FX explores the crack cocaine epidemic that gripped LA in the 1980s in period drama Snowfall. DQ chats to showrunner Dave Andron about the series, which he describes as a “love letter” to the city.
A storm is coming – but from the opening frames of Snowfall, it’s hard to see from which direction. There’s not a cloud in the LA sky as the camera pans up and down a South Central street lined on both sides by perfect palm trees. A sprinkler is soaking one front lawn as an ice cream truck arrives to the excitement of children playing basketball outside their homes.
It’s here that viewers meet Franklin Saint, played by Damson Idris (pictured above), who chastises two kids for stealing ice creams and preaches to his mocking friends that crime “isn’t how America works.”
What he doesn’t know is that he and numerous other characters will be pulled onto a violent collision course with one another as, here in 1983, a crack cocaine epidemic takes hold of the city and ultimately has a radical impact on society and culture.
Facing Franklin, described as a young street entrepreneur on a quest for power, are Gustavo ‘El Oso’ Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler caught up in a power struggle within a crime family; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA operative running from a dark past who begins an off-book operation to fund right-wing militants the Nicaraguan Contras; and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the self-possessed daughter of a Mexican crime lord.
Created for US cable network FX by John Singleton, Eric Amadio and showrunner Dave Andron, Snowfall is executive produced by the trio alongside Thomas Schlamme, Michael London and Trevor Engelson. The FX Productions show is distributed by 20th Century Fox Television Distribution.
“I’d never seen anything before on TV that came in right before crack hit,” says Andron about the appeal of running the show, which debuts in the US on July 5. “Everything always starts when you’re in the war on drugs and there’s bars on the windows and South Central is a war zone. So I was very interested in exploring the moment right before crack hit, when it was just cocaine [on the streets] and South Central was this working-class neighbourhood that wasn’t the place everyone thinks of when they hear of Compton now. That I found fascinating.
“Then to be able to simultaneously touch on the CIA’s role and whatever part they played in the war on drugs, it just felt big. It has scope but it’s also really entertaining.”
Andron has a long relationship with FX, having written for western drama Justified until it ended in 2015. He later received a call from the network asking him if he would take a look at a script they liked but thought needed a rewrite. That script was the pilot of Snowfall, penned by Amadio and Simpleton, who had previously worked in movies but had no experience in television.
“So much of it was wonderful, it just needed some tweaks to get it to that final place,” Andron recalls. “They were thinking of it as a one-off, they both had done some movie stuff, but it needed to fit more into a format for a TV show.
“The world of Franklin had enough intrigue and drama and the character was set up. [The changes were] really about the CIA story – it needed to feel bigger, more global. Then we gave Teddy a little more mystery, a little backstory and made him somebody you were rooting for a little more. And it was the same for the Gustavo story. Weirdly, that actually needed to be simplified. It was a little over-complicated for the pilot. There were too many characters. And I just wanted there to be more of a sense of suspense and intrigue coming out of his storyline.”
Boyz n the Hood director Singleton’s experience growing up in South Central provided much of the authenticity the series demanded, while Snowfall also employed a CIA consultant and worked with a former member of a Latino gang. Their knowledge helped to flesh out the 10-episode season, which, like the pilot, was shaped by Andron based on Singleton and Amadio’s initial outlines.
“They had some broad-stroke ideas they wanted to get to but the CIA and Mexican-American storylines changed so much after I came in. Those things I had pretty specific ideas on,” the showrunner explains. “I put together a [writers] room and as a group we figured out where those ideas were going to go. John, having this real-world experience, had some notions of where he’d like to see certain things go [in Franklin’s story] but, frankly, once we all came together, it was a hive model. It was really a group effort to figure out the season.”
In his first showrunner role, Andron is quick to praise the show’s producing director, Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), describing him more as a “co-showrunner” who was an “incredible, invaluable part of the process for me and somebody who I could completely rely on.”
Andron also drew upon the time he spent working with Justified creator and showrunner Graham Yost, who is a champion of hierarchy-free writers rooms that allow writers to speak freely regardless of their credits or experience.
