EMMYS: 'Boardwalk Empire' Terence Winter

Terence Winter won four Emmys for the HBO mob drama The Sopranos — two for writing, two as executive producer. Less than three years after that iconic series wrapped, he went back into the world of organized crime (albeit nearly 90 years earlier) as showrunner of HBO’s Prohibition themed Boardwalk Empire alongside the legendary Martin Scorsese. The 12-episode, mega-budget show is already a WGA and DGA and SAG award winner, and now Emmy frontrunner. Winter talked to Deadline TV contributor Ray Richmond:

DEADLINE: You’ve already had quite an awards season with Boardwalk Empire.
TERENCE WINTER: It’s been very gratifying. But it’s the work, of course, that’s the real reward. And the greatest thing about doing TV is that you can see actual results in a relatively short period of time. You’re driving to work with a story idea, you make it happen, and six months later, there it is on the television screen. It comes to fruition. People see it. That’s so satisfying. There are so many writers out there for whom nothing
gets produced. They are forever in development hell. It’s mind-boggling. Their heart is consistently broken. But in TV, you often get to see the fruits of your labor. It’s like, ‘This is what Daddy does, honey.’

DEADLINE: Is the feedback similar to what was generated for The Sopranos?
WINTER: To some degree, it’s the same. Like Sopranos, people watch Boardwalk for different reasons. For some, there’s too much gangster. For others, there’s not enough. You hear: too much blood, not enough blood, just the right amount of blood. And then people get all bent out of shape because we show a woman’s naked breasts. That brings out more complaints than the violence. On The Sopranos, if Tony didn’t whack somebody, people think nothing happened that week, as if it always had to be about death. So to each his or her own.

DEADLINE: Any Sopranos lessons that you’ve incorporated into Boardwalk?
WINTER: I always try to apply the lesson that David Chase taught me. His battle cry is to be entertaining over all else. I have a sign in the writers’ room that spells out precisely that. Tell a compelling story in an entertaining fashion.

DEADLINE: What has working with Martin Scorsese been like?
WINTER: I had to get past the initial shock of working with him. I mean, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this man was the reason I was motivated to get into the business in the first place. I saw Taxi Driver in 1977, and the idea of working with him was a dream come true. That’s not to say I wasn’t terrified going in. The particular fear of working with one of your heroes is that he won’t turn out to be the guy you’d always hoped he would be. But he wound up being precisely that. From our first meeting, we just hit it off. We have a lot of similar tastes, similar senses of humor, a lot of the same interests. He’s really warm and collaborative and made it easy for me.

DEADLINE: Were there any uncomfortable moments?
WINTER: Only initially during the feeling-out process, I’d say. The first scene we shot on the first day — when Marty was directing — and I approach the first AD and tell him, ‘I’ve got a note for Marty about this.’ And he says, ‘No one’s ever given him a note before.’ And I say, ‘Well, it’s kind of important.’ He tells me, ‘Well, there he is right over there. Good luck.’ I take the longest 15-foot walk of my life. And Marty told me that if I caught anything else like that to let him know. To say I was greatly relieved would be a vast understatement.

DEADLINE: What has been Scorsese’s participation on Boardwalk?
WINTER: He’s not a ceremonial executive producer. He reads every script and comes to read-throughs whenever he can. I’ll tell you just how hands-on he is: I’ll have a message telling me, ‘Marty is calling about Page 8.’ And I’ll be like, Page 8? Page 8? It’ll turn out to be something small, but meanwhile I’ll be having a heart attack. It’s like, ‘I just got called into the principal’s office!’ He also weighs in on our casting choices
after we send him the list of our top ones. He watches the dailies. He watches cuts of the show. He’s so engaged it’s really terrific — I’ve got the greatest living American director giving me guidance as I’m doing the show. Marty has this amazing capacity to keep all of our story changes straight in his head, even while he’s in the middle of editing a giant feature. Unfortunately, Marty wasn’t able to direct anything for us this next season due to his feature schedule. But his involvement with the show remains the same.

