Michael Mann, David Milch Split Duties to Settle Power Struggle on HBO's 'Luck'

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“It’s been a smack-down from Day 1,” says a talent rep associated with the ambitious drama series.

For writer-producer David Milch, the HBO gambling drama Luck is personal. He has owned dozens of racehorses and joked that he has lost millions on the sport.

So when Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) agreed to be an executive producer on the series and direct the pilot, Milch said he felt … lucky.

But as happens so often, things can go south at the track. Surprising probably no one, two of the most brilliant, quirky and titanic personalities in Hollywood clashed so relentlessly that, according to sources, Mann at one point had Milch banned from the set.

"It's been a smack-down from Day 1," a talent rep associated with the project says. "You had two very strong-willed people, and there's a lot of ego there."

HBO acknowledges that the two butted heads in the early going, when Mann closed the set while directing the pilot. "There were clashes on the pilot, although never about the content of the show or its vision," HBO programming president Michael Lombardo tells THR in an e-mail. "However, these two enormous talents, after viewing the pilot together, figured out a way to collaborate and make this work going forward on the series."

After what an HBO source describes as "serious" discussions, Milch has the final word on scripts, but Mann decides everything else, from casting to cutting to music. Clearly that is not a situation to which Milch, the Emmy-winning writer-producer of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, has lately been accustomed. 

This insider laments that Mann has taken control of the editing process, saying: "David's used to writing on the page and in the editing room. And David's very good in the edit. It's a whole other writing process."

But Mann and Milch, in a joint statement to THR, say they are happy with the working arrangement: "We both have the highest admiration for each other's work. After the pilot was finished and both of us liked what we did, we decided -- as two men who have been around for a number of years -- we ought to be smart enough to figure out a mechanism that would enable us to work together to our and the series' benefit. And we did."  

But the duo acknowledges the split responsibilities.

"Like any good partnership, we collaborate with each other frequently on story, editing, etc.," they say. "But ultimately, the writing has to be David's domain with final decision-making, just as the filmmaking is Michael's."

A couple of observers involved with the project say that even leaving personalities aside, this kind of pairing was fraught. "In most of television, the writer/executive producer is at the top of the hierarchy," one says. "When you suddenly have a nonwriting executive producer who actually is at the top of the hierarchy, friction is going to happen. I look at HBO and say, 'You did anticipate this -- right, guys?' "

Of course, the outsize personalities increased the potential for trouble. Mann is unapologetic about his reputation as one of the most demanding and difficult directors in town. He's gifted enough that actors entrust themselves to him -- in the case of Luck, Dustin Hoffman is the lead, playing a mobster, and Nick Nolte is a trainer. But Mann has a penchant for dressing down cast and crew and making constant changes on the fly. He pours instructions to the crew into a small recorder and has them typed verbatim. If his directions are unclear or contradictory, few dare speak up.

Milch is also greatly talented but intense, cerebral and obsessive. "He's a total control freak," says one producer who has worked with him. Like Mann, he uses a recorder to capture his thoughts. "He lies on the floor, and he's got writers writing down everything he dictates," this former associate says. "It's all stream of consciousness, and it's very bizarre." Another agrees: "He's maddening and frustrating. If you try to get a straight answer from him, you'll blow your brains out."

Milch is also known for delivering scripts on his own schedule; HBO will have nine episodes of Luck as opposed to 10 because material has come at Milch's pace.

At this point, work is in progress on that ninth episode. HBO has yet to determine when Luck will premiere, but it likely won't debut until early next year. The network aired footage April 17 giving a first look at the series.

"The racetrack is a place of incomparable beauty," Milch says in that promo, "but it's a rough racket."