The Way Out West: David Milch & Ian McShane on Deadwood

Back in 2004, when the show debuted on TV, I spoke to David Milch and Ian McShane about making the magnificent Deadwood. With the news that the long-awaited movie designed to conclude the saga will appear in May 2019, I’m running unpublished versions of the interviews here.


Set in a lawless settlement sprung up around rumours of gold out in Dakota’s Black Hills during the 1870s, David Milch’s astonishing TV western Deadwood is so good – so dense and deep and odd and foul and complex and hilarious and beautiful and brutal and bloody brilliant; so dangerously good – it’s hard to believe he was actually allowed to make it.

The harsh realism, moral complexity, shocking violence and graveyard humour caused some to initially dub the show “The Sopranos With Spurs.” Indeed, it was the first TV series to truly pick up the gauntlet thrown down by David Chase’s mob epic. But Deadwood is very much its own beast.

There’s no better expression of its unique identity than the extraordinary dialogue Milch gives his extraordinary cast to speak. Much attention has been paid to the burst-banks floods of profanity – in Deadwood, obscenities get brandished as weapons and worn as armour, yet are also statements of self-identity and even kinship – but the glorious, rich and roiling strangeness of the language was often missed. Profanities roll together with archaisms, half-remembered formalities and weird vernaculars, gouting out in great, bluntly poetic magpie locutions of broken-backed syntax. For once, the adjective “Shakespearean” is fully justified.

But while it opens up new territory, Deadwood is also firmly of its genre. Grappling with history in a story envisaged to unfold over five years, it portrays the violent birth of the modern USA. Like all the greatest Westerns, it’s America talking about itself, to itself.

Here, I talk with David Milch about his vision for Deadwood, and hear from Ian McShane about playing the show’s central figure, Al Swearengen.

I was thinking the best way for you to introduce the series might be to get you to talk around a series of themes. So, if you’re willing, my first category is broadly headed: NATIVE AMERICANS, OUTLAWS & GOLD
DAVID MILCH: Okay. The Black Hills area was holy ground for the native Americans. Their name for it was Paha Sata. The Hunkpapa Sioux lived there, but they’d been forced westward by the whites. Then, though, in a treaty 1868, this land had been officially given to them by Congress, “for as long as the river shall run.” Well, that turned out to be eight years. Around 1873, in addition to the consequences of the Civil War, which were still being felt, there was a terrible bank panic in America, a tremendous amount of unemployment. Meanwhile, a lot of the miners of the original 1849 California strike were tapped out. These are desperate times: then the story comes out that there’s wealth available in the Black Hills. There had been rumours of gold in the region for 40 years. You know the expression, “There’s gold in them thar hills”? Well, these are the hills they were talking about. So Deadwood becomes the perfect storm for all the anxieties and urges of the time.

And then there was General Custer.
Yes. The cherry on top of that particular ice cream sundae was the political ambition of the sociopath George Custer. He’d served with distinction in the Civil War and Indian Wars, but believed that he hadn’t separated himself enough from the pack to make certain that he would get the 1876 Presidential nomination, so he felt he needed one more Indian War to elevate himself. He had advocates in Congress, who authorised “a scientific expedition” to be led by Custer, who, in 1874, led a thousand soldiers and a bunch of reporters into the Black Hills, to ascertain its mineral worth. They didn’t find too much gold, but, really, Custer knew how to play it up for the camera, he had those long golden locks and didn’t flinch from too many elements of bullshit, so he wrote an article promising untold wealth.

Really, he was looking to orchestrate a shit-storm; he knew that if he got enough whites going into the hills, the army would have to be sent, as protection, and he’d get the war he wanted. So, in 1875, everybody was broke, and started to pour into the hills and, although they didn’t find gold where Custer had said, they did find it further north. President Grant, who was no fan of Custer, knew what was happening, and sent the army in to kick the whites out – but the whites just stayed hidden over winter, and, in the beginning of 1876, they came like locusts, from everywhere. And that’s the people we meet in Deadwood. That June, of course, Custer got what he was looking for, and a little bit more, at Little Bighorn. The action in the show begins a few weeks after that massacre.

My next theme is the old John Ford thing, FACT & LEGEND. In the show, you take historical facts and figures and you merge them with fiction.
DAVID MILCH: I started out with the actual historical figures, and then moved to… the historical figures who ought to have been. There are four or five pieces of good primary work on the real Deadwood, written at that time, or by people who were there. There’s a great book, Pioneer Days in the Black Hills, which wasn’t written until the 1930s, but the guy who wrote it was 90, and an original settler. So, 80 per cent of the people in the show are real figures. The real Al Swearengen was certainly a towering figure of corruption in the camp, and any histories of the camp give him prominence; there are even photos of him. Any time anyone went “down into the badlands,” that was regarded as Swearengen’s territory.

