There’s no question that tonight’s first episode of “Luck” on HBO is a tough one – a new series about life at the track with no specific explainer about what’s going on and who’s who. This is usually accomplished in film and TV narratives by having a newcomer introduced to the scene and having it all explained to him (and to viewers at the same time).
In “Luck,” everyone is already entrenched into the track’s unique world – gamblers with their own secondhand jargon, owners in their mutterings and demands, trainers in their own set of language.
Unlike just about every fiction out there, “Luck” immerses a viewer into the world and expects him to catch up.
“It’s an act of faith,” Milch, pictured left above, told reporters at the TV Critics winter press tour earlier this month. “I think your fundamental responsibility is to stay true to the deepest nature and intention of the materials.”
He was aided, though, by co-creator Michael Mann, pictured right above, director of such things as “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat” and “The Insider,” whose work “in creating an atmosphere which generated an entire second level continuously of dialogue [that] took a tremendous amount of the burden off of the demystifying of the world.”
In other words, Milch says: “I felt that the material was in good hands.”
But maybe it’s an act of faith, too, in creating a world where everything is not immediately known.
“I don’t understand everything that’s going on in my own business,” either, says Dustin Hoffman, marquee name for the series, playing a felon hoping to return to the track.
“You guys understand everything that’s going on in your life?” Nick Nolte shot back at reporters, in the same grizzled voice he uses in the series as a Kentucky horse owner.
There’s no doubt Milch knows of where he speaks, after years at the track, and being part owner of a horse for a time.
“There’s an autobiographical connection, you know, that becomes secondary pretty quick,” he says. To reflect this world he has come to know so well, he says, “you feel it’s a privilege, and it’s an enormous responsibility.”
Along those lines, Mann says, “there’s a tremendous responsibility in taking this narrative that’s very complex, which has multiple story tracks, filled with wonderful characters whose lives we just immerse into without prelude to context. And that challenge was very exciting to me, is the major reason I did it.
“And then moving that forward into flesh and blood, people and places, and having it come alive, you know, with the music and everything else when you’re when you’re making a film,” he adds.
“The characters and the place in the world that David created is so rich and has so many wonderful story tracks that are unpredictable and characters that are unusual and unique,” Mann says. “That’s the big draw.”
As far as his own work on “Luck,” he distinguishes the pilot, which he directed, from the eight episodes that follow.
On the pilot, Mann says, “I did the same as I do any other film I made. And then my role changes because then David and I are partners as executive producers, looking towards doing episodes two through nine. And we had to figure out a way for us to work together. We both wanted to work together. We both admire each other’s work, and we both thought it would be pretty stupid if we couldn’t figure that out.”
There was some word of friction on the set from the two creative giants. But Mann says, “it was apparent that there can only be one captain of a ship, and the writing must be David’s.”
Mann described many “long, very humorous sessions” between him, Milch and co-executive producer Eric Roth, who wrote the exciting season finale, and whose screenwriting credits include “Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the current “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”
“But ultimately, it has to be David’s decision about the words on the page. I’m talking about in our roles as executive producers. And then, you know, in terms of the casting and who the directors are and everything else in filming it and music and editing, you know, then that’s what I do.”
For Hoffman, whose TV credits have mostly been cameos and a filmed production of his performance in “Death of a Salesman,” he’s found a whole new level of work he can accomplish in series televivion.
“You cannot get a shot of doing your best work in the studio system,” he says. “You can’t. There’s committees. There’s meetings. They’re on the set. You don’t have to do that. They get involved in a kind of quasi- at least I think it is creative way, but they buck heads with people that they shouldn’t be bucking heads with. And with HBO, once they give a go, there is no committee. There are no meetings. These guys are allowed to try to do their best work, and they then give it to us.”
Even the pace of shooting was different than he thought it would be.
“I was expecting 20 pages a day,” Hoffman says. “I was expecting an atmosphere that I you know, that it was like making movies on cocaine or something, you know, on speed, and it’s the opposite.
“We did the best we could with as much time that we had, and we came back the next day. Michael hired all film directors — not to disparage TV directors but to me, there was no difference of making a movie,” he says. “Except he did it digitally and we had three cameras, which actors love because you don’t have to repeat in coverage. But we are given the shot to do our best work, and I’m very thankful for that.”
