I love the stuff that hasn’t been dramatized in any medium, the traditional oral storytelling of people, the layman on the street who has a story to tell about his or her life…and then trying to find a way to put that into the narrative.
“This is how crack began.” The succinct, compelling tagline for the new FX series, Snowfall (Created by Dave Andron and John Singleton & Eric Amadio), offers a simple entry point to an incredibly complex and intriguing tale. The series tells a multi-faceted story about Los Angeles in the early 1980s, as cocaine becomes crack and leads to an epidemic, the reverberations of which are still being felt in today’s America.
The focus is split between Franklin (Damson Idris), an enterprising young man in the South Central neighborhood being drawn into the drug trade; Gustavo (Sergio Peres-Mancheta), a Mexican wrestler, getting involved with Lucia (Emily Rios) and Pedro (Filipe Valle Casta), members of a multi-generation crime family operating in East Los Angeles; and, finally, the clandestine collaboration between CIA agent Teddy (Carter Hudson) and South American guerrilla Alejandro (Juan Javier Cardenas).
The scope of the storytelling is ambitious and cinematic, deeply layered and almost novelistic in nature. The tone of the show reflects the highly authentic voices of its creative team. Acclaimed filmmaker Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, Baby Boy) collaborated with Amadio on the development of the initial pilot script, for Showtime. When the project shifted from Showtime to FX, Andron (Justified) was brought on by the network to further collaborate on the pilot and become the showrunner. The 10-episode first season of Snowfall began airing July 5. In separate interviews with the Writers Guild of America West website, Singleton and Andron discussed the history behind the series, their approach to the multiple storylines, and the continuing relevance of the show’s subject matter.
What was the origin of the series?
Dave Andron: John Singleton and Eric Amadio had the original idea. They set it up at Showtime, they did a version, Showtime passed, FX picked it up in turnaround or whatever they call that in TV land, and then they worked on it a bunch for FX. I got a call from FX after Justified had ended because neither John nor Eric at that point had really done television and weren’t in a position to come on and run a show.
John Singleton: It came from my life and growing up in Los Angeles. All the shows I ever enjoyed had these self-contained worlds with these interesting characters. So I said, I’m going to go back to the roots and think about what happened before Boyz n the Hood. Before I was a filmmaker, how was L.A. before the crack cocaine epidemic.
What research did you do about the history of that era?
Dave Andron: I started reading as much as I could in each of these worlds: what the crack trade looked like when it came about, who the players were, where it originated, anything I could find on that and then also delving into whatever material from the CIA side I could find on that time period, the war in Nicaragua, and also started reading up on East L.A. We subsequently went and found consultants. We use the same consultants that The Americans does for the CIA stuff.
With the CIA storyline, is much of that stuff actually documented, or based in actual fact?
Dave Andron: Stuff that was really credible, that you could really lean into, was a little tougher to find. As far as I know, there’s never been a CIA officer confirmed on record saying these things that everybody kind of assumes took place did take place. You have to be careful, obviously, about what you read on the Internet. We tried to filter through that and go to things that felt credible, things that had been said over and over by a number of different people. I would never call this a true story. This is a version of how things might have gone down. I don’t think you ever had a CIA officer out on the streets dealing drugs, but I do think after all the research and all the people we talked to, it is fairly safe to say people in the agency probably looked the other way while these things were happening, while drugs were being brought into the country.
What about for the other storylines?
Dave Andron: We looked at a man named Luis Rodriguez, who was the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, who was big in the East L.A. Chicano gang world. We had numerous resources as far as the crack trade in South Central at that time. Obviously John had grown up there during that time, so him being kind of the foremost resource. John was in the room, quite a bit. He would be very involved in the outlines and the scripts and scene work and dialogue. John, in my mind, is the keeper of all things South Central. I grew up in L.A. in the ‘80s, but I did not grow up in South Central. I really relied and leaned on him for the details and specificity of that world.
John Singleton: I feel that there’s so much that happened for real that we can’t make this stuff up. A lot of the stuff is right from—it’s not from stuff we read—it’s stuff that we have people come and talk about in the writers’ room. I love the stuff that hasn’t been dramatized in any medium, the traditional oral storytelling of people, the layman on the street who has a story to tell about his or her life, a voice or something, and then trying to find a way to put that into the narrative. Those are the things that I really enjoy because that’s coming right from the heart. That’s coming right from what really happened. They say life is much more fantastic than anything our imaginations can make up sometimes, and it really is like that.
