The TCA Summer Press tour returned to the Jersey Shore on Saturday for the presentation of HBO’s new Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, based on a book by Atlantic County judge Nelson Johnson. The series, premiering Sept. 19 at 9pm, comes from Sopranos writer Terence Winter and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese.
It’s no surprise, then, that even TCA’s most apathetic critics were giddy when Marty beamed in from London to join the live panel featuring Winter and Boardwalk Empire stars Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald.
“[I wanted to examine] the nature of America’s love affair with the gangster as a sort of famous hero…that culture resonates around the world today,” Scorsese said of signing on to direct the series’ pilot.
Both Winter and Scorsese—no strangers to telling gangster tales—said they were intrigued by the project because it atypically focuses on crime organized along political, as opposed to racial or ethnic, lines.
“If you had a corrupt bone in your body and happened to run the town that was on this ocean, it was almost impossible not to be involved with Prohibition,” Winter said.
Boardwalk Empire’s central character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Buschemi, has a couple of those bones as Atlantic City’s treasurer at the dawn of Prohibition. The character is based on the one-time powerhouse of Atlantic City, Nucky Johnson.
“One of the things that was interesting about this era and this character in particular is that nothing really moved seamlessly between the worlds of politics and organized crime,” Winter added. “White collar corruption slowly gave way to more of the hands-on violence that ensued with Prohibition.”
So why the name change?
With the series already brimming with historical figures, from Al Capone (Stephen Graham) to Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Winter and co. wanted their imaginations to have some wiggle room—and didn’t want viewers Googling “the real Nucky” to try to get ahead on HBO’s plotline.
“We have enough people that are beholden to reality,” Winter said, adding that having a somewhat improvised central character “can be much more free, creatively, for my writers and myself.”
Buschemi described playing Johnson as a dream role: “Almost from page one I could tell that this was the man. It was almost terrifying in a way…when I first read the script I thought ‘Wow, I’m almost sorry I’m reading this because if I don’t get it I’m gonna be so disappointed, so sad.’ Just selfishly, I hope [the show] continues for years and years.”
In a reporter’s scrum after the panel, Buschemi added that though the idea of directing certain episodes is appealing, his hands are far too full with portraying Nucky.
Scorsese, however, was enthusiastic about continuing on as a director—schedule permitting—in addition to his duties as executive producer. He spoke of his foray into “thoughtful, intelligent and brilliantly put together” long-form narrative TV as a long-overdue creative opportunity for both himself and the industry:
“What’s happening the past nine to ten years, particularly at HBO, is what we had hoped for in the mid-Sixties with films being made for television at first,” Scorsese said. “We’d hoped there would be this kind of freedom and also the ability to create another world and create long-form characters and story. That didn’t happen in the 1970s, 1980s and in the 1990s I think. And of course …HBO is a trailblazer in this. I’ve been tempted over the years to be involved with them because of the nature of long-form and their development of character and plot. It’s a new opportunity for storytelling, really.”