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TV producer and Writer David Milch

He is the creator, executive producer and head writer of the new HBO series Deadwood, a western drama set in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Milch left a teaching job at Yale University to go to Hollywood and work on the show Hill Street Blues. He also worked on NYPD Blue, for which he won two Emmys. Milch is a former heroin addict and alcoholic.

26:12

Other segments from the episode on March 25, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 25, 2004: Interview with Neil Young; Interview with David Milch.

Transcript

DATE March 25, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A

Interview: TV producer and writer David Milch discusses his
career and his series "Deadwood"
TERRY GROSS, host:

They say that the cop show replaced the Western on TV and in the movies.
David Milch is heading the other way. After writing for "Hill Street Blues"
and co-creating "NYPD Blue," Milch has created the Western series "Deadwood."
It premiered two Sundays ago on HBO and is being shown right after "The
Sopranos." Set in the 1870s, in the lawless town of "Deadwood," in the Black
Hills of South Dakota, the story combines fictional characters with historical
ones like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. David Milch is famous for his
colorful hard-boiled dialogue and there's plenty of it in "Deadwood." The
story begins as Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant, resigns from his
position as the marshal in a Montana town and heads for Deadwood with his
business partner, Sol Star, played by John Hawkes. They hoped to open a
hardware business, but the town is run by the corrupt foul-mouthed and brutal
saloon and brothel owner Al Swearingen, played by Ian McShane. In this scene,
Bullock and Star have recently arrived in town. They're trying to make a
business deal with Swearingen, the saloon owner.

(Soundbite of "Deadwood")

Mr. TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) We'd like to make an offer on that
lot we're renting.

Mr. IAN McSHANE: (As Al Swearingen) Sell my back teeth for the right money.

Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Bullock) Six hundred get the job done?

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) I guess before I made a price I'd want to know
if you boys have unnamed partners?

Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Bullock) Why?

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) I think specifically Wild Bill Hickok. Didn't
you and Hickok act together in the street this morning?

Mr. JOHN HAWKES: (As Sol Star) We just met Wild Bill Hickok.

Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Bullock) What business of that is his?

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) You mean what business of mine is that?

Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Bullock) Don't tell me what the (censored) I mean.

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) Not a tone could get a deal done.

Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Bullock) Can't we sort it out another time? Thirsty people
coming.

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) Sure. Yeah, and you and me will find our
proper stride, huh?

Mr. OLYPHANT: (As Bullock) All right.

Mr. HAWKES: (As Star) Good luck on the day's trade.

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) Well, I won't wish you luck because I can tell
you ain't the type that needs it. Sol Star--Right? That's a Jewish name.
Mine isn't, but nice to meet you, son, huh?

Mr. HAWKES: (As Star) Pleasure.

Mr. McSHANE: (As Swearingen) Yeah, yeah. Marked you for an earner the minute
you come in my sight, Jew bastard.

GROSS: David Milch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to do a
Western? I mean, let's face it. There aren't a lot of successful Westerns in
the movies or on television anymore.

Mr. DAVID MILCH: You know, I didn't really have a particular interest in the
genre. But I was interested in certain themes which originally I had hoped to
engage in a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. They were
called the urban cohorts. And what I wanted to examine was how forms of order
are imposed or discovered in the absence of law. But HBO was doing another
show set in Rome; it's like the old joke about the ostentatious Jewish family
that goes to Kenya to have their kid bar mitzvahed and they have to wait
because there's another bar mitzvah ahead of them. Anyway, they were doing a
show about Rome and so Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss suggested that I
try and find another venue in which I could engage the same themes. And
that's how I came to "Deadwood."

GROSS: I can't believe there were two series about Rome. That just--anyways,
well, "Deadwood" is a lawless spot. Would you describe why?

Mr. MILCH: There was no law in Deadwood because it was an illegal settlement.
It was on land that had been stolen from the Indians and there was a concern
by the thieves, i.e., the white prospectors, that if they passed laws they
would be perceived as setting themselves up as a government and ultimately
they wanted to be annexed to the United States and they wanted their claims
verified by the United States. So they agreed that there would be no laws
whatsoever. In fact, when murders took place, bodies were disposed of rather
than buried so that there would be no evidence so that there could be no
trials so that nobody could say that they had set up a government.

