09.06.10

HBO's Scorsese Sensation

Martin Scorsese's big budget mobster series Boardwalk Empire is HBO's attempt to create a crime thriller that measures up to The Wire and The Sopranos. Jace Lacob says they pulled it off.

America has long had a love affair with the gangster, a thug who throws off the conventions of society, cuts a bloody swath through his enemies, and keeps the crown on his head through violence and corruption.

Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the concept, having directed several films— Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York—that focused on the gangster throughout history, from the turbulent 1850s to the 1970s to the present day. At last month’s Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, Scorsese appeared via satellite from London to promote HBO’s upcoming drama Boardwalk Empire, which launches on September 19.

“You make a deal,” said Scorsese. “You figure out how much sin you can live with.”

“It’s [about] the charting of the nature of this world, the underworld,” said Scorsese, who referenced critic Robert Warshow’s landmark 1948 essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero. “And also the nature of America’s love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero… loving the gangster for doing everything he can’t do, but wanting him to pay for it at the end.”

The searing period drama, created by Terence Winter ( The Sopranos) and executive produced by Scorsese (who also directed the pilot), Stephen Levinson, and Mark Wahlberg, is set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and depicts the rise of the modern-day mobster—including Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, and Lucky Luciano—amid the massive political graft and corruption that marked this seaside escape in 1920.

“It was Vegas before Vegas was invented,” said Winter, sitting alongside Steve Buscemi ( Ghost World) and Kelly Macdonald ( Gosford Park) in a suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in August. “It’s this adult playground, it’s eye candy… It had everything from highbrow to lowbrow… It’s just such an incredible palette to draw stories from.”

It’s also a hell of a risk for HBO, which has been on a winning streak since launching vampire drama True Blood back in 2008, guiding it to massive ratings and Zeitgeist-grabbing influence. The pilot for Boardwalk Empire alone allegedly cost $18 million to produce, a sizable sum that dwarfs other expensive pilot endeavors, like the $10 million ABC spent on Lost. The show itself is shot on a specially constructed 300-foot Jersey Shore boardwalk set—itself said to cost $5 million—which is then expanded with CGI. (Reports have indicated that the budget per episode hovers around $5 million per installment, which is on par with other HBO dramas.)

But with Boardwalk Empire, HBO has a chance to launch a series that’s will lure audiences still missing The Sopranos and The Wire, a complex period drama with strong characters, gripping storylines, and precise historical accuracy.

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Lloyd Grove: HBO’s Haunting New Al Qaeda DocumentaryBased on Nelson Johnson’s nonfiction book, Boardwalk Empire painstakingly recreates Atlantic City during the roaring ‘20s, resurrecting a bygone era complete with its politicos, showgirls, shopkeepers, and bootleggers. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson is the city’s treasurer, a widower who has his hand in every pocket in the city, courting the Women’s Temperance League even as he takes his cut from the moonshine and bootleg businesses that are keeping the boardwalk awash in booze.

Winter said that the project fell into his lap as he was finishing up The Sopranos in 2007 when HBO handed him Johnson’s book, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, and casually mentioned that Scorsese was attached. (“I told them I don’t even have to open it,” he says. “I guarantee you there’s a TV series in here.”)

“The ‘20s were always interesting to me,” said Winter. “It hadn’t really been done a lot in film and almost not at all on television. The more I read about the character upon which Steve’s character is based, Nucky Johnson, the convergence of the end of World War I, Prohibition being enacted, women getting the right to vote, all the different changes that were happening in the country, I just said, this is such a great time and place. The gangster element was just icing on the cake for me.”

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Buscemi and Winter were no strangers, as Buscemi himself had worked on The Sopranos, both in front of and behind the camera. (He was nominated for an Emmy for directing the 2001 episode “Pine Barrens,” which Winters wrote.) With Nucky Thompson, who is loosely based on real-life New Jersey politician Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, Buscemi may have found his perfect role, a richly complex character who has a good heart and a corrupt nature, and who—despite the tantalizing, uh, abilities of showgirl girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta)—finds himself drawn to Macdonald’s pious Irish wife and mother Margaret Schroeder.

“I think Nucky has purposely picked women that he won’t get so emotionally attached to,” said Buscemi. “When he meets Margaret… he sees somebody that he can give his heart to, potentially, and intellectually, he hasn’t had that stimulation in a long time.”

It’s the unfolding of the relationship between Nucky and Margaret—with some truly bizarre and unexpected plot twists that won’t be spoiled here—that gives Boardwalk Empire its emotional spine in the first few episodes, as this unlikely pair meet at a temperance meeting and Margaret convinces Nucky to give her abusive and alcoholic husband a job.

“He is kind of bullshitting everyone,” said Macdonald, “but she is just totally captivated by his story and sees connections there to her own. She wants to fix him in a way… but a lot of it is self-preservation.”

But this isn’t a love story. Or, at least, not entirely.

At its heart, Boardwalk Empire is a portrait of the birth of the American crime family, and Nucky has his hands full with his former protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) who, returning from the war, decides to form an alliance with a young upstart ( Occupation’s Stephen Graham) named Al Capone.

None of the characters within Boardwalk Empire are angels or demons. Each of them seems to be deeply flawed and realistic, their actions precipitated by self-survival or maintaining the status quo. Everyone is in on the grift, whether they realize it or not.

“You make a deal,” said Scorsese. “You figure out how much sin you can live with.”

Which might not be that different from today. There are a number of parallels between Boardwalk Empire’s 1920 and 2010, two eras built on great excess and restraint, wealth and poverty, shell-shocked veterans and fat-cat politicians. But rather than find cheap moonshine, audiences will encounter a heady period drama that’s very much in keeping with the provocative traditions of Scorsese and The Sopranos. Plus, there will always be a fascination with gangsters ingrained within the collective consciousness of this country.

“You look at a guy like Nucky, who sleeps until four in the afternoon, runs this city, makes millions of dollars, sleeps with showgirls, people love him, his apartment is the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel,” said Winter. “Who wouldn’t want to be this guy? Every guy watching this is going to say, yeah, it sounds pretty good to me.”

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.