The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Abrams’s new book, All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, which is now available. In the oral history below, the creators and stars of The Wire explain how they wrote and filmed one of the show’s most famous moments, a sequence from the season-one episode “Old Cases” known simply to fans as the “fuck” scene.
The Wire allowed its audience space to interpret. It would not fully explain scenes, instead leaving viewers pondering the meaning of them for episodes, and sometimes seasons, at a time. One early moment hammered that methodology home. In real life, Ed Burns and Harry Edgerton had worked the murder of Dessera Press, who had been dumped by one of Williams’s lieutenants, Louis “Cookie” Savage. In retaliation, she had threatened to turn Savage into the state’s attorney. A gunman killed her, firing from outside a glass window. Through that case, Burns and Edgerton unearthed Savage’s connection to Melvin Williams. In a storyline that recalled Press’s killing, Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland visit the apartment of a murdered young woman in Episode 4. They quickly discover that the previous detective bungled the investigation, and they slowly and methodically retrace the murder and link it to Avon Barksdale’s conspirators. Television had never seen anything quite like it. McNulty and Bunk conversed in the nearly five-minute scene by using only iterations of the word fuck. Simon credits the scene as an ode to Terry McLarney, a detective sergeant and a fixture in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
DAVID SIMON (CREATOR): We’re standing at a crime scene. We’re staring, and cops are just cursing left and right. Somebody said something that was so profanity laden that Terry McLarney just started giggling and saying, “One day we’re going to get to the point where we’re all going to be able to just use the word fuck to communicate.” And it was just a throwaway line for Terry, but I remembered it. So, I came to Ed with it, and then Ed wrote that scene.
ED BURNS (CO-CREATOR): Terry is an amazing guy. He might even still be on the force. He was telling David, basically, these homicide things are so matter-of-fact, it just becomes a matter of grunts. I wrote it, and I used four variations of the word fuck: “What the fuck? Oh, fuck. Fucked up.” But just four, and the actors were uncomfortable with the four lines, so then he was like, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” and I asked the director, “Just give me the one. Get them to do the fucking job that they’re being paid for,” and I went to them and I said, “We need the one.” It turns out that David used the “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” which, to me, is like, wait a minute, the scene is about this harmony of doing an investigation and they’re so used to it. But we ended up with the “Fuck, fuck, fuck” because it was a little bit, apparently, more fun. I didn’t particularly see it that way, but it was fine.
WENDELL PIERCE (DET. WILLIAM “BUNK” MORELAND): David comes up to us and describes a scene. He says, “You’re going to go to the scene. You’re going to realize that [the previous] detective, he did a bad job. Wendell, you’re going to see the photos of the girl. Dominic, you’re going to start getting the stats, looking at what the report was. Going back over, you’re going to realize it’s impossible to have gone down the way it was reported, because the guy would have to be like eight feet tall to get that trajectory. If he did, then something must be left in here, and you’re looking for any evidence that may be around, and Wendell, you discover that there’s a shot through the window. The glass is on the inside. It means it came from the outside. That means whoever the perpetrator was wasn’t inside, like the person they say in the report. The bullet came from outside. From there, let’s see the trajectory. It would be right here, in the refrigerator. Let’s see, not the wall. In the refrigerator, we find the bullet here. Let’s go outside, make a new discovery.” He explained the whole scene to us. He said, “Now you guys are going to do that whole thing, but they’re going to be on me about the profanity and language that we use.” So, I said, “Let’s just come out the box with it.” He said, “You’re going to do that whole scene, but the only word you can say is ‘fuck.’” I said, “What?”
CLEMENT VIRGO (DIRECTOR): I wanted to really let the audience in and know exactly what was happening visually. It took a long time to shoot that scene, but I wanted to get it right. I wanted it to be kind of like the shower scene in Psycho, where it was a lot of setups. The story was told visually, and so I was very detailed in shooting that scene. I remember our cinematographer, Uta, shot the whole thing—we shot the whole thing handheld—and I remember looking over at her, and she was wiped out from holding the camera for a long time. I really wanted to get all the kind of little details, and I wanted the audience to not have any mystery about what was happening in the story.
WENDELL PIERCE (DET. WILLIAM “BUNK” MORELAND): I think it’s an example of one of the best displays of my acting in the whole series. I tell folks, “Study that if you want to study what intent is,” because everyone understood exactly what we were doing at every moment, even though we were using just that one word or [a] variation thereof. That was one of the best-acted scenes that I did on the show. The one thing they cut out that I regret is we said, “Fuck. Fuck me. Mother fuck. Fuckity fuck,” all of that. Then we were [being] watched the whole time by the super. “Fuck. Motherfucker. Fuck.” We go outside and we find the casing, and the super says, “Well, I’ll be fucked.” They cut that out, though. I was like, “Oh, man, they should have left that in.”
DOMINIC WEST (DET. JIMMY MCNULTY): Every time someone said, “Cut,” we were crying with laughter, Wendell and me, because it was really fun to do. It would get outrageous, sort of go, “Fuckkk,” and “Fuuuckkk,” most of which hit the cutting room floor, thank goodness, but it was just the most ludicrous varieties of saying “fuck” that we could think of.
Reprinted from All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire® Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Abrams. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.