Michael Imperioli has been your mobster and your intrepid TV detective. That’s probably how you know him — as Christopher from “The Sopranos,” or as Det. Fitch, the guy pinning down Michigan criminals as they try to make a beeline out the door of an interrogation room in “Detroit 1-8-7.” He’s tremendously proud of that show right now. It just finished its first season on ABC. The season finale was just posted on Hulu. It’s the only thing on TV right now that works like “NYPD Blue” worked, in that unrelenting, not-quite-so-perfect way procedurals should be. It fills a hole, it has great purpose, and he loves it.
But it’s not his magnum opus. That’s where “The Hungry Ghosts” comes in, an expansive window of how Michael Imperioli looks at the world in the eyes of five characters. It’s a film he wrote and directed with a few friends and some great funding, and it was well-received on the festival circuits in 2008. To mark its premiere on Hulu, we called Imperioli to talk about how he feels about “Detroit 1-8-7” after one season and “The Hungry Ghosts” a few years later.
Hulu: Now that the first season of “Detroit 1-8-7” is over, have you had a chance to look back at it and see how it looks as a whole, and how the show’s grown?
Michael Imperioli: I’m really pleased. It’s really funny, because I think it took some time in finding out what the show is. And I’m really pleased that the direction that the writers took. It’s half character-focused and half procedural. Toward the end of the season, we put a lot more into the characters, more into the city. We wanted to extract stories from the vibe of the city and not superimpose the crime of the city on it. I think, in the end, we did a very good job that, and we did a good job of doing justice to the feel of the city.
What I think sets “Detroit 1-8-7” apart is that it’s not quite as tidy as usual procedurals. There’s actual character development. A lot of procedurals have a whole episode and take 30 seconds at the end to advance whatever relationships are between the characters. This show cares where its characters are going.
I think it’s much more character-driven than other shows like this. It shows what happens on both sides of the law — going into their lives and seeing what their personal lives are like to see why someone might have done something. There used to be more shows like this, like “NYPD Blue,” “Hill Street Blues.” There’s a history of that in the past. “Colombo,” even. In recent years, the procedural element of it, the technology of it has kind of taken over. It’s much more interesting to me — the procedure of solving the crime — than the courtroom side of it. I find that very interesting. Some people might find that very boring.
There’s a tendency for Detroit-related shows and art to be poverty tourism, where they use the name itself as a scare tactic. But “Detroit 1-8-7” seems to have a pretty good feel of the city.
Before the show started, I hadn’t been to the city. I had just seen the pilot script. The pilot of the show was shot in Atlanta. I think we all initially wanted to do it in Detroit, but we were very concerned about weather. There’s a very small window of time in which we could shoot. There’s lot of snow in the Midwest, and then they weren’t really sure where they’d shoot it if it got picked up. So we went to Detroit to investigate, and we found out that it was the only place where it really belonged. Some people got a little upset because they had no idea what they were making. They thought we might be exploiting the negative image. But when you’re there, you find out it’s just a label and a misconception. There are a lot of problems there, but there are a lot of problems everywhere. There’s a much richer life that’s going on there, and I think we did a very good job of letting people know about it.
Hulu is now streaming “The Hungry Ghosts,” a film you wrote, produced and directed, and it comes off as a very personal film about your beliefs at that time in your life. You’ve had a couple of years to look back on it since it came out. Is there anything you’d change in the movie because of something you’ve experienced since then?
No, no. I made the movie I wanted to make. I was lucky to have the freedom and assembly of talent to put this together just how I wanted to.
This movie comes off as sort of a magnum opus of sorts. It’s sprawling and big and has big moral points in it. Do you think writers and directors are capable of a few projects this big in one lifetime?
Absolutely. Hopefully as I grow and mature and change as an artist, these expressions are going to change. And hopefully you’re still as passionate about your work as you were in the past. I was very, very fortunate that I had some friends who financed the movie and was able to make it the way I wanted.
The way “The Hungry Ghosts” is broken up into vignettes can pose a real challenge in keeping the film moving forward. It’s usually very hard to get momentum in such a segmented sort of movie, but this has a great pace. Were you conscious of this while making it?
You’ve just got to use your instincts while you’re editing and just try to imagine the movie as a whole as you’re writing. I didn’t really look at other movies to give me any ideas, but you’ve got to keep a certain balance.
There’s a very distinct media saturation element in the film — about how affected we are by what’s been deemed acceptable in mainstream circles.
Well, this film, to me, is really about the characters and the story. That should be the first thing. I can’t predict how it’s going to be received. That was an interesting thing with “Detroit 1-8-7.” I was in Detroit during a very interesting period of time, right after the show started airing, and there was an immediate response from the people of the city. They’d see me at a restaurant and tell me how much they liked it. I got almost immediate feedback. Some people felt a very strong connection to the show. I think they felt that it was a certain quality, that the country might be able to perceive Detroit in a positive way. And that’s very gratifying.