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The Professor and the Madman

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August 31, 2006

Meet David Milch, the genius behind HBO's Deadwood.

A Shakespearean monologue delivered mid-blow job. A robber baron channeling spirits. Period detail as studied as dissertation endnotes. A tangled thicket of baroque and blue dialogue. How does HBO’s Deadwood—TV’s finest ensemble drama, which concluded its third and final regular season on Sunday—get away with this stuff? Concealed well behind the camera, Deadwood’s signal performance has been the single-minded creative control of series creator, writer, and executive producer David Milch. Deadwood’s two DVD box sets, packed with Milch sit-downs, asides, and voice-overs, shine a new light on the scope of his ringmaster talents. The DVDs reveal the Milch persona, a throwback figure familiar to English-degree-holders everywhere: the male literary intellectual as hipster shaman. A former Yale and Iowa English lecturer, Milch dresses up his auteurlike compulsiveness with a professorial bearing and impressive erudition, a pose that allows him to effectively advance his idiosyncratic vision for the series. He gets what he wants by keeping the line between perfectionism and egghead narcissism deliciously vague.

Cast, crew, and HBO executives alike appear throughout the DVD special features and commentary to testify to Milch’s manic, extemporaneous lectures. “He will talk for 20 minutes,” begins producer Davis Guggenheim. “He won’t talk about the scene, he’ll talk about Socrates. You don’t know what any of it means—until he wraps it up.” Timothy Olyphant (Seth Bullock) goes a step further: “Quite honestly, I don’t think I understand 50 percent of the stuff he’s saying. But when he’s done talking I think we might win a Nobel Prize.” Actors enthuse about his pursuit of “the truth” and how he “pushes” them and also of his attention to every detail. Everything is in service to a scene’s dramatic payoff, we’re told. And while an actor might wince at “eight pages of new dialogue” rolling off his fax machine late in the evening before a shoot, who’s going to argue for line changes with a script practically requiring its own CliffsNotes?

Milch’s rousing off-camera performances are in full evidence throughout the DVDs. He provides a particularly spirited defense of Deadwood’s unmatched blue streak, a colorful cocksucker-to-cunt parade of verbiage that struck many early critics as particularly gratuitous. “Apes beat their chests so they don’t have to fight 24 hours a day,” Milch says, before veering into a discussion of the place of hyperbole in the oracular tradition of the American frontier and the role of language in “muscling up” for the rugged work of mining—as well as how profanity helps create a sense of vagabond community among those with a threadbare, uneducated grasp of the language. It adds up to a sly and historically accurate end-run around those who would complain that a fuck is still a fuck. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill Hickok) reveals that Milch even composed an FCC-worthy treatise on the subject should HBO executives have needed it in a legal defense. The lesson to any would-be TV provocateur: Do the research.

Beyond his lectures, there is the business of “trusting the process,” as one featurette is titled—meaning “trusting Milch.” He refuses to write alone, instead dictating aloud to his producers, and he rewrites constantly. As a result, the show’s improvisatory shoots have, in at least one instance, extended to 14 days for a single episode. “We often start and don’t have a script,” remarks Stephen Tobolowsky (Hugo Jarry). “It’s almost impossible you’d begin shooting a scene and then have it completely rewritten after rehearsal, before you shoot. But that’s the way David works.” And the way David works—a steady flow of script changes and reshoots—just happens to limit the ability of his higher-ups at the network, if they wanted to, to make editorial calls.

Reading the Milch tea leaves is a required skill on the Deadwood set. (No easy sport with Milch admissions like, “I don’t have an outline.”) And by no means is it a skill everyone has mastered. Dayton Callie (Charlie Utter) is direct about Milch’s lack of patience with misunderstandings: “He reminds me of the looks my father would give me. ‘Are you that fucking stupid?’ There’s that look.” Producer Elizabeth Sarnoff says that time spent away from Milch’s writing room means “you’re hopelessly behind.” Why? “Because everything here changes 600 times a day.” And Milch rewrites can extend five hours for a scene shy of three pages.

The DVDs also show that there is more than a glimmer of the bullshit artist at work. In the first episode’s commentary track, Milch swears offhandedly throughout, pausing ironically for another disquisition on the show’s own profanity. With his defense in full flight, Milch tosses off a reference first to H.L. Mencken on the nature of American language and then to Marvel Comics, before catching himself midlecture and conceding, “Well, that last thing, I guess comics have nothing to do with swearing.” And as brilliant as he is, Milch sometimes toes the line between far-reaching insight and nearsighted shtick. He’s given to repeating gauzy platitudes, such as a line from the scientist Friedrich August Kekule, that “what writing should be is a going out in spirit,” and this precious aphorism of craft: “You can’t think your way to write action; you can only act your way to write thinking.” If a shaman’s stock in trade is invoking the spirit, Milch’s mysticism is well up to the task.

Regardless, in Deadwood Milch has conjured a perfectly realized vision of the Old West by way of Cormac McCarthy and Karl Marx. It’s either a scofflaw fantasy in which the arcane and the obscene are at the center of life or a warts-and-all lightning history of strong-arm capitalism finding its feet—America, as he says, discovering “its organizing principles.” Maybe it’s both. Praising Milch, Tobolowsky argues that Deadwood captures “the essence of that historical time, and of violence, fear, and desire.”

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. Deadwood will culminate in two feature-length episodes airing next year, and enjoying the show on DVDs until then doesn’t require taking all of Milch’s rhetoric at face value. (A decade of grad school won’t hurt.) But there’d be no masterpiece, no “payoff,” without it.

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