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David Milch’s Third Act | The New Yorker

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David Milch, the television writer, lives with his wife, Rita Stern Milch, on a peaceful block in Santa Monica, in a cozy stucco bungalow camouflaged by a lush cottage garden. When they moved there, five years ago, from a much larger house a few miles away, where they had raised three children, Milch was about to turn seventy. A survivor of decades of serial addiction-recovery-relapse-recovery—and also of heart disease, childhood sexual predation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolarity—he remained in command of prodigious gifts. Starting in the early nineteen-eighties, when a former college roommate who wrote for “Hill Street Blues” introduced him to Steven Bochco, the series’ co-creator, and he began writing for the show, too, Milch earned a reputation as one of the most original and intellectually fluent figures in the history of episodic television. In 1993, Milch and Bochco created “NYPD Blue,” a radical reinvention of the prime-time network police drama. He went on to create several shows of his own, among them the sui-generis Western “Deadwood,” for HBO.

Before Milch went to work in Hollywood, he taught writing at Yale while collaborating on a two-volume anthology of American literature with the critics Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, who had been a mentor to Milch when he was an undergraduate there, in the mid-sixties. Reading Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Twain, James, and Faulkner in such depth helped Milch create complex television characters whose voices were each marked by singular diction. His dialogue was suffused with psychological subtext and literary allusion. In Hollywood, his work ethic was undeviating: he showed up every day. He believed, and still believes, that any time spent thinking about writing is wasted except when one is in a room writing. He quotes Billy Wilder: “The muse has to know where to find you.” He also became known for nurturing aspiring writers. Writing and teaching, Milch thought, should be “a going out in spirit.”

I first met Milch in 2004, while reporting about him for this magazine, during the filming of the second season of “Deadwood.” The show, which is regarded by Milch, and by many critics, as his best work, was set in the Dakota Territory in the eighteen-seventies. The town of Deadwood had been at the center of the Black Hills gold rush, one of the last of its kind in the Lower Forty-eight. He began writing the pilot episode only after having spent two years digesting biographies and historical accounts of mining, the Indian wars, territorial politics, whorehouse and gambling protocols, rudimentary systems of justice, and criminality mundane and monstrous. Deadwood, built on land stolen from the Lakota Sioux, had attracted exiles, fugitives, optimists, gamblers with nothing to lose, bloody-minded opportunists, cynics, and seekers who had come to try their luck, or to escape bad luck, in terrain that lay largely beyond the reach of the law.

The real people depicted in “Deadwood”—among them Wild Bill Hickok; his murderer, Jack McCall; Calamity Jane; Wyatt Earp; and Al Swearengen—are greatly outnumbered by Milch’s fictional characters. Through three seasons of labyrinthine story lines, an ever-rising body count, boundless scheming and exploitation, and a profusion of depravity that sometimes abruptly transmuted into tenderness, Milch’s dialogue transformed the frontier demotic into something baroquely profane. In an early episode, a prospector named Ellsworth, having breakfasted on a few shots of whiskey, declaims to no one in particular, “I may have fucked up my life flatter ’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself or any of these other limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.”

By design, Milch wrote “Deadwood” under a gun-to-the-head deadline, regularly composing dialogue the day before a scene was to be shot. Milch is the only writer I have ever watched, at length, write. I sat in a dimly lit, air-conditioned trailer as Milch—surrounded by several silent acolytes, of varying degrees of experience and career accomplishment—sprawled on the floor in the middle of the room, staring at a large computer monitor a few feet away. An assistant at a keyboard took dictation as Milch, seemingly channelling voices from a remote dimension, put words into (and took words out of) the mouth of this or that character. The cursor on the screen advanced and retreated until the exchange sounded precisely right. The methodology evoked a séance, and it was necessary to remind oneself that the voices in fact issued from a certain precinct of the fellow on the floor’s brain.

In June, 2006, at the start of Season 3, HBO announced, unexpectedly, that there would be no Season 4. Instead, the network said, Milch would bring “Deadwood” to a conclusion with a pair of two-hour movies. Within months, it became evident that even this was not to be. Rather than being permitted a meticulously conceived dénouement, “Deadwood” just stopped. It came as a gut punch to everyone associated with the series. “Deadwood” devotees never abandoned hope that it might someday return, but the more time passed the less likely a revival seemed. The show had sinned by failing to rack up the boffo audience numbers sufficient to convince HBO that it would become a sensation, like “The Sopranos,” which was winding down after six seasons.

