'Show Me a Hero': The Long (But Surprisingly Painless!) Trip From Page to Screen

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Lisa Belkin
·Chief National Correspondent
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 Oscar Isaac in HBO’s Show Me a Hero, premiering Aug. 16

When HBO called, I wasn’t paying attention.

Some might call that a humble brag, or say I was jaded, but I prefer “armored against the reality of constant disappointment.” You see, in my years as a reporter and author, I had been contacted by Hollywood before.

There was, for instance, the time pre-email and cell phones when a New York Times security guard called me at home early on a Sunday because the president of an indie film company was standing in the lobby, insisting on speaking to me. He’d read my cover story on something or other in the NYT Magazine that morning and simply had to buy the film rights. Was I free for breakfast the following day? Plans made, I was awoken before dawn the next morning by his secretary, saying (other) urgent business had called him back to L.A. and he would contact me shortly because my article was the most important thing ever published and absolutely had to be a movie.  

I am still waiting to hear from him.

And then there was my first book, First Do No Harm, which was about the three years I spent observing the workings of a medical ethics committee at a hospital in Houston. This time, the project got as far as an option agreement with a respected producer, who hired a moderately big-deal screenwriter, who took my book — which was filled with dying children, grieving parents, conflicted doctors — and turned it into a script that opened with a naked woman running through a Texas garden in the rain. (That would be the chair of my medical ethics committee, who I assure you stayed completely clothed in every scene of my book…)

You’ll be surprised to hear that project got no further than the first draft.  

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Lisa Belkin on the set of HBO’s Hero, which was adapted from her book

After a while, I just came to assume the flattering calls would lead to nothing but a good anecdote at dinner parties, and I’d periodically find myself flipping through TV channels marveling that they were filled with anything at all, because from where I sat absolutely nothing ever got made.

So when my book-to-film agent, Sylvie Rabineau, called me late in 2001 about some interest in Show Me a Hero, my book about the fight over housing desegregation in Yonkers, I mean it when I say I wasn’t paying much attention. The book had been out for three years by then. Like so much else I wrote, it was complex, untidy, and more than a little depressing. So Sylvie talked, and I half-listened. “Gail someone,” she said. “HBO something something. Wants to buy the project for David someone.

“Want me to talk to them further?” she asked.  

I think I remember feeling a little bad that Sylvie was wasting her time on yet another project that would go nowhere. I also remember wondering how book-to-film agents made a living since nothing ever got made.

“Why not?” I said.

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Belkin on set with executive producer/writer David Simon 

Over the next few months, Sylvie called periodically, chatting about David, and Gail, and HBO. I knew what HBO was, of course — though back then it was not yet the powerhouse of original content it would become — but we were well past the point where I could admit I had no idea whom she meant by Gail and David. Then one spring day, she announced there was an offer, one she thought I should probably accept, and soon after that a contract, one she thought I should probably sign.

Then… someone else called.

“Hi Lisa,” he said when I answered the phone. “This is David Simon.”

I reacted with complete nonchalance.

“DAVID SIMON!!!!! THE DAVID SIMON????” I screamed into the phone. “David Simon who wrote The Corner????? David Simon from Homicide??? THAT David Simon????”

“Lisa,” he said, less frightened than I would have been by the blathering on the other end of the line. “Didn’t your agent TALK to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “But I wasn’t listening.”

Back in 2002, David Simon was the author of two books that he’d brought to TV, remaking himself from writer to producer. He was every journalist’s hero, having navigated his way across the divide, telling messy, complicated, real stories on flat, simple screens. And Gail Mutrux was a producer — of Rainman, Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco, and, most importantly to this tale, Homicide: Life on the Street, which was David’s first series. It was Gail who’d read Show Me a Hero, I would later learn, then passed it along to David. Together they’d proposed it as a six-part miniseries for HBO.

I began paying a lot more attention.

