David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed television shows “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” is in New Orleans working on his next project.
Named after the Creole neighborhood known for its rich musical history, “Treme” (truh-MAY’) is a prospective TV series geared for HBO that aims to capture New Orleans’ heritage and traditions as residents struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
However, Simon is quick to say it’s not just another Katrina project.
“This is an American story,” he said in an interview from outside a jazz club where the hourlong pilot was being filmed Wednesday. “This is about an American city trying to pick itself up and doing it without a great deal of help.”
To tell the story, Simon abandons almost all the backdrops New Orleans is best known for — the French Quarter and Garden District included — and gets into grittier, lesser-known neighborhoods he says have been “under-chronicled.”
“We had to get inside New Orleans traditions,” he said. “You can’t do that from the French Quarter.”
He said it was important to capture the city’s dysfunction as well as its grace.
“New Orleans is not the most efficient, best-run metropolis in America. It never has been,” he said. “But it’s a city with an ornate and essential culture and musical tradition that is maybe one of the most original things America ever invented.”
He said the story should resonate with Americans considering the recent economic downturn. He compared Americans’ faith and reliance on the nation’s economic structure to New Orleans’ faith and reliance in the city’s levee system, both of which have proven to be “more fragile than anyone ever assumed.”
“It’s a metaphor for where we are in America right now,” he said, standing outside Vaughan’s Lounge, a music club near one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, the Lower 9th Ward. He said the pilot would keep the name of the club. He even employed the lounge’s regular doorman to play one in the show.
Simon said he had been wanting to tell a story in New Orleans for more than a decade before Katrina, which hit in August 2005, but “couldn’t find a hook.”
Much of his “Treme” writing team is from New Orleans. It includes resident Tom Piazza, author of the nonfiction “Why New Orleans Matters” and the novel “City of Refuge,” and Lolis Eric Elie, a reporter for The Times-Picayune newspaper. Elie also produced a documentary, “Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” currently airing on public television outlets nationwide.
Other writers include George Pelecanos, a crime-novelist and writer for “The Wire,” and David Mills, a screenwriter for “Homicide,” ”NYPD Blue” and “The Wire.”
Eric Overmyer, who lives in New Orleans and whose TV credits include “St. Elsewhere,” ”Homicide” and “The Wire,” is a friend of Simon’s and a co-executive-producer on “Treme.”
A host of locals also made the cast. New Orleans-born actor Wendell Pierce, who played Detective William “Bunk” Moreland on “The Wire,” plays a “Treme” musician, a role he called “a dream come true.”
“Being from here, I’ve always wanted to be a musician, but I was always the actor hanging out with the musicians,” he said with a laugh on the set, trombone in hand. Between takes, Pierce practiced with Kermit Ruffins, a trumpet player featured in a scene that included a cameo by singer-songwriter Elvis Costello.
“That happens all the time here,” Simon said. “You’ll have musicians come from all over to see and hear these guys play. It’s just a regular night in New Orleans.”
Simon also cast New Orleans resident Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who was featured in Spike Lee’s HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”
The cast includes Steve Zahn from the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do!”, Clarke Peters from “The Wire” and Kim Dickens from HBO’s “Deadwood.”
Simon and company have been in New Orleans for several weeks filming. The hope is “Treme” will be picked up by HBO, which has asked to see the pilot and a handful of scripts to judge before going on with a full first season.
If picked up, it will be the second time in three years a major television network has put New Orleans and Katrina in the spotlight. Fox’s post-Katrina detective drama “K-Ville” aired during the 2007-08 season but was canceled due to low ratings and the disruption of last year’s writers strike.