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."