Revisiting 'Deadwood,' With Star Timothy Olyphant And Creator David Milch

May 31, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 1:47 pm
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Terry Gross interviewed David Milch in 2004, the year "Deadwood" premiered on HBO. They started with a clip from the series premiere when Seth Bullock and his hardware business partner Sol Star, played by Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes, interacted with the town's very prominent saloon and property owner, Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane. They want to rent a vacant lot on which to build their hardware store. But the super-strong personalities of Bullock and Swearengen clash almost immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEADWOOD")

TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) I'd like to make an offer on that lot we're renting.

IAN MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Sell my back teeth for the right money.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Six hundred get the job done?

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) I guess before I made a price I want to know if you boys have unnamed partners?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Why?

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) I think specifically Wild Bill Hickok. Didn't you and Hickok act together in the street this morning?

JOHN HAWKES: (As Sol Star) We just met Wild Bill Hickok.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) What business of that is his?

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) You mean, what business of mine is that?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Don't tell me what the (expletive) I mean.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Not a tone to get a deal done.

HAWKES: (As Sol Star) Can't we sort it out another time? Thirsty people coming.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Sure. Yeah. And you and me will find our proper stride, huh?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) All right.

HAWKES: (As Sol Star) Good luck on the day's trade.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Well, I won't wish you luck because I can tell you ain't the type that needs it. It's Sol Star, right? That's a Jewish name. Mine isn't. But nice to meet you, son, huh? (Laughter) Marked you for an earner the minute you come in my sight, Jew bastard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: David Milch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to do a Western? I mean, let's face it. There aren't a lot of successful Westerns in the movies or on television anymore.

DAVID MILCH: You know, I didn't really have a particular interest in the genre. But I was interested in certain themes, which - originally, I had hoped to engage in a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. They were called the urban cohorts. And what I wanted to examine was how forms of order are imposed or discovered in the absence of law, but HBO was doing another show set in Rome.

It's like the old joke about the ostentatious Jewish family that goes to Kenya to have their kid bar mitzvah-ed, and they have to wait because there's another Bar Mitzvah ahead of them.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILCH: Anyway, they were doing a show about Rome. And so Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss suggested that I try and find another venue in which I could engage the same themes, and that's how I came to Deadwood.

GROSS: Well, Deadwood is a lawless spot. Would you describe why?

MILCH: There was no law in Deadwood because it was an illegal settlement. It was on land that had been stolen from the Indians, and there was a concern by the thieves - i.e. the white prospectors - that if they passed laws, they would be perceived as setting themselves up as a government. And ultimately, they wanted to be annexed to the United States, and they wanted their claims verified by the United States. So they agreed that there would be no laws whatsoever. In fact, when murders took place, bodies were disposed of rather than buried so that there would be no evidence, so that there could be no trials, so that nobody could say that they had set up a government.

GROSS: And one of the main characters in "Deadwood" is a Montana marshal who quits his position as marshal and then travels to Deadwood in the hopes of starting a hardware business with his partner. So this is an interesting character to write about - someone who had been a law man and is now in this place that is totally lacking in law.

MILCH: Yeah. He was a real guy, Seth Bullock. Bullock was drawn to the idea of a lawless settlement because his - he had such a radical ambivalence toward the idea of law. He was a guy who was kind of cursed by conscience, and he had a preternatural sense of responsibility and - from which part of him was always in flight. And for him, the appeal of Deadwood was there would be no opportunity to be a marshal. There would be no opportunity to generate the kinds of obligations which would distract him from the pursuit of his private goals. And, of course, as alcoholics find out, you always take your problems with you (laughter), and he took his. And sure enough, within four months, he was a marshal again.

GROSS: One of the characters in "Deadwood" is Calamity Jane. And I think when we think of Calamity Jane, we think of Doris Day, who played her in the movies. We think of a character who's rambunctious. How would you describe your version of Calamity Jane, and what is it based on?

MILCH: Well, it's based on fact. Calamity Jane was a profane, terribly conflicted personality who idolized Hickok, who was kind to her and sort of resolutely refused to acknowledge - Hickok this is - her having kind of renounced her femininity. Calamity Jane was always getting thrown out of towns because she was too obscene, even for the miners. She had the foulest mouth of all. And she was a victim of protracted abuse as a child and had kind of renounced her feminine identity, I think, as a form of self-protection. And she always prided herself that she could out-drink anybody. She could out-swear anybody, and yet with Hickok she was oftentimes very demure. And I would hope, if the series accomplishes nothing else, it will expunge the association of Doris Day (laughter) with Calamity Jane henceforward.

