Before there was an “Undercover Black Man,” David Mills was a somewhat mild mannered reporter for The Washington Post who was invited to share in the good fortune of his college friend David Simon on a new television series based on Simon’s book “Homocide.” “Homocide” jump started a new writing career for Mills with several primetime network and HBO television drama series including David E. Kelley’s “Picket Fences,” Steven Bochco/David Milch’s “NYPD Blue,” and Simon’s “The Wire” as well as the mini-series, “The Corner” (based on another book by David Simon and co-author Edward Burns). [There’re enough David’s in TV writing for a WGA committee.] Mills received two primetime Emmy awards for writing and prodcuing for “The Corner.” In 2003, NBC green-lighted Mills’ own series “Kingpin” about a Mexican drug trafficker. Six episodes were broadcast on NBC (The series is available on DVD). Television, journalism, and music are still in Mill’s DNA as you will read on his blog, Undercover Black Man, and in this interview for Eclectique|916.
How did you make that transition from journalism to script writing? Did journalism help you be a better scriptwriter? What was the first script you sold?
I was on staff at the Washington Post in 1992 when David Simon, an old college newspaper buddy of mine, sold his book “Homicide” to Barry Levinson. As they were creating the “Homicide” TV series, the producers gave Simon an episode to write. Simon approached it as kind of a lark; he had no intention of leaving journalism at that time. He was at the Baltimore Sun.
Anyway, Simon knew I had vague ambitions to write for television, so he brought me on as a writing partner for that “Homicide” episode. He thought it would be fun. And it was. We worked out the story with producer Tom Fontana, and Simon and I wrote it tag-team style. Literally, one of us would get up from the computer and the other would sit down to continue. We were totally winging it.
But the episode turned out well. They ended up casting Robin Williams in it. And soon after that episode aired (in early 1994), I left The Washington Post with the intention of spending a year trying to get more TV work. Had I failed, I would’ve gladly returned to the Post. Fortunately for me, I landed a job on “Picket Fences” by the end of ’94, moved out to L.A., and have been here ever since.
I happen to think daily journalism was great preparation for TV writing. On a daily paper, you have to write fast. You have to grab a reader’s attention and hold it till the end. And a reporter’s ear for good quotes is the same as the screenwriter’s ear for good dialogue. I took to the new form very quickly.
Who were some of your favorite characters that you wrote for and/or created? Why?
On series television, there’s great fun to be had in creating characters that may only appear in one episode. On “Picket Fences,” I created the part of an adolescent white boy who’s deep into hip-hop and black vernacular. This was in 1994, before “wiggers” were much of a recognized pop-culture type.
A few times I created a character based on reporting from my journalism days. On “NYPD Blue,” I wrote a mentally ill homeless man who’d murdered one of his old college professors (“Head Case”). Some of the language he spoke, I took literally from my taped interviews with a homeless guy I’d met way back during Hands Across America. It was rather floridly psychotic, but it had a realness about it because it was real.
I also take pride in having created the character “Rocket” Romano for “ER”… an obnoxious surgeon who liked to mess with people’s minds and say outrageous, politically incorrect stuff. Dr. Romano wound up becoming a series regular.
The key to dramatic writing is coming up with characters who pop… who sound like specific individuals. A lot of thought goes into making sure each character has his own vocabulary, his own speech patterns, her own sense of humor.
Who or what was your best teacher in this field?
David Milch, co-creator of “NYPD Blue,” really took me under his wing. He is one of the all-time great television drama writers, and he is difficult to please. I remember every good thing he ever said about my writing.
The main thing I learned from Milch was to approach this work with a high degree of moral seriousness. Even though we’re talking about TV, we’re talking about popular entertainment… Milch really dug deep into his understanding of human nature and social reality. The stakes are high for him. As a result, his best scripts stand as works of art.
A friend and I were talking about events along the U.S./Mexican border involving the drug cartels and then we brought up “Kingpin.” Have you gotten any calls or emails from people saying “Hey Dave…didn’t you do a TV show about this?” Have you been keeping up with the news about the cartels and activity along the border?
Thanks for remembering “Kingpin”! I guess that idea was ahead of its time. I haven’t really kept up on all the crazy goings-on with the cartels down there. Interesting to note, though, that there have been a lot of pilots written over the years about the unique culture of the U.S./Mexico border. But they never seem to get to series. I think there’s a bit of resistance to the idea now, though I’m not sure why. I think the borderland would be a fresh setting for a cop show.
What was the inspiration for “Kingpin?” Have you been to the Mexican border? Did you do any hands-on research?
I didn’t do boots-on-the-ground research. But I did tons of Internet research. Again, the whole world is at your fingertips. A lot of details I used in the show — like the drug boss who had a pet tiger — came from real reporting I saw on the Web.
