HBO limited series “Show Me a Hero” is noisy. Cacophony reigns in crowded city council meetings packed with yelling onlookers and jostling media microphones. It’s hard to figure out just what is going on. Oscar Isaac as beleaguered Nick Wasicsko, the youngest mayor in America, pounds his gavel to no avail. Adapted from Lisa Belkin’s 1999 book by David Simon and his “The Wire” collaborator Bill Zorzi, “Show Me a Hero” digs into the unsexy ’80s true story about the pitched battle between the haves and have-nots in Yonkers, New York over court-ordered public housing. When HBO finally greenlit the series, it was with the knowledge that this story is as resonant as ever.
While the WGA-nominated writing is brilliant, a pivotal member of this team of storytellers earning rave reviews is DGA-nominated Paul Haggis, who directed all six episodes. Haggis said he eagerly leapt at his first television assignment after reading early drafts of the first two segments. “I’d been such a huge fan of David Simon’s from ‘The Corner’ though ‘The Wire’ and ‘Generation Kill’ and ‘Treme,'” Haggis said in a phone interview. “His was almost the only television I watched, always so close to being true.”
While Haggis is a superb screenwriter (winning the Oscar for writing “Crash”), he let the showrunners do their thing to focus on directing. “It was fabulous, I loved it,” he said. “Any writer-director who is honest will admit that writing is the toughest part. Directing is a joy. All the pressure and the impossibility pulling off the job every single day is so much more fun than sitting there and facing a blank page. It’s different skill sets.”
When HBO expressed concern after having had a negative experience hiring a writer-director to work with a writer-producer, Haggis assured them: “I’m here to direct, I will give my notes, will improvise with the actors if allowed.”
The casting process was “completely collaborative,” Haggis said. “The only person who David spoke to before I came on was Winona Ryder. I wasn’t sure she was right at all. She’s a good actress who I had met before, but I was not sure she could disappear into the role [as a Yonkers elected official].
He trusted her: “‘Let’s take a leap of faith.’ I was delighted to watch her work, to see the magnetism she has. She had no ego and let me light her very badly!”
Haggis admired Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but had not been able to see his role in “A Most Violent Year,” so Haggis checked in with his friend Jessica Chastain to find out “how much of a pain in the ass” Isaac was. She swore he wasn’t. And Isaac took home a Golden Globe for “Show Me a Hero” this January.
Isaac, Alfred Molina and the other actors were “dedicated to discovering who their character was,” said Haggis. “Many of them had video to fall back on. The characters were so much larger than you could possibly imagine, so bombastic and overly dramatic. If we played [Molina’s character] that big, you wouldn’t believe it. He’d play with the audience, smash the mic away every time he finished speaking, he created theater, was a very theatrical character. We did not go an inch over the top with that character. It was the little theater Yonkers there.”
It was up to Haggis to take this true story and make it feel true. “The audience will distance themselves if it’s not,” said Haggis. “I wanted them to feel a part of it. People got swept into this, found themselves like Mary Dorman [Catherine Keener] who had never been political, involved in politics, pulled into the center of the maelstrom.”
Shot on Yonkers locations, the shoot covered six years, out of sequence, moving back and forth on any given day from summer morning to winter afternoon, 7 to 10 pages a day. “It was hard,” said Haggis. “If we got six pages, we celebrated. We’d do five to six scenes in different locations, trying to keep it all straight. We needed 90 days. The A.D. said we got 72. So we were racing around. I insisted on shooting in ridiculous actual locations like Mary Dorman’s real house, which was tiny, the size of a regular hotel room. The crew walked in and said ‘We can’t shoot here, it’s obviously too small! Why are we shooting here?’ I wanted the audience to feel how similar it was to the layout of the homes in the other projects, without saying it.”
The trickiest thing to deliver was all the dull exposition of complex court proceedings and city minutiae. “How do I make that feel like human behavior?” said Haggis. “What kind of person tells two other people something they already know for two pages? An arrogant person who thinks they’re right. As soon as I told Peter Riegert, the others knew how to react, they were trying to humor him and keep him on their side. Often a scene came alive when I’d work with the actors to make it feel like it was human. David gave us carte blanche, as long as the words got out, we sometimes would improvise around it, while staying faithful to the script. We didn’t rewrite or anything.”
Haggis embraced the same aesthetic as “Spotlight,” taking the story and following it where it went, even if it violated conventional practice. “If you actually do it, people come to understand you are telling the truth,” said Haggis. “Obviously David and Bill had to condense a lot to get this story into six hours, the minutiae they argued about, the ins and outs of zoning, but in that way we all took a lesson from ‘E.R.’ back in the day: just go with it, people will get the idea. They don’t need to know the smoking variant if you imbue it with the correct emotion, or care about finance, if they know that the character thinks it’s important.”
He warned Simon and Zorzi that he was going to mess up the shots—on purpose: “There wasn’t going to be a pretty shot in it. I was going to put something in the way, so you could not see the people we were looking at clearly. Especially in city hall meetings, there’s always something in the frame that shouldn’t be in the frame. When there’s a crowd there’s always something standing between you and them, something is in the most annoying place. That’s hard to do, because extras, everybody has a second or third sense that they should move out of the way of the camera. I kept pushing them into the frame, pushing the mic in, just to make you feel you are there and alive and part of it.”
During post-production, the filmmakers kept making everything louder, adding more layers of background artists and sound. Zorzi would write new dialogue so that the arguing wasn’t just mumbo-jumbo but felt real. Although it’s hard to imagine “Show Me a Hero” without Bruce Springsteen, he actually entered the conversation very late. “I was looking for a musical identity for Nick,” said Haggis. “We had this debate about how much music was in this piece. David famously hates score. But there were some written montages that we couldn’t play completely dry, they’d be boring as hell. We tried it many ways with score, moving the ambient sound from one place to another, turning on the radio in the room, looking to unify the piece. We put ‘Raise Me Up’ in over the montage—’that’s fabulous’—and worked backwards. It was up to HBO and David to convince them to let us use 22 songs. They pulled it off.”
In the end, the poke-pull of the creative collaboration on “Show Me a Hero” yielded must-see event television. “We respected each other,” said Haggis, “even if our styles were slightly different. It brought out the best in us.”