GROSS: So what was Wild Bill Hickok doing in Deadwood?

MILCH: He was kind of looking to die. Hickok - for me as I researched the subject - was the first victim, as I perceived it, in America of media celebrity and what we do to our heroes. Shortly before going to Deadwood, he had actually had a warrant issued against him for vagrancy in Cheyenne. And he had married a circus performer who wanted to take care of him. And within a couple of days, he booked (laughter). He left town and told her he would make their fortune once and for all in Deadwood. But he never prospected for a minute. He was drunk and playing cards his whole time out there - and really a tragic figure and with a certain amount of self-awareness, which kind of heightened the pathos, I think, of the situation.

BIANCULLI: David Milch speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with David Milch, creator of "Deadwood," which has an HBO movie sequel premiering tonight. Before creating "Deadwood" the series, Milch worked on other influential TV series as a writer-producer on NBC's "Hill Street Blues" and as co-creator of ABC's "NYPD Blue."

GROSS: Now, everyone who's written about "Deadwood" has noted that the language, the dialogue is really filled with obscenities. Now, I remember in the old Westerns, instead of an expletive, you know, somebody might cry, tarnation or say, what....

MILCH: ...Yeah, consarnit.

GROSS: Yeah, consarnit or why you. But, of course, they couldn't - you know, you couldn't get away with using real expletives in the movies or on television. Are you overdoing it with the expletives, or do you think people actually used them in such abundance in the Old West?

MILCH: I have to tell you that in the course of a long time spent in research - more than a year, which was one of the blessings of working for HBO - that they gave me that kind of time. The one thing about which there is uniform agreement is the language that was used in these communities. The extremity of the language became, paradoxically, one of the few alternatives to law. And what I mean by that is that in the same way that an ape may beat his chest as a way of signifying his willingness to do something, which - if he had to do it every time he signified his willingness to do it, he'd be in fights all the time - and fights to the death. The obscenity was one alternative. And it was a crucial alternative for me to portray in the absence of these other ordering mechanisms. And the obscenity is not indiscriminate. It's calibrated according to the given personality and the given environment. But the obscenity is meant to do a lot of different things by these characters.

GROSS: I want to get back to something we were talking about before, which is language. You know, there were restrictions on the language you could use on "Hill Street" and "NYPD Blue." I'm sure you assumed that these characters would be using a lot more profanity and obscenity if they weren't restricted. So how do you get around that? What kind of language could you give them that implies that they'd be using saltier language if allowed, but this will take the place of it?

MILCH: Yeah, I always found that stuff a little silly because I can make up words which are much more obscene because words derive their meaning from the context in which they're used. And so I remember the censors wouldn't let - there was a - I think in "NYPD Blue," the first year or something. Sipowicz was doing an interrogation. And he was confronting a witness with the fact that the witness could not have been where he said he was or he was a suspect. And the ace says, so you're saying on Christmas Eve that you were - that you spent Christmas Eve rubbing up and down against Doris Aiello (ph) or something like that. And they said, no, you can't say rubbing up and down. So I wrote, so you spent Christmas - you say you spent Christmas Eve in close proximity to Doris Aiello's goonya (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILCH: Now, there is no such word.

GROSS: Right.

MILCH: And yet, because of the context, it is a much more vivid image. And that's the point. The specific obscenities that are used in "Deadwood" - whether they scandalize or affront the sensibilities of the listener is not the point. What's crucial is that they're - that they portray the sensibility and, to a large extent, the fears of the character. In the instance of cops, the inability to use obscenity was not so crucial because the culture of cops can be portrayed. The obscenity is not of the essence of the cop's character. It's simply a way of releasing a certain amount of tension.

Now, racial epithets are a different thing. For me, the ability to use racial epithets was crucial in "NYPD Blue" because so much of the cop's experience has to do with racism, either the racism that afflicts him or the racism that's institutional. And so I felt deeply a need to be able to use racial epithets, where I felt no need whatsoever to use obscenity because it was not of the essence of the character's experience.

GROSS: Interesting. I got to know, how do you make up a word like goonya?

MILCH: You know, it's - (laughter) I don't know. That's my racket.

GROSS: (Laughter) I mean, what are some of the things you think about when you have to make up, like, a phony expletive or body part or, you know...

