David Milch's Active Imagination
When former Yale Professor, former heroin addict, former alcoholic and Emmy winner writer/producer David Milch creates a script, he eschews period punctuation in scene directions. Milch prefers the double dash – for its employment suggests the infinite possibilities of a pause in the moment where great things can happen feverishly and invisibly off the page in the vacuum created by the indiscernible Em-dash. A period bespeaks a prosaic finality that the ephemeral creativity of David Milch cannot bear and even in a colloquial telephone interview the double dash is always there – pausing – waiting – jockeying just beyond the ether of a cross country conversation.
The interview began over a faint phone connection between New York and Los Angeles where the questions had to be shouted into the receiver in order for Milch to hear over the static and through the developing fog of his progressing common cold. The interview was marvelously wide-ranging and spanned from Conrad to the Pied Piper to the economic aesthetics of writing to the nuts and bones of production.
Milch was first asked to reconstruct how the arc of his work from HILL STREET BLUES to BIG APPLE, his most recent production on CBS, changed over time and if his vision was enhanced or compromised by time, taste and budget.
“HILL STREET BLUES was a show I joined in medius res –” Milch began, “Jeffrey Lewis brought me out to Los Angeles in 1982. I had been teaching at Yale. Certain conventions and characters were already set – there was a story template in place. Things were done in a different convention. I was learning the craft of writing for television, so it was just as well that I was working with models other than what I generated. By my third year with HILL STREET, its fifth season overall, Jeffrey and I were in charge – certain tone shifts occurred. Tony Yerkovich, who would later write and produce BIG APPLE with me, said HILL STREET told Urban Fairytales. Certain characters were comic exaggerations. I was least comfortable with that. When I had more of a voice in the show, I brought in more humanity. I wanted less cartoon. New characters were created who spoke more to my sensibility – HILL STREET told the most truth about cops that you could at that time. As time went on our audience was more receptive to a retelling of the truth. Cops on the show would leave – like Michael Conrad who would always say ‘Let’s be careful out there’ before releasing his cops for duty – and I replaced that sentiment with something realer and harsher for the new character played by Robert Prosky who said, ‘Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.’ I wanted a less cuddly idea of a cop. I introduced a character played by Dennis Franz on HILL STREET – a character who was unapologetically outside the box in terms of his deportment as a cop.”
Milch cleared his throat and continued to draw his aesthetic arc into his work on NYPD BLUE.
“By the time NYPD BLUE came around I had worked on other shows and those were an education in subjects like the politics of network programming. Those were lessons I was just as happy not to learn. I came in the business ass backwards. I got lucky right away. I had a hit show that was a going concern that was perceived as a critical and popular success and we had little network interference. Now I know how muddy that could make the water. Those were shows I cared about like CAPITAL NEWS on ABC. It started out as a show about Washington lobbyists and it ended up being a show about reporters who brought milk and cookies to the victims of the people they were covering.
“Another show in between was BEVERLY HILLS BUNTZ – a Dennis Franz spinoff from HILL STREET BLUES – we put Buntz in L.A. with his own detective agency. The audience enjoyed the show but it scared the network. We ran four episodes.
“Then came NYPD BLUE – back with Bochco. Steven had an accurate sense of the kind of macro-dynamics of the business. Cable was making its first deep inroads in 1992-93. The networks thought the hour drama was dead – couldn’t compete at 10 pm with “R” rated shows on cable. We wanted to push the envelope on nudity and language. We didn’t want the show to be arbitrary to compete with cable. Doing cops in the natural scheme of things – their language is rough and they are involved in jeopardy and it is not surprising that in their personal lives they have some rough edges. That was a congenial area to work in and I guess I worked on the characters in collaboration and Steven did the politicking. It took an extra year to get on the air to negotiate with ABC what could and could not be done. The good thing about that delay was that I got to spend an extra year with cops to research and come to understand more about what it meant to be a New York City cop. That year was special in terms of the people and the cops. What began to develop subsequent to that was daily trouble on the show. 30% of ABC’s affiliates refused to air the show. Once we became successful, we had well-documented problems with actors.
“As for the development of my work – Steven’s responsibilities are corporate and I would end up doing the lion’s share of the writing and a kind of method evolved wherein the scripts were late because there was a lot of writing to do. The benefit of that was that the vision of the show became coherent and consistent – a clear sensibility. It was a great opportunity for me to discover what you can and cannot do as an artist and what your capacities are – so working on NYPD BLUE that way afforded me.
