Admired Work Film and Television

What’s My Line?

I wrote this up some months ago, at the time that the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries was broadcast on HBO, but then held the essay back for the simple reason that viewers were still acquiring the narrative. After all, nothing is more distracting to the viewing of any edifice than to stumble through a side door and be confronted by all the interior scaffolding, if not evidence of an architect’s early mistakes and lesser intentions. But as the miniseries has now been airing for six months — and as the DVD release of “Show Me A Hero” is slated for tomorrow — I’m guessing that any little extra attention to detail can only be a good thing. And, oh yeah, SPOILERS:

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Most of the time, writing for film or television – if the writer retains a producer’s title on the set – is a straight, simple negotiation: Here’s the page. Say the lines. Yes, like you mean them, as a good actor would. You’re a good actor, right? Of course you are. That’s why we wanted you. So, you talented, photogenic prick motherfucker, say the fucking lines the way they were fucking written and then we can all go to the bar pretending to be friends.

Okay, so it isn’t quite that totalitarian.

And yes, the actor has to believe in the pages, and yes again, he or she is entirely correct to raise questions when a line or a scene bumps, when something seems emotionally inconsistent or implausibly plotted. Good actors live in those characters, or at least reside in the general vicinity; if they aren’t comfortable in the skin of their intricately created personas, then yes, perhaps, there’s a scene or three that needs rewriting.

Filmed narrative is intensely collaborative. And the script is just a script; until you film the sonofabitch, it doesn’t actually exist in a form that matters to anyone. So it makes sense to stay reasonable, and to open one’s ears to any actor who is thinking carefully about character, or perhaps even story, especially when the questions are selfless, and sincere, and in service of the greater whole. Every now and then, the actor is right.

It’s quite annoying when this happens.

And not because I hate to be wrong any more or less than the next man. Though I do. I hate it more than the next man because the next man is usually not right, and quite often he’s astonishingly and epically incorrect, which is, of course, why he’s The Next Man. If he were right, he’d be this man – me. Which would make me, I suppose, the next man – and if I was that ignorant rube, then okay, I’d shut my pie hole because I’d fucking realize that as The Next Man, my weak-sister argument is no match for this keen-witted fellow who is savaging me intellectually and rhetorically. Understand, I say all of this with the humility of a gentleman who wants at all points to be agreeable and kindhearted, to be yoked in tender harness to any and every soul in our divine human comedy. Seriously, I’d love nothing more than to agree with my Next Man brethren at every point possible. I would. But then we’d both be fucking wrong.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the thing about me letting an actor be right is he damn well better be right. When he makes a choice to go off book or omit some element of the storytelling, he better be servicing not just his character, but the narrative to which that character is in service. He or she better be so sure of the decision and its effect on the entire story that directors and film editors and producers aren’t sitting in a dark room months later cursing some Hobson’s Choice in a scene that is missing the necessary elements. I’ve been there. And rest assured, it will not be only the Hobson’s Choice that I’m cursing.

On the other hand, the good actors do know their business. And their business is something so ineffable and extraordinary that when they completely understand a role and the purpose of that role in the context of a story, an argument or two about some dialogue or action is probably unavoidable.

And with that preamble, I’d going to tell a story on myself and a couple of actors and a director because, hey, I’m not sure they ever get around to teaching this stuff in film school. Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know having never been within rock-throwing distance of a film school. Regardless, it strikes me as a pretty good primer for anyone interested in the inside baseball of filming. What follows is a bit of how we actually do.

The actors are Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder and the director, Paul Haggis. The project is the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries recently broadcast on HBO. And the scene in question is the culminating, confrontational moment of a storyline involving the characters played by Isaac and Ryder, the ex-mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko and his longtime political ally and friend, Vinni Restiano, respectively.

Cornered at the end of his political career, Wasicsko has decided to run against Restiano for the Yonkers council president, and Restiano, finding him alone at a bar, confronts him with the betrayal.

“I gotta ask you,” Restiano says angrily, “do you actually believe in anything other than yourself?”

After which, in the script, I wrote a line for Wasicsko, at the bar alone, after Restiano has stormed away: “What makes you think I believe in myself.”

