TV's Great Writer

Thursday, April 20, 2006
5-7 p.m.
Bartos Theater


David Milch has been called television’s first artistic genius, its great writer. His powerful dramas have troubled the censors in the networks and in Congress and have explored human weakness and violence in disturbing and artful ways. One of television’s most honored writers, his credits include Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue (co-created with Steven Bochco) and the pioneering HBO series Deadwood. In this Forum, Milch will discuss his career as a writer and creator with Forum Director David Thorburn, a historian of television who knew Milch as a Yale student. The session will include clips distilled from Milch's best work.


A webcast of TV's Great Writer is now available.


[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

DAVID THORBURN: Our guest is David Milch, who has been called television's first artistic genius. He's won numerous awards for his work on shows such as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and most recently, Deadwood. I met David at Yale when I was starting my career as a professor and he was a graduate student; when he heard I was interested in media, he showed me a short film he had made in a truck stop that was full of the kind of black humor that characterizes his work today. I thought we'd begin by showing a clip from Hill Street Blues. It's a brief clip, but I think it demonstrates some of the qualities that characterize his work.

(A clip from Hill Street Blues is shown in which Sid the informant tries to convince Buntz the cop to help buy a large, under priced quantity of cocaine and become rich selling it.)

David, could you tell us about these characters?

DAVID MILCH: Sid is kind of a Falstaff character, a cheerfully amoral counterpoint to Buntz. Buntz is a cop who is very uncomfortable in his own skin. Sid is the inner part of Buntz that wants to break the law, and Buntz is always repressing that urge by beating down Sid.

THORBURN: You've had an ongoing professional relationship with Dennis Franz, the actor who played Buntz and several of your other characters.

David MilchMILCH: I came onto Hill Street Blues after it had started, and I felt it presented a sanitized view of police work, based on my own experiences. The first character I introduced was Sal Benedetto, a bad cop who I felt realistically represented one aspect of policing. In one episode, he robbed a bank, and when they sent in a robot after him, he ended up beating on the robot with his fists. He's a Luddite, he hates technology and anything modern. They made me kill him off. Later, when I was in charge of the show, I brought him back as Norman Buntz. On NYPD Blue, I asked Dennis to be on for one episode as a similar character named Sipowicz; he agreed, on the condition that he be killed at the end, since Sipowicz was his 173rd cop role. Once we had him under contract I admitted I'd fibbed. Sipowicz was named, unconsciously, after my father; his mother's name was Sapowicz, and Sipowicz shares several traits with my dad. I have a love for complicated personalities, so Sipowicz is a guy that I have a lot of affection for.

THORBURN: Sipowicz could be seen as a character you never finished, and continued as Swearengen in Deadwood. You have a gift for creating monstrous characters with very human qualities. Are you aware of how horrible and yet how human they seem when you're writing them?

MILCH: Well, my dad beat me, and I adored him. He ended up taking his own life. I was working on a project with R.W.B. Lewis at the time...

THORBURN: R.W.B. Lewis wrote a Pulitzer-winning biography of Edith Wharton, to which Milch made an immense contribution, as Lewis acknowledges in the book. I'm sure many at Yale were disappointed when Milch became a TV writer instead of a professor.

MILCH: We were working on a TV script and book project about the James family, Henry and William. During the pitch, Dick was called out of the room, and after it was over, he told me why. He'd been told that my dad had died, and that he'd left instructions that I was not to be told until I'd finished the pitch. My dad was the only child of the eldest of ten children. He was the same age as some of his uncles, who worked in racketeering. Since he was the “next generation,” however, he was expected to become educated, and he became a surgeon, as did my older brother. He was very frustrated by his professional identity, and every summer he would take us to meet his family at the racetrack. During the Kefauver hearings on organized crime, my dad did hernia operations on wise guys so they wouldn't have to testify.

