Ed Burns interview
Ed Burns, the co-creator of The Wire and new Iraqi drama Generation Kill talked us through his incredible career so far. From his time in Vietnam, to spending 20 years on the Baltimore police force to plans for his first feature film.
LOVEFiLM: After the success of The Wire, where did the idea come from to develop Generation Kill?
Ed Burns: The idea didn’t come from us, it came from HBO. The Wire was always being cancelled, and by the third season, it was like a logical time to stop the show. And I think HBO liked what we were doing, so they had this project that didn’t work for them.
LF: And what was your initial draw to Generation Kill?
EB: Well, it’s the idea of who these guys are. I was in the infantry in Vietnam and my training for the war was shovelling snow in Fort Dix New Jersey. Then I read Evan [Wright]’s book, and I thought this is an amazing subculture and it would be great to bring it to the screen.
LF: Talking about your time in Vietnam, how did your experience shape your attitude to writing Generation Kill?
EB: We’ll I think it’s like anything else, if you have an experience it serves as a barometer, and it’s like a bullshit barometer. A bullshit meter. And that’s basically what it was. You use that gauge. Evan did a remarkable job capturing the world that he was in. And there’s a sympathy that you have for people who are going through this process of warfare that I found very compelling.
LF: Do you know what the fighting men of the US think about this new series? Have you had any response from people in the army?
ED: The feedback has been uniformly very good on the enlisted men side. And the reason for that is Eric Kocher, who is our technical advisor, who served five tours, one in Afghanistan and four in Iraq. We gave him free reign on set to make sure that, in his eyes, what these actors were doing would sell to the marines.
Eric is one of these guys who gives you 150 percent and he’s willing to work 27 hours a day to make it happen. And the actors worshipped him. He was able to get them to see the logic of how marines do things. So when we started screening it in front of marines, they saw the details. It’s a funny thing. It’s the same with junkies, it’s the same with cops, it’s the same with anybody: if you get the small details right, then the big large dramatic stuff that you have to do to make good film, they’re fine with. If you screw up that detail, then they’re writing you off.
LF: The military jargon in Generation Kill is impressive. For someone who has no idea it’s quite difficult to get you head around it at first…
EB: Well, yeah, it’s a practiced language. These guys are thrown together in very close quarters for six months at a time. So it’s like working on a joke. Refining a joke over and over again. So that’s why the language seems to be, at times, reaching Shakespearean levels.
LF: What do you hope the audience take away from watching something like Generation Kill?
EB: That’s always the big question. I mean I’m not in favour of war - I wasn’t in favour of this war at all. I guess to put it in humanistic terms, it’s to understand who are you putting into danger. You know, and seeing these guys, and getting to know them, and realising that any second a bullet could snuff them out.
On the one hand that’s what you want to show. And the second thing that’s very important to show is that war is not pristine. Women and children, old men, non-combatants get killed. And again, is what we’re doing worth this?
LF: Generation Kill is not an easy series to watch…
EB: It’s not, no. War is not an easy thing unless you glorify it. But if it’s to be experienced, just like The Wire, then what you have to do as the writer is to try to keep it as real as you can.
LF: Moving on to The Wire, were you surprised by its success? Because it’s been phenomenal…
EB: It’s a phenomenal world. I grew up back in the 50s on westerns. And I always thought that as a cop the inner city is the same setting as the western. Incredible people, interesting characters, great heroism and great treachery. And if we could capture that and de-Satanise the people, and humanise them, then it would be up to the audience to decide.
LF: You spent over 20 years in the Baltimore police department. What do your former colleagues make of The Wire?
EB: Not that I dealt with a lot of cops, but people who were on the ground, so to speak, love the show.
LF: How far were any of the characters or cases in The Wire based on real people and situations?
EB: None of them were based on real people and real situations. I knew that world intimately and I did a lot of wire tap cases – with warrants too, I mean legally! – and I know the moves. I spent thousands of hours with all sorts of gunmen and drug dealers. So creating stories is easy because you’re drawing on all that wealth and then layering the details, again, because you’ve seen it.
LF: Coming from your incredibly varied personal experience, what’s the most terrifying situation you’ve ever found yourself in?
EB: The most terrifying experience of my life is teaching.
EB: Well, because of the damage that’s been done to the kids. The irreversible damage and how profound it is.
LF: Can you explain what you mean by damage?
EB: Well, in places like Baltimore - and I’m sure there are places in the UK that are very much like this - because of the drugs and because of the drug economy, there is no other economy that exists, a survival culture grows up.
That culture is as different as day and night. We see day, they see night. When you have kids, you clearly see the endgame for them is addiction, prison and death. And they can’t see it. You can only give a consistency - something they’ve never experienced. You can’t give them an education. The idea of teaching in the inner city, as close to "ABC, 123", is a joke. The kids are not prepared for that because it’s meaningless to them.
LF: That’s quite a bleak view of life…
EB: Well, it’s… See I don’t see it as bleak. I see it as necessary for us to understand. Because in American we’ve been talking this war on drugs thing since Nixon, and demonising people and relying on drugs to basically kill the underclass. You can’t have a democracy unless you have a vibrant underclass who bang against the walls trying to get a piece of the action. Well, if everybody’s on dope and coke, then there can be nobody banging on nothing. Right now we have something like 2.7 million people in prison. That’s just lower than China and Russia.
LF: That’s incredible.
EB: It is incredible and it’s something that we need to see, to understand, and, hopefully, to cope with. To do something to change it. Because we created it.
LF: The Wire has really opened the debate about drugs and drug related issues, and made it very obvious that things aren’t black and white…
EB: Well, that’s good, you know. You do something, you try to stay true to something and you just put it out there, and you just hope that people around the whole world start talking about this stuff. Eric Holder, who’s our new Attorney General, called us “a nation of cowards” as related to racism. And in the post-Obama world, that came as quite a shock, but he’s absolutely right. And we can only get better by talking.
LF: Going back to Obama, he said that Omar was his favourite TV character…
EB: Well, I think he said it and then, realising what he said, he backed away from that. As If they thought he were a homosexual black stick-up guy. [Laughs]
You know, I think that Omar’s a great character. I think that we created Omar as the only person that was not tied to the institution. He’s that guy with the white hat who rode into town in the westerns. He’s not bothered by the institutions. He doesn’t have a side. He goes by his own rules and those rules are important to him. That’s who he is. I think Obama picked a good character.
LF: Was Omar a character who developed organically or did you always have a kind of Lone Ranger in mind from the beginning?
EB: Well, all the… I’ve known maybe 30, 40 drugs stick-up men. They’re all, on some level, Lone Rangers. We took elements of different stick-up guys that I knew – they’re called stick-up artists – by the way. They’re artists. We took little bits and pieces of them and we sort of put them all in a blender and out came Omar.
LF: Have you thought about writing a film, or does that just not really appeal to you?
EB: I just sent HBO a pilot that I would like to do called Jakarta. The way I pitched it is basically, “The Wire is today, Jakarta is tomorrow.”
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