GROSS: Now one of the main characters in "Deadwood" is a Montana marshal who
quits his position as marshal and then, you know, travels to Deadwood in the
hopes of starting a hardware business with his partner. So this is an
interesting character to write about, someone who had been a lawman and is now
in this place that is totally lacking in law.

Mr. MILCH: Yeah. He was a real guy, Seth Bullock. Bullock was drawn to the
idea of a lawless settlement because his--he had such a radical ambivalence
toward the idea of law. He was a guy who was kind of cursed by conscience,
and he had a preternatural sense of responsibility and from which he was
all--part of him was always in flight and for him the appeal of Deadwood was
there would be no opportunity to be a marshal. There would be no opportunity
to generate the kinds of obligations which would distract him from the pursuit
of his private goals. And of course, as alcoholics find out, you always take
your problems with you. And he took his and, sure enough, within four months,
he was a marshal again.

GROSS: One of the characters in "Deadwood" is Calamity Jane. And I think
when we think of Calamity Jane, we think of Doris Day, who played her in the
movies; we think of a character who's rambunctious. How would you describe
your version of Calamity Jane, and what is it based on?

Mr. MILCH: Well, it's based on fact. Calamity Jane was a profane, terribly
conflicted personality who idolized Hickok, who was kind to her, and sort of
resolutely refused to acknowledge--Hickok, this is--her having kind of
renounced her femininity, that--Calamity Jane was always getting thrown out of
towns because she was too obscene even for the miners; she had the foulest
mouth of all. And she was a victim of protracted abuse as a child and had
kind of renounced her feminine identity, I think, as a form of
self-protection. And she always prided herself that she could outdrink
anybody, she could outswear anybody, and yet with Hickok, she was oftentimes
very demure. And I would hope if the series accomplishes nothing else, it
will expunge the association of Doris Day with Calamity Jane henceforward.

GROSS: Wild Bill Hickok is played in "Deadwood" by Keith Carradine. Good to
see him back again.

Mr. MILCH: He's wonderful.

GROSS: Yeah. So what was Wild Bill Hickok doing in Deadwood?

Mr. MILCH: He was kind of looking to die. Hickok for me, as I researched the
subject, was the first victim, as I perceived it, in America of media
celebrity and what we do to our heroes. Shortly before going to Deadwood, he
had actually had a warrant issued against him for vagrancy in Cheyenne. And
he had married a circus performer who wanted to take care of him, and within a
couple of days, he booked; he left town and told her he would make their
fortune once and for all in Deadwood. But he never prospected for a minute.
He was drunk and playing cards his whole time out there, and really a tragic
figure and with a certain amount of self-awareness, which kind of heightened
the pathos, I think, of his situation.

GROSS: David Milch is my guest, and he's the creator of the new HBO Western
series "Deadwood."

Now everyone who's written about "Deadwood" has noted that the language, the
dialogue, is really filled with obscenities. Now I remember in the old
Westerns, instead of an expletive, you know, somebody might cry, `Tarnation!'
or say...

Mr. MILCH: Yes, `Consarn it!'

GROSS: Yeah, `Consarn it!' or `Why, you'--but of course, they couldn't--you
know, you couldn't get away with using real expletives in the movies or on
television. Are you overdoing it with the expletives, or do you think people
actually used them in such abundance in the Old West?

Mr. MILCH: I have to tell you that in the course of a long time spent in
research, more than a year, which was one of the blessing of working for HBO,
that they gave me that kind of time, the one thing which about there is
uniform agreement is the language that was used in these communities. The
extremity of the language became paradoxically one of the few alternatives to
law. And what I mean by that is that in the same way that an ape may beat his
chest as a way of signifying his willingness to do something which, if he had
to do it every time he signified his willingness to do it, he'd be in fights
all the time and fights to the death. The obscenity was one alternative, and
it was a crucial alternative for me to portray, in the absence of these other
ordering mechanisms. And the obscenity is not indiscriminate. It's
calibrated according to the given personality and the given environment. But
the obscenity is meant to do a lot of different things by these characters.

GROSS: Now "Deadwood" has come on HBO in a time right after the Janet Jackson
brouhaha, in which there's an attempt to tighten up restrictions on profanity,
obscenity, indecency on television and radio. Cable is unrestricted, while
broadcast TV is being highly scrutinized. So compare the experience for us of
being on broadcast TV and really having to watch your language and writing for
cable where, you know, you can have your character say anything you want them
to.

