Wednesday, May 31, 2006

David Milch at the Writers Guild Foundation

Last week David Milch spoke as part of the Writers Guild Foundation's Spring Storytellers series. A lively evening with a fascinating guy.

Shawn over at Agents Are Evil said he'd have a recap up soon, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, here are my random notes.

Process was the big initial topic. Milch says he writes for a certain number of hours per day, seven days a week. When pressed for the number, he guessed four.

He doesn't think about writing when he's not writing. He's not the guy jotting stuff down in the car, or having ideas while shaving. He noted that these thoughts are not true to his characters -- the ego suppression that happens while in the act of writing is not there when not writing, and drags down the characters' true voices.

Milch doesn't outline or do other conventional texty script preparations in advance of writing. He does massive amounts of research, from books to site visits to subject matter expert interviews. He wrote and published a sourced paper on the language of DEADWOOD, something I'd love to chase down and read.

The writing takes as long as it takes. Scenes often can be written or revised while in rehearsal or on set.

Of course, all this makes network programmers antsy. Even HBO, which Milch notes likes you to have your entire season in the can before you go to air.

He had a great quote about this which I'm going to butcher due to not transcribing it exactly, but it went something like: when the tao is gone, then talk of good and evil. Basically, his point was that effective storytelling is the essence. The airwaves are full of ineffective storytelling. In the absence of effective storytelling, networks make you stick to schedules.

Milch is amazingly present-focused -- the way he writes is testament to that. This trait also came up when he spoke about DEADWOOD, now heading into what's probably its final season (he was a little coy on the definites). He said that he and the others behind the show are doing all they can to make the show the best it can be, relishing that challenge and opportunity, and not thinking ahead to The End and aspects out of their control.

He suggested to the audience that we watch the show in the same vein, appreciating it in the moment and not looking ahead to when there are no more episodes.

Episode 9 is in post now, he said in passing.

Extremely articulate and lettered guy. Unpacked all kinds of references and allusions. Quoted from The Great Gatsby.

He won the prestigious Humanitas Prize. Twice. And bought a racehorse with the prize money. Twice.

Milch has survived multiple 12-step programs worth of demons: drugs, booze, depression, OCD. In college he wrote the same twelve pages of a novel by hand every day. All that is part of why he doesn't think about writing when he's not writing.

He doesn't type and doesn't know how to a use a computer, probably all the better since keyboard+mouse=bad bad OCD possibilities. Charmingly, he called the internet the "mainframe reboot" a few times. He also called his car keychain clicker a reboot.

Writing is not a solitary experience for him. He dictates to someone on a computer, with the words appearing projected on a screen (apparently the extras to the DEADWOOD DVDs show this -- must check that out). Also in the room are the other writers, students, friends.

Working with him must be a unique experience, and not just because in his more unhinged days he used to get into epic battles with his boss, including urinating on the boss's typewriter (to be fair, Milch said, the boss was not always at the typewriter at the time) and hurling the contents of the office out the window. The ST. ELSEWHERE staff, one floor below, were often distracted by random items plummeting past.

Milch once sold a novel to five different publishers.

He spun a really interesting thread around the racehorse Barbaro and that horrible break, using it to describe eliciting an authentic experience in an audience. With Barbaro, we the public had this infantile, kind of selfish fantasy about this horse winning it all.

Then the horse got hurt, and there was this repositioning of how we felt about it. We hoped the horse would be all right. Then, we learned that he might not be all right, but might in fact die -- the extreme ways that horses have been bred (for us) means poor circulation and frequent inability to recover from breaks. Then Barbaro was operated on, and was successful, and it seems like he will recover although not to be the champion he was.

Through this, Milch said, we the audience progressed from something experiencing something cliche to something genuine. I'm not capturing the detail fully, but trust me, it was an effective point.

His favorite $20,000 Pyramid category is Things That Go Inside Other Things (revealed when he knocked over a bottle of water).

He has a bad back and needs a lumbar support pillow for these events.

Director's chairs are not well-suited to lumbar support pillows.

In the Q and A, a guy referenced a lecture series Milch gave. Milch said it was available on the reboot, but after a quick search I've only been able to find a reference to it, not the DVD itself: it's called The Writer's Spirit: An Approach to Storytelling. Anyone know where it might be available?

He talked several times about the illusion of separateness that he -- and all of us -- experience, and the necessity of getting past this false isolation. We're so connected to the lives around us.

I see this coming out in how he lectures frequently and believes in teaching. I was also impressed at how gracious he was to everyone in the Q and A. Milch can no doubt be a tough sonofabitch (he ribbed the moderator, Paul Brownfield from the LA Times, on a few occasions), but he was warm and attentive to all who asked him questions.

Definitely worth going to hear him speak if you can. If just to hear the story that starts with him passed out in a Cuernavaca jail, missing the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and ends with him running down a New Haven street with a shotgun, blasting at cop cars...


Shawn said...

Great recap, Kira. Don't know if I can add any more insight or details, but I'll give it my best. One correction, though: Milch does prepare for his writing by researching the hell out of everything. I think he spent a solid year -- if not longer -- reading about the town, the characters and the times. He also made several trips to Deadwood, visiting museums and meeting people with stories to tell. Milch even befriended several rodeo cowboys in order to grasp their language and mannerisms, some of whom show up in episodes as extras, notably Silas Adams’ sidekick, Hawkeye.

I called the production office and had them email me a copy of the lecture transcripts. I’ll forward it along to you.

Kira said...

Ah, thanks for the note re. preparation -- research is a huge part of his process. I'll amend the post to clarify.

And thanks in advance for the transcripts! Yay!

BooM said...

Sounds really cool, Kira!

Loudlush said...

...He wrote and published a sourced paper on the language of DEADWOOD, something I'd love to chase down and read...

Oooohh! If you manage to find it, can you please use your powers for good and share its whereabouts with the rest of us?

I'm in Australia, so the chances of me seeing Milch present in person is rather slim.

Shawn said...

Hey, I finally got my recap up. Check it out.

Enio Rigolin said...

I too was at that lecture, and I too felt inspired by Mr. Milch's intellect, humor, warmth and honesty.

My favorite part of the evening... During one of his outlandish stories about his wild antics began to get too outlandish to believe, he paused with an impish grin and admitted that he was embellishing for effect. It was a great moment considering how he had begun the evening off-handedly warning us that he had a pathological tendency to make stuff up and pass it as truth.

As for his writing technique, he mentioned how he had given free seminars at the Guild on the subject. And was planning on doing it again soon. I would LOVE to be there for that. Does anyone know if or when his next seminar would be?

I can't seem to find an email address for the WGA to ask them myself.

P.S. Shawn, is there any chance you could forward the transcript to me as well? Thanks for the great blog!

Anonymous said...

Kira thanks for all of the amazing details. I saw Milch at MIT he's truly inspiring. If you or Shawn could forward me a copy of the transcript from the WGA sessions that would be amazing!!!!

my email:

Thanks in advance!