Combining the creative forces of Emmy Award-winning writer Terence Winter with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese, along with veteran HBO producers Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson, the new original drama Boardwalk Empire was born.
Taking place in Atlantic City in the 1920s, and starting on the eve of Prohibition, it tells the story of the people who make up the political and criminal machinery that is behind the glitz and glamor of what was referred to as the world’s playground. Along with the talent behind the camera, the stellar cast of actors includes Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Shannon, Dabney Coleman, Gretchen Mol and many others.
Check out what show creator/executive producer Terence Winter and executive producer/director Martin Scorsese had to say about this epic 12-episode drama after the jump:
Winter: I was always interested in the 1920’s and the gangster world, in general. Toward the end of The Sopranos, HBO came to me with a book that Mark Wahlberg and his partner Steve Levinson had optioned, called Boardwalk Empire, which the series is inspired by, about the history of Atlantic City. He said, “Why don’t you read it and see if there’s something in there that feels like a series to you.” And, literally on the way out the door, they said, “Oh, and by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this, if you find a series there.” So, I said, “I assure you that I will find a series here.”
And then, I read the book, which chronicled the history of the city from the time it was literally a mosquito-infested swamp until the present day. There were a couple of years, in particular, that were very interesting. The ‘20s was the most interesting to me because it is an era that hasn’t really been depicted often in cinema, and almost never in television.
At its center was this incredible lead character, Nucky Johnson, upon whose Steve’s character is based on. It’s fictionalized as Nucky Thompson. This was a guy who was just incredibly conflicted, as equal parts politician and gangster. And then, that was coupled with the massive changes going on in 1920, like Prohibition, women’s vote, broadcast radio coming in, World War I just having ended and the ‘20s about to boom. It was just this incredible pallet from which to draw stories and characters. It was just irresistible.
Scorsese: I think it’s the charting of this world and the underworld, as with Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino. The major urban areas had a lot of gang activity. Also, there is America’s love affair with the gangster as a tragic hero. It’s about how it resonates today, not only in America, but around the world. Alcohol decimated the working class and so many people. It’s also about how those characters or people like that interacted with the world, at that time.
Is this a series that can go on for several seasons?
Winter: I was hoping decades. Yes, certainly. The ‘20s itself is just a backdrop. There’s so much material there, and the world we’ve created with the characters and how they relate and interact with each other, hopefully lends itself to a really long narrative. It’s an epic novel. God willing, we’ll have the opportunity to do that.
This book is extremely dense and extremely specific. How did you go through and pick out these little elements and moments that you want to bring out?
Winter: The book is very dense, and it’s almost a history book. We took a small slice of it. It literally spans a hundred years. We specifically focused on the 1920’s and then, at least for the beginning of the series, focused on just 1920 itself. So, in that sense, it was narrowed down considerably. And then, it was really a question of fictionalizing Nucky and his world, and the people he may or may not have interacted with. Obviously, what makes the series unique is that we have fictional characters that interact with historical figures. We really try to stay faithful to the history and depict events when they actually happened. It feels much broader, when you look at it from a distance, but then it ultimately becomes very specific, when you focus in on the day-to-day lives of these people and characters.
You’ve both done a lot of work with stories of gangsters in different eras, from Gangs of New York through The Sopranos. Is there anything specific that is true of gangsters in the 1920’s that is not true of gangsters in other eras?
Scorsese: One of the things is that the good intentions of Prohibition, from reading over the years and from becoming obsessed with the research of gangs in New York City, seems to have allowed crime figures at the time, like Luciano, Capone, Torrio and Rothstein, to organize to become more powerful, which pulled all the way through until the ‘70s. GoodFellas takes place in the ‘70s. Gangs of New York was in the 1850’s and 1860’s, but the gangs were not organized. They were more political.
