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Terence Winter Talks Working with Scorsese on 'Wolf of Wall Street' and 'Boardwalk Empire'

by Anne Thompson
February 24, 2014 8:21 PM
1 Comment
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Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
HBO "Boardwalk Empire"

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." 

Over the succeeding six years, Winter developed both, although "Boardwalk Empire" came to fruition far ahead of "The Wolf of Wall Street." Now Winter is back executive producing Season Five of "Boardwalk Empire" amid tireless interviews on behalf of "Wall Street," which earned him his first Oscar nomination, for Adapted Screenplay, one of five for the movie. 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. 

Scorsese and DiCaprio

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?

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.

1 Comment

  • Brian | February 25, 2014 11:46 AMReply

    Excellent interview and I'm happy to see a longer-than-usual piece here. I've been avoiding WOLF OF WALL STREET, but based on Winter's discussion of his approach to the subject here, I'm curious to see how well he succeeded at what he set out to do.

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