A conversation with David Simon: Key takeaways

Growing up, David Simon remembers arguing at the dinner table about the pitfalls of the gerund lede. He caught what he calls the journalism “virus” early from his father Bernard who trained in journalism and later worked in public relations.

“There was a moment where I thought, ‘Man, what a life, to go see a new thing every day and then just bring it back to the campfire and tell the world about it. So, you don’t have to pick a career. You get to see something different every day,’” Simon said. “It just sounded like a lot of fun. Then the Watergate thing, on top of that, made me feel like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s even a purpose.’”

After college, Simon began as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun city desk and his experiences there led him to co-write two books: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (Broadway, 1997). Eventually, he transitioned to writing and producing for television and co-created several critically lauded HBO drama series, including The Wire and, most recently, The Deuce.

Simon shared his personal journey and insights with a standing-room audience in the Wallis Annenberg Hall on Oct. 25 as part of the inaugural USC Annenberg-HBO Diverse Voices Forums. The series is designed to connect HBO’s top talent and producers with USC Annenberg students and faculty to explore the role of diversity in the future of entertainment.

Dean Willow Bay welcomed the audience, underscoring how USC Annenberg students will be leading the media and entertainment industries of the future. 

“It is critical that you consider the role that creative storytelling from different perspectives plays, especially when we talk about generating solutions and visions of a different world,” Bay said.

In his own words, here are four takeaways Simon offered to host Taj Frazier, associate professor of communication and director or the Institute of Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (IDEA), during the Diverse Voice Forum kick-off event.

Argue for progress

It’s important to have different voices in the room. It’s important that your writer’s room have everybody and that they can argue. On The Deuce, it’s less about race, it’s more about women. Women, gay writers, trans writers, get them in the room because this is about sexual commodification in Times Square. You want everybody to be able to write everything. You really do. Nobody wants to be like, “Hi, I’m here to write the Latino scenes.” Are we writers or not? 

Argument is elemental to everything getting better. It has to be the kind of argument where you can all walk away and come back and do more work. But the better ideas have to prevail. You can't be like, “I won one, so you get to win one.” Fight for what you know is right and until you're convinced otherwise, keep fighting.

Follow the money

From our point of view loyalty in storytelling has to do with the way people make a dollar, and often about labor and middle management. Those are the people that we tend to have sympathy for in our stories. So, they could be doing good things, bad things, but the people are basically operating within some compact that has been arranged by market capitalism. 

In The Deuce, there is a critique of unrestrained capitalism and market logic as being a false and dangerous metric for building a just or viable society. 

I would say that the greatest mistake that the country has made — and the argument that keeps coming up in our writer’s meetings — is to mistake profit and maximized profit for being a metric of social progress or of functionality. Capitalism is an incredibly valuable tool for generating mass wealth. Its potential for bringing in incredible streams of revenue is unrivaled by anything else that man has ever attempted to do economically. It is in no way a measure of whether or not our society is good or bad. Mistaking one for the other has been the great failure.

So, I look at a story like this, and I’m thinking, “Okay, whose labor? Who gets paid? Where does the money go? Where does the money not go? Who has a good sinecure? Who has a bad position to occupy? What happens from the street to the top of the food chain?” 

That’s the guts of why to do The Deuce.

Attend to it

The critique of pornography has always been problematic because, first of all, it’s been around for a long time. I don’t think we’ve paid a lot of attention to this revolution that’s happened in the last 30, 40 years and what it does mean and what it doesn’t mean.

I do think we need to take a hard look at what we’ve built and what the costs of it are. We sell beer and cars in ways that come to the very cusp of the pornographic. You can’t tell me that at some point it ’t loosened the structures by which people feel like they can direct rhetoric and verbiage at women that is astonishingly misogynistic and that it hasn’t had an effect on our political culture. Something’s happened, and we’ve acquired something along the way that we have not attended to. I think we need to attend to it.

Pick a target. Get that right. Don’t lie about anything else

Every frame of film, every line of dialogue, and the totality of what you've built, you got to watch them all and say, “What have I built, and why, and what’s coming through, and what’s not coming through?”

Think about the complexity of what has led us to be the America that we are and of straining that through a single narrative. If a story is about everything, if you pause at every moment to contextualize carefully everything you mean to say politically, you’re destroying narrative. There’s no way to do it as a writer. 

Pick a target, get that right, and don’t lie about anything else. Write for the sensate viewer who’s interested in people and systems and why we are the way we are. The people who were never going to get it are never going to get it, and you just can’t let them dictate terms.

Following Simon, USC Annenberg-HBO Diverse Voices Forum will continue on Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m. with Issa Rae, creator, writer and star of HBO’s Insecure. Future guests may include talent from top HBO shows, including Ballers, Silicon Valley or Westworld, among others.