HBO’s Treme: To Tell the Truth

Wendell Pierce. Photo By HBO/Skip Bolen

Tipitina’s is smokier than usual, perhaps because there’s a smoke wrangler. A woman walks among the crowd, offers people cigarettes and on cue, the takers start puffing. Soon a gray-blue haze hangs in front of the Pine Leaf Boys onstage. Steve Earle leans against the bar near the stage in a beige pearlsnap Western shirt, his Allen Ginsberg beard and glasses. He’s studying the band and talking to the younger, dark-haired woman standing on a short platform next to him. “He’s better than me,” the woman says, looking at fiddler Courtney Granger. “Besides, I can’t do that.”

“CUT,” director Simon Cellan- Jones says, and the band and smokers stop. He calls for another take and when Wilson Savoy leads the Pine Leaf Boys into another take of “Pine Leaf Boy Two-Step,” Cellan- Jones runs, jumps on beat and dances during this take and many to come.

He is shooting an episode of the upcoming HBO series Treme, produced by The Wire’s David Simon and part-time New Orleans resident Eric Overmyer, who worked with Simon on Homicide: Life on the Streets and was a consulting producer and writer on The Wire. In the scene, Earle plays Harley Watt, a friend of Annie, the woman standing next to him played by Lucia Micarelli. In the show, she’s a classically trained violin player who’s watching the Pine Leaf Boys after she didn’t get the job of replacing Cedric Watson. “She can’t play Cajun fiddle,” music supervisor Blake Leyh says. “She doesn’t know that music.”

The scene is based on a real situation. The Pine Leaf Boys were going on tour and needed a sub for Watson, though that took place in 2006 not 2005. That’s one of the few liberties Treme takes with its timeline, though. The drama tells the story of the city rebuilding after Katrina by focusing on musicians, and it starts three months after Katrina. Authenticity has been paramount in the production. “One thing I’m certain of is that we’re going to be authentic,” actor Wendell Pierce says. “I know that’s very important to New Orleanians. We’re very protective of our culture and its depiction because we’ve seen so many bad Mardi Gras movies over the years. Treme approaches it like anthropologists.” Because of that, the production has taken care to have the music played by bands that were here. “I’ve been in touch with the musicians asking to send me their schedules, what they were doing between December and March, and between December ’05 and March ’06, and I’ve been trying to follow that,” Leyh says. “I would love to have Lil’ Queenie playing live in the show but she wasn’t around. She didn’t come back until Jazz Fest.” As important as authenticity is, though, Treme is ultimately a television drama, and as hard as it strives for veracity, it can never be 100 percent true to the moment because it inserts fictional characters into the chronology. “It’s not a documentary,” Eric Overmyer says. “We don’t want to make a fetish out of it.”

New Orleans has high hopes for Treme because the city has been ill-served by television and movies. One episode of the 1988 incarnation of the Mission: Impossible television series centered on the Underground Railroad going through New Orleans—a real, literal underground railroad in tunnels carved under a city that in reality rests on a mud patty. There have also been countless crimes against geography—in John Woo’s Hard Target, a character runs over the Algiers levee and into the middle of Decatur Street—and accents, most famously by Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy. K-Ville was dismissed by locals almost immediately when it introduced us to a tradition we never knew we had: the gumbo party.

But the interest in Treme is more than just the desire to see our reality reflected on big and small screens. Tourism has been down since Katrina, and business leaders think the show will become an ad for the city. Those who want to see the truth about post-Katrina flooding come to light hope Treme will help spread the word, and a community desperate for jobs and an influx of money into the city looks to Treme to stimulate the economy. Almost every group has some stake in Treme’s success, something the production knows very well. “It makes me a little nervous, but I’ve also been a little moved by that hope that we’ll get it right,” Overmyer says.

The central figures in Treme are musicians, a group that has been almost as poorly treated on screen as New Orleans. In the first episode, musicians aren’t hipsters, freaks or artists who interact awkwardly with the community. They are the community, and they’re trying to get their lives back in order after Katrina just like the chefs, lawyers and trash haulers. They, like New Orleans, are treated as if they’re normal.

Not surprisingly, music is a central feature of the show. The first episode begins and ends with brass bands—Rebirth and Treme—and Elvis Costello is in Vaughan’s to see Kermit Ruffins while here to record The River in Reverse. Rebirth, Treme, Ruffins and Costello play themselves, just as the Pine Leaf Boys do at Tipitina’s. This not only exposes their music, but earns them a paycheck, and Leyh prefers to use the band’s original songs so that they’ll make more money. “The money we’re spending on music for the show, I’d rather that money be coming right back to the pocket of musicians in New Orleans than going to a multinational corporation in Burbank,” he says. After Katrina, The Wire included music by New Orleans musicians to try to funnel some money to them indirectly but later feared their efforts didn’t benefit anyone but the publishing companies holding the songs’ copyrights.

