The Making of ''Deadwood'' -- EW explores the writing, filming, and endless cursing of HBO's western masterpiece

By Josh Wolk
March 07, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
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Much like the myth that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, Deadwood creator David Milch has hundreds of meanings for the word c—sucker. During a rehearsal for the second season of HBO’s ferociously ragged Old West drama, the garrulous Milch is uncomfortable with the intonation on the line ”No San Francisco c—sucker!” In this particular scene, Mr. Wu (Keone Young) — the Chinatown leader whose ravenous pigs dispose of the town’s murder victims — is arguing with the town’s immoral center, Al Swearengen (chillingly embodied by Golden Globe winner Ian McShane), about an unwelcome Bay Area visitor. As Milch energetically explains to Young, this ”c—sucker” is a desperate statement, signaling Wu’s hope for Swearengen’s cooperation. ”It should be more plaintive than angry,” says Milch. ”Like when you say to a doctor, ‘Doc, tell me I’m not going to die.”’

Only Milch can imbue profanity with such nuance. When the famously foulmouthed show debuted last year (becoming HBO’s third-highest-rated original series, behind The Sopranos and Sex and the City; the second season premieres March 6 at 9 p.m.), chatter about the show’s fervent use of f— and c—sucker nearly eclipsed the critics’ raves. Correctly anticipating questions about his four-letter-word argot last year, Milch, 59, drafted a five-page document justifying the language historically and metaphorically, explaining that in bloody frontier towns like Deadwood, a cowboy’s verbal bluster was like an ape pounding its chest: The profanity showed he wasn’t to be messed with. Though his treatise didn’t stop many from initially obsessing on the language, Milch considered it a helpful distraction in one sense: ”People did not have the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t want to see another Western.’ Because it was clear that this was not another Western.”

Though the 1870s setting evokes a land where spurs go jingle-jangle-jingle, and every clock is stopped at high noon, ”it’s the anti-Western Western,” says HBO Entertainment president Carolyn Strauss. ”With the themes and highs and lows of humanity that the show hits, it’s just an incredible onion.” An onion unpeeled nearly entirely in the mind of Milch, whose blitzkrieg form of creativity means most scenes are written the day before shooting, leaving his cast and crew as dizzily uncertain about their futures as a frontiersman in an untamed land. ”It’s very frustrating at times,” concedes Powers Boothe, who plays Cy Tolliver, the smoother whorehouse-owning rival of Swearengen. ”But the best creation is.”

Milch’s 25 years of writing such cop shows as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue (which he cocreated) have bred a healthy obsession with law and order. So he found the history of Deadwood — a Dakota territory gold-rush camp settled on land ripped from the Native Americans — to be a fascinating case study for a show: Not yet part of the United States, the renegade community had no law. ”It’s about the discovery of the various principles by which a society ordered itself,” he says. ”Everything was accelerated there. Two years before [the show starts] there was literally not a white person, and in two years they had telephones. You watched American society going on at warp speed.”

Milch populated Deadwood with real figures of the time, like Seth Bullock (Go‘s Timothy Olyphant), the town’s reluctant sheriff with a seething impatience for injustice, and celebrity gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), who arrived with his devoted, drunk, unstable sidekick, Calamity Jane (the Emmy-nominated Robin Weigert), only to be shot in a poker game four episodes into the first season. Though these characters’ legends are heroic, Milch wanted to roll them in a little horse manure. When Weigert brought Milch some lore on Jane that she’d uncovered, ”He would say, ‘No, that’s all bulls—,”’ she remembers. ”Many accounts of what she did after Hickok’s death have been mythologized. . . . I imagined that I would have a lot of riding around on horses and shooting guns, and I was jazzed with these heroic notions. And I ended up being a character who falls apart an awful lot.”

Also populating Milch’s treacherous town are a grisly mud pit of thieves, murderers, drunks, whores, and tortured rogues, all orbiting around Swearengen, who, though calmly willing to kill or cheat to keep Deadwood his own personal cash register, is prone to occasional human revelations (usually occurring as he’s being serviced by one of his whores) that make him mesmerizingly complex. ”Nobody is a complete baddie or goodie,” says McShane. ”Nobody wears a black or white hat. It’s convenience, practicality, opportunity.”

Season 1 was a tense mix of brutality, manipulation, and omnipresent threat festering inside the camp. But the new season is set the next year, in 1877, as outside forces arrive. Big money pushes its way in via geologist Samuel Wolcott, an emissary sent by George Hearst — William Randolph’s millionaire father — to buy up gold claims and consolidate them into a larger mining company. Also arriving are Bullock’s wife (The Practice‘s Anna Gunn), his late brother’s widow whom Bullock married out of a sense of duty, and his nephew/adopted son. (The situation is complicated by Bullock’s steamy affair with the widow Alma Garret, played by Molly Parker, since last season’s finale.) All the while, Dakota and Montana are angling to co-opt the camp as part of their territory. Swearengen, naturally, would like to manipulate all of the above to his best advantage; unfortunately, he’s trapped in his office, contorted by kidney stones. Says Milch, ”I felt like he had to be disempowered for a period of time in order for the audience to be willing to look elsewhere.”

