On Luck:
A Screenwriter’s Education

An Essay

by Bill Barich

On December 26, 2008—St. Stephen’s Day in Dublin, a celebratory occasion—in the midst of a festive meal, I received the sort of phone call—life enhancing, potentially debt reducing—most writers dream about. On the line was David Milch, the acclaimed creator of Deadwood, inviting me to L.A. to collaborate on a series about horse racing he hoped to develop for HBO. The call came as a surprise. Milch had hired me to write the pilot script for such a show three years earlier, but it languished in limbo, and I’d given up on the project.

That was a mistake, I learned. David trusts to instinct and impulse, only acting when the spirit moves him. In an industry that thrives on conformity, he’s an original. He has a genuine literary pedigree, having studied with Robert Penn Warren at Yale and taught there for a dozen years, and he also holds an MA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he operated an LSD lab on the side that eventually forced him to swap Iowa City for Cuernavaca to stay one step ahead of the law. His character, it might be said, is built on such polarities.

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