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The Words According to David Milch

October 10, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY

Writing tends to be a solitary occupation for most and an occupation, in the truest sense, for precious few. It is not the sort of activity that easily lends itself to "how-to" displays or in-depth analysis on the order of Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio."

Yet roughly 300 people have filled the Writers Guild of America's theater in Beverly Hills the last few weeks to learn about writing from David Milch, the Emmy-winning co-creator of "NYPD Blue," who has brought his unique brand of manic energy to a free five-week seminar on writing.

Milch's presentation is a multifaceted experience--part one-man stage show, part meditation on world events, part evangelical revival (he reads from the Bible occasionally to illustrate points about drama) and, perhaps most of all, part graduate-level psychology course.

"I've decided that he is joining a seminary and we are his practice parishioners," said Skye Dent, a writer who has been attending the class.

The net effect of visiting the church of Milch, however, is ultimately a kind of gentle prodding not to let personal problems or inner demons interfere with the art of writing.

"If you take nothing else away from all this conversation," Milch told the group at the inaugural session, "the big thing is that nothing we say here has anything to do, finally, with the state of being that you occupy when you actually write."

Milch knows a little something about inner turmoil and self-reflection. In fact, there are few more fascinating personalities in the world of television. A former Yale professor who wrote for "Hill Street Blues" before co-creating "NYPD Blue" with Steven Bochco, Milch went through a period of drug addiction earlier in his life and endured major heart surgery just as "Blue" hit the air. He has made no bones about his proclivity toward exorcising demons, to an extent, through his work.

"When I'm in my head," he quipped, "I'm in a very bad neighborhood."

Still, he is also recognized as one of the industry's elite writers, blessed and perhaps to a degree cursed with the sort of analytical mind that can be both provocative and confounding--tossing around terms like "provisional myth" in the sort of facile manner seldom encountered in a network pitch meeting.

Despite having left an academic setting, Milch continues to harbor a passion for teaching. "The whole process is gratifying," he said. "The deepest satisfaction one can experience is to submit oneself to a process where you try to pass on what you have learned, with no strings attached."

Perhaps most intriguingly, the goal now is to share Milch's insights with a wider audience--to bring his ministry, in essence, to those with a script tucked under their arm who weren't able to cram into the WGA theater. The class is being taped by Marc Ostrick, a young filmmaker who recently put together a 50-minute documentary titled "Without a Net--Creating 'NYPD Blue,"' chronicling the final, frenetic weeks of Milch's seven-year run producing the show.

Ostrick was asked by Milch's wife, Rita Stern, to spend some time on the set and see what came of it.

"After about three hours, I said, 'Oh my God, this would make a great documentary,"' said Ostrick, who sees the possibility of distributing the special along with highlights from the lectures to cable or public television.

"We are going to try to use it mostly for educational purposes," he said. "This would be a great learning tool for any kind of writer.... It's entertaining and educational, all wrapped into one."

Clearly, many feel they have something to learn from what Milch has to say. The filled-to-capacity class has included plenty of working writers in addition to the usual assortment of people who stroll the outskirts of Hollywood hoping to find a hole in the unseen fence seemingly barring their entry.

"I found [the class] exciting and very inspiring," said David Zucker, who has written for the CBS drama "Judging Amy," adding that Milch's 10-hour commitment to the free seminar is "incredibly generous." In fact, Milch has quietly conducted similar courses on a smaller basis, including a class he orchestrated for promising minority writers and another that involved bringing Yale students to the West Coast and housing them so they could participate.Told that some of those on hand were struck by the generosity of his investment, Milch responded dryly, "Commercial television doesn't demand honorable conduct, but it doesn't preclude it."

What writers can glean from Ostrick's documentary, beyond an appreciation of Milch's brilliance and perhaps sympathy for those who worked with him, may be less obvious. The production captures Milch's unconventional creative process on "NYPD Blue," which included rewriting scenes on the set and generating new pages at the last minute, to the point where episodes would begin production without a completed script. For the cast and crew, it was the sort of high-wire act they found maddening, frustrating, fascinating and invigorating, often all at once.

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