There was a tension between his background and his education. My brother took over my dad's care when he became old. Since my father's identity was so bound up in being a surgeon, he assumed that his son, having replaced him, was having sex with his wife, and took his own life in front of them, to punish them. His last words were, “Don't tell David until he's done with his pitch.” Let me hurry to say that I'm a very happy and grateful person. The future is always in the process of interpreting the meaning of the past. In the aftermath of my dad's passing, my brother retrained himself as a hospice physician, and has established hospice programs in Romania , Poland and Hungary . I choose to believe that my father, through his inability to accept himself, taught my brother that there was another way to be a physician. The primary responsibility of the physician is not curative but pastoral.

One more story before we continue. When I started writing for TV, I won a Humanitas Award for uplifting the human spirit or something. Fifteen grand, tax-free. I kept winning, and I was a bitter heroin addict at the time. Whenever I got the award, I would make a point of trying to scandalize the priest by telling him I'd spent the money on something frivolous. Once I told him I bought a racehorse with the award money. I hated this guy and didn't know why. He'd look at you like he knew something about you that you didn't. Years passed, I kept winning, and finally I got sober. I said I didn't like him, that he smiled when I tried to offend him. I said I thanked God to live long enough to know that the shadow in which all my characters had to live was cast by God's sheltering hand. That's what the Father knew.

THORBURN: As you were talking, I had two reactions. First, I heard Dennis Franz when you spoke. Second, elements of your autobiography have clearly seeped into your work. You've been talking about the doctors in your family. Let's watch a clip from Deadwood. It centers on a doctor played by Brad Dourif.

(A clip is shown in which Doc Cochran presents a specially constructed orthopedic boot to Jewel, who has cerebral palsy and a club-foot.)

MILCH: The doctor is a figure out of Conrad. Whereas Dr. Monygham in Nostromo broke under torture, this doctor broke in the Civil War. He's kind of an exile, like most of the characters in Deadwood . It wasn't just that everyone died that broke him, but that they died screaming. He came to Deadwood because his asocial nature isn't unusual there. This girl asks him for his help, and he's afraid to fail her. At the same time, there's a minister who's dying of a tumor.

THORBURN: The doctor is an alcoholic, and spends much of the show utterly drunk. He's an example of one sort of duality in your work -- characters who possess both contemptible and heroic aspects. Swearengen has a similar kind of duality; he's a darker version of the kind of character we saw in Buntz and Sipowicz. Let's look at another clip from the same episode, where the doctor goes to Swearengen about the sick minister.

(A clip from Deadwood is shown. Doc Cochran convinces Swearengen to take care of the dying minister in his last days, since medicine can no longer help him. Swearengen reluctantly agrees. Later, we see Cochran begging God to release the minister from his pain, in the process remembering the horrors he witnessed in the war. Finally, Swearengen suffocates the minister, closing his eyes gently after he dies, saying, “You can go now, brother.”)

MILCH: One question that probably occurs here is, who is God's instrument? Melville said that any good poem spins against its drive. I think any good scene does that, and all human behavior as well. Hawthorne said that man's accidents are God's purposes. We miss the good we seek and do the good we little sought. Why Swearengen thinks he does it and why God wants him to do it might be totally different things.

I regard Deadwood  as a single large episode. When we finish it next year, there will be 48 episodes, and the full pattern might be clear. Because of his brain tumor, the minister has become epileptic, and Swearengen had an epileptic brother. When they were children, when the brother would have a seizure, Swearengen would encourage people to throw coins, as if the seizure were entertainment. The last thing Swearengen says to the minister is, “You can go now, brother.” That's one instance of the future interpreting the past. When the minister comes in, he's quoting from Paul's epistles to the Corinthians and Romans.

David MilchI first proposed a show to HBO about cops in the ancient Rome, arresting St. Paul in the first episode. When they told me they already had a show about Rome in the works, I reconceived it as Deadwood. The minister, incidentally, is a real person named Henry Wesson Smith. Swearengen is a real person as well, but the doctor is a necessary postulate. Historically, when the minister died, he was carrying a sermon entitled “Upon whose life shall we base our own, but upon the great sinner Paul.” Paul's conversion is now widely believed to have been the result of an epileptic seizure. So I gave the minister a brain tumor to produce epilepsy of the same sort St. Paul had. The point I would make is that in the experience of one's own life, nothing is ever lost. I try not to dwell on the past, whether history or my own, except to regard it as a positive. I get a little embarrassed when I talk about the lived facts of my own existence. I would urge you to understand that I regard these experiences with joy and gratitude, and certainly love for my dad.

