Written By January 2012 : Page 32
Luck Ain’t ALAdy 32 • WG AW Written B y j anu ar y 20 12
Luck Ain’t A Lady
F. X. Feeney
David Milch and Michael Mann gamble with Luck.
My dad took me out to the race track for the first time when I was five years old,” recalls David Milch. “He said to me: ‘You’re a sick little degenerate. This is what you want to do. While you’re too young to bet—’ Mind you, I’m five years old and don’t have the first idea what a bet is. But he tells me: ‘I’ll set it up with the waiter, Max, and he’ll run your bets for you.’” Milch shakes his head with a rueful laugh at this memory. “And so I started to bet at age five, with all of the mixed messages entailed in that process.”
That was 1950. Across the next six decades, haunting the racetrack, playing the horses, and even owning and breeding a number of champion thoroughbreds became a way of life paid for and parallel to Milch’s far more high-profile career as a maker of landmark television. Now, starting at the end of January, Milch has created a new series for HBO that squarely faces all the highs and lows of his father’s passionate if toxic gift to him. The show is called Luck. There is not an impulse, a folly, an ecstasy, or a downfall described in it that he hasn’t lived first-hand or broken bread with in his imagination.
He points to a black-and-white photo taken during his years as a student at Yale, in the 1960s, when he aspired to become a novelist. “You see this gentleman here? That is Mr. Warren—Robert Penn Warren—who was my teacher, and mentor. He once described what we writers do, if we’re lucky enough. He said it in a poem: ‘This is the process, / by which the pain of the past and its pastness / is converted to the future tense of joy.’ As Mr. Warren might say, it took me years—decades—‘to unravel all the complications.’ There have been plenty of times along the way when I never thought I’d get a chance.”
Of Milch and Mann
The hard authenticity of Milch’s pilot script inevitably appealed to Michael Mann’s aesthetic, leading to executive producing Luck. While justly celebrated as a director for such superb instant-classics as Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Insider (1997), and Collateral (2004), Mann began his career as a screenwriter. Two films for which he is best remembered originate with scripts he wrote solo: Thief (1981) and Heat (1995). These are crime films so astute in their attention to detail that every crime film made since is measured against them. All the same, Mann has always resisted any genre-label: “It’s neither accurate nor authentic to compare my films to other films,” he once told me. “I proceed from life. I didn’t look at other ‘crime films’ to decide how to tell the story in Thief. I talked to thieves.”
In particular, the immediacy with which Milch sets his characters in motion attracted Mann, who has filled the cast with actual jockeys and devised the camera vehicles necessary to placing viewers “inside the experience” of riding a horse. “As much as possible, I like to use people who really are what they purport to be onscreen, or actors who are willing to acquire whatever skill-sets are required to inhabit that reality.”
Milch’s pilot episode (directed by Mann) plunges us into a busy racetrack world filled with doers and dreamers of one stripe or another. There is “Ace” (Dustin Hoffman), an aging billionaire newly freed after three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. We’re given hints—sharp, brief, fleeting— that he accepted this downfall stoically but has emerged carrying a huge score to settle, which he aims to do with the help of his enforcer, Gus (Dennis Farina). At the other end of the track is Mr. Smith (Nick Nolte), owner of a young thoroughbred horse. He is proud of this animal but fiercely, secretly—even a bit madly—protective of it, for reasons he keeps to himself.
Between these magnetic extremes orbit more than a dozen vividly drawn fortune-seekers, among them: Rosie (Kerry Condon), an Irish-born jockey angling to make her mark in a still male-dominated domain; her lover and fellow jockey Leon (Tom Payne), a Cajun who must perilously starve himself to make his weight; their mutual rival Ronnie (Gary Stevens; in real life a champion jockey), an aging master of the trade who suffers its trademark hazard, addiction to booze and painkillers; their booking agent Rathburn (Richard Kind), a wheeler-dealer afflicted with a stammer that, alas for him, echoes the desperate state of his life. These riders and their rep tangle with Escalante (John Ortiz), a renowned horse-trainer who has clawed his way up from poverty behind a mask of hardened, habitual hostility. He treats everybody with contempt, even Jo (Jill Hennessy), the veterinarian with whom he is romantically involved. Escalante’s short fuse is repeatedly tested in turn by the Four A’s (Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Ritchie Coster, and Ian Hart), a goofy quartet Of degenerate gamblers who luck their way into owning a thoroughbred every bit as promising as the steeds owned by Hoffman’s and Nolte’s protagonists.
