HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – Glimpsing at insights from Terry Winter (creator, writer and executive producer of the show)
- Q: Could you give us a synopsis of where we pick up the action again, and where the major characters are?
TERRY WINTER: We are back in Spring of 1924, eight or nine months on from the close of last season. Nucky has made good on his promise to Chalky to give him a nightclub on the Boardwalk. It is on the same site as the old Babette’s nightclub was, and is very much modelled on the old Cotton Club in Harlem, featuring African-American entertainers for an all-white audience.
Nucky is determined to keep his distance. Of course, that is not so easy to do when you are a gangster, but be doesn’t want to be that guy who is out in public any more, shaking hands, so he is living in a defunct hotel at the end of the Boardwalk. Actually, there is no Boardwalk there – it hasn’t even got out that far yet.
Margaret is absent and out in the world – we last saw her in Brooklyn. She will at reappear in Nucky’s universe, when it is the appropriate time.
Richard is also adrift, and has reverted rather to his darker side. We spent a year with him in which he had fallen in love and was really making a conscious effort to leave that life of violence behind. But then events conspired to drag him back in, in a very serious way, by the end of season 3. I think that in so doing, he got the feeling that he is not worthy of having love and a family and the realization that he is capable of such horrific violence means that he sinks into a downward spiral. And in the midst of that downward spiral, he has one incident that gives him pause for thought, and leads Richard back to his sister’s house. We will spend a little time there, and see Richard do a little soul searching.
Gillian is taking heroin; injecting it and snorting it, which was was very popular in the 1920s. She has had a very hard life – raped at 12, becoming a Mum at 13, raising the kid on her own as a showgirl; she was a child herself raising another child. She is not our most sympathetic character for a lot of reasons, but is desperately trying to get her slf together and just doesn’t seem to be able to. Ron Livingstone’s character (Roy Phillips) – who is a new character – represents a beacon of hope for her.
Q: Nucky was very vulnerable at the end of last season. How has that experience changed him?
TW: People talk a good game, and I think that’s true for all of us. You go through a scary period in your life; you might have a health scare and say you are never going to eat red meat again, but then you go back to your old ways. And I think, even for a gangster as shrewd and intelligent as Nucky, who is trying to keep a low profile and not get involved in things, it is the nature of the beast to slip and get involved in things.
He knows how bad things can get, certainly though. He has had a taste of it and certainly doesn’t want that to happen again.
Q: Who are the new characters we are going to get to know this season?
TW: Jeffrey Wright, plays Dr Valentin Narcisse, who is a doctor of Divinity and also happens to be the most powerful gangster in Harlem.
Chalky White’s world clashes with that world of Harlem, and Dr Narcisse is also in charge of the musical acts that perform at Chalky’s club – he has his hands in various business enterprises.
We also have another new character that comes with him named Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), who is a nightclub singer and part of Dr Narcisse’s world, who then starts performing at the Onyx Club.
We have a new character named Agent Knox, played by Brian Geraghty. He is a very interesting character – there is a lot going on with him.
By episode three, we will meet a character played by Patricia Arquette, who is called Sally Wheet, who is a speakeasy owner in Tampa, Florida, where Nucky will spend a little time this season.
Q: Were your physical sets very badly hit by Hurricane Sandy last year?
TW: They weren’t, because fortunately, we dismantled our main Boardwalk set about a month before Sandy hit, because we lost our lease on the site on which the Boardwalk sat. So the plan was to move it to a different location, and then Sandy hit on our hiatus. The house that Jimmy and Gillian used to live in, out at Rockaway, was completely destroyed – it just doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of the houses in that area were destroyed.
But as it turned out, coming back for Season 4, we spend a lot of time in different locations and realised we didn’t need to rebuild the Boardwalk in its entirety. So we only have bits and pieces of it that are then augmented with green screen technology. So it doesn’t exist in its entirety.
Q: Didn’t you blow half of the Boardwalk up last season anyway?
TW: Yes, we did. Once we knew we were losing our lease, we just thought, what the hell. Less to move later.
That whole explosion scene was a huge challenge too. Everyone had to get involved – the New York Fire department, the police. And we had to warn local people, at least assure them that nothing had really blown up, it was just for the show. A giant fireball in the sky is not what you really want to see when you look out of your window on a Friday night.
Q: The violence got pretty intense at the end of Season 3, and the opener of season 4 is very violent too. Are there ever times when you are writing when you think you should dial it back a bit?
