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Interview Excerpt: DAVID MILCH,
Creator of Deadwood: Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling

Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling

Milch on the set of Deadwood with Keith Carradine, who portrayed Wild Bill Hickok


Sunday, June 15, 2008

The complete Stop Smiling Interview with David Milch appears in
Issue 35: Gambling. Here we present an excerpt of that interview


By Annie Nocenti

David Milch has put enormous energy and heart into television shows and thoroughbreds — both risky, unpredictable beasts. They can let you down, or they can win races for you. You can breed and train the beast, but in the end you can only stand and watch it run. There is perhaps nothing like the exalted, heart-fluttering lift of that last measure in the racetrack announcer’s aria: And the winner is! Two of Milch’s horses, Gilded Time and Val Royal, have won Breeders’ Cup races. His TV shows have won buckets of Emmys. Milch’s series are arduous and successful archaeological digs into the nature of men and the societies they build in spite of themselves — and, perhaps most saliently, into the nature of the things that haunt David Milch.

Milch was introduced to the racetrack as a child by his surgeon father. After his death, Milch still paid the rent on his dad’s Saratoga racing box, and went so far as to revive his father’s colors one final time and watched the horse El Mansour win. “I wanted to feel I’d closed a chapter for my dad or myself or my memories of him,” writes Milch in True Blue. “Instead, I felt like someone who’d tried to buy something that wasn’t for sale.”

With Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, Milch pioneered the “realistic” cop show, and went on to create a show about pioneers, one of the best in history, Deadwood. For the cop show, to keep it real he worked with real detectives. In True Blue, which Milch authored with homicide detective Bill Clark, he wrote, “I needed a better sense of the world’s specific rhythms and textures. And here was Bill, with his hard-minded details and almost defiant pride in his job.” True Blue is a gold mine for writers: a generous insider’s look into the process of creating great stories from life. With NYPD Blue, Milch managed to take his memories, his sense of injustice, rage and hope, and transmute it through the unforgettable character of Andy Sipowicz. This time, he wasn’t buying something that wasn’t for sale.

For Deadwood, set in the 1870s, Milch surrounded himself with the closest thing he could find to the kind of wild men it took to survive in a lawless world: bull riders and rodeo cowboys. Like finding the perfect song to work to, Milch discovered in these men a way to keep the explosive rhythm of a bygone era close at hand. This time, with Deadwood, Milch was the horse. And even better, he was controlling the conditions on the track. In his book Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, Milch writes of the complex and ironic pact between gamblers and hustlers. “I remember when a rapper had one good summer and he made about $20 million. He was a serious gambler. So he comes to the racetrack to buy horses. Now every bloodstock agent, which is like a pimp of horseflesh, descends on him and they fillet this guy in about 20 minutes. He’s done. They sell him all these fucking horses. Except one of the horses that they sold him actually could run. The bloodstock agent who accidentally sold him that horse was ostracized by all his brethren. He was so ashamed. He said, ‘I didn’t think it could run, Jesus Christ!’”

David Milch spoke to STOP SMILING this spring about the dead-end digression of gambling and the transcendent possibilities of art.

Stop Smiling: Has this country’s puritanical drive tainted the whole idea of gambling? And what is it, to have gamble?

David Milch: What do you think?

SS: I’m a baby in this game. I’m two years into it, and I’m finding out that the skills I’m learning playing poker — everything from bluffing to playing it close to the vest to putting myself in a position to get lucky — are creating blowback in my life that is both good and bad.

DM: If you have a pathological predicate to your personality, gambling will certainly accommodate that, which is not to preclude the possibility that if you don’t have such a predicate there is a kind of sterile excellence that can be perfected in any one of those disciplines. Poker, in particular, takes into account so many traits of personalities in the study of the practice by others. To me, I find that the premise itself is either vacuous or cruel.

Before there was electricity there used to be an expression: “Is the game worth the candle?” That is, the wax needed to illuminate it. The study of human nature, which I suspect elevates the great poker players or even the good poker players from the fish or the geese or whatever term is in vogue these days to describe the dead money, is the same set of skills that in the service of, say, art or imagination generally could be put to a more constructive purpose. I find it a profoundly depressing vista to confront, to see those thousands of people and the dozens of very good people who are about to take advantage of them. I guess after how ever many days those bloodlettings go on — after a while it gets down to where it’s sort of an even combat, but up to that point it’s really sort of a form of robbery. People whose character defects have led them to act out in a particular way are having their money taken away from them. It’s as simple as that and that’s not a very respectful way, from my point of view, to make a living.

SS: At the same time, I find when I’m sitting at a poker table, I sort of find out who I am.

DM: Goethe used to say he had never heard of a crime he couldn’t commit. I have had the misfortune, or the opportunity, depending on how you want to look at it, to commit most of them. I don’t need a sport to help me do bad. Having said all of that, I can imagine that there are games — they talk about the big game, whatever the fuck that is — that are matches of approximate equals. At that point, I think it probably becomes a game of skill in a certain way. But as is true of so many of the so-called sports in our country, this has been plugged into something else entirely. James Fenimore Cooper said that the day would come in America when every fact and every behavior would be nothing more than a vessel of commerce. Facts as well. For example, if you look at the so-called news channels, those aren’t news channels anymore, those are kind of belaborings of points of view, political or otherwise, in the service of commerce.

SS: You had a very ambitious idea, in one of your television shows, to discover whether information does or does not become understanding.

: That was Big Apple. People took Big Apple to be a reference to New York, but it was the apple in the garden, the fruit of the tree of knowledge. I would say that the information about human behavior, which is exploited in a kind of contemptible way in poker, is not the way information becomes understanding. It simply becomes a vessel of commerce and that is, from my point of view, an empty way to approach things.

SS: So if you remove the money and make it a home game, you’re okay?

DM: Sure. But then it isn’t poker the way you’re talking about it. Because poker is exploitation of fear, the possibility of loss, the shame of being dominated. All of those things, particularly in public, have been attached to the game covertly. That’s how facts or games become articles of commerce.

To read the complete interview with David Milch, purchase Issue 35: Gambling


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