'Deadwood' HBO Movie: On Set With David Milch and Cast - Rolling Stone
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‘Deadwood’ Rides Again

On the set of HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ movie, creator David Milch, Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant and more look back on the legendary series and grapple with Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Olyphant and Hawkes. "I don't know why these fuckers blew up this show 12 years ago," says Olyphant of HBO brass.Olyphant and Hawkes. "I don't know why these fuckers blew up this show 12 years ago," says Olyphant of HBO brass.

Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes in a scene from HBO's 'Deadwood' movie.

Warrick Page/HBO

Bullets are about to fly across Deadwood’s muddy thoroughfare. But first, poetry.

It’s a crisp November morning at Melody Ranch, the venerable Santa Clarita studio that’s been home to everything from squeaky-clean Gene Autry Westerns to Django Unchained and Westworld. The picaresque main street has been dressed to recapture the look it had for three years in the mid-2000s, when it was home to one of the greatest TV dramas ever made: HBO’s Deadwood, a gorgeously profane meditation on the American experiment and the painful business of bringing law to a lawless place — the Western frontier of the 1870s. The series was canceled under jarring circumstances that even the principals can’t agree upon a dozen years later, and talk of a sequel movie (two movies, initially) lingered for so long without amounting to anything that Deadwood seemed destined to be remembered as television’s great unfinished masterpiece. Instead, the network has reconstituted the Deadwood community for a surprise coda: a movie set a decade after the events of the series, which will debut on May 31st.

Though the people and landmarks are familiar, everything and almost everyone looks a bit more polished. Ian McShane is still in the trademark brown suit and long johns of gold-hearted local crime boss Al Swearengen, but other characters, such as U.S. Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Al’s henchmen Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) and Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers), are wearing fancier clothes to reflect their more prosperous stations in life. The street boasts civilizing touches, from brick facades to telephone poles. The series chronicled Deadwood’s violent transition from outlaw mining community to official U.S. territory, and the movie takes place right after South Dakota has achieved statehood.

The order of business for the day is a showdown between the hot-tempered Bullock and industrial kingpin and U.S. senator George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), witnessed by Swearengen and others. It is, as Dan Dority once put it, fixin’ for a bloody outcome, and the assembled actors are engaged in a gun safety lecture when a golf cart pulls up bearing the man who made this all possible, then and now.

David Milch, the Yale English professor turned Emmy-winning TV writer (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) with a list of former vices — everything from heroin to horse betting — and colorful personality traits longer than this filthy main street, emerges from the cart. He’s 74 now, thinner, grayer and moving more tentatively than he did during the series’ original run. Back then, he was a ball of energy in a black T-shirt offering eloquent, complicated direction to all within earshot, often rewriting scenes mere hours or even minutes before they were intended to be shot.

“I’ve met a few people that may have a level of intellect that Dave possesses,” says Brown. “But coupled with that, he has this innate emotional understanding of being able to see you at your core, to know who you are, and he recognizes all the cracks, and he wants to fix them. And coupled with that is that self-destructive streak that was a mile wide in his life. So I’ve never met another person exactly like him.”

In what’s become a daily ritual in the movie’s production, Milch, the series’ creator, produces a few sheets of paper containing a soliloquy on the key themes of the scene they’re about to shoot. The cast and crew gather in a dutiful circle around him. In uniquely Milch-ian style, he holds forth, citing Machiavelli, the Bible and the old question of whose ox is gored. “Swearengen,” he suggests, “confronts the tragic paradox — which every human being confronts as time goes on — which is the diminution of strength just as insight is heightened.” Midway through, he pauses to swig the remains of Bridgers’ morning coffee, then concludes with thoughts on the psychological game between Bullock and Hearst that plays out in the scene’s closing moments. After an appreciative silence, Milch cracks in his nasal Buffalo accent, “Thank you for your tolerance.”

It is a moment both beautiful and bittersweet. Once upon a time, Milch delivered speeches like this extemporaneously, dazzling his actors as much with the quickness of his wit as its eloquence. But in a plot twist sadly worthy of many of the tragic characters he’s written over the past four decades, Milch has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He can still write his unmistakably ornate dialogue — has, in fact, been doing minor rewrites throughout the shoot — but his memories come and go, and he moves, talks, and at times thinks more slowly and carefully than he did during the original run. As Brown puts it, “The depth of David’s mind and spirit is still there. The acceleration’s gone, but the rest of it’s there.”

