Interview: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ creator Terence Winter

Senior Television Writer
09.08.10 13 Comments

The Prohibition-era gangster epic “Boardwalk Empire,” which debuts on HBO on Sept. 19 at 9 p.m., comes with a lot of expectations.

HBO spent a fortune on the pilot episode, up to building a recreation of the famed Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1920 in a Brooklyn parking lot. It’s the first episode of scripted television directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese in nearly 25 years (he did an episode of the ’80s anthology show “Amazing Stories”), and the first ongoing TV series where he’s consented to be a producer. The creator and showrunner is Terence Winter, who was David Chase’s number-two man on “The Sopranos” for most of that show’s run.

The heavyweight cast includes Steve Buscemi (as a fictionalized version of Atlantic City fixer Nucky Johnson, here called Nucky Thompson), Michael Pitt (Nucky’s protege, WWI veteran Jimmy Darmody), Kelly MacDonald (Margaret, an Irish immigrant trapped in an abusive marriage), Michael Shannon (a federal agent with deep religious convictions), Dabney Coleman (Nucky’s mentor, the Commodore), Michael K. Williams (Chalky White, Nucky’s counterpart in Atlantic City’s black community), Michael Stuhlbarg (mobster Arnold Rothstein, who helped fix the 1919 World Series) and more.

The series begins in Atlantic City, but its scope extends to Chicago and real-life gangsters like Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, New York and men like Rothstein and Lucky Luciano, and even down to the White House.

“Boardwalk Empire” is, in short, being asked to help make HBO into HBO again. “True Blood” has become the channel’s biggest hit since “The Sopranos,” but it’s not entirely on-brand for the pay channel. With this setting, cast and creative team, “Boardwalk Empire” feels like a throwback to HBO’s glory years of the early-mid ’00s, before AMC and FX and Showtime all started chipping away as its position as the pre-eminent creator of prestige drama.

Having seen the first six “Boardwalk” episodes, I can say it lives up to the hype.

I’ll have a review next week, but in the meantime, here’s a large chunk (with some spoiler-specific stuff held until after various episodes air) of a long interview I did with Winter last month at press tour, where we talked about the many lessons he learned from David Chase, the parallels between 1920 and 2010, the dream of getting to make a period gangster epic with Martin Scorsese directing, and a lot more.

When I saw you back on the set last fall, one on the things you said was that other than Steve you really didn”t want to dip too much into “The Sopranos” pool of actors because you didn”t want the link.

Right, right.

But Max (Casella, who played Christopher’s sidekick Benny Fazio) is there, Greg (Antonacci, who was New York underboss Butchie DeConcini in the final season) is there. I spotted a couple of other actors. What was your threshold for, “I will let this person from ‘The Sopranos’ be in this show”?

I didn”t have one that was clearly defined. It just has to feel right. I sort of peppered it with people who felt right for the role. Greg came in. That was a really tough role for us to cast for some reason. We”ve gone through a lot of people for Johnny Torrio and finally I said, “”Early on in the process, I said I was trying to avoid people from ‘The Sopranos,’ but there a guy on ‘The Sopranos’ who I think we didn”t get to use a lot who I think might be perfect for this.” And he came in and read and Marty said, “Yeah. That”s the guy.”

But if Tony Sirico wanted to come in, you think that would be a bridge too far?

Probably a little too high profile. A little too associated with a particular character on the show. So yeah, possibly but certainly wouldn”t rule it out. Look, on “Sopranos,” it was Season 5 before David wanted to cast Frank Vincent because he felt the “Goodfellas” connection was too strong. And Frank was going crazy: “I”m perfect for this show!” And David”s like, “Please be patient. I will get you on the show at some point when it”s right.” And it was right when he did get there, you know? So I think at some point. There were those who were among the greatest group of actors I”ve ever worked with and I”d like to work with them again. It”s just when the time is right, and God willing we”ll have enough time.

Yeah. If the show”s established enough that you feel, “All right, it’s not Paulie Walnuts in the 20s anymore.”

Yeah. People aren”t going to immediately go to that, so I think we”re right at the right level where I don”t think people will do that with the characters we have.

