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Luck's David Milch and Michael Mann

the vulture transcript

The Vulture Transcript: Michael Mann and David Milch Open Up About the Cancellation of Luck

HBO's racetrack drama Luck was one of the most anticipated new shows of the season: a collaboration between two pop-culture juggernauts, writer-producer David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) and moviemaker and TV producer Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Heat). But the program was plagued by early press reports that Milch and Mann were at each other's throats during the shooting of the Mann-directed pilot, and animal-rights groups condemned the production when two injured horses had to be put down. When the series finally debuted, it was met with underwhelming viewership, and then, last week, while shooting season two, the production was permanently shut down after a third horse died on set. Now, for the first time since the show's end, Milch and Mann together address the horse fatalities, the cancellation, and the rumors of ego clashes on set, and Milch handicaps whether or not those long-discussed Deadwood reunion movies will ever happen.

What were your reactions when you heard that a third horse had a fatal accident and had to be euthanized?
Michael Mann: It’s a sinking feeling. And the first thing you need to ask is, you know, what happened? It’s been reported that the horse was being led by a groom, he was being walked back to his stall, [he] was frazzled by something, reared back and lost his footing and hit his head when he fell, and that resulted in heavy bleeding.
David Milch: There was a terrible ordinariness to what happened to that horse. And it’s in the rhythm and texture of life as lived at the track that those things happen. The sickening feeling that comes to you when you hear [about] something like that [comes from] knowing that what is going to attach itself to that fact isn’t properly germane to it at all. And I’m sure that the feeling [that] came very quickly to Michael, the way that it did to me, was the foreknowledge of what was about to ensue.

There had been two previous horse deaths during the making of season one. Did you originally think that you would be able to resume production after the suspension that followed the third death, as you had after the first two? And if so, did it have you thinking of any changes you could make to lessen the chances of it happening a fourth time?
Mann: No. For both of us who work in media, we understand the reality of it, and there’s certain physics. I mean, three horses is three too many, and when this third one went ... It’s a very common act, to have died. You know, you knew that this was unsustainable, that the fact of it is just going to make it … I don’t know if we could individually articulate it. You felt sort of the resounding sense of, you know, "This can’t work." It’s like trying to negotiate with gravity. Because of the media attention as well as the fact of it, it just becomes an impossibility.
Milch: To answer your question directly, Matt, there was absolutely nothing that we thought of doing differently in the aftermath of that third incident. You would have to not lead a horse from its barn to the racetracks. You would interfere with the most fundamental processes of a horse's life in order to preclude that possibility.
Mann: A groom has the horse on a tether and in a stable area, behind the track where there are I don’t know how many hundreds of horses led by grooms every day. And whether it’s a rabbit or whatever, the horse startles. And so in terms of things we’ve done differently, to amplify what David’s talking about, there’s nothing … We had the strictest protocols in place anywhere in the world in terms of how these horses were cared for: the tests that they were put through, how they’d be allowed to work for us. No racetrack has stricter protocols than [the ones] we imposed in our care of the horses — and, by the way, by people whose entire life is about caring for horses. If you spend your life caring for horses, it’s not because you don’t like horses. It’s because you love horses. That’s why you do it.

Could you respond to accusations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups that the horses used on Luck were too unhealthy, or too old to have been subjected to the rigors of weekly TV production? That they were sometimes pushed too hard, or that they were doped up to make it through production and hit deadlines?
Mann: It’s not true. We adhered strictly to [American Humane Association] guidelines. The horses we selected were thoroughbreds who were slow and sturdy, meaning that if they were too fast, then they weren't were right for us. And if these horses who were probably — David can speak to this better than I can — who were a little beyond their racing life … A lot of these horses, by the way, if they weren’t being cared for by us, the way they were being cared for would [have been] rather poor.
Milch: Just to pursue this a little bit, I was embarrassed for PETA when I read some of their statements, [of ] the savage ignorance of the realities of what we were doing ... They talked about 5-year olds being too old to race. A 5-year-old is in the absolute prime of his racing life! They [said] that the horses were found to have been medicated at necropsy [Editor's note: an autopsy performed on an animal]. Well, of course they were [found to have been] medicated at necropsy. They’d been medicated in the aftermath of being injured! This was beyond irresponsibility, the distortion that took place in order to make those accusations.

