So, a six-hour miniseries about a young mayor struggling with the legal and political complexities of low-income housing might sound like a hard sell… until you find out that it’s being directed by Paul Haggis and produced by David Simon, the architect of one of modern television’s greatest legacies, “The Wire.”
“Show Me A Hero,” based on the 1999 non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin, features an all-star cast including Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder, with Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, the mayor who grappled with public opinion and private business in 1987 Yonkers, New York. It’s a story about a small community in turmoil, but when you talk to the men behind the scenes, it’s actually about a whole lot more than just Yonkers or the 1980s.
So at this year’s TCA summer press tour, Indiewire sat down with Simon, Haggis and writer Bill Zorzi to get the full story of how “Show Me A Hero” came together: the research, the writing, the casting and the Springsteen.
“That’s a long fucking time ago.”
BILL ZORZI: Gail Mutrux [of Pretty Pictures] brought the book to David sometime in 2001. It had a political story, and I had been a political writer at the Sun, I was on the desk at the time. He called me [and said] “Read the book, we’ll go to HBO.” Now, granted, I have to tell this story on him: He called me on deadline twice, when I was on the desk with a bunch of young reporters. Like, what, you fucking forgot what it was like in the last 10 years? You know what I mean? [mockingly] “Uh, yeah, dude, um, you know.” No, he doesn’t speak like that. But Jesus, Mary and Joseph. First time he comes, he’s like, “I want you to check this out, let me know what you think.” Like, I’m at The Baltimore Sun, you know? I’m on the desk as city editor, assistant city editor, I’m like, “Okay, yeah. I gotta go, ’cause they’re lining up over here.” And then he called back two weeks later: “Read the book.” I’m like, “What was the name of the book again, ’cause, you know….” Ugh. So that’s how that happened.
DAVID SIMON: Originally I saw it as maybe the next miniseries after “The Corner,” and that’s when HBO bought it, when we were still finishing “The Corner.” We started going to work on researching the story. Bill [Zorzi] went up to Yonkers and started recording. We had to get the voices of people and the public.
ZORZI: I don’t know how to say this without it sounding like it’s a reflection on Lisa Belkin, who wrote the book, but I felt the need to sort of re-report the book. And it’s nothing to do with Lisa Belkin. It’s just like I felt like I had to talk to the people and talk to all the people, as many as I could, to get their voices in my head. I needed to have their voices in my head and actually have a sense of who they were. So I think that’s what prompted me to go talk to them, just to get to know them and understand what they went through and what they thought and where they were at that point. It was 2002, so, I mean, the first time I sat down with those guys — those women, those guys — I mean, that’s 13 years ago. That’s a long fucking time ago, you know?
SIMON: A lot of stuff intervened. “The Wire” happened and that became, because it was a continuing series, an elaborate journey. These other miniseries, like “Generation Kill,” which had to do with a news part of the war, or “Treme” which had to do with Katrina, they became tied to current events.
The thing about race in America, it’s the same narrative over and over again. We don’t learn. The American pathology with race is almost permanent. I don’t actually believe that. I believe that there have been some systemic transformations and we are getting better slowly, but it’s so damn slow and the fights are so much the same as they were. You can do this piece at any time and it’s still relevant. Two towns up the Hudson from Yonkers in Tarrytown, the same exact fight is happening right now. Same exact fight. Same politics, same demagoguery, same rhetoric, same battle between the Federal Government and Westchester County. It’s like nothing has changed. It’s just two towns up the Hudson.
The book sold and then at some point Kary Antholis, who was there when we sold the book— right after “Generation Kill” I remember walking around London with him since we were doing post production there. He said, “Are we still doing ‘Show Me a Hero?’ It’s been years, we’ve had this for years.” I said, “It’s just as relevant now.” He agreed and said, “That thing;s never going away. It’s always going to be in the ether. It’s in the country’s political and social DNA.” So we kept going and there came a moment where HBO said, “Yeah, it’s time for this one.” That was before Ferguson, that was before Baltimore, before Charleston. Race is the perennial topic. It’s amazing how enduring it is.