Well, one of the things that always struck me in your “Sopranos” episodes – especially the wedding of Johnny Sack”s daughter – is that you were clearly the big mob-movie fan among the writers, or at least it came across most in the episodes you did. And David was always playing with mob tropes, but he didn”t want to embrace them wholeheartedly because he was telling a different kind of story. And it feels like with this show, you”re getting to tell a bit more of a classical gangster story. Would you agree?

Right. I would agree when I think about it. It”s not something I”ve done consciously but, yeah, probably. Yeah.

Obviously, “Sopranos” was an incredible experience, but is there sort of something maybe nice about being able to take those shackles off and say, “All right, now we”re going for it”?

Well, I never felt there were shackles on, but it”s just really a personal choice. It”s just sort of the story dictates where it goes and I honestly don”t really understand my own process enough to articulate it. I”m always amazed where I can just do that. I often years later will watch something and go, “Oh, well that”s what that was about.” And it”s probably true here, too. I”m just writing the show, my writers and I, as we feel it and this is what we came up with. If that”s how it turned out, then yeah.

(We discuss a killing in an early episode that looks very much like a classical gangster movie moment; I’ll publish some of that conversation after the episode airs, but it leads to this exchange:)

And basically if anyone”s going to get away with that it”s Martin Scorsese.

Absolutely, yeah absolutely. So yeah, and it was so simple. It was so clean. I mean it”s not a big huge mob massacre. For me, those are the most effective, because I always talk about the difference between Michael Corleone killings a lot, and the police captain in “Godfather” vs. the helicopter attack in “Godfather III.” And you just go from three shots being maybe the most tense scene in cinema and then the other one you absolutely you feel nothing because it”s too big. So things that are just sometimes simple are really, for me, the most effective.

Obviously, Scorsese knows exactly what he”s doing. But in planning this out, what discussions did you have with him about the visual style of the show and how things were going to look?

We talked a lot about authenticity. We wanted it to really look real. We didn”t want it look stylized in any way. And that could have been a way to go, given we knew this was going to be very expensive to do. So we said, “Are we going to cut corners in some ways and make this just sort of a more stylized version of what the past looked like? Or are were going to be absolutely faithful to what the past looked like?” And we decided on absolute faith. Then that being the case, it was, “Okay, well sets have to look weathered. They”ve got to look old. People in clothes can’t all dress like it”s 1920. Some people have clothes from 1905. Some people have ill-fitting clothes.” Hairstyles, etc. And we worked really closely. I introduced him to Bob Shaw who was the production designer. He has worked with John Dunn before on “Casino” as costume designer. It was just a lot of sitting down and looking at books and doing the research and a lot of conversations about it.

Well it seems that the visual style in the pilot is very consistent with the work that Tim (Van Patten) and everybody did in the later episodes. That birthday party scene in the fourth episode looked like it could be right out of “Age of Innocence.”

Yeah. We certainly used the pilot as a template in terms of what the lighting design looked like and in terms of how the camera moved or didn”t move. But that was the challenge too, to say, “Well, God, we”ve got this huge ambitious pilot and how do we then move into the series and have it look like the same show?” And I think it”s seamless. I think Tim directed number 2 and 3 so I knew I was in good hands. If anybody could follow Martin Scorsese, I knew Tim would be the guy you”d want there just transitioning into the series, and yeah, it works.

You’ve explained before that Nucky is not the real Nucky so that you could take liberties with history. Obviously Big Jim (Colosimo) is real. Torrio, Rothstein, Luciano. How many other regular characters are real vs. either invented or fictionalized versions of people?

Well, Eli, Nucky”s brother, is a version of what I guess Nucky”s brother was. Margaret really just came from the introduction to the book “Boardwalk Empire,” which is really a history of Atlantic City, but Nelson Johnson started with a woman who came to see Nucky just as an illustration of what Nucky was like. A woman came to see Nucky to get money for her kids, and I just took that and spun it into this character. So she”s not real. I don”t even know if that woman in Nelson”s book was real, but it”s just a depiction of kinds of things that would happen. Yeah, everybody else is fictionalized. Although the Commodore is based on Nucky”s mentor.

Jimmy is wholly invented, then?

Completely invented. Gillian is wholly invented. Lucy”s wholly invented. I”m trying to think who else I”m leaving out. Agent Van Alden is invented, his partner.

