Writing What He Knows

George Pelecanos keep `The Wire' taunt, tuned to the streets and, above all, consistently gripping.

September 18, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

If George Pelecanos had a theme song, it might well be the great, bluesy Tom Waits ballad that precedes each episode of The Wire, the one about evading the cold hands of temptation and keeping the devil "way down in the hole."

For most of his 47 years, Pelecanos, a man of high seriousness, has thought long and hard about the sort of rough and lonesome trouble depicted in the song. What he hasn't experienced himself, he's seen at close range. He has seen violence behave like a wildfire: horrifying in its destructiveness, but occasionally clearing the ground for new life. When everything is gone, anything becomes possible.

You might even say that the difficulty of walking "the straight and narrow track" (as Waits' song admonishes his listeners to do) is the central preoccupation of Pelecanos' life. It is the connecting thread behind his 12 books and his job writing for and producing The Wire, the cable show that debuts its third season tomorrow night on HBO.

"Where you're born, who your people are, decides what road you're going to take," Pelecanos says. "I wouldn't waste my time writing a standard cop show or crime book with good guys and bad guys. If you show a bunch of sociopathic kids, it's too easy to dismiss them. I try to find humanity in every character, every scene I write."

Not only is writing Pelecanos' day (and night) job, it's the way he looks at the world. But on the set of The Wire, he serves an additional function as one of the show's three producers. Series creator David Simon relies on Pelecanos to bind it all together, to make a zillion small decisions during each 12- to 20-hour day. Pelecanos is a master at fine-tuning the script, casting bit parts and editing raw footage - and especially at mediating between the strong wills and passionately held opinions present in any creative endeavor.

"I'm always happy when George is on the set," says Pat Moran, casting director for The Wire. "Things always run more smoothly when he's around. He listens to you, and he's open to suggestions. It's not just us; he's like that with every department."

The Wire's soundstage is in a hulking former superstore on Eastern Avenue just inside Baltimore's city limits, across the border from Essex. Despite that vast space, Pelecanos is at work in a room as small and cramped as a submarine, with smudged green walls, no windows and a clock stopped at 9:34:40. His red plaid shirt is crumpled, and a dark bristle is spreading over his neck and chin - testament, perhaps, to the ungodly hours the cast and crew have been keeping. But his eyes are alert, amused, quizzical.

The actual shooting takes place in an adjoining room. Pelecanos watches the results on a closed-circuit TV, listening in on the dialogue with a pair of headphones labeled "Zeus."

Actor Dominic West drops a line, and the script supervisor leans over to confer with Pelecanos. The producer must decide not only if the line is important because it reveals character or advances the plot, but if it foreshadows future developments.

Actors are given scripts only for the current episode, so they don't know in advance what will happen to their characters. If the detective or drug dealer whom they portray gets knocked off in the course of that episode - well, that's the actor's version of a pink slip, and their anguish over losing a steady paycheck may give their death scenes added verisimilitude.

In this case, the line is insignificant, and it's more natural for West to skip over it, so out it goes. (West plays renegade cop Jimmy McNulty. If The Wire has a star, he's it.)

"George is very smart, very rigorous, he has a dry sense of humor and a great temperament for this job," says Simon, who resembles a fiercely intelligent bulldog, with a stubby nose and ruff of hair ringing the back of his skull.

"In a room full of gabbing, opinionated writers, George is the only guy discerning enough to shut his mouth for a minute."

Those attributes have been even more crucial for Season 3. This season, Simon will craft just three episodes of The Wire. The remaining nine hour-long segments will be written by a powerhouse team of seven scribes, including Pelecanos; Richard Price, whose Clockers is the definitive novel of urban drug culture in the early '90s; and Dennis Lehane, whose Mystic River became a critically acclaimed film about the far-reaching effects of child abuse.

That said, the whole concept of authorship is a bit of a misnomer. An episode ostensibly written by Lehane may include a scene by Simon, with dialogue supplied by Pelecanos. From time to time, good-natured competition arises on the set.

"We all fight to write Omar's scenes," Pelecanos says. Omar, portrayed by Michael K. Williams, is a legendary stickup artist who swears allegiance to neither the drug cartel nor the cops. Because of his volatile temper, both sides try to manipulate him. Omar is capable of shooting a man at point-blank range - and then calling 911 on the victim's behalf when he realizes he's been duped.

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