Still, the studio’s faith in Milch never wavered. It just wanted him to focus on more potentially lucrative projects, and persuaded him to create a new series, “John from Cincinnati,” set in a California surfing community, a collaboration with Kem Nunn, a novelist whose books can be found in the surf-noir section. It lasted only one season, a consequence generally attributed to a plot-coherence deficit. In the years that followed, Milch remained fiercely industrious. He created “Luck,” set at the Santa Anita Park racetrack and starring Dustin Hoffman, which was shut down in its second season after multiple horses died during filming. Milch also made a pilot—the only episode shot—for an HBO series called “The Money.” (Milch described it to me as “King Lear meets Rupert Murdoch and family.”) Two other HBO projects never progressed beyond the pilot-script stage: adaptations of Peter Matthiessen’s novel “Shadow Country” and “Island of Vice,” a history of Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as the police commissioner of New York City. Earlier this year, HBO’s “True Detective” aired a new episode written by Milch and Nic Pizzolatto.

Milch’s career earned him a fortune—more than a hundred million dollars from “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Deadwood” alone. This made possible both a history of philanthropy and promiscuous nondeductible one-to-one largesse. Several years after I published my Profile, as Milch was writing early episodes of “Luck,” he called and tried to persuade me to work on the series. I reflexively declined the offer. He kept at it, and I kept demurring. At last, he said, “Let me just send you some money.” To Milch I owe the strange pleasure of once upon a time hearing myself say, “Please do not send me money.”

Unfortunately, this tendency to treat money as something to be gotten rid of also fed a gambling compulsion, which controlled Milch as unremittingly as heroin, alcohol, and pain meds once did. A 2015 lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, filed by Rita Milch against David’s former business managers, revealed that between 2001 and 2011 he lost almost twenty-five million dollars betting on horses and football. (The lawsuit was settled out of court.) Only when Rita learned—from the business managers, in 2011—of their calamitous finances did David’s gambling cease. They owed the Internal Revenue Service five million dollars. Both their houses—in Brentwood and on Martha’s Vineyard—went on the market. Rita sold much of her jewelry. The bungalow in Santa Monica is a rental.

In late 2013, while Milch was in New York, filming the pilot for “The Money,” he began having episodes of confusion and erratic memory. These symptoms coincided with severe anemia, which required blood transfusions and surgery, and Rita wishfully assumed that, once his problem was addressed, the memory issue would soon resolve itself. Instead, other ominous signs emerged: more than once, David called her to confess that he couldn’t remember where he had parked his car. He found himself searching in vain for familiar names and words. When their older daughter, Elizabeth, got married, in the winter of 2014, she sensed that her father was overwhelmed by the prospect of having to interact with a crowd and deliver a toast. Never before had Milch minded being the focus of attention. Now he seemed tentative, almost frail. He was depressed and increasingly anxious, decidedly not himself. In early 2015, he was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. For such a cerebral man, it was an especially crushing verdict.

For most Alzheimer’s patients, there’s a distinct emotional demarcation between the before and after of receiving the diagnosis. Although Milch accepted the validity of the diagnosis, he refused to capitulate to it. He knew that continuing to write was imperative for his survival—that stopping would, more than anything, hasten the process of his ceasing to be his most intrinsic self. His finances presented a different imperative. As his creditors awaited satisfaction, HBO, thankfully, continued to provide him with work. In late 2015, Milch submitted his adaptation of “Shadow Country.” The studio passed on it, but opened a different door: reboots had become fashionable on TV, and HBO was now amenable to revisiting “Deadwood” in a film.

For the next two years, Milch worked through drafts of a story that was both new and old. Last summer, HBO green-lighted the script. The movie begins ten years after the last scene of Season 3. Characters who avoided a violent demise in the series return to Deadwood in 1889, as North Dakota and South Dakota join the Union. Extraordinarily, nearly all the surviving members of the original cast—Powers Boothe and Ralph Richeson had died—agreed to reunite, and shooting began in October, at the Melody Movie Ranch, thirty miles north of Santa Monica, using sets based on those from the series. The film will première on HBO on May 31st.

