Photo: HBO/Skip Bolen
Eric Overmyer
“People’s memories were really traumatized from the storm and its aftermath. They remember things differently or they forget things they ought to remember.”
The Big Not-So-Easy
Treme co-creator Eric Overmyer wades through a host of contradictory accounts and half-remembered facts to tell a complex story of life in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Written by Denis Faye

(June 10, 2011)

Watch a couple episodes of Treme, HBO’s post-Katrina New Orleans drama series, and you quickly get a sense that this is a town built upon mystery, secret truths and unspoken moral (and immoral) codes. So you’d think that when creators Eric Overmyer and David Simon first started researching the show, getting the townsfolk to open up might pose a challenge.

Au contraire.

“The thing about New Orleanians is that you can’t stop them from talking,” explains Overmyer, who’s produced several series including Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, and Homicide, where he met The Wire creator Simon. “You get five versions of everything. People’s memories were really traumatized from the storm and its aftermath. They remember things differently, or they forget things they ought to remember. You have to check and double-check as much as you can with the facts.”

Regardless of these fact-checking difficulties, the pair has managed to come up with a show – pronounced “treh-MAY” after the New Orleans neighborhood where the characters live – that truly captures the spirit of the Big Easy, from the racial tension to the time-honored traditions to the stunningly good music, which thankfully, plays a prominent part of every episode.

Recently, Overmyer talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the challenges – and thrills – of making Treme now in the middle of season two. They’ve learned a lot of lessons juggling the 12-odd story strands that make up the show, the most notable one being that when you kill off a musically gifted character in the season one, it’s incredibly difficult to have him come back for a solo in season two.

The character arcs in Treme are completely different from conventional arcs. Sometimes, a character will have a one-show arc while the others are in the middle of arcs spanning 2-3 episodes. How do you navigate that?

Well, we sort of stumble along. We have this collection of characters and we try to advance them along every week. It’s really nothing more than that. We have a lot of strands, and we just try to push it forward. I would say that the emphasis shifts from week to week from one group of characters to another. A character will be heavier one week and lighter another. We’re trying to pull these 12 or 13 strands forward, and we have a general idea about where they’re supposed to end up at the end of the season.

Photo: 2011 HBO
Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli in Treme.

Is there a method to that?

Yes, I suppose. We plot out three or four episodes at a time and try to work through. We’re also being guided by the New Orleans calendar in a way. Both the year – season one was 2005-2006 – and also the calendar in terms of important dates that come around every year. Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day, that sort of thing.

The show seems to be written from a very informed place in terms of the culture and the music in New Orleans. Did you know all that stuff when you started?

We knew some of it. I’ve had a house there for 21 years, and I’m kind of a part-time resident between there and New York. I’m also an avid student of the culture and the music. David is as well. He’s been visiting New Orleans since the ‘80s. And when we met on Homicide, back in ‘90-whatever-it-was, we discovered we had a mutual admiration for the city. So we knew a fair amount going in, but we’ve also enlisted an army of experts and consultants and local people who all contradict each other.

So I think David would agree that we know more three years into it, having spent a lot of time there, than we did when we were shooting the pilot.

Have your views changed at all?

Gosh. I’m sure they have, but I don’t know if I can quantify it.

Let me give you an example. In the start of season one, the authorities had no redeeming qualities. But then Lieutenant Terry Colson [David Morse] came along, and suddenly there’s a cop with a conscience.

We had always planned to do that. We never meant to represent the force as entirely dysfunctional. We were well aware that there were a lot of good cops that stayed through the storm and performed heroically. And the dysfunctions of the NOPD predate, by many years, the storm. The storm just exacerbated and exposed all that. So we were just slow getting to David, but we always knew that character was waiting for us to represent all the decent officers on the force.

There’s nothing black and white about New Orleans, and it would have been too easy to paint the police department a single color as bad, corrupt or inept. To be fair to them, they were quite overwhelmed by the storm.

When a bit character starts playing a stronger role on the show, is that always planned, or does it just seem to gel sometimes, so you run with it?

One that we’ve written more for than I would have anticipated is Desiree, who’s played by Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, Antoine’s common-law wife. We liked their chemistry so much and Phyllis has never done any acting before, but it turned out well.

