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August 27, 2015

An Interview with 'Boardwalk Empire' Creator Terence Winter

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 10th 2010 2:45PM
The world is radically shifting for the characters of 'Boardwalk Empire,' the fabulous new HBO drama that premieres Sept. 19 and is one of fall's best new shows.

Set in the booming Atlantic City of the 1920s, 'Boardwalk Empire' is an stylish, enthralling epic in which nuanced, complicated characters help tell a sweeping story of a nation in transition.

I recently spoke to 'Boardwalk Empire' creator Terence Winter, a former 'Sopranos' executive producer, who discussed the creative input of 'Boardwalk Empire' executive producer Martin Scorsese, Winter's concerns about not repeating stories that were told on 'The Sopranos,' and how Prohibition altered the social and political landscape of the era.

HBO came to Winter with the book 'Boardwalk Empire,' which covers hundreds of years of Atlantic City history, and asked him to see whether there was a TV series in it (and knowing that Scorsese was already attached to the project was certainly an incentive for Winter to come up with the idea for a show). When shaping the project, Winter said he consciously avoided the '70s -- which felt too close to Tony Soprano's era -- and decided to pick an Atlantic City time frame that would feel different yet relatable.

"People looked different and sounded different and the music and pop culture were different, and yet it was still accessible," Winter said. "It was still modern enough that it felt like you and I could watch it and could relate to these people. They still had the telephone and they rode on trains and ate dinner and they went to movies and they did all the things we do, but it's still almost 100 years ago. I think if the show was in 1910, I don't think you'd watch it and feel the same way."

Prohibition, which kicks in during 'Boardwalk Empire's' pilot, was just one of the changes affecting American society at the time, not just for drinkers but for politicians and criminals too.

Atlantic city fixer Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (Steve Buscemi) has to contend with a vicious new breed of gangsters who want to use his turf to transport and sell illegal alcohol. He's certainly willing to participate in the trade -- it's just one of many shady enterprises he's involved in -- but as the series unfolds, the graft and cronyism of the not-too-distant past start to seem positively quaint.

"It isn't just political corruption anymore and, you know, breaking somebody's arm," Winter said. "These are now really high stakes. People are going to get murdered over alcohol."

Yet it's a hopeful time too, as Winter points out, for striving immigrants and even for Atlantic City's African-American community, which has a powerful leader in Chalky White (Michael K. Williams).

"In 'The Sopranos,' one of the first things Tony says is, 'I feel like I came in at the end of something,'' Winter said. "And this is really the beginning of something. It's the beginning of a lot of things."

In Part 2 of the interview, which will be posted next week, Winter talked about Nucky's protege, World War 1 veteran Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) and the challenges of filming a period drama.

In Part 1 of the interview, which is below, he talked about the cost of the series, the ways in which special effects augment the show's extensive boardwalk set, the influence of Scorsese (who directed the first episode) and Nucky's journey, among other things.

There are no spoilers in this interview, which is edited and slightly condensed.

Maureen Ryan: I don't want to give you the mistaken impression that I only care about how much it costs, but just looking at this TV show, it looks amazing. It made me think that, especially in the cable realm, only HBO has this kind of money to spend. Was this on a par with what you guys would spend on "Sopranos" episodes? Was it far more, far less?

Terence Winter: It's comparable. I think it's probably comparable to "Rome." I guess that is a better comparison because it's a period piece. But just to go back to what you first said, you know, HBO does spend this money, but all the networks have plenty of money to do this kind of program, they just choose not to. Believe me, NBC, Universal, CBS or ABC has plenty of money to do anything they want to do. Their business models [tells them] to do shows cheaper.

So in a TV sense, this is really a choice of whether to do ambitious programming or not. And HBO did roll the dice in a really big way on this show. It was very, very expensive to do, but as we went into it and as I wrote it, I knew it was going to be expensive. Actually, I even thought it was going to be impossibly expensive, because I realized we needed to have a boardwalk. I think I described it in the script as "Times Square on the ocean." You know, built in 1920. "Well, how will we do this?"

And it wasn't until I saw what we could do digitally by watching the [HBO] miniseries "John Adams" [that it seemed possible]. They had a behind-the-scene segment and they showed what you could do with digital technology. There's one scene where Paul Giammatti was riding a horse across an open field and then suddenly 1774 Boston appeared behind him. And I thought, "Well, this is possible now. We might actually be able to have a boardwalk." So it was just a question of building that boardwalk, which is massive and obviously tremendously expensive, but [we also had] the ability to then augment that with digital technology. That really made all the difference.

MR: I assume the Ritz Hotel tower behind the boardwalk itself is a special effect, because I watched the making of the boardwalk set video and there obviously isn't a Ritz rising behind your boardwalk set.

TW: Well, yeah, there's the first floor of The Ritz and the lobby -- that is all real, but the thing that gives it the height is all put in digitally. [The Ritz is] actually a practical set, we have that lobby and the elevator set is real and all that is real, but when you're out on the boardwalk, when you see anything above the second story, that is all digital.

MR: So it's my understanding that Martin Scorsese was involved in this project even before you were. How many episodes did he direct? Did he do more than just the pilot?

