Long known as a mad scientist of the TV drama, David Milch found out pretty quickly there was a limit to what he could get away with on the set of HBO's new series Luck - mostly because of his creative partner, fellow executive producer and director of the show's pilot episode, Michael Mann.
Mann, author of lush, gritty visuals in films such as Manhunter and the TV series Miami Vice, also has a reputation for controlling his sets.
That's something Milch, an ace writer used to sticking his finger in every part of the production process on NYPD Blue and HBO's Western Deadwood, learned to respect the hard way.
"I remember walking over to (actor Richard Kind) and remarking to him that I thought he had done very well . . . an innocuous exchange," said Milch, who created the ambitious series about a collection of middle-aged guys connected to a California racetrack.
"Michael was on me like white on rice," the writer added laughing. "From Michael's perspective, he is creating an atmosphere on the set. And he doesn't want to be distracted by having to take into account how a conversation might have affected an actor."
That's also the creative tension that powers Luck, a partnership featuring Milch overseeing the writing duties and Mann handling the visuals.
Friends and felons
The project is a star-studded affair, with Dustin Hoffman, 74, in his first major TV role in years as Chester "Ace" Bernstein, a wealthy mobster just out of jail, with a scheme for expanding gambling at the racetrack where he's set up his driver as owner of a prize horse. Bernstein, a felon, can't own the animal himself.
Turns out, Ace did three years to save his son, endangered by the activities of a former friend. In another corner of the track, a quartet of hard-luck, low-smarts gamblers stumble on a scheme setting them up to win millions through a smartly placed bet.
And Nick Nolte is on hand with another affecting performance as a broken man, grizzled horse owner Walter Smith.
How did Milch, 66, and Mann, 68, land names like Hoffman and Nolte? "Someone asked Nick that question, and he said '70,' which I thought was a pretty good answer," said Milch, noting that, at that age, great parts are tougher to come by.
Luck is a series acutely aware of its own fine pedigree, rendered with the kind of unflinching realism and detail usually reserved for major motion pictures.
Despite the presence of a few women - including a surprising appearance by Joan Allen - Luck is mainly a men's club.
Mann renders every line on their faces, every drop of sweat and furrowed brow, with poetic detail. This is the story of aging men rendered by men living it now - "men asking themselves what the hell happened?" Milch joked - told through the prism of friendship and chasing luck in a place where everyone has their own desperate hustle.
"The idea of 'who is your friend' is kind of an endlessly recurring question," said Milch, who also made the curious rhythms of male friendship in NYPD Blue and Deadwood. "Finally, you wind up believing that your only real friend is luck. For me, the deepest irony is that friendship is luck; just to be in the state of friendship is lucky."
In another Milch trademark, the characters talk in a patois stuck somewhere between a New York side street and the racetrack. The dialogue flows like a David Mamet play, burying each character's intention in a rush of wisecracks and off-kilter phrases, sometimes requiring special attention to decipher.
"For a lot of subgroups, people develop a language which is exclusionary," said the writer, sounding a lot like the Yale lecturer he was back in the '70s. "It isn't enough that they understand each other, it's just as important that other people not understand them ... That's kind of the way the whole racetrack experience is ... It's all cloaked in mystery."
It's all based on stuff Milch has learned since the age of 5, when his father began taking him to the racetrack, and his later life as a onetime compulsive gambler.
"I think it's the greatest game in the world; by far the most interesting and complicated to understand," he said. "You've been in love, right? It's not a day at the beach."
Milch has his own up and down history with the TV business, from success on NYPD Blue and Deadwood, to the failed existential HBO drama John From Cincinnati. (And no, devoted fans, he doesn't think a Deadwood movie is possible after another effort fell apart three months ago.)
Called a "force of nature" by the New Yorker, which noted his onetime heroin addiction and withdrawal from Yale Law School after tangling with police, Milch is an eccentric talent. On Blue, he became infamous for not writing scripts, coming onto a set and telling the actors what to say and do just before filming.
But there was none of that on Luck, thanks to Mann's demanding influence.
"He is a very decisive figure and very much kind of an athlete in the way that he goes about his business," said Milch. "We wound up, I think, working together very effectively. But it was not an uneventful journey."
With Milch, could it happen any other way?
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/media.
* * *
Luck debuts at 9 tonight on HBO. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences).