Surf's up for writer-producer David Milch, even if the small waves on Lake Erie he saw growing up in Buffalo weren't about to get him hooked on the ocean sport.
"John From Cincinnati," Milch's HBO co-creation with Kem Nunn, is about a dysfunctional surfing family living near the California-Mexican border. It will premiere in the summer.
Many of the nation's television critics didn't have the "vaguest idea" what Milch was talking about during a press session here last week. He referenced Freud, Einstein, Stephen Hawking and William James. He also humorously addressed his own well-documented addiction problems and declared himself "a sociopath" to get another big laugh.
Milch candidly told critics that he doesn't have the "vaguest idea about surfing in terms of lived experience." But then he tried a metaphor to explain why that wasn't important: "I'm from Buffalo, N.Y.," said Milch. "There's a wonderful parochialism, freedom -- from a Rust Belt, not huge cities. And Freud wrote an essay called 'The Narcissism of Perceived Difference.' And there's a certain narcissism of the perceived difference that pertains in the surfing world, too, which is if you don't surf, impossible to understand."
"And we used to say if you're not from Buffalo ... I guess you're American," said Milch to laughter. "But you don't really get it. And you say, like, 'Well, he's from Rochester. What can he know?' As time goes on, you come to realize what seemed to be chasms of difference which cannot be bridged turn out not even to exist."
In other words, Milch's inability to hang five is irrelevant to the project, which he had originally intended to be about a junkie in New York City before HBO persuaded him to discover surfing.
The stars of the series -- Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Austin Nichols, Brian Van Holt and teenage surfer Greyson Fletcher -- sat alongside Milch and looked like they had witnessed aspects of Milch's performance before.
Asked how different it was meeting Milch for a role than other creators, Greenwood deadpanned: "Well, I think you probably witnessed the difference in the last 20 minutes." Critics roared.
"He's a great, great speaker," added De Mornay. "He's extremely persuasive and he's very authentic to the visions and the intellect and the metaphysics that he experiences. And he brings all of that in a very persuasive tone into the room. And I certainly never met anything like him in a meeting before, ever.
"I'm very interested to work with someone who truly is an original thinker, not only in television, but outside of television. There are very few original thinkers. And an original thinker has made a very original writer. So I'm happy to have been chosen."
De Mornay plays Cissy Yost, the grandmother of a gifted 13-year-old surfer, Shaun Yost (Fletcher), wife of legendary surfing great Mitch Yost (Greenwood) and mother of another surfing great turned addict, Butchie (Van Holt). The confusing few scenes previewed by HBO illustrated that Mitch Yost has the ability to levitate a few inches above the surfboard and that Butchie is using drugs to get a similar high. Enter John from Cincinnati (Nichols), a mysterious stranger who influences the lives of the Yosts. Asked how he plays the part, Nichols looked as confused as most critics.
"Some people come up to me at work and tell me that I've got it easy because I'm not as verbal so far as everyone else," said Nichols. "But this has kind of been one of the hardest jobs I've ever had. I love it to death, but yeah, [Milch] turns me around in circles and then sends me off. It's mystifying."
Not if you're a Gidget or William James fan. After the session, Milch told a handful of critics about the influence the 1959 "Gidget" movie had on surfing and its application to the series. "That movie changed everything," explained Milch. "It brought surfing into the world of commerce."
It also holds a key to the Yost family dynamic. Milch explained that Mitch Yost, a surfing purist, is being urged by John "to get back in the game" that he has avoided since commerce took over the sport.
"Mitch Yost's son is an artifact of what the marriage between commerce and surfing has created, which is kind of a hapless junkie," explained Milch. "John from Cincinnati expresses a force of the universe that would have that otherwise."
Milch noted that James' view of the universe included a fascination with psychic phenomenon and a belief "that for the most part, we can account through certain theorems with all of the phenomena of our experience, but that there are certain abrupt and lawless inexplicable intrusions through essentially what would be described as tears in the fabric of the dimensions we perceive." Then Milch pointed to Nichols to conclude that "John From Cincinnati" is the inexplicable intrusion in the series.
Milch said that "John" is being filmed adjacent to the set of his previous HBO series, "Deadwood," to make it more convenient to make two movies that HBO has commissioned to finish that series. Milch said he is collaborating with writer Evan Wright ("Generation Kill") on the first "Deadwood" movie, which will be set in 1879.
"We're very optimistic about the outcome of that work," said Milch. "It's our intention that just the moment that we complete production on 'John From Cincinnati' to begin work on that."
He added that series lead Ian McShane has deferred a Broadway role for two months to film the movie, the actors have signed contracts and everything seems to be going as planned.
Asked what could go wrong, Milch cracked: "I've had seven angioplasties. There's plenty that can go wrong."
But hopefully there won't be any inexplicable intrusions.