The entire 12-episode season takes place over just three weeks. Back in November, Milch said he was planning for each season to represent a snapshot of one year in the camp, giving the show a five-year life span. (After 1880 Deadwood entered into a ”quiescent period,” he says.) But by February he had retracted this plan, unsure when season 3 will take place and how long the series will go (HBO has yet to renew it for another season). ”My father said to me, If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans,” he says. The Deadwood crew know that this maxim is no laughing matter: Milch has a near-religious aversion to planning ahead.

The locus of creation is a spread of carpet in a production trailer on the Santa Clarita, Calif., set, a ranch where Gene Autry used to shoot his movies. It’s here that Milch sprawls out to write, leaning on a pillow amidst a nest of scattered script pages, usually surrounded by an audience of scribes and interns (“I was a schoolteacher and I always try to have students,” he says). Technically, he doesn’t write scenes; he dictates them, the lines subsequently appearing on a large computer monitor in front of him. He’ll often repeat sentences, sometimes shuffling and rejiggering the words in the show’s early-American, profane patois until he gets the rhythm right. (As Milch watches his words appear, the teacher in him tersely points out spelling errors to his script supervisor/stenographer.) A scene done, he hoists himself up and dashes off to a rehearsal.

Script outlines, preplanned story arcs: It’s all anathema to Milch, whose last-minute, improvisatory writing style is a conscious decision to write unconsciously. ”I don’t plan the dialogue, I let the characters respond to each other,” says Milch, who employs three staff writers but always does the final polish, which can veer wildly from the initial draft. When he dictates a scene, he has no endgame in mind — he simply begins with a situation, then channels the characters, letting them speak through him, and sees how things naturally play out: ”There’s been five times this year where a scene that I knew was going one way just — BOOM! — went in another direction and changed five different story lines in consequence,” he says. But once he’s finally imagined a scene, he’ll never start over, as this would be an untenable slight against his imagination. ”If the voices stay real and the situation remains true, it’s like [a doctor] saying, ‘This operation isn’t going the way I want it to go.’ The way I want it to go isn’t really relevant. I can’t say, ‘Bring in another patient.”’

Such a system means actors often get new lines the night before a scene shoots — or even the same day — which leaves cast members unsure of whether they will be needed from one day to the next. ”It can be great, because you’re not intellectualizing [your scenes] too much,” says Parker. ”But it’s also a crazy way to work, and no one ever knows what’s coming next.” (It didn’t help her concentration to be bedecked in wool dresses and corsets as the temperature reached 120 degrees on the set last summer: She lost five pounds in one day.) Says Brad Dourif, Emmy-nominated as Doc Cochran, the town’s alcoholic-but-dedicated physician: ”I’ve gotten a huge monologue that day that literally didn’t exist at lunch. They say, ‘Do you want to go last?’ F—, yeah, I want to go last!” Although this limbo does have some advantages. ”I enjoy my free time a lot more now, because I don’t have [a script] to work on,” laughs Olyphant.

No one complains (well, not much, anyway) because once they do get Milch’s twisty, literate dialogue, they can’t wait to speak it; the word Shakespearean pops up a lot. As the ratlike opportunist E.B. Farnum, William Sanderson explains, ”I’ve said things like the fool would say to King Lear.” Adds Boothe: ”So often as actors you get a script and go, ‘What am I gonna do with this crap?’ This is, ‘How am I going to get it all?”’

Every rehearsal is a mini-symposium, with the polymathic Milch delivering long preparatory lectures about context and subtext, dappled with historical metaphors to explain the many levels he’s aiming for. ”He loves to come in and give a dissertation,” says McShane. ”And it usually has nothing to do with what’s actually in the scene. He might refer to 19th-century German economics. It’s very bizarre, but it works. You know what he means.”

Actors and crew endure this mentally grueling and creatively energizing process for eight months. But that’s not the end of the drama: When new Deadwood episodes arrive March 6, they do so without last season’s Sopranos lead-in — a situation even Al Swearengen would find challenging. Not so his alter ego McShane, who regularly encounters members of the show’s devoted fan base. ”People say, ‘Will you say F— you to me?”’ he says. ”Or, ‘Will you sign this, Dear c—sucker?”’ Gene Autry probably never got that request, but as the man says, this ain’t your ordinary f—ing Western.

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