EXCLUSIVE: If you wanted to put together a behind-the-camera supergroup, starting with Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and Mick Jagger would be one way to surely kick out the jams. Well, the Boardwalk Empire boys are back in town, teaming with the Rolling Stones frontman for Vinyl.
The 10-episode series debuts on HBO on Valentine’s Day with a two-hour pilot helmed by the Goodfellas maestro, executive produced by Jagger and co-written by showrunner Winter. Long story short, the full-tilt trip to the crumbling New York City of 1973 and the music biz excess that defined much of the time (and much of the city) opens down near Washington Square with the New York Dolls in concert and never takes its foot off the reverb pedal.
Starring Empire alum Bobby Cannavale as struggling and stormy label boss Richie Finestra and Olivia Wilde as his former downtown wild-child wife Devon, the first season also has dramatized cameos galore of now-rock royalty like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Alice Cooper. Add Ray Romano, Juno Temple, Andrew Dice Clay and James Jagger as the lead singer of the Nasty Bits to the mix — plus a body in the trunk of a car — and you have yourself a good night out.
As the needle is about to drop on Vinyl, I chatted with Winter about the show, the check-yourself moments of working with Jagger, the evolution of the idea and how he got on board, Wilde, and where this could all go in a second season.
DEADLINE: Like the evolution from a demo tape to a finished album, Vinyl has taken on many forms on its way to HBO. There was talk of a big-screen version, but the Great Recession kneecapped that in 2008. How did you get involved in bringing it to the small screen as a series showrunner so soon after Boardwalk Empire ended in 2014?
WINTER: Actually it originally started with Mick and Marty in ’96, so it’s been gestating a long long time. For me the biggest change was initially when we conceived it as a TV series for HBO. I wrote the pilot in 2011, and I had Boardwalk on the air at that time, and the idea was that I was not going to be able to do two shows at the same time. So the plan was maybe we could have somebody else run it. But it just took so long to get things going, and Boardwalk was wrapping up anyway, the decision was made, let’s just hang on and wait a year later, and I can take this over. So I sort of went from one series right into the next.
DEADLINE: Besides the obvious era differences, how do Boardwalk and Vinyl differ for you?
WINTER: I think that Vinyl’s faster-paced. I think Boardwalk was much more luxurious in its storytelling. For me, we sort of took our time setting up the table of what would become the story arc for Season 1, and then it was much more of a slow burn. There were a lot of moving parts that slowly come together into a big conclusion. Also, Boardwalk was much more, I think, traditional and classic in the way it looked. You know, this seems much more frenetic to me, much more shot out of a cannon right out of the gate.
DEADLINE: For me, the two share a strong vibe, which I guess is your and Scorsese’s touch …
WINTER: Yeah, you know, now that I’m saying that, at its craziest certainly the relationships between the characters in Boardwalk got pretty wild too, and they are similar. My favorite thing to write is people under pressure in high-stakes circumstances.
There’s nothing funnier for me than taking two characters and throwing them into a pressure cooker and letting them turn on each other. Especially if they already tend to be loud, aggressive, alpha types. That’s sort of everything from The Honeymooners to Goodfellas to The Sopranos. It sort of all shares that same common thread for me. That to me is the most fun stuff to write, and I think Boardwalk had it, I think Vinyl has it even more.
DEADLINE: One major difference between Boardwalk and Vinyl is a certain Mr. Mick Jagger. What was it like working and collaborating with him for the first time?
WINTER: You know, once I was able to calm down and adjust to the fact that I’m actually having a conversation with Mick Jagger it was really easy. He’s really fun. It took me awhile to get that way with Marty too, when we first worked together. I was pretty awestruck meeting him and getting to work with him, and then I had to do the same readjustment with Mick a couple of years later. But you know, once we got into a groove it was a really easy collaboration between the three of us.
DEADLINE: Lot of starpower when he’s in the room, no?
WINTER: Yeah, of course like everybody else, and as a teenager I knew Mick Jagger as Mick Jagger the rock star. But I also knew enough about him over the years to know that there was a lot more to him in terms of his prowess as a businessperson, his knowledge as a producer. So coming in I wasn’t surprised that he was a very able and capable film producer and had a lot of ideas and opinions and experience in doing exactly what we’re doing.
DEADLINE: How so?
WINTER: He approaches this also as one of the greatest entertainers who has ever lived. So he’s really just got an intuition about what is entertaining and what’s not and what an audience wants. When to give more, when to pull back, that sort of stuff. So right out of the gate I was just really impressed with his understanding of storytelling, his understanding of structure, just the basic nuts and bolts of what we were doing.
DEADLINE: Part of what you are doing in this very detailed and complete 1973 universe of Vinyl doesn’t actually have the Stones in it, though it feels like everyone else from the era is there. Why no Stones?
WINTER: Well, it just feels incestuous, you know? Obviously Mick is front and center with this thing, you know, [Jagger’s son] James is already on the show — to have the band on it felt too much right away.
On the one hand you certainly can’t do a show about rock and roll in 1973 and not acknowledge the Rolling Stones in that universe. It just doesn’t mean you have to necessarily see them. And I don’t know that we won’t at some point moving forward, but at least initially it felt too loaded to depict the Stones for me. We didn’t even really discuss it, you know? I don’t know how Mick feels about it, but for me initially I have absolutely no plans to do that. It just felt too inside.
