Boardwalk Empire fans can rest assured, Nucky Thompson has gone over the edge and will be full-on gangster in season four. And as anyone who’s watched Sunday’s season three finale knows (and those who haven’t should read no further unless spoilers aren’t a concern), characters like Al Capone, Chalky White, and Richard Harrow are also becoming valuable allies for the man who really runs Atlantic City. To find out more about what’s in store for the large cast of characters, we turned to the man who runs Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.
The slogan this season was that you can’t be half a gangster — but it could have also been that you can’t have half a protagonist.
I’m not sure I agree. What do you mean?
Nucky’s finally becoming a whole person: He finally realized that he needs to actually care about the people in his life. He didn’t know Chalky White’s phone number. He didn’t know that Eddie Kessler had a wife and children. He didn’t know that Margaret had fallen in love with Owen. He had underestimated his brother Eli. He thought he was being political and astute about maneuvering relationships, that his understanding of politics elevated him above other gangsters, but all of his various alliances were borne of opportunity, not trust. He didn’t have real relationships.
Then yes. In a broad sense, Nucky has changed. When the guy on the boardwalk says, “Hey, you’re Nucky Thompson,” Nucky doesn’t answer. That’s a very different Nucky from when we first met him. He’s not a glad-handing politician anymore. He’s had some clarity about what matters, who matters, and he’s realizing it might be a good idea to have coffee with the people who are responsible for his life, and ask how their weekends were. When we say, “You can’t be half a gangster,” it’s not just about shooting people. He can’t be half a gangster in the sense that he can’t be half in this life, or half pay attention. He has to pay attention to this business in a deeper way, which is odd for a guy who basically made his way up as a politician, which is supposedly based on personal relationships, but only in the most superficial sense: “What can you do for me?” That was all selfishness and opportunity. So when he says to Eli, “I don’t want anybody coming close to us that we don’t already know,” he’s outlining how he’s going to do business in a different way, and I’m really looking forward to exploring that version of Nucky in season four.
When exactly does the season finale take place?
June of 1923.
In two months, then, Nucky’s M.O. would have to start to change anyway, since President Harding dies in August of 1923.
Yeah. Unfortunately, that’s going to happen off camera, because I don’t know how interesting a guy dying in bed is. [Laughs] But [Attorney General] Harry Daugherty is still going to be in office for a while, although he’s a vastly different incarnation under Coolidge, and that’s when we’ll time jump to in season four, in mid 1924, the late spring, when Coolidge is already firmly in charge. And by then, the corruption in office isn’t a secret anymore, and Daugherty will be under a big spotlight. The Teapot Dome will be in the headlines, and that’s going to affect his ability to shuck and jive, and that will trickle down to Nucky. That will certainly be one of many challenges he faces — some will be political, some will be criminal, some will be personal difficulties, but all of the things he’ll face in season four will be different from the past, and they will be equally challenging.
But no Gyp Rosetti. Did you decide to end this season without a cliffhanger before you knew if Boardwalk would be renewed for a fourth season, so it could serve as a series finale if need be?
You know, I didn’t think about that. I’m always optimistic that we will continue, and I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers to begin with. They always feel sort of cheap to me: “We’re not going to tell you what happens to guarantee you come back next September!” If you tell a compelling enough story, people come back anyway.
Have you given any thought to how many subplots or characters you’ll have in season four? Some critics felt like there were too many this season, many of whom would just vanish to the point where the audience would forget about them. Even Nucky couldn’t remember who Chalky was [when he was concussed] …
That’s great how you put that: Nucky doesn’t even remember Chalky. [Laughs] He didn’t even remember Eli, either. But that’s the nature of the show. We have such a huge cast, and so many different storylines going, so one of our rules is leave them wanting more. That way, when you do see them, you’re happy they’re there. Everyone’s got their favorites — some people want more Al Capone — but there’s no way to get them all in one episode. Some of the episodes are bigger than others, and sometimes we aren’t as successful as when we drill it down to two people. It’s like music, and we have to go with what sounds right. Or it’s like cooking — a dash of this, a dash of that — and we’re making a meal. But with so many characters, somebody’s going to get disappointed every week, and there’s not a lot to be done about that — unless we kill off half the cast. And that would upset a lot of people, too. I look at this as one big piece, like one big novel, and these episodes are but chapters of that novel.
