The man behind “Deadwood”

David Milch talks about turning the sanitized Hollywood western on its head with foul-mouthed misfits and miscreants who, no matter how vile, are touched by the divine.


The man behind "Deadwood"

We’re so familiar with the clichis of the western — the swinging saloon doors, the gunfights, the 10-gallon hats, the card games that erupt into a brawl — that HBO’s “Deadwood” can seem bewilderingly unfamiliar. Substitute manicured, Mae West-style dancing girls with prostitutes with black eyes, trade in “Howdy ma’am” gentility for foul-mouthed invectives fit for the prison yard, swap out the cheerful ragtime piano and spirited card games for scams and senseless murder and smallpox outbreaks, and exchange the black and white hats for honorable men prone to fits of murderous rage and scoundrels with the empathy of saints. Unlike the cute little Western towns of Hollywood lore, “Deadwood” is a muddy, disheveled pit of deceit and despair and an unchecked playground for the most disgraceful human behaviors.

But unlike the unmitigated misery of its cousin, HBO’s Depression-era drama “Carnivale,” “Deadwood” is buoyed by a wicked sense of humor. Each moment of suffering, greed or fear tends to be lightened by an odd moment of kinship or a shared sense of the absurd. It’s as if the townspeople themselves are blessed with an uncanny self-awareness, and even sworn enemies can recognize something of themselves in each other.

“Deadwood” creator David Milch took a roundabout path to Hollywood, earning his MFA in fiction at the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, then teaching literature at Yale University for nine years before writing his first script, a “Hill Street Blues” episode that won an Emmy, a Writers Guild Award and a Humanitas Prize. Taking the awards as a less-than-subtle hint that he had a talent for dramatic writing, Milch left New Haven, Conn., to join the staff of “Hill Street Blues” for five seasons. Later, he co-created “NYPD Blue” with Steven Bochco, and during his seven years on the show, helped transform the procedural drama into something far richer and more dynamic than audiences had seen before.

Milch spoke to me on the phone recently from “Deadwood’s” Santa Clarita set during the last two weeks of shooting the show’s second season (which premieres Sunday on HBO). With a steady drawl as wry as Jack Nicholson’s, Milch talked about how Hollywood fear created the saccharine westerns of yore and how the community of Deadwood strove to maintain order in the absence of law.

What fueled your move from academics to television?

Well, my now-wife and I wanted to get married and have a family and I wasn’t making any dough teaching, and of course what I was making, I was using to buy drugs. She was getting a little tired of me selling her clothes and furniture.

That’s a common problem among Yale professors.

Yes, we decided we would take a different approach.

How did you first become interested in writing a western?

I had proposed to HBO a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. What had interested me was the idea of order without law. The Praetorian Guard, who were the emperor’s guards, understood how they were to proceed. But for the city cops, who were called the Urban Cohorts, there was no law at all. So they were sort of making themselves up as they went along. I wanted to focus on that idea of how order is generated in the absence of law. They [HBO] were already doing a show about Rome in the time of Caesar, so they asked if I could engage the same themes in a different setting, and that was how I decided to do the western.

Were you a fan of westerns before?

No. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them; it’s just I didn’t watch them particularly. When I was growing up, it was not the heyday of the western.

It was, like, Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid. It just didn’t interest me particularly. I was innocent of the classical westerns of the ’30s and ’40s — they had just sort of passed me by. I guess in a sort of paradoxical way . . . You know, the future is constantly redefining the past. In my case, the fact that I had not had that exposure, I think, turned out probably to be a good enough thing.

When I’m describing the show to someone, they’ll sometimes say, “Oh, but I don’t really like westerns,” and I’ll try to explain that it’s something quite different than what they are imagining.

The idea of the western, I believe, as people conceive of it, is really an artifact of the Hays Production Code of the ’20s and ’30s and it has really nothing to do with the West, and much to do with the influence of middle-European Jews who had come out to Hollywood to present to America a sanitized heroic idea of what America was. The first term of the Hays Code is that obscenity in word or fact or action is an offense against God and man and will not be depicted. In the early ’20s there were starting to be films that were kind of racy and these guys didn’t want their hustle to be jeopardized. So they formed this production board which essentially announced that, let us run the show and we will give you an America disinfected and pure.

Working in network television I had something of a similar experience. You know, you can spend your time pissing and moaning about the strictures within which you’re forced to work, or you can try and find ways to neutralize the distorting effect of those strictures, which is to develop personalities [or] characters whose own internal process winds up at the same place as the external strictures, but for internal reasons. So, what the great western storytellers did was develop stoic characters who lived by a code and then a kind of justifying dramatic structure which validated that. Every storyteller works within the conventions of his time, and there were some great westerns done. But by the time I was watching them, the pernicious effect of the code itself had created a kind of sanitized and mediocre version of it. So, when I came to do “Deadwood,” I sort of came to it fresh.

