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?
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.
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.
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.
Did you consider it as a series?
I didn’t think of TV, that was not my mandate. It was a lot of work, it took six weeks to outline. I met Jordan after several months of research. I spoke to the FBI agent who arrested him, talked to people who worked for him, people who lost money investing with him –if that’s the right word– people who made money. I even had Jordan come in to CAA to do one of those motivational speeches for me. He never had it on tape, so we filled up the conference room with assistants and agents. He was reluctant, it took a few minutes to warm up and become the guy in the movie. It was one of those amazing things to watch. It was great. A lot of his words are in there.
Alexandra took it to Leo’s company and he bought it immediately with Warner Bros. He brought Marty in initially in 2007 but Warners for reasons unknown to me didn’t move forward. When they went to do ‘Shutter Island,’ Leo said, ‘we are going to do this.’ I thought he was being polite. But he wasn’t being polite, he was serious. Red Granite agreed to finance and give Marty the creative freedom he wanted to make the movie. We were off to the races.
How many pages was the shooting script?
146 or 8 roughly. There are places in the movie on paper where a 3/4 of a page description takes six minutes, like crawling from the phone to to the car takes him forever. The film itself is inflated timewise; it takes longer to perform some of this action, it doesn’t time out to a page count of one minute per page.
Initially in the early meetings when we were talking about how to approach writing the script I wanted to use voiceover and considering ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’ I didn’t think Marty wanted to do that again. But this is a movie about a salesman, I wanted him to tell you his life story, to sell you his story of who he is. You buy it or not buy it. He’d go off on weird asides, make fun of people, talk about the five stages of being high, hookers, hop all over the place in the dialogue that gives an insight into who this guy was. It was great in voiceover, and Marty was on board. He said, ‘be ferocious, I want this to be like a rocket ship and be real.’
Those were my marching orders. I did research, outlined and wrote it in a period of about six months from start to finish. Then forward years later, I met Marty and Leo for six weeks every day leading up to production–‘can we actually shoot this?– with changes for production locations. We went over every line and voiceover and fine tuned and started shooting.
We tweaked the voiceover up to last minute tweaking through test screenings. ‘Let’s try to alternate jokes and see how that works. We continued to fine tune it to the last minute.
What’s the editing process like?
I had worked with Marty on the ‘Boardwalk Empire’ pilot. I don’t sit with him. I’d been through the process, I didn’t need to hear about how the editing is so painstaking. What’s so great about it, is that every frame is treated as its own individual thing. To watch the two of them, and see dailies, what comes out, and see a scene cut together, it’s remarkable, the level of detail is astounding.
How much did you lose in the editing?
We wanted to make that release date. There really weren’t cuts. I’m pretty sure the whole script is in there. In the longer version of the movie, longer versions of scenes were in there, a lot of ad-libbing got left on the cutting room floor or cyberspace, wherever that is now. Scenes went on a lot longer in the first version, but it’s close to what ultimately was released in theaters. I can’t tell you anything got left out that I missed maybe some dialogue. My entire script is in the film. It’s all there.
Did you expect the mixed reaction and controversy?
I was not surprised. I knew reactions across the board would be different with an audience this big, they have so many different points of view– from ‘I love Jordan and want to be him’ to wanting to string him up on the nearest lamppost, and everything in between. One thing I felt strongly about, was to tell the story without judging him. I didn’t want him to rescue a puppy from a tree to show he’s not a bad guy after all. I did not want him to murder anybody either. This is an honest story. You take away what you will, choose what to believe or not to believe, love him or hate him. I didn’t by design show the people on the telephone. I wanted you to be on the other line on the telephone, listening to this story about Ferraris, drugs and parties. By the end of the movie it gets dark, he punches his wife in the stomach and puts his daughter in grave danger. You are sold a bill of good by this guy; he can be a real asshole. That was the point, you didn’t need to see the criticism to know that you sort of got duped. You don’t need us to tell you this is bad behavior.