Acclaimed husband-and-author team Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are facing backlash after announcing one of their next projects is a TV series based on the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland in 2016, which claimed the lives of 36 people. Upon hearing the news, many of the deceased’s loved ones came forward to denounce the project.
The tragedy, which occurred over three years ago, happened at a former warehouse that had been converted into an artist collective. At the time, the space was hosting a concert dedicated to house music. Eighty to 100 people were in attendance when a fire broke out due to what were later deemed to be serious electric problems. A third of them lost their lives.
As per KQED, Chabon and Waldman’s project hasn’t actually been formally pitched, much less sold, but it was in the early stages of development at CBS. Waldman told KQED that her children knew some of the victims, and that they saw the show as “an indictment of the power and money that is destroying our communities, but also as a story about loss.”
Chabon also posted a clarification on Twitter:
Just to clarify: The Ghost Ship project will be adapted by journalist Elizabeth Weil, based on her own reporting. @ayeletw and I are producing it, under the terms of an overall agreement with CBS Studios that is not for any one story or project in particular.
— Michael Chabon (@michaelchabon) December 11, 2019
“Just to clarify: The Ghost Ship project will be adapted by journalist Elizabeth Weil, based on her own reporting,” Chabon wrote. “
and I are producing it, under the terms of an overall agreement with CBS Studios that is not for any one story or project in particular.”
Regardless, word of a show about the Ghost Ship fire was not well-received by those with connections to the tragedy.
“If you’re even thinking of making some type of TV show or something to profit off of this, before the words even come out of your mouth, you should have backing by the families in some capacity,” said Oakland resident Mark Dias, who knew two of the victims.
Dias also took umbrage with the source: Weil’s piece in The New York Times, which told the story largely through the perspective of Max Harris, one of the two men charged for the electric problems that led to the fire. (He was recently acquitted.) The piece did not delve deeply into the victims and/or survivors.
“That New York Times profile was inaccurate in so many ways,” Dias told KQED. “It was a profile of a person that was told from one perspective, and none of it seemed like it was actually fact-checked against other people who knew him and were around him.”
will just say it here. nobody in our small community wants to relive that tragedy on cbs of all places. thanks.
— Brandon Nickell (@brandon_nickell) December 12, 2019
Others simply thought the wrong people were involved. “It’s not [Chabon and Waldman’s] story to tell,” said Chris Zaldua, a San Francisco musician and promoter who lost over a dozen friends to the fire. “What makes it especially tricky is this kind of underground arts and music culture has always existed on the fringe.” He added that “because it has never been about commercial success, there have been attempts to tell the story of underground culture in a commercial way and I think mostly they’ve all missed the boat.”
Another Oakland resident, Michael Ferrari, told KQED that dramatizing the event is not the way to go. “TV is not the right medium,” Ferrari said. “A documentary would be first thing I would think of.”
Waldman seemed open to hearing the community’s thoughts.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Please reach out to me directly at my email, which is available on my website https://t.co/JeaL6Myc9P. It goes directly to me.
— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) December 11, 2019
“If we make this show, I want to make sure it’s not remotely exploitative,” Waldman told KQED. “I would never ever do that.”