[fa:p:a=72157594267830938,id=292609754,j=r,s=s,l=p]AUSTIN DAZE: When Hill Street Blues came out did you know that you had changed the face of TV?
DAVID MILCH: I think the blessing of Hill Street Blues had to do with not looking at the big picture. At that point, I was just glad to have a job. It was the first writing for television that I had ever done so I was just trying to learn my craft.
AD: You broke ground again with NYPD Blue. Did you see that coming?
DM: Obviously, in retrospect, I’m delighted that I was involved with what was ground breaking work and I’m proud for whatever part I may have had to play in it, but I find that the historical significance of things is actually counterproductive. NYPB Blue came at a time when the smart money figured that our drama was dead on television. Some people sort of thought that television itself had been completely changed. That was the time of what was called, “the MTV generation.” The idea was that the attention span of the audience would no longer accommodate the hour form, because the demographic that television wanted to address’s expectations were not going to be satisfied after three minutes. When we worked on NYPD Blue it was a privilege to get to know Bill Clark who was a homicide detective in New York. My opportunity to work with Bill gave me access, through his sensibility, to a level of realism which it seemed to me brought those materials to life in perhaps a fashion that police work hadn’t been brought to life up until that point. To the extent that that show was groundbreaking, it always comes back to the details.
AD: And Deadwood? How does that show fit into all of this?
DM: You might say it’s a departure but I see more continuities than there are departures in that work. In fact in this new show that I’m doing John, “From Cincinnati,” even though the subject matter seems to be very different–one is a western and the other shows were detective shows–it’s always about the moment to moment of human life and the movements of the human heart. Everything else is kind of costume. My feeling is: I pay attention to the details of the way the heart moves. It brings an authenticity–that I rely on–to which all other kinds of authenticity are really subordinate. If that makes any sense.
AD: Is working with network TV a nightmare because of the censors?
DM: No, because fundamentally, the television networks don’t really want to have creative opinions – it’s only if you force them. What they really want to have is deniability. So, it comes down to the extent that you are willing to shoulder creative responsibility. I’m old enough now that I have a certain reputation: they are prepared to say, “Ok well, you paid the best money to the best writer.” Then you hope for the best. So that’s kind of where they leave it.
AD: How does it work with HBO? Is it different?
DM: Yeah, it’s different. But you know, as a practical matter with NYPD Blue it took us two years to get it on but after that I never talked to anybody at the network. Ever. Even in the 2 years that we were trying to get it on. My boss didn’t want me to talk to anybody at the network anyway because I was always insulting people and that wasn’t very productive. But once we were on the air, when you have to turn out 22 scripts a season they really don’t have time to bother you too much–especially when the scripts aren’t ready when you start to shoot. That was another innovation that I discovered early on: if you don’t send them the scripts they can’t have too much interference with you.
AD: How did you become involved in writing and screenplays and teleplays?
DM: When I was a kid, in my late teens, I was writing fiction. And that was regarded as very promising by people. And then I really didn’t write anything for a long period of time. Not for lack of trying, but just because I was so f**ked up. I was teaching for a long time–I taught at Yale for I guess about a dozen years. And then, just sort of by serendipity, I was invited to something for Hill Street. My now wife wouldn’t marry me unless I had more regular employment. So that’s how that went.
AD: What is the difference between crafting a teleplay and a screenplay?
DM: Oh I couldn’t tell you that. I haven’t the vaguest idea what the difference is. The big difference to me is when I work on a screenplay I get paid in a brown paper bag. The way that movies get made is they always kind of put what they call “the elements” together and the screenplay is always the element that seems to be the most easily addressed. So they are always working so hard getting the other elements that when they finally get these other elements they realize their screenplay blows. At least in my case, I try to avoid them. But if the people put the money in the brown paper bag, I’ll do it.
AD: What is your writing process?
DM: What it is now, I dictate. My wiring seems to be that if I have access to a writing instrument or anything I wind up just in an empty repetitive pattern. So I don’t type or write and I don’t know how to use a computer or anything. I dictate and I’m blessed to have Abbey–she’s the genius who listens to my rantings and puts them up on the screen. That’s how I work.
AD: How do you do research?
DM: With NYPD Blue I spent an awful long time with Bill Clark in New York City. Because the network at the time was so afraid to put the show on we actually got an extra year and I spent that time with Bill. Bill was gracious enough to introduce me to a whole bunch of detectives and uniform cops.
Deadwood meant a lot of work in libraries and reading and after I did all of that, I hung around with rodeo cowboys for a couple of months. And the reason for that: those guys are so nuts that it seemed to me that their sensibility was closest to what it would be like to be in a boom mining town 100 years before. They live at such an extreme pitch all the time: they are either on a bull or a bronco or they are getting drunk or something.
AD: What did you think of the Austin Film Fest and the Austin Screenwriter’s Conference?
DM: I had a great time down there. Was that a particularly good one? That’s the first one I’ve ever been to.
AD: This was a really great one. There were a lot of really fun people and good films.
DM: Yeah, we’re getting ready to do this new series and I literally left at 4 in the morning and flew down there. I chartered a plane and as soon as I was done I flew back out, like 12 hours later, so I didn’t get a chance to socialize too much. It was so well organized and people were so friendly. And then I was on a panel with Shane Black and Sidney Pollack-it was a lot of fun. I had a great old time and I would love to come back there.
AD: Aside from the Film Festival, what do you think of Austin?
DM: You know I taught down here maybe ten years ago; just came and taught for a couple of days. The vitality of the community is just extraordinary. It’s so alive and there is so much pride and people are proud to be living there. You feel that immediately. Los Angeles is very different in that sense–people are always apologizing for living in Los Angeles. Texas civic identity in Austin is a tremendous asset. Can I come down and see you again?