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LSU Screenwriting Professor Writes for HBO’s “Treme”

People along the Gulf Coast have had their share of recent manmade and natural disasters to contend with, from oil spills to hurricanes, and from those trials, both heartbreaking and inspiring stories have emerged.

Last April, a new series began on HBO, which zoomed in on one microcosm of destruction surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Named after one of the oldest and most historically significant neighborhoods in New Orleans, “Treme” began its story months after the city’s levees broke and loosely chronicled events from 2005-06. Creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer wove the uniqueness of New Orleans and South Louisiana culture into a universal narrative of loss, grief, hope and resilience. After the first episode, HBO quickly renewed the series for a second season to be set in 2006-07. Through blogs and conversations, many New Orleanians proclaimed “Treme” the most realistic film/TV depiction of life in the Crescent City, albeit at the worst time in its history, and saw the show as not only an opportunity for catharsis, but as a way to help the viewing world understand, to some extent, life after devastation.

Associate Professor of English and New Orleans resident Mari Kornhauser was in her first semester teaching screenwriting at LSU when Katrina struck in fall 2005.

“At that point, I kind of lost interest in fiction film making because I was in New Orleans when it happened and it just changes your life perspective,” said Kornhauser. “I just felt my services were needed elsewhere—teaching, rebuilding, defending New Orleans—so I dropped the [independent film] project I was doing and primarily focused on teaching and getting used to LSU.”

Slowly, Kornhauser began to take on small side projects and when “Treme” aired in spring 2010, she became a regular viewer. As a friend of Overmyer and fan of Simon’s previous shows like “The Wire,” Kornhauser often bumped into them at events around New Orleans and was sometimes asked to give feedback about the show. Then, during a Jazz Fest-inspired brunch with Overmyer, she was asked if she had ever thought of writing for television and, by extension, “Treme.” After an enthusiastic yes, Kornhauser found herself on a list of potential "Treme" writers for the second season. An interview with Executive Producers Overmyer, Simon and Nina Noble followed months later and Kornhauser was offered the job. She welcomed the opportunity to write about a city she loved while working with writers she had long admired.

Treme video courtesy of HBO

“My writing is very connected to my sense of place,” said Kornhauser. “It was very interesting for me, for my own personal psychology, to go back and look at it with some distance [after Katrina] and explore a new sense of place when I was doing research for ‘Treme.’” 

Kornhauser had written scripts for three feature films, released worldwide, and worked on numerous other projects, but had never written for television. In meetings, during script revisions, and on the set, she soaked up as much knowledge as she could.

“I am so in awe of people who do television now because it’s like doing an 11-hour feature,” she said. “In my humble opinion, I’m working for some of the best writers in television, so I’m learning from the best.”

In addition to being a staff writer, Kornhauser wrote the teleplay and shares a story credit with Simon for episode five. Working on “Treme” has not only afforded her a learning experience, it has enabled her to share a new realm of knowledge with her students, a credit she shares with Department of English Chair Rick Moreland and College of Humanities & Social Sciences Dean Gaines Foster.

“They were so supportive to allow me the opportunity to still teach and do the show,” she said. “I really couldn’t have done it without them and the support of LSU.”

A graduate of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television, Kornhauser believes LSU’s writing programs can stand alongside the top schools in the country.

Kornhauser hopes to continue work on “Treme” next season, but for now, she’s happy to see season two come to life on TV screens around the world.

To learn more about LSU programs, visit the related links below. To hear Kornhauser’s tips for writers, an LSU YouTube exclusive, visit www.youtube.com/LSU.

Season one of “Treme” is currently available on DVD. Season two begins this Sunday, April 24, on HBO.

Video by University Relations/Frank Bourgeois. “Treme” footage courtesy of HBO.