On the surface, nothing was amiss at “An Evening With Deadwood,” a Film Independent Presents event held April 23, hosted by curator Elvis Mitchell and featuring series stars Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, John Hawkes and Gerald McRaney, as well as director Dan Minahan and executive producer Carolyn Strauss. Series creator David Milch wasn’t present, but his name and vision were forever on the lips of cast and collaborators alike.
To watch the attendees swap stories and reminisce about the show was a bittersweet endeavor, given the news of the day. Just hours before the event, Vulture film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz published an interview with Milch, which publicly revealed the “Deadwood” visionary’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis and reduced role during the filming of the upcoming 2-hour TV movie, some 13 years in the making. In the piece, Milch is described as observing the filming of the movie, but not interfering, a far cry from the original days of “Deadwood,” where the creator’s on-the-fly rewrites and reshoots were infamous.
Alzheimer’s is a gutting diagnosis and when it targets a mind as vibrant and enterprising as Milch’s, it stirs a very particular kind of sorrow. While no one on stage directly addressed the news, it was impossible to view the event in any other light. The very nature of the evening made for a lot of remembrances of making the show over a decade ago, and without Milch present, the stories about him were all in past tense, as though he was already gone. In that way, the evening dedicated to celebrating the legacy of “Deadwood,” became a sort of Irish wake for its creator, with all the joy and reverence that implies.
Olyphant, delighted by his own mischievousness and to uproarious laughter from costars and audience alike, shared a never-before-shared story that detailed how ruthless Milch could be when it came to problem-solving and the brilliance that sprouted even from rash creative decisions. According to the “Justified” actor, there was a rumor during the early days of filming Season 2 that Milch was having issues with someone close to Josh Eriksson, the young actor cast as Olyphant’s nephew-turned-stepson William Bullock — and it resulted in a somewhat drastic rewrite.
“There’s a knock on my trailer, I open the door,” Olyphant said, revealing that it was Milch coming to deliver some news. “‘We’re gonna kill the kid,'” the actor recalled Milch saying, before adding, “He knows actors, so [Milch] goes, ‘It’s gonna be great for you.'”
“By the way, what was Season 2 gonna be about?” Olyphant wondered. “The season became about that kid dying. [The decision] happened at lunch.”
After that, the floodgates opened and stories came fast and furious. It turns out that Olyphant also had a different take on McShane’s delivery of one of the most iconic lines of the series.In the Season 2 premiere, Seth Bullock (Olyphant) and Al Swearengen (McShane), the series’ primary adversaries, got into a physical fight – “I remember Milch telling me, ‘Yeah, it’s what people want,'” Olyphant said – that result in them going over a saloon balcony and into the mud and the muck of Deadwood’s mainstreet and in front of a stagecoach carrying Bullock’s wife (Anna Gunn) and the aforementioned ill-fated Bullock youngling.
The way Olyphant tells it, McShane was then supposed to look up and say, “Welcome to Deadwood.” That’s it. After a take, the actor swears he heard Milch tell McShane that the line, again, “Welcome to Deadwood,” can be combative, as in, he can deliver it more combatively.
Next take, McShane says, deadpan: “Welcome to [fucking] Deadwood. Can be combative.”
“They called cut and Milch says, ‘…perfect,'” Olyphant concludes.
There were other stories and insights. There was talk of how Milch’s words works like music and how, like a composer, he would add beats and rhythms until the composition was perfect. They spoke of Milch’s willingness to adapt and improve, to pivot, sometimes literally by filming a scene from the opposite side, all in an attempt to tell the best story. David Milch wasn’t present but his memory lived on.
On a different, more popular but less perfect HBO show recently, a character said, “That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting. Being forgotten.” Perhaps that’s right. In that case, David Milch, his memories, his work, his life will live forever, born forward by those who remember, even if he can’t.
“Deadwood: The Movie” debuts May 31 on HBO.