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The '20s, Gangsters and Man-Boys: A Conversation with Boardwalk Empire's Terence Winter

Why is Terence Winter's first post-Sopranos series again about New Jersey gangsters? Two words: Martin Scorsese. "HBO gave me the book Boardwalk Empire in a meeting and said, 'See what you think,'" Winter says. "On my way out the door, they added, 'Oh, by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this... if it goes... if you can find anything." I stopped, turned around and said, 'I guarantee you there is a series in this book. I don't care what it is; I will find it.'" Scorsese aside, the two-time Emmy-winning writer on The Sopranos quickly discovered Boardwalk Empire could be a sprawling epic on its own.

Denise Martin

Why is Terence Winter's first post-Sopranosproject again about New Jersey gangsters? Two words: Martin Scorsese.

"HBO gave me the book Boardwalk Empire in a meeting and said, 'See what you think,'" Winter says. "On my way out the door, they added, 'Oh, by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this... if you can find anything." I turned around and said, 'I guarantee you there is a series in this book. I don't care what it is; I will find it.'"

The two-time Emmy-winning writer quickly discovered Boardwalk Empire could be a sprawling epic on its own. The drama is set in 1920s Atlantic City. Prohibition has come down, and the city's corrupt treasurer, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), is the powerful man about town, preaching to the Women's Temperance League while killing and greasing palms to keep the city's booze flowing.

Check out photos from HBO's Boardwalk Empire

Winter — who went from doorman to lawyer to sitcom writer before landing on The Sopranos -- talked to about casting Buscemi and man-boy Michael Pitt, watching gangster movies with Scorsese, finding the comedy in serious drama and — bonus -- the story behind the legendary London broil that whacked Tony Soprano. The book that Boardwalk Empire is based on spans many decades. How did you end up in the 20s?
Terence Winter:
There were a couple of different eras that were really interesting: the '20s, the '50s and the '70s. The '50s were sort of the Skinny D'Amato era, but it felt like Tony Soprano's dad's time. A lot of Italian Americans in New Jersey, it just felt too similar. Same thing with the '70s, that's Tony Soprano as a teenager. The '20s were a whole different world, the dawn of this modern age. Prohibition had just begun, and everything became a free-for-all, a convergence of opportunity and circumstance. In Atlantic City, you had the ocean right there, alcohol is illegal, and there's this guy Nucky Thompson, running the town with his brother, the sheriff. Why was Nucky the guy to hang the show around?
He ran Atlantic City from the teens to the 40s, and he's totally intriguing. He's this chameleon, beloved by the people of Atlantic City and yet corrupt and a criminal in every sense of the word. You worked with Buscemi on The Sopranos and, for the most part, he is a character actor. Why was he right to play Nucky?
I remember the first time I ever saw Steve in a movie, which I can't say for a lot of people. It was an independent movie called In the Soup, and  I remember going, "Who the hell is that guy? He's fascinating." And then every time I would see a movie with him, I knew if the movie sucked, at least he'd be great. As far as Nucky, we wanted someone you believe as a leader, but with an underlying emotion, a sadness. Nucky also has a comedic quality, which Steve obviously has.

The temptation in casting a role like this is getting some big, burly guy who can yell and scream. But we really wanted an actor who could go to different places, and who meant a lot of different things to different people. The great thing is, I don't think Steve has ever done anything like this. Scorsese directed the pilot, and then the two of you had standing weekly meetings while you shot the first season. Tell us about how the collaboration worked.
We'd talk about the latest cuts of the show, what was happening on set, recipes. [Laughs.] Not recipes. It's been a great relationship from the beginning. First, we got to go to his private screening room and watch a dozen movies with him. It was like the best film class you ever had. I remember thinking, "I'm sitting here, watching gangster movies with Martin Scorsese. How crazy is this?" We watched the really cheesy ones, and he'd still find something positive to say about every one, he's such a fan of cinema.

While we were in production, he would weigh in on casting choices, he'd read all the scripts. He'd give me ideas and notes, then he'd watch cuts of the episodes and we'd talk about it all up until the final music choices. We really were on the same page creatively.  I was such a student of his work, and then he gave me the template of what the show looked like in the pilot episode. That's what we aspired to every week. Did you ever disagree with him? Ever tell him to back off?
Uh, no. But I will say we've been in agreement 98 percent of the time. I think there was one casting choice for a role that we disagreed on. We ended up going his way. Which was fine. Michael Pitt, who plays Nucky's protégé Jimmy, has that man-boy thing Leonardo DiCaprio has going on. Is he a Scorsese recruit?
He was actually brought up by our casting director, but you're right, the man-boy thing is definitely there. I wasn't necessarily looking for it, but probably should have been. It really lends itself to the character. Jimmy is this sort of wounded boy, a boy who went off to war and came home a man. He's almost like a little lost boy -- obviously, a psychotic little lost boy. It's such a Hollywood cliché, but Michael really is someone the camera loves — there's warmth but also brooding, and a lot going on behind his eyes. The show and its level of detail look incredible — and expensive! Feeling any pressure?
Page Six picked up a number that was absurd. People are saying the pilot cost $40- to $50 million. That got picked up all over the Internet. It's like, "This came from Page Six! It's right next to a Paris Hilton story! It's gotta be true, right?" It wasn't that much. As far as pressure? Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm not feeling it too much. I can go to bed at night knowing that I stand behind every decision I made on this show. When I was a kid, my dad said, "Don't sign your name to anything you're not proud of." I signed my name to everything here. I think this is the best work I've done and can do. You used to write for The PJsand Sister, Sister. Do you miss anything about comedy writing?
It's funny actually. With The Sopranos, the writers and I used to compliment each other on our scripts by saying, "Man, your script was so funny."  For me, comedy drawn from reality, from people in tense situations, that's when it is best -- as opposed to set-up, punchline, "You're fatter than a blank." Nucky and his assistant Eddy Kessler, the laughs between them in Boardwalk Empire are immensely more satisfying. Speaking of The Sopranos, you and the writers often drew on personal experiences to inform characters and stories. Was the writing process for a period piece like Boardwalk Empire different? 
No, it's really the same. The Sopranos writers room was an experience I wanted to replicate. Very open, very friendly, very fun. It's basically guys and girls sitting around a table for hours on end, eating junk food, and just spilling our guts. Episode 7, for example, came from a reminiscence of my own life after my mom died, remembering how I dealt with certain issues in our house. I said, "God, this is a Nucky moment." I'd say the Nuckyisms are definitely drawn from various writers' personalities and backstories, but I don't want to give them all away. I remember you saying that Gloria throwing a London broil at Tony in The Sopranos was something that actually happened between you and a girlfriend. Do you remember what that was about? 
I don't remember the argument, but I do remember that I tried to end it by being macho. I tried to end it by saying, "Are you gonna cook or not?" And she said, "Oh, are you hungry?" -- and I knew that wasn't a sincere question. But I still said yes.  So she went, "Oh, you want this?" And I just started backing up and she lobbed it at me. I remember sharing an elevator with some people on the way down, and trying to look OK with all the meat juice on myself. The best part is she and I had dinner a while later and she asks me how it is — and then tells me it's the same steak. Turns out that after I left, she picked it up off the floor and stuck it in the freezer.

Boardwalk Empire premieres Sunday, Sept. 19 at 9/8c on HBO.