When HBO abruptly canceled Deadwood in 2006, a few weeks after production had wrapped on the sereis’ third season, no one in the cast or crew got to say a proper goodbye to each other, or the experience. For W. Earl Brown, who played Al Swearengen’s top henchman Dan Dority, that was unacceptable. Several months later, he convinced co-star Sean Bridgers (Johnny Burns) to meet him at Melody Ranch, where the show had filmed — and where many of their former colleagues were now working on creator David Milch’s ill-fated follow-up, John From Cincinnati — to get the farewell HBO had deprived them of.
“We met in the parking lot,” Brown says, “we walked up the street, we sat on the steps of [Deadwood brothel] the Chez Ami. And we mourned. We sat there for over half an hour and we didn’t speak.”
“It was weird,” says Bridgers. “It was just strange for people to be shooting another show on our stage. It was difficult. I’m not sure it was a great idea. I think it was cathartic for him, I don’t know if it was for me or not.”
It was cathartic enough for Brown — the only Deadwood actor to also write for the show (he helped pen the third season’s “A Constant Throb”) — to make peace with the end of this dream project. “That was the moment I let it go, to some degree,” he says. “Stopped beating a dead horse.” HBO had promised two follow-up movies not long after the cancellation, but they had already seemed to slip away like sand through everyone’s fingers.
At a lunch a few years later, though, Milch talked with Brown about the idea of revisiting those reunion films. From that moment on, Brown became the truest of the true believers in the idea that Deadwood could come back to life. He would provide periodic updates on Twitter, even as cynics (including me) rolled their eyes at the possibility. Where many of the show’s alums didn’t buy into the idea until HBO started calling their agents to ask about scheduling, Brown knew in his heart that this would be real.
And now it is. Deadwood: The Movie debuts Friday on HBO, bringing back nearly every surviving cast member for a story set a decade after the events of the great Western. While I visited the set in November, I sat with Brown inside the Bella Union bar to talk about that time in the wilderness, how it feels to get the gang back together, Milch making the movie while battling Alzheimer’s and more.
When the show ended, did you think the movies would happen?
When it finished, I kept a notepad next to my phone, in my office, keeping track of who was doing what. I kept that going for over a year. All the horses are out of the barn, but I grew up on a farm. I can get the horses back in the barn because I’ve done it.
Was there a point after that lunch with Milch at which you understood that this was actually going to happen?
It’s all been incremental. He finished a draft a year and a half ago. [Milch’s wife] Rita emailed it to me, and she goes, “Everything looks positive, but Dave wanted you to have this just in case.” Overall, the [final] script is pretty close to what it was then. Then in February, I got a call asking what I was doing in October. There was one pilot that was offered. I said, “I can’t have anything conflict with Deadwood.” So we walked away from that. I didn’t want anything to interfere with this.
When Rita sent you that script, what was it like to have new pages after all this time?
I sat on a Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to Burbank crying. It was like reuniting with family that you haven’t seen in a decade, even though they were just characters on a page. One or two times a year, Ian [McShane] and I would have a Deadwood breakfast over near his house. I still see a lot of the folks in the show. But to see the characters alive, to hear David’s language — I hear it in my head, I didn’t have to speak it out loud — it was like being reunited with somebody you love and hadn’t seen in a decade. There just happened to be 22 of us.
You were the most public optimist about this happening. When you would run into people from the show, did any of them ever try to talk you off the ledge about it?
There was an exec who was at the helm, who I crossed paths with at a party about a year after the demise of the show. And there was that [awkward] moment of not knowing the other was going to be at the same function. And then it was a relief for me, when it was admitted to me by that person, “That’s the biggest mistake I ever made, the cessation of this.”
Everybody invested a piece of their soul in this. And it’s the same thing with the viewership. It’s not something you can passively watch. That’s why it’s always been fun encountering Deadwood fans, because they don’t wanna talk about show business. They wanna talk about the story, the interplay of the characters. So, just as in the same way that you can’t passively watch it, you can’t just clock in, go to work and say your lines. The show didn’t end, it stopped. And that was an impossible pill to swallow. I’m not the lone ranger in this, we all feel the same way.
I’ve heard that the first table read for the movie was emotional.
When this was green-lit, I said to my wife, “Yeah, we’re coming back. And yes, we’re telling a story that I believe in. But I can’t expect that moment in time to be re-birthed, because that’s a moment in time. And you gotta go from where you are now.” I didn’t know if that same spirit would be alive. The table read was the first time the mass of us had been in the same place, with a shared purpose. Soon as its first line was spoken, you could feel it run through the room. It was like electricity. Robin [Weigert, who plays Calamity Jane] has the first line, which acknowledges the passage of time. And Robin and I were sitting across from one another, and she got choked up, and had to stop. Drew her breath and she spoke the line as Robin. And then she became Calamity Jane, and then there we were. We were on the trail.
I knew in that instance that it means as much to everybody else to be back as it does to me. Dave, when we started this, he said the town is the star of the show — the community. In Season One, I was talking to him about some circumstance and I said “our Western.” Dave: “We’re not doing a Western.” And I said, “What?” He goes, “No, your archetypical American Western, of which I was never a fucking fan of, was about individualism in the great white expanses and justification for manifest destiny. None of that bullshit. Our show is the exact opposite. It’s about how we as human beings tend to cleave together and form a community, and how law forms out of chaos. That’s what our show is about.” And I went, “Dave I’m wearing a six-shooter and boots, it’s a fucking Western.” So what happened amongst us was the same thing that this show is about: that sense of community and bonds forming. And to be able to revisit it is a blessing beyond measure.