Thematically, the storylines are about ambition, which seems reflected in the series itself. It’s ambitious in its approach, the numerous characters, and the scope of the storytelling.
Dave Andron: Certainly I wanted that to be a link through all three of these stories. I did want them to feel that they were thematically linked to a certain extent. It is a big, sprawling, complicated story we’re telling, and I didn’t feel like we wanted to try and dumb that down. TV audiences are really smart and savvy.
What informed this approach, tackling these three separate—but connected—storylines?
John Singleton: That came from me and Eric Amadio talking about how we could broaden it out, how this is affecting other worlds in Los Angeles. We really hadn’t seen that before. These global, geopolitical [forces], how they’re affecting the inner city and East L.A. It was a really interesting thing, trying to figure out how can we do this, how to pull it all together, in a self-contained narrative.
Dave Andron: We talk a lot about how to have them connect. I do think people are waiting for certain collisions. We were cognizant of that. They are sort of one degree apart. Teddy [the CIA agent] is connected to Avi [an Israeli drug dealer], who’s connected to Franklin [the young man from South Central]. Hopefully you can start to see the ways in which these worlds are at some point going to collide, and they’re close enough and intertwined enough, that you’re invested and curious about how it’s going to go.
It is interesting how the worlds exist in relationship to one another and how the people in South Central probably have no concept of the war in Nicaragua—and vice versa.
Dave Andron: One of the things that’s bonding them is cocaine. They’re all getting the same product, it’s coming from the same place. What other thing is possibly linking a war in Nicaragua and a kid in South Central? That’s the scope of the drug game.
Was FX supportive of this multi-strand approach or did they want something simpler or more focused?
Dave Andron: They were pretty great about supporting this notion of three stories. There were discussions about making sure each of them really had a place, and a drive, and that they were important. We agreed that they all did. We wanted to do this as partly a love letter to L.A., showcasing different parts of the city and communities as much as possible, and really dig into how many lives the crack epidemic truly touched and affected. It felt like through these three storylines we could really get at that in an effective way.
John, did you find any challenge in adapting to TV writing, as opposed to writing films?
John Singleton: No, not really, I really enjoyed it. FX allows us to do pretty much whatever we would do in a rated R film [laughs]. And then some. They’re telling us, “Take the kid gloves off and go for it.” Instead of in studio filmmaking, sometimes they say, “Oh my God, this disturbs me, can you change it?” It’s different. The cool thing is we’re in an even more voyeuristic medium where there’s such a competition for eyes that the network is just, “Hey, make it as authentic as possible and interesting for the audience and we’ll roll with it.” And that’s what we’ve done.
So FX actively encouraged you to go further than you might have otherwise thought to?
John Singleton: You don’t have to push me to go further [laughs]. Dave sometimes might have to pull us back a little bit and remind me, “We’ve got time to develop this.”
The show has many cliffhangers that make you want to immediately watch the next one. Many viewers are now accustomed to watching shows all at once. This one needs patience.
Dave Andron: I know we live in this Amazon, everything-at-your-fingertips world now, but I am so glad this is a show that’s on every week. You have to take it in and then digest it. One of the beauties of serialized television, you can leave something hanging. And the beauty of our three stories on top of that, is I don’t have to leave them all in some suspenseful place. If it works out that way, great, but I just need a cliffhanger moment in one, then people are excited to come back. I don’t know what to say if people are so frustrated having to wait a week, there’s nothing I can do. I guess those people will just let the whole thing air and then binge it. I hope people are like, “Oh my God, I have to wait a week!” That would be the best-case scenario.
Have people’s evolving viewing habits—streaming and bingeing series—had an impact on how you approach storytelling in a traditional network setting?
Dave Andron: For me, not at all. I feel like this model goes back to things like The Shield, these really great, serialized shows. There were lots of seasons of The Shield where I felt like episodes ended with massive cliffhangers where I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. For me, I kind of grew up on that, and that’s just something that as a storyteller I love. I love getting audiences excited to come back for next week and excited to find out what’s going to happen. The bingeing model works very well in that sense, but it’s just a function of what storytellers have been doing for quite a while now on TV.
Dave, what did you take from your experience on Justified that you could apply to Snowfall?
