Episode 604: Shea Serrano on ‘Primo,’ Dennis Lehane, Walter Chaw on ‘The Warriors’

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A scene from 'Primo,' created by Shea Serrano
© Jeff Neumann/Amazon Freevee

Best-selling author Shea Serrano joins us to talk about his latest project – “Primo.” Also, Dennis Lehane talks about his novel, “Small Mercies.” It’s set against the Boston busing crisis of 1974. And Walter Chaw looks at the 1979 gangland film, “The Warriors.”

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  • Shea Serrano dramatizes his life for the original comedy series, 'Primo'

    When writer and pop culture imprimatur, Shea Serrano, discussed his best-selling book “Movies (And Other Things)” with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” the San Antonio native shared how growing up, the only movie he could recall that spoke to his Mexican American experience was the 1997 biopic, “Selena.”

    Now Serrano has a chance to add his own childhood story to that Mexican American representation with his new original Amazon Freevee comedy series, “Primo.”

    Shea returns to “BETA” to share why he wanted to add TV show creator to his growing list of accomplishments.

    “I had written a couple of books. I’ve been doing journalism for a while, and I was ready to try some new stuff,” he said. “So, I went to dinner with my wife, Larami. I was telling her I wanted to try to do a TV show. And then we just started talking about what that show could be. And we went back and forth on a few ideas. We both liked a version of a family in South San Antonio, and we just started talking our way through that until eventually we landed on what the idea for ‘Primo’ was.”

    That idea was loosely based off Shea’s formative years in the Alamo City. It follows the story and antics of the 16-year-old Rafa (the Shea stand-in played by Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) and his family. Rafa is being raised by his mom and five uncles all under the same roof.

    Shea ended up pitching the show to one of the preeminent TV comedy creators of recent memory, Michael Schur. Schur was a contributing force and cast member on NBC’s “The Office” and would go on to create fellow hits “Parks and Rec” and “The Good Place” for them as well.

    Turns out that during their meeting, it took Shea a moment to realize why Mike had posters for all those NBC shows hanging on the wall.

    “At the time, I didn’t really have a sense of who he was. He was just a name on a list that the agents were sending me all over LA to meet with” Serrano recalled. “I thought they were just TV shows that he liked in the way that I have movie posters that I like. And it was all the TV shows that he had made, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what an idiot I am. I had no idea.’”

    Short of causing his agents a momentary panic, Shea says the meeting with Mike went incredibly well.

    “We just sat there and chit-chatted it up for an hour. We maybe talked about the show for like 5 or 10 minutes, but mostly we talked about basketball and about being a dad and that sort of thing. But it was pretty clear we were getting along very effortlessly. So, as I was leaving, he was like, ‘Oh, hey, that idea you want to do, I’ll help you do it if you want to do it,’” Serrano said.

    How Schur helped was to take Shea under his wing. He taught him the ins and outs of successful comedy writing for TV.

    “He just baby stepped me through the whole process. Each time we would enter a new phase, he would just sit me down and go, ‘Here’s what that means and here’s how we get through it.’ He’s like a natural mentor,” Serrano said. “It’s really impressive when you talk to him. This is something that he just is good at doing.”

    Schur and Serrano eventually transformed Shea’s two paragraph pitch into a fully fleshed out vision.

    “The transition was really tricky. It’s difficult because I was so used to doing nonfiction writing,” Serrano said. “When you’re doing nonfiction writing, all the history has been established. A person does a thing and that thing makes sense because they have the history that leads up to it. You don’t have to worry about that part. When you’re writing fiction, you all of a sudden have to account for all of that. Like if a character is going to say a thing or react a certain way, there’s got to be a reason why. So you have to build all of that in place. Otherwise, it starts to feel disjointed or like it doesn’t make sense.”

    While Serrano used his family as a “general shape” for the characters, he said that the similarities pretty much stop there.

    I had decided pretty early on that I was not interested in doing a shot-for-shot remake of my life. So, once we had the characters in place, then it was just these are fictional characters now,” he said.

    Shea adds that this also allows the actors to embody and own the character as well. For instance, the role of Drea (Rafa’s mom) was built out from Shea’s mother’s personality, but then actor Christina Vidal took it from there.

    “My mom was this type of person. All right, great. We found Christina. She was perfect for it. And then you just write for what Christina is good at, which turns out is everything. And you just give her as much space as possible, and then she builds this incredible character,” he said.

    Christina Vidal as Drea on “Primo” Jeff Newumann/Amazon Freevee

    “Same with the other five uncles,” Serrano continued. “We have a general shape. We need one guy who’s going to be, like, really pragmatic and super interested in just working hard. OK, cool. That’s one of my uncles. And then another one should be the opposite of that. Just like free spirit sort of wandering the earth. OK, cool. And a wild man and the military guy and the social climber there, there.”

    Shea said that even with the space between them and their “Primo” counterparts, that his family was more than touched once they saw the final product at a private screening.

