As I was doing a study on the precursors of the television series The Wire, I got to talk with writer, producer and showrunner Tom Fontana about the legacy of the revolutionary show Homicide: Life on the Street, and his successful career.
First of all, how did you approach David Simon’s book, and what was it to work with him on Homicide?
Well, what happen was that Barry Levinson, my business partner, who’s from Baltimore and has made a lot of films about his city, was sent David’s book to see if he could turn it into a feature film. Barry read the book and said: “No, there’s too much here for a feature, we should do it as a television drama series.” So, we started to develop this piece of non-fiction as a television series for NBC. At that point, David was still working for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, so he was not directly involved in the development of the series, but he was being paid as a consultant and I will say that he went from an enemy to an ally, though enemy is probably too strong a word, because he was very – and rightfully so – protective of the truth behind his book. He was also very protective of the real homicide detectives who we were fictionalizing, but we managed to find a middle ground. He would give notes on each episode and eventually, he left the Sun paper and asked me if I could hire him as a writer on the series. I said absolutely, and that’s when the transformation happened, when he and I became friends, and when he made a significant contribution to Homicide.
I read the book over the course of the years we were doing Homicide, probably ten times, and by the time the series went off the air, we used everything in that book including the commas and the question marks. So I think the book is the best non-fiction book about police work that I’ve ever read, and God know I’ve read enough of them, so it was an incredible source, though again we were fictionalizing so we weren’t necessarily depicting everything that was in the book exactly the way things happened.
As we developed the Adena Watson story, I decided we wouldn’t solve the murder of the young African American girl, which was central to the original book, because in real life the case had never been closed. In most television series, especially when they devote six episodes or ten episodes to something like a murder, they solve the murder, but we decided that solving the murder would be disrespectful to the real little girl and her family.
How did you manage to have that specific imprint on a show that was completely different from all the cop shows at the time?
Again, the originality had a lot to do with Barry Levinson. He really wanted to break the mold of TV cop shows. He said to me: “Let’s do a cop show that has no car chases and no gun battles.” I thought: “Oh my God, that’s impossible, of course we have to do it.” The shooting style was really Barry’s idea, and the narrative style was really my choice, especially in terms of the multiple stories. I like to say that the storytelling on Homicide was as sloppy as real life and real detective work. Now, we’re very used to — in the C.S.I. era — everything being so neat and clean, and efficient, whereas death, especially murder, is not particularly neat and clean and efficient.
Would you say that there something specific about Baltimore that makes really good shows?
We never had a conversation about the series not being set in Baltimore or shooting it in Baltimore. I think the reason why Baltimore appealed to us was that it wasn’t New York or Los Angeles, which both seem pretty well covered by other TV cop shows. We felt was that Baltimore was very representative of the other cities and towns in America. Baltimore is a city like Buffalo, New York, St Louis, or Cincinnati, so we thought that in being as specific as we could about what it is to live in Baltimore, we could reflect what other people in other cities were living through. We had a scene in I believe the first season, where Frank Pembleton is talking to Beau Felton. They’re in a car together and they’re driving some place. Beau Felton says something like “turn here on Freemont,” and Pembleton says that « It’s not Freemont, it’s called Martin Luther King Boulevard. » Felton answers: “Look, I grew up in this town. I‘ve always called it Freemont, and just because it got renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard doesn’t mean I’m gonna change the way I say it.” They got into an argument and the undercurrent was a certain amount of racism, but what it also spoke to was the fact that after Dr. King was murdered, many American cities named a street after him. Even though the conversation was taking place in Baltimore, if you were in another city, you would know what it’s like.
As far as the writing is concerned, was it challenging to write about the crude cases that are depicted in the book, and to bring them on screen?
No, not really because when you’re writing about a homicide case, you’re really writing about people. You’re writing about discovering the truth behind the person’s life that could cause someone else to murder them. Personally I don’t find it more difficult, but then again I have a twisted little mind so…
Do you think that there is anything that cannot be done or said on screen?
Well, unfortunately in American television that’s an ever changing question. There was a time when on broadcast television, which was what Homicide was on, where you could tell stories that were challenging, then TV goes through periods of time when the networks want everything to be very mainstream, very simple, so the storytelling goes through cycles. We were very lucky at that particular period on NBC that they were looking to do a series that had more complexity.
Do you think the show would have been different had it been on HBO?
I don’t think Homicide would have been radically different, except for the language. But I don’t think that visually it would have been different. In a fascinating kind of way, The Wire is the son of Homicide, not the cable version of Homicide – that’s makes it too generic – but you know, David took what he learned on Homicide doing a broadcast television series, and when he got a chance to do a cable cop show, he pushed more boundaries even further.
It seems like nowadays, The Wire is overshadowing pretty much any show, Homicide included. Why do you think Homicide was somehow left behind, when it had such an impact TV?
Well, you know, I don’t have a problem with that of because I think that the groundwork that Homicide laid has helped David define what The Wire would be. Good quality television needs to keep evolving. I would hate to think that Homicide was the be-all and the end-all of cop shows. Change is good, and the fact that different writers are able to express their world view is truly the most important, not that Homicide needs to get more credit.