“Any note of music that you hear in this show would be music that you could have heard in that situation,” Leyh continues. That means there is no incidental music composed to dramatically heighten a scene. “The idea that I would write some music that would tell this story better than the music that’s already here—why would I do that?” Music never occurs without a source, whether it’s a car, a stereo, or a band, and if a band appears to be playing on screen, the music viewers hear is the music the band made while the camera was rolling. Typically, when live music appears in film, it’s recorded in a studio, then the band pretends to play it for the cameras. “There’s no pantomime,” Leyh says, but the bands don’t play the whole song. The Pine Leaf Boys play the same minute-long verse and solo at least 20 times this morning.

The No Faking policy puts additional pressure on Wendell Pierce. He’s trombone player Antoine Batiste on the show, but he’s just starting to play the trombone in real life. “One thing I always hated was when you see actors who obviously haven’t put in any time learning about the instrument,” Pierce says. He has a sound double, Rebirth’s Stafford Agee, to cover him, but he learns and plays the 16-or-so bars he “performs” on camera, if for no other reason than because it makes him better in those scenes. “Everything you see musicians do behavior-wise, it has to do with what it takes to produce the sound on the instrument,” Pierce says. The challenge isn’t acting with the horn; it’s delivering lines of dialogue then playing, then going back to dialogue. “That’s like rubbing your head and patting your stomach,” he says.

“I get weak in the knees when the scenes come up with musicians; that’s how much I respect what they do and want to look like I’m playing,” Pierce says. He’s learning to play from Agee and Keith Hart, who teaches at KIPP School, and he clearly wants to represent trombone players properly. “The one thing I’m trying not to do is look so out of breath because I don’t have my breath up to where it needs to be.” Pierce is also quick to recall compliments from professional musicians who joke that he’s going to put Agee out of work. More seriously, he says, “My tone is getting better. I’m more consistent, but I can’t wait until we get some downtime so I can actually learn the horn a lot better.”

Many characters on Treme have their roots in real life. There’s a female chef played by Kim Dickens who ties her hair back with a bandana in a visual echo of Susan Spicer. Spicer served as a consultant early on and was the conceptual starting place for the character, but the character’s not her. “There were starting points for some of the characters, but we tried to move them away from that as quickly as possible,” Eric Overmyer says. The stories help move the characters away from the starting point, but casting makes a bigger difference. “As soon as you cast an actor, that’s when characters really start to evolve, when you hear a specific voice and see a specific person.”

Steve Zahn plays Davis McAlary, a character modeled on musician and former WWOZ DJ Davis Rogan (who isn’t former on Treme). “David Simon got me off of John Swenson’s review (of his album The Once and Future DJ),” Rogan says. “He read the review, bought the record and liked it.” Simon liked it so much that a track ended up in The Wire and Rogan became a consultant of Treme, telling post- Katrina stories and making sure that the details were right. Now he is a consultant, piano teacher for the musicians—“I’m not giving away anything to say watch Michiel Huisman play ‘Lonely, Lonely Nights’ in episode seven. He’s been great; he can play some New Orleans piano”—on-screen piano player in Davis McAlary’s band, and with the Pine Leaf Boys episode, a co-writer, having written the script with David Mills. Also on the writing staff are novelist Tom Piazza and former Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie.

Rogan hoped he’d be considered for the part he inspired. “When I got emails saying, ‘I’m reading for the part of Davis; can you give me any hints?’ I said, ‘I labor under the delusion that I’m under consideration for the role, so any advice I give would be tainted.’” When he didn’t get the part, he successfully lobbied to have the character keep the name Davis in hopes of making his name more of a household word. He’s sanguine with backing up a character that he inspired. “Steve’s great,” he says. “I understand that this is a character in the hands of the writers.”

Pierce’s Antoine Batiste doesn’t have any direct inspirations. When he started playing him, Pierce thought of Agee, Corey Henry, Delfeayo Marsalis and a former roommate, Kevin Wavers. When he was doing homework to prepare for the character, people told him about a trombone player named Wolf. Wolf was the stuff of stories for him until one day when Pierce was in the Quarter. “I hear this huge, funky sound coming from down the street,” he says. A man was playing a trombone solo, and during it, he dropped into a crouch, something that was Wolf’s trademark. After the set, Pierce introduced himself and they talked, though Wolf was vague about where and how he was living. “He has become this enigmatic figure I think about when I’m playing the role, but I’m not playing Wolf,” Pierce says.

Eric Overmyer

Eric Overmyer. Photo by HBO/Skip Bolen.

Not surprisingly, the cast and crew have a strong affection for the city, some with roots deeper than others. Blake Leyh’s not from New Orleans, but his mother and sister lived here in the 1990s and he visited regularly. “My sister lived here for a long time and was really involved in the brass band scene,” he says. “She painted Uncle Lionel’s drum.” After a day of shooting Eureka Brass Band in a cemetery in the morning and Washboard Chaz at Bacchanal in the afternoon, he went to WWOZ to hang out with disc jockey David Kunian before they went to the Maple Leaf. “How could you not?” he asks. The next morning, he’s at Tipitina’s working with the Pine Leaf Boys. “I feel so blessed to have the job I do.”

