Several weeks ago, my friend Gary Bond with the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau called and asked if we were still looking for panelists.
“Well, we’re pretty set, but who did you have in mind?” “Oh, my buddy Jorge Zamacona. He lives in New York, but he loves Austin.” Are you kidding me? Jorge Zamacona? Creator of “Wanted” and staff writer on “Homicide: Life on the Street”? Did Gary know that we had just announced as our Outstanding TV Writer Award recipient David Simon who, in addition to creating “The Wire” and “Treme”, had also brought “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” to the screen from the book, which he also wrote?
Yes, please. We would very much like to have Jorge Zamacona join us as a panelist.
A little bit more about Jorge: After graduating from California State University-Northridge Magna Cum Laude in 1983 with a degree in TV/Film Writing and Production, Jorge was hired by Mary Tyler Moore (MTM) Enterprises and began his writing career on the NBC series “St. Elsewhere.” Since then Jorge has built his career and become a successful Showrunner/Executive Producer of many respected and well known television series. Please check out all his impressive and lengthy credits here. Jorge is creator/writer of “Wanted” and “10-8: Officers on Duty”, was a staff writer on “Homicide: Life on the Street” (22 episodes!), consulting producer/writer on ABC’s “The Unusuals”, and is currently a Consulting Producer on the NBC-UNIVERSAL Television produced series “Outlaw” airing this fall on NBC.
He generously agreed to answer a few questions for us below. We know you’ll have many more, so be sure and check out his panels this October 21-24!
AFF: You did a lot of work on “Homicide: Life on the Street” – the series based on David Simon’s non-fiction novel Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. How important was the source material to your contribution to the series?
JZ: The source material was critical to understanding the rhythm, texture, language and attitudes of not only the homicide detectives we were fictionalizing, but also the city of Baltimore itself. David’s book set the entire template of how to tell the stories. In fact I was in Baltimore for part of the shooting of the pilot and did some “cocktail” research with one of the detectives in the book. The book was our treasure map for the series.
AFF: How much research did you need to conduct in order to stay true to the reality of life on the streets in terms police procedures and mandates?
JZ: As I said, I/we/ the other writers spent some time in the company of Baltimore Homicide Detectives. They would keep us from writing “TV” versions of detectives. Authenticity was very important to us. We also had an active Baltimore Detective working as a tech advisor on series. He would read our drafts and then give us notes on procedure and language, etc.
AFF: You’ve written for many crime-based television shows. What attracts you to that particular genre?
JZ: I love the visceral nature of crime storytelling. I love the moral and legal ambiguities of the decisions that police, attorneys and judges have to make in order to achieve some measure of justice. But I like writing other genres as well and am developing action-comedy and character-based non-procedurals as well.
AFF: What initially attracted you to television writing? How did you break in?
JZ: My mother was a Madison, Wisconsin Public Librarian. So, from a very early age she was drowning me in books. I loved reading and then began writing – stories, songs, bad plays and short films – in my teens. I worked on a movie of the week that MTM came to Madison to shoot during my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. The producers told me that if I wanted to pursue this career, I should write and I should move. I moved to Los Angeles to finish film school and then interned at MTM my senior year. I was hired as production assistant on “St. Elsewhere” and there I met Tom Fontana and Bruce Paltrow…and started my career in earnest.
AFF: How and when does one get to make the jump to being a showrunner?
JZ: Experience. I was lucky enough to be tutored by Tom Fontana who was himself tutored by Bruce Paltrow. I did my time as a story editor, a producer and as an Co-Executive Producer (on “Millenium”)… when I left “Millennium” I sold my own show ideas, shot them, got them picked-up for series and summarily “show ran” them. It takes some time and experience to effectively run a show. The job involves hiring the staff, the directors, casting, scripts, editing, budgeting, dealing with the studio and network, etc. Some writers who sell an idea and have it advance to series will get the title of Executive Producer but they will lack the showrunning experience. In those cases seasoned Executive Producers will be hired to partner that person in order to get the show up and running.
AFF: What are you working on now?
JZ: I am currently a Consulting Producer on “Outlaw.” Consulting means I am part-time (sort of) in order that I may continue to develop my own projects. A latitude that I would not be afforded if I were full-time. The show will air this fall on Friday nights at 10:00 pm on NBC (the old “Homicide” time slot) and stars Jimmy Smits as a former Supreme Court Justice who retires the bench in order to become a defense attorney.
AFF: Anyone in particular you’re looking forward to meeting or seeing at the Austin Film Festival this October?
JZ: It will be great to see David … and any and all bartenders.