Emmy award-winning Sopranos screenwriter Terence Winter said he felt like “a girl going to the prom” when he arrived for diner at Martin Scorsese’s house to discuss a series adaptation of Boardwalk Empire, a book about the political underbelly and cultural history of Atlantic City. But the director, who Winter was deeply inspired by after seeing Taxi Driver as a teenager, wasn’t in a talkative mood: He had just had oral surgery earlier in the day. “I can’t really talk and please don’t make me laugh,” Winter remembers Scorsese telling him.
But it didn’t take much small talk for the two to bond over the idea of the series, which has begun filming in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and is scheduled for airing in the fall of 2010 on HBO. After some early discussions, Scorsese asked Winter what could be done to kick the project into gear. “We can move this forward very quickly: Say you’ll direct it,” he told Scorsese. The legendary auteur obliged, directing the series pilot, which has wrapped.
Boardwalk stars Steve Buscemi, as Nucky Thompson, the “undisputed leader” of Atlantic City who was both a glad-handing politician and a major figure in the organized crime movement of the 1920s. Winter said he was pleased to land Buscemi, who was on his short-list for actors to play the role of Thompson, adding, “[The ’20s] fit his style and personality as an actor.”
In a lot off Franklin Street in Greenpoint that was zoned for a 35-story condominium which was never built, the Boardwalk Empire crew spent three months re-creating the Atlantic City boardwalk of the 1920s, complete with supper clubs, speakeasies and even a baby incubation house (don’t laugh, baby incubator shows were a major success in Atlantic City and Coney Island in the 1920s and ’30s when the practice of incubating newborns was forbidden at the time in most hospitals).
The boardwalk faces south rather than West toward the East River. The Atlantic will be digitally added into the final product using green screen. Although the boardwalk scenes often use up to 200 extras, production designer Bob Shaw said designing and shooting there is the fun part–the real challenge comes when scenes are shot on location because all modern amenities, from walk-up ramps for people with disabilities to air conditioning units, need to be removed from the shot. “It’s kind of a minefield,” Shaw said.
The attention to detail and verisimilitude that accompanies each shot for the ambitious period piece is likely to draw parallels to Mad Men, written by another Sopranos alum, Matthew Weiner.
Winter and the Boardwalk production team had looked at using the boardwalk in Asbury Park for filming and also considered shooting in Syracuse or Utica, but ultimately were drawn to Brooklyn because of the city and state tax incentives; the tax relief is about 15% better shooting in New York compared to New Jersey, a production member told Winter.
But shooting close to New Jersey also allowed Winter to hire a number of his Sopranos alumni, both in front of and behind the camera.
As for the accuracy of the boardwalk itself, Winter consulted a number of history books and said the Boardwalk set is an amalgamation of 1920s Atlantic City but is not historically accurate facsimile of the boardwalk at a specific time.
A reporter on a visit to the set asked production designer Shaw if he drew any inspiration from present day Atlantic City, but much has changed on the old boardwalk since the roaring days of Prohibition.
Shaw said he ventured down to the real boardwalk but mused, “there’s not really much to see on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.” Some things are better left to the imagination.