TW: No. He just directed the pilot, but he's also one of the executive producers of the show as well, so he is involved. He reads all the scripts, he weighs in on our casting decisions, he watches all the cuts of the show. Up until the time we wrapped a couple of months ago, he and I had a standing Sunday afternoon conversation where we would just review what went on during the week. He'd watch the dailies, he would have comments and suggestions along the way. So he is definitely involved in the show, but he has only directed the pilot, he got us launched and then went off to do another movie.

MR: What's great is there's a seamlessness to the aesthetic style. It seemed like what he established in the pilot was very much the look and the style of the show as it went forward.

TW: Oh great.

MR: There are those tracking shots, there's a very lush look to it. It seems to me to have the feel of classic filmmaking. Is that what you were going for?

TW: Right. Yeah, the look of the show was something we had discussed and that was obviously Marty's choice going in. And then our challenge was to emulate what he did and make the show feel seamless.

I was lucky enough to have Tim Van Patten, who is really one of my dear friends and probably the best director in television [Van Patten has also directed many episodes of 'The Sopranos,' 'The Wire,' 'The Pacific,' etc.]. Not only is he one of our executive producers, he also directed four of the 12 [Season 1 episodes] as well. So Tim was the guy that was going to follow Marty. I knew we'd be fine.

The challenge was we had a lot more money and a lot more time to do the pilot, as is usually the case, and then we had to go into a series schedule. And there's really nobody better in series television than Tim in terms of managing time and budget and just the ability to deliver something that looks terrific and is artistically magnificent.

So but that was very much on our minds -- how we make this look like the same TV show. [We went] from that pilot and then we turned to week two and three and it looked the same, and it [still] does. I think it really was incredibly successful. And by the time we had episode 3 in the can, we had the template for what the show looks like, so future directors came in and knew what they were trying to do.

MR: What did Scorsese bring to it that you feel may have steered the series in a different direction? Obviously he had many kinds of creative input, but what do you feel like his stamp on "Boardwalk Empire" is or continues to be?

TW: Well, I mean, he is, for my money the greatest American director ever. He's really the reason why I got into this business in the first place. When I saw 'Taxi Driver' as a teenager, it was the first movie I ever saw where I walked out of and I was confused. I was like, "That was great and I don't know why that was different than any other movie," but I knew it was different. And I went back and saw it for maybe 15 times that summer and that's what got me interested in movies.

So, he brings not only this incredible filmmaking style, but he has this ability to just convey a different time and place. He just absolutely knows how to use the camera to tell a story. That camera is helping to set tone and mood and tell the story as you're going along. And these lush shots, these long tracking shots -- I don't know if you noticed the one shot when on the eve of Prohibition, Nucky comes out of the hotel and they cross the boardwalk and there's a funeral for John Barleycorn. That's all one shot. I think it takes three and a half minutes.

MR: Yeah, I watched that a few times. It was such a great Scorsese shot.

TW: It's so thrilling even on the set, you know. I'd be standing there watching the monitor and you get these sort of almost signature camera movings, and "Oh my God! This looks like a Scorsese movie!" Just having my name follow his. It says: written by Terence Winter, directed by Martin Scorsese. It still gives me chills.

MR: In one of the interview videos on the HBO site, you said you were sort of mentally committed to the project as soon as you walked out of the meeting with HBO, because he was attached to it. But having worked on 'The Sopranos,' was it ever a concern that you didn't want to repeat yourself or that you wanted to avoid certain things? Did you specifically set out to take this show in a different direction or were you not really concerned about any of that?

Well yeah, I mean, a little bit. Basically they gave me the book and just said, "Find a series in here." And the book spans the entire history of Atlantic City from the mid-19th Century, when it was literally a mosquito infested swamp, to the present day. So I really could have come back with anything.

The '70's felt a little too close to Tony Soprano's world and was going to involve gangsters in New Jersey [in a recent era]. The '50's sort of felt like Tony's dad's world. And the '20's, for many reasons, [is where] I ended up, but it just felt [right]. People looked different and sounded different and the music and pop culture were different, and yet it was still accessible. It was still modern enough that it felt like you and I could watch it and could relate to these people.

They still had the telephone and they rode on trains and ate dinner and they went to movies and they did all the things we do, but it's still almost 100 years ago. I think if the show was in 1910, I don't think you'd watch it and feel the same way. You'd feel like, "This feels completely different." And I think the 1920's is just modern enough that you say, "These are people I recognize."

MR: It feels like in the '20s, it's the blossoming of a new era. Do you think the 1920s are kind of another boom time, that it's kind of the starting place for the modern America that we know now?

TW: Yeah, absolutely. In 'The Sopranos,' one of the first things Tony says is, "I feel like I came in at the end of something." And this is really the beginning of something. It's the beginning of a lot of things.

There's a real feeling of opportunity, a real attitude, particularly with the election of Warren Harding, of putting the past behind us, moving on, getting back to normal. The war is over, there's just nothing but opportunity out there. Wall Street was about to boom and big business [was getting underway]. We had just come out of a war and it just sort of was like a new dawn.