Five days a week, Milch commutes twenty-five yards along an arbor-shaded path that extends from the back of his house to a converted garage, where he writes until it’s time to break for lunch. Before he developed Alzheimer’s, he rose most days by 4:30 a.m., ready to work. He now shows up in the garage at nine-thirty or ten. Awaiting him are two writing assistants, Brittany Dushame and Micah Sampson, and frequently Regina Corrado, who worked on “Deadwood” and “John from Cincinnati” and returned, in 2017, to help him with the screenplay and whatever might follow. Another collaborator is his younger daughter, Olivia, who is now a successful screenwriter and director. (She co-wrote the script for “Ocean’s 8.”) Olivia, who lives in New York, flies to Los Angeles at least once a month. Recently, she told me, “My father and I first worked together in 2011, on an adaptation of Faulkner’s ‘Light in August.’ Writing a scene with him was like learning to write a paragraph. That was my education in screenwriting. But Dave doesn’t really write movies. He does long-form character development. I’ve always said that he writes novels set like plays, and shot like movies, that air on television. What he does is its own thing, but he definitely doesn’t do three-act structure, where everything resolves itself by the end. Dave always says the emotional response of the character is the plot. I think about that ten times a day when I’m writing.”

During the making of “Deadwood,” the arc of a season, each consisting of twelve episodes, took shape over months of writers’-room conversations, all recorded and transcribed. Embedded in these gigantic texts were Milchian riffs of dialogue, which were pasted into scripts as the writing progressed. When a new episode was about to be shot, a staff writer would compose a first draft that provided the scaffolding for the wizardry I observed fifteen years ago, in the dark trailer. To everyone involved with making “Deadwood,” it was a given that fixed in Milch’s consciousness was a complete vision: context, character, motive, plot. Now he can no longer hold in his memory the full trajectory of anything that he writes.

These days, the workday begins with Milch, seated in a cushiony leather armchair opposite a desktop computer monitor, rereading the printout of a completed scene from the previous day or scrutinizing a new one written by, say, Corrado. As Milch scans and rescans what amounts to the scene’s studs, joists, and walls, Dushame takes dictation. When things go well, the dialogue will have been planed, sanded, and smoothed by lunchtime. Every word of the final version sounds like Milch, undiminished.

This past winter, I went to Los Angeles twice to see him, in January and again in March. I didn’t need anyone to explain that the work goes markedly better on some days than on others. Two projects were under way: an eight-episode bio-pic of Johnny Carson and a memoir that is to be published by Random House. The Carson project came to him from the production and management company Anonymous Content; HBO, per Milch’s current contract, retained a right of first refusal. Between my two visits, HBO turned down the pilot script. It was a disappointment, but the project still had funding, and Milch continued working on it. Whenever he hit a snag on the Carson scripts, he turned to the memoir.

Rita organizes and oversees everything that Milch cannot do for himself. A doorway from the office leads to a large space that has long served as a painting studio for Rita, who has had careers as an artist and as an editor. On its floor are file boxes of source material for the memoir, including lecture transcripts, writers’-room transcripts of every series that Milch has worked on starting with “Deadwood,” recordings of interviews that he’s given, poetry and essays that he wrote in college—everything that hasn’t already been shipped to Yale, where his papers will reside, at the Beinecke Library.

Last fall, as shooting was under way for “Deadwood: The Movie,” I began talking regularly again with Milch. We spoke, by telephone, every other Saturday for about forty-five minutes, with Rita listening in and filling in blanks as needed. The American Alzheimer’s Association identifies three stages of the disease’s progression: early, middle, and late. Milch appears to be in the middle stage. This is characterized by a difficulty with organizing everyday tasks and remembering the events of one’s personal history; social withdrawal; confusion about where one is or the day of the week; disruption of sleep habits; and an increased risk, if left unsupervised, of becoming lost. The Milch I observed fifteen years ago during the making of “Deadwood” was gregarious, physically strong, and prone to riveting discursive detours. During our recent time together, he spoke slowly and deliberately, and moved accordingly. At one point, I asked him whether, despite what Alzheimer’s was stealing from him, it had given anything in return. The answer: a continuous sense of urgency.

“There’s an acute sense of time’s passage,” he said. “Things are important. You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things. I feel that with an increasing acuteness—that everything counts.”

“Do you wake up to that feeling every day?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Milch believes that time is ultimately the subject of every story. It is a conviction descended, ex cathedra, from Robert Penn Warren, in his spare masterpiece, “Tell Me a Story.” For decades, in classrooms, writers’ rooms, personal encounters, lectures, and interviews, Milch has cited its concluding lines:

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

My conversations with Milch, which took place in his garage office and on the telephone, have been edited for clarity and concision.

Singer: What do you want to be the focus of our conversations?

