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Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell

Photo by Alix LambertDavid Milch is standing in the Gem Saloon, a whorehouse built as part of the set for the award-winning HBO ensemble series Deadwood, which Milch created. The series is a fictionalized version of the real-life camp of Deadwood, Dakota territory, circa 1877, a time and place Milch thought would be perfect for exploring conflicting human impulses toward anarchy and civility. Milch is halfway through a day of shooting, and he is answering a question about a line in the script. “. . . You’ve got seven different kinds of cock breath,” he says. This is not an aberrant bit of conversation on the set of Deadwood. Consistently, whether it was with his early work on Hill Street Blues or his years as co-creator of NYPD Blue, Milch has explored the extremes within the characters he authors. Now, with the question about cock breath settled, Milch sits down across from me at a table preset with fake glasses of whiskey. He is wearing a jacket with “1993–2005 NYPD BLUE” emblazoned across the back. NYPD Blue shot its final episode the day this interview took place. With Deadwood’s second season premiering on March 6, and the famously obsessive Milch working nearly round the clock, he still managed to sit for an interview and reflect on writing, addiction, fatherhood, mentorship and what he plans to do next. L.A. WEEKLY: So you were telling me that you don’t like to do interviews very much because you have a lack of impulse control. DAVID MILCH: Yeah. Usually you want to be able to filter things appropriately to the context of the interview. I find that’s a gift that has eluded me. But this may be the one. This may be the one where I turn the corner. But don’t you think your lack of impulse control is what makes for a good interview for everybody else? Except for my mother. As an undergraduate at Yale, you studied under Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren. What did you take away from that? Mr. Warren was a precious person and a great teacher to me. Because I had no idea how to live, I had just no idea how to live. He showed me how the life of the mind could organize a life as lived. He was very rigorous. He did his exercises and wrote his poems. He only wrote his poems when he swam. When Saul Bellow first met Mr. Warren, they were on some Greek island and they were talking about writing, and all of a sudden Mr. Warren tore his clothes off and dove into the ocean and started swimming, and Mrs. Warren was there and Bellows said, “My God. Save him!” And she said, “No, he’s just had an idea for a poem.” So much of art is really a conversation with the art that you’ve loved. It’s a pity for younger artists not to have the opportunity to work with an older artist. Obviously, my life was changed by the opportunity to work with an older artist. That’s why I try to teach whenever I can. I always have apprentices working with me. I feel that we are part of a community whether we realize it or not. How did you initially transition from aspiring novelist into writing for television? My roommate in college [novelist and Hill Street Blues writer Jeffrey Lewis] was a very big believer in my work. I was such a mess. I was so self-destructive that people were endlessly trying to reorganize me. It was so inexplicable to them that I had graduated first in my class at Yale, and there I was asleep in my own puke. I was really trying to get a decent job, so when he asked me to [write an episode of Hill Street Blues], I did it. I got a script so I could try and figure out what a script looked like. I remember I got everything right except I could never figure out what “INT.” and “EXT.” meant. So I thought it was like an algebraic pattern where you had one EXT., two INT.s, another EXT., three INT.s. So that’s the way I did it. They were a little troubled by that, but otherwise they liked it pretty well. So now, what is a typical day like for you working on Deadwood? I work 90-hour weeks. During the week I get picked up at 5 a.m. We shoot probably until 7 at night. What I try to do is fit my writing in around the rehearsals. Then on the weekends I write full time. I have an office in Brentwood, and that’s basically how I live. I don’t resent it at all. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to do the work. It’s just a question of stamina. I haven’t got that much more time, I should think, certainly not to be working in the way that I work. So I wouldn’t expect to be doing it that much longer. But I have an awful lot that I’d still like to do after that. I want to teach. I’d love to meet my grandchildren. You mentioned that with NYPD Blue there was a point at which you felt like you were getting burned-out. Do you think there is an expiration date on how long a show can run? Sure, though you never know what it is. I think what I got burned-out on was essentially a pathological connection to the material. That is, I was so much in self-will that I wasn’t letting the material form my work. I was trying to form the material. You can do that for a while, but ultimately you become resentful of the material for not being absolutely responsive to your will, and that’s what burns you out. But I’m very proud of the work I did. You know, they’re having a party tomorrow night. Today is the last day of shooting of NYPD Blue. Twelve years. Mr. Warren [Robert Penn Warren] taught me that the secret subject of every story worth telling was time. But you could never say its name. It’s moments like that you feel how true that is. You’ve been very open talking about your issues with substance abuse. Do you think there is a connection between the creative act and the self-destructive impulse? I think oftentimes in those for whom the need to feel beauty is an essential part of the personality, where it is really a life-or-death matter, that you find that in souls who are in despair. But I don’t think that one is necessarily the sign of the other. I believe that art as an expression of the sense of order is a healing condition and that the restlessness, which often leads us into addiction, predisposes us to an appreciation of how provisional a sense of order really is. Alcoholics or those who are disposed to addiction feel their sense of incompletion with an acuteness that they must meet medically, and if they don’t have the opportunity or the occasion or the exposure to the idea of God, they reach out in this other way. You’ve also talked about your relationship to your father and the importance of a father figure. James Joyce said eternity is not necessarily a matter of blood. I think that part of the journey of our spirits is to find our fathers. I remember my dad saying to me when I was knocking around in all kinds of trouble, “If you wanted to be a doctor, I could help you, even if you wanted to be a thief, I could help you. But I can’t help you with what you want to be. But someday you’ll meet someone who can help you, and then it’s your job to ask.” And when I met Mr. Warren, I asked. When my dad was in his last illness, I asked Mr. Warren to sign a book of poems to my dad, and I still have it. I think it’s the only book I’ve ever kept, and it said, ‘To Elmer Milch, who is David’s father, I consider my good friend.’ ” And now you have your own children. You know, when you first begin as a parent, you want to take the child’s pain. Our boy Ben, our middle child, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 3 years old. At first you feel if you could just take it and give it to me. And then you realize that to be an artist you must create a humility, you can’t create an ego, and to realize what I can’t do. I can’t take all his pain. But let me do what I can do — share his joy and let him know that I share his pain. He’s the world’s child and I’m just a custodian. All of the old clichés are true. You just want them to be as happy as they can be. You don’t care about anything else that you thought you cared about. ?