That both Hoffman’s “Ace” and Nolte’s Mr. Smith can be considered protagonists—that indeed, Gus, Rosie, Leon, Rathburn, Ronnie, Escalante, Jo, and all four of the degenerate “A’s” are protagonists within their spheres of this busy mural—creates a vexing, sometimes vertical challenge for our sympathies as viewers. “Who do you root for?” is a question we have all grown used to getting answered within the first hour of any new series.
The template set by The Sopranos and followed resolutely by Rome, Dexter, True Blood, The Borgias, and Boardwalk Empire dictates that you have one reigning figure—be it Tony, the Pope, Julius Caesar, Sookie Stackhouse, or Nucky Thompson— and surround him or her with a busy court full of intriguers, traitors, and flatterers. (Game of Thrones juggles several such realms in unison.) In every case the heroes, the heavies, and the shape-shifters between good and evil show up for work with their trajectories visibly inked-in. This is not necessarily a bad thing—in a well-written show, it can be a reliable pleasure— but these pathways have become all too familiar.
Not so in Luck, where we navigate without such maps. Each character in the pilot is a viable ruler in his or her own system. The magnificence of horses, their surges of energy and the rapture they evoke in onlookers as they soar along the track are stirringly rendered in the shooting and editing. This first episode climaxes with a suspenseful irony—the four degenerates win a multimillion dollar pot they are too spooked, too superstitiously shy, to claim outright.
Even so, while watching you might feel vertigo before so many, perhaps too many involvements.
It wasn’t until a day later, when I woke up thinking about these characters, having dreamt about them, that I realized how deeply I was hooked.
“You were navigating without a map,” explains Mann, “because the characters all come to you as fractals with no establishment, no exposition, no context. You’re provided indications via attitude. It’s a narrative of fractals of people already midstream in their actions. That’s what was so brilliant in David’s conception and so challenging and engaging for me.”Because I’ve written extensively about Mann in the past, and our paths crossed at two screenings for Luck, where he’d shown up in person to tweak the projection, we had a quick exchange of emails in which I detailed my resistance and its more affirmative long-range payoff. Fractals has long been a favorite word of his, a mathematical term connoting not fractions but geometric shapes (such as crystals) that exist in nature but reiterate a larger whole with a dramatic, nearly abstract clarity.
Milch prefers to frame his vision for Luck more emotionally: “My belief is that we are a single beating heart, mistakenly perceiving ourselves as separate, each from the other. If you ask me to define the word luck, I would say it is the moment when we experience that simultaneity. It can come at the most surprising god-damn times and ways.”
Milch’s collaborations with Steven Bochco on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue in the 1980s and ’90s revolutionized primetime drama by braiding “backdrop” storylines behind the more conclusive foreground action of a single episode. These bridges built suspense so effectively from week to week that viewership increased weekly and became all the more devoted. Countless other shows adopted the strategy, including the first season of Crime Story (1986–88) created by Michael Mann. A structural conceit once purely identified with the melodramatics of daytime soap opera was newly elevated and transfigured by naturalistic, specific scene intentions and dialogue. In Deadwood (2002–06), Milch’s most fully realized and roundly acclaimed series to date, the very texture of spoken language—a Miltonian (or is that Lincolnian?) Breed of English rhetoric mixed with the prairie mud of all-American profanity—creates and sustains a fresh take on frontier life.
He has known his share of reversals too: Most notably the short-lived John of Cincinatti (2007), which Milch co-created with novelist Kem Nunn. This HBO series had the mixed fortune of premiering literally minutes after the ultimate Sopranos series finale. On the one hand, with half the nation watching, he could not have asked for a greater ratings-share to launch a show. On the other, those same umpteen gazillion viewers were so suddenly mind-blown and plunged into hours of discussion by the shock and ambiguity of Tony’s vanishment that Milch’s and Nunn’s gently mystical, playfully cryptic invitation to surf a world very different from the Jersey mob might as well have debuted in the blindspot of a rearview mirror. Even so, the show gradually began to gather a following. By its final episode, more than 3 million viewers were regularly tuning in—a larger audience than Deadwood at its height—but too late.
The premise of Luck had been turning in his mind since the 1970s. “I even got fairly deep into it before setting it aside,” Milch recalls, but it was not until recently that he felt fully ready to tackle it. He sold off his horses in order to clear the way. “If you have distorting attachments to a situation or to a character, you wind up doing less than your best work. So I divested myself of my bloodstock. You want to be as free a heart as possible, to allow your characters to find their own voices within the given circumstance.”
