During a break in production, actor Austin Nichols tells the crew about his previous night’s carousing in nearby San Diego.
Veteran producer David Milch shakes his head and tells his young star, “It isn’t easy, Austin. If it was, everybody would be a degenerate.”
Milch has had his fill of degenerates. His previous series, the HBO hit Western “Deadwood,” was loaded with ’em — to viewers’ delight — and his latest project for the network, “John From Cincinnati,” is equally full of noxious characters. Some are humorous, some bite first, and some are innocent. All get a shot at redemption.
Debuting on Sunday (10 p.m. ET), “John” also stars Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Van Holt, Luke Perry, Ed O’Neill, Grayson Fletcher and a gaggle of “Deadwood” company players.
The series centers around the Yosts, a dysfunctional, Imperial Beach surfing family who are joined by an unusual character, the squeaky clean John (Nichols), who sticks out like a sore thumb in this family of sore thumbs.
John doesn’t know who he is, where he came from, or why he’s there, but wherever he goes, those around him begin to experience miraculous changes in their lives.
‘There are tremendous similarities’For those only familiar with “Deadwood,” “John” might seem like an unusual next step for creator Milch.
“As if a Western would be a natural for someone with my background,” the former Yale professor and “NYPD Blue” producer tells The Associated Press. “But if you look at the Gem Saloon in ‘Deadwood,’ the people there are a dysfunctional family, so there are tremendous similarities.”
Milch originally had addressed HBO’s interest in doing a series about a surfing family by bringing to the table an idea set in New York City — “John From Elsewhere and His Friend Tex,” about a junkie and street hustler also visited by an unusual character.
The producer combined the two concepts with the help of novelist and screenwriter Kem Nunn, whose most recent book, “Tijuana Straits,” takes place mostly in Imperial Beach, a gritty seaside town just north of the Mexican border. “Kem sort of invented surfer noir,” notes Nichols.
For Milch, the connection to the sea doesn’t focus quite as much on the dysfunctionality of the Yosts and their surfing heritage as it does on the effects of long-playing family issues repeatedly returning to haunt the clan.
“It’s the recognition that what happened 25 years ago is still having an effect, and how the family has adapted to those extraordinary events in a way that was absolutely necessary if it was going to survive at all. It’s like waves that are still playing themselves out.”
Then along comes John, whose presence isn’t particularly understood — least of all by John himself — until unusual things start to happen, both blatant and not so obvious. “I still don’t know who he is,” says De Mornay. “That hasn’t been revealed to us actors, and I’m not entirely sure if David even knows yet.”
What Milch does know is that John is a “monad,” an entity that, when captured, opens one’s vision to the universe.
John will often repeat back nasty-isms yelled at him by the family junkie, Butchie Yost (Van Holt), but in as plain a manner as vanilla pudding. “He gives them back their own behavior, purged of inauthenticity and cruelty,” Milch explains.
“He’ll say the same words, even though he doesn’t understand them, but with the hurtfulness taken out of them.”
Nichols’ portrayal of John is like that of a “Ken” doll — perfectly groomed and perfectly plain. “When he first appears, Butchie, like the others, just thinks he’s a moron,” Van Holt explains.
Adds Nichols, “He looks like he came out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I sort of modeled him after Bronson Pinchot in ‘Perfect Strangers’ and Peter Sellers in ‘Being There.”’
Sleazy setting helps set moodMuch of the series is filmed on location in Imperial Beach, with plenty of sleaze to go around. Van Holt’s Butchie lives in the run-down, drug-infested Snug Harbor Motel, whose exteriors are filmed at the town’s real downbeat Snug Harbor.
“I’ve never quite been anywhere quite like this place. It’s kind of creepy,” notes pro surfer Keala Kennelly, who hung up her championship surfboard to act in the series.
Oddly enough, the interior sets for the show can be found 170 miles to the north, at historic Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita, the former home of “Deadwood.
The crew still refers to the Melody building housing the Snug Harbor’s filthy motel rooms as “The Gem Stage.” And just a short stroll away is the now-deserted “Deadwood” main street, filled not long ago with hundreds of “prospectors” in Western garb.
“It’s a ghost town now,” says O’Neill of his occasional visits to the street.
The writing for the series focuses on difficult subject matter for the actors. Feature film actress De Mornay, acting in her first television series as the rough-and-tumble family matriarch, Cissy, notes, “It was a very scary act of faith, taking on this role, because David has a scary mind! But unlike that famous Jack Nicholson line, David can handle the truth, even if it’s ugly or traumatizing.”
Adds Van Holt, “It comes down to just having what I call ‘Faith In Dave.’ He says, ‘You’re going to have to trust me. Just let go, trust and surrender.”’