And so began a 13-year-long dance. First David came to Yonkers with his writing partner, Bill Zorzi, who had left his editing job at the Baltimore Sun to work on this project full-time. Together and separately, with me and on their own, they made the rounds of Yonkers, seeing how lives had, and had not, changed. Then we sporadically kept in touch. They became distracted for a while by David’s next series, a small masterpiece called The Wire, which premiered soon after our first phone call in 2002 and ran for five seasons. There was also Generation Kill, which David filmed in Africa during six months in 2007, and Treme, an ode to New Orleans after Katrina, which ran on HBO from 2010 to 2013. I kept my day job — from The New York Times, to the Huffington Post, to here at Yahoo News — and read about most of these developments from Google alerts and from the dispatches I would receive from David and Bill every year or so: A question here. A “we’re still working on it” there.

Every so often during these updates, David would declare, as he had from the start, that Show Me a Hero, the miniseries, would eventually air. Not because public housing policy was a natural subject for television — he was quite clear it was NOT, which, I think, was part of the reason he took it on — but because I’d been smart enough to write a book without a lot of expensive battle scenes or historical costumes. (Of course with each year that passed, 1988, the year much of the action took place, became more of a period piece.) Whenever he said this, I considered his prediction carefully and decided it had to be wrong, because, after all, nothing ever actually gets made. Still, it was nice to tuck the project, and the possibility, into the back pocket of my life.

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Isaac, center, as beleaguered mayor Nick Wasicsko

Then, in the spring of 2014, I started getting quiet word that HBO had given Show Me a Hero the greenlight. A hint from Sylvie that things were “looking good.” An email from David, subject line “Congrats,” with a one-line message to “keep this under your hat” until everything was official. So I kept very quiet, partly because I’d promised, but mostly because of the jinx factor. And there was always the possibility that when I saw the final script it would open with naked women in rainy gardens arguing about where to locate new townhouses.

Over the next month or two, most of my updates came indirectly and electronically. A Broadway actress whose work I knew and admired sent me a note on Facebook saying she was reading for a key part in two days and was having a heck of a time finding a copy of the book since it was essentially out of print. Would I mind jumping on a call to describe the character to her more fully? I jumped. She didn’t get the role.

Next, an instant message, also on Facebook, from the niece of another of my central characters, named Mary Dorman. “Are you the Lisa Belkin author of Show Me a Hero?” she asked. Mary’s husband, Buddy, had recently passed away and “I have been helping my cousin clean her house and it prompted me to revisit your book,” she wrote. “I cannot put it down.”

I remembered the warning not to blab, but I really did want to let Mary’s family know the news. “I am re-reading my own book right now,” I answered carefully, “because HBO is probably going to make it into a miniseries and I figured I should remember what it said.” Since that was a sentence that could have been true anytime in the past ten years, I figured it didn’t really count as spilling the beans.

“HBO is definitely making a miniseries,” she wrote back seconds later. “The location manager just came to the house when I was helping my cousin and said they would start filming in the fall. They may use the house.”

Apparently, I was the only one in town with a hat to keep news under.  

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Director Paul Haggis, seated, looks on with the cast and crew

Another email from David brought word that Paul Haggis (Crash! Million Dollar Baby!) was directing and Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis! Drive! Just signed to star in Star Wars!) would be starring as the beleaguered mayor, Nick Wasicsko. A few weeks after that, while I was getting my hair cut and checking my phone there was a message from Bill saying “It’s official,” with links to the announcement stories on the websites for Deadline and Variety. Over the next few weeks my Show Me a Hero Google alerts brought news of more inspired casting: Winona Ryder as city council president Vinni Restiano; Jim Belushi as former mayor Angelo Martinelli; Jon Bernthal as NAACP lawyer Michael Sussman; Bob Balaban as Judge Sand; Alfred Molina as the combative Hank Spallone; Peter Riegart as architect Oscar Newman; LaTanya Richardson as public housing resident Norma O’Neal.  

By now I was paying full attention to every word.  

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Ryder as city council president Vinni Restiano

On October 1, 2014, twelve-and-a-half years after my first phone call with David, filming began on the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero at the actual Schlobohm housing project in Yonkers where much of my reporting took place. I was out of town that first day, but appeared on Day 2, and then I showed up once a week or so during the 73-day shoot.

