Getting a new TV series to hit with audiences can be a horse race, but with a team like director Michael Mann ("Heat," "Boardwalk Empire"), creator David Milch ("NYPD Blue," "Deadwood") and stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, the odds are definitely stacked in the favor of HBO’s “Luck.”
The series – which follows the otherwise unlikely intersection of the lives in the world of professional horse racing, particularly as they revolve around recently released inmate and inveterate gambler Ace Bernstein (Hoffman), who becomes a horse owner as a front for his crime boss – springs from veteran TV producer Milch’s longtime involvement with betting the ponies. But he admits his personal knowledge of that world only informs the stories he’s telling, and doesn’t provide the basis.
“To the extent that there's an autobiographical connection, you know, that becomes secondary pretty quick,” says Milch. “You're there, one hopes, as an artist and trying to execute the materials in that connection.” Milch says that by teaming with another auteur-minded creation in Mann – who created “Miami Vice” and helmed classic crime films such as “Thief,” “Heat” and “Collateral” – their unique visions would result in a intensely compelling environment for viewer to be quickly immersed in. “It's an act of faith. And I think your fundamental responsibility is to stay true to the deepest nature and intention of the materials. And that's what we did, and I have to say that Michael's work in creating an atmosphere which generated an entire second level continuously of dialogue took a tremendous amount of the burden off of the demystifying of the world.”
Mann says that Milch’s long association with horse racing and his prodigious skill as a storyteller makes it easy to access the horseracing world. “One of the big complexities ‑‑ because like Dustin, I know nothing about gambling and David knows everything about this world ‑‑ was how to communicate to a mass audience what, for example, the ‘pick six’ is,” says Mann. “If they could understand the one thing that a man’s made a one‑out‑six selection, one horse, and they just had that concept that that No. 5 horse was going to be good news for them. So we went into a simple graphic comprehension. To this day, I don't think I know how to bet a pick six.”
After a long and storied career filled with Academy Award nominated film performances, Hoffman says the decision to commit to a television series on a pay cable network was easier than one might expect, for a simple reason. “It's very hard to do your best work but you want a shot at it,” says the actor. “And you cannot get a shot of doing your best work within the studio system. You can't. There's committees; there's meetings; they're on the set – You don't have to do that. They get involved in a kind of quasi- ‑‑ at least I think it is ‑‑ creative way, but they buck heads with people that they shouldn't be bucking heads with. And with HBO, once they give a go, there is no committee. There are no meetings. These guys are allowed to try to do their best work, and they then give it to us.”
“I was expecting 20 pages a day,” Hoffman adds. “I was expecting an atmosphere that it was like making movies on cocaine or something – you know, on speed, and it's the opposite. We did the best we could with as much time that we had, and we came back the next day. Michael hired all film directors ‑‑ not to disparage TV directors ‑‑ but to me, there was no difference of making a movie. Except he did it digitally and we had three cameras, which actors love because you don't have to repeat in coverage. But we are given the shot to do our best work, and I'm very thankful for that.”
Central to the success of the show is whether the creative luck that characterized it’s origins will hold. Many of the players – Milch, Mann, Hoffman and Nolte among them – certainly have reputations for not always playing nice with their colleagues (“A prick,” laughs Hoffman, brushing aside diplomacy). But Mann says that while he and Milch in particular are used to being the ultimate chiefs of their own creative tribes, the desire to work together helped them emerge as true collaborators
“We had to figure out a way for us to work together,” says Mann. “We both wanted to work together. We both admire each other's work, and we both thought it would be pretty stupid if we couldn't figure that out. And I suppose it was apparent that there can only be one captain of a ship, and the writing must be David's. David and myself, Eric Roth, we all confer on the writing and have long, very humorous sessions. But ultimately, it has to be David's decision about the words on the page. I'm talking about in our roles as executive producers. And then, in terms of the casting and who the directors are and everything else in filming it and music and editing, then that's what I do.”
“We were all praying they'd get along,” chuckles Nolte. And so far, they’ve stayed ahead of any conflicts by a nose.
"Luck" premieres Sunday, January 29th at 9 PM ET on HBO