Storytelling is often based on both data and characters, but it can be shaped by outside data vs. needs of the story as well. That's something that David Simon, creator of "The Wire," "Treme," and "Homicide: Life on the Street" and Beau Willimon, creator of "House of Cards," know well. At the Tribeca Film Festival talk "Stories By Numbers," Simon and Willimon were joined by FiveThirty Eight founder Nate Silver and Thompson On Hollywood's Anne Thompson to discuss the role of data in stories, and it made for one of the most talkative, informative and entertaining panels at this year's Festival. Moderated by NPR's John Hockenberry, here were just a few highlights.
Beau Willimon has no idea how well his hit show is exactly doing. "I don't have access to that data. I don't know how many people watch 'House of Cards"...Netflix closely guards that data, and I'm glad they do. As long as they're happy, I'm happy, because I get to make the show. I think that that sort of data leads to pandering, which is the antithesis of creativity."
David Simon on statistics vs. instinct. "The only place I'm attendant to data is in deciding why I want to tell a story. 'Why is Baltimore a violent city' might be a predicate on making a show about Baltimore...Once you're in the realm of telling the story, I have absolutely no interest in what the audience thinks. You feel responsible for the world, you feel responsible to the story...and if you look over your shoulder for a second, you're saying, 'The audience wants more Omar. The audience wants more Stringer. Give them more Stringer!' That's why TV was a juvenile medium. It was very much attending to what keeps the urban quarter-hour."
Simon on shows like "The Wire" changing legislation. "That's a huge 'if' that I abandoned long ago. If it happened, it would interest me, but I would be very dubious...if you have somebody in Nebraska who owns a house and 2.1 cars and 3.5 kids and a dog and a cat, if he decides he doesn't like the Drug War because of 'The Wire,' I'm don't see the tipping point there."
Willimon on writing. "The creative act is fundamentally a selfish one. We all have our biases, our prejudices, our political views, our agendas as people, but I don't think that's why you get up in the morning to bang your head against the wall all day long to try to figure out the irrationality of the human soul."
Willimon on art as communication. "Starting out, you have this sophomoric idea that you're trying to reach people, and what you actually discover is that you're trying to talk to yourself. The things you're trying to explore are things you need to explore. To the degree that other people find it entertaining, enlightening, provocative, what have you, that's a happy byproduct."
Silver on whether or not the data people, as Simon suggests, will "fuck things up." "People screw all types of things up with data and without data. It's hard to make a decision because we live in a very complicated world. People also say 'Gut instinct vs. data.' Sometimes both work very well. Sometimes both are crap."
Anne Thompson on Oscar predictions. "It's such a small group of people, and it's all about figuring out how they think, and how they behave. Not what statistics tell you. Statistics didn't tell you that '12 Years a Slave' or 'Argo' were going to win Best Picture at all. You had to figure out who an Academy voter would be."
Willimon on causality in writing. "A lot of bad writing focuses on causality. It's this Freudian psychoanalytical bullshit, 'What is the A that led to the B?' And more often than not, the reasons are never explained, or they don't have identifiable points of origin. Chekhov would do this, have someone walk into a room and make a strange noise for no reason, because that's life. Sometimes someone walks into a room and makes a strange sound."
Simon on "The Wire's" long run in spite of low ratings. "Ten or fifteen years ago, when they were just throwing stuff up on the wall in terms of original programming, 'The Wire' could survive for five years. I'm not sure that 'The Wire' could survive now. HBO will tell you, 'We have 104 hours of programming...if David Simon is sucking wind on a show the critics say is worth watching but nobody's watching it,' I'm dragging."
Silver on statistics. "Statistics are often just history. They're saying, 'Here's a really fiscally rich description of something that happened in the past.' It doesn't always predict the future, especially if you don't understand the causality. If you're banking on a correlation that you don't know why it occurred, I'll take the other side of that bet."
Simon on an unrealized project. "I've got a story that I'd love to do, which I've been working on for eight or nine years, which is the history of the CIA, which would basically be America's foreign policy footprint. But it's 70 years of period piece filming, it's all over the world, there's a lot of CGI. Scene I, Act I is Berlin after the war, in total wreckage. And HBO goes, 'Listen, it was all fun when we were giving him $20 million and he was making 'The Wire' and no one was watching, but do you take us for fools?' They're looking at what the plausible revenue stream with all the downloads and BitTorrent. The window of this Golden Age of Television might have a point where it snaps shut on your fingers, because we're talking like a Hollywood studio. 'Can we get James Franco? If we get James Franco, you can make it.'"