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by Leah Churner
June 12, 2013 1:26 PM
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The Next 'Breaking Bad'? 'Low Winter Sun' Showrunner Chris Mundy on His New AMC Crime Drama

Mark Strong in 'Low Winter Sun' Alicia Gbur/AMC

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.

READ MORE: Trailer for AMC's New Crime Drama 'Low Winter Sun,' Starring Mark Strong

Lennie James, Chris Mundy and Mark Strong at the ATX Television Festival Jack Plunkett

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."


  • Steve | June 23, 2013 3:13 AMReply

    The original version was made for Channel 4, NOT the BBC. And it was three hours, not two.

  • nok | June 12, 2013 10:09 PMReply

    This interview makes it sound like the show will be terrible. David Simon worked in Baltimore for years, knew the place in and out. This guy sounds like a kid on a field trip: "they have these things called Blind Pigs and I played pool with a real crack addict!"

  • LP Tim | July 1, 2013 8:16 PM

    Nok, your comment was hilarious. It hadn't really struck me until you pointed it out, but now it does sound a bit amateurish :-D

  • Glen | June 14, 2013 9:45 PM

    Mmm it could be a real concern, depending on what kind of show this turns out to be. In 'The Wire' Baltimore was as important as a character as any other. A show like 'Breaking Bad' however, does not seem to require Albuquerque to be anything other than just a beautiful, quiet place where terrible things happen.

    I'm hopeful that it will be good if only for the presence of Strong and James.

  • Brandon | June 12, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    Back in the 1920s, in my Midwestern part of the country (southern Indiana), the liquor dens were called "blind tigers". One would pay the entrance fee to see something non-existent like a 'blind tiger' and get alcohol 'for free' when they were inside. This would sometimes get around particular local ordinances that fined or arrested for *selling* alcohol.

  • Katy Kern | June 12, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Will check this out. Sounds great. AND I adore Mark Strong! Glad to see him in a major leading role.

  • greg w. locke | June 12, 2013 1:48 PMReply

    this show is my pick for the Next Great TV Series. looks sooooo good.