Terence Winter, the creator of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ talks about working on the award-winning show, including its upcoming second season.
ATLANTIC CITY — Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter did not set out to create a drama series for HBO based in 1920s Atlantic City.
Nor did he intend to emulate the formula that he employed while working on the long-running HBO series The Sopranos, the mega successful show based on a New Jersey mob boss and his family that ran from 1999-2007.
“I think if you set out to try to replicate something, even in terms of say looking at the formulas of those shows and try to copy it and hope that it will have the same level of success, I think you’re doomed to failure,” Winter says during a recent phone interview for Atlantic City Weekly. “It’s like copying an old master painting. It’s never going to be as good as the original and I think it’s sort of a fool’s mission to try to do that. So I just wanted [Boardwalk Empire] to be its own thing. If there are similarities to [The Sopranos] it’s just based on my own pedigree of having worked on The Sopranos for so many years, but you’ll probably see similarities between The Sopranos and episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess that I wrote!”
Following a hearty laugh, Winter adds, “It’s not intentional, but it’s just me trying to do the most entertaining and best show that I can do.”
A little while after the finale of The Sopranos, HBO executives gave Winter a copy of Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book Boardwalk Empire — The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.
Winter says he was simply told: “Read it and see if there is a series in there.”
After digesting the book, which chronicles the history of Atlantic City from its earliest beginnings up to the pre-Borgata casino era, Winter saw a series indeed, but the time frame wasn’t set until further consideration.
Initially, says Winter, there were other periods during Atlantic City’s storied history that were possibilities for a series to be built upon.
“I read the book and took it all in, which was great,” says Winter. “Talk about research, I mean what an endeavor Nelson [Johnson] took on. The city’s [history] is so rich. I grew up [in New York] going to Atlantic City on the weekends in the ’80s with my friends and stuff, and I knew a little about the history, but I had no idea how vast it was — the various periods and how the city developed.
“The three eras that attracted me where the 1920s, the ‘50s and the ‘70s. And really HBO’s mandate was [so broad that] I literally had a huge canvass to work from.”
Winter, who is also the show’s executive producer (along with Martin Scorsese and others) as well as one of the show’s writers, felt Atlantic City circa the 1970s might seem like he was re-hashing The Sopranos. “You know, like Tony Soprano as a teenager maybe,” he says.
“The ‘50s felt like Tony’s dad’s era and the ‘20s felt completely different, completely fresh.
“And then once I read about Nucky, I said, ‘Wow, what a fascinating character to center a series around.’ I mean the guy’s just unbelievably duplicitous — equal parts politician and gangster, who runs basically this kingdom literally built on sand, and in a very shaky time. The world is changing rapidly; maybe faster than he’s even comfortable with. And he has to play catch up. With Prohibition coming in, the game suddenly changed. It wasn’t just general corruption, and election rigging, and extortion, it was young guys desperate to make a lot of money and do anything to do it — overnight. So, suddenly the game completely changed. If you weren’t willing to play that kind of ball, you were going to get eaten alive.”
Winter says 1920 specifically was a year that grabbed him initially.
“I can’t think of another year that had so much change,” he says. “I mean, between Prohibition, women getting the right to vote, the Harding election, the war ending — [it’s] essentially the dawn of the modern age.
“What’s interesting, too, is how many similarities there are between then and now. There’s such a parallel to the drug business where you have young men becoming drug dealers. Back then they were bootleggers, which is essentially the same thing. And also it’s so modern. I mean you look at the show and you see the clothes, they talked on the telephone, they flew in planes, they went to the movies, they ate at restaurants — it looks very close to our lives. Aside from e-mail and a lot of other major changes, it’s essentially the world we live in now. I always say that if the show was set in 1910 instead of 1920 it would have looked like a different universe. I mean so much had happened between those years, it’s great. The music, everything, it’s just irresistible.”
Although Boardwalk Empire stays true to historical events and pain-staking efforts have been taken by cast and crew to re-create early 1920s Atlantic City as it really was, not all of the actors play characters based on real people. Some, however, do.
Once casted, the actors on the show weren’t asked to read Nelson Johnson’s book, but, Winter says, for research many of them did.