MILCH: Yeah, that - thinking is invariably the enemy of action. And I don't think - I mean, I don't outline my shows. I don't - I just sort of try and let it happen. And...

GROSS: Right, OK.

MILCH: So I improvised that stuff on the spur of the moment.

BIANCULLI: David Milch speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. He's the creator of "Deadwood," the HBO series that ended in 2006, but tonight presents a brand new movie sequel 13 years later. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. We'll also hear from Timothy Olyphant, one of the stars of the old and new "Deadwood." And film critic Justin Chang will review the new Elton John biopic, "Rocketman." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEADWOOD")

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) There's a blood stain on your floor.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Yeah, I'm going to get to that.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2004 interview with David Milch, creator of the Western TV series "Deadwood," which ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006. Tonight, 13 years later, Milch and HBO present "Deadwood: The Movie," catching up on that South Dakota mining town and its many colorful residents and visitors. When we left off with the interview, they were discussing Milch's many battles with network censors regarding one of his previous groundbreaking series, ABC's "NYPD Blue." Profanities in general were fought over on a case-by-case basis, but some categories were more sensitive than others.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What were you up against in terms of using racial epithets?

MILCH: They said, don't use them. And I said, well, we're going to use them (laughter). And as the ratings went up and the affiliates - you know, we get back to the old subject of commerce. One-third of the ABC affiliates refused to run the show. Well, after the show was on the air for a couple of weeks and it was clear that it was getting good ratings and that people had come to experience beyond whatever titillation they thought they were going to find, something that they wanted to come back to on a weekly basis having to do with the rendering of a particular world, then the affiliates began to pick it up. And as the networks started to make money, they began to take a little bit more dialectical view of what our ambitions were - Steven's and mine - and to see virtue where before, they had seen only vice. And finally, with the proper amount of piety and fanfare, you know, they began to allow us to use certain locutions about race that they had forbidden hitherto.

GROSS: Does this include - I'll go with the N-word?

MILCH: Yes. Yeah, specifically the N-word and specifically the fact that Sipowicz, as a racist, would use that word. And it was of the essence of that character's woundedness and the distortion of perspective that had come from his early experiences that he be able to use that word and that the character who was his partner could then have the opportunity to say, I can't work with you...

GROSS: So where did the...

MILCH: ...If you're going to speak that way.

GROSS: Where did the objections come from once you started using the word?

MILCH: From the bosses at the network.

GROSS: What about from viewers? Did you get any objections from that?

MILCH: You know, I don't read that stuff.

GROSS: Right, 'cause you don't want to be affected by it.

MILCH: Yeah. I mean, the network will say, well, you can't put it on the air. But we finally found a way around that as time went on. We just didn't let them have the scripts until after the show was shot.

GROSS: Is - was that effective?

MILCH: Well, yeah, (laughter) it's effective if you're making them money. But by that time, they were sort of broken in. And it didn't hurt that those episodes won the Emmy. And so you get a certain amount of credibility and...

GROSS: Right.

MILCH: But also, you know, the thing about a network - the thing about any sort of guardian at the gate is they don't want to have to make a decision. If - I mean, they don't want to take the responsibility one way or another because, you know, suppose the thing makes money. So if they are able to throw up their hands and say, you know, we did our best, but that process over there is uncontrollable, they get it both ways. They make the money, and they get their moral sanctimony at the same time.

GROSS: Since we've been talking a lot about language, I'm wondering if you've found a lot of interesting slang from the late 1800s in your research for "Deadwood," slang that you're now using on the show.

MILCH: Oh, sure. And you'll find that - for example, when - in the first episode that aired the other evening, there's a moment when they're describing a dilatant. One of the characters says, well, it won't take long to discourage him. He ain't got much sand. And sand in that regard, which - means perseverance or gumption. If - color, for - if you say, did you find any color? That's a way of asking whether someone found gold. There are all sorts of specialized locutions that develop in any environment which is isolated or where the people tend to deal only with each other. And that's the way the language grows and complicates and stays rich.

What I hope the viewers will feel as they spend more time with the show, what I hope they'll recognize is the combination of locutions, obscenity and otherwise with which they're familiar and locutions which - as over the course of time, become familiar to them. And it will be a measure of their kind of bonding with that world, that they do understand them in context. You know, there is an expression that cops used, reaching out - which, in one way or another, has become some small part of the American lexicon because of "NYPD Blue." And what you do with expressions like that is just let the characters be themselves. And ultimately, if you're portraying an imaginative reality which is credible and engages the spirit, the audience will come along and will even invest with a kind of pride in the appropriation of that language.

