There is a direct lineage between HBO’s The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire and it is personified by Boardwalk creator Terence Winter. A lawyer who wrote on series like The Cosby Mysteries, Xena: Warrior Princess and Sister, Sister, Winter found his true calling as a writer/producer of David Chase’s groundbreaking mob saga. Winter four Emmys for writing and producing Sopranos episodes, including one directed by Steve Buscemi. Winter’s followup, Boardwalk Empire, garnered 18 Emmy nominations and eight wins its first season. It’s back for more after completing a second season with shocking doses of killings, incest, bootlegging and treachery that culminated in Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson executing his surrogate son-turned rival Jimmy Darmody, played by Michael Pitt. Here, Winter discusses the season past, and carrying The Sopranos torch that has changed cable series permanently.
DEADLINE: When Steve Buscemi played Tony Soprano’s cousin in The Sopranos, how far into that season did it occur to you he could carry your next show?
WINTER: I didn’t start developing Boardwalk until a little after The Sopranos but I’d been a fan of Steve’s literally from the second I saw him in a movie called In the Soup. He directed three Sopranos episodes for us and I got to know him first on that level. When I wrote the Boardwalk script I really didn’t have any actor in mind; we had the real Nucky in mind, from photographs. When it came time to cast, Marty Scorsese and I decided it didn’t matter what the real guy looked like because nobody knew him anyway. Let’s just pick an actor we love. I said what about Steve Buscemi and about a week later, Marty called and said, I can’t stop thinking about Steve Buscemi for this. I couldn’t either, and that was that. Some saw it as an odd choice, but Steve has covered every color in the human spectrum of emotion and there’s nothing this guy can’t do.
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DEADLINE: Did you know then that in Season Two he would evolve into a stone killer?
WINTER: Yeah. I knew. Based on the research, as prohibition unfolded the game got much darker and if you were going to survive in that world you had to step up your game. After starting with a guy who was a corrupt politician who dabbled in criminal behavior of a relatively minor sort, things had to get darker for him. It was foreshadowed in the pilot w19thhen Jimmy Darmody tells Nucky, you can’t be half a gangster anymore, because there are people willing to kill for this, and that’s why you need a guy like me. Eventually we had to see Nucky cross that line himself.
DEADLINE: In the climactic episode, Jimmy described the internal trauma of killing for the first time but when Nucky killed Jimmy, he did not seem upset murdering his surrogate son. What does that say about Nucky’s villainous potential heading into next season?
WINTER: People forget Nucky used to be sheriff. He’s had people killed. The psychological ramifications haven’t been processed yet. Nucky thought it was a matter of survival for him and he understood he had to send a message. Not only to Jimmy–in the last message that Jimmy would ever get of course–but the people around him who are all capable of putting a bullet in Nucky’s head too. The moment after he shoots Jimmy, he makes eye contact with everybody else and they get it. He’s saying, you are just as capable of treachery and murder, and you need to know who you are dealing with now.
DEADLINE: Did you have it drawn out way back on Season One that Jimmy would die that way or that Michael Shannon’s Eliot Ness-like Van Alden would shoot an assistant prosecutor in the foot and become a fugitive instead of a crusading crime fighter?
WINTER: We knew Jimmy would die at Nucky’s hand at some point, but not exactly when it would happen. As Season Two progressed, I realized it would happen then. With Van Alden, I knew eventually the drowning of his partner would come back to haunt him. That was developed in the writer’s room as the season progressed. The very broad strokes are to the characters are laid out at the beginning of the season. I knew Jimmy was going to kill the Commodore and that at some point we would reveal that Jimmy and his mother, Gillian, had a back story.
DEADLINE: That backstory, especially the incest, was shocking. What was the most gratifying development to you that evolved during the season?
WINTER: I was really proud of that episode, the Princeton flashback written by Howard Korder. It was just terrific and beautiful, and Michael Pitt’s performance was incredible. The emotional impact was an incredibly pleasant surprise to me. Michael Pitt transformed into a kid and we got to a look at Jimmy Darmody before he became the hardened gangster. This sweet, smart, tender boy who has this incredibly traumatic psychological event with his mother, goes off to war and then just becomes this hardened killer who probably never expected to survive. As Jimmy himself said, he died in his trench in the war, and the guy we came to know is part of the walking dead. It was so traumatic and tragic. I was also very proud of how effective the ending of Episode 12 turned out to be. It’s almost impossible to stay ahead of an audience these days. We’re so savvy from 50 years of television viewing, the audience just knows where you’re headed and their expectations are almost always right. Let’s face it, you never kill the second lead on your TV show. The audience thinks, well, obviously they’re not going to kill him, it’ll be somebody else at the last minute. We saw a great opportunity to tell a story that shocks and takes people in a direction they didn’t expect. That worked really well for me.