DEADLINE: It had to take some of the pressure off when Boardwalk was renewed for a second season 48 hours after the pilot premiered last September.
WINTER: Yeah, that helped a lot. There was obviously a huge curiosity factor, and HBO did an amazing job of promoting the show. And, of course, having Marty made the odds of producing a quality piece of TV work extremely high. If there were any expectations not met in the minds of people, it may be in part because they see Sopranos and Scorsese and expect a nonstop machine-gun fest from start to finish. But that was never what it was going to be. It’s not just about blood and guts, but showing the political elements of the period and a love story and character development. It’s a much richer tapestry than what it might have been for pure fans of the mob genre.

DEADLINE: Has HBO tried to micromanage you?
WINTER: No, and let me just say this network has balls. They really leave you alone. They get involved with creative people whose work they respect and then they let you do your job. That’s not to say they don’t have opinions about things. But when you get notes, it’s always a discussion, never a mandate. I’ll say, ‘This is why I always do it this way.’ And nine times out of 10, they’re good with it. They always prefer to push the envelope, even in casting. Like Steve Buscemi in the lead might have proven a battle, but instead they were like, ‘Wow, Steve Buscemi, that’s such an interesting choice.’ HBO supports outside-the-box thinking, so honestly this experience has been just a dream.

DEADLINE: Even regarding the show’s reported $65 million budget?
WINTER: They’ve stepped up to the table. This is a very expensive show to do. The fact they even allowed us to make it in the fi rst place says a lot. They’re committed to do really ambitious programming. My job was to deliver a show on an ambitious grand scale and of a scope that made sense. It took a few episodes to figure out what that meant in terms of blocking out set pieces and action scenes. But you eventually get a feel  for it. That said, you’re always aware that you’re dealing with finite numbers. But, here we are, pushing our way through a second season which will start airing in the fall, and no one’s pulled the plug yet. So I guess they’re satisfied with the return they’re getting.

DEADLINE: Are you still adhering closely to the real history of Prohibition?
WINTER: We’ve actually taken great pains to getting the history and the details right, and that’s continuing. We tried to stay as true to the real story as we possibly could, and will continue to. People know what happened to Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and you can’t go changing that. It was really flattering, the guy who wrote the most recent bio of Al Capone told me he thought our depiction of him was the most accurate ever on film. He’s always shown as this loud, psychotic murderer, not this jovial guy who had a sensitive side.

  1. I had the pleasure of working with Terence Winter on The Sopranos and I was in contention for a nice role on season 2 of Boardwalk Empire. It’s inspiring to see a down to earth guy work hard, climb up the ladder and make his dreams come true. His success is well earned.

  2. TW is far and away the best writer on television – his work is superior on The Sopranos & now Boardwalk Empire. He is a master of the medium, a total bad ass, and above all else, a class act.

  3. Winter is a weak writer but a very lucky man. I think this show petered out into a sadistic, pointless mess by the end of season one. Game of Thrones and Mad Men are much better plotted and executed. Boardwalk is a beautifully designed show with no story and no heart. A gigantic waste of money and the viewers time. The ratings went down as the season progressed.

  4. Terence, has been a great writer since 8th grade…His work is outstanding and I think he he is brilliant!!! All of his friends and family from good old brooklyn are SO PROUD OF HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS…luv you terence (mrs. mallon would be so proud) LOL Cant wait for the fall and Boardwalk to start again!!!! XXXS

  5. I’m assuming “A.J.” is short for “Anonymously Jealous”.

    A weak writer? Winter has won every writing award out there multiple times and deservedly so.

    As for Boardwalk, it seems the people who actually work in this industry disagree with you. (You know, the ones who voted it an AFI, Golden Globe, SAG, DGA, and WGA Award. So far.)

    As for the ratings, they declined after the pilot, then leveled off to almost twice that of Mad Men, which is in its 4th season on basic cable.

    So sorry, “A.J.”, the only waste of time is your own. While Terry Winter is out there killing it, the only writing YOU’RE doing is posting trash on the internet.

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