As we leave, Simon tells me that this is the most dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans. He’s in a cheerful mood now, bouncing on his sneakers. We run down the abandoned street. It’s ice cold. “About 25 percent of the murders in the city take place here. But we’re used to it, from filming The Wire,” he explains.
He turns to Aldana. “We’re gonna get jumped by some yo’s!” Simon jokes, then calls out into the air, “And we’re gonna be like, ‘Hey, leave us alone—do anything you want to the girl!’ ” He turns to me: “Bet you don’t hear that a lot.”
We drive off toward the club. “Note this spaghetti,” says Simon, whizzing through a series of insanely interconnected ramps on the I-10. “This could only be constructed by the State of Louisiana on a government contract.”
Each time Simon and I have driven in New Orleans, he’s gotten lost. But eventually, we arrive at the Maple Leaf to see the Rebirth Brass Band, famous for their merge of jazz with funk. They also played Ethan Simon’s bar mitzvah.
Simon and I sit on the bench outside, as he sips an orange juice and vodka. His cold has gotten worse. (Earlier, I’d heard him moan to Lippman on the phone, “God, don’t even talk about lung cancer while I have this cough.”)
As a vendor shills barbecue, Simon tells me about other projects: a film about the Lincoln assassination he’s writing with Tom Fontana, a book about the drug trade, an HBO series about the CIA. He reminisces again about his years as a reporter, peppering a corrupt politician with questions. The guy derided Simon from the assembly floor, announcing, “This little person came up to me … ”
He loves the punch line, the politico privately telling him, “Thank you, Mr. Simon, for being fair.”
We discuss Lippman’s website the Memory Project, on which readers share childhood stories. Simon has long had a love-hate relationship with the Internet, that prime suspect in the death of newspapers. When I’d asked Simon how much he read comments online, he said he read sparingly: “It’s your job not to listen.” (Then I interviewed, separately, Overmyer and Treme producer Nina Noble. “I don’t read at all, and he reads everything,” Overmyer said, gesturing down the street at Simon. “Somewhat,” Noble said. “But not as obsessively as he does,” shooting Simon a glance.)
But lately, he’s been thinking about ways he can turn the web to his advantage.
“Fuck the exposition,” he says gleefully as we go back into the bar. “Just be. The exposition can come later.” He describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians—you can look it up.” The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within.
Inside, Rebirth is playing: a blast of beautiful, funky horns. Simon wades into the crowd of college students and old men. He jounces along, wagging his meaty shoulders. I stand a few feet away. He’s not welcoming; he’s not unfriendly either. He just seems to be in his own space. No one who works with him comes near—they stay at the bar, telling stories about rafting the Zambezi River.
When I get back home, I send Simon my question again: Why create drama, not documentary?
He writes a long note back. “We know more about what Huey Long represented and the emptiness at the core of American political culture from reading Robert Penn Warren than from contemporary journalistic accounts of Long’s reign. We know more about human pride, purpose, and obsession from Moby-Dick than from any contemporaneous account of the Nantucket whaler that was actually struck and sunk by a whale in the nineteenth-century incident on which Melville based his book. And we know how much of an affront the Spanish Civil War was to the human spirit when we stare at Picasso’s Guernica than when we read a more deliberate, fact-based account. I am not comparing anything I’ve done to any of the above; please, please do not presume that because I cite someone else’s art, I claim anything similar for anything I’ve done. But I cite the above because it makes the answer to your question obvious: Picasso said art is the lie that allows us to see the truth. That is it exactly.”
In his e-mail, Simon takes a side: He’s a dramatist. “It is one thing to look over the fence and admire what the other medium can do, but to demand that one be judged by the standards and purpose of the other is, well, ridiculous.” And yet one of Simon’s great contributions has been to blur these distinctions, merging nonfiction and fiction, history and punditry, creating a television genre that operates, in his words, “as if Frank Rich was given twenty hours for an op-ed.” He’s perfected a technique that might be seen (if you wanted to piss people off) as a highbrow analog to The Hills, to a more profound purpose.