David, you’re a longtime racing aficionado and a horse owner, and Michael, I know you used horses during the production of The Last of the Mohicans. How have you both responded to news articles and editorials suggesting that it’s not worth risking the lives of horses to make art — or for that matter, that racing itself is cruel and ought to be banned?
Mann: I don’t want to speak to whether racing is cruel or not or ought to be banned. There was a good piece in the New York Times that seemed accurate. The Huffington Post had something on March 17 that was fairly accurate. There’s been a lot of press things in the last day or two about seventeen horses dying at Aqueduct since the beginning of this year. By the way, we had 2,500 horse runs on our show, and when we say [we shot] a "race," we run that horse for about a quarter of the track. Then that horse must rest for 25 minutes. This is the mandated call that we adhere to. And then a horse could run another quarter and then he’s done for the day. We had one horse who broke down, of the 2,500 horse runs. He had cooled down to a light gallop or a canter and threw a shoe*, and the shoe hit the horse behind him in the chest, causing him to stumble and then roll over. And then we tried for about an hour and a half to rouse that horse until we realized that the horse had broken his shoulder. That’s not to say that three horses dying is just part of the reality of making of a show. Three horses dying is three horses too many. David, do you wanna answer that?
Milch: I would just say that you’re coming up against certain deep, fundamental biological truths: that any living thing is subject to the laws of mortality, and that there was nothing that was done with any of these horses that was unnatural, nothing that was other than what they had evolved to do. [In claiming otherwise], there’s a kind of moral and emotional fastidiousness that is entailed, which at a certain point becomes absurd. Organic matter depends upon the appropriation and consumption of other organic matter. There are just truths that obtain whether we find them pleasant or not. The kind of flinching from any form of art or experience that PETA seems to advocate is ultimately life-hating.

One of the strains of criticism, and this is a very specific one, is not that it is immoral to use horses for entertainment per se, but that this specific show, which contains one or two races in every single episode, was qualitatively different from other entertainment that uses horses. We’re not talking about, you know, a stand-alone Western.
Mann: It's different in the sense that our show happens to be about racehorses. The differences between a racehorse, or a quarter horse, or a warhorse or any other kind of horse are [substantial].

How so?
Mann: Well, [racehorses] are more delicate, and they’re more spirited. They wanna go. They wanna race. They want to run. And Dave knows a lot more about how thoroughbred racehorses are bred than I do.
Milch: It’s in their nature, Matt, and it fulfills the deepest movements of their spirit. To say that these animals are [being] subjected to something unnatural … You know, it’s embarrassingly stupid.

How much of the show had been shot when the plug got pulled?
Mann: We'd shot the first episode of the second season. We were into the first few days of the second episode.

Will we ever see that episode?
Mann: The first episode? Possibly, we’re not sure.

The title of the show was Luck. Every subplot and scene was to some degree about characters responding to sudden shifts in fortune and inexplicable events and random tragedy. Has this series of events, climaxing in cancellation, made either of you look at the show's themes in a new or different light?
Milch: I think that it’s all part of it, isn’t it, Matt?
Mann:  There are some accusations that were made about the care of the horses, as David said, [that are] irresponsible, wholesale fabrications. The people who were involved in the care of these horses, the trainers and everybody, are devastated by accusations as well as [by] the cancellation. We have a lot of working men and women who are not called "Hollywood," whatever that means. They’re carpenters, they’re camera assistants, they’re prop men, they’re nice folks, they’re good hardworking people who loved the show, loved being on the show, [were] thrilled to be part of the crew, loved the horses, and were absolutely heartbroken at each one of these events, and heartbroken at the show having to be canceled, and are undergoing hardship, and some of them are on the street. And that’s really where a lot of our attention has gone.

David, this is your third HBO drama after Deadwood and John From Cincinnati to be canceled before its full arc could be played out. In at least two of those cases, Deadwood and Luck, there were external forces at play, apart from ratings or audience response. What, if anything does the gambler-philosopher in you make of all that?
Milch: Well … [Laughs.] Next hand!

After the pilot there were reports of rancor, followed by a working arrangement that gave you, David, control of the writing, and you, Michael, control of the filmmaking. Is this an accurate description? And if so, how did that collaboration work?
Mann: I’ve always felt that — full disclosure and candor up front — that’s the way you do things, and that’s the way of a successful product, and that’s the way you add a successful outcome to an artistic endeavor. And we talked about it, if I’m gonna direct this [pilot], here’s how I’m gonna do it, and everybody signed on, and that’s what we did. After [I shot the pilot], I showed it to David. After we saw the pilot — and we both liked the pilot a lot — the two of us were together in my office, and I said, "Okay, looking forward to the series, and to where I’m not the director [anymore] but we’re partners as co-executive producers, how should we work together?" And David said, "Shame on us if we can’t figure out a way to work together, because I like what you do, you like what I do." And so that’s when we decided that, as an understanding between the two of us, that David has to be the captain of the show. David has to be the captain of the show, and of everything having to do with the writing. Period. I was captain of the show for the telling of the stories and so on, for [hiring] directors and casting the guest stars and the new characters, for the editing and the mixing, the music selection — all of that other stuff that had to do with the telling of the stories that David wrote. It was our understanding and our agreement that this is the way we were gonna work. And it worked!
Milch: I was gonna say, was there a process of adjustment? There absolutely was. And did we make it? Yes, we absolutely did. And did we collaborate effectively thereafter? I think absolutely, that was the case. It was as satisfactory a working relationship as I’ve ever had.

I have to ask, then, whether the "process of adjustment" that you refer to includes that anecdote that Nick Nolte related to the Los Angeles Times, about you going over to Michael's editing room with a baseball bat, David.
Milch: Oh, I don’t know what that was about.
Mann: Take Nick with a grain of salt!

