Proposed Ghost Ship TV Show From Chabon, Waldman Draws Ire [UPDATED]

A memorial outside the Oakland warehouse venue Ghost Ship after a fire killed 36 people on Dec. 2, 2016. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

[UPDATE, Dec. 14: The Ghost Ship TV series is off. In a Twitter thread explaining the decision, Ayelet Waldman has announced that "At this time... we will not be proceeding, and will do our part to leave the families and survivors to their grief and their loss, in the fervent hope that someday they find not just comfort but also a measure of justice."]

On Dec. 10, Berkeley husband-wife author team Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman announced plans for a TV series about the Ghost Ship fire as part of a multi-year production deal they recently inked with CBS Television Studios.

Waldman told KQED in an email that the Ghost Ship project hasn't yet been pitched or sold; she declined an in-person or phone interview, adding that the show is in early stages of development. She wrote that her children knew some of the fire victims, and that she envisions the show as "an indictment of the power and money that is destroying our communities, but also as a story about loss."

Nonetheless, the news of a possible TV drama about the tragedy, which claimed 36 lives at an underground electronic music party in 2016, angered many of the victims' loved ones still reeling from trauma and grappling with evictions of unpermitted artist warehouses that followed the tragedy. (In 2017, NBC drew ire for making an episode of Chicago Fire based on Ghost Ship.)

"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," says Oakland resident Mark Dias. Two of his friends and coworkers, Em Bohlka and Donna Kellogg, were among the victims.

Dias was disturbed to learn, per Chabon's tweet responding to criticism from 48 Hills editor Marke Bieschke, that the show will be based on New York Times Magazine writer Elizabeth Weil's reporting. Weil's only coverage of the fire was a sympathetic profile of Max Harris, the defendant who was recently acquitted of 36 counts of manslaughter in a criminal trial. The story painted Harris as a pacifist who unwittingly found himself ensnared in the criminal justice system, and did not focus on the victims or survivors.

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"That New York Times profile was inaccurate in so many ways. 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," says Dias, calling the piece "out of touch."

"I don’t know anybody that was directly affected by Ghost Ship that read that article and was like, 'Oh yeah, he's just some tragic soul that got mixed up in stuff,'" Dias says.

"It’s not [Chabon and Waldman's] story to tell," says Chris Zaldua, a San Francisco musician and promoter who was friends with over a dozen of the fire victims. Zaldua's record label, Left Hand Path, put out a posthumous release by Johnny Igaz, a.k.a. Nackt, called Private Property Created Crime. For Zaldua and many other friends of the victims, the idea of a mainstream, commercial TV drama is at odds with the anti-capitalist beliefs of many of the artists who died in the fire.

"What makes it especially tricky is this kind of underground arts and music culture has always existed on the fringe," Zaldua says, "and 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."

Oakland resident Michael Ferrari expressed similar skepticism. He says that the prevailing narrative of Ghost Ship already glossed over the complex lives and identities of the victims, including his friend Denalda Nicole Renae, whom he met through a network of squatters that occupied empty buildings. He fears a similar phenomenon will occur if the tragedy is given a TV treatment.

"TV is not the right medium," Ferrari says. "A documentary would be first thing I would think of."

"I think it should be called off, period," says Lo O'Connor, an Oakland resident who also lost multiple friends in the fire. "There has been no break from the sort of spectacle it became, and there’s been no privacy. And I just feel like them saying, 'We’re going to do this compassionately, we’re going to do this with people in mind,' is just so empty. There's nothing there because they're not listening to the people who were actually affected by this experience, who are so clearly saying, 'Don't do this.'"

Waldman responded on Twitter, saying she's open to feedback from the community.

"If we make this show, I want to make sure it’s not remotely exploitative," she wrote to KQED. "I would never ever do that."