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Director Adam Davidson Talks David Milch and Deadwood [Exclusive] 

Throwback Thursdays are always a great way to talk about something you loved from the recent or not-so-recent past. I’ve been a huge Deadwood fan for ages. I loved it while it aired, I own it on DVD and I will talk about to anyone who will let me. You may have heard the rumors about a big screen effort at some time in the future. I’m here for it. But for now, let’s take a closer look at director Adam Davidson‘s experience working with David Milch.

Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/ HBO
Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/ HBO

When I talked to Adam about Fear the Walking Dead back in July, we also ended up discussing his work on Kingdom and Deadwood. Since I’m a huge fan of both shows, I was very eager to hear about his experiences prepping for the Kingdom pilot (check back next month for more on that) and working with Deadwood’s creator David Milch. When I asked Adam about what his dream project would be, he told me it was more about the writer’s point of view and that lead to a great discussion about Deadwood.

Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC
Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Adam Davidson: “I always find it comes down to who the writer is and who the showrunner is. There have been some showrunners that I really feel have been…. They’re here working in the medium because they have something to say and that always interests me. It’s a privileged existence to be able to tell stories and it’s a privilege to have people spend time watching those stories-”

TV GOODNESS: And be so passionate…

Adam: “So when you’re giving them something that has something of value to you and is important, that feels good. So when showrunners have something to say – not that they need to be preachy, just that they’re resonating on another level – I really like that and I get excited about writers who don’t always have the answers, but who are asking the questions and seeking the answers.

Working with David Milch, we never knew what he was gonna do and he never knew. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of those stories about him, but it’s incredible. On Deadwood, working with him was a highlight for me because I had heard all these stories about him being a genius and I didn’t know quite what they meant. Then I got to work with him and he told me, ‘All I ask is that you trust the process.’ And I said, ‘Of course.’ I didn’t know that that process meant when he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t know what he’s gonna write that day. The very first day of shooting I had no script.

TV GOODNESS: What?

Adam: “No script. I had pages. It said ‘Title page.’ No title. It said, ‘Directed by,’ my name. I turned that and it said, ‘Page 14, Scene 32.’ I had no idea what Page 13 was. I had no idea what Scene 31 was. It was just a scene. But, I understood. He said, ‘Trust the process.’ So I thought I’m just gonna make this scene the best scene I can. I’m gonna go into it open – open mind, open heart – and trust that the actors and I will find the truth of the scene. If I can find the truth of the scene, I’ll know how to shoot it. Gradually we kept shooting and shooting and shooting. A few people started coming up to me and going, ‘Milch really likes you.’ I’m like, ‘How do you know?’ ‘Well, he keeps giving you pages.’ [Laughs.]

One thing I realized was that before we started shooting, I asked him if I could come into the writer’s room. He wasn’t writing my [episode] yet and he invited me. I saw part of his process where he came in, and you’ve probably heard this story. He lies down on the ground because of his back. The staff is there, waiting. They know he’s coming in, there’s a pillow on the ground and he lies on the floor.

There’s a person behind the desk with a computer. Two monitors facing them and the other facing David and the room. He says, ‘Ok. Did you write that scene we talked about? Alright, let’s see it,’ and they put up a scene. He reads it and he compliments the writing, he compliments the work in the scene. He used to be this professor of English at Yale, so he went on to give this brilliant lecture that I’d never be able to repeat to you, but basically it was about this Whore of Constantinople, [It’s Theodora, I think] in [500] AD who was the most beautiful woman in all of Constantinople. The prince fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, but everybody told the prince, ‘You can’t do that. She’s a prostitute.’ He didn’t care. He made her a princess and she was artistic and created all these things.

Doug Hyun/ HBO
Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/ HBO

He was basically talking about the redemptive powers of art, which, to him, is very personal because he was a drug addict. He got sober and all his energy, all his addiction, he puts into his writing. So, it’s a 45 minute lecture about that and then he goes to start writing and he’s writing out loud. He’s writing the description for the scene. If you ever have a chance to read the scripts, I would suggest it because it’s literature. He spent hours writing the descriptions. ‘Sitting against the bar, Al Swearengen cocked his eye towards the sun piercing through the blinds.’ Rewrite. ‘Piercing through the blinds, the sun hit Swearengen in the eye blinding him a second.’ Rewrite. ‘The bar was empty, nothing but….’ Over and over again. But the way I’m describing it isn’t accurate because the language of the show, it was literature. I realized that when he had somebody like Swearengen sitting against the bar that was important.