That show came about because NBC was looking to do a show like “Traffic.” That movie was fresh in people’s minds then. NBC was also interested in pushing the boundaries of prime-time content, in terms of violence and sex, in order to compete with “The Sopranos.” So my agent set up a pitch meeting, and I went in with my take on it… which was basically “Macbeth” in Mexico.
They went for it, and I had a ball. Because, like I say, I caught them at a moment when they were ready to try something different… to push boundaries. It wasn’t a hit, so from a network perspective it was a failure. But the actors and writers who were involved in “Kingpin” still look back on it with pride.
I discovered that I really enjoyed running a writing staff. We might’ve had 200 hours’ worth of writers’ meetings… just for six hours’ worth of show. That’s because you keep turning the story around, like a Rubik’s Cube, until you’ve got the best possible story. You come up with a good idea, but the best idea might be five ideas down the road, so you keep on turning it. If you have a group of writers who get along, that’s a great way to spend an afternoon… breaking stories.
I also enjoyed the editing process. I don’t enjoy being on set, so I wasn’t on set often. But once you get into the editing room, it’s like writing again. You cut out all the dead spots, you move things around, you lay music on top of it, and the show really comes alive.
About your blog, Undercover Black Man…. Why did you start blogging?
I started blogging in December of 2006, but I really threw myself into it the following summer. I had made a decision to take a break from the TV business. For the past nine years, I had been writing pilot scripts, trying to create my own series. I hadn’t had much luck. So I was a little burned out on coming up with ideas, pitching the ideas to network executives, writing the scripts, then watching the scripts get rejected.
So I got started with the blogging thing. It seemed at the time that the blogosphere was a cultural happening. I saw with my own eyes that there were talented writers doing it, and the interaction with readers seemed intimate and cool. Next thing I know, I’d spent two years basically posting daily on my blog. It really became a compulsion that blotted out most other aspects of life.
You cover a lot of music on the blog. You seem to be on top of a lot of new groups, new sounds? Where did this love for music come from? Were you ever a musician? Music student counts for this question.
I have no musical talent. I was just lucky enough to come up during the ’70s, when the best music ever was being played on the radio. Everything from Freda Payne and the Ohio Players to Elton John and Chicago, I was into.
I’ve been a hardcore P-Funk fan since high school. And my tastes have broadened as I’ve gotten older… into hard bop and world music. I also wrote about popular music quite a bit during my journalism days. I’ve interviewed Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, George Clinton, Roberta Flack, Phoebe Snow, to name a few. I also co-authored a book in the 1990s, George Clinton & P-Funk: An Oral History.
So my pre-existing interest combined with the fact that it’s so easy to explore new music on the Web. I think the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to music. Might not be the best thing to happen to the record industry, but it’s great for consumers of music. There is a whole world of music, literally, at your fingertips.
You took a hiatus from Undercover Black Man for a few months. Now you’re back. What went on in those months and why did you return to the blog? Are you a healthier blogger now or was there an event that compelled you to get back on line and pick up where you left off?
David Simon this year hired me as a writer and producer on his latest HBO project, “Treme.” So I retired from blogging when the time came to write my first “Treme” script. And I got that work done. But we have a strange time lag. We can’t start filming in New Orleans until after hurricane season, because you can’t get production insurance. So we won’t film until November, and I won’t have any real work to do until September. So I relapsed. I backslided back into blogging. I’d be better off exercising, but hey… I’m imperfect.
Your blog was smokin’ during the campaign. Now that we are here and Barack Obama IS the President (and not Morgan Freeman), in your opinion does a real Black President make a difference to writers and their scripts for television and film? Will the “O factor” be part of a character’s DNA? If so, what? If not, why?
I wouldn’t bet on it. I was told years ago that the reason networks don’t want drama shows with black lead characters is that black lead characters don’t sell overseas. And Hollywood makes half of its money selling shows overseas. So I don’t know if that mindset will be altered at all by the rise of President Obama.
But I may be wrong. I haven’t been deep into the TV industry for the past two and a half years, so I don’t really know what network executives are looking for right now.
How did you like working in New Orleans? For “The Wire” fans, can they expect the same kind of intensity set to music in post-Katrina New Orleans?
“Treme” is a different tale than “The Wire.” The story begins three months after the storm. And it’s basically the story of a city coming back to life, and a group of characters trying to bounce back from that devastation. There wasn’t much crime in New Orleans the first few months after the storm, because there were so few people back. The drug dealers weren’t back, for instance.
There’s a lot of music in the show, and in that way “Treme” is a love letter to New Orleans. And in a larger sense, it’s sort of a thematic flip side to “The Wire.” If “The Wire” was about all that’s dysfunctional in modern American cities, “Treme” is about what’s still beautiful about the modern American city. And that’s the people and their devotion to maintaining the traditions of their place.