So the code was developed by directors who wanted to offer America a vision of itself that was clean and pretty?

Yeah, because they lived in mortal fear of being found out. The dream factory was operated exclusively by immigrant Jews. Goldwyn, Mayer … [and they wanted to] stay sort of behind the scenes, because there was developing a real vein of anti-Semitism and misgiving. The popular thinkers of the ’20s were guys like [Charles] Lindbergh and Henry Ford and so on, who were saying, “The money-lenders are taking over the temple.” So, what these guys did was come up with a four-square American kind of vision with an unwritten guarantee: Let us run the show, and you will get 150 features a year which glorify innocence and an absence of conflict and so on. When people started to see the stuff like D.W. Griffith, people got good and scared.

It sounds like a part of you is reacting against that tradition.

No, I’m not reacting against it. I was mystified when I began to do the research. It seemed so obvious to me that the West I was encountering in my research … had nothing to do with the westerns, which I was experiencing secondhand, which weren’t even good on their own terms. But then going back and seeing the classical westerns, those, too, had nothing to do with the West that I was studying, so I then tried to do some research to figure out how that had happened, how the western of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s had developed, and what I discovered was that it had everything to do with what Hollywood was about at that time, and nothing to do with what the West was about.

So the aspect of the West that you were interested in had to do with the lawlessness of that era?

The improvised quality. You know, the cop series I had done tried to engage the theme that in order to administer the law, you have to break the law. That is, that the idea of equality before the law is an operating fiction of democracy. Any cop will tell you. If a cop is forced to watch a cop show, and he hears the suspect given his Miranda warning, he just turns away, because no suspect is ever given his Miranda warning until after the cop has gotten the information he needs. If he’s given his Miranda warning, the cop can’t do his job, because then the cop has to turn him over to a lawyer. What cops are hired to do is to control people who will not abide by the social contract.

Now, that’s a separate matter from the illusions … What we say in our treasured documents is not, “These truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal.” What we say is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — in other words, we’re going to act as if these truths are self-evident, but in practice, those truths have never been self-evident. And the reason that cops only trust other cops is because they know that they’ve been hired to lie, they’ve been hired to beat the balls off people, and get them to confess so they can be excluded from society. That’s the first part of their job. The second part of their job is to lie about what they did. And the third part of their job is to know that if they’re caught, they’re going to be put in jail.

So for me, what every cop always told me was, “Every time I see a guy in a suit, I’m afraid I’m gonna get locked up.” I wanted to push that situation further, to the point where it was acknowledged by everyone that there was no law, and then to try and figure out how we govern ourselves, how we improvise the structures of governance in an environment which acknowledges that it is the abrogation of everything but brute force.

As you watch “Deadwood,” you find yourself believing in this moral relativism. You start to fear the hand of the law more than you fear the chaos of unchecked crime. You start to feel that the law has no place in this environment.

Or that the place that it finds is predicated in an illusion. Seth Bullock — I would say 90 percent of the characters are real — and Bullock, who was the first sheriff and who founded the first national park and became Theodore Roosevelt’s best friend and in fact led the inauguration parade, was a guy with a murderous personality who embraced the idea of law as the only way he could control himself. The first scene of the first episode shows him hanging a guy rather than letting the mob hang him. That was a true story, and what he said was, “If he’s gonna be hung, he’s gonna be hung under color of law.” For Bullock, the color of law as a disinfecting of the kind of violence which was inside him, as an accommodation and protection of him from himself, was the essence of his personality. That’s a highly adaptive trait in the kind of Darwinian environment that he found himself in — which is to say, he was every bit as violent as the next guy, but his violence expressed itself in an impulse to expressions of order. And so, that’s how legal codes get developed.

You know, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a study of the common law, said that the law develops out of society’s need to minimize the collateral consequences of the taking of revenge. What that means is, if I kill your horse, and you come and kill my horse and my family and burn down my house, the disruption to society of the collateral effects of the taking of revenge, which is justified, is such that society is gonna be disrupted. So what law does is say, “If you kill a horse, you will be subject to this much punishment.” To the extent that that stabilizes the process of taking of revenge, that’s how laws get developed.

How do you see the sinister Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) relative to Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant)? Because in Bullock, you describe a certain kind of twisting of chaos and order, and good and bad.

