Late last week, before the season four finale of "Boardwalk Empire," The Playlist had the chance to talk to the HBO mob drama's creator, show runner and head writer Terence Winter. At this point, we're hoping you saw last night's season finale (recap here), a wrenching episode that saw the death of a fan favorite character (spoilers from here on in, ok?).
Why the death of Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a character seemingly disconnected from the main narratives of this season? How much longer can the show go on? And what's going on with "The Wolf Of Wall Street," the rise and fall drama of cocky, young stockbrokers in the 1990s? Winter answered all these questions and more. Our conversation below. If you have yet to catch up, and you should, "Boardwalk Empire" airs on HBO and all its seasons from beginning to end are available on HBO Go.
Rewinding a little, because we've never talked to you about the show before, after "The Sopranos" [Winter was one of the head writers] the world was sort of your oyster. What drew you to "Boardwalk Empire"?
One sentence, "Martin Scorsese is attached to this." They handed me the book and said, "Why don't you read this and see if there's something there," and I said, "I don't even have to read the book, I'm interested. I want to do this." That was pretty much it. I mean the book was essentially a history of Atlantic City, and they said, "Why don't you look at it and see if there's a TV series in there somewhere." And I landed on the prohibition years and this guy Nucky Johnson and we fictionalized it as Nucky Thompson, of course. But really, you know the idea that I would get to work with Martin Scorsese was the big carrot for me. I'd been in the gangster genre for a while, this was the way to do it in a fresh way and than to do it with him was just irresistible.
Were you concerned at all about repeating yourself? You had just done mobsters and here you are doing mobsters from another era.
That was an initial concern, and it was something that was on my mind when I was reading the book looking at the different eras in Atlantic City. And the '70s were interesting, gambling came in, but it felt a little too close, it felt like Tony's Dad's world and even the '50s felt familiar, not really a 'Sopranos' thing but it just felt like I've seen a lot of the '50s. But Prohibition in the '20s—I mean I haven't really seen aside form the Warner Brothers gangster movies...so it just felt like it was an area that was far enough away from what I had been doing that it felt fresh again. Also, you got the idea that you know "The Sopranos" was about the end of organized crime, this was about the very beginnings of it. That was appealing to me to sort of bookend those two ideas.
Does the book cover all that time span period?
It's literally a history of Atlantic City, it's not fiction. It's really from when Atlantic City was a mosquito infested swamp up until the present day. Just literally how Atlantic City came to be. It originally started as a health resort but it was the most unhealthy place. Swarming with mosquitoes, it was horrible. But than once the railroad came in it became a tourist destination, it was a way for people to get there from pretty much a lot of major cities on the East Coast within a day, you could take a trip to the shore. That was a huge thing for people, for a nickel you could get on a train and end up at the beach, just within a span of a couple of years just blossomed into this incredible carnival town and by the 1870s it became sort of a version of Atlantic City that we know today.
So then you just zeroed in on the prohibition-era in the book because that's the stuff that appealed to you?
Yeah, the character Nucky was really interesting. He was a low level politician, essentially, who's kind of the guy who ran the town and suddenly alcohol is illegal and overnight this guy, this corrupt politician who runs this town right on the Atlantic Ocean, became the friend of every gangster in the country, immediately. He sort of trafficked alcohol in right off the ocean into the city and brought it anywhere to the East Coast. Nucky got really popular, really quickly. He went from being a fairly low level corrupt politician to a major, major player in the alcohol market.
So how much do you look at history still? How much are you looking at what actually happened?
I very consciously changed and fictionalized Nucky Johnson to Nucky Thompson because I knew I was going to take our Nucky to places that the real Nucky didn’t go. I knew I wanted the latitude to allow our Nucky to be much worse in terms of the things he did, getting involved in murders and that sort of stuff, so that was important to me. The overall historical context is accurate.
The spirit of who Nucky is [and] the world around him is accurate—the fact of Prohibition and women getting the right to vote and what was happening in the gangster world in Chicago and the Al Capone story—all of those things are factually close to the truth. It's just those real life historical figures interact with our fictional characters and for me the rule is if I stay true to the spirit of who those real characters were, than I feel like I can have them comfortably interact with people. I won't rewrite history, I always use "Inglourious Basterds" as an example: I won't kill Hitler in a movie theater, it will play out the way it played out but I'll interact with those people as I'm doing it.
So Al Capone won't be killed in his '30s a la Quentin.
I've jokingly threatened the actors with something like that. "This could just as easily be a Quentin Tarantino deal so don’t' feel too comfortable!" But I would never do that, I think they know that.
How involved is Martin Scorsese now?
He's very involved. It's interesting for a guy who's so unbelievably busy and prolific, both with features and documentaries, he's really got an eye on the show down to the smallest details. He and I generally have a standing weekly conversation about the show. He reads all the outlines, reads all the scripts, weighs in on casting. We'll cast a show I'll send him my top two choices for a role and I'll say, "This is what I want, number one and number two," and he'll weigh in if he has anything to say. I can count on one hand the times we've disagreed on a role. Usually we're pretty much in sync.
He'll watch cuts of the show and give me editing [and] music suggestions, things like that, but he really, unlike anyone I've ever met, he's able to keep a story in his head and the timeline of a story in his head. I can pitch something he wants and he remembers it months later. It's really incredible the mind he's got and even more so visually. If I change the order of a scene or a different shot he'll watch it weeks later and he knows immediately what was changed, it's really remarkable.