So it”s a huge cast of characters. Just so many people and so many factions. Why did you want the scope to be this big, and why did you want to be telling the stories in Chicago at the same time?

It felt like Atlantic City was the focal point, and once Prohibition was enacted, the real Nucky was the guy who in 1928 sort of organized organized crime, finally got everybody to get from all over the country. So his reach politically went to Washington, D.C., really went right to the White House. His gangster reach went, once Prohibition was enacted, to New York to Chicago, etc. And because Capone and Torrio were such great characters and there was a natural connection there, I knew that Chicago would be part of this. I didn”t want to concoct reasons every week for these guys to be visiting Atlantic City, which is ludicrous, you know? They”d come there occasionally, so I said, “Well, we could actually go there or stories could play out there and they intersect or not, as the case may be.” I think as long as it”s entertaining and it”s part of the natural storytelling, I don”t think people are going to call you on why you”re in Chicago. But as it turned out, those stories did intersect really well. Same thing with Rothstein. They had a lot of business together. Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. and there”s a lot of connections, so.

What do you see as the story of the first season, and then the series as a whole for as long as it manages to go?

I think the first season is Nucky”s. It sort of goes back to something Jimmy said in the pilot: “You can”t be half a gangster anymore.” The world is changing and you have to change along with it and not necessarily for the better, but if you want to survive now you”ve got to accept the fact that the world is changing in a way that you”re not prepared for and I can help you get there. So it”s sort of Nucky coming full circle from corrupt politician to corrupt politician/gangster – crossing those lines. And that”s basically it, how 1920 really changed things for everybody. The season takes us all the way to the President”s election and there”s a political storyline that starts kicking into high-gear in episode 8.

In researching the era and telling the story, what commonalities, if any, have you found to today? Does the show comment on 21st century life?

Oh yeah. I think the vintage that jumps out at me is the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Political corruption and big business being the tail that wags the government. As we”ll see in subsequent seasons, God willing, with Harding and Teapot Dome and all those scandals, just these political bosses controlling everything. The alcohol business is the drug business – it”s no different. You take a 20-year old kid who”s ambitious and hungry and violent and say, “You want to make a lot of money here? Go sell this shit.” It’s crack. It”s exactly the same. It”s worse in a way because there”s no stigma with this. There wasn”t a lot of stigma with it because it”s like if jelly is illegal tomorrow, I”ve been eating jelly my whole life. Now it”s illegal? Not many people got onboard with the idea that it was evil to speak to a bootlegger. So it was even more acceptable for people to be drinking. They almost romanticized people who would go into liquor. So I think it”s really accessible, too. It”s 90 years ago, but you look at the show and people drove in cars, they went to movies, they had airplanes, they talked on the telephone, they went to restaurants. They did a lot of the same stuff we do, it”s very modern even though it”s almost 100 years ago.

When Curtis Hanson made “L.A. Confidential,” he talked about how they always wanted to emphasize as much as possible the ways that 1950 were like 1998. Did you try to do any of that?

Not consciously, no. But I started to realize that, “Wow, people listened to popular music. Sex was always something people were interested in.” I said, “It”s not sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s sex, alcohol and jazz.” And that was the rock and roll and drugs of the era, so.

And the show is pretty wall-to-wall music.

Yeah, which is great. When I started to approach this for the research of this, I approached the music like homework. I was like, “Ah, I gotta listen to this shit, this 1920″s rinky-dink music.” And within a couple of days I was shocked at how great some of this stuff was. And when I met Randy Poster, our music supervisor, he opened up a whole new world for me. Now here”s music on this show that literally has not been heard or played for 95 years. When there were nickelodeons and they had pianists that would accompany silent films we have scored to accompany a chase scene or a romance scene. So this was all music that was written and abandoned when talkies came in. So Randy and his team found all these old music rolls and they say, “Wow, what”s this? Go play this and give it to the pianist,” and he”d play it and go, “Holy shit, that”s great. Let”s record that.” This is stuff that has literally just gone. Forgotten music, and a lot of that is on the show. We talked to someone who’s a music scholar and knew the difference between the music in Chicago and early Gershwin in New York, show music that was Broadway stuff that was trying out in Atlantic City at the time. So it was cornucopia of really cool stuff.