PAUL HAGGIS: I was doing a project in London and it got pushed for a year because of actor availability. My agents called and said, “We rounded up these things; feature films we want you to direct.” They went down the list, and they got to number three and said, “David Simon has a miniseries.” And I said, “Say ‘yes.'”
SIMON: I hope no one who works on these shows take offense because they’re good shows — I don’t want to disrespect anyone’s work — but no dragons, no zombies, not a lot of fucking, not a lot of shooting. There’s nothing wrong with violence or sex or dragons, but every now and then it’d be nice if we actually argue about what ails us.
The part of me that came out of newspapers that wanted to be a journalist when he was growing up, he can’t help it, he feels like something subversive happened if I can pull six hours and say, “Let’s talk about why we’re still constructing around these hyper segregated notions of society. Let’s argue this for a while. We can go back to the other stuff later, but let’s find an allegory for something we’re still arguing about.”
All credit to HBO for indulging me, and Bill Zorzi and Paul Haggis and whoever else worked on the project, with a story on the actual political scale of what’s happening, rather than something aspirational, like “The West Wing,” something we want to have. Or something hyperbolic, where politicians are completely evil or killing each other or whatever. To me, anything I can pull through the keyhole that’s actually the argument feels like a subversive victory.
HAGGIS: David is one of our best writers. “The Wire” was, I think, one of my favorite TV series. Not I think, I know. One of my favorite series of all time. I have been a huge fan of his for years. I loved “Generation Kill.” I loved “Treme.” I loved “The Corner.” I love everything he has ever done. I knew our sensibilities were– while our style of storytelling is very different, our sensibilities of the story were compatible.
Also, I had never directed anything that I had not written. I wanted the challenge. I wanted to learn. When you write it, you already know how you are going to shoot it, or at least you know the characters. They walk around in your head and they go. The challenge is to remember what you were looking at when you were writing them. I have to analyze the characters. I have to analyze the story. I have to do it strictly from the director’s point of view. If you work with the script as you see they were very collaborative. They allowed me to give notes and I came up with ideas to move things around, find ways to make scenes work. But then day-to-day I had the script and then I had the actors and I had a camera, looking at how to make this scene work, which we all know has too much exposition for the two minutes we got. So how do I bring that to life with these actors? How do I shoot it to make it feel like it is real?
The Politics of Yonkers
SIMON: Yonkers was a suburban bedroom community to New York, and you’re watching a government that has almost no minority voicing in it. It was a government, certainly by the time Nick [Wasicsko] became mayor, the entire council, all of the agencies were predominantly white. That government was the voice of white Yonkers, and the 20 percent of people who were living in places like West Yonkers were completely unheard by the government. They were not regarded as a political block that mattered to any politician except a couple of councilmen because their seats were safe, because they represented those areas, they could be on the losing side of a votes. There was never going to be a moment where they were going to be on winning side, those people did not count. You’re looking at the preamble of American governance prior to this moment we’re in now. Yonkers was then 80/20, and the New York metropolitan area was much less brown. The level of immigration is such that there are not going to be any majorities, there are just going to be pluralities.
Thirty, forty years from now, if these demographic trends continue, the people who figure out how to walk into a room and share power are going to have some say in what this country is or isn’t. The people who don’t figure that out or keep trying to figure out how to keep people out of their neighborhoods, they’re going to be more and more marginalized, whether or not we figure out how to do that with greater tolerance and great empathy and more discussion and more healthy argument. That’s the future. The future is the American city. We don’t have an agrarian future we’re looking at. The city is going multicultural. [In “Show Me A Hero”], you are looking back 25 years to that first moment when people were asked to share, to share physical space, to share geography, to share power. It was the first moment where white people, in complete command of the local government, were being asked to deal with this. It was an incredible struggle in Yonkers.
All that fighting, all that you witness in [“Show Me A Hero”], is to build 200 units of scattered site housing in a city of 200,000 people. Imagine if they were really trying to do something systemic, how brutal the fighting would have been. Those moments aren’t going to go away.
ZORZI: It seemed like journalism to me, but after I was beaten about the head and ears for many years by Mr. Simon, as I’m now forced to call him, I can understand the need for dramatic license. Nobody would want to sit and watch 76 hours of city council hearings, you know what I mean?
