Why 'Deadwood' "Was a Bit of an Unfinished Symphony"

Courtesy of HBO
Timothy Olyphant (right) returns as lawman Seth Bullock in 'Deadwood: The Movie.'

David Milch's revered HBO Western finally gets its ending 13 years later with a movie as producer Carolyn Strauss reveals why the "time was right now" for its return.

On May 31st, the longest hiatus in TV history will end when Deadwood: The Movie premieres on HBO. "Hiatus" because Deadwood, the series, wasn't ever, technically, canceled.

In May 2006, before the premiere of the Western's third season, Chris Albrecht, then-chairman and CEO of HBO, had a tough decision to make. The famously profane David Milch drama set in the real town of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1870 and featuring characters based on some of its famous real-life residents, was critically beloved, but its ratings were modest — and it was expensive. Albrecht asked Milch if he'd be willing to wrap up the series with a six-episode fourth season, half the episode count of the first three, but Milch declined. So HBO announced that they wouldn't be picking up the cast's options, which given its size and quality, put the chances of HBO being able to round up the herd again at, effectively, zero.

The show's extremely devoted (and extremely online for 2006) fanbase was talked down from the ledge weeks later, however, when Milch announced he'd agreed to do two feature-length films in lieu of a final season. Eleven years later, series star Ian McShane revealed Milch had submitted a script to HBO. Much rounding up followed, and last July HBO confirmed that the film — which returns all of the series' principal cast with the exception of Powers Boothe, who passed away in 2017 — would begin shooting in the fall.

Ahead of the premiere, executive producer Carolynn Strauss — who was president of HBO during Deadwood's run and greenlit the series along with Albrecht — sat down with THR to discuss why the "time was right now" for Deadwood's return.

I was a bit surprised at how much the film relied on viewers having foreknowledge the series, given the time that's passed. It's a stand-alone movie but just barely.

I think for everybody who was really involved in the show, it was a bit of an unfinished symphony. So it felt pretty natural to follow up on some of the scenes and the stories that felt like they were looking for some resolution or that David had been thinking about. Hopefully, people who have never seen it before can follow along or refresh or start their memories by watching the series. It was the fans who were clamoring for the show to come back. We definitely wanted to make it accessible for all kinds of audiences, but we really wanted to make something satisfying for the hard-core Deadwood watchers.

Is this film a creature of the current streaming era in the sense that, because of HBO GO, HBO Now, you can make a film that is so fan-serviced knowing that subscribers can, as you said "refresh or start" their memories of the series? Whereas years ago, when revisiting an HBO series meant buying the DVD set or whatever, there might have been more of an imperative to make the story more self-contained? Was that a consideration at all?

I don’t necessarily know, but I think David is a very character-driven writer. It is a world that sprawls and a psychological world that sprawls, and I think that is more of a world that works best in series form. I think we did manage to encapsulate that in a pretty good and succinct story for the movie. But if people are intrigued enough by these characters, then they’ll hopefully get a chance to go back and watch Deadwood for the first time — which, quite frankly, I’m envious of.

When the series ended in 2006, it sort of wasn’t supposed to end. There were talks of movies to wrap up the series that didn’t wind up coming to fruition back then. How far along did that process get, if you can recall?

I don’t remember that specifically. I can tell you, though, I think the time was right now in a way that it hadn’t been right before. Just in terms of having the material to do it and being able to schedule everybody. And the fact that they actually did pull it off, in terms of the logistics of it, is still kind of mind-boggling to me.

Coming back 13 years after the series, when did the process of putting this movie together start in earnest? What was involved?

I think David really committed to writing the script, and we worked hard on getting that ready. [Then] it was getting everybody scheduled together, you know, for the better part of the year before we started shooting. There was a lot of creative scheduling going on.

How long was the shoot?

I can’t remember the exact amount of shoot days, 25, maybe more. There were a bunch of scenes where [all the] characters were in together — certainly they were all together at the table read. But as with most [ensemble] projects you do, people gather a bit here and a bit there. It doesn’t often happen where everybody’s together.

Was anyone involved originally resistant to doing the film?

Everybody felt very excited about the potential of doing this again. People wanted to finish the story. There was a lot of willingness on everybody’s part to do it. The [main difficulties were] just in terms of people’s availability.

You just said "finish the story"; do you consider it finished?

You never know. It was amazing we managed to get it done this time around. I think that’s as far into the future as one might project.

So I can't imagine over the last decade there've been many instances where an HBO exec has faced the media, sat on a panel, et cetera, and not received a question on the Deadwood movie. Now that you’ve delivered a Deadwood movie, what is the thing now? What was in second place?

I would imagine now is, "What is the next Game of Thrones?" It’s the same course of questions all the time. I don’t know. God knows. Now that we’ve taken this off the agenda, we’ll see what rushes in to fill the spot.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.