At some point during most of my visits, someone on the crew would ask me, “Are you bored yet?” I know what they meant — there is tedium and repetition to filming a scene, as actors recite the same words again and again while the cameras come at them from different angles. But how could I ever be bored? With every take I saw past, present, and future. I knew how many hours/months of research went into how many paragraphs/pages of my book, and from that I saw how David, Bill, and Paul transformed those months, and those pages, into a quick visual brush-stroke of camera or script. I watched the actors in front of me, and, like an apparition, I also watched the real person who’d lived the actual moment. Then I projected forward to the day when their stories, which I’d been trusted with so long ago, would be seen by a wider world. That, after all, had always been the entire point — the telling of these stories to anyone who might want to listen.

Definitely not boring.

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Belkin watches Jim Belushi as former mayor Angelo Martinelli

And what was my role during all of this? Technically my title was Consultant, but I took to saying, “My job is to stand in the corner and vibrate quietly with happiness.” Quietly does not come naturally to me, and I suspect that a few of the producers would be surprised to hear that what they saw during the five months of filming was my very best effort to stay out of the way and keep my opinions to myself. But truly I tried. And basically it was easy. I know that some writers have nightmare tales of watching their book morph into another medium (it was John Le Carre who said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes”), and this experience could have been very different if there had been naked women and rainy gardens in the shooting script. But the HBO gods blessed me with a team that felt its mission was to make compelling drama out of fact. The result was a shoot infused by a feeling of respect for the past, and a constant awareness that these were not just stories, but lives.  

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Belkin on set

The graffiti on the walls during the Schlobohm scenes had been painted by an artist whose PhD was in the graffiti styles of the 1980s. (Yes, there is such a specialty.) Many of the extras in the near riot scenes in Yonkers’s City Hall (filmed in the actual City Hall) were protesters at the original meetings. The purse that Catherine Keener carried, and the Immaculate Mary medal around her neck, were replicas of ones that belonged to Mary Dorman, on loan from Mary’s daughter. The wedding gown worn by the character Nay Wasicsko (played by Carla Quevedo) was a re-creation of Nay’s actual gown, which she drove over to the costume department, still boxed and preserved. Carla wore the same scent, Angel by Thierry Mugler for Women, that Nay favored during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

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Isaac with Carla Quevedo, as Nay Wasicsko

That fact — that there were real people stepping out from the past to inform the present, watching the filming, lending their memorabilia and their memories — is, I think, what ultimately gives the miniseries its presence and power. It was also what made it a joy and a privilege to watch as a writer. Even more than the locations, and the jewelry, and the era-appropriate graffiti, it was the presence of those who lived the story, and the respect given to them by those who were filming, that elevated every frame of this shoot.

In the same way, the story is also enhanced by the modern moment during which it was filmed. Everyone on the project was keenly aware that the message of Show Me a Hero is more resonant today than it had been when I first wrote the book. The five-month shoot last fall and winter took place against the backdrop of a nation still struggling with all the questions raised years ago in Yonkers. Questions of race, and community. Of whether you have to turn around and face past wrongs before you can move forward and overcome them.

While we were filming, the city of Ferguson, Missouri — where a mostly African-American population was governed by a mostly white City Council — was exploding in protest. And as the final edits were being made, it was David Simon’s beloved Baltimore that was burning.  

Which makes the lessons of Yonkers not just history, but prologue, not a discrete chapter but a part of a continuum, with lessons that resonate through the decades. As one former politician, Jim Surdoval, was quoted as saying in the local paper when filming first began: “Obviously the underlying issue was race, and we see that playing out today in Missouri. It’s a discussion that the country still needs to have, and hopefully this miniseries will further provoke that conversation.”

This time we should all be paying attention.

Show Me a Hero airs Aug. 16, Aug. 23, and Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

This is an excerpt from the new paperback edition of Belkin’s book, which will be available on Kindle Aug. 18 and in stores Sept 1.