Director Paul Haggis Discusses the Miniseries Show Me A Hero, Debuting August 16, Exclusively on HBO
In an America generations removed from the greatest civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the young mayor of a mid-sized American city is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.
From David Simon (HBO’s “Treme” and “The Wire”) and Paul Haggis (“Crash”), the HBO Miniseries presentationSHOW ME A HERO debuts its first two parts back-to-back SUNDAY, AUG. 16 (8:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), followed by two parts on both of the subsequent Sundays – Aug. 23 and 30 – at the same time. In addition to Simon and Haggis (who directs all six parts), the miniseries is executive produced by Nina K. Noble, Gail Mutrux and William F. Zorzi.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, the miniseries explores notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, NY.
QUESTION: How did you become involved in SHOW ME A HERO? What drew you to the project?
PAUL HAGGIS: Truth be told, I agreed to do this even before reading the script; I had complete confidence that in David Simon’s hands this story would be well told. I had never directed anyone else’s words before, but if I was going to do that, David’s were the words I wanted to direct. I’ve long admired him from his work, starting with “The Corner,” and continuing through “The Wire,” “Generation Kill” and “Treme.”
What drew me to the story was the fact that when you say desegregation in America, you think of Birmingham in the ‘60s, or perhaps Boston in the ‘70s, but the last thing you think is New York in 1990; so close to home, just so few years ago. And the fact that the opponents of public housing sold this package of fear based on people’s livelihoods, incomes and life savings. Buying a home is usually the biggest purchase in a lifetime, especially for working people – the majority of the people in Yonkers. Those trying to protect this enclave had managed to keep east Yonkers almost exclusively white, defying federal law for over forty years. When this Federal judge decided he’d had enough and forced the issue, the city exploded. It is a very powerful story.
And of course, what liberals didn’t want to admit is that there was validity in their argument. Federal housing projects all over America had been designed and built so poorly from the beginning that it was almost like we wanted, or at least expected them, to fail. It was nothing more than cheap warehousing, and the very design of these projects guaranteed that crime would flourish within the poverty. So the opponents weren’t mistaken; as Hank Spallone points out in our story – would you want a group of these hellish towers on your street, in your neighborhood?
So, I was thrilled that we were also telling the story of Oscar Newman, who rethought and redesigned public housing. He believed it was criminal what we were doing to the poor, stacking hundreds of low-income families in tower upon tower and jamming them all together into what could only turn into a ghetto. He fought those on both sides of the issue and the federal government itself, championing an alternative that gave dignity to the residents, and allowed them to feel pride in their homes, while placing them in neighborhoods that initially didn’t want them. Public housing in Yonkers, and other places in America that followed his lead, is successful not just because of the heroes like Nick Wasicsko, who put their careers on the line to make it happen, but also because of the bureaucrats like Oscar Newman who worked behind the scenes to find a sane and rational solution – a rare thing in politics today.
Q: How is working off a screenplay and book about a true-life event different from directing a fictionalized story?
PH: I gave David and Bill [Zorzi] a handful of notes on the screenplay, and we jiggered some things around for more dramatic effect, but I left the writing safely in their hands. My job as director was simply to bring those scenes to life, and luckily I had very skilled and talented actors like Oscar Isaac who did that effortlessly.
Q: The actors involved in the miniseries are a dynamic cast of characters. How involved were you in the casting for this project?
PH: It was a collaboration from the start. We struggled to find our leading actor, our Nick Wasicsko. I’d admired Oscar Isaac’s work, but over a year ago when we were casting I really only knew him from the Coen brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Once his name came up we quickly got very excited about the possibility of working with him. As the world knows now, he’s an incredibly gifted actor – and not an obvious choice for the role, so I couldn’t wait to see what he brought to the character. His instincts were wonderful; all I really had to do was give him the room to explore.
We were thrilled to get the interest of so many amazing actors for the supporting roles – well-known talents like Winona Ryder, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Catherine Keener, Latanya Richardson, Terry Kinney, Clark Peters and Bob Balaban, and those we discovered, like Dominique Fishback, Natalie Paul, Carla Quevedo and Ilfenesh Hadera. I was so often surprised by what they brought to the characters, and each of them immersed themselves in researching the details of the lives of their true-life counterparts.
Q: What constraints did you face trying to re-create this period in Yonkers?
PH: Recreating the distant past is often easier than creating the near past. First, people remember it well because they lived it. And surprisingly, it is hard to find authentic props and cars from the period because no one thought to value them, so they were discarded. Easier in many was to find antiques, carriages and Model T Fords. Not a lot of people held onto their Ford Pintos or bottles of Maalox.
I had a terrifically gifted DP in Andrij Parekh and a great production designer in Larry Bennett. I’ve worked with Larry for 20 years now, and guided by our lead producer Nina Noble, we found department heads in costumes, hair, makeup, props and the other essential creative people who cared as deeply about authenticity as David, myself and the producing team did. The artists we worked with had to be really inventive to pull this off, as we didn’t exactly have a “Game of Thrones” budget. I was really proud of their dedication, creativity and resolve.
Yes, we had constraints – if you have problems you can’t just shift your schedule around and shoot something else – every store and street corner has to be dressed and the signage has to be of the correct period – so much has changed in the last 30 years – so we had very little flexibility, we had to make a plan and a schedule and work with the city of Yonkers while being respectful to the residents.
Q: Why do you feel it is important to bring this project to the attention of today’s audiences? Are the same issues relevant in today’s culture, as they were in the Yonkers of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
PH: These problems endure. There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently about Westchester, which is today in the exact same battle with the federal government, trying to keep low-income housing out of their area. There, and in many dozens of similar communities, it continues to be a battle of class as much as of race, and as always it is masked by arguments about economy and “fairness” and the right for the communities to make their own decisions – but so many times these are easy excuses we use to hide our fear of others. This issue continues to be at the heart of the American story – as soon as we landed here, the first thing we did was build walls to keep us safe, to separate us from from “the others.” And politicians learned the lesson well that it is easier to govern using fear and hatred than it is to appeal to our better nature. As much progress as we have made as a society, there is so much that has not changed. Pretending it has might make us feel better, but it truly helps no one.