The Rules of Making 'Luck'

Keep David Milch off Michael Mann's set, Michael Mann out of David Milch's scripts, and HBO off Dustin Hoffman's back.

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The pilot episode of HBO's very expensive, very stylish horseracing drama Luck premieres on Sunday night. We're excited to watch it because it looks like terrific television, and because we're interested in how it made it to the premium cable network despite a nasty turf battle between creator David Milch and executive producer Michael Mann that broke out during the making of the pilot. Milch and Mann are both known for having healthy egos, and it probably didn't help that their star is none other than Dustin Hoffman, another Hollywood veteran not known for his humility.

Amazingly, the solution to the strife didn't involve any of them quitting. Rather, they just agreed to an elaborate series of rules spelling out their particular sphere of influence on the show. Somehow, it worked, to the extent that they managed to film the Luck season, though The New York Times observed during an interview with Milch and Mann that their "practiced mutual deference signaled a détente, if not personal warmth." No matter. The hard part is over, and Mann and Milch deserve credit for setting up a few informal rules that helped them get through it, as well as letting those on the outside know the experience was far from great.

Rule 1: David Milch isn't allowed on the set. Or in the editing bay. Or the mixing room.

Or, to use the somewhat more delicate phrasing of The New York Times, Milch "was invited by Mr. Mann to not be around for shooting." Mann explained his no-writer theory in an interview with the DGA Quarterly. "I'm extremely zealous about guarding [actors'] concentration—and mine—from any needless distraction that might interfere." Apparently, this includes the show's creator, lead writer, and all-around television icon Milch, though Mann now tells Fast Company that Milch gets to come into the editing room, but only after Mann's finished an episode.

Rule 2: The scripts are Milch's sole "domain" 

That's what he was given under a power-sharing arrangement put together after the two battled while filming the pilot. Milch has the last word on the show's scripts, but Mann, according to The Hollywood Reporter, controls everything "from casting to cutting to music," even on episodes where he's not the credited director. (This didn't stop Mann from suggesting to The Los Angeles Times that he might have beeen able to improve on Milch's scripts, which begin in media res, if he had the power to call for rewrites. Mann explains: "[T]o not have preludes, not have contexts, to just parachute into these lives... The challenge is, how do you evoke that in ways that the viewer doesn't need Dramamine after 20 minutes?"

Rule 3: Mann's highly-detailed instructions are to be obeyed

Like Martin Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire, Mann is only the credited director on the pilot episode. Even though big name directors like Phillip Noyce, Mimi Leder, and Terry George helm episodes throughout the season, they're operating from blueprints drawn up by Mann. The New York Times explains, while slipping in a nice bit of equine humor: "Mr. Mann’s hoof print is in every frame of Luck...The visual syntax of Luck was codified by him in a three-ring binder in which everything from shooting angles to lighting was dictated."

Rule 4: Keep it small and keep it loose

Along with Mann and Milch, Academy Award winning screenwriter Eric Roth is credited as an executive producer. Mann and Roth spitball ideas around with Milch before he starts writing a draft, but ultimately, he's the one who decides what to include. “There can only be one captain of a ship, and the writing must be David’s,” Mann told Fast Company, but with only three voices speaking, two of which are just there to kick around ideas with the person who is ultimately going write the script, nobody can accuse the production of having too many cooks in the kitchen.

If the show ends up working, the skeleton creative crew of Mann, Milch, and Roth will likely get much of the credit for keeping things sharp, though Dustin Hoffman is already praising management at HBO for leaving everyone to their own devices. "Here," Hoffman enthuses, "you're allowed to work the way a painter, or someone writing a novel, works. You go to work each day, and it starts to lead you to something. That's what they've allowed me to be a part of here."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.