“If you were in the room, you deserved to be there and your voice was as important as the next guy’s voice,” Andron says. “I was really proud of the room we put together and how diverse it was. I really wanted everybody to be in there pitching in what felt like a safe environment – somewhere to really empower people.
“Running a show, there are so many things to do so you have to hire people you believe in and trust and let them do good work. Across the board, we were fortunate to have hired really well, from people in the room to our production heads. You’ve got to guide the ship and have an overarching view of where you want to go, but you let people do what they came to do – and everyone brought it. It was a wonderful experience.”
Looking at the broader genre of “drug dramas,” Andron holds up HBO classic The Wire as the “gold standard,” but says his ambition was to make Snowfall more fun, with a unique visual style and a script that was full of energy “so it didn’t feel like you were watching a documentary.”
So in an effort to make the show stand out from the almost 500 other dramas that will air in the US this year, FX suggested directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah helm the pilot. They had worked together on Belgian feature Black, a Romeo & Juliet-style story between members of black and Moroccan gangs in Brussels.
“It was just incredible; it had such visual style, such life and it was so cool,” Andron enthuses of the 2015 movie. “The emotion was there as well. These guys had never worked in the US studio system but we got on the phone with them and they are the most gregarious, wonderful young guys. Having Tommy there, I knew he could guide them through the process of making this pilot so they ended up meshing wonderfully with everything we had hoped it could be. It was a wonderful experience working with them.”
Snowfall began filming last autumn and the production utilised real locations across LA, from Beverly Hills and the Valley to East LA and South Central – one of the reasons Andron calls Snowfall a “kind of love letter to LA.” Subsequently, he also found himself on set more than he had anticipated, taking time just to observe Schlamme working with the pilot’s directors and noting how the characters evolved through production, allowing him to tweak later episodes to reflect the actors and the buzz on set.
The showrunner’s ambition for the series, however, proved to be his biggest hurdle as he tried to juggle three complex, tangled storylines and multiple locations into an eight-day filming schedule for each episode.
“At one point we had a draft of the seventh episode where it was a really ambitious Franklin story and we tried to have the other two storylines be similar in scope, but we just looked at it and said, ‘My God, there’s no way to get all this in,’” Andron recalls. “So we decided that seven is just a very Franklin episode, without giving too much away. That’s not uncommon in TV, as you always want it to be as big and as ambitious as possible but the reality of what you can do in eight days is inescapable.”
On the journey of Snowfall’s characters, the showrunner adds: “What you’re watching are these four people who are all really ambitious but heading into something they don’t quite understand yet. Going forward, we want to see what happens when crack really lands. We do bring crack in, of course, a little later in the first season, and then it’s about watching the transformation. People talk about the moment crack arrived as being like a bomb dropped on South Central, and we’re really going to go for that moment. The plan is to make a show that feels like it needs four or five seasons to examine what happened when it landed, how it happened, why it was allowed to happen and how we’re still feeling the ramifications of it today.”
For a network currently at the top of its game, with Fargo, The Americans and American Crime Story also on the slate, FX could have its next big hit with Snowfall. Looking from the creative side of the television business, Andron has no doubts over why it has become arguably the most prolific cable network in the US in terms of drama.
“It’s the amount of leeway and respect they afford you as a creative,” he says, noting that FX offers feedback with no expectation that it might be acted upon. “They really do approach notes in this way of, ‘This is just our opinion, take it or leave it, but this is what we’ve experienced so you might want to consider this.’ As anybody knows, receiving a note in that way means you’re so much more apt to take it than from somebody who’s like, ‘You need to do this.’
“They have great instincts, and it starts with [FX Networks president] John Landgraf. He’s a wonderful collaborator, a brilliant guy and he’s got great taste, and that trickles down to the people he hires, who follow his lead in the way they approach things. I’ve been at FX for almost eight years now and I’d be very happy being there another eight years if they’d have me.”