Getting It Right: An Interview With David Simon

Generation KillTHIS is war. A convoy of highly-trained, heavily-armed, hyper-caffeinated American Marines rolls towards Baghdad in open-top Humvees, down a highway that Saddam Hussein ordered built in his own honour. En route, these men follow poor instructions and bad directions, taking friendly and enemy fire while struggling to obey changeable rules of engagement that needlessly endanger their lives, and result in numerous civilian deaths. They complain constantly, swear pornographically, and sing past or current pop hits when bored, which is often. It makes for phenomenal viewing.

“And it’s all true,” says David Simon of his new seven-part miniseries Generation Kill, scrupulously adapted from Evan Wright’s non-fiction book about the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Evan really did get the perspective of these guys in the Humvees. This is what they thought and feared. This is where their anger was rooted. This is how they regarded command. We wanted to get it exactly right.” Generation Kill begins on British television next week (January 25), courtesy of the FX channel, which also imported his previous series, The Wire. Anyone who saw that programme will want to watch this one. Simon now has peerless credibility among that staunch minority of viewers who agree with the critical consensus that The Wire was the greatest screen drama of our time.

A born newspaperman who still claims outsider status after 15 years in TV, he is also known to regard all those ecstatic reviews with the same professional scepticism as the occasional bad one. “It’s always nice when people say nice things,” as Simon puts it, “but I take that stuff with a pinch of salt. My wife is with me on this trip, and it’s basically her job to kick the shit out of my ego after every hyperbolic statement.”

Sitting in a Glasgow hotel lounge and feeling “like a tourist”, Simon looks and sounds knackered. This flying promotional visit comes after a year of near-constant travel. He and his regular writing partner Ed Burns were scouting locations for Generation Kill in Africa before they had even finished The Wire. Simon went home to shoot the fifth and final season in Baltimore while Burns stayed on to supervise production in Mozambique, Namibia and the South African town of Upington, all substitutes for Iraqi flashpoints described by Evan Wright.

Between editing in London and preparing a new project about jazz musicians in the flood-damaged Treme district of New Orleans, Simon also took a post as writer-in-residence at the Berkeley School of Journalism in California. “I don’t want you to think I’m complaining,” he says. But to a fan, and possibly to Simon himself, he seems as out of place away from Baltimore as some of his characters might.

“Why the fuck would anyone ever wanna leave?” asked The Wire’s lifelong corner boy Bodie Broadus, during his first and last venture beyond the streets that he knew. Simon has read enough about Glasgow to know it bears a certain post-industrial resemblance to the city that has been his beat for more than 30 years. “The demographics are very different, but I guess in the 1980s it was suffering from a lot of the same problems, with drug abuse and the disappearance of the manufacturing base. I know Glasgow used to be about shipbuilding, and now that’s all but gone, as it is in Baltimore. The yards are essentially defunct.”

This subject was actually addressed in the second season of The Wire, which folded a new strand about beleaguered longshoremen into its ongoing story of demoralised police and tireless drug traders in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. He gives most of the credit to guest writer Rafael Yglesias. One of several contemporary novelists invited to contribute scripts for The Wire – along with George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price – Yglesias offered a proletarian eulogy to the waterfront. “The death of work in America was an issue close to Rafael’s heart,” says Simon.

He and Ed Burns had developed their own ideas about urban institutions through years of respective experience as a crime reporter and a homicide detective. “We had certain theories about newspapers, and municipal politics, and the drug war, and the education system … ” (Burns had also been a local schoolteacher.)

All of these found expression at some point on The Wire, between the first episode in 2002, and the last, in 2008. Meanwhile, the country had been at war for the entire duration of the series. Simon has admitted that Generation Kill is partly an attempt redress their lack of attention to recent events far outside Baltimore city limits. “We weren’t exactly the only ones,” he says.

