When it comes to interviews, Chris Mundy is better acquainted with the other side of the table. The Rolling Stone editor turned AMC showrunner sat down with everybody from Kurt Cobain to Elliott Smith during tenure at the magazine, which spanned the peak of the record industry, from 1989-2000. He got out at just the right time — few in the grunge era would have foreseen that, by 2013, television writers would have more swagger than rock journalists, but lo and behold “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan.
Mundy’s forthcoming series “Low Winter Sun” is a remake of a two-hour BBC miniseries created in 2006 by Simon Donald, a “Crime and Punishment”-inspired story about two cops who kill one of their own, then spend the rest of their days trying to cover up the deed. AMC’s version, filmed on location in Detroit, stars Mark Strong (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and Lennie James (“The Walking Dead”). Strong played the same character in the British original, now living the nightmare all over again in the U.S. Co-star James also happens to be British, but you wouldn’t know it from his portrayal of a Midwestern detective here. The narrative construction of “Low Winter Sun” is less like a police procedural than a Coen brothers movie: a character study about good people making bad decisions and getting in over their heads.
The show premieres on August 11, slotted directly after the first episode of the last mini-season of “Breaking Bad.” AMC hopes “Low Winter Sun” will inherit Gilligan’s audience. While it’s too early to tell whether that will happen, the pilot serves up plenty of atmosphere and suspense — it screened at the ATX Television Festival this past weekend, where the organizers had programmed it sight unseen. After the screening, Indiewire put Mundy in the hot seat — literally, by suggesting we sit outside on a summer afternoon in downtown Austin to talk about music, writing and the “blind pig” brothels in the belly of Detroit.
You transitioned from rock journalism to TV writing at a very fortuitous time. What motivated the move?
I was a fiction writing major in college, at Brown. It was something I always cared about and loved, and then I moved to New York from school and write for Rolling Stone. I didn’t imagine ever leaving New York. I sort of accidentally moved to Northern California because my wife went to law school — she was the one who said, “Now we’re in California, why don’t you try writing for TV?” I knew so little about how it worked that it actually helped me. I just wrote a comedy and a drama and sent them off. I didn’t know you were supposed to choose one or the other. Luckily, I got a gig and have suddenly now been in LA forever.
At Rolling Stone you did so many interviews with high-profile people. Did that background in reporting inform your approach to character and dialogue?
Magazine writing and script writing are really equatable. The transition was much easier than I would have guessed. When I was at Rolling Stone, you’d go on the road with somebody for four days, then come back to writing. You’ve got your quotes transcribed, so you know want them to say, but you’re also trying to put them in scenes and show them “inside out” rather than talking about them. You choose the dialogue that works best to demonstrate their character in some way. As for structure, like in magazine work, a good script will have a long scene followed by a quick scene so that there’s a rhythm to it. And you know how to hit a deadline.
And a similar amount of intense research?
Yeah. You research things, and then you get to write them like fiction. I spent a lot of time in Detroit before I turned around and adapted this.
Did you do ride-alongs?
When I met Ira [Todd, the veteran Detroit police investigator who is serving as a consultant and technical advisor on the show], he said, “Do you want to see Detroit or do you want to see the real Detroit?” I said, real Detroit. There were two cops I spent a lot of time with. We’d play pool in the basement of this house with somebody who was a crack addict. A crack addict, a transvestite, a couple other people just hanging out. We just had drinks and talked.
Were you taking notes the whole time?
I had a piece of paper I would go scribble on, but I didn’t want to be doing it in front of people.
That does sound like being a journalist.
It was. In episode two, some characters are going to open a “blind pig.” A blind pig is a Detroit-specific thing, an illegal nightclub with prostitution and drugs. They spring up in abandoned buildings.
I was out with Ira and his partner, this big white guy they all called “Country.” I said, “What’s the most you ever had?” And Country said, “Remember when we busted that blind pig over in–” And I was like, “Wait. Back up, back up.” Now it’s one of the major sets of our show, a blind pig.
Like a speakeasy?
Like an after-hours place that has both prostitution and drugs. Going all the way back. The Detroit riots started in ’67 after the police busted a blind pig. And it’s called a blind pig because the police don’t know about it. The pigs are blind to it. That’s just an easy example. There are hundreds of those peppered throughout. In the fabric of the show, we get to know the place. I gotta say, it’s been as much fun as I’ve ever had on a job or in a creative environment.
Do you plan to use Detroit music in the show?
Yes — we might even use some for our main titles. The blind pig where we shoot is next to the Brewster-Douglass Projects where Diana Ross grew up. And there’s such a good garage rock scene in Detroit right now. And there’s all the Motown stuff. There’s metal history there. There’s great hip-hop. And it all feels like it can be part of the show. In the first three episodes we run the gamut of hip hop, garage rock, old soul tunes, and ’70s metal tunes.
You introduce a lot of characters in this pilot. A lot of characters. How do you distinguish them all in your writing?
Pilots are really hard. Because you’ve got to put everybody on their feet without making it seem super expositional. This starts with not knowing what the hell’s going on.
The actors are so good they make it their own. As the story goes on, I can think of maybe 10 major people that will still get introduced who play a big part. In the writers’ room, you just have to get to the point where you believe they exist and you know what they would do. Then it’s easy in any given scene: “So of course they would turn left at the light. That’s just the way they are.”