You’ve said before you’d like to have six seasons. What’s the bigger picture — the formation of the Big Seven, the gangster conference in Atlantic City, the beginnings of a national crime syndicate? Are all these subplots to serve a greater whole?
Hopefully we’ll get to six, if not more than that. Six at minimum to be fully satisfied. And yes, if we get that far, I want to show the Big Seven. Nucky almost alluded to that in episode nine, that he was sort of thinking along those lines, so hopefully we’ll get there, or even the end of Prohibition. So yes, I’m thinking of a bigger picture. Certain people will come and go, and minor players or certain people we meet along the way will come to prominence in later years. Even just this season, Chalky’s future son-in-law had a minor story in episode two and then came back in a major way in episode eleven. In season four, Chalky will rise to prominence a great deal. And you know the history of 1924: Al Capone will take over Cicero and come into his own. It’s the year he wages war with Dean O’Banion, and we know how that ends.
Will Van Alden be pulled into the North Side wars?
He’ll be put in the middle of that. I’m a huge fan of history and it’s certainly fascinating and rich to depict. But the challenge and fun of it is to mix it into that world, say with Van Alden and Dean O’Banion. I have a rule: I will not alter the basic history of a real-life character to suit our fictional needs in a big way. Lucky Luciano did get arrested in 1923 on a drug charge, and he did get out of it by giving up his stash of heroin, but the circumstances of that are fair game: What did they do with the heroin? Were the cops dirty? And Al Capone and Nucky Johnson were definitely friendly. There’s a photo of them on the boardwalk together, that people dispute whether or not is real or part of a smear campaign, but they did know each other well. But it would be ludicrous by 1924, if during that time, he took a bunch of trips to Atlantic City, so for us next season, the Capone story doesn’t go to Atlantic City a lot. He’s got to interact with Nucky in a different way.
Was it really necessary to dwell on all of Van Alden’s efforts to be a door-to-door salesman? Some of the detours — Van Alden selling irons, Margaret teaching sex ed — took a long time to play out. Some critics found the pacing too slow, the subplots too excessive.
Hey — if Van Alden going bananas on his boss was a sitcom, I would watch it every week! [Laughs] I’m sorry not everyone found that interesting. To me, it was worth all of that. Margaret, her story, and the whole birth control arc was a journey. We picked her up and set her adrift. She has all this money and no purpose, she finds meaning doing a greater good, and the ironic twist is that she finds herself pregnant. Where she goes beyond that, you’ll have to tune in! But the thing is, what we’re doing, these are all parts of a whole, and it all connects, whether you know it or not. It’s not haphazard or random, and we’re not going to abandon things that set up or add flavor or are part of a bigger piece.
Does any of the criticism ever help, though? Do you ever adjust the show based on critic response?
I tend not to read reviews; there’s too much out there in cyberspace. I mean, they even recap Jersey Shore! [Laughs] I get it, they have a lot of space to fill up, but I’ve not done that, no. Critics who do the weekly recap, I find that kind of absurd. That’s like reviewing chapters in a novel. Obviously, this has to work episode to episode, but the endless analysis of every little thing? You have to watch the whole season, you know? You can’t just pick out things randomly, and those that do, they don’t understand that we’re setting up something really big. I write the show the way we want to see it and I’m happy with what we put out.
What are the challenges of revitalizing the gangster genre, or introducing new types of characters to this genre?
For television? The latitude we have on HBO and the technology we have, we can do everything as good, if not better, than in a movie. We’ve done things as big and spectacular as feature films. The challenge is the genre itself, because there are only so many variations on particular themes, so we’re really finding what’s new and fresh there. There are only so many ways you can walk into a speakeasy and shake a guy down, so to find what makes it different is our big challenge as the series as the series progresses. Each episode that passes, that’s one less episode we can do it that way, and the writers room gets harder and harder with each passing season. But that’s the job.
So when you’re writing a character like Gyp Rosetti, how do you make sure he’s not like Joe Pesci was in Goodfellas?