DEADLINE: While I was reeling from that, an extra payoff came right after, when Nucky’s wife Margaret signs over to the church the land he’d temporarily put in her name just before it become valuable because it would be purchased so a highway could be built there. Nucky’s out with his cronies on the wooded site, toasting with champagne, and it was a very funny way to end the season.
WINTER: Margaret needed to get the final word in after being duped yet again by this guy. She’d gone out on the limb to help keep him out of jail and then he comes home and says Ward Boss Neary committed suicide, which she knows is bullshit, and that Jimmy Darmody left town. She knows this guy well enough to know what that means. This was her final way to write a check to God to pay all accounts in full, an action that would tell Nucky loud and clear what she thought of this.
DEADLINE: The incest scene between Jimmy and Gillian made Jimmy Darmody a more sympathetic tragic figure. In the space of one evening, his mother destroyed Jimmy’s academic future and then she seduced him. Were you trying to raise the bar on depicting the most evil bitch in TV history?
WINTER: Well, I certainly hope so. Gillian’s psychology is so complicated. Here you had a girl who was 13 when she herself was raped by a much, much older man, the Commodore. She was a child herself who gave birth to another baby and obviously raised him in an incredibly dysfunctional fashion. She became a show girl and there were large parts of Jimmy’s childhood spent in the dressing rooms of cabarets, burlesque houses, constantly blurring the lines between motherhood and sexuality and all that stuff that mixed up his mind. The first moment we ever see Jimmy and Gillian together is inappropriate when she jumps into his arms and you’re meant to think that this is his girlfriend and that he’s cheating on his wife. Until he calls her mom and people are all thinking, did I just hear him say mom? Gretchen Mol is this gorgeous young woman and Gillian’s psychology is caught up in so many different things, from conflicted feelings about Jimmy, to that first encounter with the Commodore. I don’t know that Gillian consciously sets out to destroy her son but obviously that’s where it ended. I don’t like to use the term sociopath but this is an incredibly selfish, needy, manipulative woman willing to do anything to get control and maintain it. To horrible effect.
DEADLINE: Was that the toughest death scene to write, or was there another on The Sopranos?
WINTER: Both. Jimmy Darmody was toughest, followed by Adriana on The Sopranos. But with Adriana, Sopranos was five seasons in and we set that up for quite a while. As a writer and a producer and fan of my own characters, Jimmy was really hard. We questioned and debated it for many hours in the writer’s room, whether we should do this or not. Ultimately, the answer was yes, it was the most truthful ending to that story. Anything less would have been…would have felt like a TV show.
DEADLINE: By the time he was gunned down, Jimmy was a shell of a man, his wife had been murdered because of him; he almost choked his mother to death and he murdered his father. Did you decide he was going and then wrote episodes that slowly sucked the soul out of his character?
WINTER: No. The decision to kill him came later, and then we knew he would be broken down to the point where he needed to come back to Nucky and admit he essentially took a run at the king and failed, and would come back groveling after his world collapsed around him.
DEADLINE: That’s where the decision to kill him became an internal debate?
WINTER: We could have said, okay, he’s not even a threat to Nucky anymore; he completely screwed this up and is this poor empty shell of himself. We could have taken the convenient way out for ourselves, led the audience down this path with Jimmy and then, at the last minute, Nucky forgives him. Because we love Michael Pitt and want to keep his character alive. We know the audience loves the character but if you say this is not a television show, then you have to reflect the reality of this world and who Nucky is. He’s killing this kid. And Jimmy knows what he’s walking into. He shows up unarmed, he knows he failed and doesn’t have much to live for. This was a really tough choice for us, but we were convinced we did the right thing by the way the audience was so shocked and so appalled. It really had the impact we hoped it would.
DEADLINE: Either on The Sopranos or on Boardwalk have you ever had an actor try to talk you out of their character’s death scene? I mean these are great jobs.
WINTER: Michael Pitt and I had conversations over the course of the year; he wasn’t trying to talk me out of it he was sort of fishing for information. He saw where the storyline was going and how his character was really crossing some lines with Nucky. He’d come into my office and say, wow, you know, I’m really doing some bad stuff. I’d say, yeah, it’s pretty bad. He said, have you thought about killing [Nucky’s brother] Eli? I said, yeah, I’ve thought about it, and then he said, Okay, well, have you thought about killing my character? I said yeah, I’ve thought about that too. I said, all I will tell you is whatever is the best thing for the show and whatever is the most powerful and most surprising ending that’s what we’re going to do. Michael’s a very talented artist and totally respected that and he said, well, that’s the right answer. It wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, and that was hard. Everybody loves to work and particularly on shows you’re proud of. These gigs are few and far between. And so it’s hard for any actor to say goodbye, but the thing about working on a gangster show is anybody could go at any minute.
DEADLINE: It’s the business we have chosen?