But when Scorsese makes “Goodfellas,” it”s easy to say, “All right, now we”re going to use the piano exit from ‘Layla.'” With the music here, did you say, “Alright, this scene needs something like this?” How did you figure it out?

Just mixing and matching. Some of the stuff was written in the scripts. “I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife,” in the pilot, was something I found and wrote in. You know, Edith Day in episode 4 singing “Alice Blue Gown,” that was written. A lot of the Eddie Cantor stuff. In terms of other pieces that were used, it just really was what fit the mood of the scene. There was always a lot of talk about whether we were only going to use source music as we had done in “The Sopranos,” or were we going to start using songs as score. And the problem was there”s not a lot of sources in 1920. Broadcast radio didn”t come in until the end of the year. Not everybody had a Victrola. There are bands and somebody said we were going to limit our choices, so we just started laying on period music over the scenes and they worked great so we thought that”s what we were going to do.

Why Steve? Why did you want him as Nucky?

We wanted to go outside of the box. Instead of casting somebody who looked like the real Nucky since we”re sort of fictionalizing it and nobody knew in a million years what Nucky Johnson looked like anyway, we just said, “Alright let”s just get the most interesting choice and just open it up.” I think the tendency for a role like this would get some big burly guy with a square jaw: “He”s the leader of the town” and stuff. And we said, “Forget it. Let”s just brainstorm.” And I”ve always loved Steve. Even before I knew him and worked with him, he was an actor that whenever I saw he was in a movie, I said, “Oh God, I know this is going to be good. Or at least his scene is going to be good.”

So I just threw his name out to Marty and said “What do you think of Steve Buscemi?” and immediately he says, “I”ve always wanted to work with that guy.” And I said, “I have worked with him, he”s great.” He said, “That”s a really interesting choice.” And we said, “Alright let”s keep thinking,” and we kept talking a couple more days and he called me up and he says, “I can”t stop thinking about Buscemi.” I said, “I can”t either.” And he said, “Let”s do it.” And I said, “Great and done,” and we were off to the races. I had seen Steve in a production of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” a Brecht play where he was dressed in 1920″s clothing. This was while he was doing “The Sopranos,” I think he did that with John Ventimiglia and Tony Randall in the Brooklyn Theatre and he was just such a natural, so I also think I had him my mind in the ’20s. He looked great.

I”ve never seen him quite like this. Certainly not doing a romantic lead and being suave and a machine. Just fantastic.

He totally rocks. I knew he could do all that stuff. He”s got such range as an actor. Such depth and he”s funny, he”s powerful, he”s sad, he”s every color you can imagine and he can just do it and he”s just an incredible joy to work with. So for fitting the bill for somebody”s who”s a great actor who you want to work with for the next 8 years, God willing, that”s the guy.

Had you seen Michael K. Williams on “The Wire”? Had you watched “The Wire”?

Yeah, I certainly was aware of him from “The Wire,” yeah, and just incredible. This cast, you know, honestly we started casting this thing, we had Martin Scorsese at the helm and it”s like an actor magnet. Every day the phone would ring, “Guess who wants to do the show?” People were begging to come in and read anything. And then day by day pictures were going up on my wall and I was literally getting intimidated. I was like, “Look at this fucking cast! Holy shit. I really better write some good stuff because look at this!” One face after another. Michael Stuhlbarg and then Michael Kenneth Williams is on and that was the guy we were originally told is not available. Tim worked with him on “The Wire.” He”s like, “I”m telling you this is the guy.” I said, “I know, I know.” And then suddenly he was available and it”s just getting bigger and better by the day, and you know Michael Shannon and Gretchen (Mol) and Kelly (MacDonald) who”s a dream girl. Just amazing stuff.

But Williams, for instance, doesn’t really get going as Chalky until the fourth episode. Because there are so many characters and so many worlds, did it become difficult for you to say, “Look, I”ve got all these incredible actors; I need to give them something to do”? Or just, “It makes sense now Chalky would figure into the story,” and that was not going to be for awhile?

Sort of like that. I think as you see the season round out, it worked really well. I think the mechanisms all fit perfectly in terms of “this character comes in here and pays off there,” and then everything just worked out for the story in a really, really good way.

Chalky has a moment where he says “motherfucker,” and then he leaves and someone else asks, “What does that mean?” What sort of discoveries did you make about that era about things along those lines that you wouldn”t have expected to be unknown, I guess?

