A Producer Hangs 10 in a Risky HBO Pilot
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Writing is generally a silent, solitary pursuit. But not for David Milch, one of the most prolific and successful writers in television with a résumé that includes Emmys for work on “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” and, most recently, critical plaudits for HBO’s darkly poetic “Deadwood.” He composes verbally, extemporaneously and in a crowd.
His method, and a bit of his madness, were on display here recently in front of a roomful of actors, writers, an ex-cop and a lip-reading deaf girl. They had come to Mr. Milch’s plain-vanilla offices to work on a pilot for “John From Cincinnati,” a drama for HBO. The pilot, scheduled for broadcast in the spring, is based on the travails of a mythical first family of surfing. “John from Cincinnati” is taking shape under Mr. Milch’s direction as executive producer, with the surf novelist Kem Nunn, among others, providing aquatic verisimilitude. The story defies television genre-speak, but in literature it would be called surf noir. There is a dysfunctional family viewed through the twin prisms of surfing and heroin addiction, a space alien and a lawyer named Dickstein. It should be mentioned that some characters occasionally levitate.
The subject of the group writing session was where John is from — Cincinnati and/or outer space — but the discussion quickly turned to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a message to the great beyond from which John is bringing back a response.
“9/11 is big,” Mr. Milch, 61, said to the unusually large crowd in the room. He was lying on the floor — a bad back is his curse — next to a microphone. He was just getting going. “What part of 9/11 is big? If the future continues to reinterpret the past, it could be argued that 9/11 provides irrefutable proof that unless there is some other way that we learn to deal with our technology or deal with our brothers and sisters, it is goodbye as a species. That genie does not leave that bottle.”
He went on like that for a while, then said: “A dying culture, intuiting that it is dying, postulates an alternative reality: The Indians postulated in the ghost dance that they were impervious to technology, that when a bullet hit them, they went up to heaven. Does any of that sound familiar?”
Everybody nodded assent. Down the hall a parrot made that signal three-tone noise from “Close Encounters.”
While Mr. Milch’s background includes significant stints as an addict, a horse player and a depressive, he is also a student of the poet Robert Penn Warren and a teacher of fiction seminars at Yale. Attentive, upturned faces are his inspiration, his clay and his congregation. The atmosphere in the room feels a bit like church, of which Mr. Milch is well aware. “Showbiz and churches are the same thing,” he said during a break. “You never saw ‘The Wizard of Oz’?”
He has, as recovered drug users generally do, come back from the dead several times, and has come to believe that he is intended, somehow, to tell stories in a way that has an impact on the species.
“I am an instrument of purposes that I don’t fully understand,” he said, not caring how grand or silly it might sound. “Time will tell whether I am a wing nut or a megalomaniac,” he added. “The difference between a cult and faith is time. I believe that we are a single organism, and that something is at stake in this particular moment.”
The reason he acts out all the parts in his shows in front of the people who work on them, and explains their philosophical underpinnings, invoking Gustav Theodor Fechner and three euphemisms for the male sex organ in the same sentence, is related to the notion of faith.
“They need to understand something,” he said of his actors. “And if they don’t have a script, they need to believe in something.”
After the break Mr. Milch walked Brian Van Holt, who plays Butchie Yost, a surfer turned addict, through a scene in which John from Cincinnati enters his fetid apartment.
“Everything is shameful to a junkie,” Mr. Milch said. “Every time a junkie walks into a new environment, he looks around and says, ‘What are the specific items of the indictment?’ ”
Mr. Milch knows this because he has lived from fix to fix. He embraces his own imperfection and finds humanity in the woundedness of others. Rebecca De Mornay, an actress who has spent a couple of years between opportunities, will play Cissy Yost, the matriarch of the family. Shaun Yost, a talented young surfer turned skateboarder, will be played by Greyson Fletcher, a nonactor and, not so coincidentally, one of the real-life models for at least part of the story.
The conscience of the pilot, a wizened character named Bill, is modeled after Mr. Milch’s best friend, Bill Clark, a retired New York police detective who is never far from Mr. Milch’s side. The role will be held down by Ed O’Neill, who will be the moral center of the series and the dramatic collective Mr. Milch is trying to build.
“We are going to be doing a story that is on HBO and there are these endearing characters. It is about surfing, but some of the characters levitate and as the story complicates itself, my faith begins with looking at my friend,” Mr. Milch said, gesturing toward Mr. O’Neill.
In an interview later that day Mr. Milch does not so much answer questions as flatten them and then rebuild them to create a teachable moment.
“What is this show about? It is about itself,” he said later in the day, lying on the floor supported by the crook of one arm, the other doing jerky arabesques in the air. “Ostensibly it is about a family of surfers who seem to have become more and more disassociated from themselves and from good surfing. They were all champions, and they are in one way or another alienated, loaded and ascetic.”
He paused. “And then a strange guy comes into their life: John from Cincinnati.”
Surfing in general has an indifferent show-business history, heroin addiction has never been a big commercial draw, and it would be hard to come up with a surer route to shark bait than aliens.
“The smart money is that this show is about a stupid subject,” he said. “The wave of commerce,” he added, “is that what goes up must go down.”
“Deadwood” was a success, albeit one whose abrupt end left Mr. Milch with “a bitter taste in the cup.”
“So now the smart money is saying that HBO and I are on the way down,” Mr. Milch continued. “But there is a saying at the racetrack: the smart money tends to miss its bus in the morning.”
He is less cocky than steeped in his own legacy of overcoming doubts. In an a-literate medium, his love of words has brought him awards, applause and a lot of money.
Chris Albrecht, chief executive of HBO, said the network is betting on a horse they have come to revere.
“He is a great writer and a great producer who is very responsive to the business realities of making a big television show,” Mr. Albrecht said. “We don’t have to worry about looking for a broad audience. You have to just say to him, ‘Go write it.’ ”
Shortly after the day’s work the “John From Cincinnati” group decamped to Imperial Beach, Calif., a stand-in for the border town in the script, where they spent several weeks shooting the pilot.
Sometime after their return Mr. Milch, in a follow-up phone call, said he was still choosing to believe. The story and cast were jelling, he said. And the look of the show, he seemed pleased to report, was informed not by Martin Scorsese or MTV, but by his mentor Robert Penn Warren.
“Have you ever seen moonlight on the Wabash as the diesel rigs boom by? Have you ever wondered how the moonlit continent might look through the tearless and unblinking distance of God’s wide eye,” he quoted Warren over the phone. “I have been working to make sure that the camera is stationed at a tearless and unblinking distance.”