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HBO GOES SURFING | THE WRITERS

Two oddly kindred spirits wind up on the same page

June 03, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

THE collaboration between novelist Kem Nunn and "Deadwood" creator David Milch might have seemed odd at first.

Milch, 62, raised in Buffalo, N.Y., taught literature at Yale. His knowledge of surfers was limited to his brief adventures into the '60s West Coast drug scene. A former heroin addict now eight years sober, he is famously compulsive, intellectual and social, improvising scripts on set.

More reserved, Nunn, 59, raised by Jehovah's Witnesses in Pomona, was steeped in the surf and biker culture of Southern California, an expert on the days of wooden boards and iron men. A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, he tends to work for hours on his novels and feature scripts alone in his room in Laguna Beach. Nunn, tall, lanky, a bit grizzled, strikes a laconic air compared with Milch's -- hip, compact and voluble.

They met last year, when Nunn was looking for a day job. As a "Deadwood" fan, he wrote Milch and included a copy of his latest novel, "Tijuana Straits," and a screenplay he had written. He got the job, wrote one guest script for "Deadwood" and was anticipating writing for the next season when HBO canceled the cult hit.

The network's president of entertainment, Carolyn Strauss, then proposed that Milch, under contract at HBO, rework one of his multilayered series ideas, "John From Elsewhere and His Friend Tex," to fit a pitch from Herb and Dibi Fletcher of San Clemente about the world of surfing. "I knew David had Kem Nunn working with him," Strauss said. "I thought, why not see if there was a marriage to be made, of sorts?"

Nunn said Milch asked whether he thought the metaphysical ideas from his script could be rolled into a surfing story. "I said, 'Sure. I think we should set it down on the border where I set my last book because it's such an interesting milieu,' " said Nunn one morning on the Imperial Beach pier, within view of the Tijuana bullring, and the seedy beach storefronts. Nearby, Milch directed actors as director John McNaughton looked on.

As it turned out, Milch and Nunn had common philosophical ground. "You could say the show's about life and what makes life worth living," Nunn said. Where Milch talks German philosophy, Nunn talks Gnosticism. "We all have some little spark of the divine in us, but most of us never know it. We sleepwalk through life and we never wake up," Nunn said. "Coming to gnosis, knowledge, means coming into an awareness of that spark of the divine."

Nunn wrote the first draft of the first episode while Milch was busy wrapping up "Deadwood" (a four-hour epilogue will start production when "John" winds up). Milch said he is "privileged" to work with Nunn. "His roots go very deep to what is below. I find nothing inaccessible about surfers, if you have a respect for what is particular about their experience," he said. "You want to be patient. I've borrowed Kem's access and spent as much time as I could with those people."

Milch and Nunn share writing credit on the pilot episode. Never having worked on episodic television, Nunn said he's happy enough to be in a role of making suggestions. "I'm kind of flying in David's house here."

None of his novels have made it to the screen. "Tapping the Source" has been locked up at Universal for two decades; Paramount similarly bought rights but hasn't developed "Dogs of Winter." Jeremiah S. Chechik ("Benny & Joon") has optioned Nunn's "Pomona Queen" and is in the process of funding an independent film.

His next novel, he said, centers on wild mushroom harvesters in Northern California.

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