David’s here, but it’s a more subdued presence.
The depth of David’s mind and spirit is still there. The acceleration’s going, but the rest of it’s there.
He’s been making a daily, prepared speech to the cast and crew where he explains the theme of the scene to be shot. What’s it like watching those? It’s not the off-the-cuff way that he used to do it.
It’s the same, what he talks about thematically and how we all came to this spot. He knows he has to rely on his notes. That’s why I said, the depth of the thoughts is still there — it’s just his ready ability to access it. You were here [during the original series], you would see how that mind would just go ricochet off every wall, and the bullet would always land back in the target.
HBO wanted a locked script as a condition of filming. That’s made the process much more orderly than it was back then. How has the experience been different for you?
The only difference is you know what your schedule is. He’s worked on this and refined it for so long, but the depth was there in advance.
Do you remember the first time, back in Season One, where Milch made some kind of big change at the last minute?
In the pilot I improvised a line, which is a huge no-no. I just added a couple of words. It was the scene where Bullock and Star come into town, and I approach them about paying rent to Mr. Swearengen. I’m supposed to say, “You’ll find it.” And in one take I went, “You’ll find it… everybody does.” Cut, [Milch] comes walking over to me, and he says, “Well I guess I’m gonna have to call WGA.” I say, “What?” He goes, “Get an adjudication, who wrote this fucking thing, me or you? What the fuck did you say?” “I said, ‘You’ll find it… everybody does.’” He says, “Never quote me on this ’cause I’ll fucking deny it, but that is a great twist of phrase. Script, come over, write this down, write it down.”
That was the moment I realized that, you follow the punctuation in his writing, but he’s not a locked vapor chamber, you know? It’s easy. And that was really his process. I twice got to sit down with him one-on-one to listen to him lecture on his theory of writing, and he said, “Stories have a way of telling themselves. As the writer you are a vessel for that story. What you have to do is open your ears and open your spirit, and let that story come through you…” So, I recognized then that if you [wanted a small change], you always ran it by him, you didn’t just pull it out your ass as the cameras were rolling. There was a collaboration there. That element of it is still there. Him making up entire story elements aren’t.
Now, there were some of those that were purposeful. Billy [Sanderson, who played E.B. Farnum] doesn’t give himself credit enough for how talented he is and how smart he is. His neuroses won’t let him trust himself. And there was this scene in Season One where Farnum is trying to convince Swearengen to send Dority to climb in the Army captain’s window and cut his throat. Big, long speech. And Billy wanted his stuff a couple of days in advance. Well, we’re rehearsing and Dave says, “Yeah, that speech… Script, come over.” He dictates an entirely new speech. With every passing sentence you could see Billy getting [agitated]. He rewrote the whole entire speech. David turns to leave the room and he winked at me, and walked out. Of course Billy got it. He just didn’t trust himself. But it gave it this whole desperate, nervous energy underneath it. So there was a method to his madness.
Can you articulate what’s so special about working with Milch?
I’ve met a few people that may have a level of intellect that Dave possesses. Coupled with that, he has this innate emotional understanding of being able to see you at your core — to knowing 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. And he had this way of molding the characters to us. He just knew who you were. Farnum’s sweaty palms was literally because Billy’s palms would get to sweating when he would get nervous. That was incorporated into the character. All of our little personal peccadillos kinda found their way into it. Which is probably now the reason I felt such a kinship with Dan Dority.
It was a trust exercise, ’cause you don’t know what the fuck’s coming next. That’s what was so exhilarating about this. You couldn’t wait to get to work, ’cause you didn’t know what the fuck was gonna happen. And it’s not like it was all big hugs and butterfly kisses on set every day, ’cause there were days people butted heads. But we were all committed to this common thing, this common story. Joseph Campbell wrote about the idea of stories being this spiritual communion, this drawing together. That’s exactly what this was. And we all became aware of it once the season started and we saw what was going on, and then when we saw it all aired, we knew we had something special.
[Conversation briefly turns to Rolling Stone, which Brown has subscribed to since he was 13.]
I’m a huge music nut, and I have befriended so many musicians who were heroes of mine who loved the show. I think the musical ear, even if they didn’t recognize the iambic pentameter, picked up on the rhythm of the language. And there’s a real musicality to what David writes. That’s how ZZ Top were in the show. Jason Isbell was here a couple weeks ago.
On camera, or just here?
In the background of a scene. I’ve known Jason since he was in the [Drive-By] Truckers, when we were in production on this. When the movie happened, I got a text from him, “Is this for real?” And I said, “Yeah, it looks like it is gonna happen.” He just wanted to be in the background, and so he is.
John Hawkes told me something with a wink, so I couldn’t tell how seriously to take it. He suggested there are already rumors of another film — like you might really make both of the movies HBO promised all those years ago.
There’s a great Ray Wylie Hubbard lyric, that I think I’m gonna have a tattoo of someday: “Every day that my gratitude is higher than my expectation, I have a good day.” To have this? If this is it, this is it. Conditions being what they are, I don’t know. I mean I would be the first person to sign up, but if this is it, I will be eternally full of gratitude.