THORBURN: Now, let's watch the concluding scene of that episode, which is also the concluding scene of the season.

(Swearengen returns the body of the minister to Doc Cochran. Cochran, who had been berating God, on hearing Swearengen approach, identifies Swearengen as His competition, or perhaps one of His heresies. The doctor announces his plan to go on a bender, and Swearengen tells him, “Announcing your plans is a good way to make God laugh.” Later, Cochran is drinking in a saloon, and the girl for whom he fashioned the boot asks him to dance. He reluctantly agrees. The scene concludes with Doc Cochran and Jewel dancing together in Swearengen's saloon.)

MILCH: I like to think of my old man having that last whirl. He's been gone for 25 years, and I still have people asking me if I'm his son. I met a girl who told me that my father had removed a tumor from her stomach when she was a child, and before she was released from the hospital, he visited her, and told her that despite the surgical scar, she was beautiful, and that anyone who didn't agree was a jerk and not worth her time. She told me that meant so much to her. Another time, my dad took my brother and me to meet a salesman with cerebral palsy. My dad introduced him to us, and insisted that we not call attention to his difficulty. The salesman bought my brother and me cokes, and I told my dad not to let the salesman pay, because he couldn't afford it. My dad said to let him pay, because that was how to give someone dignity. My dad taught us a lot of lessons.

THORBURN: One of the most immediately noticeable things about Deadwood is the immense amount of profanity, even by cable standards. Here's a clip where Swearengen is visited by a character who speaks only one word of English, and another in which Wild Bill Hickok gambles with the man who will eventually kill him.

(A clip is shown in which Mr. Wu meets with Swearengen, and explains that the opium shipment intended for Swearengen was has been stolen by thieves in a rival gang, despite the fact that the only English word Wu knows is “cocksucker.” The second clip: a tense, dimly-lit poker scene in which Wild Bill paupers a man at poker, then gives him a chip and tells him to buy food with it.)

MILCH: One of the stories about Hickok's death is that it wasn't just because he beat a man at poker, but because he paid for his meal afterward. First, I'd like to thank you for your sensitivity in selecting those clips. As for the obscenity in Deadwood, I was trying to identify what organizing principles exist in a place without laws. Because Deadwood was a criminal community, built on land that had just been ceded to the Indians, they didn't want to pass any laws, since allowing law to exist would undermine their claim to the town. Language therefore had to serve two functions: to beat down any expectations of civility, and to show how words generate meaning through the context and emotion with which they're used. This is how one word can bear the weight of an entire story if the emotions and the context are there. In Swearengen's scene with Wu, I wanted to show how even with all the stereotypes about Asians, and the language barrier, a kind of order could develop.


THORBURN: I have a question and a half...first, I'd like to continue with the issue of profanity. I read that even HBO was concerned about it.

MILCH: The guardians of the classical movie Westerns were offended, and asked me to prove that the language was accurate. The great Westerns were made under a strict moral code that prohibited obscenity, since the Jewish immigrants who ran Hollywood didn't want to rock the boat. There was a period in the late 'teens and early twenties when films started to become racy. They developed the Hayes code, which strictly regulated the language used in the films. When artists are faced with those kinds of strictures, they can either choose not to participate, or to find a way to internalize them in a way that serves the story. The image of the laconic cowboy was the result of the Hayes code; a character that not only used no profanity, but few words of any kind. The stoicism invoked a set of values. When people bond with works such as films, the works take on a kind of reality, so people don't say “I like Shane, ” they say “That's not how they talked in 1870.” That's not my problem. I did my research, and from what I read, in the West, obscenity was used to establish dominance, like apes beating their chests. With no law, any question could have lethal results. Language developed as an alternative to law.