So I hope - I think "Deadwood" is a wonderful world. However off-putting it may seem initially, if an audience spends a little bit of time in that world, I think, at a minimum, the viewer will experience its complication and its variety. And for me, it's been a very uplifting experience. I guess maybe my view of things has worked, but I like those people a lot.

GROSS: Well, David Milch, thank you so much for talking with us.

MILCH: It's been my pleasure.

BIANCULLI: David Milch speaking to Terry Gross in 2004, the year his "Deadwood" series premiered on HBO. Tonight, 13 years after that series ended, he and HBO present a new one-shot sequel "Deadwood: The Movie." After a break, we'll hear from one of the stars of that movie and that series - Timothy Olyphant, who plays Seth Bullock. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT STILLMAN'S "THE DANCE 2")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Tonight, HBO presents "Deadwood: The Movie," a long-delayed finale to the HBO TV series, which concluded abruptly after its third season in 2006. In the HBO TV series and in the new movie, Timothy Olyphant stars as Seth Bullock, who, on the series, eventually became the sheriff of the lawless mining town in the Dakotas. After "Deadwood," Olyphant went on to another starring role as deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the FX series "Justified." Terry interviewed Timothy Olyphant in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from "Deadwood." And this is a scene with you and Ian McShane. He played Al Swearengen, who ran a saloon and brothel and was one of the meanest, most unethical men you'd ever want to meet. So in this scene, you're talking to Swearengen, and you're talking about a widow's claim to a gold mine. You, Sheriff Bullock, suspect that Swearengen is going to try to cheat her out of her claim. So you start the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEADWOOD")

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) I'm here to talk about Mrs. Garrett.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) That planted her husband this morning?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) I wrote a man about coming to assay her claim, but he can't make it.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Plenty of local alternatives.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) I want you to nominate someone.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Do you?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) So if any way his work was mistaken, I'd be coming after you.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) You would.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Yeah.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Well, since I got nothing to do with the [expletive] venture, what if I decline to make the [expletive] recommendation?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Then you better hope whoever I find does his job right because I'm still holding you accountable.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) I ain't involved. E.B. Farnum offered on a claim.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) Farnum's your water boy, and I know what you've been trying to do to her.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) So here you come in, all nobility, threatening me with a dire result if the property that widow's husband thought worthless and wanted sold turns out not to be pinched out.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) You and I know how it is, Mr. Swearengen.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) How what is?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) She gets a square shake or I come for you.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) What if I come for you? You ready for that?

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) I guess I better be.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Then close your [expletive] store 'cause being ready for me will take care of your waking hours, and you better have someone to hand the task off to when you close your [expletive] eyes.

OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) We understand each other.

GROSS: Well, one of the many great scenes from "Deadwood" - Timothy Olyphant, my guest, along with Ian McShane. You played a sheriff in Montana who, like, hangs a man and then leaves town with his partner with the intention of starting a hardware store in this mining town, Deadwood, and ends up becoming the sheriff.

OLYPHANT: Yeah. It's fantastic.

GROSS: And I'm thinking, like, who would want to go to this town to start a new life? Of, like, all the places (laughter)...

OLYPHANT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You'd want to go to, why would you go to this, like, horrible, dirty mining town with all these, like, crude, filthy, nasty, violent men there?

OLYPHANT: It was a good show.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, no.

OLYPHANT: That's why. It's why we went there...

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLYPHANT: ...Is we thought it would make good television. Yeah. You know, I don't know. I know that the - you know, one of the wonderful things about that whole show was those were real people that those characters were based on. And that's what the guy did. And I imagine that, you know, it's opportunity. There's an opportunity to go and make a living and move west. So I think for that character, he - you know, there was a feeling that he was going to try to start over and walk away from this other life.

GROSS: Get away from the violence (laughter).

OLYPHANT: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: So how did you get the part on "Deadwood?"

OLYPHANT: Sometimes, people aren't as consciously aware of their decisions as they should be. That I auditioned for. I met with - it started with a meeting with David Milch. And Walter Hill was in the room as well.

GROSS: David Milch was the creator of the series. And Walter Hill is a film director who directed the first episode of "Deadwood."

