Sundown on Deadwood

David Milch, battling Alzheimer’s, finally finishes his TV Western.

David Milch on the set of Deadwood: The Movie. Photo: Courtesy of Red Board Productions
David Milch on the set of Deadwood: The Movie. Photo: Courtesy of Red Board Productions

Deadwood creator David Milch says he always had faith that his HBO Western would someday get to wrap up its story, even as more than a dozen years have passed since its surprise cancellation in 2006. But he also had doubts. Only when the cameras started rolling on Deadwood: The Movie — a TV movie set ten years after the show’s last episode — could he exhale. “Let’s just say that the exigencies of the business threw up a series of roadblocks over the years,” says Milch, walking along the main thoroughfare at Melody Ranch Studios on a cold December night, his wife, Rita, by his side. “Somehow, they were all surmounted.”

When the sun goes down on Melody Ranch — a Newhall, California, production facility that has hosted many film and TV Westerns — a sense of isolation creeps in. You can hear the wind rustling in the wooded hills, and every now and then a coyote yelps or an owl hoots. It’s easy to imagine that this outdoor soundstage, with its temporarily dormant camera tracks and arc lights, is truly the place it pretends to be: a dirty, lawless camp that became a town in a territory that’s now on the cusp of becoming a U.S. state (South Dakota), its populace more civil than when the series was canceled but still wild at heart. Horses are tied to hitching posts. Their handlers hang nearby, checking texts and griping about the storms that have just pounded Southern California. The rain flooded the interiors of most key locations, sparing only the Gem Saloon, where Deadwood’s legendary gangster, pimp, and all-around power broker Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) holds court.

That’s where the Milches are headed. It’s the second-to-last day of the shoot, and they’re filming a scene with Swearengen; his disabled housekeeper and ward, Jewel (Geri Jewell); and his former employee and sort-of consort, Trixie (Paula Malcomson).

Milch is here to watch, not interfere. He was a notorious micromanager during Deadwood’s original run, ordering reshoots if he didn’t like the way a scene was playing and dictating new dialogue from the sidelines for the cast to repeat. McShane has spoken of top-to-bottom rewrites being handed to actors just before the cameras rolled, the pages still hot from the copier.

This time, Milch is entrusting the day-to-day execution to his collaborators, among them the director Daniel Minahan, a series veteran, and his co–executive producer Regina Corrado, who started out as a writer on the series in 2005.

But his serenity is also the by-product of a greater urge to let go and accept what life has in store, even if it’s not what he asked for.

It’s here that we come to the matter of David Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Milch started to worry that something was amiss five years ago, when he and his friends and relatives noticed more instances of “imperfect recall and tardy recall and short temper. I became more and more of an acquired taste,” he says. The writing process became harder too. There was, he says, “a generalized incertitude and a growing incapacity.” About a year ago, Milch got up the nerve to have a brain scan. The news was not good.

“As best I understand it, which is minimally, I have a deterioration in the organization of my brain,” he says. “And it’s progressive. And in some ways discouraging. In more than some ways — in every way I can think of.”

The cast and crew of the film and past participants in the show all declined to discuss Milch’s condition, though they’re aware of it. Milch himself seesaws between curiosity, bitterness, and incredulity, along with a rueful fatalism at the realization that his own father probably had Alzheimer’s as well. “That was a while ago, and the diagnosis was not as sophisticated or specific, but in retrospect, he exhibited all the symptoms of the illness,” Milch says. He is also moved to remember the deterioration of his mentor at Yale, Robert Penn Warren, whose poetry Milch reads on set to inspire the cast and crew. “He was not well toward the end of his life,” he says. “He was every day encountering subtle differences in his condition. But there was an unflinching dignity in the way that he carried himself and a bravery and kindness.”