As soon as you get a script as a director, it’s like, ‘Oh. It takes place in a bar.’ I like over there by the window. I’ll set the scene by the window. No. Even if he didn’t know why, at that moment, the character was at the bar there was something inside telling him he needed to be there and I need to honor that. Because six episodes down the road someone might come in and try to kill him and they know he’s always at that one spot at the bar.

So, one day I was working on the show and we broke for lunch and I passed Milch on the way to lunch. He said, ‘I really like what you did in that scene.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you David. I didn’t even know you were there.’ At this point I have 14 pages of the script. There’s a title now and it’s ‘Amateur Night.’ I said, ‘I just wish I could get up there a little earlier.’ He shrugged and said, ‘I wish I could, too.’ [Laughs.] Which was so honest. This whole idea that he was somehow holding back… It’s hard work. He’s facing the blank page. He wants it to come from the right place.

Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/HBO
Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/HBO

I said, ‘I notice we have a title, now, for the show, Amateur Night. Am I supposed to take that personally?’ He said, ‘No,’ and he started talking about just like that whore princess from Constantinople. Langrishe, played by Brian Cox, in the face of the Pinkertons coming to town, is gonna hold this amateur night. He described it to me and it sounded great. So days are going on and I’m shooting and I’m shooting and I’m shooting and there’s no amateur night. Finally, it’s day 16 and I’m supposed to be done six days ago. The producers come over to me and they say, ‘We’re shooting amateur night tomorrow.’ I said ‘Ok.’ They said, ‘There aren’t gonna be any pages for it.’ I said, ‘Ok. Can I get a crane?’ They were like, ‘What? We never shoot cranes on Deadwood.’

I just had the feeling that this was gonna be about the relationship, what’s happening on the stage and people watching and I want to be able to move back and forth and show everything and not have to move people out of the way. And they’re like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll [get] back [to you].’ We broke for lunch and after lunch I was starting up a scene. We rehearsed the scene and Milch was there. We marked it and we were getting ready to shoot it. Milch and I were walking away and David said, ‘Do you have any questions?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I do but they’re not about that scene. A have a question about amateur night.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, no. Oh, no.’ I said, ‘David, it’s OK. I understand there aren’t gonna be any pages. I’m fine with that. I just want to know what’s the feeling you want behind the scene.’

‘Everybody stop what you’re doing. Come over here. Everybody come over here.’ I thought, ‘Oh, no. I’m in trouble.’ It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. He said, ‘Everybody, this is why Adam’s such a great director.’ He started talking about the feeling behind amateur night and what he wanted. So, I got the crane and the next day we all gathered at the area we were gonna shoot amateur night. It was the entire cast for multiple seasons. They brought back people we hadn’t seen in a while.

Milch got up and started talking about the Whore of Constantinople and the redemptive powers of art and then he started to reel off different things he’d like to see. And I’m writing a list and it’s everything from, ‘Didn’t I hear somebody can juggle? OK, you’re juggling and you’re gonna be there. You’re just gonna watch. You’ve been on the wagon. Tonight you’re gonna fall off the wagon for the first time. You’re in love with him, but he doesn’t know because he’s in love with her. And one of the transpo drivers with a glass eye, where are you? Let’s get you in makeup and you’re gonna take out your glass eye.’

And I’m just writing a list. Then he left and I staged the list. And it was really cool because, in actuality, he couldn’t have written it. It needed to be this thing. So to be around that, it was inspiring.”

Edited for space and content.

Want to watch (or re-watch) Deadwood? Check it out on HBO NOW.

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1 Comment

  1. Nomi

    I’ve read accounts similar to this about working with Milch, but it never stops amazing me, that everyone pulls it off.

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