More Than Luck: David Milch and Michael Mann On Their HBO Collaboration

Powerhouse producers David Milch and Michael Mann ensured a smooth production by staking out clear territories in HBO’s new horse-racing drama, Luck. But that didn’t mean they weren’t open to a little give and take with each other.

More Than Luck: David Milch and Michael Mann On Their HBO Collaboration

It could have been a recipe for disaster: two powerhouse executive producers corralling two formidable lead actors.


But mutual admiration helped Luck’s two executive producers, David Milch and Michael Mann, map out clear delineations of responsibility to ensure a smooth production–a concern considering the show’s equally demanding leads: Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.

Luck, which premieres January 29, chronicles the interweaving stories of clusters of dubious characters against the rich, aromatic backdrop of horse racing. The show, which is filmed at the Santa Anita Racetrack, includes a strong cast of journeyman actors, complex stories, the industry’s colorful vernacular, and subtle moments that capture its excitement and pathos. The series doesn’t pander to audiences with explanations of that world, but expects viewers to jump in and discover its nuances for themselves.

“There can only be one captain of a ship, and the writing must be David’s,” said veteran film director Mann (Public Enemies, Collateral, The Last of the Mohicans , as well as the Luck pilot) at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, CA. “David, myself, and [co-EP] Eric Roth all confer on the writing, but ultimately it has to be David’s decision about the words on the page. I’m talking about our roles as executive producers. In terms of the casting, who the directors are, everything else in filming it, and music and editing, that’s what I do.”

“Your fundamental responsibility is to stay true to the deepest nature and intention of the materials,” said Milch. “That’s what we did. Michael’s work in creating an atmosphere which generated an entire level continuously of dialogue took a tremendous amount of the burden off of the demystifying of the world.”

The process is also fueled by a mutual trust in creative sensibilities. ”When I’m done with a cut, before I show it to HBO, I bring David into the editing room, and he and I sit down and kick it around,” Mann later told Fast Company. “Then if I have dialogue changes, I’ll tell David and he’ll make some of them; he won’t make others. But it’s usually for a good reason.“

For Milch, known for sometimes delivering scenes to NYPD Blue and Deadwood actors shortly before cameras rolled, the Luck production process stood apart for its ample writing time. “We make sure that David has time to complete his script before we go into production,” Mann added. “If you just look around at the cast and directors I’ve hired, obviously these are not last-minute folks. It’s just something we worked out, as the best way to go. You couldn’t design a better process for shooting than we have on this show. It’s really been one of the best experiences.”


Hoffman credited HBO’s hands-off policy in the production for enabling Milch and Mann to do their best work, which trickled down to the actors. “I was expecting 20 pages a day,” said Hoffman. “I was expecting an atmosphere that was like making movies on speed, and it’s the opposite. There was no difference [between shooting Luck and] making a movie. Except he did it digitally, with three cameras, which actors love, because you don’t have to repeat in coverage. But we were given the shot to do our best work.”

Added Mann: “When people have healthy egos and are good at what they do, you always find a way to get along, because there’s no insecurity in the process.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.