It is an overt line. Too much so. And as Haggis pointed out when we were contemplating the script prior to filming, no one actually talks to themselves aloud in a bar in such fashion. Nonetheless, I was determined to hang on to the line – at least through the filming of it. Why?

Because – and here we come to the spoiler, so read on only if you know the end of the story or don’t care to watch the series – in a few subsequent scenes, Nick Wasicsko will take his own life. And singularly among all of human behavior, ending one’s own existence, absent, say, a clear and required act of martyrdom, is a choice that affronts and repels viewers. The compulsion to argue against even a careful established narrative construct for suicide, with all the requisite tells and clues, is so powerful that any story that concludes with a willful act of self-destruction risks a corresponding backwash of disbelief and disconnect by the audience.

The solution to Paul’s very valid note was to rewrite the moment so that Wasicsko delivers the line directly to Restiano in reply: “What makes you think I believe in myself?” In such a reading, the line is delivered without belligerence, as a wry attempt to parry the insult with self-effacing humor, to convince Restiano to sit and share a drink and maintain the friendship in spite of all. A line-read such as that is plausible, and while it doesn’t reveal fully the depth of the self-loathing required to take one’s own life, it feeds the storyline by speaking the words aloud and leaving them there to be slowly absorbed by the audience, and to remain in evidence as the tragedy takes its final turn.

Having contemplated the whole of the story for months with great care, Oscar Isaac was nonetheless unconvinced even by this sardonic reading of the line and after revisions were published, he mentioned his concern, to which I replied, with all the manipulative and false equanimity to which an executive producer is entitled: “Okay. We’ll get it both ways.”

Behold, the ultimate argument against committing too early to either a writer’s or actor’s choice. Why decide now? Let’s wait for the close coverage of a line or action in question and then film it both ways. Yours and mine. Then, when film editing the whole of the narrative later, we can assess the storyline and our execution of it, and make the proper choice.

The only problem from the actor’s point of view is, of course, he has to trust in the wit and taste of the director and producer; he won’t be in the editing room to participate in the final decision on which take to use. By offering the variations in the first place, he’s opening the door to differing outcomes. What if the writer is unwilling to kill one of his writerly lines, even if it impairs performance? What if a director is unwilling to kill a more dramatic moment, or worse, a pretty shot, for the sake of a real or authentic one? What if someone’s special, blessed baby needs to be murdered in the crib and no one has the stomach to do the deed?

As seasoned and as talented an actor as we have, Oscar Isaac was working with Haggis and myself for the first time. Trust goes only as far as it does in such circumstances, and on the day of filming – at the rehearsal of the scene, in fact – it became clear enough that he did not want to give up the line.

Paul came to me with the actor’s adamant objections.

“I think we’ll get it in the performance,” the director offered, trying to ameliorate the standoff. “I don’t think we’ll need the line.”

I couldn’t be sure. A subsequent scene involving Wasicsko’s further breakdown as he returned to his home and sat alone with his own thoughts – this had yet to be filmed. Therefore, I couldn’t yet know what Oscar was going to bring to that moment. Would there be enough in that scene – which offered little in the way of dialogue – to convey Wasicsko’s deep rage and loathing, as well as his final resolve? If I walked away from this barroom scene without even a passable read of the overt line, would I be cursing Isaac and Haggis later, trying to vindicate the narrative without all the necessary assets? Get your choices now, or go without them forever.

I went over to Oscar to make my pitch.

“You may be right. I may not need it,” I argued, “but suicide affronts an audience as few other things do.   How are they going to be reconciled to the character’s choice if we aren’t explicit enough?”

Oscar showed real irritation with me for the first and only time in the long weeks of filming: “How?’ he said. “Acting.”

Christ. He was offended by the suggestion that he might not be able to convey the interior of his character’s disjointed and desperate mind — either in the last look of this bar scene, or in the soon-to-be-filmed sequence in the Wasicsko home. I was doubting him. Trust, it seems, runs both ways.

“I’m not saying that line,” he declared with finality.

I went back to the video monitors, frustrated and angry. Haggis tried to carry water for me, going to Oscar and asking for a take or two with Oscar’s best read on the line, if only in the spirit of compromise. But the actor was still ambivalent.

