June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
The creator of the immensely popular new Western discusses what makes it truly new.
David Milch has taken one of the most convoluted imaginable paths to success in television. Having earned an M.F.A. in fiction at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, he went on to teach literature at Yale for nine years and became close friends with a man he now regards as one of his mentors, the great novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren. From 1982 to 1987 he wrote for “Hill Street Blues,” proving that if television scripts were not actually literature, they could, at the least, be first-rate drama. With “NYPD Blue” (1993–2005) he took the urban crime drama to new levels of complexity and intensity.
“Deadwood,” the series he created, begins its third season in June. The supercharged dramatization of actual events in the legendary South Dakota gold-mining town has done for the American West what “The Sopranos” has done for mob mythology, competing with that series for the unofficial title of the most scintillating hour on television. While preparing for the season premiere, Milch took some time off to assess the impact of “Deadwood” on our perceptions and misperceptions of frontier America.
When “Deadwood” first came on, a lot of people were scrambling to find its inspirations. Some said Sam Peckinpah, a few said the Westerns of Walter Hill, but nothing really stuck. It took me about midway through the second season to understand that the show’s antecedents weren’t really Westerns, or am I wrong?
No, you’re quite right. I did want to do a show on the American West, but I didn’t want to do a Western. I’ve never really understood or cared for the con-ventions of the Western. I always thought they had more to do with what the Hays Office would allow than with what happened on the American frontier. The more I came to read about the West, the more I realized how little what we called Westerns had to do with the West and how much they had to do with the vision of European Jews in the movie business who made a fortune selling a sanitized idea of American history back to America. The Hays Code said right up front that obscenity in word or action was an offense against God and man and could therefore not be depicted on a movie screen.
I’d say you obliterated the stated ideals of the Hays Code in the first 10 minutes of the first episode of “Deadwood.”
Yeah, both barrels.
Would it be fair to say that your intention was to do a revisionist Western?
No, not really. At least that’s not how I started out. At the beginning I wasn’t really reacting against anything. What I was really interested in was the development of law and order, or, specifically, how does order develop without law. In new societies, in frontier societies where there is no central authority, how does order develop? It isn’t just a matter of brute force; even brute force can only be used by somebody with an idea of order. How does chaos evolve into order?
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, but as you said that, a scene just popped into my head. In Blazing Saddles, in the courthouse scene that parodies the one in High Noon, somebody bangs a gavel and hollers, “Order!” Another character says—
Yes, yes. “Y’know, Nietzsche says: Out of chaos comes order.” A great moment. What does it tell you about the strict conventions of Westerns that the only time that question has been raised is in a Mel Brooks movie?
Where did you want to set the show if not in the West?
Well, this is going to sound kind of strange, but my initial feeling was that I’d set it in ancient Rome, the time of the emperor Nero.
The “Seven Hills Street Blues”?
That’s the worst pun I’ve ever heard. Thank you. I may use that. I wanted to follow a group of Roman policemen, more or less the city cops, who are called the Urban Cohorts. The Romans had a Praetorian Guard, but its function was to watch over the emperor and do his bidding. They were all involved in court intrigue, and it was left for the Urban Cohorts to more or less keep things together in the absence of genuine moral authority.
“The Urban Cohorts”—a great name for a punk band. Also a great idea for a TV series. Why didn’t it happen?
Well, the Rome mini-series was under way, so I was behind the historical curve on that idea. Some people at HBO were in-terested in the themes I talked about. What they wanted to know was: Could you deal with the same themes in a different historical setting? I then thought about placing it in the American West, but it had to be in an exact time and place in which there was near chaos, a nascent community struggling for some kind of authority. Deadwood, I realized after extensive research, was what I had been looking for. It was, after all, a completely illegal city, a town that existed without legal authority and which went through a maelstrom of turmoil before its citizens learned to impose some kind of order on themselves.
As I said, it wasn’t my intention to make a revisionist Western, but I became increasingly interested in creating a vision of the West as I saw it, as I believe it existed and which has seldom been presented before.
Why do you think your visions shocked so many people?
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.
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.