    “By the second episode, they’re all hooting and hollering and yelling at the TV screen, like we’re watching a basketball game. Then they all just said the nicest things about it. One or two of them start crying when they’re watching it. It was a really great experience seeing them watch the show. They were over the moon for it.”

    That was perhaps the most important focus group outcome possible for Shea.

    “I was really nervous before we started playing it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if they hate it? This is going to be terrible.’ Because mainly the whole reason I was doing the show was I wanted for them to watch it and then go, ‘Whoa, I had a profound impact on this kid’s life and in a very positive way.’ That’s what I wanted them to walk away from the show with,” he said.

    “Primo” is available to stream on Amazon Freevee.

  • Dennis Lehane purges his past in 'Small Mercies'

    In a 2003 interview on Fresh Air, novelist Dennis Lehane joined Terry Gross to discuss his best-selling novel, “Mystic River.” Lehane revealed that the main character arc of his Boston-based crime story was inspired by just a single line of dialogue.

    “I drove the whole book towards that line,” Lehane told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    The line, if you’re curious, was: “It occurred to him as he was shaving, that he was evil.”

    When asked if his new Southie saga, “Small Mercies” had a similar genesis, Lehane admits it did not.

    “With ‘Small Mercies,’ I just had her,” he said.

    The “her” Lehane is referring to is Mary Pat Fennessy. She’s unlike any other protagonist Lehane has created. Mary Pat is a single mom that is not only from Boston, she’s from Southie. Not only is she from Southie, she’s from a housing project in Southie.

    It’s like a Russian nesting doll of toughness.

    “I just saw this dynamo in my head. I had this picture of her. She’s even described as, you know, she came out of the womb looking like she was auditioning for the roller derby.”

    Lehane said Mary Pat was inspired by several women he knew growing up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston during the ’70s.

    “These were women who literally could go toe-to-toe in a fist fight with a man. They might not win, but they would certainly hold their own for a little bit. And they were all chain smokers. They were all foul-mouthed. They were all usually alcoholics, functioning alcoholics,” Lehane said.

    “As time went on, I began to realize that these types of women had an inherent sadness at their core. You don’t get to be that tough unless your life is that tough, unless poverty’s been grinding you down, unless there’s, you know, significant abuse, whether it’s from a husband or from a father. And I feel I wanted to pay tribute to that type of person,” he said.

    Lehane doesn’t gloss over the faults of these types of women, either. “Small Mercies” is set at the tail end of summer in 1974 during the Boston bussing riots, where forced school desegregation led to severe protests and a racially ugly upheaval.

    “I would have found it almost impossible to believe that Mary Pat wasn’t a racist. And so, I start the book with her in a bit of denial about it. But, gradually that’s the journey of the book as she comes to understand how pervasive her racism is and how she passed it down as a destructive legacy to the people she loves,” Lehane said.

    Lehane was 9 during the bussing riots and states that he had a front row seat for the “cataclysmic event” that surfaced an underlying and unidentified rage in him once he began writing this novel.

    “Here you are, and you’re looking at somebody who you admire, you like, maybe you love, and the good people with good hearts and yet what this event did was scratch at a part of them, which was a virulent, virulent racism that you might not have been privy to otherwise and once it came out of the box, it wasn’t going back in for a very long time,” he said.

    Lehane said that writing this book wasn’t necessarily therapeutic, but it helped him identify the source of that dormant rage.

    “I had a just a wellspring of anger in me. And it certainly wasn’t from my parents who were quite loving and protective, and it wasn’t from any trauma in my childhood that I could point to. But then, when I started to write this book, I began to go, ‘Oh my God, I’m angry. I’m extremely angry for that kid,’” he said.

    “It felt as if how could you align with somebody who was OK with people who threw rocks at busses filled with children. How can you make sense of that when you’re 9 years old? Maybe some 9-year-olds can, but I sure couldn’t.”

    “Small Mercies” captures that racial and historical tension with a raw and frank perspective. Lehane said that was due to a heavy amount of research and sourcing detail. He leaned a lot on the pictures of Eugene Richards, who documented much of the unrest. One of Richards’ photos graces the cover of the book.

    “He was the sort of war photographer of the bussing crisis. He took everything, took so many pictures. And there’s no hiding from what he shot. The graffiti, the signs in the windows. It was horrific,” Lehane said. “It did feel like I was aware that maybe people would try to push back and rewrite history with this book and say, ‘It wasn’t like that. It’s being overdramatized’ or whatever. So, I sourced everything.”

    The story opens late in the summer with Mary Pat and her daughter Jules grappling with the city’s decision to send Jules to one of the newly integrated schools in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Mary Pat is involved with a women’s group protesting the move, but it’s being ghost-led by the neighborhood’s Irish mob.