THORBURN: As compelling as that is, there is a lot about the language that you haven't discussed. The grandiloquence of some of the characters makes the profanity even more apparent. Your wonderful minor character, the unctuous mayor of Deadwood, has delivered memorable soliloquies.

MILCH: At the time, book-learning consisted of Victorian literature, Shakespeare and the Bible. The educated class tended to be self-taught and highly motivated. Education became an alternate mode of being. I feel that the metrics of speech are important, and even in those of us who hold the mistaken belief that we separate from each other, the way God says “I, too, have a hand here” is in the rhythms and metrics of speech.

DEWITT HENRY: Deadwood  has the scope and intensity of a Victorian novel. How do you maintain “auteur” status on a show with so many writers? Do you plan everything out beforehand, or are other writers allowed to improvise?

MILCH: I believe that all storytelling is collaborative in one way or another. All the writers are in a room together, nobody works alone. The scenes are written not long before they're shot, and rewritten until shooting stops. I don't believe in the auteur theory.

THORBURN: There was a recent New Yorker  article about you, written by Mark Singer. It describes your method of writing in some detail. Could you tell us about it?

David MilchMILCH: I don't like to plan things out. The chemist Friedrich Kekule worked on the structure of the benzene ring for 20 years, and then it came to him in a dream about a snake swallowing its tail. He said that visions come to prepared spirits. I once spent 15 months writing the same 12 pages word for word. At one level, I feel I was getting ready to work the way I do now. I don't plan episodes or scenes. I've said that I believe our sense of ourselves as individuals is an illusion, and that we're organs of a larger organism that knows us, even though we don't know it. If that's the case, I regard myself as a vessel of that organism, not the source. I try to get out of the way. The work I do now is as good as it can be no matter how long I spend on it, and I think that's a matter of readiness of the spirit.

THORBURN: In the New Yorker  piece, Singer describes how you dictate your writing.

MILCH: I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, so I don't like my hands to be touching anything while I'm writing. I don't like to use keyboards, so I talk. I find I function most effectively when I disembody myself.

THORBURN: The time frame on Deadwood seems very tight, as if every episode begins just minutes after the last one ends. Do you envision every episode like that?

MILCH: Some episodes begin a day following their predecessors, but not always. I envisioned each season as one year. The camp was destroyed at the end of four years, and I wanted four seasons. One thing I knew about the third season was where I wanted it to end. There was an election at the end of the third year, and Bullock was defeated because George Hearst, the father of William Randolph Hearst, fixed the election. Bullock barricaded himself in office and wouldn't leave. I knew I wanted the third season to end with that episode, but we never got to it. I feel that the defining moment in American history is when George Washington turned down his chance to be king, and offered his sword to the Continental Congress. Swearengen persuaded Bullock to accept the results, to maintain respect for the democratic process. We never got there, so we're starting the fourth season with it.

THORBURN: Did you not get there because you make discoveries, scene by scene, as you go on?

MILCH: Yes. Each scene has its own internal dynamics, and dynamics with the other scenes. Your first loyalty has to be to the scene that already exists. I had a plan for Bullock and Hearst, but that wasn't where the characters were going. The real Bullock led the inauguration parade for Teddy Roosevelt. The election was real, the real George Hearst fixed it, and to the extent that Teddy Roosevelt was the first politician to reign in the robber barons, it seemed crucial to render the dynamic between Bullock and George Hearst, and it took longer than expected.

QUESTION: Could you explain the process of directing Deadwood ? The performances are amazing, especially Swearengen.

MILCH: I wrote Swearengen for Ed O'Niell, of Married...with Children, but HBO wouldn't cast him. Then we cast Powers Boothe, but he got sick. I told him I'd write a part for him if he wanted to be on the show, but we had to go ahead with shooting. So we got Ian McShane, who turned out to be great. Titles don't mean much to me. The show's not a democracy, but I try to be respectful and flexible when dealing with my actors. Walter Hill was the show's first director, but he left because he felt there was only room for one king of the castle. I didn't feel that way, but apparently he did.

