“I think we’re in a very bad place, and I think that Americans need to be aware of how quickly and how definitively the slide away from democracy and towards totalitarian structures can occur,” says The Plot Against America executive producer David Simon of the America of 2020 on the occasion of tonight’s finale for the HBO limited series.
Adapted by The Wire collaborators Simon and Ed Burns from Phillip Roth’s acclaimed 2004 novel of a nation and a Jewish family in New Jersey witnessing the rise to Presidential power of aviation icon and isolationist Charles Lindbergh, the six-episode alternative history drama clearly finds soiled common ground with the anti-immigrant, racist and classist demagoguery coming from the White House of Donald Trump.
Starring Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan and Anthony Boyle, the hard-knuckled Plot detailed the dalliance with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, that the Lindbergh administration had and its systematic policy of discrimination against Jews and other minorities in an America First stance.
As the Levin family feels the vice of hatred grip them tighter and tighter in a country that seems quick to reject them and its democratic foundations, tonight’s finale offered a glimmer of hope as a special election raised the possibility that FDR might return to office and right the wrongs of the ship of state – or not. In a shift away from Roth’s book, the election outcome in tonight’s Simon penned Plot ender left viewers hanging as ballot boxes were stolen and other strong-arm tactics twisted the power of the vote.
In this year of election, with the coronavirus pandemic becoming another political blunt object of division in the hands of the Trump administration, I spoke with Simon about the limited series, its resonance for today and the renewed interest in the decades old five seasons of The Wire. As anyone who knows his work or even just follows him on social media, Simon was forthright, blunt and thoughtful on his times, his work and the way he fears things are headed.
DEADLINE: I want to start at the end. There have been some shifts and deviations from the novel throughout the series, but the end is left much, much more open ended than Philip Roth did his book. Why was that the decision that you and Ed made?
SIMON: The future of the country seems to be much more open ended than I think even when Roth wrote the book in 2004. I don’t think we know what’s going to happen to the American Republic, and I think we are incredibly vulnerable now to certain dynamics and paradigms that are unique to this moment.
I don’t have a great deal of faith in our electoral process, neither does Ed. I don’t know what we’re going to get in November, and obviously, the reason to do this…you know, we would not have been doing this miniseries had Hilary Clinton won.
SIMON: What Roth wrote about in terms in demagoguery, in terms of xenophobia, the activation of fear of the other, and the diminishment of minorities as a means to political power, what he wrote about has been the last three years. So the question stands as to where the country is going from here, and I think to not acknowledge that we’re doing this in 2020 with an election upon us, probably the most important election of my life, would be irresponsible. In fact, I think we ended exactly where we wanted to end with a radio screen going to bright orange.
DEADLINE: Obviously, you’re never one to shy away from sparring with people who see things differently than you, but I’m always interested to know from a creator’s point of view what the response has been – and what your response to the response has been?
SIMON: I think you misapprehend my usual stance with people. I really do, I mean, I think if you investigate it, you’ll find out that you’ve overstated how I behave. I’m not particularly defensive about it, but I have a rule, which is I don’t answer criticism of the piece as a piece.
When people make the premise that we made stuff up or that like…I will. The places where I’ll interpose is if somebody asks a question about, well, why didn’t Pearl Harbor happen? Then I’ll respond by saying, well, as we presumed, a Lindbergh administration would’ve canceled the oil embargo against Japan and removed the premise for the Pearl Harbor attack in December of ’41.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a battle between history and the historical road not taken …
SIMON: Whatever oppositional policies the Roosevelt administration was pursuing to Japan and its aggression in the far east, those would’ve likely come to an end, yes. So I guess the only reason we’re discussing this is to say, when somebody asks a question about the historical underpinnings of why we chose, I’ll answer that because it’s helpful, but if somebody has a criticism that they don’t like this or that we went away from the novel or this doesn’t work, they’re entitled, and I usually don’t answer that.
DEADLINE: How about those who see links to our time in Plot?
SIMON: If somebody says, on the other hand, you know, how dare you use America First and put it to Nazis, then I have to interpose and go, actually, the America First phrase, as it’s used in its current Trump administration has its origins in 1940, 1939-1940. You must accept that we actually do know the history here, and we employed it, so I’ll correct an issue of informational pedigree, that’s where I’ll interpose. You will never catch me answering a critic.
DEADLINE: You spoke earlier of not having a “great deal of faith in our electoral process,” so where do you think we are right now in 2020 with a nation on lockdown, an upcoming election and a campaign that will likely occur in no small part behind closed doors, literally and figuratively?
SIMON: I think we’re in a very dark place. I don’t trust our electoral processes, I don’t trust our information systems, I don’t trust massed capital not to purchase more and more of our governing structures and our capacity to reform our politics.
