'Boardwalk Empire' executive producer Terence Winter talks going back to the '20s
Before joining the writing staff of "The Sopranos," Terence Winter had worked on such illustrious classics as "The New Adventures of Flipper," "Sister, Sister" and "The Cosby Mysteries." As soon as Winter joined "The Sopranos" in its second season, however, he proved to be one of the best writers other than creator David Chase at capturing the malaise-ridden mob world of that series. He's responsible for some of the series' best scripts, including "Pine Barrens," "The Second Coming" and "Long Term Parking," for which he won the Emmy Award for best writing in a drama series. (He later won another writing Emmy for the Season 6 episode "Members Only.")
Now, Winter is returning to the world of the mob, albeit not a mob that's at the end of the line, like in "The Sopranos." In "Boardwalk Empire," the best new show of the fall, Winter, who's executive producer and show runner on the series, examines the rise of organized crime in Atlantic City, N.J., in the Prohibition era. The series boasts a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, a veritable all-star cast of acclaimed character actors and lots and lots of promotion for its first episode (airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO). Winter talked with Show Tracker about working with Scorsese, casting Steve Buscemi as a mob boss and what lessons from "The Sopranos" helped him in writing "Boardwalk Empire."
How did this show come to be?
I was at the tail end of my tenure on "The Sopranos," and I got a call from HBO that they had optioned this book, "Boardwalk Empire," which is essentially a history of Atlantic City, and they said, “Why don’t you read it and see if you think there’s a series in here.” The idea was going to be that I would finish with "The Sopranos" and then try to develop a show for HBO myself and, almost on my way out the door, they said, “Oh, by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this thing if it goes anywhere.” And I kind of stopped in my tracks and said, “OK, well then I guarantee you there’s a TV series here, and I’m going to go home and find it, and I’ll call you back.”
I’ve, obviously, been a huge fan of his, and it’s not really an exaggeration to say that he’s the reason I got into this business in the first place. I’d seen "Taxi Driver" in 1977, I guess, when it came out — I think it was ’77, or thereabouts; I was a teenager — and it really was the first movie that made me sit up and take notice. I knew this was different from anything else I had ever seen, but I wasn’t really sure why, and that sort of set me on the path to learning about movies and stuff. So that was the beginning of it. I went home, and I read the book and sparked to a couple different eras, one of which was the 1920s. That was followed by a meeting with Marty, and I pitched him that era that was, I think for him, sort of bridging the gap between "Gangs of New York" and "Goodfellas" in terms of the gangster world. Sort of the beginnings of what we came to know as organized crime, so he was interested in that era as well. We just took off from there.
What was it like working with Scorsese?
Once I got over the initial shock of working, you know, meeting him initially, for me, was so monumental and he was immediately extremely approachable, funny. I mean, all the things you’d hope. I mean, obviously brilliant, a movie encyclopedia. A living compendium of knowledge of cinema. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with him where I didn’t end up jotting down a couple of notes. He’ll reference movies that he’s seen, he’ll recommend books, just such an amazing wealth of material with that subject, or pretty much any subject. He’s really one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s just really sort of a funny, New York guy. He just instantly puts you at ease. He’s exactly what you’d hope he would be from watching him interviewed all these years, and in terms of working with him, he’s just incredibly collaborative.
He’s obviously a film legend but really solicitous of your opinion about things, just really approachable. In preparing for this we worked really closely in terms of designing what the look of the show would be, and the tone. Costumes and set design and everything from top to bottom. We watched together with our producers and Tim Van Patten, one of the directors from "The Sopranos," who’s one of our executive producers here and is a really integral part of the show as well. We’d go to Marty’s office and watch old gangster movies with him, which is, like, the greatest film class you’ve ever had, us sitting in his screening room watching "Public Enemy" and "Al Capone" and all these great old movies, and you’re sitting there with Martin Scorsese, who’s commenting on these things. You really have to pinch yourself. So it was great. The experience was terrific. More than I could have hoped for.
I know he directed the pilot. What’s his involvement going forward in the series?
Well, he reads all the scripts, he weighs in on our casting choices, he watches the cuts of the different episodes and gives notes on those as well. He’s definitely very hands-on in the sense of ... I mean, there were a lot of people, you know, they’re listed as executive producers, and they go on and move on, and certainly he has moved to do other films and other projects, but he definitely ... I think he really enjoyed the process. He actually, early on in the process, when we started reading the early scripts, he said, “You know, this is really fun; you get to see what happens to the characters after the movie ends!” [laughs]
So to him, the pilot was the movie, and then the rest of it is the rest of it. I think he actually really enjoyed it, and I think he actually is having fun seeing where it goes and definitely has opinions and likes to talk about where the show goes. During the course of production, we had a standing weekly phone call on Sunday afternoons just to talk about what we had filmed during the week and upcoming scripts and things like that.
You have a really impressive cast on this show. How did that cast come together?
Well, we had the greatest actor magnet in the world, in Martin Scorsese. And it’s just sort of, once we had him at the helm, it was really, just everyone wants to work with him, and it was just a question of then picking and choosing among who was right for the role. It was really just an embarrassment of riches. I mean, I started to put these head shots up on my wall and started to see this cast come together, and it almost started to get intimidating for me. I thought, “God, these are unbelievable actors. I really better write some great stuff here.”