Milch suggests of the process, “Certain complications were present throughout, and compounded as time progressed. I’m thankful to report my writing process has remained largely as it was. Each day is as it comes. We endeavor to meet life on life’s terms — not impose our ambitions on it, to be useful within the present moment.” 

In a daily ritual, creator Milch reads prepared remarks to the cast on set.

In a daily ritual, creator David Milch reads prepared remarks to the cast on set. Photo credit: Warrick Page/HBO

Warrick Page/HBO

This answer, like all of Milch’s, was emailed, an arrangement he insisted upon for this story to ensure that each question was answered only when his faculties were sharp. But Milch talks the way he writes — due to a bad back, he’s long dictated his scripts while lying on the floor — so both his mouth and his assistant’s keyboard produce the same complicated syntax you might expect to hear from Andy Sipowicz, Seth Bullock or, especially, Swearengen. Each of Milch’s characters carries around a piece of him, but Swearengen — consumed by demons yet capable of unfathomable generosity, vulgar and erudite within two breaths of one another — comes closest to bearing the totality of the man.

“I kiss David Milch in the morning, I kiss him when he leaves,” says McShane. “Because after all, I’m really playing David.”

The movie features close to two dozen actors from the series. Many of them had worked together in smaller combinations over the years — particularly on Sons of Anarchy and Olyphant’s contemporary Western Justified — but this is a reunion on a scale none had experienced in the years prior. Kim Dickens, who plays Deadwood madam Joanie Stubbs, calls it “a dream come true.” As they gathered on set, the co-stars started swapping Deadwood stories, most of which centered on Milch’s penchant for spur-of-the-moment writing and decision-making. As Paula Malcomson, who plays former prostitute Trixie, puts it, “Everyone’s got 100 Milch stories.”

Some are bizarre casting tales. When Gerald McRaney had breakfast with Milch to discuss playing Hearst, they instead spent the whole time talking about one of Milch’s favorite authors, William Faulkner. “He hired me on the basis of being able to carry on an intelligent conversation with him,” McRaney says. Actress-comedian Geri Jewell was waiting in line at a pharmacy to get botox, which alleviates the chronic neck pain that comes from her cerebral palsy, when the man behind her expressed disappointment that he hadn’t seen her in anything lately. Then he offered on the spot to create a part for her in his next project. “I looked at him and said, ‘This is a pharmacy, right?’” she recalls, still incredulous. “And he said, ‘Well in case you don’t recognize me, my name is David Milch.’ And he wrote his phone number on a prescription pad for antidepressants!” She would play Swearengen’s disabled cleaning lady Jewel for the run of the show, and returned for the movie, making a herculean effort to participate after recent major surgery.

Many others are stories of Milch inventing something incredible out of nothing at all, at the last possible minute. Olyphant recalls, “I once was on the stage with David Milch, and we were walking out together, and David walked right into the fucking wall and hit his head. And I turned to him and said, ‘David, are you OK?’ And he just looked at me and goes, ‘Goddam it if I couldn’t become addicted to that.’ And within a day, he had written a scene where some character on the show is banging his head against the wall. I’m like, ‘Oh, there it is. There lies the lesson.’ One of a kind, man.”

Late in the show’s first season, executive producer Gregg Fienberg lamented the absence of Reverend Smith, the kindly preacher Ray McKinnon had played in the early episodes. Within hours, Milch had written a new scene where Smith tells Bullock and Bullock’s friend Sol Starr (John Hawkes) that he has begun to suffer hallucinations, from what would be revealed in time to be a brain tumor. McKinnon, not scheduled to work that day, was tracked down and brought to set, and the resulting scene brought most of the crewmembers to tears. “I think it’s one of the best scenes we ever shot,” Fienberg says now. “It was so powerful and so meaningful, you know? That was Deadwood.”

