Inside Story: How HBO’s Brilliant ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Came To Life

by | September 17, 2010 at 11:43 AM | Boardwalk Empire, HBO

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

In television, HBO is synonymous with the notion of quality and ambition, and every new series on the network creates expectations measured against the high standards set by past efforts such as ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire.’ The latest HBO offering, the sprawling Prohibition-era drama ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ debuts Sunday night, with a big pedigree bursting with award-winning names and an even bigger question for viewers – is it worth watching?

The answer? Yes. Don’t miss it.

Already the show has been “Liked” by 327 Fancast Facebook users, and has amassed heaps of critical praise. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley wrote, “‘Boardwalk Empire’ is a well-conceived, beautifully made series that has every reason to be great,’” while Time‘s James Poniewozik calls it “The best new drama of the year.”

With the boards of Atlantic City as its backdrop, ‘Empire’ begins inside a packed bar with the patrons toasting the enactment of the Volstead Act, or Prohibition, in 1920. They’re mocking the law, of course. It then cuts to a Woman’s Temperance meeting. The same man is at the center of both scenes, the corrupt city treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, played by Steve Buscemi and based on real life of the legendary Atlantic City boss/gangster Nucky Thompson who benevolently kept local palms greased and the town wet.

The series is executive-produced and written by former ‘Sopranos’ scribe and EP Terrence Winter. The pilot was directed by none other than Martin Scorsese. Here, Scorcese and Winter reveal insights into how the project came together and preview what to expect from its first season.

The Genesis: “I was always interested in the 1920s and the gangster world in general,” Winter says. “But toward the end of ‘The Sopranos,’ HBO came to me with a book that Mark Wahlberg and his partner Steve Levinson had optioned, ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ which the series is inspired by. They said, ‘Why don’t you read it and see if there’s something in there that feels like a series to you.’ And almost literally on the way out the door, they said, ‘Oh, and by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this if you [like it].’ I said, ‘I assure you, I will find a series here.’

“I read the book, and it chronicled the history of [Atlantic City] from the time it was literally a mosquito-infested swamp until the present day,” Winter continues. “There were a couple of years in particular that were very interesting, [namely] the ’20s… because it was an era that hasn’t really been depicted often in cinema, and almost never in television. And at its center was this incredible lead character upon whom Steve’s character is based on, fictionalized as Nucky Thompson. This was a guy who was just incredibly conflicted, equal parts politician and gangster. Coupled with the massive changes going on – Prohibition, women’s vote, broadcast radio coming in, World War I just having ended, the ’20s about to boom…. It was just this incredible pallet from which to draw stories and characters. It was irresistible.”

The Production: Although it stands to reason that a series set on the boardwalk of Atlantic City should be shot on location, many considerations went into the ultimate decision to film in Brooklyn. “In Atlantic City, we were able to realize quickly that maybe three camera angles could work in 2010 to be 1920, so that was over with,” Winter says. “But we scouted far and wide – Syracuse, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh – and Asbury Park was a big contender for a while. But at the end of the day, there’s the actor pool that you get in New York, the tax rebate that you get in New York… and Brooklyn offers many neighborhoods that are period correct. [Factor in] the opportunity to build that boardwalk a mile from our studio [Steiner Studios in Brooklyn] and it just all added up. And just selfishly, getting to work in New York City is pretty great. We’re really lucky I did that for 10 years on ‘The Sopranos,’ which is the best of both worlds.”

Go Behind The Scenes Of ‘Boardwalk Empire’:

The Challenges Of Building ‘Boardwalk’: Without an actual boardwalk, Winter and his team set out to build one. The result is a mile-long stretch of storefronts, bright lights and wooden slats that was assembled over the course of several months. “Initially, that was the big intimidating factor,” Winter says of creating their own boardwalk. “I did research, and then said, ‘This is pointless, I can’t ever do this. We’re not going to be able to afford a boardwalk or an empire or anything remotely like this.’ And then I saw the ‘John Addams’ miniseries, and what they did digitally. I knew if we could build a chunk of it, we could [complete it] with digital stuff. [There’s] a time-lapse video online of the building of the set, it’s really amazing. It’s the largest standing outdoor set in New York film history, and it’s pretty cool. When I turn the corner and look up at it, I still – after a year – go, ‘Wow, this is the set.’”

Why Buscemi: Although wiry Buscemi hardly resembles the grand, portly real-life Nucky, Scorcese was captivated by the actor’s range, and confident he could pull off the role. “I’ve been watching Steve’s work since ‘Parting Glances’ back in the ’80s, and we got to work together briefly in ‘New York Stories,’ and I always wanted to work with him again,” Scorsese says. “I love his dramatic sense but also his sense of humor, and there’s something that’s very, very strong on the camera with Steve as a character, whatever he plays – whether it’s in ‘The Big Lebowski’ or ‘Ghost World’ or any of these films. And I think it was a very interesting idea that Steve would play this part because it’s a character that I do think basically is a decent guy, but in that world… it corrupts him so much. The treasurer runs the city in a sense, and ultimately, you make a deal. You figure out how much sin you can live with.”

Keeping Nucky Authentic: One element Winter wanted to stay faithful to was Nucky’s personal style. Every morning he pinned a red carnation to his lapel, and that is mimicked in the series. Winter explains, “Our Nucky is very much inspired by the real Nucky – but he’s his own person too. And those little character pieces are always great. As a writer, [the carnation] says to me that he’s somebody who very much cares about his appearance. He’s fastidious. Then there are other character things, about his need to have everything perfect, and that goes deeper into the fictional Nucky, about his childhood and his upbringing, the embarrassment of his circumstance growing up. Those two things meshed really well.”

The End: Provided HBO picks the series up for several more seasons, Winter says he’s mulling several possible end points. “One logical end point would be when Prohibition was appealed,” he says. “That’s 13 years [away]! Not necessarily that we’d have to do every year as a season, but that’s a logical end point. The 1929 crash of the stock market is also a [possibility]. But I think the series tells you when it’s over. In a way, the characters tell you when they’ve said everything. I hope they don’t tell me that for a long time. There’s a lot going on, and I’m very confident this could go on for quite awhile, as long as they would allow us.”