Milch: To the extent that this sort of thing is appropriate, a focus on the illness. . . . While writing the screenplay for “Deadwood: The Movie,” I was in the last part of the privacy of my faculties, and that’s gone now. I was able to believe that— You know, we all make deals, I suppose, in terms of how we think about the process of our aging. It’s a series of givings away, a making peace with givings away. I had thought, as many or most people do, that I was in an earlier stage of givings away than it turns out I am. It’s kind of a relentless series of adjustments to what you can do, in particular the way you can’t think any longer. Your inability to sustain a continuity of focus. And those are accumulated deletions of ability. And you adjust—you’d better adjust, or you adjust whether you want to or not.

Singer: From my own experience with serious illness, though it’s been nothing like what you’re going through, I’ve found that my capacity for denial has helped.

Milch: Denial, I think, is a sort of ongoing operative procedure—you try and proceed as if you’re capable, as if you weren’t ill. And then begin making concessions to the fact that you are. . . . Things that you can’t remember any longer, in particular—it’s like shifting the gears of the engine of a car, except to the extent that it absolutely isn’t. You just move through the day experiencing a series of awarenesses of what’s gone in terms of your capacities. And there are physiological consequences. I’ve been describing, I guess, mental consequences, but there are absolute physical limitations that you live into, increasingly. I never thought I’d be quoting a Paul Simon song, at least not in public, but “Hello, darkness, my old friend.” There’s an experience you have as every day goes on of what you’re no longer capable of and . . . it’s an accumulation of indignities. At a more fundamental level, it’s an accretion of irrevocable truths: this is gone, and that’s gone. And you try to restrict the induction of self-pity, which is one of the complications of the illness. Apart from what’s gone because of physiological change, there’s a change of spirit. You awaken and inventory where you are on this day in terms of what you can’t do, what you can’t think.

Singer: When you wake up in the morning, is there a process that you’re aware of—an inventorying—that you weren’t experiencing five years ago?

Milch: Absolutely. As I say, it’s a series of takings away. And there’s a subsidiary category of shame, at not being able to do things.

Singer: Why shame?

Milch: It’s self-imposed. More than anything else, one would like to think of oneself as being capable as a human being. The sad truth, imposed with increasing rigor, is you aren’t. You aren’t normal anymore. You’re not capable of thinking in the fashion you would hope to as an artist and as a person. Things as pedestrian as not being able to remember the day. Sometimes where you’ve been. There have been a couple of times when I haven’t been able to remember where I live. And then there are compensatory adjustments that you make in anticipation of those rigors, so that you can conceal the fact of what you can’t do. It’s a constriction that becomes increasingly vicious. And then you go on.

Singer: I’m sitting here listening to you, and you’re describing what you’re describing, and there is to me an immense irony: this is the same mind that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known you.

Milch: That’s a blessing of this conversation, and I’m concentrating and thinking as hard as I can. I’m asking for the grace and dignity of a lucid cogitation. I’m asking of my faculties, such as they are, in whatever diminution they are, to meet you fairly.

I’m different recognizably, unmistakably, from one day to the next. I’m capable of things on one day that are absolutely beyond me. Down to things as rudimentary as sometimes where I live. One tries to adjust to those rigors and disciplines as they reveal themselves, as the day unfolds. At one level—the level of vanity, I suppose—there’s a shame that shows itself as anger, an anger that is quickly internalized as unfair to the disciplines or ambitions of the exchange in which I’m involved at that moment. And I try to adapt to that because it’s a distraction from what the invoked purpose, the proper purpose, of that exchange is. Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. At a rudimentary and humiliating level, I’m incapable of lucid discourse. That’s no fun.

Singer: Once you realized this was happening to you, did you say to yourself that there was anything you needed to do to memorialize what was happening? Any way of tracking this? Especially with you, given your hyper-alertness to all that’s around you, but also your ability to pull back from whatever is immediate and contemporary and go to a place—say, Deadwood—where your characters exist.

Milch: I think that is the chief blessing of art, the opportunity to organize one’s behavior around a different reality. It’s a second chance. You pray to be equal to it, equal to its opportunities. We both know that some days you’re better at that than others. In my case, there’s a continuing unfolding discovery of the limitations of that vision.

I’m thinking of playing catch with my son, Ben, teaching him to play catch. The particular kind of reverence that you feel for that process, for what you know it will mean to him. To catch the ball and to throw it back right, and to know that I’m proud of him. The opportunity to do those things is transferrable to the artistic process as well—the process of passing on, for better or worse, as well as one can, what you’ve learned. And blessing him on the voyage that he’ll begin. Those are special and particular opportunities that are given an artist.