To me, they’re part of the same personality. I try not to judge any of the characters. Henry James used to say that characters are obstinate finalities, and irreducible. I think you’ll see in the first episode just how indissolubly associated those two characters are. And in real life, they sort of divided the camp. It was like a Manichaean heresy. Swearengen ran the Badlands and Bullock ran the rest of the camp. But I think that each of them is lost in a particular way. I don’t think that Swearengen has any more of an articulate understanding of what moves him than Bullock does; it’s just that his compulsions do not invoke a legal framework. You know, if you look at Swearengen, all of Swearengen’s whores are bought at the same orphanage where he was raised, including a cripple who has absolutely no use to him at any pragmatic level. He is constantly presenting himself as a pure pragmatist, yet to insist on getting your whores at one particular orphanage is at once an impulse to take revenge on women, and also to rescue women. And in that complication is where most of us live our lives. And he no less than Bullock has a life which lives him, much more, I think, than he lives his life.

It’s that inner conflict that’s very relatable in each character.

Yeah, I think Swearengen is a lineal descent of Sipowitz on “NYPD Blue.” You know, as they say, the devil always gets the best lines. Sipowitz was, in a lot of ways, very much like my dad, who was as complicated and driven and finally a great, great soul, with all sorts of compulsions and abuses and so on. I think that God takes us whole. And as you say, Swearengen is a very relatable personality. I think ultimately Bullock is every bit as relatable but not nearly so accessible.

That’s funny, because Swearengen kind of reminds me of my dad in some ways; Ian McShane looks a little like him, for one thing. What’s interesting is that Swearengen has more outlets for his passionate personality than Bullock does. So in some ways, it feels like Bullock is more tortured than Swearengen is.

Yes, exactly. [Bullock] will not share himself in the same way.

But what I love about the show is that you find things to care about in a wide range of different characters.

Some people will not know themselves. As the minister says at Hickok’s funeral, he quotes Paul — that was what I wanted to do that Roman show about, was the first guy they arrested was Saint Paul. But Paul says, “If the hand shall say, ‘Because I am not the foot, I am not therefore the body of Christ,’ is it not of the body?” In other words, because we misunderstand our natures, does that exclude us from the community of spirits? And the answer is no, it just means we misunderstand our natures. So many of these characters misunderstand their natures, but that does not prevent us from recognizing that they’re of the body of Christ. My feeling about “Deadwood” is it’s a single organism, and I think human society is the body of God, and in a lot of ways it’s about the different parts of the body having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time.

So, do you mean that the characters have more of a sense of their own identity?

A more confident sense of their identity as members of something larger than themselves. You see, for example, Merrick, played by Jeffrey Jones, who so likes being in company with others and who is so isolated, and he’s trying to extract some reliable organizing principle. He says, “Gentlemen, after every meal, what is to keep us from walking together? Perhaps we could form a club. We’ll call ourselves ‘the Ambulators’!” And you know, the other guys just walk away from him.

But it’s that impulse. If you go to any small town, you’ll see in the center of town signs that advertise the weekly meeting of the Lion’s Club and the Optimists and the Kiwanis. You know, a bowling team, a bridge club? All of those things express our impulse to recognize that our most confident and satisfied sense of our individuality is found in relating to something outside of us. You know, when they [the residents of Deadwood] have their first town meeting and someone by accident serves peaches, and from that time on, they have to have peaches, because they’re not exactly sure what the fuck made it work, you know, and they don’t want to louse things up. There’s something so beautiful in the arbitrariness of all of our traditions and it speaks to our frailty and how tentative our understanding of ourselves is. I like that stuff.

So, how do you keep this really complicated organism alive? Did you know you’d have so many characters and that so many of them would have such major story lines?

No, I don’t plan any of the episodes. They just sort of happened. I sit down each morning and the scenes sort of declare themselves. When you do research, you study and study and study. And then, if you’re a storyteller, you try to put all of that in your preconscious, then you forget the research.

Do you write the show alone?

I have a pretty heavy hand. I work on pretty much every scene. First they [the other writers] do drafts, and then I work on them.

What kinds of characters do you enjoy writing the most? Do you favor certain characters?

No. You know, William James said that what every spiritual experience has in common is ego suppression at depth. That is, one loses one’s sense of one’s own separate identity, and experiences a kind of in-rush of either a sense of God or one’s commonality with others. So when I write, I try to have no favorites. I try to be sort of a vessel of the character, and that’s how I feel a part of the body of Christ. I feel that they’re all part of a single thing, and they just exhibit their sameness differently, if that makes sense.

It does. Do you feel like you’re channeling God or the spirits when you write?

Well, I think we all are vessels of God, you know. As Saint Paul says, if the hand doesn’t know, that doesn’t mean it’s not part of the body, that just means it doesn’t know. And that’s why, when I’m able to be of service to the characters, I experience God’s presence more acutely than I do when I’m not working. So I try to work as much as I can.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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