To this point a bystander to the debate, Winona Ryder found me at the monitors and immediately registered my mood.

“Do you think you need it?” she asked of the line.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe not. But this is suicide that we are trying to explain, and if it isn’t selling and we leave here without it, we can never come back for it, can we?”

Winona is as much a pro as Oscar; at this point, she’s had nearly three decades of this stuff. So being as good as she is at her craft, it’s entirely likely that she saw right through what I did next. But hey, maybe not. Because while I’m not an actor by any means, I was, in a previous life, a pretty good newspaperman; ergo my skill-set of honed, manipulative, shit-eating gamesmanship is not inconsiderable. I have talked sealed grand jury reports out of federal prosecutors and story confirmations out the most tight-assed FBI agents. In a pinch, I can get a Northern District desk sergeant to log on to the computer and pull a half dozen full criminal histories of private citizens.

I commenced to pout.

“I don’t know why the fuck I’m even here in Yonkers,” I vented to Ryder. “I might as well be back in Baltimore if the script isn’t the script and if I’m here to be ignored. I mean, why am I even up here every fucking day sitting here at a monitor if this is what it is.”

There’s an old saw that I use on actors about all of this, an easy parable about how we’re all just tools in the box – the writer, the actors, the props, the camera lenses – that none of us actually matter unto ourselves, that it doesn’t matter if one doorway is perfectly plumb, or if the mantle is beautifully trimmed, or the balustrade elegantly finished. What matters is the house we’re building — the whole of the house. It’s all that ever matters.

I threw some of the house metaphor at Winona. She nodded politely and quickly; she’d no doubt heard it before, perhaps from me earlier in the production, and certainly elsewhere in her time wandering the vast diaspora of filmmaking. The house talk isn’t original to me; not even close. I forget where or when I acquired it, but no doubt it was cribbed it from some other ink-stained screenwriter.

And yet I fired that old chestnut up and then, in a manner that probably conjured for Winona Ryder some of the most amateurish thespianism this side of dinner theater, I looked away from her with what I imagined was a look of wounded, self-loathing commensurate to what Oscar would soon be summoning for this scene. I tried my best to play as wrecked and tortured a writer as might exist.

Winona then went back to Oscar, arguing with her fellow actor that he could find a good, throwaway reading of the line, that it could work, that he could trust us not to use the take if it didn’t. She later told me that she even started to invoke the house-building metaphor, but Oscar looked at her with the weariness of a combat veteran: “Not the house speech,” he said, rolling eyes.

He also chided her for switching sides, with a remark that she later admitted was guilt-inducing: “So now you’re playing for the other team, huh?”

Later, I would find myself amused and a little surprised to hear the dynamic acknowledged so explicitly by an actor, but I’m not really sure why. Every screen or television writer I know tells tales in which the actors are ever portrayed as the Unreliable Other. Why should actors think differently about these games within the game? In any event, Winona Ryder had wandered across the neutral ground, advocating selflessly for the scribblers and shot-listers, and therefore, to some extent, against her own colleague and calling. Learning as much, I felt wrong for having done my backhanded best to enlist her, but here and now, at least, I’ll credit her last, gentle appeal to Oscar with having achieved the outcome.

Because after devouring several takes that omitted the dialogue in dispute – ending each with a look of such deep shame that there could be no mistaking his character’s lethal despair – I found myself startled to hear Nick Wasicsko throw the line back at Vinni Restiano on a read that worked beautifully. It was wounded but flippant, a retort that clearly and credibly sought to make light of a deep insult and maintain the normalcy of an old friendship. The extra line even worked without punching holes in Winona’s opposing and equally marvelous performance; though Restiano had to contain herself long enough to wait on Wasicsko’s reply to her question, her fury at the flippant answer fueled a savage, visceral exit. Oscar’s read of the line and Winona’s reaction to it both made actual sense, and in giving it up, Oscar had granted me an honest choice.

“You won’t need it,” Haggis said again after we had the take.

“Probably not.”

And we didn’t. A week later we shot the ensuing scene in the upstairs bedroom and Oscar Isaac delivered an extended, agonizing nervous breakdown that culminated in a moment of grievous surrender. Everything we needed to make sense of a man’s choice to self-destruct was therefore evident without a scripted utterance. Later, in editing, I watched the alternate take from the bar scene one last time, listening as a great actor landed a clever but unnecessary line. A writer’s line. A beautiful, fatted, blue-eyed baby of a line.

Lose it, I told the editor.

I like to imagine that I’ll work with these fine actors on some future project, that every line and gesture in every future script will be butter, that we’ll go from scene to scene agreeing amiably on every single notion. But, no, that’s impossible and ridiculous. More plausibly, I’d like believe that by carefully enveloping and achieving a line that I actually didn’t need, two actors had earned enough of my trust that I might be more assured of their insight and sense, and too, that by discarding their gift to me once it was given, I’d earned their respect for my own restraint and taste. Next time, I’d like to believe, it isn’t going to be so fraught. Next time, we’ll all know each other better. Next time will be easy.

Yeah, no. They’re actors.  You gotta keep an eye on those fuckers.

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And congratulations to Oscar Isaac for his receiving a Golden Globe Award for his work in “Show Me A Hero.” No, really, I mean that genuinely.  For real.   – DS



  • Hi David, great and generous analysis of film set dynamics here. I have read through this a few times, and the part where you describe giving Winona a look she likely hadn’t experienced “this side of dinner theater” gets me every time.

    Though I agree everything about this particular creative decision went well, I do take issue with Paul’s assertion that people under extreme duress don’t, and would not, talk to themselves IRL. If you live in any major city, as I have, you are invariably bound to experience one and then, gradually, several individuals, by all appearances cosmically screwed out of raison d’être, among so much else, reciting what I often take to be some deeply delirious outsider version of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy. Which we all, whatever our circumstances, get to know more or less intimately, our familiarity with Macbeth entirely aside. Extreme poverty is only a possible, not a necessary, catalyst for such levels of duress. Your unnamed soldier in the grass from GK, and Wasiscko reach it as well. Extreme erosion of personal pride, or events that casually implode well-established values, are sufficient to carelessly wreck a person, it would seem.

    I would also argue, counter your assertion, that audiences are far more willing to acquiesce and find meaning in dramatic depictions of suicide (though it is extremely difficult, and do believe you gave everything at your disposal here) than submit to even the most ordinary extended depictions of poverty or mental instability, well-fashioned dramatic arc or no. Setting up a boundary of what can and cannot be represented in drama and then placing anything that actual living people go through on the wrong side of that fence simply limits how far the story extends into the world. 

    I guess the question this brings to mind, when considering from an artist’s perspective: do you really wish to raise your own outsider version above the delirium? Above Jean Genet? For where else do so-called slave songs come from, the Iliad come from, or your own work come from, if not, in a very potent sense, talking to yourself until it makes sense? 

    This is actually not my first time hearing this dramatic rule, but I absolutely do take issue with it.

  • Hi David, solid analysis of filmmaking dynamics on set. I’ve read this a few times and the look you describe giving Winona as being something she likely hadn’t experienced “this side of dinner theater” gets me every time.

    This question may be somewhat unrelated and you may be uninterested in answering but I am curious: similar content in TV shows you have created aside, would you think it apt to produce a similarly themed miniseries about Marilyn Mosby? And if so, to what extent would you be comfortable calling said miniseries “Show Me a Hero”?

  • Great story, Mr. Simon. My wife and I have watched all of your shows (twice through The Wire and Treme!) We just finished Show Me A Hero last night and were thoroughly moved. I grew up visiting my grandparents in Yonkers during the time period in question, but had no idea of the unrest. I thought you might appreciate knowing that as soon as Vinnie uttered that line in the scene you describe, my wife actually blurted out “He doesn’t even believe in himself.” A testament to Mr. Isaac’s insistence that his acting would take care of that line for itself. For my money, the following scene in the attic was one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the show.

  • Hello David. I’ve been a huge fan of yours going back to the Homicide days. The Wire is literally like my bible and after growing up in Bmore I have the utmost respect for your love and admiration of the City. I’ve been checking this page for months now hoping to see some of your crisp, witty insight into this election cycle. Are you too perturbed to comment on such a shitshow? Do you have too much work to grace us with a stellar editorial about the Trumpiness of our country. 🙂 Just kidding, but for real though, hook us up brother. Feb. 1 is too long a hiatus from the Audacity of Despair. Cheers!

  • David,

    Have you watched “The Night Of?” Practically every scene (in the pilot) could have had associated safety takes that went unused. Glances, pauses, gestures and nervous bits of business I imagined stood in for brilliantly crafted dialog delivered to perfection by an amazing cast but was simply superfluous. I remembered your February entry as I watched and conjectured about similar arguments on set and eventual editing room discipline . Clearly those associated with the production read your anecdote , and having long admired your work, made “less is more” foundational to “The Night Of”. At least, that’s what was swimming in my head, such admiration for your work that. I give you credit for others’ brilliant efforts. You’ve clearly inspired them, and thank you for that. That show is as good as the best seasons of “The Wire”. I can think of no greater way for peers to show you respect than to pull off your style of masterful television. Maybe even one notch better if that’s even possible. Nah.

  • Very interesting story, made me chuckle a little. Certainly never the things to cross your mind when watching a TV show. I haven’t seen Show Me A Hero (it’s ok I totally ignored the spoiler alert of my own accord) but a big fan of The Wire, as many people are keen to tell you.

  • Great essay. It’s “Hobson’s choice” though, not “Hobbesian choice.” My favorite tv writer says God resides in the details. Sorry in advance for being a d-bag.

    • Absolutely correct. I looked it up. Hobbes was the English philosopher, and Hobson the English innkeeper. Silly me, I assumed the choice-without-a-choice guy would be the political essayist and philsopher. Have corrected.

  • Thanks for this David,
    My daughter was up visiting for my birthday and we rewatched a few episodes of the Wire season one, her favorite. I mentioned how much I loved the dialog, but couldn’t remember who wrote it ( I tend to drift through culture without being a very good student. I apologize). A few clicks later I was reading this and couldn’t stop. It reminded me of all the great writing from my days at Esquire. A kind of writing that feels like its slipping away. Tough and self effacing. Authentic and insightful. The world is awash in self indulgent and smug “What I Learned…” Medium posts. Thanks for giving me a Sunday morning that reminded me of how great an essay can be.

  • Absolutely fascinating. I just finished Don Carpenter’s True Life Story of Jody McKeegan a few days ago and now this. I think I’m in a “thinkin’ about a plate of shrimp” Repo Man moment. You must have read Carpenter, right? Thank you for your writing, wish you’d do more online.

  • Thank you for this really insightful look into what collaborative art looks like “in the real world”. I’m one of those people in film school finishing up a masters and it’s always hard to decide if the experience I’m getting in the academic environment will be mirrored in the world I hope to someday work in.

    I’ve certainly seen similar arguments play out on sets…but I always wonder…is it just because we are less experienced? Our actors are just starting out as well? Do we second guess ourselves because we know these projects we work on will be picked apart in class/critique etc? Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t willing to commit 100% to the choices we make? It’s a constant pull and push between us being told “you’re just learning it’s okay to experiment” and conversely being critiqued for not conforming to the molds of other work or models of storytelling.

    And it sounds like not all of those questions disappear the more experienced you get.

    While I’m not a writer or actor, I do edit, where I feel like we often have to solve the dilemma of how to balance all the choices made by writers, directors, producers, DPs, actors etc. It’s hard to know that there is no “right” answer (I came from a background in the sciences if you can’t guess) and to trust that a decision made on set had a purpose at the time. Even when it’s painted us at the post end into a corner. So far I think you and the people you’ve surrounded yourself with have figured out how to navigate out of those corners without resorting to the conventions we too often see used to solve those problems.

    Thanks again for continuing to provide commentary on politics, society and the dynamics of race and class as they relate to all of those ideas and for giving a glimpse into your production world as well. Someday I really hope I’ll get to cut something you had a hand in; I’ve been a fan since the days of Homicide: Life on the Streets when the show was “not appropriate for me to be watching/too old for me” according to my parents.


