'The Wire' Creators Tap Into New Orleans

David Simon's new HBO series, 'Treme,' uses fiction to honor that city's surreal, heartbreaking fact

Maybe Treme can express the true allure of this town, some locals say. New Orleans has always been a paradoxical place: Despite pervasive poverty, high levels of crime, and wide-sweeping political corruption, residents surveyed by Gallup just before Hurricane Katrina reported the highest level of satisfaction with their personal lives of any city in the survey. The 2000 Census found that New Orleans had a higher subset—77 percent—of “native-born” residents than any other major American city.

Blake Leyh, music supervisor for Treme, recalls visiting New Orleans in the ’90s, back when he was out in Los Angeles. “You go to New Orleans, and everyone loves to be there,” he says. “It was really striking to me. Because I was used to living in a place where everyone hates it. In L.A., that’s the common bond: ‘Let’s talk about how much we hate it here.’ In New Orleans, it’s the opposite.”

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Goni Montes
The Rebirth Brass Band, rising above
Skip Bolen
The Rebirth Brass Band, rising above

Nearly lost in the hoopla that began with the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory and continued through Mardi Gras nine days later was the fact that the city had elected a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, to succeed the by-now-widely-villainized C. Ray Nagin. The day after Mardi Gras, an otherwise sleepy, somewhat cloudy Wednesday morning, a pickup truck rolls slowly up Governor Nicholls Street, plying more politics. “Davis for City Council,” reads a sign on one side. Another: “McAlary: A Desperate Man for Desperate Times.” A third: “CDs for Sale: $3”

Davis Rogan, the inspiration for Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary, really did run for office (a State House of Representatives seat in 2003). He recalls when Simon tracked him down three years ago: “It happened the way it’s supposed to happen,” he says. “The way it never happens. David Simon read John Swenson’s review of my CD in the local music monthly, Offbeat. He bought the CD. He liked it. He called. He hired me.” By 2008, Rogan’s life was such that he received the breathless e-mail now taped to his computer, from an actor about to read for the McAlary role: “I’ve been waiting my whole life to play you,” reads one line.

Wendell Pierce is the show’s hometown hero among the principal cast, for both his success away from New Orleans and his post-Katrina commitment to the place. He greets me at the offices of Community Development Corporation, through which, as president, he has spearheaded efforts to rebuild Pontchartrain Park. Gone are the colorful T-shirts, sports jackets, and jeans favored by his character, Antoine Batiste—replaced with a pinstriped suit, the tie tacked down by a fleur-de-lis pin. He recalls his first post-Katrina visit to his parents’ house: “I never said it, but my goal was to get them back in that house before they died. And now, I want to save the neighborhood before it dies—or is stolen away.” Politically, he says, the city must stop getting mired in the past and instead “imagine the future it deserves”; still, he sees value in revisiting the past five years. “I want people to know the story,” he says. “I want to tell it. I mean, on one level, it is just telling a story, you know, which is what I’m paid to do. But I appreciate the fact that we could tell any story in the world, and we’ve chosen to tell this story.”

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In Sidney Bechet’s memoir, Treat It Gentle, the late, great clarinetist’s real grandfather is supplanted by Omar, a fictional figure based on a folk tale, all the better to convey stirring truths about the true origins of New Orleans jazz; on most evenings in the French Quarter, tourists gather on street corners as dubiously credentialed docents lead “Haunted History” tours. Real and imagined intermingle pointedly in New Orleans, in all walks of life.

The walls of the script room in the Treme production office are littered with facts, Post-it notes sketching out a telling chronology: October 2005—Mayor Ray Nagin lays off 3,000 nonessential city employees. December 2005—Ninth Ward, “Look and Leave.” January 2006—Nagin’s “Chocolate City” speech. Fiction though it is, the stories told here are tethered to the way things really went down. And there’s more to get right than documented incidents.

“We check ourselves a million times a day,” Overmyer tells me. “On even the smallest thing.” How could they not, in a city where street medians are known as “neutral grounds” and “I ain’t kiddin’, no” counts as proper usage? Leyh insisted upon recording the music straight from each scene, as opposed to studio dubbing— a relatively unheard-of strategy for television production, but one essential to capturing “music that sounds less true when removed from its moment.” Pierce’s trombone parts at each shoot are usually provided by Rebirth Brass Band regular Stafford Agee; Rob Brown, who plays the trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (son of Clark Peters’s character, Albert), pulls out his Mac PowerBook to show me the videotapes from which he must memorize the fingerings to Donald Harrison’s bebop-based tunes. “It is not a game,” he says.

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