He’s Italian and hotheaded and violent, and people are going to make comparisons. Other than giving him a monocle, or other odd character traits, there’s only so many different versions of a gangster you can do. If this were a western, it would be like horses. Of course, you see things that have been done in the other movies, but the trick is to make each character as fresh as you can. And people really responded to [Bobby]. I knew they would. If I was confident about anything, Bobby Cannavale in your movie or TV show is going to work.
Richard Harrow is a character we don’t often see in this genre. That’s pretty fresh — and a fan favorite.
But even Richard Harrow, somebody once pointed out to me, was a type of character in some other story or book. I don’t remember which one, but something else referenced a guy like him, and I was completely unaware of that. I think he’s unique for us, though. In some ways, he’s a lone wolf, and even the people who know him can’t know him completely.
He had the romantic relationship subplot, which may or may not be able to continue now that he’s dropped a child on Julia’s doorstep.
He’s probably got a lot of explaining to do. I’ve found in my romantic life that showing up at 2 a.m. covered in blood is not a good idea. [Laughs] Chicks hate it when you do that. Take a shower at least. Wash the kid up.
Gillian’s not going to be too pleased with that custody arrangement, if she’s still around.
Without giving too much away, she will absolutely be around.
Speaking of kids, what did you think about Birdwalk Empire?
I love it! I have two little kids who watch Sesame Street all the time, and for me, that was one of the best honors the show could have gotten, to be on Sesame Street. It was awesome. We even went and visited the set, which was cool, even though Big Bird was asleep when we got there. They sort of had him in storage. But it was great. Very flattering.
If you went on set for Birdwalk, did you also go on set for Wolf of Wall Street?
They’ve been filming at the same studio where we shoot the show, so I have. I was on the set for two different days. I got to see them shoot a sequence on a yacht, a big action sequence that will involve special effects, and I got to be there when Rob Reiner was shooting. It’s always great to see a film you wrote come to life.
How much input does Marty Scorsese have on Boardwalk these days, especially when he’s busy directing a film like that?
You know, when he’s directing a movie, he’s completely in that zone, but I generally speak to him about once a week, usually on a Sunday night or a Sunday afternoon. That’s when we catch up. He gives input mostly remotely, through e-mail and phone and intermediaries. But even if he’s working on four or five things at a time, he has this amazing ability to focus and compartmentalize, and he remembers everything. Marty and I talk all the time, who we like, who we don’t like, but he knows every actor who’s ever lived and ever will live. He knows actors who haven’t even been born yet. That’s how good the guy is.
What was his reaction to the Taxi Driver homage a few episodes back?
You know, I told him it was coming, and that it was a blatant homage. I said, “I hope you enjoy it!” And he did. We also had a couple of Little Rascals homages this year, and Three Stooges, but they were so subtle. The Three Stooges one was a line, “Normally parties bore me, but not this one,” which is a line Curly says right before he gets hit with a pie. I stole that for the New Year’s Eve party scene. And then Little Rascals, that’s when Van Alden’s boss tells him, “Now George, be reasonable,” which is from when Spanky’s told, “Now Spanky, be reasonable,” although I don’t know if that qualifies. You were talking about highbrow cinematic references, and I’m talking about stuff I shouldn’t even be confessing! [Laughs] Oh, and one more thing — when Harrow brings Tommy to the door, that’s from the last shot of The Searchers, when John Wayne comes back. That’s our little inside joke.
You’re developing another HBO project with Marty, about the seventies. So if it goes forward, you’d have two period pieces on HBO.
Yes, yes. I think four or five might be the limit, though. [Laughs] It’s taking place in the seventies, in 1973, the beginnings of punk, disco, and hip-hop, in New York City, the height or the depth of the craziness in terms of the crime and political corruption and a really interesting time to be in New York and in the music business. I can’t stop thinking about fun cameos we could have, because it’s the beginning of everything from the New York Dolls to the very early Ramones to Grandmaster Flash, the list goes on. We’d want to show CBGB, so maybe we’ll probably rent the building and recreate it, so it can live, God willing, another ten years.
How much of a gangster are you?
I could cheat on my taxes or something, possibly, write off a dinner that I didn’t really have. That’s about as far as I’d go. But gangster, or gangsta? Because that’s a world of difference, from what I understand from the kids. [Laughs] I’m not really gangsta. Not at all. I just write about them. It’s fun to pretend, at least on paper. But in real life, not so much.