Hoffman also appreciated that the episodes are shot in sequence rather than what he’s come to expect in film.
“Movies are a bastard art form, okay?” he says. To make art, it’s not good to “start with Chapter 25 and then jump to the beginning and then jump to the end” in terms of shooting.
Besides, he adds, “a script is never what the movie turns out to be or vice versa. It’s either better or worse, but it’s a blueprint ultimately… you have the general feeling of it, but you don’t know … where it’s going.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had that opportunity. “
Plus, Hoffman says, there are options. “We could go there. We could go there. We could go there.” I’ve never had that experience before.”
Plus he likes the people. “You never know what the marriage is going to be like until you get married,” says the actor from “Kramer vs. Kramer.” “If you’re not laughing at the same stuff, if you’re not being moved by the same stuff, if the director, producer, whatever, they’re being satisfied before they should be satisfied, you want a divorce.”
Hoffman says he was lucky to work with “heavyweight talent” that is “not afraid of a suggestion.”
He knows how to figure that out. “I always test it. I say, ‘I have an idea,’ and if there’s this cloud that comes over the director’s face and all the blood drains from his face, I know he’s not a collaborator.”
Hoffman is more than a collaborator; he’s also listed as co-executive producer, earning him a place at the decision making table.
But he had an example of this kind of testing he got from another actor.
“I met Anthony Hopkins many, many years ago, and we were talking about, you know, what do you do when you’re not getting along with the director,” Hoffman began. “And he says, ‘Never raise your voice. Never have a fight. On a sound stage make sure or wherever you’re shooting, make sure you’re shooting on the ground floor. When it gets to that point, you say, “Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.” You’ve checked the bathroom out before. It has a window. You go in the bathroom. You lock the door. You climb out the window. You go home. You come back the next day. There’s no argument anymore.’”
“That’s true,” Nolte piped in, “because I did that a couple of times.”
He spoke of one example, doing a Steinbeck adaptation with director David Ward opposite Debra Winger.
“On ‘Cannery Row’ Debra kept convincing Ward that I wasn’t giving it all,” Nolte says. “And so David said, ‘We have to have dinner tonight.’ And David said, ‘You’re the most irresponsible actor I have ever worked with in my life. You just don’t give you’re just irresponsible.’ And Debra was watching me very closely, and I took the spaghetti and I smashed it in my face all over. And David didn’t know what to do with that. And then Debra used that later on in the movie. She smashed spaghetti all over her face.
“And then the second time she said I wasn’t doing the dance. So we went to a Chinese restaurant on Sunset, and I said, ‘Excuse me.’ I got my drink, and I said, ‘I got to go to the bathroom,’ and I climbed out the window.”
This reminded Hoffman of a “great story about Sid Caesar “He was doing live TV, and he was trying to do his best work. And they would say every single day it was getting really nuts, and he was getting really nuts. And the producer took him out to lunch.
“Sid Ceasar says, ‘What am I here for?’ He says, you know, ‘Because you’ve been acting crazy.’ And Sid Ceasar says, ‘They think I’ve been acting crazy. There was a guy walking by with a huge thing of spaghetti. And he picked it up off the waiter’s thing. He dumped it on his own head. He then got up, went to the bar and cleared it of everything that was on it, turned over every fucking thing in the restaurant, came back, sat down, looked at the menu very quietly and said, ‘That’s crazy.’”
Clearly, Hoffman and Nolte enjoy working together, though they don’t share any scenes for the entire first season of “Luck.” They weat the thing to go on.
“I asked David if we could get five years,” Nolte says. “He said, ‘Why not ten?’ And the very last day he said, ‘Do you want to do another one?’”
“He asked with a kind of wistful yearning,” Milch says. “I try not to know in specific but to know generally where the characters are going. And the reason for that is that you want to be alive to the possibilities. In the same way that Michael finds moment to moment in the execution of the piece, you want to stay alive to that so that in we know where we’re going more or less. But I couldn’t tell you chapter and verse where that’s going to be.”
“David, myself and Eric Roth have these sessions that last for couple two, three hours, kick story around, inevitably then David takes it off in whatever direction in basically the direction he determines,” Mann says. “Some day, we’re going to publish the transcripts of these meetings because some of the funniest dialogue that’s been had on this show has probably been amongst the three of us.”