“BIG APPLE was a different kind of experience – network politics. Paramount hired me. Paramount is owned by CBS. CBS is owned by Viacom. There were a lot of things going on that didn’t have anything to do with the show. The show was put on the air too quickly. I had just left NYPD BLUE. It was shot in New York City. I had a whole new set of challenges. The idea was ambitious – how information does or does not become understanding. We are living that question now with everything going on in the globe. The network had no understanding at all of what the show was about. They programmed it in such a way that it was led in by a popular series of shows none of which had a semblance of overlap with an audience we hoped to serve over time. At that level the show didn’t succeed. I am extremely proud of the work. I enjoyed not only the writing but the actual shooting as well.”
Milch was then asked how production value is written into a script, and he tartly replied, “I don’t do it – bare bones. My scripts are void of any sort of description as to the setting of the scene. In TV you pretty much deal with the given of the location anyway. Don’t get into the Director’s turf.”
When one writes about cops and uses their real life experiences as fodder for dramatization, where is the line drawn between reality and dramatic license? How true must the writer be to the facts of inspiration? Milch quickly replied, “You must be completely true to the ‘very truth’ as Conrad said. You have to render the emotional truth of the experience. The involved – the illusion of certain lived facts to bring to life the very facts of the situation. The truths of storytelling are the truths of coherence. The truth of facts are verifiable to a totally external set of facts. Whether or not they respond to an external reality is none of my business.”
Crews scream about the hours they are made to work. Do 12 hour work days get the best out of everyone from a creative viewpoint? “We work long hours,” Milch confirmed, “A lot has to do with the way time is spent. You must be respectful. If the way people work is respected that 12 hours is okay. Where you get a demoralized set is where people are not treated well or the work they do is not honored. If the people running the set are assholes, it hurts to work 45 minutes, let alone 12 hours.”
Are broadcasters tightening their budgets or are the producers increasing their profits? Milch drew in a deep breath and responded, “Everything about the work changed September 11. Certainly there has been change. The commercial stream for broadcast TV is not running as deep because the networks must cover the news and that has had a domino effect all the way around the line. Budgets are a lot less done. What is being done is being done more economically.”
In 1995 Milch wrote TRUE BLUE: THE REAL STORIES BEHIND NYPD BLUE with Bill Clark. Clark was the real life detective who provided rich stories for Milch’s inspiration in NYPD BLUE scripts. In that book Milch spoke about one of his Yale mentors, Robert Penn Warren, and how he taught Milch that “the secret subject of any story worth telling is what we learn or fail to learn over time.” What lessons has David Milch failed to learn over time?
“I still gamble,” Milch laughed. “I have a horse running tomorrow in the Breeder’s Cup. Watch on Channel 4 in New York. The mile race. 2:30 pm. Horse’s name is Val Royal.” [Editor's Note: Val Royal won the Breeder’s Cup Mile the next day.] “Anyway – we don’t know what we fail to learn. It comes to us only once we learn it. What we have not known up to that point only becomes clear to us only when what not known becomes known. I continually discover levels of meaning and experience in my work which I had not known could exist before. The simple way to say it is to say that it didn’t interest me. You must admit I didn’t know how to be interested – it isn’t the sort of thing that at the end of your life you’ll have 100% — what was learned. We grow or we fail to grow. That process is the experience of living. It is not a sum of knowledge that you are supposed to acquire and you do or don’t and your life continues to exfoliate and you are aware of that process or you aren’t.”
What about lessons learned?
“Okay, let’s call that a moment of clarity – I stopped using drugs. In terms of my work I have just come to trust the process of the active imagination. It entails suppression of the Ego. I am able to develop exercises where I can suppress that quickly. I am able to get to the work faster every day. I don’t linger a lot in self-delusory exercises in control – don’t describe too much or even have to have an objective idea of what a scene is about. My only responsibility to an active imagination is to submit myself to a state of being where characters other than I move around and I try to serve that process. I just get to that – I don’t plan scenes. I don’t outline. I feel my way along because I have come to believe everything you believe about writing instead of writing is bullshit. It doesn’t apply. You can make an outline but an outline is not going to work because it doesn’t apply to what is actually written. I am content to work in uncertainty much more than I used to be – content to not know where I am going.”
Broadcast television interrupts the storytelling for commercials. Pay Cable allows one to tell a story uninterrupted. Is there a different writing process when one isn’t writing to set up boffo act endings to bring a viewer back after the commercial break?
Milch took a moment before responding, and then slowly said, “One must internalize what seem to be requirements inimical to the inherent dramatic structure of a piece so they occur appropriately. You just learn how to tell a story where acts break structure is appropriate. I have a Western that will debut on HBO in September, 2002. The differences between that show and my broadcast shows will not be huge – if you’re any good as a writer. I’m proud of the work I’ve done on commercial television. I just internalize those requirements so they work on an unconscious level. You know the story about Adam and Eve naming the animals? ‘That’s a hippopotamus because it looks like a hippopotamus?’ I try to think of stories that look right in four acts. I never end a scene that violates the coherence of the scene in order to get a big bang in order to end the act. I will just work harder. That’s the point where integrity and perversity collide.”
Milch ran into a bit of bad PR a few years ago when he gave a professional writer’s seminar and attempted to earnestly discern the reasons for gradients of success between Black writers and Jewish writers. Milch suggested when it comes to writing drama, it is difficult for an American Black writer to successfully write for a mass audience. Their work may be compelling and personal art but not a commercially successful craft because their imaginations and experiences are naturally fostered by their racial experience in society. When Black writers try to write what they think a “white” audience desires their writing loses emotional thrust. Milch went on to speculate that the large number of Jews writing for television might be because of the different life experiences a Jew might have over a Black. While both may grow up with a sense of social tearing and cultural distortion in relation to mainstream America, the Jewish writer’s experience is more benign and middle-of-the-road than the Black’s. Jewish writers might not feel the foreign sense of being untrue to their reality while a Black writer might have problems writing unconditionally about mainstream culture. With context of the American Black writer and the Jewish writer in mind, what did Milch think about The Gay Writer and The Woman Writer?
“I don’t think that way. They are just writers – less the case for a woman. A woman is identifiably a woman. A Gay writer may or may not be identifiable as a Gay writer. If they are out – their life as an artist is simpler. The writer’s doubleness – be inside and outside of each moment – that is the precondition of the act. You are completely present to that doubleness. I am not standing here as a rapidly aging Jew inside and outside. I am trying to be a spirit present inside and outside the moment so I can feel it and render it. I feel there is a part of myself that I must hide. I must neutralize it so I am conscious of the process. If I’m Gay as a writer and I feel an obligation to my preference as to how my life will be perceived – I am more complicated. The other way – I am a spy in the house of love – FRASIER is an ongoing story of Gay lovers. Those are Gay characters pretending to be heterosexual. A secret dialogue that goes along – a secret way to accommodate that secret division. What it appears to be and what it does not appear to be. That’s a little complicated for me.”
Milch has made it clear in numerous venues that Steven Bochco’s role on NYPD BLUE was to deal with the network so he could concentrate on the creative side of the show. Who played the Bochco role on BIG APPLE?
“I did,” Milch confessed, “and I did it badly. BIG APPLE only lasted five episodes on CBS and we shot eight. The Network is a whole separate world and it makes for a debilitating time on a set. I don’t know how to be respectful of the Network’s process. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I don’t understand it. I frighten them. They don’t frighten me. I don’t know what to do about them. They ask questions and have concerns that I would honor if I knew how. I only know how to write the way I know how to write. There isn’t a tremendous ground of understanding on which we could meet. I try not to take it personally. The first principles of their job is what they have to do – there was not a tremendous overlap between their priorities and what my work needs to flourish. That’s too bad. That’s my problem. I’m not indicting anyone. That’s one of the reasons I am doing the show on HBO. Steven knows how to do that stuff. He started at a big studio – a version of a big Network. He can talk their talk and talk his own talk. It was an enormous relief to be working with him and I hope to work together again.”
In a documentary by Marc Ostrick called WITHOUT A NET – CREATING NYPD BLUE, Milch’s last days on the NYPD set were memorialized. Steven Bochco said on camera that Milch was like the Pied Piper. Was Milch offended or complimented by that statement considering the Pied Piper cleared a town of rats and led them to a river of death?
“Steven meant that I have a very a-typical way of working to the extent that I am able to be enthusiastic and charismatic or whatever the fuck I am – that I can persuade people to work in a way that is not their usual way of working. Steven wasn’t extending the metaphor that everyone drowns in the end. What he meant is that sometimes people can be led on a path that is unfamiliar to them. Obviously, the way I was working on NYPD BLUE had positive and negative consequences – without intending to be disrespectful to the work process of other people – people had to scramble every morning – they had no time to prepare and no idea what they were doing – in my defense I didn’t know either.”