Milch’s impulsive nature could at times be curse as much as blessing. It may have played a role in the series’ premature end. Dispute remains as to exactly why HBO pulled the plug — including budget overruns resulting from Milch’s improvisational approach and the fact that HBO had to share ownership of the series with Paramount — but a crucial detail all agree on was that, while Milch was negotiating to potentially keep the series alive for a truncated fourth season, Olyphant was (like several of his co-stars) in the process of buying a house, assuming he’d have another year’s salary to help pay for it. Milch, anxious at hearing this news from Olyphant, suggested the show had been canceled. Olyphant in turn called his representatives, more calls were made, and, as he puts it now, “It was a bit of a grass fire, that it became difficult for the two sides to walk back. In fact, the show was not over at all, but that by the time that spread around, no one wanted to back down from it. So it just became fact.”

“I think we might’ve all taken a big, deep breath, and let wiser heads prevail,” acknowledges Malcomson. “Maybe if we’d just shut the fuck up and not got under the drama, it might’ve gotten worked out.”

Because Olyphant had frequently found Bullock difficult to play — “I recall barely having my head above water, and I recall regretting every single choice made and begging David to let me change it” — he at first felt perverse relief at the cancellation. “I might have done a small victory dance when he told me the show was over,” he confesses. “But I at the same time have never been a part of anything quite this special.”

The cancellation happened well after the third season had wrapped production, so no one had a chance to say proper goodbyes. The cast were all stunned, and dealt with it in different ways. Robin Weigert, who played Calamity Jane, began having a recurring dream about the signature piece of her character’s wardrobe: “I would put her hat in a suitcase, close it up and mail it off. Like I was trying to make my peace with saying goodbye to a character who still was very much alive inside of me.” Brown kept a notepad by his phone, keeping track of which actor was doing what job so that he’d be prepared to help reassemble the cast whenever Milch was ready.

Ironically, one of the HBO executives involved with the cancellation, Carolyn Strauss, is now an executive producer on the film, and is one of many notables who can be found sitting with Milch on production days. (True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, a Milch devotee, stopped by the day before filming of the shootout. Jason Isbell, who’s friendly with Brown, came on another day to play Deadwood fanboy and wound up appearing as a musician in the background of a scene.) Strauss — whom Milch describes as “continually fair and generous” — felt as bad as anyone else about the cancellation, and now feels both relief and a sense of closure at getting to be part of the reunion.

“It’s Hollywood, things never happen the way you want them to,” she says. “This is actually a Hollywood ending.”

Depending on whom you ask in the cast and crew, this movie was either never going to happen or was absolutely going to happen. (Even now, when Milch’s assistant reads him my question about when he knew for sure the movie would happen, he laughs and asks, “Is it? Going to happen unquestionably?”) When Strauss and HBO head of programming Casey Bloys finally started discussing it in the spring of 2016, Bloys had only one major condition: where Milch largely got to make things up in the moment while producing the series’ three 12-episode seasons, the movie would need a completed script, with only minimal changes allowed after production began.

“The cast had all moved on to other projects and series, so we had a limited window with all the actors,” Bloys explains. “We could not take a chance on revisions that would affect schedule. David’s health did not factor into the decision; it was a practical necessity for production.”

As it turned out, all those years wandering in the wilderness allowed Milch to work out the kinks in advance, rather than relying on last-second inspiration to fix things. Everyone raves about the finished script.

Ian McShane.photo: Warrick Page/HBO

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Photo credit: Warrick Page/HBO

Warrick Page/HBO

“I began to sob about page four,” says John Hawkes, “and I thought, ‘What is wrong with me?’ And I realized, as much as I really care for the actors on this show, I may care for the characters they play even more, because suddenly there was Calamity Jane, Charlie Utter, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock alive, on the page, moving about and speaking. I never thought I would see that again. It was as though there was some sort of heaven that you’d died and gone to that you got to see your relatives, you know? It was the people you loved from the past, and here they were.”

At the table read — ordinarily a brisk, workmanlike affair where the cast recites the script aloud for the first time — Weigert was surprised to realize she couldn’t get through her delivery of the film’s opening line.

“It was just that I start the thing with the words, ‘Ten years gone,’” Weigert says, “and I just looked around the table, at all these faces I hadn’t seen in a similar amount of time, and I choked up a bit.”

