Brian Van Holt
Brian Van Holt

Hollywood Drops In

With its mad-genius creator, an A-list team of writers, and actors who know how to rip, can HBO's new left-coast drama, John from Cincinnati, finally get surf culture right? Jon Cohen peeks into the green room.

Brian Van Holt
Jon Cohen

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“DO YOU HAVE anything stronger than Red Bull?” asks David Milch as he ambles into a convenience store in Imperial Beach, California, and begins scanning the aisles.

“Try the red can in the cooler in the back,” the guy at the cash register says, and Milch soon finds a drink called CL-One and holds it up in the air.

Brian Van Holt

Brian Van Holt Brian Van Holt

“This is the worst thing you got?” he calls to the cashier. The guy nods, and Milch takes out three cans. “Now you’re talking.”He buys the drinks and asks for his change in lottery scratchers.

One of television’s most visionary and successful writers and producers, Milch is in this funky beach town, which borders the even funkier Tijuana, Mexico, to shoot his new HBO series, John from Cincinnati. It’s still early on this brisk March morning, and Milch is looking for something to pull him through the long day ahead. He’ll be coaching actors, writing bits of new script, hashing out details with the director, and even schmoozing with neighborhood residents hanging around the set. Milch, a large-framed man dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, is the rare Hollywood big shot you might mistake for a regular guy. But John from Cincinnati is anything but regular. Coming right on the heels of Deadwood, the controversial postmodern western Milch created for HBO, the unconventional seaside drama is Milch’s biggest gamble yet.

The show, which debuts June 10, revolves around three generations of Yosts,a family of SoCal surfers with more than a few issues. Mitch Yost (played by Bruce Greenwood) is the pater-familias, an embitteredsurfing legend whose competitive career ended early after he injured a knee. Mitch runs a surf shop with his wife, Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), who mocks and snarls at his mix of self-pity and Zen awareness. Their son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), is another faded surf star; he has a serious thing for heroin, as did Milch for many years—he was literally riding high during much of NYPD Blue, the 12-season hit he created with producer Steven Bochco in the early nineties. The third-generation Yost is Butchie’s son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher),a hot-shot teen surfer who lives with his grandparents and is being pursued by a shady surf-company owner (Luke Perry) whose scheming knows no bounds.

The wild card, as if the Yosts weren’t wild enough, is John (Austin Nichols), a bizarre stranger who shows up on the beach and signs on for surfing lessons with Butchie. John makes clichéd oracular pronouncements (“The end is near”), tendsto robotically repeat what’s said to him (including the idea that he may be from Cincinnati), and surfs effortlessly the first time he tries. Milch keeps you guessing:Is John an alien? Jesus Christ? A brain-damaged savant? Throw in a thuggy, opera-loving heroin dealer from Hawaii, a lottery winner who buys the spectacularly decrepit Snug Harbor Motel (home to several ofthe show’s characters), and an ex-cop who raises birds in his living room, plus a plotline that includes levitation, resurrection, and medical miracles.

Now that’s stronger than Red Bull.

Zany and profound, John from Cincinnati is The X Files meets Six Feet Under meets Twin Peaks, with surfboards and a dollop of Thomas Pynchon. Which makes it quirkier than anything HBO has ever bankrolled. No one involved would talk specifics about the budget (Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, referred to the show as “pricey”), but the fact that the first of its ten episodes will air in the hot slot following the series finale of The Sopranos suggests that the network has lots of chips ridingon Milch’s latest venture.And one of the mostsurprising and endearing qualities is that its depiction of surfing is spot-on.

From sixties beach-party flicks that feature Annette Funicello posing on a board like she’s walking a tightrope, feet pointed forward rather than sideways, to Patrick Swayze standing on the beach in Point Break and announcing that he’s “waiting for my set” (true surfers wait for a lull), Hollywood has mangled surfing in every which way. A character may be a regular-foot surfing a right break in one frame, and in the next he’s a goofy-foot on a left. Dialogue usually devolves into one-word sentences like “Rad,” “Dude,” or “Gnarly.” Baywatch producers cast Kelly Slater—to the world champ’s lasting humiliation—as Jimmy Slade, who in one episode battles an octopus that lives in a cave and collects lost surfboards. And Blue Crush may have given female surfers a little respect in the water, but onshore it was still a ditzy melodrama. At best, Hollywood presents entertaining caricatures of archetypes; see Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli, who seems stoked more by the stinky green bud than the barreling green room.

Milch, a 62-year-old native of Buffalo, New York, has never surfed and has no intention of learning now. Who’d have guessed that of all the outsiders who’ve portrayed the sport on the big and small screens, he would be the one to grok it?

TODAY’S SHOOT will take place four blocks from the ocean, in some dingy old buildings that set designers have made over as the Snug Harbor Motel. Van Holt,the 37-year-old who plays Butchie, is sitting outside his trailer dressed in character: filthy jeans, a crusty ball cap, and corduroy slippers patched with duct tape. Blond and blue-eyed, with square shoulders and a rugged jaw, he’s every surfer girl’s dream. In fact, he looks remarkably like Bodhi, the Swayze character in Point Break. But Van Holt, who grew up surfing Huntington Beach and can still hold his own in the water, says he loves the 1991 cult classic—but cringes about it too, especially the scene where Gary Busey, playing an FBI agent, jumps on his desk, tucks into a big-wave crouch, and hollers “Whoaaaa!”

“I wanted to strangle somebody,” says Van Holt, laughing.

Best known for his role in 2001’s Black Hawk Down, Van Holt says he felt “possessed” after first seeing a John from Cincinnati script. “This is my calling,” he remembers thinking. “I am Butchie. I was meant to be Butchie.” Van Holt craved an audition. But when casting began in June 2006, he was about to leave on a surf trip to Indonesia; he’d be living on a chartered boat for two weeks, moving from one reef break to the next. The boat did have a fax machine, and a few days into the trip a fax arrived, offering him an audition the next day. “I’m in the fucking Indian Ocean,” says Van Holt. “I drank my sorrows away.”

Yet in sync with the mystical, what’s-meant-to-be-will-be vibe that pervades the show, the role was still open when Van Holt returned to the States. He read for Milch and won the part. Like most everyone on the John from Cincinnati set, Van Holt struggles to explain the series to the uninitiated. “It’s not about surfing,” he says. “Surfing is the door you walk through to get to the story.”

The most perplexing character on the show, and the one that audiences likelywill have the most trouble embracing, is John himself. Played by the 27-year-old Nichols, who starred in the 2006 movie Glory Road, John is what Steve Hawk, the former editor of Surfer magazine whom Milch has hired as a scriptwriter, calls a “transmitter”—a seemingly naive young man controlled by something more mystical than sci-fi. A clue to what Milch was thinking when he created the character lies in John’s last name: Monad.

Monads, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz wrote in his 1714 treatise Monadology, represent the fundamental unit, “the true atoms,” of the spiritual world:

God, in ordering the whole, has had regard to every part and in particular to each monad; and since the monad is by its very nature representative, nothing can limit it to represent merely a part of things. It is nevertheless true that this representation is, as regards the details of the whole universe, only a confused representation … If the representation were distinct as to the details of the entire Universe, each monad would be a Deity.

Um, OK.

“John purifies intentions,” Milch tells me at one point, likening the character to a mirror others can peer into and see themselves. “If I could explain it fully, I wouldn’t have to tell this story.”

STILL HOLDING his paper bag stuffed with his CL-Ones and lottery tickets, Milch bypasses the set and enters his empty trailer with Steve Hawk. While Hawk takes a seat on a sofa, Milch, who has a bad back, lies on the trailer’s floor, and the conversation turns to surfing, drugs, language, sex, the world’s interconnectedness, and anything else that pops into Milch’s prodigious mind.

A 1966 graduate of Yale University, Milch studied English with poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren. He earned an M.F.A. in writing at the University of Iowa and taught at Yale before breaking into TV as a scriptwriter on Hill Street Blues, in 1982.

Milch still comes off like a hip, approachable professor. He regularly entrances the writers, producers, interns, and anyone else around him with extended soliloquies that quote the wisdom of “Mr. Warren,” Herman Melville, Ezra Pound, Albert Einstein, Lao-tzu, The Godfather, and Joseph Conrad. One of his favorite topics is authenticity. “Any special world is liable to be done wrong,” he says.

To keep the authenticity quotient high in John from Cincinnati, Milch has surrounded himself with people who not only know beach culture but live it. In addition to Hawk, Van Holt, and “surf-noir” novelist Kem Nunn, John‘s co–executive producer, the show’s surfers include former women’s pro Keala Kennelly, who playsan employee at the Yosts’ shop. Greyson Fletcher, who portrays Shaun Yost, is the grandson of legendary surfer Herbie Fletcher (a show consultant) and son of Christian, a pioneer of aerial maneuvers. Renowned big-wave rider Brock Little coordinates the water scenes—shot by celebrated surf-film cinematographer Sonny Miller—with pro-surfing stunt doubles John John Florence, Shane Beschen, and Dan Malloy. All of which adds up to an amazing sense of verisimilitude.