Singer: You once told me that you try not to think about writing when you’re not writing. Did that mean that writing was easy for you, and did that change when you were working on this new film?

Milch: It’s not a self-conscious process. I try to think of an interior logic to things. Exploring that interior and kind of walking around inside it. And, for better or worse, finding things as I go, which instruct me how to proceed, so that it’s a kind of exfoliating logic that I’m pursuing. You have to be content when a path that you’re pursuing turns out not to be rewarding. It’s a journey in that sense.

Singer: We’re talking about your creative process and mental process pre-Alzheimer’s, correct? And you didn’t have a time during the production of the movie where that changed?

Milch: No. I think not. It’s variable from moment to moment, but over all there’s a dynamic to the process that you try to be disciplined in pursuing.

Singer: “Discipline” is the word you use more than anyone I’ve ever known. It seems deeply inculcated in your approach to learning and writing. You’ve said that Robert Penn Warren used to discuss certain disciplines. Does it derive from that?

Milch: Yeah, it does. I recall vividly experiencing a sense of being privileged as Mr. Warren would pursue the logic and emotion of his thoughts—the respect that he had for the discipline of that pursuit as organizing the exchange between us. That was universal with him. There was something holy about it. The street version of it is “Don’t fuck with this.” It was a beautiful experience to be in the presence of that searching out.

He was a teacher, but he was also always a searcher. He was respectful in sharing the pursuit and you felt you mustn’t fail to bring anything but your best attention and respect for the transaction. You had the feeling that there were two spirits residing in a holy place. And there was an absolute lack of self-consciousness to the process. A mutual absence. You felt that you must suppress everything irrelevant or distracting.

Singer: I wonder whether there’s an overlap between that sort of profound respect and the recognition you came to later, in A.A. meetings, about a higher power.

Milch: Yes. You had in his presence an effect of a continuous unfolding. It wasn’t so much an unfolding of a truth as it was of a passion, or that there was some higher power that had become present as a result of a shared effort. And the presence needed to be acknowledged or the exchange could not be understood. The great blessing of Mr. Warren’s presence was a rising up in one’s heart of the desire to acknowledge that shared experience.

An encounter in January. Rita has joined us. Milch’s Alzheimer’s is complicated by long-standing cardiac difficulties.

Milch: I’m not feeling very well just now. I’ve got an amount of pain and my faculties aren’t very good. It’s in my chest.

Singer: Do you know what it’s about?

Milch: No.

Singer: This is completely organic?

Milch: It’s not an anxiety disorder. It’s like somebody’s got his fist on your chest.

Singer: One of the things we haven’t talked about is fear. Do you have fear?

Milch Yeah. You need some? It’s a consequence of something pressing hard on your chest. It’s a kind of intrusive, dominant state of being. The pain is coercive and distracting to an extent that it’s hard to think of anything else or bring one’s concentration to anything else.

Singer: Does that mean you’re not reading very much?

Milch: Yes.

Singer: What about listening to music?

Milch: Mostly I’ve been chronicling my grievances.

Singer: When your family, including your granddaughter, was around over the holidays, was that a relief?

Milch: Yes. Our grandchild has adopted toward me a sort of casually pleasant tone—she calls me Dave—and she pats my wrist sometimes. And I amuse her. She thinks I’m funny. It’s just happening. I think it’s like “He doesn’t mean me ill, so he must mean me well.”

Singer: Do you think you’re at an early stage?

Milch: No.

Singer: When do you think you were?

Milch: I couldn’t pinpoint it. Maybe three months ago.

Singer: Do you think there’s been an acceleration in the rate of loss?

Milch: Yes.

Rita: The past six months have been hard. I’ve gone to some meetings of a support group for caregivers, and I heard nothing hopeful in those meetings.

Singer: Is there anything you’ve been able to draw upon, David? Is there comfort in the past?

Milch: I feel the past falling away and the attachments of regret for what wasn’t done or was done badly or was done without sufficient sympathy, and it was for that reason that our granddaughter’s visit was such a redemptive and compelling occurrence. Everything is an adventure for her and a delight and a surprise, an opening up, and that’s a big gratification.

Singer: I’ve never thought of you as a sentimental person, but maybe I misread that. How would you characterize yourself?

Milch: As an unsentimental person.

Singer: Right. So, when you talk about loss, sadness, are those sentimental feelings or objective realities?