With the script largely unchanged since that day, and with Milch a subdued and less constant presence due to his condition, filming of the movie is far more orderly than the series ever was. (Fienberg, who’s also produced Twin Peaks, Big Little Lies and many others, calls it “more relaxing than anything I’ve done in a long time.”) For some in the cast, this is a bug, not a feature.

“It hasn’t been [as] satisfying,” says Keone Young, who returns as Swearengen’s Chinese ally, Mr. Wu, “because in the old days, we’d learn so much from David. David would come down, and his explanation was pretty profound. It would be like a lecture, and you’d go, ‘Oh, really?’”

“I feel a little ripped off,” admits Olyphant. “Because one of the great appeals of working with David is the chaos. And in the same respect of feeling like I don’t know why these fuckers blew this show up 12 years ago, there’s a little tinge of me feeling a little ripped off that they didn’t get this thing going. If they were going to do it, they should have done it sooner.”

But other actors argue that Milch’s daily monologues provide much of the inspiration that they need. And when he’s physically present on set, he’s also mentally present to offer advice, as he does when McShane asks for insight into Swearengen’s and Bullock’s relationship. On an earlier day, Malcomson felt a scene was missing something and pulled Milch aside to brainstorm. “David and I put our heads together, and I said, ‘Let’s pick on E.B. Farnum,’” the cowardly former Deadwood mayor. “We’re now tasked with having to be our own [Milches],” she says. “To take all the things that he taught us, and put them into play.”

The shootout scene takes nearly the full day of production, as key characters are filmed on their own from different angles: first Bullock, then Hearst, then Dan and Johnny, and finally Swearengen up on the balcony of the saloon. Director Dan Minahan is building the scene layer by layer, creating the same density that was palpable throughout the original run of the show. Though it’s now a cliché to suggest a series’ location is its real main character, truer words were never spoken about Deadwood. The series — more graphically violent and vulgar than HBO peers like The Sopranos and The Wire, but also far more hopeful — was fundamentally about the building of community, and the ways that all of these fortune-seeking loners come to realize that they should band together for the common good. A Deadwood scene isn’t a Deadwood scene without frequent reaction shots of characters who aren’t central to its conflict, as a reminder that they, and we, are all in this turbulent life together, and we’d best help each other while we can.

“There’s this big story about us,” says Young, “that we love each other, that we really care about each other, as actors. And that all comes from David, who’s shown us much love as a cast and a crew. So I’m here not for me, I’m here for that love I’ve learned to have, for my friends. I’m here to be with them.”

The cast are bracing themselves for production to wrap, and for them to have the chance to say goodbye to each other and this experience in a way they were denied way back when. In a showbiz rarity, actors keep wandering in on their days off, just to spend more time with each other, and with Milch. Olyphant’s adoration manifests in ball-busting: Where other actors speak reverently about Milch’s morning speeches, Olyphant cracks, “I liked your talk earlier, but the short version would’ve been cool.” (“Point taken,” Milch responds with a wry smile.) Talk turns to Ricky Jay, the magician who played card dealer Eddie Sawyer in the first season, and who recently died; the actors laugh remembering how Eddie escaped murder only because Jay refused to show up to film his death scene. Malcomson wistfully suggests he could have pulled off a similar trick in real life, that his death was just his greatest illusion yet. And the tears come again.

“I can’t talk to you without crying, David,” she confesses. “You’re where we measure everything else in our careers and our lives.” McShane, eager to cut through the sentiment, leans over from the balcony to quip, “Speak for your fuckin’ self!” Everyone laughs, but then Malcomson continues, “Nothing else measures up. Everything is fucked.”

Though it has afforded a measure of emotional closure, the actors point out that the film is no more a conclusion to the Deadwood story than the third season finale, which concluded with Swearengen on his hands and knees, scrubbing out the blood from a murder he’d just committed. Some cast members have even expressed hope that the movie might be a new beginning rather than an ending, though Bloys calls the prospect “unlikely.”

What does Milch think about the idea that his greatest work might continue on past this movie?

“Speculations in re: Deadwood,” he replies, “if you’re inclined, you can put them beside the speculations in dreams.”


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