    • Mr. Simon,

      I would love to hear your take on the situation in Chicago yesterday, where protesters basically stopped a Trump campaign event by threatening riots and violence. My opinion is that this is a trampling of our first amendment right, and furthers our need for the second amendment to be protected. The people that HATE the idea of Trump and consider him a racist psychopath are the same people that have been failed by the current administration (as well as Bush/Clinton beforehand), yet I see no protesting of President Obama’s policies. I am not a Trump supporter by any means, and I still am embarrassed for our country that he seemingly will be one of two options for voters in November (just as I’m embarrassed that Hillary will be the other option). However, this country’s constitution and values protect the intelligent and buffoons alike, the religious and atheists alike, the racists and rational alike. Chicago’s situation is very similar to the wild display going on at universities across the US, where 18-22 year olds are crying about micro-aggressions and wanting MORE handouts and entitlements without working for them. It’s mind blowing really, and I think that has a lot to do with why so many people are gravitating towards Trump. They are overlooking all of the horrendously bad qualities of The Donald because they are sick and tired of the people that have been in power, sick of the PC crowd, sick of crumbling to these liberal elitists that cry victim without even knowing what a true victim is. And what is missing in the media right now is that it’s not just extreme right-wingers that are jumping on the Trump train, it’s a lot of democrats as well.

      I”m rambling a bit now, but your fans would be very appreciated if you can somehow find time in your busy schedule to opine on the current election and/or college campus protesting of micro-aggresions. I disagree with you much more often than agree, but I respect the hell out of your expert opinions and experience, and I am having a tough time finding a reasonable voice on the other side of these issues to help enlighten me.

      Best Regards,


      • I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence of your premise.

        Did they threaten violence? Or were they there to protest, utilizing public space in the same manner as Trump to convey their message. Trump’s claim that he called off the protest for FEAR of violence is not violence itself, and further, the Chicago police denied that they advised anyone with the campaign to cancel anything. Or at least that is what I read.

        I think Trump has overtly summoned violence himself and instigated violence — acts that are not merely feared but have been undertaken. Whereas the counter-rallies and counter-protests are thus far less culpable.

        And remember I am an open-speech absolutist. I think Trump has every right to convey his message, and he can certainly undertake his own security and venue to convey that message. But if he uses public space then he cannot avoid the possibility that others too will avail themselves of open speech. I was for the KKK being allowed to march in Skokie, for example, and equally affirming of the right of counter-protests to greet them.

        Neither side should resort to violence and law enforcement should, of course, constrain any use of force by either side. You get to bring your message to the street if you desire. It is your right of assembly. And your opponents have the right to heckle your message. It is their right of assembly, too. Everyone’s rights end at the tip of the other guy’s nose, to be sure. And police need to enforce the standards of non-violence in allowing open speech and open protest,

        If you are telling me that prevents Trump from conveying his message, I can’t agree. He is a master of the media and is well served in saying what he wishes and having it heard. And to the extent he wishes to bring his message anyone in the country in this campaign, he can rent a hall, vet his audience, hand-picking his supporters if he wishes. And if he’s heckled, he can hire professional security — not to beat on people, but to respectfully and professionally escort them from the venue, provided that locale is not public space.

    Wow talk about some word porn! I’ve been very anxious to read this story per my Instagram friend’s persisting commands! This certainly delivered in full, and I am also equally grateful that Oscar (not to make him sound like a two year old brat) got his way. That fun sized man… I mean you have to realize… HOLY SHIT! I just worked with one of THE GREATS of our time! You and your crew have been blessed to have had such a monumental experience! But I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know! Well done!

  • This show was perfect. And I enjoyed this behind-the-scenes expose, it truly makes me appreciate the occasional conflict between two artists with completely different tasks – the writer and the actor.

    I couldn’t help but think of Dominic West’s McNulty, arguably the most popular character of the show, and an immensely talented actor in general, yet I always found him completely unconvincing as a working-class Lauraville/B-more born and raised cop. Not to mention his occasional one-liners he muttered to himself. Was he difficult to work with? How much leeway was he given?