Lucia Micarelli, who plays Annie the violinist, she’d never done any acting before either. Those are examples of characters that we’ve written more for than we anticipated.

And then some things just don’t pan out. We planned to write more about the school system this season, and we just haven’t had the room – and it turned out to be a much more complicated topic than we could handle, so we just kind of glanced at it. It’s not as prominent as we planned.

Have you encountered any topics where, when you went to your contradicting advisors, you were stonewalled?

Oh no, but we’ve gotten some “Please don’t reference that quite so directly because there’s a trial going on now.” We reference events that happen in the time period of our show and the legal ramifications are now playing out. That’s certainly true with some of the stuff going on around the police force.

Obviously, you want to keep using them as contacts, so you need to respect their wishes.

Yeah. We don’t want to muddy the waters. Plus, we’re dealing with something that happened in 2007. There were a number of things that happened right after the storm that officers have only been indicted for recently and are now in Federal Court. We can reference what happened in 2007, but we can’t jump ahead and know more than what we should know.

But I guess the audience can cheat and read the newspaper.

Yeah, the audience will certainly see things with a 2011 resonance. If we’re talking about an environmental disaster in 2007, they can’t help but think of the BP oil spill, even though, for the characters on the show, that’s three years into their future.

Hmmm. I guess we all know what’s going to be happening in season five now.

Yeah. Season five.

How do you write around the musicians? Sometimes, like with Dr. John, it’s just a cameo, but other times, like with Kermit Ruffins, they weave in and out of the narrative.

We try to make it as organic as possible, since the show is, in part, about the music scene. Wendell Piece and Rob Brown and Lucia Micarelli all play musicians, so we’re trying, as organically as possible, to encounter the people we want them to encounter. It’s easy for Antoine to cross paths with Kermit. It’s what we were talking about early. We try things out. Kermit did so well on the show, so it’s easy to have him back from time to time.

He’s really funny.

He’s funny, he’s a great performer, he’s got a lot of charm on-camera, and it’s a lot of joy to have him on screen. Other musicians are musicians and not actors, so you really can’t give them a lot of lines, but you really don’t know until you try.

One mistake we made first season was that we cast Deacon John as Antoine’s mentor and then we felt the character had to die. Then we realized, “Oh damn, we killed off Deacon John. How are we going to get him in the show as Deacon John?” So I don’t think we’re going to do that again, cast musicians in the show as characters. We’d rather have them on the show as themselves.

We’re still working on that problem; how to bring Deacon John back from the dead so we can have him play a song.

What would happen if a big musician just dropped into your lap? Would you re-write for them?

That doesn’t tend to happen. We usually write in who we want, build our wish list, and see if we can get them.

I have to say, it’s a lot easier getting people in season two now that we’re a known quantity. New Orleans was a little bit suspicious, waiting to see what we were about and if we could deliver the goods.

When you have the characters cross paths, how do you plan that? How do you weave arcs together?

They weave a little bit. It’s taken some characters a long time to cross paths. We try not to force it. We think about it a lot. Mardi Gras was a place where people could cross paths without knowing each other. That’s organic in a small town where people bump into each other.

On the show, does everything happen for a reason, like a poem, or does stuff just happen, like in real life?

Some of both. Probably most of the moments happen for a reason, but occasionally we’ll have a happy accident on set that will stay in the show. And we don’t tie everything up. I think an obvious example would be in the first season when the Chief [Clarke Peters] catches that kid who stole his tools, and he nearly beats him to death. Nobody ever finds out about it. He doesn’t seem to suffer any guilty conscience about it. The police don’t come knocking on his door. You could imagine that on a standard TV show that there’d be a huge narrative arc.

We wanted that thing. We wanted to show his temper and his rage and his strength and his sense of right and wrong, but nobody ever seriously thought that someone would investigate it. That was the reality of the town then. A lot of things weren’t investigated and if they were, it was done very poorly.

Since you’ve been spending a lot of time in New Orleans lately, how’s your waistline?

I’ve been really careful. If you’re living there, you can only eat a po’ boy once a week, otherwise you’ll be as big as a house. You’ll be bigger than Paul Prudhomme!