DEADLINE: I get it but 1973 was a huge year for the Stones…
WINTER: Yeah. I get it. Yeah. It’s funny for me too, Goat’s Head Soup was so important, that was literally the first album I ever bought in 1973 when I was 13. I think I used my birthday money to buy that album. So it’s just so strange to think here we are, all these years later, I’m working with the guy on the cover of that album. It’s pretty incredible.
DEADLINE: You do seem to have everyone else who mattered at the time in music in the show – Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls kick it off, Lou Reed’s there, twice, Little Richard, even a hint of the birth of hip-hop. How hard was it to get those still alive to go for being depicted?
WINTER: With everybody we reached out and told them what we’re interested in doing. Some people were fine and said, “Great, go ahead. Do it.” Other said, “Can I just see the script pages beforehand,” but everybody was on board. We wouldn’t depict anybody without their approval and foreknowledge to let them know. Obviously we want everybody to be comfortable and everybody to be flattered, even some of the depictions aren’t necessarily of those people doing the most flattering things. I mean, it’s fun, it’s rock and roll, and everybody is sort of taking in that spirit. But yeah, I mean, for the most part everybody was completely on board immediately.
DEADLINE: It certainly adds a strong sense of reality to the Vinyl universe. Was that what you were aiming for?
WINTER: Absolutely. The idea of depicting real artists was really important. I felt like if we wanted this to be a believable depiction of the record business in 1973 you’ve got to see and refer to real people. Otherwise it’s just going to feel like a completely parallel, phony universe. So it was really important that we show those people, and then it made it easier to then introduce our fictional bands alongside them.
So for me one of the most flattering things moving forward is people watching the series, not really sure if for example The Nasty Bits were a real band, or if Hannibal was a real funk star, and a couple more instances as we moved forward, and that’s exactly the way I wanted it.
DEADLINE: Talking about moving forward, what’s the wire on a Season 2 of Vinyl?
WINTER: That is a great question and it’s one I hope to be answering shortly. We’ve not been officially picked up for a Season 2 but I’m optimistic that we will be.
If it happens, the series will progress in time like Boardwalk did. So, we’ll probably move forward into 1974 when we come back. You know, Season 1 spans from July ’73 to toward the end of the year, ’74 was the year that CBGB’s opened, it was the year that The Ramones kind of formed.
DEADLINE: Nixon resigned…
WINTER: Yeah, a lot of interesting stuff happening. So there was a lot going on in the world, you know? The Vietnam War was officially over so you had a lot of guys coming back from that too.
In terms of Richie’s story, without spoiling what happens at the end of the season, he’s still alive, I’ll give you that much, and moving forward, he’s really on a quest to make good his desire to find something new and do something that makes an impact in this business you know? When we meet him in the pilot, he’s so anesthetized to music, you know, he doesn’t even go to clubs anymore. But then that electricity he feels at the Dolls show and the way he comes out of that pilot is the thing that fuels him for the rest of the series.
DEADLINE: Another fuel is his wife Devon, played by Olivia Wilde. She really feels like the heart of the show, but how did that role progress?
WINTER: In one of the early conversations I had with Olivia, she said, “Look, I want to hear about who Devon is, and I don’t want her to be the long-suffering wife stuck in suburbia.” I said that’s absolutely never what we intended her to be.
As you see in the early episodes, in their first meeting, Devon is very much on par with Richie in terms of her assertiveness and her willingness to get out there and just sort of take what she wants. But when we first meet her in the pilot of course she and Richie have kind of made this deal where they settle into this sober lifestyle in Connecticut. But once that deal falls apart, you know, largely because of Richie’s own doing, she at least tries to keep things together. Once it’s clear that isn’t really working she goes off on her own journey, which is sort of back to who she was when we first meet her with Richie.
DEADLINE: The ’70s in New York are really hot right now. Obviously City On Fire has been one of the bestselling books of the past year and Baz Luhrmann has his Netflix series The Get Down, which looks at the birth of punk rock and hip hop in NYC coming later this year. Why do you think that this period has become so fertile for storytelling in 2015-2016?
WINTER: I don’t know, it’s one of those weird things where it’s this phenomenon that something gets out into the ether and a bunch of people at the same time kind of hit upon the same theme or idea. I remember 25 years ago there was all these body-switching movies, same thing.
I will say for this, for us, like we said before, this has been around for us gestating as a TV series at least since 2010. So we’ve been thinking about this for a long time. But why now? I don’t know.
Maybe, it’s because it takes a certain amount of time and a certain amount of distance between a time period before you can put it in a proper perspective in which you can then say, OK, I feel comfortable depicting this era now. I don’t think I could do a show set in 1995 and have the same distance and perspective that I would need to do it justice. Certainly 1973, and New York in 1973, was like a different planet, and there’s a lot to draw from. There’s also a lot of parallels with today, you know? I mean, Nixon resigning, corruption in politics, abortion just became legal — we’re still having the abortion debate today. There’s race relations, the war, there’s so many things that were happening then that are happening now and you can kind of hold the mirror up to that through exploring that era.