These are really just cream of the crop .... You could pick any one of them, and they’re all phenomenal. So ... once it all started coming together, I just really had to make sure, as I told our casting director, Ellen Lewis, “Everybody has to make sure they know this is a TV series. When Marty folds up the tent and leaves after the pilot, you know, hopefully they’re going to be working with me for several more years here.” [laughs] “You know, this isn’t just doing the Marty Scorsese movie. This is, you know, we’re hopefully doing this for the long haul.” She said, “They know; they get it. They’re all excited.” So, so far that seems to be the case; everybody seems to be pretty happy.
How do you do a period piece like this on a TV budget?
It’s a lot of planning. It’s a lot of picking and choosing your battles, by which I mean you can do only so many set pieces, for example. You can’t have scene after scene [with] hundreds of extras in them. You can have one or two per episode. Going out, every time we walk out onto that boardwalk set, it’s tremendously expensive. It’s a gigantic set, and it has to be populated with actors, all of whom are in period clothing and haircuts, and there’s CGI involved, when you turn in a certain direction where, literally, if you’re standing on our set you’re looking at a blue screen, and that’s all got to be digital later on. It’s going to be in a world that’s created on a computer. It’s really a question of just planning things out and really, again, picking and choosing the stories you want to tell and how you want to tell them. It’s doable. It’s challenging, but I’m surrounded by a lot of talented people who can help me do that job.
You mentioned that you read the book and picked this period out as interesting. What drew you to this period in the book?
There’s just so much going on. "The Sopranos" was sort of the end of something, the end of organized crime in a way. I think it’s actually one of the first things Tony Soprano ever says, is he feels he came in at the end, and this ["Boardwalk Empire"] is sort of the beginning, which was, obviously, the polar opposite of that. It was an era that hadn’t really been largely depicted in film or TV, almost not at all on television, and rarely in films. So it really felt like wide-open territory in terms of the types of stories and sets and the things we would see and the subject matter too.
And then the character of Nucky was at the center. Here’s this guy who is just really this incredibly charming yet duplicitous character, who’s kind of equal parts gangster and politician, and [he] just sort of ruled this gigantic playground that was basically Las Vegas before Las Vegas was invented. You know, the period music, the war just ended, obviously Prohibition being enacted was a major draw for me in terms of story material. You know, women getting the right to vote. Radio just came in. It was a very young world. The music was great. The look was great, the cars, the clothes. It just really had everything. It was just like this incredible palette from which to draw stories. It was just this colorful time, and it had a lot of parallels to current day. You know, ... you realize, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. It’s just the same political corruption; the same big businesses still control everything. Prohibition is essentially the drug business, the illegal drug business, you know, young violent guys selling this illegal product to make money fast. You recognize a lot of the current day in this show. It’s very accessible.
What lessons did you learn in writing "The Sopranos" that you've applied here?
I guess the biggest lesson that David Chase taught me is always be entertaining. That’s your job. Your job is not to send messages or moralize; it’s to entertain people. Whatever you can do to achieve that end, do it. He tried to jam those episodes with comedy and action and violence and great music and just great character stuff and really threw the kitchen sink in in terms of entertaining people, and I just try to be mindful of that. At the end of the day, you want to tell a compelling story in an entertaining fashion, and that’s really what I’m trying to do.
How is running this show different from just writing on a show?
Well, obviously, my responsibilities are a lot broader. Writing on a show was really great, but at the end of the day I could just go home and think of story ideas. Now at the end of the day, I’m literally watching cuts of promos for the marketing promos and really supervising everything that goes into the show. So it’s really just a much broader range of responsibilities that ultimately fall on my desk, so it’s just a question of delegating those in a way that allows me to continue to work in the writer’s room with my writing staff as well as still supervising things. It’s just a longer day. There’s more on your plate.
How close are you going to skew toward history? You’d mentioned some historical events, but are you limited by that in some ways?
Yeah, you’re limited in some ways, in a sense. I’m not interested in changing history. It’s not going to be anything like having Adolf Hitler get killed in a movie theater, like Quentin Tarantino did. [laughs] We’re very faithful to historical events, and they do play a part in the backdrop of the show throughout the course of the first season. We deal with women getting the right to vote and the presidential election of 1920, when Warren Harding was elected, and that factored in pretty heavily to New Jersey politics as well. There are historical elements to it that we try to be as accurate with as possible. Obviously, we have fictional characters interact with real people on the show, so we are taking some creative license, but when at all possible, we try to be as accurate as we possibly can.
How would you entice people who are fans of "The Sopranos" to watch this show?
I think we approached the storytelling in the same manner, in which, to say, I think we have a great deal of respect for our audience. We assume that the people that are going to be watching it are intelligent and are going to want to see programming that’s kind of challenging and adult and that doesn’t necessarily spoon-feed you everything and tell you what to think about things. It’s a slower approach to storytelling while at the same time being entertaining and hopefully very exciting and compelling on a lot of different levels. It’s programming for intelligent adults, and I think that was the audience we were going after with "The Sopranos," and I’m hoping to get the same group of people back to watch this.
You’ve been working on this for three or four years now. How does it feel to have it finally be ready to air?
It’s hard to believe. I mean, September 2010 used to feel a million miles away. [laughs] And now, it’s a week from now we’re going to premiere. Yeah, I’m really excited. We’re enormously proud of the show. I’m really excited to share it with the rest of the world and just get it out there and really let the work speak for itself. Up until this point, it’s just been a series of describing it to people and showing promos and talking about it, and ultimately, nothing tells the story better than seeing the show, and I’m really looking forward to getting it on the air and having people react to it.
— Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Terence Winter is the executive producer and show runner for "Boardwalk Empire." Photo credit: HBO.