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The Man Who Made Deadwood
The creator of the immensely popular new Western discusses what makes it truly new.
June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
Precisely because their frame of refer-ence is not the West itself but the decades of television and movie Westerns that we’ve been talking about. “Deadwood” doesn’t waste time telling you that those shows weren’t truth; it simply plunges you right into the heart of this completely uncensored view of the West. I imagine we lost quite a few viewers in the first half-hour.
And I imagine you picked up many more for the second episode when word of mouth kicked in. Speaking of influences, I couldn’t help feeling that there is something of the spirit of Dashiell Hammett in “Deadwood,” particularly the kind of moral relativism that exists in a book like Red Harvest [see sidebar], which also takes place in a mining town and which seems to happen in a world untouched by outside legal or moral authority. Would you say that’s accurate?
I’d say there’s a lot of the spirit of Hammett, particularly the Hammett of
It also had filmmakers looking over their shoulders at the Hays Office. Has too much been made of the language in “Deadwood”?
I think much too much was made about the cursing. We’ve been listening to David Mamet and many others for a couple of decades now, and you’d think people wouldn’t be shocked at a few choice words.
Don’t you think it had more to do with the idea that that language was used in the context of a Western? That people weren’t used to hearing those words used in a setting that Gary Cooper and John Wayne once inhabited? I mean, for older viewers at least, the saloon talk sounds a heck of a lot saltier than anything Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty said.
Too much was made about the cursing.
That probably has a lot to do with it, but if you’re going to talk about language, I wish more people had noticed the overall language, the rhythms of period speech that we tried so hard to re-create, and the richness of the imagery. Profanity, I’ve come to believe, was the lingua franca of the time and place, which is to say that anyone, no matter what his or her background, could connect with almost anyone else on the frontier through the use of profanity. But there’s so much more to the dialogue than just the profanity. The language of the characters in the show is never generic, and everyone’s is different. They come from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, and they all express themselves a little differently.
That’s one of the things people like about the show, that after they’ve watched for a while, they can instantly identify each character by the quirkiness of his or her speech. These are people, you know, who all grew up long before the age of electronic media, when regional speech patterns began to lose their distinctiveness. Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.
What were your primary sources for the language? There is no oral history to go by, and no one expressed themselves that openly in period correspondence. Where did you go to find out about period speech?
Formal letters didn’t convey a great deal of how people spoke, but informal letters—say, a brother writing a brother about life in a mining camp, or period memoirs or diaries—do. Of course, much of the best stuff wasn’t written with the idea of publication. But you can get a fairly good idea of the evolution of the language and the derivation of most words and terms in the Library of Congress papers on oral history, and H. L. Mencken’s The American Language is very good on this too.
I wonder what parts of the Bible Al Swearengen (played by the British actor Ian McShane) was raised on. I don’t think there’s been a more terrifying character in recent TV or film. He seems capable of just about anything, of evil that most people can’t conceive of.
Or of evil, perhaps, that he doesn’t yet know that he’s capable of. And by extension, of course, the town marshal, Seth Bullock, doesn’t know what depths he’s capable of sinking to when it comes to dealing with Swearengen. I think they’re two parts of the same personality. They both, I think, are more de-pendent on each other than either would be anxious to admit. Like all characters on the frontier, they probably regarded themselves as free and independent, capable of making choices that determined the paths their lives would take. But both, I think, had lives that lived them more than they lived their lives.
I think the question most fans of “Deadwood” are going to have as the show goes into its third season is: Can you sustain the intensity? Can “Deadwood” continue to surprise us?
I never intended for “Deadwood” to go on and on for 20 years, like “Gunsmoke.” I think it’s going to continue to surprise people because it’s building in intensity. It’s got to end because the period of wildness on the frontier only lasted a short time before order was imposed. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t get worse before they get better.