March 11, 2008

'90s-era David Simon

Pulled up from The New Republic's archives, a great 1997 piece by Wire-creator David Simon that recounts, among other things, an amusing shoot from his first TV project, Homicide:
The day this scene was shot was not without its peculiar charm.

"You all want to be in a TV show?"

"Which one?" asked Boo.

"'Homicide.' The cop show."

"What do we have to do?"

"Sling drugs on a corner and get chased by the police."

They looked at each other for a long moment. Then laughter broke on the Southwest Baltimore crossroads of Gilmor and McHenry. Tae, Dinky, Manny Man, DeAndre, R.C.--all of them were willing to leave their real corner untended for a day, travel across town and play-act for the National Broadcasting Corporation. Only Boo was unsure.

"How much we gonna get paid?" he asked.

"You'll be non-union extras," I told him. "That means about $45 for the day. "

"Sheeeet," drawled Boo.

Forty-five dollars was fifteen minutes' work at McHenry and Gilmor. I knew this because, at that point, I had been around Tae and Dinky and the others for about ten months, and, for most of that time, they had sold drugs. I, in turn, had watched them sell drugs.

"I don't care," Tae said finally. "I wanna be on TV."

Boo stayed on the corner that day, slinging blue-topped vials of coke. The rest followed Tae across town to the Perkins Homes, a squat stretch of public housing that would serve as the pretend drug market. They filled out tax forms, waited out the inevitable delays and were eventually escorted by an assistant director to a battered side street. There, on the set, a props man handed them pretend drugs and pretend weapons, and the director, a very earnest white man, arranged them on the street in the manner most pleasing to the camera.

"You there, can you move to that doorway?"

Dinky stepped into the doorway.

"And you--can you show some of the gun? Right. Tuck in your shirt so we can see the gun."

R.C. arranged his shirt so the butt of the prop gun showed.

They filmed the scene over and over, with the director covering it from a variety of angles and distances. Each time, the pretend lookout shouted his warning. Each time, the corner boys ran from the approaching radio car. Each time, they were penned in the same alley, forced to the ground and given the handcuffs.

After the eighth or ninth take, the boys began to rebel.

"I'm sayin' this is bullshit," muttered Dinky. "They got all of us dirty like this. Dave, man, you know it wouldn't be that way. You know we don't do it like that."

It was true. The props department had stuffed fake drugs and guns and knives into the pockets of all the extras. Every last one of them would be caught holding, every last one would, in the make-believe world, take a charge. At Gilmor and McHenry, it was very different. The boys worked ground stashes, handling only a vial or two at a time. They kept the guns in rowhouse vestibules or atop the tires of parked cars. They didn't run at the first sign of a police car. They didn't have to run.
Well, it's a good show all the same.
-- Brad Plumer 1:37 PM || ||