THORBURN: But your involvement is greater than that of most writers, isn't it?

MILCH: HBO insists on that, because there's no script. The actors don't have time to prepare, so I have to be there.

KEVIN RIGGLE: Why did you decide to set Deadwood in the American West? There aren't any other Westerns on TV today, and the movies haven't been doing very well.

MILCH: There's an expression about the smart money, that it usually misses its bus in the morning. It's not so important to do a series that's in vogue. When something is out of fashion, that means it's ready for a reinvention. When NYPD Blue went on the air, everyone said that people had been infantilized by MTV, that everyone hated cops, and that the show would fail. In addition, I was particularly interested in Deadwood because it was acknowledged to be a criminal enterprise. When Wild Bill was killed, they couldn't charge the guy who did it, because then they'd have to acknowledge a law.

QUESTION: It seems like Deadwood developed in your head over the course of NYPD Blue. Do you see Swearengen as coming from Sipowicz? Was there a time in your heart when you stopped writing Sipowicz and started writing Swearengen?

MILCH: I was loaded when I was writing NYPD Blue, and then I got sober. Swearengen is a real person. There's my own experience, and everything I read, everything contributes to the characters. I believe that the distinction between subject and object is an illusion. To separate me from what I was working on is to fail to recognize that I'm a way-station for all kinds of influences.

ROBIN CARMODY: On Deadwood,  where did Wolcott come from?

MILCH: Wolcott was George Hearst's geologist. I wanted to present a forerunner of George Hearst, who embodied the principles of capitalism. I wanted to show that capitalism had a sexual predicate. Hence, a serial killer who is also a geologist. It seemed to me that the guy who had played the murderer of Wild Bill could also play the geologist.

THORBURN: You have a tendency to kill characters and bring them back, in a way.

MILCH: I did that with Sal Benedetto and Norman Buntz as well [both played by Dennis Franz, who stars as Sipowicz on NYPD Blue ] . You can't be too cavalier about it, but there was something in the soul of Jack McCall that survived his death, and which reincarnated itself in the geologist. Hearst believed that the earth spoke to him, and that kind of demonic narcissism is often shared by assassins and the extremely wealthy.

QUESTION: I work for a homeless newspaper, and I encounter a lot of writing by people who are mentally divergent. In your years of self-confessed madness and drug abuse, did you have any moments of clarity?

MILCH: Once I was burying myself in Mexico . I had sold my passport to some criminals, and I got drawn further in by steps, as these things usually happen. There was a lunatic chemist who contracted a stomach ache, and a consort of his named Yum-Yum decided to treat it with an enema. Turns out he had peritonitis and she killed him. We were all down there illegally, so I was digging this guy's grave, and I tossed the body in. I figured I should grab his ID just in case I eventually decided to do the right thing and contact his relatives, and found my own passport that I had sold six months before. That was a moment of clarity, but thanks to liberal amounts of chloroform, it didn't last.

ERIN PATAEA: You've clearly done a lot of historical research for Deadwood. How do you reconcile issues of reality and fiction? For instance, you have the doctor, a fictional character, interacting with real characters.

MILCH: There were doctors out there, and the Civil War was the formative experience for any physician of that era. I've never consciously gone against what I took to be a historical truth. I try to deal with the stories that don't really make sense, like the myth about Wild Bill and the “dead man's hand.” Who'd be looking at his hand when he'd just been shot? In my subsequent research, I learned that was a Captain Massey who'd been at the table, and kept the bullet fragment in his wrist, so I had him make up the story about the dead man's hand. I try to explain popular misconceptions, and I take liberties with things we don't know, but I try not to contradict things that are true.

PATAEA: In the first episodes, you changed the dates of when everyone arrived in the city. How did you make that decision?

MILCH: The best documentation I could find had Hickok arriving July 30 and Bullock arriving August 2 of 1876, and I figured that was ok. There are those who argue that Bullock never met Hickok, but his great-nephew had an anecdote Bullock had told about meeting Hickok. Melville talked about the truth and the “very truth.” I figure if I can stay with the “very truth,” I can allow myself some latitude.

