Welcome to Deadwood!

Matt:  The Deadwood chapter of your book, more so than any other, is built around the personality of one man, David Milch, the show’s creator. Interestingly, that chapter feels like a character portrait in a book where the chapters are otherwise process-driven.

Milch small
Alan: A couple of things drove that. One, I’ll admit that, in the arc of my career, Milch has been present so much that it was hard to resist putting him at the center of the Deadwood chapter. But the other is, I wanted every chapter to feel not quite like every other chapter—to find a different way into each of the shows—and Milch is his shows, and his shows are Milch, in the same way that The Sopranos is David Chase and The Wire is David Simon, but on a more elemental level, I guess.

Matt: You and I both visited the set of Deadwood when it still existed. I really felt as if I had stepped into the mind of David Milch when I was on that set.

Alan: Yes.

Matt: Just the way they’d constructed it, so that the writers’ bungalows, and the costume place, and the stable and the props department, all of that was in the same place, and the town was a working town. The interiors and the exteriors were in the same buildings. It was like that set was actually Deadwood, the real place, except there were lights hanging from rafters in the ceilings of the rooms and cameras and cables in the streets. I can’t really think of another show that did that. Maybe Lost was that way, because they were shooting on location in Hawaii?

Alan: Not quite, because on Lost, the writers were in L.A., so that was a much more split-up thing.

I felt like a portrait of Milch was the best way to illustrate HBO in that period as a place of absolute freedom. He took advantage of that even more than Chase did, even more than Simon did. He just kind of—not “went crazy,” but kind of went to town with, “I can do all of these things, and I don’t have the checks and balances that I’ve had to deal with throughout my career. Whatever I want to do, and in whatever process that makes sense to me, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Al Swearengen in "Deadwood."
Al Swearengen in "Deadwood."
Matt: My first insight into the controlled chaos of David Milch was when I spoke to Ian McShane, aka Al Swearengen, after the Television Critics Awards ceremony in the summer of 2004, after he’d been given an award for outstanding individual achievement in drama for his performance on Deadwood. I went up to him at the bar, made some small talk, then asked, “So, what’s it like delivering those long monologues? Did your experience in legitimate theater help with that?”

Then he took a drink, and he laughed.

Then he went on, “Let me tell you about Mr. Milch’s monologues. They are one or two pages long, and they are often one long sentence, if you study them, which would make them difficult to memorize and deliver anyway, simply because of that. But on top of this, Mr. Milch will never let you simply deliver a monologue. You have to be addressing a severed Indian head in a box or receiving a blowjob from a prostitute under a table.”

Alan: [Laughs]

Matt: And he goes on, “Added to which, often these monologues are rewritten up to the very last possible second, to the point where they’re handing you the pages five minutes before they call ‘action’, and the pages are still hot from the fucking printer!”

And I realized, as he was telling me this story, that McShane had absorbed the writerly rhythms of David Milch—a man who McShane speaks very highly of, by the way—even as he felt emboldened to bust the guy’s chops while talking to a journalist.

Alan: Well, that speaks to how each person who works with David Milch has to find his or her way of dealing with the controlled chaos of a David Milch production. Some people who’ve worked with Milch speak of him very highly and would work with him again in a second. Others just couldn’t handle it and wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, understandably.