I think we’re in a very bad place, and I think that Americans need to be aware of how quickly and how definitively the slide away from democracy and towards totalitarian structures can occur.
DEADLINE: I was re-watching some of the past episodes of Plot before we spoke today, and I was thinking about the Homestead relocation program and various other things that come up in the show, and clearly, the antisemitism and policy of systematic discrimination has parallels to today. Do you think the coronavirus crisis and I’m just saying this again because of the f***ing clown show every day on TV from the White House, that this is a pretext for a power grab of unprecedented means?
SIMON: I agree with you. I think that…well, I agree with you in one respect, I think that every disaster going forward, and let’s credit Naomi Klein for this insight, every disaster going forward is looked upon by massed capital and by those totalitarian forces within our country as an opportunity for profit and for power.
They do not let a disaster go by without maximizing profit and without trying to acquire more power, and we’ve seen that time and time again, and I think we’re now in that same moment right now.
Nothing makes people worse than money, and nothing makes more money than securing the power to maximize profit, and that is what has become of the American Republic, right now. We are prisoners not of the collective will, we are not beholden to the will of our electorate or our citizenry, we’re beholden to cash and to raw power, and where that leads I think is to a very dark place, and I think things before they can possibly get better, I fear they’re going to have to get a lot worse, and maybe they’re not going to get better.
DEADLINE: In Plot Against America things become worse as the Lindbergh administration devotedly institutes a policy of antisemitism and Nazi Germany alliance. When Lindbergh disappears on his way back from giving a speech, his absence is blamed on a Jewish plot and full-scale rioting breaks out in a deeply divided nation. Watching the finale, as many of us watched Presidential encouraged anti-stay-at-home protesters in recent days, the connections were very stark…
SIMON: In his book, Roth was using the allegory of the vulnerable cohort in 1940, which happens to be Jewish-Americans to discuss the power of demagoguery and xenophobia and race fears to propel politics and to consolidate power and to upend democratic norms. The reason to do the show, right now, and the reason that the show works, I think, is not because Jews are particularly vulnerable in this society, although there is increased antisemitism, right now. It is because whenever you allow totalitarian impulses and xenophobia and race hate to maneuver in any regard, antisemitism goes right with it.
That train is never late leaving the station, so we are experiencing more antisemitism by degree. The cohorts that are really vulnerable right now are people with black and brown skin, Muslims, and new immigrants. Those are the people who have been othered by this current administration. Those are the cohorts that are vulnerable, those are the people who have been maligned and victimized for the sake of consolidating political power, and so the piece is allegorical,
DEADLINE: In that vein, adaptation is almost always a process of extraction and evolution, what was that like for you this time taking Roth’s 400-page novel to a six-episode TV series?
SIMON: Well, I’ve adapted other books before, but they’ve all been nonfiction. So I actually had to be far more rigorous because you couldn’t make stuff up about real people whose real names we’re using, that would be The Corner, Generation Kill, and Show Me a Hero, but here, you had to look at what Roth was trying to convey and his mechanisms for doing it.
The book uses the memories of a man, looking back on his childhood as a 10-year-old boy in order to convey the panorama of American history, and he does this by having Phillip remembering what he heard and when, and what was in his mind.
It should be utterly apparent that you cannot film what is in anyone’s mind.
As 10-year-old Philip Roth hears about his aunt’s experiences at the White House or hears about Alvin’s experiences in the war or hears about the arguments his parents had out of his earshot, that’s not a way to convey information. So, right away, you have to take the singular point of view of the novel and you have to expand it
DEADLINE: To that, you put together a pretty stellar cast here with Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan and Anthony Boyle, to name a few. I know most actors would jump to work with you, but how did you assemble such a strong bench?
SIMON: Listen, we did the cast the way we always do, we get the best people we can for the roles we can, and a lot of that is Alexa Fogel, who I’ve worked with as a casting director now since The Wire. She’s been on every project with me, so we speak the same language almost in sentence fragments, and she’s aware of who’s out there. We have some ideas. Sometimes, we throw an idea towards her and get her response. Often, she has lists of people and ideas about who we should be seeing, and it varies.
I mean, Nina Noble and I came up with the idea of Winona as Evelyn after working with her on Show Me a Hero. She’s an extraordinary actress, and she’s reached that point in her career where she’s now ready to take on these roles of great heft, you know she’s in a new phase of her career, and we’ve been proud to be part of that.
