5 Questions With ... Terence Winter

Executive producer of HBO's 'The Sopranos' and now 'Boardwalk Empire' chats during a recent visit to Atlantic City

By Michael Pritchard
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Tim Van Patten and Terry Winter / Photo Abbot Genser/HBO

Terence Winter is best known as one of the writers of the hit HBO show The Sopranos. This September he comes back to New Jersey as the creator of Boardwalk Empire, a new HBO series based on Atlantic City in the era of prohibition and starring Steve Buscemi. The series is adapted from the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and is executive producer. We caught up with Winter at the Atlantic City Hotel and Lodging Association spring gala April 9.

You’ve come from The Sopranos and moved to Boardwalk Empire. Obviously there’s a big difference between modern North Jersey and 1920s Atlantic City, but really, what’s with all the New Jersey love?
What can I say, interesting shit happens in New Jersey. But really the New Jersey factor is almost incidental. This is about Atlantic City and a specific era in A.C. — the ’20s, which was just a really cool time and place to be. I’ve always been fascinated by Atlantic City and came down here a lot when I was a kid. Nelson’s book covers the whole history of Atlantic City from when it was marsh and seashore to present day. While I was reviewing the book I was thinking about all the different eras in Atlantic City, and they were all fascinating. Through the ’20s to the ’50s, however, you had that gangster element and I did start to think, ‘You know this is a little like the show I’ve been writing for 10 years.’ But that’s really kind of a coincidence. To me it was more about the ’20s and prohibition and the era that appealed to me. It was a great era for fashion and music; just really exciting and fun. And it’s an era that hasn’t been explored that much. There are a few things out there, such as The Roaring ’20s with James Cagney and there’s been things on Capone and Lucky Luciano, but not that much. It really was a very wide open era that was driven by the young. It was after World War I and before the Depression. It was very hopeful and exciting. There was a feeling of opportunity and prosperity and also a very youthful feeling in the country.

The real life Nucky Johnson has been changed to Nucky Thompson and other aspects have been fictionalized. Why not just portray the actual historical figures?
Because I feel that pins you down. I was a very big fan of the show Deadwood. It was a great show and I loved what David Milch (the show’s creator) did with it. And I realized that all these characters were based on actual historical figures, so that was interesting and I Googled them. And that wrecked it for me. Now, whenever Al Swearengen got into trouble on the show, I knew that he had survived into the early 20th century. There was no sense of jeopardy. With Nucky Johnson, people know how he ended up, but Nucky Thompson can do anything. I don’t know if Nucky Johnson ever killed anyone, but Nucky Thompson may be faced with that. You know how Al Capone ends up or Lucky Luciano. But part of this is that in the setting of the show, they will be very young guys. You don’t usually see that. Usually, when you see Capone portrayed, he’s Capone, the boss. He’s what he became. In Boardwalk Empire you’ll see Capone as a kid. Sure, you know where he’ll be in 10 years, but for right now, he’s some guy’s flunky.
Why did you choose to film on a set in Brooklyn rather than here in Atlantic City?
Basically, Atlantic City just doesn’t look like it did in the ’20s. We came down and scouted a lot of locations and you could count on one hand the spots we found that still looked the same. You have that same problem trying to film in Manhattan. The look of the era just isn’t there anymore. The Brooklyn site gave us a great opportunity to build a great Boardwalk set and to create the buildings that made Atlantic City great back then. Plus around the set, the buildings in that area are correct. They look right architecturally and they give you the right feel. I think you’ll get a more realistic feel of the city at the time on this wonderful set than you would if we had actually filmed here. And of course, there may be some scenes in the future where we come down.
Speaking of authenticity, "The Pine Barrens," which you wrote, is one of the greatest episodes of The Sopranos ever. But anyone from South Jersey sat there just thinking, ‘that is sooo not the Pine Barrens.”
I know, [laughing], and the big problem was that there wasn’t one damn pine tree in the whole episode. It really just was a budget thing. It just would have been too expensive. Even though it was only a three-hour drive, it just would have been. So we shot in a state park up north. But I did see that. Maybe we should have changed the name. But in the end we figured we could get away with it. After all, it’s a national show and only a small part of the audience in South Jersey noticed the difference. But no, "The Pine Barrens" didn’t look like it happened in the Pine Barrens.
You are working with some amazing people on this project such as Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi. What has that been like?
It really has been a dream come true for me. Martin Scorcese is the reason I became a writer. I hadn’t really thought about being a writer and then I saw the movie Taxi Driver. I had never seen any movie like that. The look of the movie and the feel and the way the characters and elements were integrated. Everything about that movie stayed with me and inspired me. So to be told that I would be meeting him and discussing doing a project with him, well, I was just stunned. And when I met him he was everything you’d want him to be. He’s gracious and welcoming and just a joy to discuss movies with. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and I was just mesmerized. And Steve is just one of the nicest people and a joy to work with. We did a lot together on The Sopranos. He directed "The Pine Barrens" [episode] for example. I’ve just been blessed to work with the people I’ve worked with.

Watch the HBO promo for Boardwalk Empire

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