The following is an excerpt from a conversation with David Milch moderated by the late Edwin A. “Bud” Shrake. David Milch was the recipient of Austin Film Festival’s 2006 Outstanding Television Writer Award. The full conversation can be accessed at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, holder of Austin Film Festival’s archives of more than 20 years of panel recordings. This excerpt has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Bud Shrake: So, about the language in Deadwood; I know there was a tremendous reaction to it, and, of course, the classic Western would have nothing like that. Would you tell us how The Hays Code came into being and what developed the classic Western?
David Milch: The Hays Code was– we’re all seated so I’m going to confide this to you. The entertainment business is pretty much run by Jews. And to the extent that that isn’t 100% true now, it was 100% true when it started. They were flying under the radar. They’d come from Eastern Europe. They get to America and in NYC they got to sell fabric. In Hollywood, nothing. People are throwing money at you, so they want people to know they’re not going to rock the boat. They’re going to tell the Goyim stories that the Goyim want to hear about America and everyone getting along. That was after more of the adventurous Jewish folks started to tell naughty stories in the ‘20s. There were grumbles from certain quarters. The boys got together and got a gentile to front it, Judge Hays. They had this code which said, ‘obscenity in word, thought or deed is an offense against natural law and the laws of God and will not be tolerated in our films.’
The thing about if you’re an artist, you try to internalize …if I’m in there bullshitting with my bosses, I can take arms against them or try and find a way that their interests and mine coincide to some extent so I can function. That works at least 4% of the time. In the case of the great filmmakers of the ‘30s and ‘40s, you can try to figure out a way to tell the story without any obscenity in it. So, in Westerns, you get these stoic, monosyllabic towering figures, which allows the coincidence of the artistic—the exogenesis of the artist, with the exogenesis of commerce.
Now, when we receive and experience a story we bond with that. It becomes part of our experience. So to the people who came of age in the ‘30s and ‘40s and early ‘50s and saw these great works of Hawkes and John Ford and so on, that was the imaginative reality of the West. To the extent that it’s a reality, even if it’s imaginative, it’s still real. So, you get people at that age saying they didn’t swear in the West, it didn’t happen. What they’re really saying is ‘I liked my time at the movies when I was nine years old.’ That’s fine, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the West. It has to do with childhood.
Anyway, I had no commitment to obscenity. From my point of view, my whole life is an obscenity. The research I did suggested that, to the extent that an environment is without law, it’s forms of order have to do with language and the verbalization of the willingness to be in conflict. So you don’t actually have to fight. Apes do this—[grunts]. They don’t have to duke it out with their fellow apes. In that sense, language, a disposition to obscenity, was the beginning, it seemed to me, of a civilizing process. An emergence from the primordial ooze.
Ian’s [McShane’s Al Swearengen] character was the combination of a man capable of violence with a good but brutalized mind. He had been savaged in his youthful experience, so didn’t trust his verbal capacity, but had an extraordinary ability to verbalize as opposed to doing violence. Seth Bullock—and both of these were real guys—Seth Bullock was a guy who was another sort of evolutionary sport. He had a homicidal rage against order because he used to get beaten every night in full dress uniform. His old man was a retired sergeant major. You know, Stockholm Syndrome, where you identify with your captor – what Bullock did was develop as if he was in uniform all the time. He had a very rigid form of moving all the time. That combination of a willingness to do violence, housed in a repressive dress, when it encountered Swearengen’s personality… that was how Deadwood, as opposed to a thousand other mining camps, a series of evolutionary accidents, to the extent that they found a way to live together, that made the recognition of community possible. Language in that sense, the kind of relentless obscenity, was my sense of why people in Deadwood spoke the way they did. I am more than tolerably persuaded that that’s the way they spoke.
There’s a second equation which is how to bring the viewer to stand in a particular emotional relation to the materials. For the people in Deadwood, obscenity was a step forward, whereas, for the viewer, the experience of relentless obscenity would be a corrosive process that finally wore away the viewer’s expectation formed by any of his or her prior experience of stories in this genre.
The first scene in which Ian’s character appears, I tried to present Swearengen as the custodian of all of the ways in which we begin to move past our individuality, of all of the pathological ways we express our community before we find spiritual expression. What are those ways? Intoxication of various sorts – with spirits, alcohol, gambling, with women. Simply using women as a vessel for the expression of ‘we want to have something to do with the environment, but we want to control it.’ The last thing is the symbol, which is either verbal or—and this seems key to our capitalist process and why we’re doing such a great job dominating the world—if you can agree upon a neutral symbol, it liberates our energy to work as a group. It doesn’t necessarily mean it exalts us, but if we can all say gold is worth x amount, gold has no internal worth in a barter economy, it has no function, it’s an illusion agreed upon, and if we agree upon an illusion, we can act as a body.
The only problem is, if the agreed-upon illusion doesn’t sink its root deep within our own nature, you can get the monstrous engine which is capitalism, which is part of the story I wanted to tell. In that first scene with Swearengen, he’s got women there, he’s got gambling there, he’s got booze there, and he’s got a scale. Which he makes available to the prospector. The prospector first turns in his gold and then chooses alcohol as his intoxicant. He picks it up and says ‘first one today with this hand,’ and he drinks and then as the intoxicant enters his body, he utters a stream of obscenities, which organize themselves into a kind of poetry. He says, ‘I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker and not the US government or the savage fucking redman is going to tell me different.’ And Swearengen, who understands how to channel human nature, says ‘he better not try it in here.’ What the prospector replies is, ‘Goddamn you, Swearengen, I can’t trust you as far as I can throw you, but I enjoy the way you lie.’ So that the lie, the illusion agreed upon, is an advancement and Swearengen is the artist of that. That’s about the obscenity.
David Milch is featured in On Story–The Golden Ages of Television which explores the transformation of television’s narrative content over the past several decades. This excerpt is not included in the book but within its pages you will find interviews with some of TV’s best creators and writers. Their insights, behind-the-scenes looks at the creative process, production tales, responses to audiences’ reactions, and observations on how both TV narratives and the industry have changed make this book ideal for TV lovers, pop culture fans, screenwriting courses, and filmmakers and writers seeking information and inspiration.