David Milch: Off to the races

Michael Mann, left, directs Nick Nolte on the set of “Luck.” The horse racing drama premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

You don’t need to understand the intricacies of horse racing to realize just how much love “Luck” creator David Milch has for the sport.

The fictionalized details of life at Santa Anita Park in Southern California unfold with deliberate care and nuance in the new HBO drama. Viewers might not know how a “pick six” bet is placed, but they certainly understand that a group of down-on-their-luck gamblers have pinned desperate hope on that bet — a wager that reverberates from the track office down to the stables.

“It’s an act of faith,” Milch says of his throw-the-viewer-into-that-world style. “Your fundamental responsibility is to stay true to the deepest nature and intention of the materials. And that’s what we did.”

A powerhouse support team brings Milch’s writing to life on “Luck”: Michael Mann serves as co-executive producer and director, and Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte head the cast.

“You want to do your best work,” says Hoffman, who plays a formerly incarcerated horse owner with deep ties to the track. “When you’re lucky enough to work with heavyweight talent, there’s no problem — most importantly, because they’re not afraid of a suggestion,” he says. “We are given the shot to do our best work, and I’m very thankful for that.”

Their collaborative study on ambition, greed and vice unfolds at a smoldering pace — until race time, when the series bursts into pure adrenaline on the backs of magnificent beasts charging around the track.

“Michael’s work in creating an atmosphere generated an entire second level of dialogue,” Milch says of Mann’s skill behind the camera. “[It] took a tremendous amount of the burden off of the demystifying of the world.”


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