“Most Americans, and probably most British, have opted out of any connection to this war. We knew we had our work cut out for us trying to tell a story about something that so many people are turning away from. “People who were for the war would not want to watch, because there are things in it that would disturb them. People who were against it wouldn’t watch for the same reason. They want to have their arguments without actually seeing what we’ve done to Iraqis.”

The ratings so far bear this out. Three and a half million tuned in to Generation Kill when it was first shown in the US last summer, which sounds like a pretty good number for a broadcast on the respectable but marginal cable network HBO, until Simon points out that more than twice as many watched the historical drama John Adams on the same channel. “A warm and heroic story about a young and vibrant America was always more likely to do a certain amount of business.”

Would Simon feel better or worse, I wonder, if I told him (hypothetically) that my own eagerness to see Generation Kill may or may not have tempted me to download all seven episodes from illicit file-sharing websites, long before they were due for transmission in the UK? “I wouldn’t really care,” he says. “I don’t have a percentage in that.” He is smiling now, a little. Nobody knows better than Simon that his programmes generate more currency in the media than among the public.

For all the positive coverage that tried to sell The Wire as a modern TV equivalent of classic literature, its original audience was so small that HBO almost cancelled it more than once. “We lost viewers as soon as we made the cast 65% black,” he says. “In the US, at least. I’m not saying that it was racist, just that it was racial. A lot of people looked at those characters and thought ‘this is someone else’s story’. For many, empathy comes a lot easier when the people on screen look and sound like you.”

On this side of the Atlantic, some of the same characters might have appeared more exotic than authentic – especially the stick-up artist Omar Little, a figure from inner-city folklore. And there was always a vicarious element of danger tourism among those who made The Wire fashionable, if never quite popular, in Britain. “I am conscious of the fact that a dystopic view of America plays a little better the further you get from America,” says Simon. “Any show that takes you to a culture not your own is in some ways a travelogue.”

The same must now apply to Generation Kill, which is by that token “a travelogue of the US Marine Corps in Iraq”. Evan Wright’s book, expanded from a three-part article published in Rolling Stone during the summer of 2003, actually reads like a road trip through modern manoeuvre warfare. Wright had spent three eventful weeks that spring with a company from the First Recon Battalion, and witnessed what was then called Operation Iraqi Freedom from the back seat of a Humvee. Prevailing military doctrine stressed “the violence of action”, and barely permitted these Marines to slow down on their way through Fedayeen ambushes, wrongful shootings, and humanitarian crises.

If the raw recruit sitting beside him was insensitive to all this, the proud, disciplined specialist in the front was insulted to be driving “a parade of officers and sub-human morons across Mesopotamia”. “They are screwing this up,” Sergeant Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert told Wright after yet another killing of Iraqi civilians. “These idiots. Don’t they realise the world already hates us?” Colbert and his comrades are quoted verbatim in the screenplay for Generation Kill, which was written by Simon and Burns with Wright’s participation. Sergeant Eric Kocher, Sergeant Rudy Reyes and Captain Jeffrey Carisalez were hired as military advisors, and Simon says he gave them “free reign to demand credibility as to Marine protocol and their conduct in Iraq”. Reyes also plays himself (see side panel).

“Obviously there is artifice involved,” says Simon. “This is not a documentary. But there are facts in Evan’s book that are not in dispute, even if they are not on the minds of most Americans. This project really did endeavour to follow the book, and depict combat on the road to Baghdad as it actually was for these guys.” Which is to say, whatever comedy you might find in Generation Kill is transcribed from the Marines’ own brand of surpassingly vulgar humour. All the drama is essentially re-enacted from their first-hand experiences of mortal danger and moral conflict. Meaning is dictated by those facts on the ground. And politics, according to Simon, are “beside the point”.

