Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Deadwood stage stops here: why after David’s Milch’s Deadwood we should never put up with anything but the very best. (Oh, and hats off to casting directors the world over)

Let me start on a very obscure note. Some people, surely a small minority, stay behind a little when a film has finished and the credits roll to take a look at the names of some of those who made the film possible. Incredible as it might seem to some, the director and his actors - his ‘cattle’ as Fellini liked to observe - aren’t the only ones part of ‘the creative’ process. There’s the role played by the cinematographer (as important as the director in my opinion) and the director really is nowhere if a film’s various producers aren’t up to scratch. But even they don’t exhaust the list: the soundtrack - note ‘sound’ not just ‘music’ - will often make a film. (And by way of illuminating that, you might care to read this entry made after this was posted.)Take away the soundtrack and your average viewer really doesn’t know what to feel. In too many films a scene is only full of suspense because the soundtrack tells us so. So keeping an eye out for the ‘sound designer’ or whatever he or she is called, then looking out for other films he or she has worked on is a good, although means infallible, way of rooting out other films it might be rewarding to watch.

Somewhere on that list of credits you’ll find out who was responsible for ‘casting’. Now, I’ve never made a film and the chances of me ever doing so are in minus figures. But were I ever be required to do so (and I should prefer to be a producer rather than a director), I would make damn sure that whoever was hired to help with the casting damn well knew his or her job and was damn well the best or close to at casting. Each different film will have its own production dynamic, with the director and the producers having a greater or lesser say in who is hired and who isn’t and whoever is responsible for casting is, I should imagine, only able to suggest for and against and give advice. The final decision will rest with the producers, unless the director is so ‘great’ he or she (invariably still ‘he’, but we all live in hope) as to have the final say.

Why, I hear some of you mumbling, grumbling even, is this chap going on about ‘casting directors’ and ‘casting agents’. Is he really so fed up with watching paint dry? Well, no I’m not. I’ll explain why, unusually, my thoughts recently turned to casting directors and agents. But before that I shall point out an irony: we only become aware of casting (or heating a room or seasoning a dish) when something has gone horribly wrong. If, on the other hand a film is well cast (or a room is heated exactly right and a dish is - OK, you get my drift, no need to labour the point) none of us, I’m sure, reflects: well, isn’t this film well cast!
But that’s what occurred to me recently when I started watching Deadwood online. The casting of that was spot on, impeccable.

. . .

Some might have heard of Deadwood, some might even have seen it on TV (on Sky here in Britain). It was the brainchild of one David Milch (no, I hadn’t heard of him either before I started watching the series and stars, among others our very own Ian McShane). You can find out more about Milch here and here. Some might only know it because of newspaper reports of its shameless use of obscenities and profanities, but to judge it according to what our strait-laced Press choose to believe will upset their strait-laced readers would, at best, be wholly misleading and, at worst, a travesty of judgment. Deadwood is, in my view - there will, of course, be others - one of the very best, if not the very best series to have been screened on TV (and it’s no surprised that it was brought to the small screen by America’s HBO).

It deals with life in the small Dakota settlement of Deadwood in the mid-1870s, when Deadwood was an ‘illegal’ settlement established after gold was found nearby. In fact, the discovery of gold was the sole reason why the ‘camp’ Deadwood was established. Naturally every scurvy version of humanity found his and her way to Deadwood in the wake of that
discovery as well as rather less scurvy individual. Deadwood (above) was illegal because it was an ad hoc settlement established in land the US government had signed over to the native Americans under the Treaty of Laramie. You can find out more here. And because it was ‘illegal’, it did not come under anyone’s jurisdiction and was literally beyond the law. Several people were murdered daily and were murdered with impunity. And it Milch’s TV series portrays life in that settlement in gory, shocking, disgusting detail.

According to my reading, Milch, who had made his name with the series Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blues (neither of which I’ve yet seen, but I shall look most certainly chase up after being so enthused by Deadwood) and then wanted to make a series about the gradual establishment of civilisation and the establishment of the rule of law. He had planned to set it in ancient Rome. HBO were interested in such a series, but as they already had a series about Rome in production, Milch was asked to think again and came up with the idea of charting the slow, painful crawl of a society towards civilisation and the rule of law in Deadwood.

But a bland description of his TV series as ‘a society’s crawl towards civilisation and the rule of law’, although essentially true, does not do Deadwood (the TV series) justice whatsoever. If anything, such a description might well turn a potential viewer off, but that would be a shame. Deadwood, the western, is unlike any western you are ever likely to have seen. It is about people, not stereotypes. The camp is filthy, the people are filthy, their morals are filthy. They don’t dress in the way Hollywood’s costume department for so long tried to persuade us ‘cowboys’ dressed, they wear the same clothes as folk dressed in further east, except that everything was filthy and ragged. Mud is everywhere. Death is everywhere.

Milch admits that the way many people use the foulest language in his TV version is not verbatim in that the obscenities and profanities in use 136 years ago were not those we are accustomed to hear today. But, he argues, using their language would sound so archaic as to detract from the dialogue and all he has tried to do is to update Victorian obscenity and profanity to what we - at least, what some of use (guilty, m’lud) use today. But I shan’t carry on. All I can do is to urge the scrupulous among you to buy yourself a DVD box set of all three series or, as I have done, seek it out online. I hope you will not be disappointed. In my experience it is unique.

A postcript: only three series of Deadwood were made and then, inexplicably, HBO pulled the plug. So far I have not been able to find out why. There was talk of two film-length episodes to ‘wrap up the story’, but negotiations came to nothing and there seems little prospect that they will now ever be made. If anyone knows quite why HBO pulled the plug - as far as I know viewing figures held up well and never flagged - I should be keen to find out, so get in touch.

For me not one single performance hit a wrong note and it would be unfair to single out any actor. But I shall be unfair and state that as the immoral, murderous, cynical, sarcastic saloon and whorehouse proprietor Al Swearengen Britain’s Ian McShane (above) is superb. And casting McShane, who I understand was initially reluctant to take the role and had to be persuaded to do so by his American agent, was casting of genius. That’s how and why I first came to consider the role of the casting agent: I’ll repeat that we never really realise how good these man and women do their job when they get it right. It’s only when an actor is utterly miscast (as, in my view Robert Redford was when he played Gatsby in The Great Gatsby) what they come to our attention. By the way, if you like Deadwood, take a look at Justified. It’s different, but it also stars Timothy Olyphant.

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