Mr. MILCH: Yeah. There's a more fundamental restriction on the way that I
write which has to do with trying to be true to my sense of what the
character's nature is. I have never taken any particular pleasure in using
dirty words or--I mean, that has no appeal to me one way or another. It's...

GROSS: Well, I understand what you're saying, but I imagine a lot of the
criminals on "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street," and probably a lot of the cops as
well, would use obscenities pretty liberally in their real speech, you know,
if they were...

Mr. MILCH: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MILCH: And if you're asking what strictures there were in network
television, "NYPD Blue" almost didn't go on the air. It was delayed for over
a year. The network refused to let it go forward. And once the network
committed, more than one-third of the ABC affiliates refused to air the
program. So I am quite familiar with the imposition of other people's ideas
of what was proper to portray. And I had to--you know, there was the subject
of long negotiation between Steven Bochco and the ABC censors about how many
obscenities could be used in what combination. I mean, it was--those were
negotiations from which I was excluded early on, because my participation
tended not to be constructive, you know. I kind of respond apocalyptically to
that kind of stuff, and so I was disinvited from the conversations.

GROSS: My guest is David Milch, the creator and executive producer of the new
HBO Western drama "Deadwood." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: David Milch is my guest, and he's the creator of the new HBO Western
series "Deadwood."

I want to get back to something we were talking about before which is
language, you know, and there were restrictions on the language you could use
on "Hill Street" and "NYPD Blue." I'm sure you assumed that these characters
would be using a lot more profanity and obscenity if they weren't restricted,
so how do you get around that? What kind of language could you give them that
implies that they'd be using saltier language if allowed, but this will take
the place of it?

Mr. MILCH: Yeah. I always found that stuff a little silly, because I can
make up words which are much more obscene, because words derive their meaning
from the context in which they're used. And so I remember the censors
wouldn't let--there was, I think, in "NYPD Blue" the first year or something,
Sipowicz was doing an interrogation, and he was confronting a witness with the
fact that the witness could not have been where he said he was, or he was a
suspect. And he says, `So you're saying that you spent Christmas Eve rubbing
up and down against Doris Ayello(ph),' or something like that. And they said,
`No, you can't say rubbing up and down.' So I wrote, `So you say you spent
Christmas Eve in close proximity to Doris Ayello's goonyah(ph)?' Now there is
no such word.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MILCH: And yet, because of the context, it is a much more vivid image.
And that's the point. The specific obscenities that are used in "Deadwood,"
whether they scandalize or affront the sensibilities of the listener is not
the point. What's crucial is that they portray the sensibility and, to a
large extent, the fears of the character. In the instance of cops, the
inability to use obscenity was not so crucial, because the culture of cops can
be portrayed. The obscenity is not of the essence of the cops' character.
It's simply a way of releasing a certain amount of tension. Now racial
epithets are a different thing. For me, the ability to use racial epithets
was crucial in "NYPD Blue," because so much of the cops' experience has to do
with racism, either the racism that afflicts him or the racism that's
institutional. And so I felt deeply a need to be able to use racial epithets
where I felt no need whatsoever to use an obscenity, because it was not of the
essence of the character's experience.

GROSS: And what were you up against in terms of using racial epithets?

Mr. MILCH: They said, `Don't use them.' And I said, `Well, we're going to
use them.' And as the ratings went up and the affiliates--you know, we get
back to the old subject of commerce. One-third of the ABC affiliates refused
the run the show. Well, after the show was on the air for a couple of weeks,
and it was clear that it was getting good ratings and that people had come to
experience beyond whatever titillation they thought they were going to find,
something that they wanted to come back to on a weekly basis, having to do
with the rendering of a particular world, then the affiliates began to pick it
up. And as the network started to make money, they began to take a little
more dialectical view of what our ambitions were, Steven's and mine, and to
see virtue where before they had seen only vice. And finally, with the proper
amount of piety and fanfare, you know, they began to allow us to use certain
locutions about race that they had forbidden hitherto.

GROSS: Does this include, I'll go with, the N-word?

Mr. MILCH: Yes. Yeah, specifically the N-word, and specifically the fact
that Sipowicz, as a racist, would use that word. And it was of the essence of
that character's woundedness and the distortion of perspective that had come
from his early experiences that he be able to use that word, and that the
character who was his partner could then have the opportunity to say, `I can't
work with you if you're going to speak that way.'