Young people were really coming into the forefront, and it was a time of great change, and a lot of change was for the better, or what people thought was for the better. I mean, Prohibition obviously didn't work, but I think a lot of people thought this was going to be a good thing. And women got the vote and then radio came in and all these exciting changes were happening. It was really a thrilling time. Certainly a thrilling time to write about.

MR: I'm the grandchild of immigrants who came to the country around that time, and it seemed like this was the time for immigrants to step to the fore. And maybe if they weren't necessarily running the Establishment, they were running places like Atlantic City. I mean, a lot of these gangsters and politicians are people who would not have gotten a seat at the table and would not have had any kind of power without taking it via these corrupt political systems and things like that. Is this a kind of an immigrant story as well? A story of people grabbing onto the American dream any way they can?

TW: Yeah a little bit. Yeah, I mean, certainly you know, Kelly's character [Margaret Schroeder] is really the embodiment of the immigration experience. She even says, "I came here for a better life." And even though she got off to a rocky start, presumably there was more opportunity here than there was [in her home country of Ireland].

You know, even though it's interesting, as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, all my best friends were Italian-American. I was Scotch-Irish. And I was shocked in the early '70's to hear my friend's dad say that when he was kid, there was discrimination against Italians. I said, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "Oh no, there was." And to me, Italian-Americans had assimilated to the point where they were just people. They weren't an ethnic group; they were just as American as anybody else. And it was shocking to me to find out that there was a time when they were considered "foreigners."

And then I remember my grandmother telling me that there were signs that said, "No Dogs or Irish Allowed," which I actually worked into the series as well. But that was actually a sign on [she saw] at a store or something.

And so it's part of our fabric. Even in terms of like the African-American community as well. There were no blacks really allowed on that section of the boardwalk where Nucky is. They're all there; they make up the infrastructure of the town. Politically they were hugely important to Nucky, but they were largely an invisible community. You know, they had their own community in Atlantic City, but in terms of the hotels, these were the porters and bus boys and people who were unseen. And that was something that was something we explored as well.

MR: Michael K. Williams is amazing [in the role of African-American leader Chalky White]. I have to ask -- will we see more of Chalky? beyond what we saw in the first six episodes?

Yeah, absolutely.

MR: Is Chalky kind of trying to grab his piece of the pie as well and is there a lot of resistance to that because of the racism of the times?

TW: There is not really resistance on Nucky's part. And I think Nucky is politically savvy enough to know how important Chalky is. Chalky is a guy that can really deliver the black vote. And that's what it's all about for Nucky. [In a couple of episodes, 'Boardwalk Empire' characters discuss the fact that] the African-American community makes up a certain percentage of Atlantic City and if you control that percentage, you control Atlantic City. And if you can deliver 100 percent of the black vote, you've got the city locked up. And if you've got Atlantic City locked, you've got Atlantic County, and if you've got Atlantic County, you have New Jersey.

So Nucky's power base really depends on keeping the African-American vote on his side. So he's very conscious of keeping Chalky happy because Chalky's the guy that runs the African-American community. So, I think they're friends, I think there's mutual respect there. It just goes to show how powerful Chalky is and he knows he's powerful and he knows his political weight is really what Nucky depends on. He can really throw his weight around.

MR: What's interesting about Nucky is he's certainly not just a bad guy, he's helping out people in his community. He's dispensing favors, he's taking in money, but he's keeping people in jobs and doing things for people who are less fortunate. In one of the HBO videos on the site, Steve says, "Nucky does not view himself as a gangster." [His protege] Jimmy tells him he has to be a full-on gangster, just to survive, but does Nucky resist that idea?

TW: Yeah, I think Nucky is a realist, I think he does what the job requires. I think as a practical man, as a practical politician, he knows that to do good, sometimes you have to do bad. And probably the feeling is at the end of the day, he hopes he does more good than he does bad.

He sort of gives with one hand and takes away with the other. A lot of it is about getting the vote and keeping those people happy and making sure that people had coal in the winter time and clothes on their backs and jobs and food. He's smart enough to know that he's got to keep his voters happy too. You know, at the same time, you know, he can be incredibly ruthless and but again, it's all part of what the job requires.

Prohibition really changed everything. It changed the gangster world, we had these young ambitious kids who were prone to violence. [And the deal was,] "If you want to be violent and run alcohol you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars," and they're like, "Where do you sign up?" because a lot of them just came out of World War I and they just spent the last three years killing people. So it's not a big deal to take a gun and shoot somebody. And certainly Jimmy is a guy who literally came out of the trenches and is very comfortable with violence.

So, Nucky's world is changing in a way that he isn't necessarily prepared for and he sort of has to learn as he goes along. [He learns] it isn't just political corruption anymore and, you know, breaking somebody's arm. These are now really high stakes. People are going to get murdered over alcohol. There is just way to much money available for people who are willing to resort to violence to get it. And if you want to play in this field, particular if you're the guy who runs a town that happens to be on the Atlantic Ocean, you better be ready to step up. And that's sort of Nucky's journey through at least Season One. Part of Nucky's journey.

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Great interview. I'm definitely looking forward to this show. Plus, Omar's back!

September 11 2010 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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