ERIC OVERMYER BIDS FAREWELL TO HBO SERIES “TREME” AND SHARES MEMORIES
Q: How do you feel about saying goodbye to the show?
Eric Overmyer: I was down in New Orleans on Friday and Saturday to do the last Treme event, and it was very emotional, seeing everybody again, people I hadn’t seen since last February, when we wrapped. It was hard last spring, but I’m feeling a little better about it now. We have a house in New Orleans that we’ve had for a long time, since about 1989, and I love the city. So this was a dream job for me and I was sorry to see it end.
Q: Will you miss spending that amount of time down in New Orleans?
EO: Oh my god, yes. I’d rather be in New Orleans more than anyplace else at almost any time. LA’s a challenge, but it’s a necessary aspect at the moment because the books are set in LA. But it’s different than New Orleans – you spend a lot of time in the car. And you can’t get a drink at 7am. Isn’t New Orleans civilized? You can actually walk out of a bar and down the street with a drink? It’s very civilized. I miss that. Some of us are hoping to go back and do another show there at some point. We’re scheming.
Q: Tennessee Williams famously said: ‘America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland’. Do you agree?
EO: Well, San Francisco less and less, apparently, because of the dot com stuff, forcing everyone out….but I don’t know, I haven’t been to San Francisco in a long time.
And, you know, Miami actually is a pretty interesting place. Seattle’s a pretty nice city, Portland’s a pretty nice city. Nashville, Austin…So maybe it’s less true than it was in 1958, or whenever he wrote that. Maybe some things have changed for the better.
Q: You’ve had a strong emotional connection with New Orleans for a long time.
Had it always been in the back of your mind that you’d like to do something down there?
EO: Yeah, that’s how this started. David and I met on Homicide: Life on the Street back in the mid-90s in Baltimore. I had a house down there, he’d been visiting there, and we started talking about New Orleans and New Orleans music and how much we loved it and how no one had ever done a TV show or movie properly there, and wouldn’t it be nice to do a show in New Orleans, blah blah blah. That was just pie in the sky at the time. And then he was kind enough to invite me to work on the fourth season of The Wire and that was the summer before the storm, and we started talking about, that idea we had, and how maybe we should try to make that a real idea. David said it should be about musicians, because we were both tired of doing cop shows. And I said oh yeah, sure. That was kind of as far as we got and then the storm hit, and we thought, well, we can’t ignore that, we can’t be the New Orleans that we knew before the storm because that’s changed. So that was the genesis of it, but the seeds of it go way back, and it was really out of the impulse just to want to do a show there. Not anything noble. And we still felt that nobody had ever really done it right except for Les Blank who did this documentary called Always for Pleasure back in the late ’70, that we cite in the show several times. It’s sort of amazing because a lot of what he shot in the 1970s continues to this day – the Mardi Gras Indians, the Neville Brothers looking very young – the street culture has survived, and it’s sort of gratifying to see that, and then see Treme and realize you’re looking at living, changing traditions.
Q: Did filming down there so soon after Katrina make things difficult, logistically?
EO: We started filming in the spring of ’09, two years afterwards, and there was plenty of evidence of the storm – plenty of damage and people still rebuilding and still out of their houses – but logistically it wasn’t like we’d just come in six months after. And as the show went on it and the recovery continued, it actually became a little harder to find evidence. And then in some places it was way too easy to still find; there were places where things had just been left as they were. But by and large the city’s bounced back, pretty much, and it’s different. The city’s smaller now. There’s been an influx of new people which is really good, and interesting, but a lot of people did leave, so it’s about 100,000 people smaller than it was. But New Orleans in 1964 was about three quarters of a million, so it’s been shrinking for a while. Today, it is maybe 350,000, according to the 2010 census. It’s about 66 percent black, which is down from probably 70 something before the storm. But so it’s a little…little less black, but it’s also now got a bigger Latin population, so it’s changed a little bit that way. My understanding is a lot of people just kind of moved to Jefferson Parish, so they’re still in the area – they didn’t want to leave entirely. Some people moved to Baton Rouge.
Q: You’re starting Season 4 on Election Day 2008…
EO: Isn’t it shocking to see how young Obama looks? We’ll go up to Mardi Gras 2009.
We thought it was good to finish on Mardi Gras. And we actually finished shooting on Mardi Gras 2013. Every season, we have filmed pieces of real Mardi Gras and recreated some of our own.
Q: Have people generally been quite receptive to your wanting to film them?
EO: During the shooting for the first season they were not. We tried to persuade people but before we were on the air, there was a great deal of suspicion about us.
Q: Why did you decide to make five episodes instead of 10 this time?
EO: That’s all the money we had. And we had to kind of stretch that to make it work, but it worked. And, honestly, we ended up doing 35 episodes, and 35 episodes of a show about ordinary people in New Orleans, about musicians and cooks and Mardi Gras Indians is a lot of episodes. It’s not cops and doctors. So I feel very grateful.
Q: When you were making The Wire, did you have any sense that it would, eventually, become the phenomenon that is has?
Q: Do you think the fact that you all came from slightly non-traditional TV writing backgrounds – you obviously from stage and David from journalism and George from novels – do you think it made for something quite different in Treme and in The Wire?
EO: I know David is quite adamant about working with writers who don’t come from a traditional TV background. In fact, trying to get him to hire someone from a traditional TV writing background is practically impossible. We were looking for somebody for Treme in the second season, I had several people that I’d worked with in traditional settings and I just couldn’t get him to take them seriously. I’m sure you do get beaten down in the network system. I’ve gone back and forth between the two. Homicide was a great show in the network setting, and Law and Order was better than you might think in terms of the challenge of writing the show – it was a hard show to write, and they more or less left you alone because it was phenomenally successful. And then I’ve been on lots of shows in the network situation where they were quite intrusive. And that’s miserable. Working for HBO has been great.
Q: Have you been able to do any writing for the theatre at all?
EO: It’s been a while. I like working in the theatre up to a point – the point where the audience comes in, and then suddenly the actors are all in another play. Once it gets out of the rehearsal room, it changes. I don’t know what the secret is to that not happening. But I like writing for the stage – it’s a pleasure to write for the stage.
Q: What projects are you working on next?
EO: I’ve been in LA working on a pilot based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, the Harry Bosch crime novels. And I’ve done a couple of pilots for Amazon.
Q: Do you think that the Amazon/Netflix new model of delivery changes the way you write for television as well as the way it is consumed?
EO: I think you do the content the same way, really. One thing that’s changing the writing a little bit, is perhaps the way Netflix did House of Cards. If you noticed, since they knew they were all going to be consumed in a row, they didn’t have traditional sort of big cliffhangers at the end, so really episodes could pick up moments later. I think we’re going to do a little of that. Amazon is a little different though. I think they’re going to show the first three, so they are almost continuous but with a bigger hook at the end of the third episode. The way Amazon’s unrolling the half hour shows is they put the first one up for free – like all good drugs – and then if you want to see the next episodes, and then they left it up, and then if you wanted to see the next episodes you have to become an Amazon Prime member. So in that way the delivery system could influence the storytelling a little bit. But they will leave them up on Amazon. So if you missed the first five and you want to jump in, you can do that and then get the sixth one. But they’ll put them up once a week so that you’ll go back to the site, because they want you to buy other stuff – the screwdriver, the copy of that Michael Connelly book…we’ve even started buying food on it, hard to find items. We just bought some Steen’s cane syrup, because that’s a Louisiana product, and you can’t find it anywhere in New York, but you can get it through Amazon.