Sunday, August 5, 2007

David Milch and God

“I thank God that I have lived long enough... to understand that the shadow in which I felt that all of my characters had to move and live in fact was cast by God’s sheltering hand.”

As “John From Cincinnati” moves toward a conclusion (next Sunday), I must confess that I haven’t been watching. I tried, but the show just didn’t pull me in.

I have, however, been watching HBO’s reshowing of “Deadwood,” Season One. Creator David Milch’s poetic language and unflinching examination of human nature remain as breathtaking as they were the first time.

When I worked for Milch in the mid-1990s on “NYPD Blue,” he didn’t mention God much. I found out later that he was substance-abusing throughout those years. Now that he’s sober, he talks about God a lot.

David Milch spoke at MIT last year, with literature professor David Thorburn, and I want to share a 2½-minute audio bite with you.

It concerns the Humanitis Prize, an annual cash award for screenwriters whose stories “probe the meaning of life” and “affirm the human person.” The prize was established by the late Father Bud Kieser, a Paulist priest who did some TV and film producing himself.

The first television script Milch ever wrote – a 1982 episode of “Hill Street Blues” titled “Trial by Fury” – earned him a Humanitas Prize (as well as an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award). He received two more Humanitas Prizes for “NYPD Blue” (in 1994 and 1999).

That’s all you need to know to appreciate this tale told by Milch at MIT. Click here to hear it.

FYI, you can download Milch’s entire two-hour presentation as a huge MP3 file via Calamity Dan’s “Deadwood” fan site. An edited video stream is available at the MIT World site if you have a Real Player (which I don’t).

30 comments:

Invisible Woman said...

I absolutely love Deadwood, and tried to recruit everybody! You have to have patience to see the beauty of the langusge, though...just like all of my other favorite HBO dramas, I did not dig the first episode or two.

bumpster said...

I avoided John from Cincy but have come to enjoy its silliness. It is uneven in it's language. Some flashes of Deadwood style dialogue but not enough to maintain tension and flow as the plot goes.

Dougfp said...

Too bad God's sheltering hand can't save "John From Cincinnati" from being nearly incoherent. It hasn't been without its moments, but I'm quickly tiring of the John character. God wants to talk to surfers so he sends a babbling cipher? What? There were no burning bushes available?

And why is it ex-addicts always find God?

jena6 said...

And why is it ex-addicts always find God?

Word.

I'm curious as to whether Gene Roddenberry ever received the HUMANITAS Prize?

I clicked on the link to find out more about it and read that the prize "honors stories that affirm the dignity of the human person, probe the meaning of life, and enlighten the use of human freedom. The stories reveal common humanity, so that love may come to permeate the human family and help liberate, enrich and unify society."

I'm not a Trekkie, but I know Roddenberry was a Humanist and that Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation most strongly incorporated the philosophy of Humanism.

SJ said...

I haven't seen John from Cincinatti since I don't have HBO right now (saving up for The Wire), but Deadwood was just genius.

Let me ask you this though UBM, do you think NYPD Blue was better or Homicide?

S.O.L. said...

Very funny, Doug. I'm watching "John" and for awhile was digging it's vibe but last week's episode was like a weird trip to nowhere in particular. I feel like I'm having an important conversation with a brilliant man on a cell phone that's dropping every other word.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ That's funny, S.O.L. But perfectly true, I bet.

Jena6: The Humanitas was established in the early '70s, too late for the original "Star Trek." Interestingly, I don't think any sci-fi script has ever won a Humanitas... but I'll double-check.

SJ: I think Milch at his best, in the first four seasons of "NYPD Blue," topped everything else that decade... including "Homicide."

Andrew said...

I actually kind of like JFC, but I won't be heartbroken when it is most likely cancelled in a couple of weeks. Out of the 8 that have aired so far, I've straight up loved 4 of them, been ambivalent to 3, and actively disliked 1. Overall, I think the show's virtues outweight its flaws, but the its lack of critical and ratings success is Milch's own fault. For a show that has such grand aspirations about spirituality and what not, it spends way too much time with the characters just dicking around.

Undercover Black Man said...

Andrew: The strange thing is, ever since David Milch got sober, he has taken a different approach to writing. I don't know what one has to do with the other, but it began during his last couple years on "Blue."

That's when he began that whole thing of writing his shows one scene at a time... almost like improvization. In other words, he doesn't write a complete script, publish that script, let the actors learn that script, then shoot that script. He's literally making it up as he goes along.

So in his last years of "Blue," you'd see these bad episodes where characters spent half their time repeating information that the audience already knows. There was some of that in "Deadwood" too... but something about the otherworldly setting of the mining town allowed him to produce some great language.

I don't care how much of a genius somebody is... writing and shooting a show one scene at a time is NOT the way to tell a good, well-constructed story. You need revision time. You need advanced planning. You need to know what's gonna happen a few miles down the road in order to lay the pipe for it now.

Dougfp said...

^ That's it exactly...the show spends too much time with "the characters just dicking around". I mean, one of the minor characters gets an infection from a bad tattoo? What was God saying there again?

And I agree Milch's current method of writing is a lot of the problem. There's just no overall narrative structure to the show. It just spins in whatever direction David's head tells him each week.

I mean, forget Milch explaining God...I need God to explain MILCH!

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Hee-hee...

Invisible Woman said...

@ubm...is that really how he writes the show? Damn.

SJ said...

I've definitely heard about him doing that on the Deadwood set...I thought it was his "genius" way of doing things. Didn't realize it was because he was sober.

