Thursday, September 15, 2011

An interview with ERIC OVERMYER, Executive producer, writer and creator, HBO’s Treme

Eric Overmyer made a big splash in legitimate theater in the 80s with On the Verge and has since had a stellar career in writing and producing for television:  Law and Order, Homicide, The Wire, and Treme.  The last came out of his long-time, part-time residence in New Orleans’ Marigny district near the French Quarter and his long-time association with David Simon.
Q: Eric, thanks for taking time out to share some thoughts about New Orleans. We’re thrilled that Treme is going to be here for a third season. What feedback on the show do you get from New Orleanians? Because it’s about them – as survivors of the trauma of Hurricane Katrina – do you find they nitpick the details?  Do those viewers outside the region get it?  How does their response differ from ours?      
A: New Orleanians tend to have an intensely personal reaction to the show, pro or con -- it's unlike any audience reaction I've ever encountered, which makes sense when you think about it. How many television shows have there been about a major catastrophe and its aftermath?  Maybe none, other than Treme.  Our non-New Orleanian audience (wherever they may be -- "New Orleanians" -- people from New Orleans, people with ties to New Orleans, people with affection for New Orleans -- I would call all of them part of our New Orleanian audience—and they're everywhere) I think experiences the show in a more ordinary way. They respond to the characters, the music and the depiction of the musicians, and the depiction, surprisingly, to me, of the food and the cooking and the restaurant world.  And yes, of course, New Orleanians nitpick -- and offer definitive and often contradictory information about all and sundry.  Imagine how many variations on the pronounciation of "Uglesich's" we were given.  People nearly came to blows.

     Some New Orleanians don’t like the show at all.  How dare we presume to tell ‘their’ story?  Everyone has a Katrina story – even I do. My wife and daughters spent most of the summer of 2005 in New Orleans, suffered through Tropical Storm Cindy, which knocked the power out for a week in our neighborhood, and just happened to finally pack up and drive out of town on the Thursday before the storm, thinking it was headed for Florida, and so missed being caught in the nightmare of the evacuation.  People are very proprietary about their storm story, and who can blame them?  We have no ‘right’ – we weren’t here (although a lot of us were), we’re carpetbaggers, and so on.  Those kind of folks, I expect, don’t watch the show, secure in their certainty that we couldn’t possibly get it right.

     Others just don’t think Treme’s very good.  I was in the Louisiana Music Factory one day during this past Jazz Fest and one of the owners/managers (not sure which one, I wasn’t looking) in response to a question about slow sales of the Season One dvds, said, “Of course it’s not selling, it’s like a bad home movie.”  I put back the stack of cd’s I’d been assembling, went to the counter with a token purchase and got out of there – and haven’t been back since.  Which pains me, because I love the LMF.  I just haven’t decided if I’m still a customer.  It stung.  The relationship between the show and its New Orleans audience is personal – and cuts both ways.

Q: Even though you brought years of experience in New Orleans to the table (or writing desk), you hired New Orleans writers like Lolis Eric Elie and Tom Piazza.  Have you learned a lot more about New Orleans since you began?  Like what?     
A: I thought I knew a lot about New Orleans before we started the show, and of course I've learned a tremendous amount since about the city, its culture and history, and its politics.  We had the good sense to hire Tom and Lolis (who sometimes disagree -- and I've had the very satisfying experience of knowing things they didn't know) -- and also consultants like Mary Howell, Jacques Morial, Donald Harrison Jr, Kermit Ruffins, Jordan Hirsch and so on – and they’ve been tremendous.  Who I've really learned from are the musicians and Mardi Gras Indians we've worked with, and the local folks on the crew and the staff, people like Karen Livers who are makers of culture themselves.

     I think what I've learned that's most profound is what a small town New Orleans is, and how interconnected people are through family and friendship and work, and how thoroughly and devastatingly the Federal Flood ripped those relationships apart -- and how it is the culture that has partially restored and knitted them back together since.  And I've also come to know how much I'll never ever know about the Indians.