In WITHOUT A NET, NYPD BLUE director Mark Tinker said Milch “has patience but he has no patience.” What did Mark Tinker mean and was he right?
“Those are not general truths about me but they were true at the time. I would guess what he meant is that I will stay on a story until I feel it is right but that I had no patience for any of what I feel are intrusions – which are impediments to that or extraneous to that. You know when you are doing a TV series if you have high standards it is a real marathon. We did it for seven years. 155 episodes. It is exhausting to the extent that you try to subordinate everything to the quality of the work you are doing to the extent that other circumstances can cohabit with that goal. As time goes by energies wane. If you are going to keep your concern with the quality of the work then other things begin to erode. That begs intolerance and I am glad to say friendships I had on NYPD BLUE have thrived and flourished. None of the rats downed in the river.”
Mark Tinker went on to say he hoped you would find a more practical way to work in the future. Have you found a better way to work?
“Well, we didn’t on BIG APPLE because that went into production too fast. CBS wanted it on the air quickly. That was another Chinese fire drill. Time will tell.”
BIG APPLE was a clever hourlong drama on CBS that made its Network debut March 1, 2001. The ratings were generally dismal but the show received warm reviews. The production value of the show was exquisite: A motion picture experience for an hour each week on broadcast television. Why did CBS cancel the show after only five episodes?
“No audience – no one’s fault. It was not a show that invited an audience quickly. The subject matter was precisely the difficulty of finding a principle of understanding the events that were being portrayed. It made demands on its audience. Shows that preceded it – SURVIVOR and C.S.I. – were opposite of BIG APPLE. Those shows were: ‘Here’s a puzzle and we’ll solve it in an hour.’ BIG APPLE was: ‘Here’s a puzzle and we don’t even know what the parts are.’ Once the human animal became to be understood, the puzzle would come together just like the opening sequence of the show – titles – parts scattering – recombining. BIG APPLE was a show that would take time to develop an audience and we didn’t get the time to make it happen. It was called BIG APPLE not for New York City, but for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once you take a bite of that how you come to understand the world is a difficult process. You’re in exile and trying to understand experience. BIG APPLE told the story of overlapping agencies – it’s like trying to figure out where Osama bin Laden is – the more information you have the less you understand. The more information you have the more exiled you are from the world. That’s the show CBS bought. That’s the show I told them I was going to do. That’s the show I gave them. I was pleased with the writing and everyone who worked on it had a really good time. It was no one’s fault it did not find its audience. It never would’ve found its audience given the way the network programmed it. It didn’t piss me off – it’s the way things are. I knew the kind of story I was telling: Three separate independent plot lines. A lot of attention is required – sort of the zeitgeist or the temper of the times – there was a question in my mind if the audience would follow a story that was that fragmented.”
Did CBS put any pressure on you to change the show mid-course?
“They did but I didn’t – make it easier to understand.”
Why didn’t Bill Clark move to BIG APPLE with you?
“Bill is doing NYPD BLUE and that show is a big commercial enterprise of which I am one of the prime beneficiaries. Mike Francis, Bill’s partner for 15 years, worked with me on BIG APPLE instead.”
Are you still involved with NYPD BLUE as an ongoing concern?
“The first year I was gone I talked about story arcs but it’s hard for me to be partly involved. The show is better without me not participating at all instead of me participating a little bit. If I were still doing the show I would be doing it well but the other writers need to find their voice and they can’t do that with me there.”
What’s next? The trade magazines reported in January, 2000 that Steven Bochco signed a development deal with Paramount for $50 million USD and your separate Paramount development deal was valued at $15 million USD. Is there a nugget of truth in those numbers?
For the first time during the interview Milch was cold. “I don’t talk numbers.”
What, if anything, are you required to produce?
Milch grew colder still. “Nothing.”
Are you paid even if you produce nothing?
“Yes, I get paid no matter what. That doesn’t mean I’m not working. I have the Western on HBO next year and another show that is indescribable – I can’t and won’t describe it. Neither of them have titles yet.”
Are the rumors true concerning an hourlong cop drama set in ancient Rome that you are co-producing with DreamWorks?
“True. But it’s tied up in litigation. I can tell you one thing about that show – the first guy the cops arrest is Saint Paul.”