The episode is heavy on close, tight shots, especially in the first scene. We’re practically looking up the guys’ nostrils.
We tried not to cut much in those early scenes. That’s something Ernest Dickerson, the director, was adamant about. I was obsessed with Alejandro González Iñárritu. His last movie, “Biutiful,” with Javier Bardem, is just amazing. It’s a hard movie. It’s set in the slums of Barcelona, but it never shoots ugly-for-ugly. It’s a beautiful movie despite a really bleak story. We talked a lot about that.
Ernest would shoot long takes and he wanted to have really long masters. He’d get coverage if we needed it, but he wanted to never let you out of the scene or out of the moment. Part of getting in really tight in the first scene was just that, to feel disoriented and claustrophobic. And when you’ve got Mark and Lenny acting, you can let those guys go. You want to just watch them.
Did you know they were going to be your leads? Did you write with them in mind?
I didn’t, but it was hard not to have Mark in my head because he was in the original. In the miniseries the cast was all white, Scottish, and I knew the racial makeup of these characters was going to be different.
Unusual, having two British actors playing the leads in a show about American cops.
Detroit’s a hard accent to do because it’s kind of the last strip away. It’s not like you’re putting on a Southern accent or putting on a New York accent, you’re really stripping away to the basic barebones thing, which is tough. They’re great.
What are your favorite crime shows?
“The Wire” is the benchmark. The level of depth and how meticulously it was plotted without ever feeling plotty is amazing. And every season year was its own short story that made up one novel. I was a huge “Hill Street Blues” fan. It changed what people could do on television. [“Low Winter Sun”] doesn’t share a lot in that we don’t solve a case every week, but there was a sensibility that is similar, a grit and reality. But I’m only talking about that as a fan and I’m not trying to equate it.
You mentioned “Crime and Punishment” as an influence during the Q&A and made the point that your show is not a procedural. It’s not a crime-solving show, which is what people expect from a cop show.
It’s not a mystery. It’s not a whodunnit. You know who did it. It’s about people who keep making decisions based on a bunch of lousy options. That’s what I really liked about the original “Low Winter Sun.” You see this decent man do a horrible thing, then new facts that come out put more weight on him and it keeps escalating.
What’s your role as the showrunner, are you more on the writing side or the producing side at this point?
You have to be both. You start off as a writer and suddenly your job is administrative at least half the time. I just said that to one of the writers the other day: “I used to be a writer, I swear to god!” Your primary goal is writing. If the stories aren’t good and the scripts aren’t good, none of it matters. Yet you’re dealing with the budget and postproduction and flying back and forth from Detroit, wearing a lot of different hats.
How did this project get started?
AMC gave me a what’s called a blind script deal, a deal to commit to write a pilot for them. They’d never done one before so it was one of those things it could have gone really well or really poorly. I was their test case. They wanted me to come to them with five ideas, and they would come to me with three. I knew all the things that they owned, and this was the one I knew I really liked. There was good synchronicity. It’s just felt inevitable, and nothing in this job ever feels inevitable.
How long did it take to develop with AMC?
I decided to do a deal with them in the middle of the summer, two years ago, and we decided on “Low Winter Sun” by September, I gave them an outline right away and a script by Thanksgiving. The next part of the process people call the “bake off” but AMC doesn’t like to call it that. They narrow it down to six scripts that they might want. Everyone lays out their plan and AMC decides what to shoot. They’ve always shot one at a time but for the first time ever they shot two pilots at the same time. Then from there they made their decision in the beginning of the summer. We shot the pilot in August, wrapped in September then waited until right before Christmastime.
Did you know they were going to order it to season when you shot the pilot?
We shot the pilot, then I had to talk to them again. Once they picked it up I pretty quickly was hiring a staff and started with the writers at the end of January and we started filming at the end of April.
They’re trying to speed up their development. They used to narrow it down to six scripts once a year, now they’re doing that twice a year. So they just finished filming two pilots, “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Turn.”
AMC, like HBO, seems to be developing a show in each genre they can find.
They want to be balanced and have a breadth of stuff. It feels like there’s an “AMC brand,” but “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” have nothing in common except that they’re both really good. You feel like you know what to get from it as a destination, yet there’s total diversity. “Halt and Catch Fire” could not be more different from “Turn,” which could not be more different from “Low Winter Sun.” It’s cool that they all exist on the same network.
“Mad Men” is a soap opera. “Breaking Bad” is a caper. What is the genre of “Low Winter Sun”?
Good question. You tell me. I hope it doesn’t have one. I know there are cops, but I hope it’s not a cop show at all. It’s a blue-collar crime drama. Some of the main characters happen to be cops, but we’re not solving crimes this season.
The best working-class dramas are very regionally specific. Like John Huston’s “Fat City.”
What really struck me about Detroit was that, as an outsider, I expected it to be very urban. It’s very Midwestern. It spreads in the way Midwestern cities spread with those two-story brick buildings and it’s empty in places. It feels exactly the opposite of what I expected it to be like before I got there, so it was important for me to capture it in the right way.
The production design is very sharp. Every single character drives a black car, yet the black cars are all very different.
They’re all American cars. You will not see a foreign car in the city of Detroit.