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David Simon talks about path from journalism to TV

Dale Roe

When David Simon speaks at the Austin Film Festival, giving career advice probably shouldn't be at the top of his list. "These poor kids come up to me and they're, like, ‘How do you get into television?' and I'm like, ‘Well, first write a book and then find an A-list director who buys it and makes it.' I had no plan," he admits.

Actually, Simon's plan was to become a journalist, and he had a successful career at the Baltimore Sun before falling into television and creating some of the most critically acclaimed small-screen work of the past two decades, including "Homicide," "The Corner," "Generation Kill," "The Wire" and, most recently, "Treme."

Simon's love of journalism stems from his childhood, where he was raised in a newspaper-loving household. He attended college in the late 1970s and grew up in Washington, devouring Watergate stories.

Simon worked as a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun and spent a year with the city's Homicide Unit. That year produced a book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which became the basis for the NBC drama "Homicide: Life on the Street."

When "Homicide's" director suggested Simon take a crack at writing a script, he contacted David Mills, a colleague from his days at the University of Maryland student newspaper. Mills, whom Simon calls "a devoted fan of televised drama" (he would walk out on deadline, Simon recalls, to watch "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere"), died in March, after working with Simon on "Homicide," "The Corner," "The Wire" and "Treme."

That first "Homicide" script the pair knocked out won a Writers Guild award, and Mills left his job at the Washington Post for Hollywood. Simon remained at the Sun to work on his second book, "The Corner."

"And then, at some point, my newspaper started going down, the way a lot of newspapers started going down," he said. Simon points out that this was before the Internet and the "real nosedive" the industry took at that point.

"I sort of saw the writing on the wall," he explains. "I was not happy with the management of the paper and, so, they were offering me a job on this television show (‘Homicide')." Simon took the job, figuring he would learn enough to turn "The Corner" into a miniseries and sell more books. After that, he planned to find his way to a better paper. "And that was still the plan until I looked up and I'd been doing television for about eight, nine years," he says with a laugh.

Although Simon began that television career at the networks, he has little respect for them.

"On a basic level, it's kind of hard to write something seriously and then stop every 12 minutes so they can sell you iPods and, you know, Lincoln Continentals and blue jeans," he says.

In what he calls "the big tent," premium cable, Simon doesn't need to provide large numbers of viewers to advertisers.

"I just need to bring enough new people into the HBO tent that I can still call myself an asset in their system. And when you don't need to bring everybody in the tent, you don't have a low common denominator. And so all of a sudden television, which has been a juvenile medium since its inception, can now be grown up."

"Treme," his post-Katrina New Orleans HBO drama, was renewed for a second season after only one episode. The first season covered about six months in the New Orleans neighborhood for which the show is named. The next will probably pick up nine months later. The drama won't diminish with the passage of time, he promises. While life in New Orleans was tough in the aftermath of the hurricane, Simon claims that in many ways, the second year was even more difficult.

"Crime came back in the spring and summer of '06, and it came back dramatically, to the great shock of people in the immediate months after the storm who had suddenly found themselves in a city without its usual crime problem," he explains. And people began to realize that they would never get sufficient insurance money to rebuild.

He says the months immediately following the hurricane's devastation were fueled by righteous anger and pride. "And while some of that remains, there was a level of exhaustion you felt here in '06 and '07 that we're trying to capture," Simon says of Season 2.

"But there'll be music," he says with a laugh.

If Simon's big premium cable tent holds up, he'd like to see the show go five years, which would allow the characters to address moments including the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV victory and the British Petroleum mess. While "Treme," like "The Wire," tackles issues, Simon seems pessimistic about television's power to effect change.

"Listen, if ‘The Wire' was overt about one thing, it's that the drug war is a fraud, a sham, an amoral campaign against our own underclass. It's a betrayal of a lot of the things we believe ourselves to be, I think, as Americans," he says. "And yet, we are as secure in prosecuting the drug war now as when ‘The Wire' started airing. There's been no impact."

Perhaps change can come via the cachet that comes with the fellowship he received from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in September. Along with 22 other creative types, Simon received a no-strings "genius grant" of $500,000 over the next five years. Other recipients included a type designer and a sculptor. While half a million dollars might go a long way for a type designer, I was curious how Simon might utilize a stipend that would amount to a pittance in Hollywood cash.

"I've given this a lot of thought," Simon admits. The writer plans to use the money in the research phase of productions.

"Research ... is a big part of what we do when we plan stuff, and there's very little research money that is offered by Hollywood," he says. "They basically figure, you're a writer, you sit down and you start typing. So, to go somewhere and, you know, to look at the source material and talk to people and get a feel of the thing is all unfunded. And, invariably, we're bringing writers in on projects and the writers can only sustain themselves for so long."

He expects some of the money will also go to charity. "If it's backing up and we can't spend fast enough — we're going to pass it through."

David Simon at the Austin Film Festival