Interview: ‘Luck’ creator David Milch on the series’ premature end

Though there are a few moments in tonight’s “Luck” suggesting creator David Milch had a premonition that the series would be abruptly canceled due to the third horse death during production, Milch told me in an interview on Friday that he never had it in his mind that this would be a series finale. (You can read my finale review here.) In fact, if the ultimate decision-making power on this fell in Milch’s hands, the show would have continued, though he says he understands and supports what HBO chose to do.

Instead, it became the third Milch series that HBO has canceled before he was finished telling his story, following “Deadwood” (and he had some illuminating things to say on that subject) and “John From Cincinnati.” Because my old partner Matt Zoller Seitz did such a thorough job interviewing Milch and Michael Mann about what exactly happened to the horse, the safety precautions the show took, and about allegations that the horses were mistreated, I didn’t go over that ground again. I highly recommend reading Matt’s interview before this one. And if you want to know even more details of the approach team “Luck” took to horse safety, I’ve been given a copy of the show’s official safety protocols, plus this note from Milch and Mann: 

Here are LUCK”s protocols and safety procedures. They were stricter than anywhere in the equine world and were in place during the production of LUCK”s 2,500 horse/runs at Santa Anita. This is in response to the distortions and fabrications stated by PETA about the care of horses on the LUCK production and on behalf of the horse trainers, wranglers, exercise riders, veterinarians and grooms who – with concern and caring – looked after those horses

Michael Mann + David Milch

You can download the safety protocols document here.

In the 15+ years I’ve been interviewing Milch, I’ve never heard him as emotional as he sounded on Friday. I’m not sure it quite comes across in text, but the best way I can put it is this: like the college professor he used to be, Milch is generally expansive with his commentary, sometimes to a fault, where here he kept his answers brief because it wasn’t an easy subject to discuss. This project is something he’s been hoping to make for a very long time, a marriage of his vocation and his avocation, and not only did it disappear out from under him in a snap, but he’s now being accused of mistreating horses, when he’s had a deep love for horses going back to when he was a little boy. There was a lot of pain and sadness – but not, I should say, anger, as he understands why this happened – in his voice as we spoke about the decision to halt production permanently, the differences between this and the “Deadwood” finale (including a fact about that episode that I never knew before), what might have come later, and a whole lot more, all coming up just as soon as I’m an airport profiler…

What were the conversations like that day, between the time when production was suspended and when the decision was made, “Alright, we can’t go forward anymore”?

Angry incredulity.

Who was it who ultimately made that call? Was it you and Michael? Was it HBO?

It was HBO, definitively. There was back and forth about it, but their feeling was so clearly that the situation was untenable, that there was really no protracted dispute. We were presented with an accomplished fact. And I don’t say that with any resentment. They made the decision they felt they had to make.

But had it been up to you, would that have been the decision?

No, I guess I would have continued. In no way was there any irresponsibility or failure of care in the treatment of those horses. I satisfied myself with that repeatedly. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the details of how this horse died –

I read the interview you and Michael did with Matt Seitz, so I know a little.

This was an incident equivalent to you walking down the street, being frightened by something, taking a misstep and falling. The horse was not being asked to do anything remotely dangerous or that would put him in jeopardy. In any case, this was something that generated its own momentum and fed off itself. Corporately, I absolutely understand what HBO felt were the necessities of its position. But substantively, there was no dereliction at all on our part.

One of the questions I’ve heard asked in the wake of the cancellation was whether you could have continued the show without filming new racing scenes, whether using CGI horses or some kind of stock footage.

That was a possibility that was examined. The horses are of the essence of the piece. We really weren’t doing anything – you need the horses around. It’s like asking an actor to act in company with a cartoon. Long-term, it would’ve been an erosion of the credibility of the material.

Given your passion for this world and how long it took you to get this on the air, how does it feel to have it go away this quickly?

It’s a sick feeling. You realize, what Swearengen used to say, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” We’re creatures of forces so other than and more powerful than we are, that it’s an illustion to believe anything else, and it’s an occasion for gratitude wen you’re able to sustain your endeavor and fate and experience accommodates it. I say that with no bitterness at all towards HBO. As I say, I think they were in an untenable position.

How do you mean? Just the bad publicity?

Yeah. Anytime something happened, as it would inevitably have happened, they were going to get lambasted again. Corporately, they just can’t withstand that.