HAGGIS: Those scenes in the City Hall, which are riotous in nature, we had a lot of limitations. But how do you use those limitations to make it more dynamic, how to shoot behind people? I told David and [executive producer Nina Kostroff-Noble] early on, every frame is going to be imperfect. There is going to be no perfect frame. I’m going to put flaws, subtly perhaps, in every frame. So if you are there in that City Hall, and you are looking from the camera’s point of view, you sort of have to lean around someone to see, which is exactly like reality. There are people standing where they shouldn’t be standing. There are microphones where there shouldn’t be. There are peoples’ arms in the shot that are going to make it feel real and make it feel flawed, because these are flawed people.
HAGGIS: Oscar [Isaac] came pretty quickly. We were looking for somebody, and we were going around. There were a couple of movie stars who were nosing around it. We just wanted a terrific actor and then I had seen him in [“Inside Llewyn Davis”] and I really loved him. That was all I had ever seen him in, but he was fucking great in that!
And he was great to direct because often he had really good ideas about what he wanted, but he was also so flexible. There were scenes where he would go, “No, I don’t want to do it here.” He said this is the wrong place to have that argument. I said “Yes, that is where arguments happen, in the wrong place. So we are going to do it in the doorway, right where an argument should never happen. In the doorway of a café, that is where you are going to break down.” “What? Okay, I’ll try it,” and he did. It was genius. It was just genius. Often, that is what you do in directing: You try and put something in the wrong place because that is where life happens, in the wrong place.
SIMON: I’m really grateful for the cast. We pulled a lot of actors who had to do it for the love of what the piece was because they can all get more lucrative work and they can all get more hyperbolic stuff. This is a cast where a lot of people were very much in demand. The fact they wanted to do the piece— I’m really grateful not just to HBO but to them as well.
HAGGIS: [David] met with Winona before I came on. I went, really? Winona Ryder for this? She is really good, but for this? Huh? I wasn’t convinced. Then I thought, well, she could surprise me, that would be great. And she did. She totally surprised me. The rest, we were all just lucky enough to put them together. Alfred, I was like, I would love to work with Alfred Molina. Who wouldn’t want to work with Fred?
HAGGIS: The actors did a lot of their own research because a lot of these people they were in the public eye. There was video, there were photographs, and sometimes they met them. They did a lot of that for me.
Nay [Nay Noe Wasicsko, Nick’s wife] was with us all the time. She was our consultant from the very beginning. She really guided us. She still works at City Hall and so she really helped us and introduced us to quite a few people. A lot of them had died sadly, but quite a few of them came to the set, so it was fun. It did not really matter, though, because David and Billy had done all the research. The characters came alive on the page.
SIMON: Some of the heroes in this piece, to me, are some of the residents who found their voice, who had no agency whatsoever until they built those houses and put them in there. They found voices as community leaders. And ordinary people like Mary Dorman [played by Catherine Keener], who took a hero’s journey from fear to some better place of human impulse. She got there. I got to meet her before she died and she was a delightful woman. That’s actually who she was and where she came from and where she had to get to. The fact that it is on the human scale and on the scale of nonfiction, it matters more to me. This is probably the part of me that’s not good for television, but it matters to me and it matters to Bill. It’s why we wanted to do the piece.
ZORZI: There’s the political story, then there’s the women’s story, which is very dear to me, actually. I was drawn to it because of the political story, but ultimately, I fell in love with these women and their own heroic stories — journeys, really.
HAGGIS: Mary Dorman’s house was Mary Dorman’s house. The family had not sold it. She died recently and the family had not sold it yet. We got it just before they sold it. We were able to use that. That was important because the house was tiny. It was a pain in the ass to shoot and that is exactly what you want. You want to feel cramped, so you are interested in her life and how it is not that much different than the people she doesn’t want to move to this neighborhood. They just want a small house and a little place. They just want something she has, but she wants to protect this fiercely as not some wealthy woman, but as a working class woman who is trying to protect what she has. So it was very important.
SIMON: It’s enough that we’re talking about Yonkers, but we’re actually talking about America as a whole. That’s allegorical enough. I’ll be very specific with these 200 units in Yonkers, but I’m really talking about: Either we get this right, we start to grapple with the American pathology on race, or we stare in shock and dismay every time there’s the latest civil rights violation of a human being and we wonder why it could have come to this.