GROSS: So where did the objections come from once you started using the word?

Mr. MILCH: From the bosses at the network.

GROSS: What about from viewers? Did you get any objections from them?

Mr. MILCH: You know, I don't read that stuff.

GROSS: Right, because you don't want to be affected by it.

Mr. MILCH: Yeah. I mean, the network will say, `Well, you can't put it on
the air,' but we finally found a way around that as time went on. We just
didn't let them have the scripts until after the show was shot.

GROSS: Was that effective?

Mr. MILCH: Well, yeah, it's effective if you're making them money. You
know...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MILCH: Towards the end there, I wanted to do a show. It was very, very
difficult material, and they didn't want us to. When it became clear, as they
watched the dailies, what the show was about, you know, they said, `Jeez, we
hope there's--going to have a happy ending,' so I--and all of it lasted--you
know, not only is it not going to have a happy ending, but it's going to be a
two-parter. And then, the second part, I said, `Well, it's going to take 90
minutes.' But by that time, they were sort of broken in. And it didn't hurt
that those episodes won the Emmy. And so you get a certain amount of
credibility and...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MILCH: But also, you know, the thing about a network, the thing about
any sort of guardian at the gate is they don't want to have to make a
decision. I mean, they don't want to take the responsibility one way or
another, because, you know, suppose the thing makes money? So if they are
able to throw up their hands and say, you know, `We did our best, but that
process over there is uncontrollable,' they get it both ways. They make the
money, and they get their moral sanctimony at the same time.

GROSS: Interesting. Now I got to know, how do you make up a word like
goonyah?

Mr. MILCH: You know, it's--I don't know. That's my racket.

GROSS: So, I mean, what are some of the things you think about when you have
to make up, like, a phoney expletive or body part or, you know...

Mr. MILCH: Yeah, that thinking is invariably the enemy of action. And I
don't think. I mean, I don't outline my shows. I just sort of try and let it
happen.

GROSS: Right, OK.

Mr. MILCH: And so I improvise that stuff on the spur of the moment.

GROSS: My guest is David Milch, the creator and executive producer of the new
HBO Western drama "Deadwood." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David Milch, the creator and executive producer of
"Deadwood," HBO's new Western drama. Milch wrote for "Hill Street Blues" and
co-created "NYPD Blue." He's known for his colorful, hard-boiled language.
There's plenty of it along with lots of swearing in "Deadwood."

Since we've been talking a lot about language, I'm wondering if you found a
lot of interesting slang from the late 1800s in your research for "Deadwood,"
slang that you're now using on the show.

Mr. MILCH: Oh, sure. And you'll find that, for example, in the first
episode that aired the other evening, there's a moment when they're describing
a dilettante, and one of the characters says, `Well, it won't take long to
discourage him. He ain't got much sand.' And sand, in that regard, means
perseverance or gumption. If color, for--if you say, `Did you find any
color?' that's a way of asking whether someone found gold.

There are all sorts of specialized locutions that develop in any environment
which is isolated or where the people tend to deal only with each other, and
that's the way the language grows and complicates and stays rich. And what I
hope the viewers will feel as they spend more time with the show, what I hope
they'll recognize is the combination of locutions, obscenity and otherwise,
with which they're familiar and locutions which, as over the course of time,
become familiar to them, and it will be a measure of their kind of bonding
with that world, that they do understand them in context.

You know, there is an expression that cops used, `reaching out,' which, in one
way or another, has become some small part of the American lexicon because of
"NYPD Blue." And what you do with expressions like that is just let the
characters be themselves. And ultimately, if you're portraying an imaginative
reality which is incredible and engages the spirit, the audience will come
along and will even invest with a kind of pride in the appropriation of that
language. So I hope--I think "Deadwood" is a wonderful world, and however
off-putting it may seem initially, if an audience spends a little bit of time
in that world, I think, at a minimum, the viewer will experience its
complication and its variety. And for me, it's been a very uplifting
experience. I guess maybe my view of things is warped, but I like those
people a lot.

GROSS: Well, David Milch, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MILCH: It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: David Milch is the creator of HBO's new Western drama "Deadwood." The
third episode will be shown Sunday night after "The Sopranos."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a track from pianist Bill Charlap's
new CD "Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein." This is one of his songs
from "West Side Story," "Cool."

(Soundbite of "Cool")

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