Milch’s diagnosis is the ultimate humbling, having arrived at the tail end of 13 years of harsh reminders about the limits of control. For a self-described “degenerate gambler” who struggled with addiction throughout the first half of his adult life, Milch has had an incredible artistic run. He attended Yale to avoid the draft but was expelled after being accused — falsely, he says — of destroying a police car’s siren with a shotgun. He became an assistant there (for Cleanth Brooks and Warren, among others) and later a lecturer, then drifted into television, winning an Emmy, a Writers Guild Award, and a Humanitas Prize for his first produced script, the 1982 Hill Street Blues episode “Trial by Fury.” The creator of that cop drama, Steven Bochco, brought Milch along to his biggest success, NYPD Blue, a broadcast-network series that was groundbreaking for its language, violence, and nudity. Milch was an executive producer and writer for the show for seven seasons. The 2004 debut of Deadwood, a town-based Western in the vein of My Darling Clementine and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, was a new artistic pinnacle and the first drama on which he was entirely in control.

It was downhill from there. Deadwood was supposed to run for at least four seasons but got canceled after three owing to a financial dispute between HBO and co-producer Paramount (which owned the international rights) as well as HBO’s increasing exasperation with Milch’s improvisational production methods and declining ratings. His follow-up, the seaside parable John From Cincinnati, ran just one season. There would be more attempts at series: Some never got past the pilot stage, including The Money, a family drama about a superrich media clan, and the ’70s cop drama Last of the Ninth. The HBO racetrack drama Luck got axed early in season two after a series of horse deaths; it had been green-lighted despite HBO’s skittishness when Milch agreed to cede control of the filmmaking to executive producer Michael Mann. Milch then wrote six episodes of a historical drama about Boss Tweed but shelved it when there were no buyers. And a couple of years ago, it was reported that Milch was joining the third season of Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO crime drama, True Detective, but it turns out the extent of his involvement was exaggerated. “Nic had written the first few episodes and came to David for advice and guidance, and they worked together on what became the fourth episode,” says Rita Milch. “But then Nic continued on his own.”

Behind the scenes, Milch’s life was just as troubled. In 2016, it was reported that he had gambled away a fortune, accumulated $17 million in debt and had to put his houses up for sale. The details came from a lawsuit Rita had filed against her husband’s business managers, alleging they had kept her in the dark about the financial damage his gambling had caused. (The matter was settled out of court.) Asked about their fiscal status today, the Milches decline to get into specifics. “It was an awakening, shall we say,” Rita explains. “We’ve come back from it. We’re obviously scaled back now, but otherwise life is the same.”

When his Alzheimer’s symptoms appeared, Milch had been working for years on what would become Deadwood: The Movie. Rumors had been swirling since the show’s cancellation that he was trying to get it going again as a series or a package of two movies. But Rita says there was only ever the one film and that “all the rumors about other stuff earlier probably just came out of people really wanting more Deadwood.

The biggest obstacle was figuring out how to reassemble one of the largest recurring casts in TV history years after key actors had moved on. William Sanderson (E. B. Farnum) sums up his own skepticism by quoting Timothy Olyphant (Seth Bullock): “I can’t get the whole cast to a barbecue in my backyard — how are we gonna do this?” The script’s running time allayed fears of getting tied down, but the toughest gets were Deadwood’s closest equivalents to leads, who had all moved on to other successful projects: Olyphant (Justified and Santa Clarita Diet), McShane (American Gods and the John Wick franchise), and Molly Parker (House of Cards). Once they signed on, the impossible became possible.

The film’s tightly focused nature might’ve made it feel like a final summation even without the extra-dramatic frame of Milch’s Alzheimer’s, which is insinuated in fleeting exchanges — as when Brad Dourif’s Doc Cochran asks Al what day it is and he mistakenly says Tuesday when it’s Friday. The tale is suffused with a melancholy acceptance of the passage of time and the certainty of aging and death. These heavy themes were a relief to the actors, though: W. Earl Brown, who returns as Dan Dority, Al’s right-hand man, says his first reaction on reading the script was “relief, not just because it was a beautiful piece of work but because the fact that it was set ten years later meant I wouldn’t have to dye my hair and go to the gym.”

There was trepidation, too. “Our speed is the slow telling of the tale, you know?” Malcomson says, relaxing after the end of a shooting day in the Gem on a 19th-century love seat atop a sawdusted stage. “We’ve got a lot of plot and a lot of things to pack into two hours, so it’s sort of like we have to develop a bit of a different muscle for this.”

But only a bit. Storytelling as remembrance was always at the heart of Milch’s fiction. The show was forever contrasting the polished, neutered first draft of history, as penned by newspaperman A. W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), with the carnal, booze-soaked, dope-addled, money-grubbing reality taking place in the gambling parlors, opium dens, brothels, and Chinatown alleyways, where corpses were fed to pigs owned by Al’s counterpart, Wu (Keone Young). The season-two opener was even titled “A Lie Agreed Upon” after Napoleon’s (perhaps apocryphal) formulation explaining what “history” really is. Deadwood’s only immutable realities were birth, death, love, and grief. The dead lingered in the minds of citizens, who visited their graves and spoke to them or sat silently in the margins of raucous celebrations, remembering the ones who couldn’t be there.

In retrospect, the show seems to have been building toward this bittersweet, multivalent conclusion. Like many episodes of the series, Deadwood: The Movie is about the tension between wanting things to change versus wishing they could always stay the same. It’s also about the resonating power of loss. Scenes and subplots reckon with past traumas, including the assassination of Wild Bill Hickock and the murder of one of Swearengen’s sex workers.

The nature of the project meant also that every shooting day was likely to contain both a reckoning with time and a professional farewell.

“You walked on the set, everybody was the same again, except they were older,” McShane says. “But this time, when you finished a scene with them, you were actually saying good-bye.”

And here they come: more good-byes witnessed by the Milches, who are seated behind Minahan at a bank of monitors. The scene finds Jewel helping an exhausted Al get ready for bed as Trixie moves through the room. It’s not an action-packed moment by HBO drama standards, but it’s the final scene McShane and Jewell will play before wrapping both this production and (as far as anyone knows) their performances as these characters.

The filming is complicated by the blocking, which requires the sometimes physically unsteady Jewel to sit on the edge of Al’s bed, and by the requirement that she sing “Waltzing Matilda,” a song she can’t seem to memorize despite having nailed the scene’s spoken dialogue. “Fuck that!” she exclaims, laughing. “What a hard fuckin’ song!” At one point, flustered, Jewell falls off the bed, eliciting gasps from the cast and crew.

“Oh!” Milch cries. Rita’s hand reaches for his shoulder as if to prevent him from falling next. “It’s okay,” she says quietly.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Jewell ad-libs as she is helped to stand upright, and the set echoes with laughter.

Jewell, McShane, Malcomson, Milch, and Minahan pull the scene apart and rejigger it to make it work. McShane takes the lead, reassuring Jewell that this is no big deal — that everyone has trouble remembering, that they’ll all get through it together. “Let’s go again, luv, yes?” McShane asks Jewell after they’ve collaborated on solutions between takes, whereupon Minahan rolls the cameras again and again. Two hours later, they’re done, and the production applauds a wrap for both actors.

“What you witnessed tonight was heroic,” Milch says to a visitor afterward. “I hope you remember it. I hope you tell people about it.”

He says he’s going to continue writing despite his new difficulties, because that’s what he does, though he’s not volunteering details about any future projects beyond an as-yet-untitled autobiography. Rita says the silver lining in all this is that her husband’s job requires him to routinely participate in memory-strengthening exercises that most other people encounter for the first time in Alzheimer’s therapy. “I compare it to a musician who can still play and has access to the memory of how to do that and is still able to exercise his talent,” she says. “The brain is David’s most exercised muscle.”

Deadwood: The Movie will air on May 31.

*This article appears in the April 29, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Sundown on Deadwood