Winter: One of the things that was interesting about this era and this character, in particular, is that Nucky really moved seamlessly between the worlds of politics and organized crime. His white collar corruption slowly gave way to actual, hands-on violence that ensued with Prohibition. It was almost too good to pass up, if you had a corrupt bone in your body and you happened to run a town that was on the ocean. It was almost impossible not to be involved in illegal rum-running during Prohibition. If you weren’t predisposed to do that, people would kill you to get you out of the way, so they could do it. What strikes me are the similarities more than the differences. There’s a certain type of person drawn to the gangster world, and they’re generally young men who were predisposed to violence and risk-taking, who like to make a lot of money quickly and wear flashy clothes. It’s the same thing through time, up to the present day. A lot of the parallels that exist between 1920 and today are evident. The more research I did and the more we wrote the series, the more I said, “God, it hasn’t changed a bit.”
Mr. Scorsese, having directed the pilot, how did you establish the style that the rest of the series would follow?
Scorsese: Based on what Terry had written, I just went ahead and tried to visualize the picture as best I could, just like with a feature film. I shot it quickly, and it was an energizing experience. I had a great time with the actors. I just visualized it the way I normally would with a feature film. For me, the ‘20s are very special because, when I was growing up in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the ‘20s were only 15 or 20 years in the past, and my father and mother spoke about it as if it was the present day. So, this is something that I felt very comfortable with.
Scorsese: I’ve been watching Steve’s work since Parting Glances, back in the ‘80s. We got to work together briefly in New York Stories, and I always wanted to work with Steve again. I love the range he has and his dramatic sense, but also his sense of humor. There’s something that’s very, very strong on camera, with Steve as a character, whatever he plays, whether it’s in The Big Lebowski or Ghost World, or any of his films. I think it was a very interesting idea that Steve would play this part because it’s a character that is basically a decent guy, but that world corrupts him so much. He’s a pragmatist, too. He’s practical. He’s put in the position of being a treasurer, yet the treasurer runs the city and, ultimately, you figure out how much sin you can live with.
If the series continues, do you plan on directing more episodes?
Scorsese: I would like to, yes. It’s about scheduling issues, but I would like to very much.
Terence, how much of this is historical, and how much is fiction? Should viewers take this as being the real thing, or is this more entertainment?
Winter: We try to be as historically accurate as possible. I can’t give you an actual percentage, but I would say we’re running in the high 90’s, in terms of historical accuracy. There were a couple of occasions where events did not take place on the show, on exactly the day or month that they took place, but in terms of storytelling and taking creative license, we don’t alter history in such a huge way that I was reluctant to do it. It’s just about keeping it truthful to the spirit of who these people were, in furthering the story, but we always try to do it within the rules. There’s a template of history, and a time, place and circumstance. We tell the story within that framework and try to be as accurate as possible.
Why did you choose to change Nucky’s last name?
Winter: I felt we had enough historical figures on the show, who were based on real people. Everybody knows what happened to Al Capone, Luciano and Rothstein, and I was afraid that if people started to Google the real Nucky Johnson, they would get ahead of the story and know what became of him, or learn about what he did or didn’t do. We had enough real people on the show that I was beholden to the reality of, so I didn’t want to box myself into the same corner creatively. So, by making him Nucky Thompson, he’s Nucky, but he’s not Nucky. Our Nucky can do anything and veer off into any direction. That’s much more freeing creatively, for myself and my writers. We can just open it up.
Mr. Scorsese, in the past 10 years, the work that’s been happening on television, and especially cable, has been revolutionary. As one of the landmark filmmakers of the ‘70s generation, do you notice any parallels to what’s going on in television now?
Scorsese: I think it’s certainly interesting that what’s happening now, in the past nine or 10 years, particularly at HBO, was what we had hoped for in the mid-‘60s when films were being made for television. We hoped that there would be this kind of freedom, the ability to create another world and develop character in a long-form story and narrative. That didn’t happen in the ‘70s and ‘80s with television. This is a good example, and HBO has really been the trailblazer in this, with the extraordinary series that they’ve had. I’ve been tempted, over the years, to be involved in one of them because of the nature of the long-form and the development of character and plot. So many of their other series that have been made are thoughtful, intelligent and brilliantly put together. It’s a new opportunity for storytelling, which is very different from television in the past. This was my inroad.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE premieres on HBO on September 19th