But I guess it was the blanks in their biographies that interested you most?
DAVID MILCH: Exactly. The interstices, the blanks in the historical account that invite the operation of the imagination, were what engaged me. The portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok is probably the best example of that. As I read about Hickok, the thing that struck me over and over again was, well, the contemporary expression is “suicide by cop.” Here’s a guy who is looking to get killed. Hickok had just gotten married, and had told his new wife he was going up to Deadwood to find their fortune – but he never once went out prospecting. He was in the last part of alcoholic descent, and in despair

I think I might know the answer to this, but, as you were researching and writing, did you find yourself falling in love with any particular character?
DAVID MILCH: Oh, sure. And the devil always gets the best lines. Swearengen, his particular type of woundedness and resilience, combine in what I find a hugely compelling mixture. But I try to avoid identifying with one character. I experience all these characters as a single organism; these are all characters discovering their constituency in the larger single organism of the camp. Though many of them have a mistaken idea, initially, of what their place is. I really feel all these voices are part of a larger voice. And if that’s not pretentious enough for you, I can play a bugle in the background.

Okay. Next subject: LAW & ORDER. It strikes me that if Deadwood has one main theme at its core, it seems to be how order is maintained in a lawless place – how society forms itself.
DAVID MILCH: Absolutely. Originally, I pitched this as a series set in ancient Rome, at the time of Nero. It was about the city cops in Rome at a time when there were no laws at all. Seth Bullock, in his way, is every bit as savage as Swearengen. He has the same kind of savagery as those without the law. But his savagery accidentally binds to an idea of law. He allies himself to the law, not because he believes in the law, but because it’s what he uses to try and control himself: because he’s afraid of the violence in his own nature. Bullock was the son of an alcoholic sergeant major in the British army, who used to beat the shit out of him every night. His nickname when he finally got out west was “Bishop,” because he had this unnatural maturity and menacing composure. The only thing that used to protect him from his father’s beatings was when his father was in his capacity as the sergeant major, rather than as the alcoholic, so Bullock was always looking to the law to protect him from himself. Over and over again you’ll see that once the beast is loose in him, he’s at least as violent as Swearengen. But his violence filters through an idea of law, and the community is able to take of advantage of that, in ways that Bullock hasn’t conceived of.

Okay, next up: WOMEN & MEN. What’s the situation for women in the world of Deadwood?
DAVID MILCH: The plain fact is that women were very much second-class citizens in this place at this time. There were very few women there: men outnumbered women 50-1, easily. And most of the women who were there were working as prostitutes. But, through a series of historical accidents, the idea of a woman’s equality takes root here, and that begins to thrive, and you’ll see that in the process of a woman like Alma Garrett. You begin to see women occupying other ecological niches, other than that which someone like Swearengen has assigned them.

Have you heard anything from Doris Day about your conception of the character of Calamity Jane?
DAVID MILCH: We have not heard from Doris as yet. But I haven’t checked my mail today.

Next up: DRUGS. Deadwood depicts a lot of opium and laudanum use. Do you find that there are viewers today who are surprised to learn that this kind of drug use went on back then?
DAVID MILCH: Y’know, it’s part of the narcissism of any generation to believe that the universe was invented with them. It’s the same with the language: if some audiences hear expressions like “cocksucker,” they say, “Well, Jeez, we invented that.” But, of course, those terms go back centuries. It’s similar with drugs. Laudanum was one of the great instruments that rationalised the suppression of women who were not of the working class. When women of the middle and upper class started to exhibit signs of restlessness about the way they had to live, then the doctor was brought in to describe them as being ‘hysterical,’ and they were given laudanum to calm them down. It was an instrument of subjugation. Of course, laudanum has also been used by artists down the centuries; Thomas De Quincy was a great fancier of opium and laudanum, and Coleridge. And I had a brief three-decade flirtation with it myself.

Opium was there because of the Chinese – or as they were called then, ‘The Celestials.’ They were really, in the west, very close to being slaves. Opium dens were everywhere. Because the town of Deadwood was built on a very narrow gultch, when the rains came it would flood. After one terrible flood, they rebuilt the town on stilts; then the Chinese workers moved in under the stilts. They built enclosures, and began to dig tunnels under those, and in those tunnels, all the opium dens and Chinese gambling houses flourished. We get into that a little in the second and third season. You could buy women for less than a nickel in China at that point, they used to put women out to die, women were regarded as inconveniences. So, they would bring Chinese girls over to work in the brothels, and they would work them to death; it was cheaper for the brothels to bring a new girl in than it was to feed the one they had, and so they would give these women opium to keep them quiet until they died. These opiates were really instruments for repressing women, across the classes. The prostitutes who didn’t die from illness, 70 per cent would kill themselves, so laudanum was the drug of choice for them.

This brings me on to the next subject: VIOLENCE. How violent was the real Deadwood?
DAVID MILCH: They averaged over a murder a day. There were never more than 5,000 people in the camp, so that works out at over 7 per cent of the population murdered every year. That’s pretty hefty.