Davis Rogan is from here, as is Pierce, who attended Ben Franklin and NOCCA. He not only plays a character dealing with Katrina’s aftermath on television; he’s doing it in real life. He and his family evacuated from Pontchartrain Park before it took on flood waters 14-feet deep. “We were totally wiped out,” he says. He settled his parents in Baton Rouge and spent the months after Katrina cycling between Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Baltimore, where he worked on The Wire. After he got his parents’ home rebuilt, he became more involved in their community. “We started a neighborhood association,” he says. The Pontchartrain Home Improvement Association put together a development corporation and started a redevelopment project. They’ve aggressively pursued grants and subsidies to rebuild the neighborhood and maintain its character, and they have been sufficiently effective that New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) has used their efforts as a model for its policy. NORA has also transferred abandoned and blighted properties to them for rehabilitation, and the rebuilding efforts have made them solar or geothermal-powered homes. Just last month, the golf course in Pontchartrain Park reopened.

Eric Overmyer’s post-Katrina story is less dramatic. He has had a house in the Marigny for more than 20 years, and it only sustained roof damage. He didn’t come back to New Orleans until December 2005 because a friend whose house was destroyed was staying in his. Still, working on Treme and revisiting the post-Katrina landscape has been hard at times. “Sometimes it feels like reliving it, and it gets emotional,” he says. “And I’ve learned a lot about the city. I thought I knew the city pretty well, but I realized I didn’t know it very well at all. I’ve fallen, madly, passionately, deeply in love with the place.”

That passion has fueled the desire to treat the city properly, which means making a good show. Overmyer started talking with Simon about a New Orleans show in the 1990s, and how the city had been poorly used in the past. “Very rarely has the city been photographed very well,” he says, but it poses a host of challenges. “How do you translate the lights, and how it smells, the food, how people talk, the sense of style and the way people relate to each other? We talked a lot about how do you translate New Orleans.”

In the first episode, some scenes will likely be more inexplicable than others. If viewers aren’t plugged in to the heightened emotions in post-Katrina New Orleans and the city’s underlying theatricality, John Goodman’s character may be a little puzzling. It’s Simon and Overmyer’s aesthetic, though, to immerse people in a world and hope the world is interesting enough to hold viewers until things become clearer. “You don’t want people explaining to each other things they already know,” Overmyer says. “We didn’t want to make our main character a volunteer so that everything can be explained to her. ‘Look, that’s a Mardi Gras Indian.’”

HBO has been supportive of their approach, but even they were left in the dark by a reference to a Hubig’s pie—an anachronism, Overmyer admits, since Hubig’s wasn’t open in December 2005. When HBO executives asked what that was, the production sent them a case of pies.

Wendell Pierce is confident in Treme’s approach. “People who know nothing about New Orleans are going to be impacted by the way we depict New Orleans and how we are affected by what we’re depicting,” he says. “The truth and authenticity will make them come back for more. For the vast majority of the universe watching the show, they’re going to understand that this was a major event in people’s lives that changed people’s lives, and the humanity of people trying to get their lives back together’s going to be depicted on the screen. Whether it’s in New Orleans, Topeka or Timbuktu, the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes.”

In some cases, creating the world means an attention to detail that goes above and beyond. The first scene in the first episode is the first second line after Katrina with the Black Men of Labor. “When we recreated that scene, we had some of the guys from Rebirth, some of the guys from New Birth, three social clubs, about a hundred dancers and second liners,” Blake Leyh says. “Most of the people on that scene were people who would normally be doing it, and most of them did it. The only person you can see on screen who is not part of the real event is Wendell Pierce, who’s our character. The level of recreation and conceit and artifice is as small as possible.”

Those who were back early after Katrina will appreciate details like those and countless others. In one scene, a restaurant with a limited menu runs out of dessert and has to improvise. In another, a restaurant is full of cops, sheriffs and a host of other uniformed types. The question is, will anyone else get the references? Will people understand that world? “The Wire has an audience outside of West Baltimore,” Davis Rogan says.

The show hasn’t aired yet, so the crew looks ahead guardedly. If Treme gets past its first season, it would likely last four or five seasons at most. HBO prefers finite series and so does Overmyer. The first season deals with people returning and starting to get their lives back together; season two would deal with the money. “Where is all the money going? The aid, the insurance money, the Road Home money,” Overmyer says. “We’ve barely scratched the surface on politics and crime, which historically was just coming back about the end of our season.”

It has already been a strange and powerful experience for the people making it. “I feel a great responsibility to the music community here to tell the story correctly, and to use the music that is right for the situation,” Blake Leyh says. “We’re going to be representing New Orleans to the world, and that’s a heavy responsibility.”

In some cases, the experience has been more personal. “I’ve had weird shit happen to me. Having someone represent me on an HBO television show is number three, but it’s not number one,” Davis Rogan says.

“There has been a constant dialogue between the cast and crew,” Wendell Pierce says, as locals and those from out of town talk about their present, their past, and their relationships to the show. Treme’s not only going to open America’s eyes, he says, but it’ll give locals something to think about. “It’s going to challenge New Orleanians,” Pierce says. “Why should we save New Orleans? Are we getting a little too relaxed? You can’t sit back on your laurels.”

Treme debuts on HBO Sunday, April 11.