Milch: Objective realities. There’s increasingly little to hold on to. A kind of relentless deterioration, and that’s disconcerting.

Singer: I’m so sorry this is happening. . . . And, now that I’ve said that, I feel like an idiot. When people tell you they’re sorry, what’s your response?

Milch: “Thank you.” It depends on who I’m talking to and what the ambitions of the conversation are. In a lot of ways, it feels like you’re living a dream, with those relentless aspects.

Singer: Tell me what in your earlier life, if anything, gave you any sense of anticipation of what aging would be like. In the brain of a twenty-two-year-old, in particular a twenty-two-year-old male, the parts that recognize risk and danger are not as fully developed, and so it becomes this Darwinistic matter. We do catch up, if we’re lucky and we haven’t killed ourselves first. In your twenties, you were living hard and fast. Did you ever think, I might kill myself inadvertently?

Milch: I thought I might die inadvertently in the process of doing what I was doing. You know, I assembled a number of stupidities, which took up a lot of my time. I remember Mr. Warren used to say to me, more than once, “How much of a goddam fool can you be?” And I used to devote a portion of every day to assembling evidence in support of this argument.

Singer: That question from him was not a chastening question?

Milch: Oh, yes, it was.

Singer: Did he ever try to do more than that? Was he ever paternal, and did he say, “Goddammit, cut that shit out”?

Milch: He often remarked, “Understand, David, I don’t give a good God damn who writes and who doesn’t.”

Singer: I remember you telling me that—that if you were going to fuck it up that wasn’t his problem.

Milch: Yes.

Singer: Can you actually say now that you would rather you had lived differently during that period?

Milch: Sure. When you know that you could have done something with a fuller heart, with a more open spirit, that’s an occasion for regret, and the regrets do tend to pile up. But there’s nothing to be done. That’s the predicate of regret. And so you kind of build around it, and do the best you can to learn some useful way to proceed.

Singer: Have you talked to other Alzheimer’s patients?

Milch: No.

Singer: When do you think you knew that this was going on? What told you that?

Milch: It was an irrefutable and obtrusive fact. There were lapses which were inexplicable otherwise.

Singer: We’ve talked about having your granddaughter here, the pleasure of that. But what about the things that gave pleasure from before, the aesthetic pleasures?

Milch: The world gets smaller. You’re capable of less work and you have to learn to accept that—that’s a given of the way you have to live. And that’s a sadness. But it’s also true that a focus comes to your behavior which is productive.

Singer: Elaborate upon that.

Milch: (after a long pause): I’m having a good deal of pain.

Rita leaves to get him some water. He’s sitting in an armchair, looking away from me, as if I’ve left the room.

Singer: Can I ask what you’re thinking right now?

Milch: I’m wondering if I’m going to be able to tolerate this discomfiture.

Singer: Can you read things you’ve written in the past?

Milch: No.

Singer: Would you pick up a new novel and read it now?

Milch: It’s not likely.

Singer: Is that because the hours in the day you’re able to focus are diminished?

Milch: To some extent. But more so I feel the constriction of possibility, what I’m able to undertake responsibly. I have only a certain amount of energy.

Singer: Do you feel like you’re in a race?

Milch: Yes.

Singer: You’re racing to finish this memoir?

Milch: More so a larger enterprise, of which this is just a part.

Singer: Can you be more specific?

Milch: I’m trying to make work, the undertaking in general, coherent. To restore a dignity to the way that I proceed, and it’s a demanding process. You’re tempted to . . . toss it in. Just to quit.

Singer: Before this, were you someone who had preoccupying fears?

Milch: No.

Singer: And now what is it you’re afraid of, if you could identify it?

Milch: I intuit the presence of a coherence in my life which I haven’t given expression to in an honorable fashion.

Singer: So this is an opportunity. Is that what you’re saying?

Milch: Yes.

Singer: The rush to get to work, that inner necessity to make something. You still have that? Do you wake up every day with that?

Milch: Yes.

Singer: Did you feel during the “Deadwood” movie shoot that anyone regarded you as diminished?

Milch: I don’t think so.

Singer: Do you think about the future?

Milch: In a very constricted way. I have disabused myself of any thought of a normal future, but I allow myself a provisional optimism about the possibilities of what time I will be allowed. And I’m determined to experience what life will allow me. I know I have a short while possible to me, but I don’t want to constrict or profane that with recrimination or a distorting bitterness. And I permit myself a belief that there is possible for me a genuine happiness and fulfillment in my family and the work I do. ♦



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