Yes, Nick Wasicsko, at the key moment he was needed, stood up and he took the hit for the dysfunction that was Yonkers, and all credit to him for doing that. He wasn’t a perfect hero, and he didn’t get there until he had to. But when the moment came he was there for it and all credit to him.
12 Different Springsteen Tracks
HAGGIS: That was the process in post-production. We were looking for a musical identity for [Nick]. We had lots of different music playing in there and David had a big sequence with Sinatra at some point. Then we were talking to Kary Antholis, who is also an HBO executive who is very much into music. I can’t remember which one of us came up with the idea, but, “Okay, let’s try some Springsteen.” I went through the whole catalogue with my editor, and I said try this song, this song, this song, this song.
It was for the beginning and the end first off, especially for the end, and we found “Raise Me Up” and I went, “Wow, that works. That works well. That is strong.” We went back and in talking to David he said yes, let’s make this his music. This is what he listens to. We just made him a Springsteen guy. It really, suddenly, brought the whole piece to life.
There is a scene where he plays “Hungry Heart” on a jukebox. Was that shot after you made that decision?
He was originally playing Sinatra.
And then you looped in the line about “Oh, no, Springsteen again?”
Exactly. David wrote that for post.
That is hilarious.
Isn’t that great?
I lost count of how much Springsteen was used.
Twelve songs. Wow.
It is awesome.
It is a wonderful touch. It is so interesting that it all came in post. Did you tell Oscar Isaac about it?
No, not until after.
What did he think?
He loved it. [laughs]
Making It Matter
HAGGIS: Movies and television, they are an emotional medium. They are not an intellectual medium. We have to take those ideas that are important to the intellectual and hide them within the emotion of the story. It’s no good if we are just going to debate something that you know we don’t care about. I need to care who wins this argument and why. It’s an argument over zoning or something that we don’t even watch in our own state. so why should we watch it on HBO? I have to care. I have to know why that is important and/or at least important to this character, that character, or what is going on. Understanding the dynamics emotionally was the most important thing to me. Then we could explore those intellectual issues because otherwise, it is a very dry treatise on zoning.
SIMON: I think our government is dysfunctional, particularly at the legislative branch nationally. I think it’s moneyed. The money has fucked everything up. That’s not just me saying it, that depiction of what’s gone wrong with American society and our own self governance has been out there for years now. Various Supreme Court decisions that have unleashed the money has exacerbated it.
The critique that’s at the core of “Show Me a Hero” is that there has to be one America. Doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing, doesn’t mean everyone is going to have the same American experience, doesn’t mean we’re not going to have basic inequities throughout society in terms of affluence. Nobody is upending capitalism or the market completely. Those things have to be tethered to a society that looks out for, not just the most affluent but those people who are also the most beleaguered and takes people at the margins and at least allows them some portion of a plausible American future.
The way that’s being prevented right is by two currencies: fear and money. If you can buy the government, you can have more of it than the next guy and make more money. If you can scare the shit out of people so that they can’t contemplate doing the right thing or the moral thing, because they’re too scared of the fearful other, then you can run a long way in terms of ruining the republic.
That’s what’s happening now. Fear and money seem to be the only currencies matter. The idea that might all be sharing the same country, that we all might be Americans, that my city can’t be healthy unless I figure out the nightmare 20 blocks away and we can’t be until we’ve resolved that, that’s gotten lost. Everybody’s arguing for what they have and not what the collective is. Talk like the way I’m talking now and someone jumps up to say, “Socialist!” To which I have to say, “No shit.”
There is a social component to democracy that has to be addressed, along with making money. Capitalism is a wonderful tool for building wealth, but it’s not a blueprint for a just society or a complete society. Somehow we’ve come to believe it is. The only things that were being screamed in Yonkers were property values, money and the bad shit that’s going to happen when people move in here. Fear. Money and fear. Money and fear. That’s all that we seem to be running on here. That’s all the fuel we have. Until somebody buys into the notion that there is some better currency than that, I’m very worried about where we’re going.
“Show Me A Hero” premieres this Sunday on HBO.