Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter started out writing for such illustrious network shows as Sister, Sister, The Cosby Mysteries, and The New Adventures of Flipper, before getting called to work on Season 2 of The Sopranos. Over the course of the show, Winter became the MVP of the writers’ room, writing or co-writing 25 of its most memorable episodes (“Pine Barrens,” “Long Term Parking,” “Unidentified Black Males”). In 2008, Winter was approached by HBO to create a pilot for Boardwalk Empire, which has now completed its critically acclaimed first season. Vulture spoke to first-time show-runner Winter, who gamely agreed to justify his use of gratuitous nudity and gangster clichés. We also got some very promising hints about Season 2 — which he promises will feature more of our favorite underused character, the half-faced Richard Harrow.
On The Sopranos, there was a lot of send-up of gangster-movie clichés, but on Boardwalk Empire, you seem to be relishing the use of those clichés — like in all the scenes when you’re cutting back and forth between a celebration and a massacre, à la The Godfather.
It’s homage. The Godfather is certainly one of the seminal works in the gangster genre, so it was really fun to play in that playground for a while, to do that intercutting. Certainly, we’re completely aware that it’s been done. In the pilot, it was sort of Martin Scorsese putting his stamp on that. But you know, the gangster genre is so tried and true at this point, it has such a history — it’s right up there with the Western and the romantic comedy — and those things that you’re describing are almost a staple of the genre at this point. One of the great things about The Sopranos was that it was so fun to see them go back and reminisce about The Godfather or debate things that happened in Goodfellas. We even talked about that when we were working on this show, that these people have probably seen some of the very early silent films that involve gangsters and probably talk about that, too. There are a couple of films — Musketeers of Pig Alley is a film that came out in 1914 about gangs. Actually, too, the first film that was ever made was about criminals: Edison’s The Great Train Robbery. Since people invented a camera they’ve been filming gangsters.
Going forward into future seasons, do you have a sense of what the main story of the series will be?
The show is essentially a microcosm of America in the 1920s, as told through the eyes of this one guy who is equal parts politician and gangster.
So the show will remain focused on Nucky?
He’ll always be the central character that takes us through. He’s the center of this wheel. We will continue to explore our characters in Chicago and New York, but ultimately the action is always focused on Nucky and Atlantic City.
The real Nucky ended up in jail, right?
In the forties, yeah. They took a long time to get him, though. He was really beloved by the people of Atlantic City. I don’t think he ever made more than $5,000 a year legitimately on the books, but his residence was the entire eighth floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Do a little quick math and you’ll see how unbelievably corrupt this guy was — and yet, the city ran well and people were willing to put up with that corruption because things got done. Atlantic City was booming under his reign. It took a long time for the government to finally put him away because people wouldn’t testify against him.
The line in last night’s finale, “We all have to decide how much sin we can live with” — is that setting up the themes for Season 2?
It’s almost the theme of the whole show. Everybody is sort of making a deal with each other, certainly Margaret and Nucky are. I think every character on the show is for sale in some way. They’re all kind of broken, and they all have a price. And it’s just a question of setting where your line is.
I want to ask you about a couple of things we’ve been obsessed with over here at Vulture. One is the character of Harrow, the faceless man (played by Jack Huston). Where did he come from?
Howard Korder, on almost one of our first days ever in the writer’s room, came in with an article he’d read in Smithsonian magazine, about a woman sculptress somewhere in the Northeast who used to make these tin half-masks for soldiers who were disfigured in the war. By WWI, medicine has evolved to the point by the beginning of the last century where people were surviving battlefield injuries that normally would have killed them. So you have a lot of guys coming home from the war disfigured, who in the Civil War would have died of infections. There were also a tremendous amount of facial injuries in WWI because of trench warfare: Guys would stick their heads up from the trenches and get blown to bits by grenades or shrapnel or bullets. So this woman filled a real need. Plastic surgery being what it was in its infancy, a lot of these guys — the best they could do is patch you up, but you remained horribly disfigured. So she made these tin half-masks. And we thought, oh, what a great character that would be. We figured we would introduce him in a military hospital at some point, and of course that opportunity presented itself in Episode 7.
Another thing that we’ve all been commenting on is all the nudity in the show. Was that a conscious decision to counteract the low hemlines or something?
It’s funny to me in a way, because it’s an adult pay-cable show. Basically it’s an R-rated movie every week. And people seem to get bent out of shape at seeing women’s breasts and nobody comments on the violence! [Laughs.] When people say it’s gratuitous — like, oh, they show Lucy naked in the dress shop, it’s gratuitous nudity — I say, no, it’s not gratuitous. This is a woman whose only power is her sexuality. She’s trying to intimidate Margaret. All she has is that body. So what she’s saying is, Look at this. You cannot compete with this. When that doesn’t work, she makes Margaret strip down a couple episodes later and picks her apart. She’s doing whatever she can with what limited resources she has, using her sexuality. This is her currency. Gillian, she’s a showgirl, she’s gonna be nude, she’s very comfortable with her nudity. When two adults have sex, they’re usually naked. Again, we’re doing an R-rated movie every week; if people are in a sex scene, you’re going to see some butts and some breasts and stuff. So for me, it’s just organic to the story we’re telling, and it’s not intentionally meant to be shocking or “Oh, we can get away with it.” It’s there because we’re in a town that is essentially Sin City of 1920, so you’re going to see a lot of things that go along with that, including violence.
I will admit that I’ve made fun of the amount of nudity on Boardwalk Empire on our site.
[Laughs.] I forgive you.
Thank you. I do think that there is a lot of nudity compared to other shows, although I love some of it, like the showgirls. My one personal gripe is that there’s hardly been any male nudity.
Well, I’ll see what we can do for Season 2. If we can get Dabney Coleman naked for you, that might help.
I was hoping for Michael Pitt, but we can compromise on Steve Buscemi.
I’ll see what I can do. [Laughs.]