THORBURN: How much of the show would you say is based in history?

MILCH: I'd say about 90 per cent. Almost every character is real. Cleanth Brooks suggested that the truths of history depend on a correspondence to an externally verifiable reality, whereas the truths of storytelling depend on an internal emotional coherence.

COMMENT: I think the networks have always been afraid of your work, and I don't think they've ever understood that it works because it's real. It's honest. You pushed the envelope so much in NYPD Blue, and there's an audience out there for that; an audience that doesn't want to watch the comic-book material found on Aaron Spelling shows.

MILCH: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Your work seems to focus on finding humanity in ambiguous characters. Do you think that some people are simply unforgivable?

MILCH: No, I don't think so.

THORBURN: Not even your old fraternity friend, the president?

MILCH: Not even him. Especially not him, whom I find to be more of a genial boob than a moral menace. I think the war in Iraq has more to do with the media's abdication of its responsibilities than the deficiencies of our president. Through lack of informing vision, the media has infantilized the audience. The surrogate existence provided by television has come to supplant the emotional life of the populace. I've stopped doing series set in the present because the assault on the collective sensibility after 9/11 gave the populace so much fear, that they could only be placated with a three-week miniseries designed to tell them that they didn't need to fear danger here, because we were taking the war over there. The motivations for that war had nothing to do with WMD and everything to do with the habituation of the viewing public to the shaping of human experience in distorted forms, for which the media is responsible. For the first three weeks, the Iraq miniseries received enormous public approval, because it was the series we wanted to see. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. The current disaffection has nothing to do with the Iraqi people and everything to do with the fact that the series is over, and we don't want to see it anymore. It was a war undertaken for the wrong reasons, and responded to for reasons the public doesn't understand.

David Thorburn and David Milch

The dialogue about Bush has nothing to do with Bush, but with the fact that he is the main character in a failing drama. No matter who was in office, the so-called intelligentsia would be criticizing him—which is not to say that he's not a moron. I knew him, we were fraternity brothers. But that's not what's happening. The biggest political lie wasn't told by George Bush, but by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked, in order to mobilize public opinion. I'm not criticizing Roosevelt or defending George Bush, just saying that the issue right now has to do with the a failure to acknowledge the necessary moral and imaginative predicate in what has become an entirely virtual existence. People spend more than half their working lives watching television. That has to shape the neural pathways. It creates an impatience for irresolution. I try to tell stories in ways that address those issues. I don't do contemporary dramas anymore because it's too ingrained in the American consciousness. If there's another attack like 9/11, I believe the American public will sign on for the extermination of everyone of the Muslim faith.

QUESTION: On NYPD Blue and Deadwood, the men seem to be whole consciousnesses, whereas the women don't seem so well developed. When you try to create female consciousnesses, is there a gulf, or is it just a practical decision involving your own experience as a man?

MILCH: I feel no abstract responsibility to count how many credible female characters I write. I think I'm the product of a society in which women are not given the opportunity to develop as fully in ways that are accessible to my understanding. The character of Alma Garrett is a pretty complicated figure, the character of Calamity Jane, I believe, is pretty complicated, and Stubbs becomes pretty complicated. There are stunted affects in the women characters in the worlds I write about, because women are encouraged to believe that they serve as adjuncts to the male will or the male fantasy. It wasn't just the prostitutes in Deadwood, but in society in general; women were imprisoned in a way, idealized in a way that crippled them. “Hysteria” is derived from “of the womb,” so that when a woman began to feel as if she were thwarted, she was diagnosed as being hysterical, and they would “treat” her with opium. I take the characters as I find them. Alma becomes a writer in the fourth season. Alma had lied about her reason for coming out to Deadwood, which was to become a writer, and I hope to mine a lot of Willa Cather's experiences for her character. I don't know whether I've answered your question; it's always a mixture of the limitations of the writer's imagination and the psychic cards he's been dealt.

--compiled by Peter Rauch
--photos by Marie Thibault