Life behind the lens
Legendary screenwriter’s intense, thought-provoking memoir details early years and struggle with Alzheimer’s
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If you ever watched the hit TV shows NYPD Blue or Deadwood, the name David Milch might be familiar. Not only did he serve as the creator, writer, and executive producer of those series, but they garnered him numerous Emmys. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015, Milch has nonetheless penned an intense, thought-provoking memoir about his screenwriting career. At the same time, the story sheds light on his dark side — the extent to which his life was often a two-edged sword.
Born in 1945, Milch grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Though his father was a highly respected surgeon and professor, he drank excessively and was addicted to Demerol as well as racetrack gambling. Furthermore, he befriended mobsters who took him to remove bullets and perform surgeries on their cronies. He also belittled his son, something that haunted Milch for years.
Milch’s dad first took him to the races when he was five. Years later, his father would send a car to pick him up at sleepover camp so they could attend the track together, after which Milch was driven back to camp, which he disliked. During the seven summers he spent at camp, he often encountered sexual predators.
These formative experiences made Milch feel like he never fit in anywhere. At eight, he started drinking at home; by high school, he was already using heroin.
The summer after high school graduation, Milch’s best friend was killed in a car accident while driving drunk. While attending Yale, Milch wrote a narrative about his grief, much of it in dialogue and the subject matter informed his final thesis. Impressed by the calibre of the writing, his professor showed the work to Robert Penn Warren, then the head of Yale’s English department. Thereafter, Warren mentored Milch and served as a father figure to him.
After graduating from Yale summa cum laude, Milch then entered law school at his father’s bidding, but was expelled for drunk and disorderly behaviour. Even so, he made several more left turns for the next few years until he finally finished his MFA and got hired to teach writing and do research at Yale.
Eventually, he got his first break as a screenwriter when Steven Bochco, the creator of Hill Street Blues, took a chance on Milch because of a Hollywood writers’ strike. Milch then discovered his calling as a screenwriter.
Written chronologically in 11 chapters, the narrative is candid, irreverent and uninhibited (including occasional f-bombs). Several chapters delineate the scriptwriting techniques Milch learned and later taught his students, giving examples from scenes he wrote.
One of the most fascinating chapters recounts his six-month stint of research in preparation for the HBO series Deadwood — its history, language and social structure. Also noteworthy is his ongoing discussion of other aspects of screenwriting, including the importance of collaboration and the impact of financial considerations on decision-making.
In short, what shines through in this memoir is Milch’s brutal honesty about his personal shortcomings coupled with his ardent passion for storytelling and its redemptive qualities. It’s a memoir that will appeal to readers interested in screenwriting and pop culture.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.
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