Did that surprise you?
DAVID MILCH: Well, the epigraph to the first episode is from a poem by Robert Penn Warren, and it says: “But let us remember, too, how glory may flare of a sudden up from the filth of the world’s floor.” What struck me over and over again is how, in the seeming horror of that environment, was also the gloriousness of the human experiment. What was remarkable to me was not that 7 per cent of the population died, but that 93 per cent lived.

The taking of the land from the Native Americans, that original sin, is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of the story. To me: okay, the presence of the whites is the result of a bloody and oppressive transaction – but now what? I feel an impatience for those who would simply freeze at that moment and keep scratching the scab out of sinfulness. So, in the horror of the time, I tried not to fail to also appreciate the moments of glory, when one character finds it in himself or herself, for whatever reason, or accident of confusion, to reach a hand out to another. And that’s how the community, in fits and starts, and with terrible losses along the way, makes what passes for progress.

Which brings me on to my last theme: AMERICA. I was thinking about how, during the McCarthy period in the Hollywood of the 1950s, some filmmakers would smuggle out messages about their own period by, for example, disguising them in the historical garb of the western. When we watch Deadwood, this town half-consciously trying to create itself, what does it say about the America we see being created today?
DAVID MILCH: Ha. I think it says everything. In a period like ours today, where cataclysmic events are much more ordinary than we would like them to be, it’s hard for a viewer to accept the engagement of contemporary themes in a drama with a contemporary setting. Like the new remake of The Manchurian Candidate – people really resist it, because it just feels too close. Setting a story in 1876, though, allows those themes to have an imaginative life. But there’s no crude allegorising, or ‘this equals that,’ because I have no politics. But I certainly feel that the processes that are enacting themselves in America now, were enacting themselves in America then.

I have this story outlined for five years. The gold in the hills became the source of the Hearst fortune. George Hearst – the father of William Randolph Hearst, y’know, the Citizen Kane guy – through his intervention, he basically introduced the kind of Capitalism that we associate with Henry Ford to his mining operation. So what begins as a frontier community begins mutating very quickly. Deadwood had telephones within 18 months of the first white settlers arriving: they had telephones out there before they had them in San Francisco. So what you get is the process of America moving into modernity, at a very accelerated pace, and the encounter of a frontier sensibility with the organising principles of modernity.

Ian McShane on Al Swearengen

How did you come to play Al Swearengen?
IAN MCSHANE: Well, I got a call about this script, the pilot. My agent said they wanted me to audition on videotape. And I thought: ‘Fuck that, I’m too old for that one.’ But then they said David Milch writing, and Walter Hill Directing. So I said, ‘Send it over right away.’ And it was fucking amazing.

Tell me about Al.
IAN MCSHANE: What can I say about Al? He’s one of the saloon-keepers in town. But he’s the smartest guy in town. He’s got his eye on the bottom line all the time. This was a real guy: at the height of his business, and this is 1877, he’s taking in $5,000 a day. He ran all the dope, all the prostitution. Had his girls brought in from back east, from the same orphanage he came from, too, where his mother dropped him off – he’s got a lot of problems.

But he’s also the guy trying organise the town, and trying to say to everybody: ‘If we’re not careful, the government will come in and throw us all out, so play it cool.” He’s trying to form some kind of organisation, without sticking it in the government’s face. But he’s charismatic, brutal, bullying, scheming – basically, the kind of part you want to play. He’s half-devil, half-good-guy. The character, and his situation, it’s changing all the time, as it did then. That’s the great thing about Milch as a writer: every human being on the show has his or her foibles and weaknesses. You don’t get the straight-up Gary Cooper as a hero. You get the fucked-up, complex Gary Cooper, and the complex villain. These are not one-note people.

Were you surprised at how Al developed as the series progressed?
IAN MCSHANE: I was just thrilled. The pages would come in, and I’d just get this sly grin reading them, thinking, ‘I can’t wait to fuckin’ get to this.’ It just gets better. In Season Two, Swearengen is obviously getting a little older, things are complicated, and there’s some very wild stuff coming up. Al’s got an early version of kidney stone, and I dread to think. It’ll be interesting to see where David goes with that one. I hear rumours concerning my prostate….

You sound proud of Season One
IAN MCSHANE: Y’know, we had such a good time doing it, I mean it had so many fuckin’ good actors in it. But when it actually came out and I saw it, it completely blew me away, as a viewer. I knew it was going to be good but, sometimes, the things you work on go away over your expectations.

Did it surprise you that so many commentators initially leaped on the show’s foul language, and not much else?
IAN MCSHANE: Well, it’s not used for shock value. The language is simply part of the show. Most people kind of realised that after the first few episodes and went with it. This kind of swearing goes back to Chaucer. It’s used as poetry, as vernacular, as a social weapon, as a way of telling people where you come from. And, y’know, in the writing it’s very carefully drawn. It isn’t random. You put one fuck in the wrong place, and you’re fucked.