Where would the show have gone in season two? Or had you thought that far ahead?
Mann: Totally. It was going to into a very interesting place of … Actually David should talk about it, because this is his department.
Milch: With Nostromo, Joseph Conrad said that he had wanted to write a novel about the degradation of an idea. That's what we wanted to show in the case of Dustin Hoffman’s character, Bernstein. A dream that he had had, which is an organizing principle [that] we begin our lives with, he finally felt he had an opportunity to live that dream out.

And what would that dream be, for the benefit people reading this who haven’t seen Luck?
Milch: This is what’s kind of a tragic paradox about what’s gone on, [Bernstein] wanted to bring back horse racing, to show it in its purity. The purity and exaltation of the experience of witnessing, and to some extent participating in, the thoroughbred’s moment of victory and defeat. And what we wanted to show as the [series] developed was all of the permutations of that experience, as it was subjected to the lunge and thrust and pull of life as lived. And the intrusion of the casino as a metaphor for the kind of mechanization of experience in all its forms and turning experience into an article of commerce. And I might add that even morality can be used and turned into an article of commerce. We’ve experienced that at the hands of certain groups very recently. But that was gonna be the arc. Michael had built the architecture. We were right on course. It was extremely frustrating to have this sudden intrusion.
Mann: Ace had also elevated himself [beyond] his origins of maybe 30 years ago. In season two, Ace was gonna find himself brought back, right to the way he had been as a man at 30 or 40 years ago, right back into those dark places, with some of the actions he was gonna be compelled to have to do.
Milch: Much of the darkness that one might feel is repressed within Ace, particularly in the power that’s there, and in his immobility and stillness, and in Dustin’s portrayal of it; the darkness that one might sense, or get a hint of. A lot of that was going to become manifest in the second year.

This show was a marquee item for HBO because of you two, Dustin Hoffman, and Nick Nolte. But it didn’t find as big an audience as some other cable dramas currently on the air. Do you have any theories as to why?
Mann: Two things. One is that it’s not just a marquee, it’s also an emotional investment for everybody at HBO. I mean, that’s the fact of it. You wanna know how much … I mean, we mourn the loss of the show. It’s fact. I betcha [HBO president of programming] Michael Lombardo feels the same way about it as we do, and so do a lot of other people there at HBO.
Milch: I just had a conversation with [HBO co-president] Richard Plepler to exactly the same effect.
Mann: In terms of the numbers, it’s funny. All journalists know how a combustion engine works. Most people in media don’t know how media work. HBO is not an advertiser-based model, it’s a subscription model. So what’s significant to HBO is not necessarily the debut of an episode, it’s the cumulative numbers. Our cumulative averages were about 4.8 million per episode. And if it was strictly about how we do the day that we go out, if that was the strict criterion, then HBO would not have episode one up against the SAG awards, episode two against the Super Bowl, episode three against the Grammys, and episode five against the Academy Awards. And that was okay, by the way, to do that, because you know you’re gonna get lower numbers on your debut, and it doesn’t matter because the [cumulative numbers] are gonna work … You know, a show that’s somewhat different, that’s gonna break the waves, you’re gonna have a small group of people, usually in media, who appreciate it first. And then it's on that second wave that the show has a chance. There’s no guarantee that this show would have, by the way. But it’s in that second wave [that it happens]. That, by the way, is the experience I had way back when with Miami Vice. Critics and the intelligentsia kind of loved the show, but we didn’t have any numbers until we started rerunning the first season. 

Would you have made any sort of course corrections, any stylistic or aesthetic adjustments, to bring more people into the tent?
Mann: The storytelling was evolving, starting with episode four and then with seven, eight, nine — the last three. And somewhat by design. It was all as David [had] designed it. And David, [co-producer and writer] Eric Roth, and I would sit together and kick ideas around, and David would make the final determination [about what ideas to include]. But as it had been designed, everything that began in the first episode and the middle episodes was all driven, all vectored, to a major conclusion in episode nine, which was also a little bit of a cliff-hanger. I think you’ve seen episode nine, so you know what I’m talking about.

Yes.
Mann: But then, I’ve never made any film that I wouldn’t go back and re-edit.

And in fact, you have!
Mann: I have. Every time I've had an opportunity.
Milch: You always want high ratings, but I think that Michael spoke accurately to the strategy that HBO deployed. As for changes, I think that Dustin Hoffman’s character was in the process of deepening, and encountering — as Michael describes him — the darker impulses of his nature. But that seemed to be a natural evolution rather than a correction.

David, you have a deal in place to adapt the works of William Faulkner for HBO. And Michael, I’ve heard that you have other projects brewing in TV as well. What’s next for each of you? 
Mann: I never talk about what’s next. [Laughs.] There are some documentaries made with war photographers in conflict.
Milch: It’s a wonderful project.
Mann: It’s called Witness. [The documentaries] are in production, and also in editing, right now.
Milch: And I’m working on the Faulkner project, and have some other irons in the fire. But it’s you know, there was a character in Deadwood, he said, "If you wanna hear God laugh, tell him your plans."

Speaking of Deadwood: David, are we ever gonna see those Deadwood movies?
Milch: No, I don’t think so. We got really close about a year ago. Never say never, but it doesn’t look that way.

* This section has been corrected after a transcription error.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images