I watched the finale again yesterday, and there are a number of moments and lines that feel prophetic – like Marcus saying, “Today’s the day they take it all away from us,” or Ace’s speech at the end – like they were designed to be in a series finale. And that’s always how I’ve viewed the last “Deadwood” episode; like it was a series finale without being intended as one. Were you ever thinking as you wrote this that there would be a chance you wouldn’t get to do more?

No, there was no sense of that on my part. By way of contrast, I absolutely knew when I was writing the last “Deadwood” that it would be the last, and I wrote it intending it as the finale.

Interesting. I had never heard that before.

That’s the case. I was trying – the last images of Swearengen scrubbing the bloodstain and saying “Wants me to tell him something pretty,” that was as close as I felt I could come to a concluding speech.

So you knew even at that point in production that HBO was not going to go forward?

Yes, I did know that. How did the episode hold up for you?

The “Luck” finale? Very well.

Yeah. (pause) We would have found our stride. I don’t think that we had conclusively, but the materials were moving in that direction. It was too bad. It was too bad.

What do you think were some of the things that needed to be improved? Or what were the parts of the show where you felt you were close to that direction?

The extent to which the character of Bernstein was living in self-deception was in the process of being revealed. As he encountered that fact and lived into the necessities of his situation, I think he was going to become a more transitive character. And that was very much in the process of being realized. But I try not to think about it too much. (laughs)

(Note: When I interviewed Milch and Mann at press tour in January, I asked Milch whether Ace and Walter never sharing any scenes together in the first season was by design, or if – like much of his work – things just turned out that way.

He responded, “It wasn”t planned, but these are characters who have not discovered themselves as yet such as to make their intersection fruitful.  They come together right at the beginning of the second season and it is every bit as provisional and tentative a coming together as you would expect, but these are both you know.  You know Dickens used the expression “mind- forged manacles.”  These are isolates of one kind and another and they have a civil exchange with each other, but to expect more from them would be unrealistic.  They have to find more of themselves first.” Which leads us to this… ) 

At the end of the interview in January, you and I spoke about how Ace and Walter would come together at the start of the second season. Looking back, Ace’s story is largely separate from everyone else’s. Was that something that you realized as you were going on that maybe he was too far apart from the rest of the world?

Yes. I agree with that. It assumed a little bit too much of the viewer, I think.

Since we’re not going to see it play out, what exactly was Ace’s plan in regards to Mike? The best explanation I’ve seen was from one of my commenters, who suggests that Ace wants Mike to steal the casino deal out from under him, and that Mike will go to prison as a result because it’s crooked. Is that it?

Yeah, that’s pretty close. When you compress it, invariably you distort it. You obviously have to do what you think is appropriate, but my own preference is not to linger too much on the would have beens of this show.

Okay, then let’s look back on what was instead. In these nine episodes that you were able to make, what do you feel were the strengths of it? What are some scenes you would point to as the show you had in your head all these years?

That’s a good question. Everything that demonstrates the human capacity for perseverance and self-deception simultaneously. Those are the scenes that I like. I recall with affection so many of the scenes with the degenerates and that connection. And I enjoyed very much writing the scenes between Gus and Bernstein. In some ways, I felt that those two sets of relationships mirrored each other.

Watching the show, it really did feel like your heart was particularly in the scenes with the four degenerates.

That’s right. If I were to point to a favorite scene, I guess it would be the Niagara Falls scene, where they were doing the exegesis of Niagara Fall as opposed to Niagara Falls, and what the might possibly mean.

Now that this is done, are you moving full-force onto the William Faulkner project?

Yes. We were just working on the concluding section of “Light in August” when you called. I had the privilege of working on that with my daughter, Olivia. So it’s a compounded pleasure. I’m hopeful that HBO will be receptive. I have no reason to think they won’t be.

This is the third time now you’ve done a show for them and the third time it’s ended before you were intending it to end. Are you still okay with the relationship?

Absolutely. Each set of circumstances was unique. You’ll have to ask them whether they are (laughs), but to this point, they have been as supportive a partner as one could want or imagine. It’s my experience that it isn’t a useful exercise to try and figure out the other fellow’s state of mind. I’m going to keep carrying the water, and we’ll hope that the exercise is well-received.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at