HBO's 'Boardwalk' on the East River
HBO’s next big show is in a New York state of mind, even though it’s set in Atlantic City.
“Boardwalk Empire,” premiering in September, is a Prohibition-era story set in Atlantic City. But the famous Boardwalk is not a location; instead, the network built its set in Brooklyn.
amNewYork spoke with series creator and former “Sopranos” writer Terence Winter while on a set visit.
Winter — the Emmy-winning writer of “The Sopranos” — returns to HBO with Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese in tow for “Boardwalk Empire.”
The show, which opens on the first day of Prohibition, Jan. 16, 1920, follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who was the top dog around “America’s Playground” and helped drive the flow of illegal alcohol into the U.S.
“[He was] equal parts politician and gangster,” Winter said. “His political reach went all the way to the White House.”
The set and locations
While it’s set in Atlantic City, “Boardwalk Empire” is filmed on a set the size of a football field on Greenpoint’s waterfront, complete with an accurate re-creation of the Boardwalk at about 70 percent the size of the real thing.
“The patterns in the boardwalk, the pointed arrows, every lttle detail is actually what it is today and what it was in 1920,” Winter said.
Brooklyn wasn’t the first location they had in mind. All of the period buildings on the real Boardwalk were knocked down in the 1970s, though, so shooting in Atlantic City wasn’t an ideal option.
“That was the first place we looked,” Winter said. “There were maybe five camera angles that we could actually use and say it’s the 1920s; otherwise it’s all modern casinos built within the last 35 to 40 years.”
They shuffled through Asbury Park, N.J., Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Troy, but none of them made sense.
“It became cheaper to stay in New York City, close to where we had our offices,” he said. “There are also great period locations all over Brooklyn, buildings from the 1920s and earlier which haven’t been touched.”
The set was the largest in New York film history, taking three months to build. And it’s not just a facade. It’s got full interiors where they film, from a dress shop to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where Nucky lives.
Oh, and the Empire State Building, clearly visible on the horizon, will be digitally removed.
Unlike “The Sopranos,” which was set in a modern, familiar world, “Boardwalk Empire” is a show that Winter had to do a lot of research for.
“The ’20s, I sort of knew the history there,” Winter said. “A lot of the show also deals with politics. It’s post-World War I, what was going on socially in the country, how people spoke, how they dressed, pop culture — there was a lot of research to do to the point where I felt comfortable putting words in people’s mouths.”
Nucky Thompson never existed. But Nucky Johnson did.
In order to tell a compelling story that had jeopardy — you can find online what happened to the real Nucky — Winter decided to change the name and take some liberties.
“It’s about 70 percent faithful to the real person and 30 percent goes into fiction,” Winter said. “This way I can take license. I can have my Nucky do things that the real Nucky might not have done.”
Winter first met Buscemi when the actor directed a “Sopranos” episode. Later on, he got an acting gig on the show playing Tony Soprano’s cousin Tony Blundetto.
When they were casting, Winter and Scorsese were discussing who would play Nucky and Winter brought up Buscemi. “‘Wow, I always wanted to work with him,’” Winter recalled Scorsese saying. And the rest is history.
As for the rest of the cast, one of the keys comes from a particular name.
“One of the qualifications to be on this show is you have to be named Michael,” Winter joked. “We got Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Kenneth Williams. There might be another Michael.”
“When I first started researching this, I viewed [the music] like homework,” Winter said. “I have to sit and listen to this stuff.”
But the more he listened to the music, the more he liked it. And he thinks you will, too.
Much of the era’s music was played in vaudeville houses and hasn’t been heard in years.
“We actually have music on this show that hasn’t been heard or played since 1915,” Winter said. “They got sheet music and then had somebody record it.”