    Then, Jules doesn’t return home one evening. It’s the same night that a young Black man has been murdered in their white neighborhood. As Mary Pat sets out to find her missing daughter, she discovers more about who Jules was with the night she went missing and unveils who might really be behind both incidents. She begins to receive both help and warnings from her neighbors.

    Readers familiar with Lehane’s past work will no doubt see some echoes with the distraught parent hunting a missing child and of course, the south Boston setting. But it’s this tension of the neighborhood as both friend and foe, savior and threat that is the true through line in his work.

    “I write about tribalism. I think I’ve been writing about tribalism consistently since my first book,” he said. “Tribalism, when it exists to survive, is a good thing. Every immigrant culture does it. But when tribalism continues past the point of its usefulness, once that tribe is kind of safe and entrenched, then it becomes a very ugly thing. And I think the ugly aspects of it are what I explore in this book, I think more than any other book I wrote.”

    Like much of Lehane’s work, “Small Mercies” is already slated for an adaptation for Apple TV. Lehane himself will serve as showrunner. Past that, the author said that any novel that comes next will only be there once the inspiration strikes.

    “‘Small Mercies’ came out of the place my earliest work did, which was a very pure place of ‘I need to tell this story.’ It has to come out. And that’s where I always want to write novels from, from this point forward,” he said. “So, if I need to write another novel, if I feel it possess me, then I’m going right in writing a novel because I love writing novels. But if I don’t and I’m just going to continue making fun quality television, then that’s what I’ll do, too.”

  • Walter on Walter: Film critic Walter Chaw on Walter Hill's 'The Warriors'

    Walter Chaw is the senior film critic for FilmFreakCentral.net. His work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, LA Weekly, Vulture and Criterion. Chaw also contributed a powerful video essay to an episode of David Fincher and David Prior‘s Netflix docuseries VOIR.

    Chaw is now headlining a recurring series for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA,” It’s called ‘Walter on Walter’ and focuses on the films of the legendary director, Walter Hill. If you missed the debut episode, here it is for your listening enjoyment.

    cover of Walter Chaw's book 'A Walter Hill Film' from MZS Press

    Chaw is the author of the definitive critical study of Walter Hill’s career — “A Walter Hill Film: Tragedy and Masculinity in the films of Walter Hill.” The book is available through film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s MZS Press.

    Chaw met with Hill at his home in Hollywood Hills and said the legendary director was beyond accommodating in Chaw’s pursuit to write a book about his work.

    “He is nothing but gracious. He’s a really great kind human being,” Chaw said. “He invited me into his home, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve been warned about you. You’re the guy that didn’t like ‘The Long Riders.’”

    Chaw recalled telling Hill that despite not remembering his review of the film, the film itself stuck with him: “I said … ‘I do know that your films linger with me whether I like them or not initially. And I always wonder about that reaction to any kind of art. I always want to go interrogate why it is something that sticks with me or not.”

    The two Walters spent the afternoon chatting and before their meeting was over, Hill pulled out a bottle of champagne to make the work ahead official.

    As for Hill’s body of work, Chaw said there’s something about his films that makes Americans uncomfortable.

    “I think that he really pushes that pleasure button a lot,” Chaw said. “We’re very fond as a culture of the term ‘guilty pleasure.’ And I think a lot of his movies fall into that category. I think that pleasure should be guilt-free. If you love something, then love it and then interrogate why you love it.”

    “There’s something to his movies that’s more than just a throwaway disposable entertainment if there is such a thing,” Chaw continued. “And that’s what I think makes Americans uncomfortable.”

    Hill’s 1979 film, “The Warriors,” was a low-budget film with a short 30-day shooting schedule.

    “They had to pay off real gangs for the right to go through their territories,” Chaw said. “They hired them on as extras in the big conclave sequence in the first half of the movie. Those are actual gang members. They were all very happy to be there with their colors and to show that they were there.”

    That added an authenticity to the film that wouldn’t have been found otherwise, Chaw said.

    There’s one scene in the movie in which one of the characters delivers a speech to hundreds of gang members.

    “They had to wrangle all of these extras. And so after the speech and the leader is killed, there’s panic,” Chaw explained.

    “The assistant director said, ‘OK, this route clockwise, this row, counterclockwise, clockwise, counterclockwise.’ And he counted up all the tiers of these young men. And so everybody ran in the direction that they were instructed to run in. And when you look back, it looks just like chaos rather than kind of this organized clockwork plan.”

    Chaw called it something akin to a “beautifully choreographed” musical like “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Oklahoma!

    “You see the person that you’re supposed to be with across a crowded thoroughfare and the song breaks out. And in the instance of ‘The Warriors,’ a fight breaks out,” Chaw said. “There’s the element of this throb of life that goes through his movies that reminded me a lot of the great MGM musicals — the great Technicolor spectacles.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Tyler Ditter Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Shea Serrano Guest
  • Dennis Lehane Guest
  • Walter Chaw Guest

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