    Please forgive these fightin words! I’m the first to argue that The Wire explains America and should be required viewing.

  • Yet another post that makes this website a real find. Thank you for sharing.

    My immediate thought was, shouldn’t it read, ‘Who says I believe in myself?’. I think that’s how it would be said in a conversation. Changes the possible answer, but both are rhetorical, I think.

    Keep posting!

  • You are so on to yourself – it makes it easier to acknowledge your omniscience when it comes to everything you write.

    I hope that the self awareness comes in handy at home when your wife is right.

    Good drama on TV and film are definitely collaborative, but even when the acting is amazing, if there’s a slip in the script it distracts me. I had problems with Room for that reason and that is some very find acting.

    I was all in on Show Me a Hero and found it easy to make the commitment to it – not exactly escapist drama you were doing there. Even thought it was intense it was compelling and even though I knew how the story ended I wanted to stay with Nick.

    I’m so glad you decided to trust Oscar.

  • That scene in the bar was maybe my favorite in the whole series. I guess that’s the benefit of great collaborators. Thanks for the insight.

    • Great read, sorry it took so long to come across it. I can relate to Oscar Isaac’s eye-roll at hearing the “house speech” yet again. Twenty years in film and television, I’ve heard it at least a hundred times. For what it’s worth, however, I believe it originated with David Mamet in one of his early books on the craft (On Directing Film, perhaps?) “A nail isn’t a house. It’s a nail.”

    • Out-of-plumb, no. What is an ornate, laboriously serviced and exquisitely appointed door going to matter to a house that is otherwise off its foundation?

      • Well, once you get out the hydraulic jacks and lift the house back onto its foundation, the door might help. Of course if it’s a much more ornate door than anything else in the house it’ll certainly look odd, but that’s not the sort of thing a workman would try to change in the first place; that’d be more a homeowner’s sort of folly. A workman might redo the trim three times so as to get the pieces to fit perfectly, and he might have to be told that he already has it good enough and needs to move on to the next task, but that’s a budget constraint sort of thing, like you telling an actor that there just isn’t time for another take. The sort of design issue that a workman might kick back about is to complain that the door will knock into another door if done the way the architect has it on the plans. Sure, he doesn’t have the design insight of the architect, but he does have the advantage of immediacy: he’s right there, he has one door installed already, and is looking at where the second door will be swinging and thinking “uh oh”. That, I think, would be a good analogy to the argument you described in your post — but that’s because the architect might agree that he’d made a mistake and that (say) the door should be reversed to swing in rather than out, to fix it. Or possibly not; doors knocking into each other is not the end of the world. But it’d be a matter of details, not a case where the architect is bound to be right.

        In any case, I think that after a post like the above you’ll never use the house analogy again anyway; just adding another nail to the coffin.

          • Well, there’s certainly something to the analogy. Even so, when it comes to be perceived as just the stereotypical thing that writers say when they want to get their way, it’s time to retire it; there must be other analogies out there that would serve as well without raising hackles.

  • This point of view is praise. Thank you so much for the stories you tell and the way you tell them. Thank you for using drama to educate the audience about the complexities of American urban life. I just watched Show me a Hero and was deeply satisfied and stimulated as I usually am by your work. I’ve enjoyed your lectures on YouTube as well. Like you I am very concerned about the decreasing value of human labour and what that has to do with eroding the quality of life of most communities. Thank you also for Treme and teaching us more about one of the most fascinating, poetic cities in the world. Thank you for the glorious way you depicted the Mardi gras Indians. I’d never heard of them before the show, and was inspired to go to New Orleans for St. Joseph’s night. It was one of the most moving, magical experiences I’ve ever had. Many minds have been improved by the work of you and your collaborators. Once more, teacher, my deepest gratitude.

  • Dear David

    rofl, as they now txt. Thanks for this. Insightful, profound, hilarious, profane richness of words. I will watch SMAH again with a new prism on the extraordinary crucible of the creative process.