In the rough cut of episode one, Mitch Yost catches a small, decidedly average wave—not a grinding, Pipeline tube like the one that opened Hawaii Five-O—and gracefully cross-steps to the nose. It’s smooth surfing; realistic, not showy. The actors who know what they’re doing, like Van Holt, are filmed paddling their own boards; the magic of editing then blends in the shots of professional stunt doubles once their characters take off on waves.

Surfspeak is used, but it’s current (no “Cowabunga!”) and natural. Meanwhile, you can almost smell the coconut surf wax in the Yosts’ shop, which perfectly captures the cramped, cluttered stores that dot the California coast.

“When you’re telling a story that involves surfing, the hardest thing to capture is the essence of it,” says Milch. “You have to approach that quietly. I’m never going to know what it feels like to surf. But I think I’ve had analogous experiences. I shot dope for a long time, and in some respects, not the enterprise but the result is the same. You feel a kind of oneness and lack of desire to be anywhere else, and a yearning that the state you’re in can be perpetual.”

But Milch stresses that he’s serving a story, not a sport. “I’m not a supplicant at the altar of surfers as arbiters of authenticity,” he says. “Which is very different from saying I don’tcare about getting it right.I care, but not to please surfers. When I write, there are only five or six people whose nods of approval I care about. But all of them are dead.”

As Milch sees it, surfers may complain about how they’re portrayed, but they also delight in the twisted interpretations of their culture by outsiders—in the ways “the philistines” get it all wrong. “I find it kind of tedious that what is essentially a solitary enterprise is supposed to be ‘gotten right,’ ” he says. “It speaks to what I feel is a perpetual adolescence, the great pleasure that surfing has always taken in being gotten wrong.”

He’s jamming now, and he cranks his philosophical amp to 11. “Now I’ll give you a challenging thought,” he says. “A significant part of surfing is shame-based behavior.”

“That’s fucking bullshit,” says Hawk, pretending to get angry. “I’m leaving.”

“[Overcoming the belief] that it’s an activity unworthy of an adult is the constant battle for the adult surfer,” Milch says, pointing out that surfers “of a certain age” see surfing as spiritual, and the ocean as a church. “A lot of defiance is shame-based—the uneasiness that surfers feel: ‘Am I a fucking kid?'”

“I can come up with a thousand ways to justify it,” says Hawk.

“The rationalization of junkies is exactly the same,” says Milch. “‘Did I never grow up?'”

WHILE THE ACTORS complete the last few hours of the shoot, Milch gathers Hawk and five other writers in another trailer, one with a microphone and a computer screen set up on the floor. Milch sprawls out, his head resting on one hand, and launches into a sweeping monologue meant to explain the deeper meaning of a scene they’ve already shot—maybe, one writer jokes later, he’s trying to explainit to himself.

“There is compassion in the universe, but we don’t understand it,” Milch says. Trusting in John will require viewers to make a leap of faith, he explains, to embrace the “benignity of the universe.” Milch paraphrases Gandhi: “Find a Muslim, bring him into your home, and raise him as a Muslim.”

“You can put yourself in the energy of the universe without understanding its purpose,” he continues. “That’s why I try not to think about what I’m writing and let it happen.

“Milch then lets it happen and starts working on a new scene. He “writes” out loud, a typist keying in his every utterance. As he speaks the words and describes the actions of different characters, he repeatedly taps a forearm, tilts his head, makes faces, and closes his eyes, looking for all the world like a jazz pianist in the throes of an improvisation. Except for helping out with a few words when solicited, the writers sit silently, some keying into their laptops, some fidgeting with their cell phones. Surfing doesn’t come up once the entire time.

When Milch stops talking, the spell is broken. It’s as though the spirit has left and the séance is over. The transcendent music has given way to the sound of a bartender cleaning glasses. The wind has turned onshore and brought a magical surf session to an end.

In a sense, what happens there in the trailer mimics the whole John from Cincinnati experience: It’s a mesmerizing journey to an odd place that just happens to be set in the surfing world of Imperial Beach. Will audiences connect with it? As John Monad says, repeatedly, “Some things I know, and some things I don’t.”