Q: Y'all have paid a lot of attention to getting New Orleans culture right.  I think of the wonderful episode where you wove the three strands of Mardi Gras culture into a single braid:  mainstream, black, and Cajun.  Of course your trying to capture the different strands of our other sub-cultures — music, food, politics (and succeeding brilliantly). Why is it so important to you and David Simon to bring New Orleans culture to a wider audience?    
A: My wife and I bought a house here in 1989 and have been spending as much time as possible here ever since. We consider it our home.  When I met David in the mid-nineties on Homicide, Life On The Street, we discovered we shared a mutual interest and affection for the city and its culture, especially the music (okay, and the food), and a mutual dismay at how it had been mostly portrayed in film and on television.  (With rare exceptions like Les Blank’sAlways For Pleasure, and Kazan’s Panic In The Streets.)   All of which naturally gave rise to questions like "Wouldn't it be nice to do a show and shoot the rest of the city, beyond Bourbon Street and the St. Charles streetcar?" and "Do you think it's really possible to convey the essence of New Orleans on film -- the way people act and talk, the way the city looks and feels and smells?" and, "Do you think anybody'd be interested?"  I think the jury's still out on those last two questions.  We've shot the city beyond Bourbon Street, and we've tried to convey something of its culture and sound and feel. 
     I think you absolutely appreciate the show more if you're from here, or if you've ever been here, because so much of the experience of being here is unconvey-able – the light and the air and sounds and smells.  I do know and have heard from people who've never been here that the show has captured their imagination, and makes them want to visit -- and New Orleans does that, sends out its scent over various breezes and lures people from all over the world.  As we wrote in the very first episode, New Orleans lives in the imagination of the world.  Why?  A small, poor semi-tropical port city -- it's remarkable, the influence New Orleans has had on world culture.  If only the "city" itself, the business-political-legal establishment, would look beyond the layer of tourism that feeds off the culture, and really pay attention to nourishing its roots so that it could truly flourish in the future as the city rebuilds.

Q: Albert Lambreaux, the Mardi Gras Indian chief in Treme played by Clarke Peters, seems to be a moral center to the narrative.  Tell us about your experience of Black Mardi Gras and of Tootie Montana, the chief of chiefs in particular.
A: I only know Tootie through the great documentary you produced, Tootie’s Last Suit.  We were in town the night he collapsed at the city council -- one of our neighbors called us and said turn on your television.  It was a legendary, tragic moment -- and appropriate for Tootie, with his history and mythic stature.

     My own experience of black Mardi Gras is very limited -- I've encountered the Indians on Mardi Gras Day a few times, gone out on Super Sunday and St. Joseph's night.  They're the most magical, mystical manifestation of New Orleans culture that exists -- and almost impossible to describe to someone who's never seen or heard of them.   And it's been that way since early in the last century.  Listen to the way Jelly Roll Morton talks about the Indians on the Library of Congress recordings – he gets all worked up.  When the cry goes out, "Indians a comin, Indians a comin" , everyone gets excited.

     I will say for the record emphatically that Lambreaux is not especially modeled after Tootie or Donald Harrison Sr or Bo Dollis or any of the other elder statesmen of the Indian community.  And Clarke Peters does an amazing job of embodying a big chief  -- something many in that community thought would be impossible.  (Before we started shooting the pilot, the Indians we talked to kept saying that we should cast an Indian, that an actor could never do it, never play a Big Chief.  I’m sure some of them still feel that way.)

Q: Food and restaurants play a central role in the series. Why did you choose to do that? The shows also seem to pay a good bit of attention to the cultural differences between restaurants in New Orleans and New York. What are the most significant ones?  
A: Food is as important to the culture of south Louisiana as music, n’est-ce pas?  They’re inextricably linked.  (Along with drink.)  Harder to convey on film, but we had to try, and we had to have a chef as a main character.

     As for the differences between New York and New Orleans food cultures, I’m sure we just scratched the surface, and I’m no expert – we were all guided by Tony Bourdain this past season, as well as a raft of other consultants, like Susan Spicer.  The differences between the cities were only important as they were experienced by our chef in exile.  Everything flows from the characters.
Q: Toward the end of season two, Delmond Lambreaux’s quest to merge contemporary and traditional jazz seems a very loaded affair, a commentary on how far jazz today has diverged from its roots in African and in popular culture. You seem to be stirring the pot and I wonder if you’ve gotten any feedback from jazz musicians? 
A: I haven’t personally had any feedback – and again, this story arc emanates from Delmond’s character journey – which is rooted in his complicated relationship with his difficult father.  We were also aiming to recreate Donald Harrison Jr’s wonderful and under-rated Indian Blues album.  You ought ask Donald what feedback he got at the time he made the record, back in 1990’s.  My understanding is that he did get some.

     We really weren’t aiming to make any big statement about modern jazz per se – at least I hope we weren’t – we’re not knowledgeable enough on the subject.  Most of the time a character’s opinions are his or hers, not ours.  That’s how it should be, anyway, in a drama.  Otherwise, it’s an editorial.

Q: And tell us about your favorite New Orleans food and music haunts?
A: Where to start? Adolfo’s, Spotted Cat, Chickie Wah Wah, Tip’s, Parkway Bakery, Liuzza’s, Liuzza’s by the Track, Buffa’s backroom, Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Tonique, Coquette, Le Petit Grocery, Butcher, Stein’s Deli, Brigtsen’s, Meauxbar, 1179, Herbsaint, Bayona, and Uglisich’s (gone but not forgotten), dba, Maple Leaf, oh Lord, call 911 now.

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