    I sought your Baltimore insight on the consequences of the killing of Freddie Gray. Who might know about what is really going on there? Mr Simon perhaps? So found this audacious bit of cyberspace, and was thrilled to be able to be part of that visceral discussion, whilst you were supposedly having a weekend away from SMAH, mid production. Was well impressed by your engagement and word count during that few days and wonder whether the spice of those events flavoured your post production process.

    SMAH was not a story I knew, and I was blind sided by the ending, though I’m sure when I watch again I will discover nuances I missed the first time round when, like a soap fiend, was mostly eager to know what happened. I have not yet watched Treme again, I am kind of saving it up, but like the Wire, will get much from re-viewing, knowing the story, so able to notice more about the acting, script, shot, music, themes, foreshadowing etc. So many layers.

    Now a request, can I share this link on fuckerbook? This essay is a profoundly interesting, and a bravely naked glimpse of creative collaboration in a world mostly closed to us mere culture vultures and for those I know in da biz, or trying to be, think it would give them some wisdom.

    Best wishes for your next endeavours, I hope you and your creative collaborators will continue to make brave, original and important TV and that the HBO gods continue to smile in this increasingly corporatised world.



  • Fabulous!

    I have been wondering if the cut and thrust of your experiences in the creative process would be given special mention. Great story and a lovely read.

    I’ve got some views on acting, ’cause, ah shit, yeah, I’m an actor. I hate telling people that I am one, though. You tell a stranger that you’re an actor, they usually ask what you’ve been in that they would have seen. That’s quite dispiriting if you ain’t been captured on film. I usually shift the conversation back to what the other person does for a living.
    It’s a petty revenge, but Christ, parties can be lonely places.

    It’s harder than ever to break into TV or film in England (our union is for shit). Also, a lot of the bigger theatres only cast the same actors that have been in said TV shows (even if they are god-awful soap actors with recurring six figure salaries), making it even harder to get the big theatre roles.

    Wow. That all just came out of me. Apologies. Okay, I’ll swim back to shallower and warmer currents.

    I’ve met a bunch of actors in my life – lots I’ve loved working with, others I’ve tolerated, and a few; well they nearly ruined things.
    What’s lovely to hear is that both you and Mr. Isaac were passionate enough to argue over the sake of one line.
    When the stakes are so high (and the act of suicide cannot be contemplated in lesser terms), I think I’d be with Mr. Isaac, although only initially, in his reticence over saying it.
    A throwaway is even more dangerous, lest our audience feel cheated by the storm raging inside the character’s head.
    They want to SEE the pain, or at least have a clue to what the character is thinking, even though real-life suicides go hand-in-hand with the sheer shock of those that knew them best, who never saw it coming. It doubles the tragedy, somehow, though I have no empirical proof of this. Maybe that’s the point.

    It’s good to feel alive. Man, when you’re on a stage, nobody can help you if you fall. Might as well be damn good and give the paying folks what they want. Despite all the tensions and time-outs, there’s no place I’d rather be than on some dusty stage with a few motes of light and my feet ready for the stillness of the moment that’s about to come.

    Ain’t nothing like it. Apart from music – but my guitar-playing is awful.

    Good night to you, and my fellow readers.


  • Mr. Simon:
    Thank you for showing us that the work you do is collaborative- even if that collaboration is sometimes unwelcome. It seems normal that, after the considerable effort of conceptualizing an idea, then extracting it to the page, you’d be inclined to defend your work. We’ve all been taught to believe the myth of great works being the result obstinance and iron will, but I can see that trust and an open ear are equally important.
    I honestly feel that your work is under-appreciated, most likely because it goes over many viewers heads. People like easy, cookie-cutter crap: discrete 11 1/2 minute chunks that wrap up by the top of the hour- uncluttered by asymmetry and complexity. I like that your shows don’t have throw-away characters: are there throw-away characters in life? I guess so many people equate entertainment with escape. Some of us have found that art enhances our lives by helping us view our own experiences from a different perspective.
    If the pattern holds, in two years or so people will be saying how amazing ‘Tremé’ is, and then everyone will be watching ‘SMAH’. Maybe your work resonates sooner with those of us who’ve had to come to terms with loss and injustice in our own lives.
    Thank you Mr. Simon. I tell everyone I can about your work: I just wish more of them would listen.

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