You realize that colloquiumisms in the African-American community largely remained in the African-American community. So something like a word like that that wasn”t adopted by white people or co-opted by white people for decades. So every once in awhile, you”d have to police yourself too with language, like, “Were people saying this then?” Or even things like, “I met a fella the other day.” “Fella”, you know. It”s a guy. It”s such an antiquated way of saying things, but the idea is it”s almost reverse-engineering – people in the lower classes were better educated. I think your average blue-collar worker was probably more articulate and well-read and could write better than your average graduate student today. I hate to say this, but they didn”t have televisions, they didn”t have radio. People read. They didn”t have music unless they went and heard somebody play it on a piano, usually. So people read and wrote and that”s what you did for entertainment. So if anything it”s almost like he”s saying, “You know what? This guy would be smarter than this and he”d be more articulate or would have read a lot of books.” And then you”d read some of these letters from Civil War vets written home in this beautiful prose. These guys are farmers, you know, writing these letters, where now it”s stuff on a Blackberry in symbols.

I want to go back to the idea of archetypal gangster movies. “The Godfather,” obviously, but beyond that, what were some of your favorites?

The Warner Bros. series: “Public Enemy,” “The Roaring Twenties.” It”s interesting: I hadn”t seen “The Roaring Twenties” for probably 15 years, and when I wrote this and went back and watched it, I was amazed to see how much of an homage I did to “The Roaring Twenties” (laughs), and I”ll call it that instead of active thievery. But I was like, “Oh my God. This is the guy who’s from WW1,” and there were a couple of things that jumped out at me, and I said, “Well, I totally got to it, but subliminally, because it wasn”t conscious. It’s an homage then. All of that stuff. I mean obviously from “Goodfellas,” of course, but as it relates to this particularly in terms of this era, I loved Rod Steiger”s “Al Capone,” “Pay or Die” with Ernest Borgnine, and these were all movies that Marty then also watched with us again. We ended up going to his screening room, which is like the best film class ever. You really want to pinch yourself. You”re sitting here watching gangster movies with Martin Scorsese. We watched Roger Corman”s “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” with Jason Robards as Al Capone if you can believe it, which was pretty amazing. All that period stuff. There”s not a lot of it. You know I watched not a lot of it that specifically deals with this era. “Once Upon a Time in America,” of course, watched that again. I watched a lot of “The Untouchables” (TV show) just to sort of get the flavor.

What you said about pinching yourself, making like a ’20s gangster epic with Martin Scorsese as your director, that”s got to be like wish-fulfillment.

Yeah, mind-blowing. It”s not an exaggeration for me to say he”s the reason I started doing this in the first place. “Taxi Driver” was the first movie that I ever really noticed as a work of cinema. I went to see that movie when I was 16 and I thought, “This is not like other movies,” and I didn”t know why. And I started to think and I went back and saw it like 15 times. And then that”s what got me interested in it, so it”s a flash-forward 35 years or whatever it is, and say that now I actually get to call this guy “Marty.” And I know him and I work with him and the ultimate compliment from him is “I will direct your script.” It”s just incredible, yeah. It”s just a dream come true.

Getting back to “The Sopranos,” there was always that sense, and you and I have talked about it and I”ve talked about it with David, that some of the audience wanted it to be a straightforward gangster show and were annoyed that it wasn”t. Do you think that they may find this a bit more satisfying?

I don”t know because I don”t think it is only a gangster series. Of course, with what you”ve seen it”s hard to say. I think if anything we might hear some of the same complaints from people who only think it”s a gangster series and only want it to be. But part of what made “The Sopranos” great is that it wasn”t all one thing. The reason you were interested and liked Tony is because you got to see the other stuff in his life. That”s what made his so relatable. I think it”s the same thing here. You get to know these characters on a human level and hopefully you get invested in their other lives that don”t revolve around shooting people and crime. But it”s hard to say. My way of doing this, I ascribed to the David Chase philosophy, which is, “Your job is to be entertaining,” and I just try to be entertaining and hopefully it works. And that means different things to all people.

Well, it”s a hell of a sandbox you get to play in here.

You”re not kidding. You”re not kidding, man. With actual sand.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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