Magazine article Corrections Forum

Drama Behind Bars: "Oz"

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Drama Behind Bars: "Oz"

Article excerpt

Have you seen "Oz," the HBO original dramatic series that is now two seasons old? "Oz" is a critically-acclaimed mixture of personal stories and prison reality, at times difficult to watch. The show is very powerful stuff, taking a intriguing look at the people on both sides of the prison walls, inmates and correctional officers.

As the creator, Executive Producer (with Barry Levinson) and Writer of the HBO original drama series, Tom Fontana chose the setting for "Oz" in the same way he chose the settings for "St. Elsewhere" and "Homicide"--he wanted to place regular people in dramatic, life and death settings.

"I did 'St. Elsewhere' which was set in a Boston hospital, and 'Homicide,' which is set in a Baltimore police department." Fontana explains. "I am always looking to set a drama series in an environment where you have ordinary people in extraordinary situations. It's less interesting to see Superman save the day than it is to see an ordinary, average Joe have to survive in a place where all the odds are against him. Like a hospital or a police station, a prison has a lot of urgency, a lot of life and death. In addition, I believe that everything that happens in a prison is a reflection of society as a whole."

Fontana is quick to point out that he's not out to make political statements, or further any kind of agenda. He's a storyteller, out to tell compelling dramatic stories. "I look for drama, and try to make it entertaining and enlightening," Fontana explains. "I wanted to look at the lives of the prisoners and the officers, and see who they are. How like me are they, personally, and how much different? If you can say to the average audience, these people aren't all that much different, they gain an understanding of the world you are asking them to participate in."

But is "Oz" real?

"You can't ever be real when you are doing a TV series," Fontana says. "You have to approximate the truth and hope for the best. The situations in the show are all based on real things, but things may happen a lot faster on Oz than they may in an actual prison. You have to be allowed a certain amount of dramatic license, or you'd have a lot of people playing cards. Or else it would be 'This week on Oz, the ace gets trumped.'

"I think that people feel that I am not pulling any punches, and I am trying to tell as much of what really happens as I can," Fontana continues. "You can't do the truth, you can only approximate the truth. Any time you put it through a camera, it becomes something else. Even the Ted Koppel-Nightline stuff, there's something artificial about it. If you point a camera at an inmate, he's going to act, he's going to do something that may or may not be what he would do if the camera wasn't there."

Fontana visited prisons for two years before the cameras even rolled on "Oz," doing research and getting a feel for prisons in general. "I went to a number of places, not to get people's real stories--I was looking to get a sense of the ambiance of the place," he says. "I wanted to get what is the same about all these places, so I could try to replicate that on the series. The sense of loneliness, fear, power, danger--those elements that are consistent no matter what kind of facility." At first, Fontana wanted to film in a real prison, but that soon proved to be too daunting a challenge, logistically. That was also compounded by the fact that, "fortunately or unfortunately, there aren't any empty prisons--they were all full," Fontana says. "Instead of using a real prison, we built a prison on the floor of an old Nabisco cookie factory in Manhattan. We used the real walls, because they look like a prison. This way, we have complete control over the environment, in terms of weather, and also we're not disrupting anyone else's business."

If you've seen "Oz," you know it's not for the squeamish. There are examples and storylines of everything that goes on inside a prison, and the show can be difficult to watch at times. …

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