Rebuilding ‘Deadwood,’ Plank by Plank

SANTA CLARITA, CALIF. — “Deadwood” is back for one final hello and goodbye.

Last November, more than a decade after David Milch’s award-winning HBO series unexpectedly and maddeningly folded, Timothy Olyphant, as Seth Bullock, was once again in the center of the town’s perpetually muddy main drag, having words — heated, profane, Shakespearean ones — with Gerald McRaney, the show’s villainous George Hearst. From the balcony of the Gem casino, Ian McShane (Al Swearengen) glowered; offstage, Robin Weigert, the show’s foul-mouthed, tenderhearted Calamity Jane, waited in the wings.

Against all odds, the producers were able to reunite nearly all of the show’s principal cast for “Deadwood: The Movie,” the show’s much-delayed, much-anticipated finale. “I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” Olyphant admitted later.

But if reassembling the show’s enormous ensemble cast 13 years on was a herculean task, reassembling the town of Deadwood itself was no less knotty, or crucial. The series is named “Deadwood” after all — the locale is just as important as any single cast member, the story of its 19th-century gentrification intertwined with the rising and falling fortunes of its inhabitants. So the filmmakers needed to get the place right.

The good news: They got to return to one of the most memorable and beloved towns in the history of television. Although “Deadwood” ran for only three seasons, it was nominated for 28 Emmys, winning eight, and is now considered one of the greatest dramas in TV history (earlier this year, The Times declared it one of the “20 best TV dramas since ‘The Sopranos’”).

The bad news: They had to recreate much of it without blueprints, within four months, and on sets that had been taken over and rendered unrecognizable by other films and shows (“Django Unchained,” HBO’s “Westworld”).

“We were still building things, even while we were shooting,” the producer Gregg Fienberg said.

“Deadwood: The Movie,” which debuts on May 31, is set in 1889, 10 years after the series left off, when civilization is coming to the town in the form of streetlights, fancy eateries and phone service (O.K., one phone).

So the primary challenge was to create a slightly modernized Old West, with updated streets and new buildings to reflect a decade’s worth of progress while preserving the look and feel of the original Deadwood for its purist fans.

As with the original series, the film was shot on the Melody Ranch, a 22-acre film studio that has played host to Hollywood cowboys like Gene Autry (a former owner), Gary Cooper (who filmed “High Noon” here) and John Wayne (“Stagecoach”).

When the producers and designers finally returned to the site last year, they discovered that most of the original buildings were still here — even many of the original props, including the Bella Union’s craps tables and roulette wheel. Bullock’s house, however, had to be rebuilt from scratch (it had been torn down by the “Westworld” crew), as did the interior of the updated, now-classier Gem (“No sleeping on the tables,” one sign reads).

But when the designers went to consult the show’s original blueprints, they were nowhere to be found. “The show was canceled so abruptly and everybody was so traumatized that nobody bothered to save them,” said Maria Caso, the production designer on the series and the film.

Desperate, the designers painstakingly reviewed old episodes, often frame by frame, and tried to call back distant architectural memories. “We watched the show over and over to try to remember what we had built,” she said.

Much of the reference material for the series and the film was provided by the curators and researchers at Deadwood History Inc., the umbrella organization for Deadwood’s four museums. Over the years, Caso consulted them about everything including the price for a small glass of whiskey in 19th-century Deadwood (a nickel) and what Chinatown looked like.

“We actually had to hire a part-time researcher, Jerry Bryant, because the questions were so constant,” said Mary Kopco, Deadwood History’s executive director during the series’s run. “He ended up writing a whole book on Al Swearengen based on all the questions we were being asked.”

The extra effort seemed particularly necessary with a show like “Deadwood,” Caso noted. “The audience, they check on everything,” she said. “So we did a lot of research before we started drawing or building. We really wanted to recreate as many of the details as we could, just so it’s true to history, and to honor that.”

Of course, this being Hollywood, there is a certain level of artifice. Those gorgeous mountains and ponderosa pines are all added later by the visual effects department; the 40-foot logs brought in for Hearst’s telephone poles are fake, because of continuing troubles with bark beetles, which have been killing California trees by the tens of millions.

As for all that mud and mountainous terrain in flat, drought-prone Southern California, “we brought in tons and tons of dirt, 50 or so trucks full, and constantly sprayed it down with water,” Fienberg said.

And no, Kopco said, unprompted, none of the residents of Deadwood were feeding corpses to the town’s hogs.

During a break in filming, Caso walked down Deadwood’s main street, surveying her team’s handiwork and pointing out landmarks. She noted the patchwork brick and stone facade of the Bullock and Star Hotel, which grew out of the hardware store the two men founded in the original series. (In real life, the hardware store partners eventually had a falling out; the hotel was named the Bullock Hotel.)

“Bullock and Star started to make this grand hotel with this beautiful stone, but then they ran out of money so then they started using a different stone, and then finally they switched to brick,” Caso said of the historical men. “So we copied that.”

In Deadwood’s Chinatown, Caso revealed a 150-year-old “opium bed” they purchased for the show. Returning to the main street, she pointed out the town’s butcher shop, its roof cluttered with piles of antlers. “They would butcher the deer and then throw the horns on top,” she said of the butchers in Deadwood.

The town’s fanciest restaurant, the Oyster Bay, offered bivalves of questionable freshness. “It took two weeks for the oysters to get from Providence to Deadwood,” she said.

Caso then headed inside the Bella Union, the saloon formerly owned by Cy Tolliver (played in the series by Powers Boothe, who died in 2017). Unlike on most Hollywood shoots, where the exteriors are in one location and the interiors are built inside a studio soundstage miles or even states away, there are no false fronts in Deadwood. Walk off the street into any hotel or cat house in Deadwood — other than Swearengen’s expansive, two-story Gem — and you’re inside that hotel or cat house.

“It grounded the show and gave it a sense of realism that’s difficult to get when you’re always cutting from exterior to interior,” she said.

For the cast, re-entering the Deadwood set felt like stepping back in time — to 1889, and 2006. “When we first started filming, I told a cameraman, ‘That door should be closed!,’” McShane said. “It was like going back to exactly what I would have said 13 years ago, letting them know that Swearengen closed every door behind him because he didn’t want any surprises.”

On the second to the last night of shooting, cast and crew were saying their goodbyes, their faces illuminated by torchlight. Many remarked how emotional and bittersweet it was to be back in Deadwood; others, family members in tow, took one last long look at the town’s main street. Few probably knew how much work had gone into researching the wallpaper, say, or making sure each period sign was accurate.

“All I can tell you is that it’s a joy to be around,” Olyphant said. “It makes you feel like you’re a part of something really special because everything around you is so special. I can only assume it raises your game.”

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