‘City on a Hill’ creator Chuck MacLean knows all about the local flavor
NEW YORK — Chuck MacLean isn’t the kind of guy who pulls punches in his writing — or when the subject is himself. A self-described loudmouth and former “lunatic” from Quincy, he talks about raising hell in his teenage years — “getting in giant [expletive] brawls in the middle of downtown” and “running from the cops” as a student at Emerson College. Creator of the new Boston-set television series “City on a Hill,” which debuts Sunday on Showtime, MacLean says he’s mellowed over the years. But his eyes twinkle as he shares stories about trading insults and profane jokes with “City” producers Tom Fontana and Ben Affleck, battling with his grad school professors at USC, and getting fired after only a few weeks from his first post-college job, as an editorial assistant at the Patriot Ledger.
“I busted a joke on the first day there, and no one laughed. After that, I couldn’t do anything right,” MacLean says. “I was 21 years old and a [expletive] maniac. They were like, ‘You are way too much to handle and you’re way too loud.’ ” In an effort to “soften the blow,” MacLean says, the paper’s editor suggested he move to Los Angeles and pursue his dream of writing movies.
Several years later, after one of his scripts, “Bridges on the Fort Point Channel,” ended up on the 2011 edition of the prestigious Black List, a survey of Hollywood executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays, he e-mailed the news to his former editor with a sly note: “Thanks for the advice.” He never heard back.
Now MacLean, who grew up in Quincy and Plymouth, has finally had his breakthrough, thanks to “City on a Hill,” which explores the intersection of crime, law enforcement, and public corruption in Boston, and the changing face of the city in the early ’90s. MacLean’s triumph comes after years of toiling in Hollywood as a screenwriter-for-hire — and watching his script for “Boston Strangler,” with Casey Affleck set to star, get shelved at Warner Brothers, despite landing on the Black List in 2014.
“If you don’t want to lose your mind as a writer working in this industry, you have to take the small victories where they come,” says MacLean, 33, during a conversation at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, home base for the series (the pilot and parts of a later episode were filmed in the Boston area). “I’ve always had that ‘one-foot-in-front-of-the-other’ thing. I just focus on what I can control.”
“City on a Hill” stars Kevin Bacon as Jackie Rohr, a corrupt, fast-talking veteran FBI agent, and Aldis Hodge as Decourcy Ward, an idealistic, ambitious African-American assistant district attorney. The duo form an unlikely alliance to solve a string of armored-car robberies, perpetrated by a pair of brothers from Charlestown, and to upend the way law enforcement operates in the city.
The idea for the series sprang from Ben Affleck, who serves as executive producer and knew MacLean through his brother Casey. He wanted to make a show inspired by the so-called “Boston Miracle,” the outcome of the game-changing community policing initiative that led to a dramatic drop in gang-related youth gun violence in the ’90s.
In 1992, when the show opens, the city is still grappling with the repercussions of the Charles Stuart case, in which a white man murdered his pregnant wife and concocted a cover story about being robbed and shot by a young black man. “The Stuart murder ripped up all of these problems that had been festering — racial tensions but also corruption within the political and law enforcement communities,” MacLean says.
“I wanted to essentially smash ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’ together and to have a strong character base at the heart of it,” MacLean says.
The coke-addled Rohr personifies Boston’s corruption, tribalism, and blinkered approach to law enforcement. As the show progresses, Ward represents the city’s future. The character is loosely based on Ralph C. Martin, the first black district attorney in Suffolk County, who served from 1992 to 2002, and other prosecutors in his office. “This first season is when white men rule the earth,” MacLean says. “That is going to change very abruptly for all of them.”
Showrunner Fontana (“Oz,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) says he found MacLean passionate about telling the story in an authentic and honest way. “Yes, he is incredibly opinionated, but he is not uncompromising. Like all of us, he wants to be heard and not dismissed out of hand. I’m a guy who’s always done TV shows that don’t pull punches, and he didn’t want to pull any punches.”
Indeed, “City on a Hill” is unvarnished in its depiction of racism among white law enforcement officers and working-class Bostonians, and MacLean makes no apologies for that.
“That’s the world that I grew up in. It was important to show what it was really like and to be unsparing. I believe it would do an injustice to the Decourcy character to show it in a different light. It was a town where someone would drop the N-bomb on you and not care and pay no consequences for it. The other side of it is to show that it’s a problem,” MacLean says. “But the whole subject of the show is that people aren’t as simple as you want to make them out to be.”
Born into a family of yarn-spinners with a penchant for mordant humor, MacLean always had storytelling in his blood. His grandfather would tell wild tales of being shot to save his wife from gangsters or getting his stomach sliced open by modern-day pirates while he was in the Marines. He’d show his grandson his appendix scar as proof. “He had a way of making you believe him,” MacLean says, calling him the “world’s greatest” slinger of horse manure (though he used a more profane expression).
Before his grandfather’s funeral, the family asked if one of the grandkids wanted to say something, and so MacLean, then only 9, wrote what he thought was a eulogy — and shared all the stories about his grandfather’s life that the old man used to tell him. “In a packed church, my whole family was cracking up,” MacLean says. “Everyone was rolling on the ground laughing. He wouldn’t want everybody to be crying [over his death]. So I was like the perpetrator of his last con job.”
The experience of captivating an audience was a thrill, and MacLean had caught the bug. “I wanted to be a writer ever since,” he says, “and it all started there.”