Press tour: HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ brings Martin Scorsese to television

Senior Television Writer
08.07.10 32 Comments

Martin Scorsese has wanted to work in television for a long time. With HBO’s“Boardwalk Empire,” one of the final series paneled at press tour, he finally has his chance.

Appearing via satellite from London, the excitable Oscar-winning director said that the TV drama revolution of the last decade fulfilled the promise of “what we had hoped for in the mid-60s, when films were being made for television at first. We hoped that there would be this kind of a freedom.

“I’ve been tempted over the years to be involved in (a TV drama) because of the nature of the long form,” he added, “and the development of character and plot.”

With “Boardwalk Empire” – which debuts Sept. 19, and which is far and away the best thing I’ve seen for this press tour, and probably going back many, many press tours – Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (David Chase’s right-hand man on “The Sopranos”) are telling a story that could, in success, last a decade. The series begins in Atlantic City in 1920 on the eve of Prohibition, with Steve Buscemi playing Nucky Thompson, a fictionalized version of legendary Atlantic City fixer Nucky Johnson.

(The series features a number of historical figures like Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano. “I was afraid if people started to Google the real Nucky Johnson, they would get ahead of the story,” Winter explained, and calling him Thompson gives him license to significantly depart from Johnson’s biography.)

Scorsese has told many gangster stories before, from the 19th century (“Gangs of New York”) to the ’60s and ’70s (“Goodfellas”) to today (“The Departed”), and was drawn to Winter’s script and the ’20s milieu because it gave him a chance to show “the charting of this world” and the start of “America’s love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero.”

In a separate interview I did with Winter (that will run closer to the premiere), Winter talked about how Scorsese’s name was a “magnet” for actors, and led to a cast that included Kelly MacDonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire”), Dabney Coleman, Gretchen Mol, Michael Stuhlbarg and that was headed by Steve Buscemi, a career character actor suddenly at the center of a sprawling historical crime epic.

Buscemi worked with Winter for a season on “The Sopranos,” and briefly with Scorsese on “New York Stories,” but said the idea of getting the role of Nucky was so unlikely that when he read the script, “I just thought, ‘Wow. I’m almost sorry I’ve read this, because if I don’t get it, I’m going to be so sad.'”

Winter told Buscemi that Scorsese wanted him for the part – “I love the range he has,” Scorsese explained, “his dramatic sense, but also his sense of humor.” – and it actually took a few moments for the news to sink in.

“My response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors,'” Buscemi recalled. “And he said, ‘No, no, Steve, I said we want you.'”

Much of Scorsese’s career has been spent chronicling stories from the other side of the Hudson, but he “always loved the idea of Jersey,” and was struck by the coincidence that the pilot was filmed at the same time that news broke in New Jersey of a sweeping corruption scandal involving Orthodox rabbis and local politicians.

“Interesting state, interesting part of the country,” he said. “But I had not really followed NJ politics from the 1940s on. I was kind of pleasantly surprised.”

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