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'Deadwood' creator has a way with words

March 19, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

What many, if not most, if not all, viewers will notice first about HBO's new western series "Deadwood" is its language, which is filthy. And while there's no question that obscenity has become the easy recourse of the lazy screenwriter, series creator David Milch -- a published poet who taught English at Yale for several years before he began to write for television -- is too particular about words to use them gratuitously. He was a student of Robert Penn Warren, "who taught that you build it word by word, and that you understand word by word -- because it was the way life worked, moment to moment, and language was the signification of the process."

Milch, who also co-created "NYPD Blue," may be the hardest-thinking man in show business. His series are in a sense merely shadows of the bigger ideas burning in his brain.

Take the short-lived "Big Apple," which was named, Milch has said, not for its New York City setting but "for the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil." Whereas most of us would have understood the 2001 CBS series to be a police procedural, if perhaps an unusually complex one, to Milch it was about "how information does or does not become understanding."

"Deadwood," which you are free to regard as simply an involving multithread tale of bad guys and better guys set during the last great gold strike in the continental United States, is likewise set on a deeper foundation. Milch had first pitched HBO a cop show set in Nero's Rome, a place and time without actual law. "I was interested in how those who were assigned to enforce order proceeded in the absence of any law," Milch says. But the network was working on another Roman series, and network head man Chris Albrecht suggested there might be other eras that would serve his theme. "So this seemed like an analogous situation, because Deadwood was a community that explicitly renounced law."

For Milch, who "had no particular experience or expertise in that period," the real-world particulars of Deadwood were a "constructive fortuity, in that I don't believe I would have been as comfortable starting with a wholly imagined environment." Built on land that by treaty belonged to the Sioux, it was an illegal, ungoverned outlaw settlement, marked by what Milch calls "a kind of libertine anarchy." "The town itself imposed itself on my imagination," he says, "it was such a strange amalgam of different kinds of criminality."

At the historic-in-itself Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, the production team has "pretty exactly replicated" Deadwood as it was in July 1876, just a few months into its life. The federal troops that had been keeping the prospectors away withdrew in March, "and then they came in like locusts."

"There was nothing there in March of '76; in November of 1877 they had telephones. They had telephones before San Francisco had telephones. That town is like a time-lapse study of the American experience -- it was an accelerated enactment not only of the original sin of the American expansion, but the entire process of American history sort of took place there in five years."

Deadwood also came with a ready-made cast of characters. "There are three or four characters [in the series] that ought to have existed, is the way I would put it," Milch says with a laugh. "But the vast majority were real." These include vice merchant Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), sheriff turned businessman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his partner-in-hardware Sol Star (John Hawkes); Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigart). "And Merrick, the newspaper publisher [played by Jeffrey Jones]; E.B. Farnum [William Sanderson], the sleazeball who ran the Grand Central Hotel -- those are real people.

"I studied pretty hard on them," Milch says. "Merrick was a wonderfully florid hypochondriac, so certainly I felt I knew everything about his digestive processes by the time I began. Bullock became Theodore Roosevelt's best friend later, and so there was pretty exhaustive stuff about him. Sol Star served 10 terms as mayor, so there were pretty good records about him. And Hickok -- there is no dearth of material about him."

Milch also "hung around with rodeo cowboys for about three months, 'cause they're sort of like walking ghosts -- they're people who for eight seconds every week get to live in the 19th century, they get to ride the bronco or the bull. There's a big rodeo in Deadwood, and we all went up there. Watching them come alive was a kind of epiphany, and all those guys are in the show, they're just wonderful."

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