Morgan read for us for a part on Deuce, and he read it so well…
SIMON: Yeah, he was the second choice, but only by a hair, and the guy who was the first choice, we’d worked with on another show, on Show Me a Hero. We liked him, and his acting is great, but initially, for the amount of money we had from HBO in the budget, he turned us down or his agent turned us down. So we moved onto our second choice, who was Morgan, about two hours later having heard that the agent had turned us down and that we weren’t in a position where we could counter. I mean, if I had more money, I would’ve offered it, but we had no more money. Then, the actor himself interposed and said, wait, I’m not turning it down, I’m taking it …
DEADLINE: Oh man …
SIMON: Yeah, so I had to call Morgan back after we had tentatively offered him as, you know, on the basis of the first actor saying no, and apologize and say, that actor actually just said yes, and I have to withdraw the offer.
And I said to him, Morgan, you and I’ve never worked together before, but your read was excellent, and we’re going to work together on something else, I promise. And he thought, as actors would upon getting that kind of call from a producer, very nice of you to say so, but I’m never going to hear from you again. When we got around to casting Herman, Nina Noble thought of him right away and of his read for the previous show, and we offered it to him without asking him to come in, we knew he could be Herman Levin. In fact, we knew we had the right Herman Levin.
DEADLINE: Absolutely. I mean, he’s incredible in the role, so incredible.
SIMON: Yeah, he’s amazing, and Zoe, we were working with and watching for a relatively modest role. We had a very good actress doing a relatively modest role, but the character didn’t have that much to do on Deuce, but we were watching her work, I just thought that’s the right person, and also, I thought she could convey as the younger sister to Winona. Then there’s somebody like Anthony Boyle, who I think is a revelation. That was all Alexa Fogel monitoring who’s new on the scene, and Anthony had just shown up on Broadway in the Harry Potter show and she knew his work, and she said, he can do this, and boy was she right.
Sweet thread. Thx, Zoe. https://t.co/Lu7r4vZaQz
— David Simon (@AoDespair) April 20, 2020
DEADLINE: Plot Against America premiered on March 16, right as the first restrictions on gatherings, travel and those in non-essential industries going to work were kicking in because of COVID-19. With so many people at home suddenly, do you think that changed the way the audience experienced the series and did it change your expectations of what to expect from the audience?
SIMON: (LAUGHS) I don’t know. I mean, there was a part of me, of some not quite murdered optimist that exists deep inside me that came to realize once we were all sheltering in place that I was actually going to be broadcasting for the first time a show with a somewhat captive audience. Everybody’s been home, and TV’s one of the few things you can do, and I thought to myself is this the time I actually pull a million people in on Sunday night. As you may know, my entire career is that of people finding the shows eventually, but I’ve never had an audience at the point of broadcast. Not with The Wire, not with anything, so I thought this one may be because what else are people going to do, they’re desperate.
So when the first Sunday night numbers came in, and it was under half-a-million for the premiere episode, I had to laugh at myself. Even when people are forced to do nothing but stare at their television screens, they don’t watch my stuff when it first comes on the air. They just don’t. I have to say, I regained my sense of proportion very quickly after that first Sunday.
DEADLINE: Yet, the nature of the times we live in now, I do think that after the finale, I think you’re going to see a lot of binge watchers on this one.
SIMON: I agree, and that is what always happens, people catch up to the work. You know, I’ve now done 145 hours of television for HBO over the last 20 years, it’s all on the shelf. People are still finding Treme, people are still finding Generation Kill, you know, and you…
DEADLINE: People are still finding The Wire…
SIMON: Yeah, I mean, if you do it and you get it on the shelf, it exists, and people will find it, and that’s the only way I can operate, and thank god, HBO has created a sinecure where I’ve been able to do that for 20 years.
DEADLINE: It does seem the coronavirus stay-at-home orders have allowed another audience to discover The Wire, which I consider the greatest TV drama ever. But, picking up on what you just said, is there a bittersweet part of people finding a series you worked on almost 20 years ago?
SIMON: I’m happy to have anybody watch anything we’ve ever worked on because we cared about it and we put it out there thinking it had merit. It’s good that it has a shelf life, and obviously, The Wire’s long tail is what has enabled HBO to have sufficient faith to order up stuff on things as varied as recon Marines or federal housing policy, and the national housing crisis. These are not pieces that normally would get approved without some premise of what we’re doing and some understanding that if we make it, there will be a reason you want to have it in your library, so I’m grateful, and I don’t want to be ungrateful.
DEADLINE: You don’t sound ungrateful at all, but a little wistful…
SIMON: It is a little bittersweet to have people arguing over whether or not we should’ve killed Stringer Bell or whether or not Omar should’ve had a gunfight with Marlo when we have a new work being broadcast right now that is addressing itself to whether or not the American Republic has a future.
I’m much less concerned about people riddling themselves on who are their most favorite characters in The Wire than I am about the current work, but that’s just me, you know, why wouldn’t I be?