It’s Friday afternoon in The Clarence and Tom Fontana is talking murder again. A guest of the Irish Playwrights’ and Screenwriters’ Guild, the former Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz scribe has just spoken to a select audience on the pratfalls of network television for the guts of 90 minutes. Most would appreciate a break, all he wants is a drink. Cut to the bar and he’s sipping on Kentucky bourbon and getting into the specifics of the shows that have haunted the imagination of many’s the viewer. Oft spoken about in hushed tones, Oz remains the hardest show in television; pushing envelopes more suited to grindhouse cinema than prison opera, it boasts a cast of perverts, sociopaths and bungling ideologues. On the other side of the thin blue line, his other collaboration with Barry Levinson, Homicide: Life on the Street, proved cop shows could be smart, funny and taut without relying on car chases or gunplay. He also likes YouTube… in principle.
Niall: One of the things that set Homicide apart as a cop show was its obsession with the macabre. To what extent was this a deliberate move on your part?
Tom: As a writer I face a blank piece of paper every day; that’s a beast I have to wrestle. A homicide detective has to face a dead body. You have to wonder, over the course of time, how does that corrupt – spiritually, morally, emotionally – a human being whose job it is face death and often brutally disfigured bodies every day. A lot of the work I do is descended from Poe, because no one has managed to conjure up the macabre better. Also the fact that Poe is buried in Baltimore was a big part of that. I find those kind of ghosts to be very compelling. If you’re going to write about a city you need to know as much about the ghosts of that place as the living.
Was Baltimore a place you were interested in before doing Homicide?
I was brought there kicking and screaming from New York, but I fell in love with the place and we did everything we could to make the city a character in the show. We wrote the show uniquely to Baltimore, but the things that are specific to there have comparable details in every city anywhere in the world. In Baltimore you get crab cakes, in Buffalo you get chicken wings – it’s the same thing. By being specific to Baltimore we were able to say it’s just a town like any other.
The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.