Obviously leaving The Wire aside, what do you think was the impact of Homicide on television in general?
Visually, the idea of jump cutting and the hand held cameras was something that people started to imitate. In terms of character stuff, the fact that our cops were far from paragons of virtue, that they were as troubled and dark as the cases they were working on. But that also was an evolution from what we did on St. Elsewhere with doctors being human. Again it’s all about keeping the storytelling moing upwards as opposed to standing in place.
Would you say there would be a spot for Homicide today? If you could relaunch it, would you do it?
I would say no. First of all, I doubt that any broadcast network would put the show on the air. But second of all, I’m not a big believer in going backwards in my own writing, and in my own creative impulses. I’m thrilled that we did Homicide. I cherish the years that we all spent together working on the show, but I would definitely worry about us doing something less good than the show was. I’d rather use the stuff that I learned doing Homicide on shows like Oz and Borgia.
Homicide, Oz, or The Wire are all quite realistic shows. How do you explain their success with TV being entertainment medium first?
Well, you can be complex and entertaining. That being said, Homicide and The Wire were never big in ratings. They were more critically acclaimed, so what’s important is that there is audience for challenging material. The ratings may not be as big as Empire, and that’s O.K. I mean, I don’t write for the audience, I write for myself in the sense that I write the things that intrigue me, that I care about, and that trouble me. If other people respond to them, that’s terrific. If they don’t that’s fine too. Anybody who’s a good writer can’t write to appeal to everybody because then the work becomes paint by numbers.
In what ways do you think your other show, Oz, paved the way for series like The Wire?
After having written a show about sending murderers to prison, I wanted to do a show about a prison: what happens to the bad guys when they go away. So Oz came out of Homicide in a way. I couldn’t sell Oz because none of the broadcast networks wanted to do a prison show, at least the way that I saw it. Then HBO was looking to do its first drama series and I went over there for a meeting with Chris Albrecht and Anne Thomopoulos. I told them what I wanted to do and he said: “O.K. let’s do it!” Being the first HBO drama was a very heavy responsibility because they gave me such freedom, but in that freedom, I worried that if I screwed up, I was screwing it up for the next people coming in. I guess I didn’t screw it up too badly because the next people were David Chase, Alan Ball, David Milch and David Simon. I think that’s where Oz fits in the story of The Wire. I don’t think Oz affected The Wire creatively. I think my show cleared a path for The Wire to happen.
Oz being a very realistic and sometimes crude show, did you have to face specific challenges working on what you say, and what problems you could tackle?
Of all the television series that I’ve written, Oz was the most difficult for me to let go of at the end of each season. The show would haunt me. Normally when I finish a series, the next day I can start writing something else, but with Oz, the characters would keep talking to me. One of the reasons that I decided to end the series was that I really wanted to exorcise this demon.
After two shows like Homicide and Oz that are very crime-based, how did you come to work on Borgia and Renaissance Italy?
Well, I was brought Borgia ironically by Chris Albrecht and Anne Thomopoulos who knew that I had a real interest in the Popes. They asked me if I had ever thought about doing a series about the Borgia family and I said « Yes absolutely. » There is a certain amount of brutality and crime in Borgia as there is in Oz and Homicide, but the other thing that is true about these three shows is, thematically, the stories deal with a struggle between redemption and retribution. The characters are trying to understand their relationship to God and to each other. They also deal with faith, and the lack of faith. Those are the same questions that I’ve been writing about my whole life, but tackled in a more obvious way in Borgia than in Oz or Homicide though.
Would you work on historical dramas again if you were able to?
Oh absolutely. I’m actually developing another one right now, even though I can’t tell you what it’s about. I find historical dramas thrilling. I’m a huge researcher, I love historical research. What is important to me about doing a historical show is that the issues reflect what’s going on in the world right now. I think just randomly doing a historical show is useless, but if you can find some moments in history that resonate to today, then the scripts become really fun and challenging to write.
Could you tell me what was your best memory on the set of Borgia?
The best thing for me about Borgia was also the best thing for me about Oz, which is that the cast was so incredibly courageous. They would try anything, and they passionately cared about the series, and it wasn’t about them individually looking good, even though a lot of them were very good looking. The impulse was more about us wanting to make the best television series that we could make. I loved going on the set because of the creative spirit. Well, I also loved going on the set because were shooting in beautiful little towns in Italy, the Czech Republic, and Croatia.
Speaking about the cast, you worked with Clark Johnson on Homicide, and at the moment I’m working on his work as a director on The Wire and The Shield, and I was wondering if you had little insights on how it was to work with him?
I love Clark as an actor, and I love Clark as a director, and I love Clark as a human being. What’s wonderful about him is that he is all about telling a story well, which not every director is interested in. A lot of directors want to show off, and do fancy camera work, which is fine. But what’s great about Clark is that he knows why he’s there as an episodic television director: to define and maintain the universe that has been created. The other thing is that he’s so incredibly charming. He makes people laugh. When he was directing Copper for me up in Toronto and I was down here in New York, he sent me a picture of himself on the set where he was wearing a hat, and on the hat was a live rooster. That’s the kind of guy he is, he takes the work extremely seriously, but he doesn’t take himself that