That accomplished, Milch went in search of allies. A premise as ambitiously scaled as Luck would need the protection of powerful talents willing to fight for it. Milch showed the pilot script to his friend, the award-winning screenwriter Eric Roth. “What do you think,” he asked Roth, “if I invite Michael Mann aboard?”
“He’s a great director,” Roth replied, “But you two will never get along.” Or as Prince Hal put it to Hotspur, Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere. Roth, who co-wrote The Insider and Ali and now serves as an executive writer on Luck, foresaw fireworks, and he wasn’t disappointed. As he told me: “They’ve been butting heads in a good creative way ever since. Their arguments are never about the writing, only about the look of the show—David favors a more oblique approach, while Michael’s more hyper-realistic.”
According to Mann, after a TV series he’d created in 1978 (Vega$) was derailed by network interference, he grew determined to be in sole command of any TV project that came along thereafter. While executive producing Miami Vice (1984–89) for that now iconic show’s creator, Anthony Yerkovich, Mann famously took charge of its look, introducing theatrical-level cinematography and editing. He obsessively supervised every detail, including the music. Such attention to all details have been his trademark ever since. When Luck came along, he would not waver from this approach, despite his deep respect for Milch, who as a writerproducer of the same rank is used to similiar creative controls.
The Hollywood Reporter ran an item this past April on Luck’s “creative differences,” illustrated with a caricature that depicted Milch as Godzilla and Mann as King Kong—but by the time the battle became public it was already ancient history. Milch and Mann announced in a joint statement: “We ought to be smart enough to figure out a mechanism that would enable us to work together to our and the series’ benefit.”
“For me, the writing process has always culminated in the editing room,” says Milch. “That was my experience on Deadwood, where I was responsible for all of the work—the writing; the work on the set with the actors; the editing. Here, on Luck, my writing process is confined strictly to the writing. That is very different from what I’ve been used to obviously. I have nothing more to say about it—except that proof of the validity of this very different approach Michael and I have hammered out is there to be seen in the result, which I would happily stack up against anything else I’ve ever done. It’s just a very different process. You have to maintain a healthy imaginative connection with the possibilities that are in front of you. You do it the way it’s being done.”
Room at the Derby
Their creative process involves working, first, in a room crowded with writers. Milch is credited with the pilot; episodes two through nine are variously credited to Jay Hovdey, John Perotta, Robin Shusha, Bill Barich, and Amanda Ferguson— many of whom have backgrounds in horse-racing. Eric Roth wrote the final episode but is quick to stress: “It was rewritten by David. We’re all rewritten by David.”
Mann agrees: “We all discuss the story,” he says of his own role in this process, “we being David, Eric, and myself. David would come in and say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking of doing.’ Eric and I would react, often to remind him of something he’d said over a month ago. The three of us would bandy around story arcs. There would be a lot of give and take. These sessions ought to be published someday, because the dialogue amongst the three of us was often hilarious: Three cranky guys, going at each other. David would then work in turn with the group of writers he gathered, delegating the various episodes to each of them. But—I want to emphasize— that in all matters related to writing, David is the sole authority and arbiter. Whoever’s contributing, the final story and word choices are all his.”
The creative excitement for Mann of interpreting Milch’s writing boils down to that feeling he cited earlier, of entering these character’s lives all of a sudden, without introduction. The question for him is: “Can you convey context by attitude? Pure attitude? Wariness? Walter Smith, the Nick Nolte character: Can we get our brief glimpses of him to bespeak some dark cloud in his past without our knowing up front what that is? We don’t know what it is that he can’t run away from. There’s a hint of scandal. But whatever it may turn out to be, we know it’s something he can’t run from.”
An aura of mute rage certainly surrounds Nolte’s Mr. Smith as he shields the greatness of his horse from public view. In one middle episode, he furiously rebukes Rosie for riding the animal to a huge, attention-getting win. “His connection to this horse is deep,” says Milch, “but so isolated that he degenerates. He has not yet fully lived into his own humanity.”
Our habit is to hear the word degenerate and think downfallen, shabby, or perverse. The word certainly retains those colors here, but at the same time claims a peculiarly active meaning in the world imagined by Milch. “Another expression is ‘hope-to-die’ gambler,” he adds with a smile. Meaning, one de-generates by way of squandering one’s spiritual as much as material capital in life. One becomes automatic, robotic, addictive, or as Milch sums it: “Less human.” Although Smith is not acting out self-destructive gambling habits, he is hoarding, negating a natural contract with the creature in his charge. “This horse needs to be guided by the old man. Failing that, failing that guidance, the human being has not fulfilled his deepest responsibility to the animal.”