“The truth is that manoeuvre warfare really did topple the Iraqi regime in a matter of weeks, with a minimum of casualties on the American side. These men did accomplish their mission. Be that as it may, once Iraq was conquered there were all sorts of questions that hadn’t been answered by anybody. If you like, Generation Kill is about a military success, and a civil failure.” Simon claims to have no agenda other than verisimilitude. “We’re aggressive about that,” he says of himself and Burns. “We put a bullshit-meter on everything.” What some might perceive as a common theme in his writing – the commanders of Generation Kill are no more or less negligent of professional ethics than the police chiefs, city leaders and news editors of The Wire – Simon ascribes to realism.

“Maybe, just maybe, we said universal things about institutions when we made The Wire,” he told Baltimore Magazine recently. “And these universalities are evident elsewhere.” That show is now routinely referred to as a “masterpiece”, while its posthumous audience continues to grow by way of DVD box sets and zealous new converts, but he says his ambitions in making it were never particularly artistic, or even novelistic. His wife, Laura Lippman, is now an author of fiction, and gets “especially exercised” when critics elevate him toward the Western Canon.

They met on the job at the Baltimore Sun, where Simon was a police reporter from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, when he switched career to work on the cop show inspired by his first book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets (1991). According to Simon, he was more pushed than pulled. His reasons for leaving that paper are a matter of record, not least because of his decision to base the final season of The Wire around such a thinly-fictionalised version of the Sun. True to form, Simon didn’t even change the name, adding fresh ink to old grudges against his former colleagues John Carroll and Bill Marrimow, and drawing the only bad press that the series ever received.

“Apparently, when you offer what you think is a fair and aggressive critique of genuine social problems, this is an act of storytelling heroism for which you will be applauded,” says Simon. “When you apply the same rigour to asking what’s happened to American newspapers, this is interpreted as revenge, or schadenfreude, or the angry rantings of an apostate.” Nobody still employed in the trade could honestly deny the reality of the budget cuts and redundancies detailed in The Wire.

This decline, as Simon suggests, is universal, but his response is the product of a particular sensibility. It might be generational. Where the young men who invaded Iraq were raised in an age of disengagement – “I feel more nervous watching a game show at home,” one of them told Evan Wright – Simon was born in Washington DC just as John F Kennedy was elected President. He was still at an impressionable age when Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon, and followed their example into journalism. “After Vietnam, we told ourselves coverage was going to be specialised. We had already conceded the daily part to television, so from now on the prime story wouldn’t be ‘what’ happened yesterday, but ‘why’. The ‘why’ made it a game for adults.

“And I gave up on the notion of newspapers having any effect when the papers themselves gave up on the idea of explaining a complex world.” Simon is not about to argue that a TV series can perform the same function. “I remember someone saying that The Wire was ‘porn for journalists’, which I thought was a funny phrase. But I probably still have too much respect for journalists to claim that we did their job for them. I don’t think we changed anything, except make a few people angrier than they would otherwise have been, which is always a good thing.”

Meanwhile, there is no end of bad television. Simon saw the evidence in African hotel rooms during the production of Generation Kill. “Some of the American programming that survives and endures and makes it over there É it made me think of those old radio transmissions going into outer space.” And yet, Simon’s faith in narrative itself remains so absolute that it sometimes comes across as disregard for the audience. “Fuck the average reader,” he once said of his storytelling policy, and he knows a good quote when he gives one. Today, he softens it a little.

“I would have been happy if everyone watched The Wire. I didn’t want to exclude people. But neither did I want to slow down or dumb down. It wasn’t just entertainment. TV has been a passive medium for so long. We wanted the viewer to be leaning in towards the set, asking ‘What just happened?’ “The obligation on us was to make sure all the details made sense. The obligation on you was to pay attention. That’s the optimum exchange we wanted.”

Generation Kill is no less specific, even esoteric, in its language and detail. But the viewer still somehow feels that their own world is being explained to them. Mediocrity rules – on the battlefield, on television, and everywhere else. David Simon has become the exception by asking how, and why, our standards have fallen so low.

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