“A lot of the actors were interested in [reading the book]. In general, everybody wanted to just dive right into the research, which is really fun. Especially for the guys who are playing the historical figures. And now it’s to the point where they know more about the characters they’re playing than I do. We have actually had Michael Stuhlbarg [who plays Arnold Rothstein] and Vincent Piazza [Lucky Luciano] come into the writers’ room. Once we were debating about Arnold Rothstein one day and I said, ‘You know who knows more about this than we do is Michael. Let’s just get him in here.’
“So we had him in for lunch and he just came in and kind of sat with us for a couple of hours and just told us everything he knew about Arnold Rothstein — as did Vincent — even right down to little personality quirks and personal ticks. There’s so much other research to do on the show that it’s hard to keep straight and these guys really get into their own characters and they’re very conscious of where we are in the time-line and what was happening in 1920 and 1921 and the various business enterprises they were in; whether or not any of that makes it onto the actual show doesn’t matter. It’s just interesting for them to know: ‘This is going on in my [character’s] life right now.’”
It’s been a long year for Winter, who started writing season two of Boardwalk Empire as the magnificent first season was picking up prestigious nominations, awards and accolades from around the globe. That includes a whopping 18 2011 Emmy nominations. (The 63rd PrimeTime Emmy Awards air live from Los Angeles, this Sunday, Sept. 18, on FOX at 8pm. The show picked up seven Creative Arts Emmys last weekend.)
Winter was still writing the season two finale script as of earlier this month, with the last day of shooting slated for Sept. 7. He says that some minor footage was still being shot (as of Sept. 7) and reports indicated that the show’s second season finale was still filming as of Sept. 12 in New York.
There were “little odds and ends” that still needed to be shot as of Labor Day weekend, but, says Winter, “For all principal photography I think we wrap tomorrow night [Sept. 7]. The rain kind of screwed us up a little bit today [Tuesday, Sept. 6] so we may have to rearrange our schedule a little, but yeah, for all intents and purposes we’ll be done by the end of the week. I’m very excited to get it in the can and very proud of season two and looking forward to season three, which we’re going to start writing in October. So, no break. Just straight on through.”
Winter, along with millions of other Americans, will tune in each Sunday to watch each episode as it airs on HBO, starting with the Sept. 25 (9pm) season two premiere.
“It’s funny. It was a tradition last year and I did the same thing when I worked on The Sopranos. Sunday night, I’d be in my chair and would watch it and then, that’s it, just let it go.”
Winter says he only re-watched season one of Boardwalk Empire right before starting to write season two. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have watched it again.
“I like to experience it with the audience,” he says. “I like to watch it in real time and it’s funny, it’s not until it’s on TV when you start to notice certain things. I mean, by the time it gets to air I’ve seen each episode 10 times, but I’ll still notice things for the first time when I’m seeing it live. I’m [not working] and just watching it as a viewer.”
Instead of listening to the sound, checking camera angles, tweaking the script, and noticing the lighting as he does on set while filming, Winter appreciates the opportunity to let each episode “wash over” him and “just happen” on Sunday nights.
Even with Boardwalk Empire taking up so much of his time, Winter is developing a new show for HBO along with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger “set in the world of rock music in the 1970s in New York City. It’s been something we’ve been working on for a while. So I got that and Boardwalk Empire, which is plenty!”
Despite filming for the second season having wrapped, with the Emmy Awards coming up in Los Angeles, followed by the New York City premiere and then the HBO premiere on Sept. 25, Winters is still in heavy work mode. He appeared with filmmaker Ken Burns on Sept. 8 at the restaurant 21 in Manhattan to “sort of cross-promote his Prohibition documentary [on PBS] and our show,” says Winter.
Placed in charge of Atlantic City’s two “colored” schools by 1921, Pennsylvania native Brock succumbed the following year at the age of 42, in the thick of a battle over whether or not to integrate the local schools.
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"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."
“[Empire’s] helped remind people of what a colorful history we’ve had as a city, and helped bring these things back into focus for some people. And I think the fact that the series is very well regarded only helps.”
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