bad TV movies about New Orleans and it’s Mardi Gras every day. And everybody is dressed up and outside the window you see a parade going by. I knew that David and Eric had a unique ability to find the specificity in a culture and depict it in a way that was authentic. And so that’s happening and that’s evident and I’m happy about it. New Orleanians are very protective about their culture and I think they’ll be happy about the specificity in the show."
Simon on the cultural significance of New Orleans
"To me, New Orleans represents a place where it’s a triumph of American urban culture. It’s the best that an American city can be and also the worst in a lot of ways. But it has created a culture that has gone around the world. If you look at what our greatest export would be—culturally or politically or socially—from the American experiment, you would have to put African-American music probably at the top of the list. If you go anywhere from Katmandu to Johannesburg and you walk into a bar and they’re playing a tape machine, they’ve got on Michael Jackson or Coltrane or Otis Redding or something. That whole notion of African rhythms and pentatonic scale meeting European instrumentation and arrangement comes from that 12 square blocks of New Orleans. So this is a city that is essential in the American psyche. And yet we all witnessed the near destruction of it. It was the closest thing to the destruction of an American city since the San Francisco earthquake. And yet it’s coming back on its own terms as best as it can with a lot of concerns from some quarters but a lot of indifference from much of the country. And that’s a fascinating story to me."
Pierce on why he chose to do Treme instead of Men of a Certain Age
"It was a great honor to have to have two roles written specifically with me in mind. I was very happy that Ray [Romano] wrote the role in his show for me and I met with them and knew about the show. I worked five years with [Simon] and I’m from New Orleans and we lost everything. To have a moment in time to work with such a great creator of material and to say something about the city that I love and its darkest hours and darkest days, it was clear the decision that I had to make… I told [Romano] that this was more than just a job for me. It was one of the most cathartic moments in my life: art imitating life, life imitating art. I hope years from now that when some young kid asks, “In New Orleans’ darkest hour, what did you do?” that I can hand him about six seasons of a show called Treme. So it was a very easy choice for me."
Simon on the dual character of New Orleans
"The city gives you this one moment that always surprises you. This one moment of just incredible beauty or wit or class and then it follows it up with sort of doing a pratfall. Or something worse and darker. The dystopia of that place is tangled up in the joy. And they come from the same place. There’s a reason they made the funeral into something exotic and fun. Even going back to its origins, every 25 or 30 years, 25 percent of the population would die of yellow fever. So there’s a very dark undercurrent to New Orleans and it’s what makes the art there so intense. What makes New Orleans great in one sense also makes it problematic in another."
Pierce on the city’s slow recovery
"It’s a little embarrassing, for me, that it doesn’t take much art direction to make [the scenes] look like three months after [Katrina]. We got calls to the city when we would prepare a street for shooting, and they would say, 'They’re putting those cars and they’re dumping that garbage over here,' instead of someone clearly thinking, 'Well this is obviously just a set.' People didn’t see it as a set. They can still, four-and-a-half years later, possibly think this is debris being brought from another part of the neighborhood, from another part of the city there. That says a lot about the slow pace and the slow nature of the recovery."
Treme starts on Sky Atlantic at 10.15pm on Friday, February 18.