Dave Andron: From a storytelling point of view, really the “Elmore humor.” When you hear about a show about the cocaine/crack epidemic, you’re like, “Oh, that’s going to be dark.” And my experience so far when people watch is, “Holy shit, it’s really funny.” Tonally, that was something we were able to balance really well in Justified, that great Elmore Leonard mix of humor and violence and drama. From a showrunning standpoint, I just watched Graham [Yost, creator of Justified], who does it so well with a very even hand and is kind and a good boss. You watch that and you really want to be a good boss, even though it’s a tough and stressful job.
Were you able to bring along any Justified writers?
Dave Andron: I was able to get Leonard Chang to come and act as my number two in the room, who was on Justified, seasons four, five, and six. I was also able to get V.J. Boyd to come and consult and be in the room. The others—basically the rising tide lifts all ships—so all those writers went on to have their own pilots, different script deals, overall deals, and they scattered to the wind.
I read somewhere that you said the crack epidemic really exploded in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984. The show starts in 1983. Does the first season get to the summer of ’84?
John Singleton: It’s not going to be full-blown, but you’ll get to the genesis of it. The cool thing about television is you can have these—I wouldn’t call it a slow burn—but elongated narratives that take their time, which I love. You have two hours in a film, [but] a show, if you’re lucky, you have 10 hours in your first season to flesh it all out. So we’re trying to show what the neighborhoods were like before cocaine was cheaply acquired and the transition into crack.
Dave Andron: The first season only ended up taking place over the course of weeks, maybe months. If we’re lucky enough to get a second season, there would be a jump forward in time, because we open the show in the middle of ’83. The general consensus is it was in the summer of ’84 that crack really landed and exploded and I want to get to that point in time sooner rather than later. So we’ll figure out how to bridge the gap and move things along.
And where could the show go from there?
John Singleton: There are all different sides to what happened, to what occurred.
Dave Andron: For my money, it starts to get really interesting after crack lands. Because I start to get into bigger questions, some of which we’re still feeling the ramifications of today, which is why did it really explode in the black community, why was it left to keep getting worse in those communities, how did the War on Drugs affect—or not affect—that, how did the prison industrial complex come into play. You can actually start to build out the world into arenas of politics, newspapers, journalists, police. The world starts to expand as the scope of this expands with it. The back half of the show has a chance to delve really deeply into the layers of the crack epidemic and how complicated and how gray everything was. I don’t think there’s ever “The End” in a show that’s able to move through all those layers.
It sounds like the subject of the show is still very relevant today, then.
Dave Andron: People living in the here-and-now are aware of things that are happening in this country, the fact that Barack Obama had tried to pull back some of the harsh drug sentencing that had been put forward in the ‘80s. Now it looks like the current regime might go back to what we had before. People are aware of what those laws—and what that epidemic—did to that generation. It’s close enough in the rearview that people are aware of it.
John Singleton: The drug laws were changed to adversely affect people that were most affected by crack, at the lower end of the spectrum, not people that were selling kilos or a high volume of cocaine. They made the initial drug laws—some of which are still in the books—over one weekend, the House and the Senate approved it after this basketball player, Leonard Bias, died of a heart attack from smoking crack. And because of the disproportion of the laws, a person who has a couple of vials of crack would get more time than someone who had kilos of cocaine. And we all knew the people who had kilos of cocaine were not the people in the hood. So the laws themselves are very, very racially biased, and they’re still in the books for many, many years. So you had a generation of people who were blighted by the drug, and then also blighted by the prison industrial complex of whole families going to jail. It wasn’t just the men going to jail, it was whole families getting 10, 20 years, or life sentences, for small amounts of possession. And we don’t even deal with that right now. We’re just dealing with the transition from coke to crack.
Dave Andron: I’m interested in how did we get to this place? We’re still feeling it, and there’s an opportunity to tie that period in the ‘80s directly to things that we’re dealing with today.
John Singleton: Today, there are still people being adversely affected by that. Some people are in jail, some people are just coming home from those times.
What is the story behind the show’s title?
Dave Andron: You know, I wish I could take credit, because it’s a wonderful title.
John Singleton: I came up with the title. I thought about the cocaine as kind of like a storm that was coming to Los Angeles. L.A. has great weather. Snowfall is kind of an oxymoron for Los Angeles, because it doesn’t snow in Los Angeles. I’ve been saying there’s a storm coming to L.A. And its name is cocaine.
© 2017 Writers Guild of America West