TW: It is depicted very graphically and very realistically, in my opinion. I don’t think it’s gratuitous. In episode one of the season, a man gets murdered with a broken bottle, and I’m pretty sure that is what it would look like. It isn’t blood spurting 50 feet in the air – it’s a very realistic, graphic portrayal of what that would be like. I don’t want to sugarcoat violence either – I want it to look like what it is. It’s ugly, it’s horrible – it’s not a video game or something that you watch and say: That doesn’t look so bad. It should be hard to watch, because that’s what it is really like.
Occasionally things happen off-camera. I wrote the episode on The Sopranos where Adriana got killed, and for some reason, when I wrote that, I wrote that she crawled out of frame and you just heard the gunshot.
I didn’t even realise I had subconsciously done that until after the fact.
I realised that I just did not want to see her die.
Q: How would you encapsulate Season 4 in terms of a theme?
TW: It’s about not being able to leave well enough alone, not being able to quit while you are ahead, but instead being dragged back in for one more dip.
Arnold Rothstein has a very telling line, in the first episode. He is quoting Pascale, the philosopher, saying: ‘All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room’.
It’s very hard to do, but if Nucky, who is a fairly wealthy man, could just cash out and go and live somewhere quietly, he’d be fine – but very few people are able to do that.
Whenever you see movies about drug dealers, it’s the same. I remember watching the film Blow; Jonny Depp’s character has got $40 million in cash, and you think: just GO AWAY. Just take it and leave. Pick a spot on the planet, go there and stay still. But of course they can’t, they never can.
You wouldn’t have gone into a business like that if you just wanted a nice quiet life – you would be an accountant or something. You love the risk and the rush – that’s who you are.
Q: Other characters may be having a few wobbles, but it seems that Chalky is growing in stature and respectability, this season more than ever…
TW: I think as the seasons have progressed, his ambition has continued to grow, and become fulfilled too. He is obviously coming from a much different place to others – there is so much more to achieve for him because he has been held back just because of his race, and he has so much more to do and so much more to prove.
Q: The dynamic between him and Narcisse is interesting too, especially for what it illuminates about the politics of the African-American community. Was that something you were very interested in exploring?
TW: Yes, Jeffrey’s character is very much about uplifting the race and very much a proponent of education, and equal treatment for blacks on the one hand. On the other hand, he is a gangster who is exploiting those very same people and pedaling heroin and alcohol, and all sorts of horrible things. He’s very much a hypocrite, as a lot of these guys are.
Q: Did you know a lot about this specific period in New York and US history already?
TW: I knew a little, but then we started researching it, and now I know ten times more. It is a really interesting time period in history, and the Harlem renaissance of the twenties was a really remarkable time. There was such a huge growth in jazz and music and literature – just incredible things happening in that society – it was fascinating. It is still a huge joy for me to be able to immerse myself in all that. I love history anyway so to be able to then turn it around and use it and create with it and depict it on a show of this caliber and magnitude, it is such a gift. I can’t name another movie where that world has been portrayed in such detail. And we get to do it every week. It is an incredible luxury to be able to spend a big chunk of a season exploring that.
Q: What real-world events happen over the course of this season which will pop up in the show?
TW: The events that happens in Chicago, and Capone taking over Cicero, Illinois with his two brothers, is all real. His feud with Dean O’Banion was very much real, throughout 1924.
We also meet a young J Edgar Hoover, at the beginning of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation. It then became the FBI, many years later, But we meet him very early on, when he has just got that job, which is fun.
Q: How do you show the passing of time over the course of the twenties in the show?
TW: It’s everything – the automobiles, the hairstyles, make-up, colour palettes, the cut of clothes. Music is sort of in the background and is a big giveaway – and is in the foreground a little more this season – pop culture references, language changes. There was a great chart I saw at the beginning of Season 1, when we were first writing the show, that depicted women’s hemlines from 1920 to 1930, and it just went straight up. The decade started out with these long, flowing gowns, like in Downton Abbey, and it went up to pretty short dresses in just ten years. All that sort of detail goes into the show.
Even in depicting the different cities, the colour palette for Chicago is different to that of Atlantic City – Chicago’s is much more earthy, muted, because it’s more of a Midwestern town, and that section of the country was a little behind the curve in terms of everything new that happened in New York. The fashions that people would wear in Chicago were three or four years behind the stuff you would see on Broadway.
That was even the case in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Growing up here, things would happen in SoHo, but they wouldn’t reach where I am from, over in Sheepshead Bay, for another couple of years.