A visit to the dingy Western set of “Deadwood” makes you wonder, “What century is this, anyway?”
At least until director Ed Bianchi yells “Cut!” and the scruffy miners put on sunglasses and haul out cell phones to check their messages.
For creator David Milch, “Deadwood” is not a TV show; it’s living history.
“This is where the Chinese prostitutes were kept,” he says, pointing to small bamboo cages along the Chinese Alley section of the set, one of the largest ever built for a TV series. “They were kept in these ‘cribs,’ dressed in burlap sacks, and literally sexed to death.”
Disturbing stuff, yet just some of the many gritty details depicted with unvarnished realism on “Deadwood,” the HBO series about life in a Black Hills mining town that begins its second season Sunday night.
“`Deadwood’ is really about individuals coming here and finding their own way to live, wherever they came from,” says Ian McShane, who portrays foul-mouthed saloon keep and town boss Al Swearengen.
That story is told, says Milch, “by bringing alive the process of evolution of a society” – and, most importantly, by making the characters and their surroundings authentic.
“It’s precious to me to get the world right,” he says. “The realities of a time are not an inconvenience but the door into its reality.”
The world of “Deadwood” is filled with the history of South Dakota’s Deadwood in 1876, which Milch and his production team researched over a two-year period.
More than half the characters on the show are historical figures, including Swearengen, though “they’re sometimes drawn in bold colors,” says Robin Weigert, who plays the rough-and-tumble – and equally foul-mouthed – Calamity Jane.
Some of the actors have done their own research into their roles.
John Hawkes, who plays the Jewish character Sol Star, points to a “Deadwood library” of books in his dressing room with titles like “Pioneer Jews.”
“The Jewish experience is typically viewed through New York,” he says. “Being someone whose people had been chased throughout history, (Milch) and I agreed that Sol would have been someone who would have wanted to pass, to try to assimilate, to fit in.”
Molly Parker’s Alma Garrett, a transplant from the civilized East, represents the rare upper class in this dusty world.
“I researched the Victorian New York life she would have lived before coming to Deadwood,” the actress explains.
This includes her on-screen addiction to the opiate laudanum. “Women like her were expected to be quiet and ornamental, which is why many women of her class became laudanum addicts,” she says.
The language of “Deadwood” is decidedly mixed. While some talk like rough-hewn prospectors, others reflect East Coast roots.
Hawkes likens it to “Shakespeare of the Old West” – a pioneer-meets-patrician dialect that can be difficult to deliver.
“I sometimes have to translate it first to understand exactly what I’m saying,” Parker says, laughing.
About the series’ profanity, Milch says: “This is the type of world you are in. Don’t expect any law.”
Perhaps the most astonishing realism is delivered by the army of extras who often populate the main street.
“We have a core group of about 150 guys and 30 to 40 women,” says assistant director Kenny Roth, who’s responsible for making sure each muddy prospector is performing a bit of “business” that will add to the street scene’s realism.
“They basically have us do ‘Deadwood 101’ – just stand in front of your shop and sell something,” says Richard McMullen, who plays the gun shop owner.
“I love those days where the whole street’s working,” says Timothy Olyphant, who plays Seth Bullock. “I find I’m really taking them in, and it really helps us to connect into the environment and make it real.”
Dressing such a legion is the job of Le Dawson, the show’s wardrobe supervisor, who keeps about 360 costumes in a constant state of distress.
“These aren’t people who had money to go to a tailor and say, ‘Hey, I’m missing a button. Please fix it,’ ” says Dawson.
The outfits were heavily researched by costume designer Katherine Jane Bryant, who gathered ideas from around the country.
“So many people that came from everywhere ended up in Deadwood,” she says.
The “Deadwood” set is located on the site of Gene Autry’s old Melody Ranch, where his “singing cowboy” films were shot, and the new town utilized many of the existing structures.
“(Milch) told me he wanted the town of Deadwood to be a character,” says production designer Maria Caso.
The set is literally loaded with thousands of authentic props, and Caso’s staff is constantly buying antiques.
“We can never have enough set dressing – the street just eats it up,” she says.
The realism created for “Deadwood” appears to be working – at least for Parker.
“I sometimes arrive at 4 in the morning for makeup and walk down (the main street) in the dark. … It’s totally magical,” she says.
“Who knows what it would have felt like to be there? But you can at least imagine for a moment what it might have been like. Hard.”
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