OLYPHANT: Exactly, yeah. So I went and met with David and sat down with David and Walter. I really didn't say much. I kind of went in there with the plan of - I'd just listen and see if I could just fool these people into thinking I was this guy. So David talked on and on. I just stared at him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLYPHANT: And I tell you, it completely worked. You know, I was told afterwards he was a bit nervous about the whole meeting and a bit intimidated by it, and he wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing the show.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OLYPHANT: My wife and I got a good laugh out of the whole thing. And - but I did go in and read for the executives at HBO. I went in and read what, I think, was the opening scene of the first episode.

GROSS: I love what you said about the audition because your character in "Deadwood" and your character in "Justified" are both so good at that unblinking stare, that un-backing-down stare. And you did that in the audition. That's great.

OLYPHANT: There's - yeah. And to be quite honest with you, it's not something I think I've - maybe I'm better at it at this point in my life than I was. But I've always sort of admired and respected one's ability to be comfortable with other people's discomfort or, you know, their being comfortable making other people uncomfortable.

GROSS: So what did you have to learn for the role? Like riding a horse - did you know how to do that?

OLYPHANT: For "Deadwood," yeah, I did have to learn to ride. Milch had all these rodeo guys, I think, on his personal payroll. They were around. Some of them became characters on the show - guys who ran - who were bull riders and rode broncos in the '70s and '80s. And I think he met one of them and thought, well, this is the kind of guy that would inhabit a town like Deadwood. And so he invited that guy to go get - round up a bunch of his buddies and move them out to California and just hang out. And I learned - those are the guys that would take me riding, so I'd go ride with all these old ex-rodeo dudes. And the hills of - you know, out there by Griffith Park and stuff. And I learned how to ride. And I learned a lot of really bad jokes. That was the deal. It was kind of fun.

GROSS: What was the set for "Deadwood" like? 'Cause the town that "Deadwood" is set in is just so grimy, like, ugly, mean.

OLYPHANT: I loved that set. I mean, that was one of the greatest sets I've ever been on. The whole thing was just very alive. I mean, it was a working set. I mean, it was unlike - you know, it's very hard to come across that kind of a situation, where the fact that it was such a self-contained world and that everything was available at our disposal really at any given moment - it allowed David - it's not fair to say he was winging it. I often use that word. But, I mean, he's such - he's writing everything at the last minute. He's writing everything the day before, you know?

You're getting your pages - you know, 5 p.m., 6 p.m., you're getting pages - lots of them - that would shoot the following day. You know, it wasn't uncommon for him to be on the set in a rehearsal. And, you know, he - you know, all of a sudden, ask, you know, are the Chinese here? Do we have any - it'd be great if we had some Chinese for this scene. And then, you know, the ADs are scrambling on the phone. David, we could have the Chinese here within the next three hours - perfect. Do we have anything else we can shoot until then? Yes. You know, we could shoot the scene down at Bullock's house. Anna will be here in a few minutes - perfect. Let's flip that. And we're going to go down the street and shoot that scene now. I'm going to rewrite this scene. It'll be ready in three hours when the (laughter) Chinese arrive. And, you know, it felt like a perfect storm of - the set allowed him to kind of work that way without the challenges of being - you know, we don't have this on "Justified." On "Justified," we're driving all around Southern California trying to find a location that you could call Kentucky. And it makes it much more difficult, you know, every time you kind of throw a wrench into things.

GROSS: One of the things that became famous about "Deadwood" was the number of obscenities and the amount of blasphemous language that was used incessantly (laughter) in the show. Did you and, say, Ian McShane in scenes opposite each other ever start laughing because the language was just so overloaded?

OLYPHANT: I mean, you tend to - I mean, you tend to crack up every time someone handed you the new pages. I mean, the first season, I remember - daily - running into, you know, fellow actors and stuff and saying, did you read that? (Laughter) I mean, are they really going to let us shoot that? I mean, I'd never read anything like it before in my life. And you would read something and just crack up because how far it pushed the boundaries of what you thought was OK to do on television. Or you read it, and you thought to yourself, what am I talking about? (Laughter) I don't understand any of this. You know, you really had to kind of wrap your head around something. And then once you - you know, you just kind of have to break it down. And then you realize, oh, it's really quite simple and quite perfect. And, you know, it was so - it was really quite special.

BIANCULLI: Timothy Olyphant talking with Terry Gross in 2011 - he played Sheriff Seth Bullock on the HBO series "Deadwood" and returns as the same character in "Deadwood: The Movie," which premieres tonight on HBO. Coming up, "Rocketman" - the new Elton John biopic. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "ARRIVING IN DEADWOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.