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'Boardwalk Empire' Showrunner Terence Winter Preps Final Season

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 30, 2014 at 3:13PM

Back 2007, veteran TV writer Terence Winter first met with Martin Scorsese to talk about creating what became the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," about a month before Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Bros. snatched the rights to Jordan Belfort's memoir "The Wolf of Wall Street."
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"Boardwalk Empire"
HBO "Boardwalk Empire"

Over the succeeding six years, Winter developed both, although "Boardwalk Empire" came to fruition far ahead of "The Wolf of Wall Street," which earned him his first Oscar nomination, for Adapted Screenplay, one of five nods for the movie.  Now Winter has executive produced the final Season 5 of "Boardwalk Empire." We spoke on the phone.


Anne Thompson: You cut your teeth writing for David Chase on the landmark HBO series "The Sopranos"? 

Terence Winter: Through the entire run. David, he's brilliant and funny. He and I clicked. We have the same sense of humor. We're both East Coast guys. We find a lot of the same things funny. We're still dear friends, he's so smart. David is a good writer: getting in the writers room with him, to learn and watch him and get notes from him, my writing exponentially got better over a two to three year period. 'I am not running a writing class,' he said. You had to write the show and understand the world and characters and be able to observe the way he handled character and dialogue. I learned more in that two-year period than everything up to that point in my life. 

How did you come to do "Boardwalk Empire?" 

Through HBO. Wahlberg produced 'Entourage' with Steve Levinson. On 'Departed' Mark had a conversation with Marty about his interest in a TV series: 'Sure, if it's the right thing.' Mark and Steve found something to attach Marty to, based on the history of Atlantic City: 'Yeah, Marty, he's interested.' HBO found the writer. On 'Boardwalk,' initially my job was to find the series within the book, a sprawling epic about Atlantic City up to today. I zeroed in on the 20s, and the real Nucky Thompson, he's based on Nucky Johnson, fictionalized. I knew that guy was the basis of the series.

Sounds like what you had to do with 'Wolf of Wall Street.'

I pitched the pilot story to Marty. The pitch was the early days of organized crime. It hadn't been done on television since the '60s with "The Untouchables." I had not seen a lot on TV or film. I pitched the pilot story and went off to write the script. When the series was picked up, I took it through the first season with an arc of the storyline in broad strokes, 12 hours of TV, like doing TV mini-movies. I hired the writing staff, that's the difference from writing film alone. I've been working in TV since 1994, I know the concept of the writers room, batting ideas around. So I hired people and I dove right in. Howard Korter does the bulk of the work on the show, an incredibly talented playwright who I've always been interested in working with, since day one. 

How do you work with Scorsese?

Scorsese and DiCaprio
Scorsese and DiCaprio

He reads outlines and scripts, weighs in on casting choices. We have a standing weekly phone call to see where things are going, story lines, production issues. He watches as the dailies come in, cuts of episodes, gives us notes. By this point, we're in tune with his taste in terms of pacing and movement. He has a lot of notes about clarity. Are you telling the story so that I understand what's happening? Can you hear and see is first and foremost. If you can't answer yes, all the artistry in world won't help you. 'Are you conveying to me what you are intending me to understand?' I need to say 'OK.' As an audience member with no prior information whatsoever, would I understand what's happening? He's got an unbelievable ability to keep all this in his head, especially visually. He remembers everything. He can watch a cut of an episode and remember the scene order.


He seems to have an amazing amount of stuff going on all the time. 

If you want something done give it to a busy person. He knows how to juggle and keep things moving. He's always reading, working on several projects, developing others, and docs, and incredibly busy on film preservation. Certainly whatever he's doing it's working. He's got more energy than most people I know.


'Boardwalk Empire'
'Boardwalk Empire'

How did 'Boardwalk Empire' evolve from season to season? I never forgave you for killing off so many of my favorite characters. (SPOILERS BELOW)

My goal was to do different things and surpass what we'd already done. Once Jimmy Darmody [Michael Pitt] got killed, the whole idea was to do something unexpected and shocking and different, that would surprise me as a viewer who is so rarely surprised, I'm usually 10 steps ahead. So more people cried about it, and people miss him. 

Boardwalk Empire sn 3

We also miss Jack Huston. 

I was lucky enough to see him in a play, 'Strangers on Train,' this past Saturday when I was in London for the BAFTAs. We spent time backstage afterwards. He was such an incredible find, he was only supposed to be in three episodes for one minor arc. I said, 'We got to get this kid on the series, he's got to come back to Atlantic City with Jimmy.' It's rare to cast people off video tape, in London he put a scene on tape and right out of the gate, 'that's the guy, that's the performance.' He became the character [Richard Harrow], he was so naturally likable, it's a testament to him that he killed 126 people and everyone wants to take him home for dinner, he's so sweet.

You seemed to turn toward extreme violence and genre in the third season.

For Season Three we needed to do something different, give Nucky a formidable nemesis like Gyp Rosetti. Bobby Cannavale I never got a chance to work with, he knew who Rosetti was, I wanted such a monster, such an antagonist that Nucky had to deal with. As prohibition continued it got more violent and competitive.

And in the fourth season you had Jeffrey Wright. 

In the last Season Four, everybody thought that his nemesis Jeffrey Wright would get killed. I fooled people that way, it ended tragically, and things didn't work out for Nucky. A lot of it is trying to keep ahead of the audience, and figure out the rhythms of the show and storytelling. We're conditioned to know what happens. How do we defy expectations and make it exciting and different and thrilling? That's our goal.

Where are you now with the show? 

I just walked out of a casting session for Episode One, Season Five. We're writing episodes 1 and 2, outlining 3 and 4 is under way, and we'll start at the end of March. It's always sooner than I want it to be. The calendar keeps moving forward. We will be flashing back to Nucky as a young man, some of his childhood and exploits, key events in his life. That's what we're doing right now.  

How did you become involved with 'The Wolf of Wall Street'?

Alexandra Milchan brought it to me when it was still in galley form. I read it in one sitting, it was fascinating, whether or not it was true. I had never adapted anything, I could see the movie moments, circled them-- 'This has to be in the movie'--I practically circled the entire book, it would have been 18 hours long, this sprawling life story.

This article is related to: The Wolf of Wall Street , Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, Interviews, Interviews , Interviews, Leonardo DiCaprio, Leonardo DiCaprio, Boardwalk Empire, Television, Television, Terence Winter


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