WINTER: Yeah, that’s the line. On Sopranos, the cast would get the script, and turn to the last page to see if they were still alive. Everyone was so paranoid and we would never give away anything. We actually even thought about putting out phony revision pages where an actor would get killed, just to fuck with people’s heads. But I don’t think we ever did it.
DEADLINE: Too cruel?
WINTER: Yeah, that would be very cruel.
DEADLINE: Michael Shannon’s FBI agent character’s evolved from Nucky’s righteous nemesis to a murderer, fugitive and adulterer. When you have a great actor whose storyline veers off the radar like that, do you get rid of him?
WINTER: Well, he’s left out of the mix in Atlantic City as a federal agent but that’s not to say that we won’t follow Ben Alden. If you pay close attention to Episode 12, he ends up in Cicero, Illinois. Students of mob history know that became a large hub of activity for Al Capone in 1923-24. So it is possible that Ben Alden might encounter those types of people in Illinois and his story might continue in a different way.
DEADLINE: The plight of Kelly Macdonald’s character Margaret and her guilt over a lifestyle funded by crime, leading her to the church, was reminiscent of the conflict felt by Carmela Soprano. Did you see a kinship?
WINTER: Yes. It’s hard to avoid sometimes, doing both shows with gangsters and both with wives and families. You’re going to hit on themes that are similar, just like if you’re doing a Western and there are horses and a saloon. But Margaret is her own person, this woman who was raised Irish-Catholic in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. When her daughter gets polio, organically she is going to turn to the church. Guilt has been drilled in to her head, that feeling she’s being punished for the things she’s done and she’s going to turn to God to try to cut a deal. I went to Catholic school many years later obviously but there’s still that feeling, that the first thought is, I’m being punished; I’m being judged. She and Carmela walk in the same world and we were aware of that. I try to avoid that and usually if we’ve done something on the other show, we steer clear of it.
DEADLINE: When you consider Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Homeland and others, pay and basic cable are generating series that make major network shows seem formulaic. If you were running a major network, what would you change to get things on the air that stand up the way these series do?
WINTER: I don’t know, I feel like we are in different businesses. They’re in the business of selling products basically, and telling stories that don’t make the audience think or feel disconcerted or challenged in any way. The networks are doing just fine, assuming that that’s the business model. They’re not trying to rock the boat; they’re trying to make everybody feel like everything is great. They caught the murderer, everything is under control, buy this soap, everything’s happy. You look at the numbers and see 20 million people watching some of these procedurals. If I was running it, I’d figure out what they’re doing and do more of it. It’s the mistake to wonder why don’t the networks do what is being done on cable. I don’t know if these shows would work on a network because I think that audience is not necessarily interested in the types of feelings that these shows elicit.
DEADLINE: After the creative freedoms you’ve had on your last two gigs, could you see yourself back at a major network?
WINTER: I’d never say never, but it would be really hard. I think if you went in in thinking you’re going to change the game, you’ll be heartbroken. The only way is to understand how something like a network procedural works and do that. Otherwise you’d just give yourself an ulcer.
DEADLINE: The Sopranos, was rejected by all the networks; right?
WINTER: And thank God for that. It would have been a vastly different show and I’m sure David would have pulled all his hair out.
DEADLINE: What informed your sensibilities as a writer when you started out?
WINTER: Very early on my influence were TV. Like most kids I probably logged a billion hours in front of a TV set as a kid. In New York that means WPIX, Channel 11. In the ‘60s and ‘70s that meant The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Little Rascals, the Bowery Boys, which they re-ran to death and thank God for that.
DEADLINE: How did that translate into The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire?
WINTER: Growing up with that stuff, and in Brooklyn, just gave you an edgy sense of humor. David Chase and me and Marty Scorsese used to laugh about this all the time when you would see things on The Sopranos that were, you know, unquestionably violent. Tony was always frustrated with Georgie the bartender, and it was just running a gag that the guy would piss Tony off and then Tony would beat him with a cash register drawer, an ice bucket, whatever was handy. And we would just howl. It was absolute Three Stooges. Tony’s unreasonably upset at some trivial thing and ends up beating the shit out of the other person. On its face it really shouldn’t be funny but it cracked us up all the time and took me straight back to my childhood. I should throw The Honeymooners in there too.
DEADLINE: It’s hard to imagine comedy would factor into your movie touchstones on these series.
WINTER: There it was drama. The one that made the biggest impact on me was Taxi Driver in 1976. That was the movie that I can point to that changed the way I looked at movies, as cinema.
