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David Milch has thrown some typewriters out the window in his writing career.
“The guys at St. Elsewhere used to take half an hour off between 2:30 and 3. They were on the floor below [the Hill Street Blues writers at NBC],” he told Carlton Cuse, showrunner of A&E’s Bates Motel and FX’s The Strain, in conversation at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Power Showrunners luncheon on Wednesday. “They’d see if a typewriter had come down, and then they’d go back to work.”
It’s not the only quirk of his writing process, the prolific writer and creator told showrunners in attendance including Matthew Weiner (AMC’s Mad Men), Howard Gordon (Showtime’s Homeland, FX’s Tyrant), Jason Katims (NBC’s Parenthood and About A Boy) and Noah Hawley (FX’s Fargo). He produces material dictating — “It allows you to stay in the moment a little bit more” — while lying down. As for actually typing? “No, I’ve never done that,” he said.
Read more The 50 Power Showrunners of 2014
But it’s a well-functioning method for Milch. In the 30-plus years since he began penning scripts for Hill Street Blues, his career credits include co-creating ABC’s NYPD Blue and creating HBO’s Deadwood, and he’s won four Emmys. Here are the highlights of his conversation with Cuse at THR‘s luncheon, which was sponsored by Samsung Curved UHD TV:
Why he writes for television: Milch studied literature at Yale under poet, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren. Then he went to law school, from which he was expelled. “I was falsely accused of shooting the lights out of a police car. I don’t know how they got the idea it was me and not someone else,” he told Cuse. “That was it for my law career, and then I went to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa.”
Why not write poetry or fiction afterward? “You want to be heard, and it was my sense that [television] was a medium in which one could be heard,” he said. “I also need to be working hard all the time.” He argued he wasn’t suited for the experience of a feature writer, which includes “interludes in which you’re not occupied.” Said Milch: “I tend to wind up in jail.”
Where Deadwood started: “Deadwood was a show set in Rome at the time of St. Paul. I worked on it for about eight months, and then it turned out they were doing a show about Rome [HBO’s Rome]. For me, what engaged my imagination was the idea of an organizing principle that shaped an entire society. In the case of Rome in the time of St. Paul, it was the idea of the cross. It was revolutionizing the way people lived, and when it turned out there was a show about Rome, I decided to use gold as the organizing principle instead of the cross and set it on the frontier. It wasn’t that much of a — well, I guess on one level it was a pretty big change,” he said.
He later elaborated, “I think that to a large extent, what we’re looking for as we live is something that will suppress our ego like that, that will make us feel part of something larger than ourselves.”
“The best pimp in the world is the one that doesn’t need the pussy”: Cuse credited the line to Milch, then asked him to elaborate. “It’s like that ego suppression thing. If you need the pussy, you’re a trick. If you don’t, you could be a cab driver, but you could also be a pimp,” Milch said, adding, “Forgive my language.”
On visiting sets: “I think it’s disrespectful to go onto a set without some clear idea of what your intentions are, because then you’re hanging the director out to dry. My process is very disempowering to the director anyway, so it’s essential that you be respectful. Once we’ve sort of found the scene, I have to get out of there, because you don’t want to split the actor’s idea of who’s in charge.”
His next script: Cuse said he’d just read Milch’s latest pilot, which the writer finished just days ago. It’s entitled Big City, and it centers on William “Boss” Tweed, the head of the Tammany Hall political machine that controlled 19th century New York City politics. The pilot is populated with historical figures, including tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt and women’s rights reformer Susan B. Anthony, Cuse said. “I read the script thinking, ‘Oh my god, this show is absolutely the next great thing from you,’ ” he added.
Said Milch: “I’m no rose. I have been around a while, and you never know when something is going to be the last thing you do. You want to harbor your resources and try not to make a mistake.” So why Tweed? “This guy, in addition to being a crook, had the gift of society. There was nobody, even the people he put in jail, who didn’t have great affection for William Tweed.”
The book he reads over and over: Milch said he rereads the poetry and literary criticism of his late mentor Warren. Then he recited a poem of Warren’s, “Moral Assessment,” from memory, to applause from the crowd in the room.
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