‘This was where it all happened," Terence Winter says. "The birth place of organised crime in this country."
The Emmy-winning writerdirector is standing in the middle of what used to be a disused car lot in Brooklyn. Now, after three months of furious work by an army of set builders, it is a 300ft recreation of the Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1920.
Stretching into the distance are tattoo parlours, nightclubs, shops peddling palm readings, postcards and saltwater taffy; above them period-perfect billboards advertise Gillette and Chesterfield cigarettes (“that’s satisfying”).
On the other side of the walkway, wrought-iron railings look out onto a beach of trucked-in sand; a pier juts out and ends abruptly at the foot of a giant blue screen, on which the show’s editors will digitally insert footage of the Atlantic Ocean.
“All this will be filled in digitally so if you see it on TV, it’ll go out another eighth of a mile of pier,” Winter says proudly. “You won’t be able to tell where the set ends and the digital world begins.”
The set, which cost $3m (€2.25m) to construct, is the centrepiece of the lavish new crime drama Boardwalk Empire, which HBO is hoping will replace The Sopranos as its flagship show. Employing 300 crew members, 225 actors and 1,000 extras, and shot over 200 days, twice what a standard network drama would take, it traces the fortunes of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, a corrupt political boss played by Steve Buscemi.
“Half gangster, half politician,” he effectively runs Atlantic City from the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton, raking in money from the illegal liquor trade.
“It’s an exploration of the American dream, the extent to which people will go to attain it,” Winter says as we walk his elaborate set. “We call this the land of opportunity. It’s a look at what lines people will cross to be successful.
“The illegal alcohol business was very much akin to the drug business today. Overnight, something that was legal became illegal, something everybody wanted and had to have.
“All they did was make millionaires of Al Capone and the Lucky Lucianos of this world,” Winter adds.
The series kicks off with a dinner on the eve of Prohibition, at which Nucky toasts “the distinguished gentlemen of our nation’s Congress — those beautiful, ignorant bastards”. And if you think he sounds like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie, then well done: so did Scorsese, who directed the first episode.
He was originally attached as producer. Winter was then a writer on The Sopranos and was winding down on the show’s final season when HBO approached him about Nelson Johnson’s history of Atlantic City. They said: “Why don’t you read it and see if there’s something in there?” They were almost out the door when they added: “By the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this if you find a series there.”
“I assure you I will find a series here,” Winter replied.
After reading Winter’s drafts for the pilot, Scorsese asked him to his apartment for dinner.
“You know, this is something I might like to direct,” he told Winter. “How would we go about making that happen?”
Winter laughs. “I told him, if you were to ring up the head of HBO tomorrow and tell him what you told me, I think that might move things along.”
It turned out to be television on an epic scale. Scorsese brought with him a host of his collaborators from The Aviator and Casino, and screened Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, to give the producers a feel for the period.
Initial reports in the New York Post estimated the price of the first episode at $50m (€37.5m), making it “the most expensive pilot in history”; HBO said it cost $20m (€15m); people familiar with the budget put it closer to $30m (€22.5m).
“The number that you read on the internet is grossly exaggerated,” Winter says. “That said... it’s not cheap.”
Scorsese is not the only director on the HBO bandwagon; in recent months Michael Mann, David Fincher and Jonathan Demme have all declared deals to direct for HBO, thus proving that the cable channel has become a kind of breakaway republic from Hollywood. With movie studios too entranced with making movies about superheroes to make the kind of epics cinema used to excel at, the job has instead fallen to HBO, which, with series like Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire, has become the place you go to see a mirror held up to the world. At a recent press conference, Scorsese compared the creative freedom at the studio with that enjoyed by the New Wave directors in the ’60s.
“What’s happened over the past nine to 10 years, particularly at HBO, is what we had hoped for in the mid-’60s... We’d hoped there would be this kind of freedom and also the ability to create another world and create longform characters and story. HBO is a trailblazer in this.”
Already drawing excellent reviews, Boardwalk Empire looks set to become the must-see television event of the year. Winter hopes it will get picked up for further seasons; ultimately, he hopes to get as far as the crash of 1929.
“They haven’t told us to take it down,” he says, looking around his giant set. “God bless HBO.”