Hoffman’s “Ace” Bernstein wills a similar silence as he moves about with his reliable frontman Gus, making the clever moves that will avenge the years lost to prison. “I don’t trust anyone, not even myself,” he declares at the end of the first episode. Then he smiles gently at his friend: “You, I give a pass.” Five episodes in, moved by the success of the thoroughbred he has bought, Ace elects to spend the night propped in a chair outside its stall—so he can gaze up at the creature’s face as he dozes, and marvel. It’s a luminous moment. Whatever Ace’s plans are—whatever schemes and scams are brewing in his inscrutable head—this part of him is real, unambiguous, and emotionally available.
This mysterious power of horses—“perfectly honed athletes,” Mann observes—to pull human beings out of themselves is demonstrated again and again throughout the series, most fully at those moments when a race is being run. In such instances, which always swell up suddenly, planners forget their plans, bettors forget their bets, criminals put crime on hold.
“The ‘animal spirit’ is what paradoxically humanizes the men and women of the show,” says Milch. “It’s their salvation. The other side of that coin is, in the absence of that connection, we lose our humanity. We become degenerated versions of a human being.”
Michael Gambon, an actor whose gifts can fill the words good morning with sinister baggage, is “Mike,” the sporty mobster whose treacheries landed Ace in jail to begin with. At one point, having made two attempts on Ace’s life before lunch, the men find themselves face to face, and he grins: “Busy day?” He is never seen with a horse; even at the racetrack, he keeps himself away from the action, three floors up and behind glass.
“There’s a wonderful description in Melville,” says Milch, “of Claggert in Billy Budd, about Claggert’s hatred for Billy, which is like Mike’s hatred for Ace: ‘Apprehending the good, but powerless to be it, what was left for a personality such as Claggert’s but, like the scorpion, for whom the Creator alone is responsible, to turn in upon himself and act out to the end the part allotted.’”
Playing Dice With the Universe
Having asked Milch his definition of “luck” earlier and receiving that answer about experiencing our simultaneity, I ask Mann the same question. Time is Luck is a maxim one hears in more than one Mann film. Is that his definition? It’s more than that, he suggests:
“I think ‘luck’ is the randomness in our universe that, in fact, has very little random to it. The causality is so intricate. We don’t have the instruments to measure it. Take the characters David created. They combine acumen, skill, psychology. They are rationally driven; they are irrationally driven. They are driven by deviant behavior, driven by addiction and profound feelings of worthlessness. The entire gamut is there in these characters. They collide with fortune. They have an expectation, if you like: ‘Everything I can do, plus the random components of Fate, will lead me to some transcendence. Some manifestation of the self within me that I know is really there but has been thwarted, and now may be liberated—all because of the randomness of chance.’ That’s luck.”
In terms of making one’s own luck, and if possible hanging on to it, I pose a final question to Milch: Given that there was a bit of hand-to-hand combat with Mann, his closest ally, over creative control, that could have gone very badly had either partner been less experienced or more egoistic… How did Milch resolve that within himself? How did he maintain that balance required to stay focused on the most important aspects of the battle? How does he sort out what is ego, versus what’s best for the project?
Milch answers without pause: “Another of Mr. Warren’s maxims was, ‘The secret subject of any story worth telling is Time. But you can never say its name.’ In this case, the theme of Time reflects itself as: ‘I’m no kid anymore.’ One way the ego would try to smuggle itself into this argument is to say: ‘You’re not going to get another chance; this may be your last time at the plate.’”
Toward this end, Milch thinks ahead to other projects. Given that he once thought of writing a novel—indeed, Robert Penn Warren so admired the fiction Milch wrote at age 18 that he secured him a book deal, though it never bore fruit— has he thought of trying again? Milch demurs with a warm smile. In a sense, Warren’s encouragement instead nourished the novelistic space in which his dramatic imagination roams. He has recently acquired the rights to nearly all of William Faulkner’s novels (now there’s a consummation devoutly to be wished: HBO’s Yoknapatawpha!)—but more important, even more healthily, he stays focused on the present work, accepting whatever setbacks arise as determined to a higher benefit. Frustration is transient. It is creation that matters:
“There’s a Taoist proverb: ‘When the Tao is lost, men begin to speak of Good and Evil.’ If you just stay submitted to the Tao, to the materials, or in this case stay true to your characters, as opposed to standing back and worrying about the complicated variables of any collaboration, fulfillment takes care of itself. You have to be faithful, you have to be humble, you have to recognize that the present is paradoxically a timeless state and Time doesn’t give a good goddamn how much time you’ve got. You just have to see what the possibilities of any given moment are, and work with those. I’ve done so, happily, with Luck.”
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