UBM, are you allowed to discuss what the "The Wire" writing process is like? I remember a David Simon interview where he says that it can get a bit argumentative in the writers' room...is that true? I absolutely love the attention to detail in The Wire. Also, can we get an update on how many episodes have been shot yet? Last time I heard you guys were shooting episode 8...and is Dominic West directing one of the episodes?

I'll understand if you can't answer any of them. ;)

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Oh yeah. It got to a point on "Blue" where actors would complain about it publicly. Or at least Andrea Thompson did when she quit. The actors had to be on call every day... they didn't get the scheduled off days that they used to. That's because Milch never knew, when he went to bed, who would be in the next day's scenes. Because he hadn't written 'em. It was wild.

I was gone by then. But that was the most dysfunctional way to produce a show I ever heard of.

You need a special kind of actor who can go with that flow. I think Ed O'Neill is that type.

Undercover Black Man said...

Oops. My last message was meant for IW.

Undercover Black Man said...

SJ: They're shooting Ep. 9 of "The Wire," which was written by George Pelecanos. I don't know about Dominic West directing, but I believe the series finale will be directed by Clark Johnson. Since he directed the pilot, that brings it full circle.

Simon runs his writing room the ideal way. Everything is planned; they figure out how the stories are going to end before they start writing.

I don't recall the writing room being "argumentative." Simon and Ed Burns lock horns every now and then... but I think even Ed realizes that, at the end of the day, Simon is the Man With The Golden Dick. He's the last word on what works and what doesn't work; what he wants and what he doesn't want.

dez said...

SJ: I think Milch at his best, in the first four seasons of "NYPD Blue," topped everything else that decade... including "Homicide."

Blasphemer!

(Unless you meant H:LOTS starting in S3....)

Undercover Black Man said...

dez: I believe I asked this same question of Alan Sepinwall back in '96... when he was still a wee undergraduate. I don't recall his answer.

But to me, its not even a close call. "Homicide" made some bolder structural moves every now and then... just like "St. Elsewhere" took narrative chances that "Hill Street Blues" would never take... but week in and week out, "NYPD Blue" was the shizzle.

And I ain't just saying that cuz Milch hired me and Fontana didn't. ;^)

SJ said...

Ahh yes, Pelecanos always writes the penultimate episode...and it's always so devastating. I like his DC-based books a lot too, and I can understand why Simon and Co. hired him.

No wonder The Wire is often called a "visual novel"...seeing how it's written by actual novelists.

Sorry I'm just sounding like a total fanboy right now...there are very few things I'm passionate about, The Wire being one of them.

Undercover Black Man said...

No problem, SJ. When I moved to LA in '94, I totally fanboyed out with any writer I ever met who was connected to "Hill Street." That one is still my all-time favorite. And I was happy to discover, with the Seaon One and Season Two DVDs... the magic is still there.

dez said...

UBM: I'll just say I politely disagree with your assessment of H:LOTS vs. The Butt Show and leave it at that ;-)

But on The Wire, I think we can all agree that it's utterly brilliant and the best drama on TV in years and years.

Dan Coyle said...

I have to say, the first season of Blue? Still gold to me. Everything after that? I couldn't get into the show without John Kelly, despite some very early great episodes with Bobby Simone (like his first or second episode, where he lectures a kid about respecting his mother). Caruso may have a rep as a total asshole, but there was a point there where I idolized him and he was what Great Acting was to me. I would say the best of early Blue definitely rivaled Homicide, and I confess I always preferred Blue's visuals.

Jeez, I'm lame.

I believe Smits hinted between the lines when he left that he was sick and tired of Milch's scripts getting to him so late. He couldn't really work that way, as evidenced IMO by his performances in his later seasons.

And Milch and co sent him off with the most bizarre, drawn out death EVER.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ That first season of "Blue" was amazing. And Caruso's character was cool. But as an actor? As a member of a team? Old boy had to go.

I've heard bizarre stories about him on "CSI: Miami." I heard that, for a while, Caruso was into this thing where he would refuse to move during a scene. He wouldn't physically move. He'd plant himself, and the director consequently had to block the shot around him.

dez said...

^I read a blind item a while back about an actor who would only be lit & shot from one angle. At the time, the main guess was Aidan Quinn, with David Caruso a close second.

BTW, Dan Coyle, you are not lame. A damn heathen, maybe, but not lame :-)

Dan Coyle said...

That's insane, forcing everyone to just block a shot around you. Now, I can see it coming from Caruso, because I'm guessing, from what I've read about him, his years of struggling had the bad aftereffect of giving him a massive sense of entitlement.

Now, I've done a little acting, extra work, and one thing I do realize is that everyone there is doing a job. And unless you have a specific creative reason you have worked out beforehand with the producers, why make the rest of the people who showed up for work that day suffer like that?

Aidan Quinn really dropped off the radar after Project Greenlight, didn't he?

Dan Coyle said...

Wait, I'm also reminded of Caruso infamously walking off the Blue set at the end of his final shot in "Dead and Gone", into the parking lot, without saying goodbye. Because in his words, "[John Kelly] was DEAD." and he had to let the character go. He seemed confused that the rest of the cast and crew might, you know, take that as a flipped bird instead of a creative choice.

Undercover Black Man said...

Dan, you remind me of a story I used to hear about Yaphet Kotto on "Homicide." Apparently, he would do the opposite of Caruso... he would deliberately move during a scene so that the camera had to follow him.

(Because "Homicide" was filmed with Steadicams, it wasn't blocked in the traditional way. The camera just kind of followed the action.)

dez said...

Aidan Quinn really dropped off the radar after Project Greenlight, didn't he?

He's been working pretty steadily. I loved him "The Book of Daniel" (another great show prematurely capped by its network).

dez said...

That would be "in 'The Book of Daniel'" yeesh....

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