WINTER: The look of it, the pacing and non-linear nature of the story-telling, the fact that you’re in the mind of this anti-hero. I didn’t know what that was at the time. Here was this guy you’re following who was not your typical leading man movie star hero. The whole ending completely blew me away, that this guy ends up being a hero and the way this extreme violence is completely misunderstood. The whole thing had me kind of off kilter. Other movies were straight-forward. I really didn’t understand why it was different, but I went back and saw it probably 15 times that summer. I did the same thing a couple years later with Raging Bull. These were the things that got me curious about who was this director, and thinking about movies as an art form. At that point I didn’t have the courage to think of doing this for a living, it was a very deep dark secret.
DEADLINE: You worked on a bunch of traditional series and then The Sopranos. How different was it?
WINTER: Well, the stakes got much higher. Up to that point, I mean, my standards for taking a job were pretty high. You basically just had to ask me. I just wanted to work so I didn’t really gauge anything I did by quality. I was just thrilled to be doing this for a living and making really great money. The Sopranos came along and I got hired to write a script and basically I knew this was an audition. So the stakes were tremendously higher going in; but the subject matter! For the first time ever it was like writing without handcuffs. You could really write the way people speak. People don’t speak in full sentences; they usually lie to each other and say all kinds of fucked up things to each other. You normally don’t see that on TV where it’s a lot of exposition, straightforward story telling. This was really the first time I felt I could purely express my own voice through these characters and be encouraged. David Chase wanted you to completely forget all the conventions of television and movies you knew up to that point and just completely create honest characters and to trust yourself.
DEADLINE: Name five David Chase rules that helped you shake the convention of network TV dramas.
WINTER: Throw out your first five ideas; always be entertaining; trust your sense of humor and that if you find it funny, chances are other people will too; be conscious of the power of mystery; and trust that your audience is smarter than you think.
WINTER: I don’t have a specific one, but there were some bizarre things I pitched in the room that ended up on the show and left me scratching my head. We needed something absolutely horrific for Meadow Soprano to have witnessed. We were doing the episode University, that juxtaposed different experiences that Meadow was having at college and a young stripper the same age had working at the Ba Da Bing age. Both these young women going through trauma of their own sorts. The stripper’s is genuine trauma dealing with gangsters and ultimately getting murdered. Meadow had a difficult roommate. So we needed something for Meadow to witness on the street that she would find absolutely jarring and traumatic and I said, ‘Well, you know, I was on the subway once in New York and a homeless woman got up. She had a plastic bag wrapped around her waist as a skirt and when she got up to get her bags, the plastic bag fell off and she was completely naked and she had a crumpled up copy of the New York Post stuffed up the crack of her ass. That was pretty horrific.’ And David says, ‘Oh, that’s perfect. Let’s do that.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ We weren’t looking for something necessarily gratuitous; it was just a kind of real moment that you get in a city like New York that a suburban kid would find horrifying. I can’t really point to that as my most proud moment but it certainly was a moment where I felt, wow, you can really do some interesting stuff on this show.
DEADLINE: I remember writing about that and how, if you looked closely at that newspaper bunched up in her ass, it was the Daily News column written by Mitchell Fink, who’d just pissed off Chase by revealing some upcoming plotlines.
WINTER: I had nothing to do with that. Gee, I don’t remember anything about that.
DEADLINE: Martin Scorsese directed the Boardwalk pilot. When will he do another episode?
WINTER: I don’t know. He knows the door is always open, that’s for sure. Hopefully at some point. He’s busy with his features and documentaries and I don’t know where he gets the energy to be so prolific. We talk about it, that maybe when the series wraps he’ll be available, but any time he wants to pick up the phone… He wasn’t supposed to have directed the pilot and that was one of the happiest surprises and most flattering moments of my career. Marty was really supposed to be attached only as a producer and when I turned in the script he called me up and he said, I want to direct this. I almost fell out of my chair. He said, how do we move this forward? I said, if you call HBO and tell them what you just told me I’m pretty sure this is going to move forward pretty quickly.
DEADLINE: You’ve written several movie scripts, including one on Boston gangster Whitey Bulger for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. What is about these mobsters that keeps you coming back for more?
WINTER: We’re always interested in people who live outside the norms of society. The overwhelming majority of us that obey the law and walk the straight and narrow are always fascinated by people who don’t feel constrained by those morays. It’s fun to vicariously live through these characters. Tony Soprano was a good example. The guy eats whatever he wants, he sleeps with anybody he wants, his office is at a strip club, everybody is afraid of him. It sounds pretty good, he’s hanging out with his friends all night and he comes home and he’s got a house, he’s got a wife and kids who love him. You think, I could see at some level how that might seem appealing. Of course, people usually choose to ignore that the guy also suffers panic attacks, that any one of his friends could put a bullet in his head at any moment; that he’s completely paranoid, that he’s in therapy. All the negative stuff is the stuff people choose to ignore when they see the glamor of it but that’s what just fascinates me about these people and always has. There’s nothing more boring than somebody whose life is orderly and normal and everything is worked out and they’ve got a 401K. Who wants to watch that TV series?