Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter dissects the show’s second season (Part 3 of 4)
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Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter spoke with The A.V. Club about the second season of his show. Following part two, this section covers episodes seven through nine, beginning with “Peg Of Old” and ending with “Battle Of The Century.” Check out part one, part two, part four.
“Peg Of Old” (Nov. 6, 2011)
Margaret visits her estranged brother and sisters in Brooklyn, and learns that her family is still mad at her for getting pregnant out of wedlock back in Ireland and stealing money to sail to America. Still reeling from their disapproval, Margaret comes home and finally sleeps with Owen, who’s just spent the day stalking and killing an enemy from the old country. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s alliance forces his hand, demanding that he take care of his Nucky problem once and for all by hiring a hit man—though the shooter misses his target and only tags Nucky’s hand. And while Lucy leaves town—sticking Van Alden with their daughter and a dirty diaper—new blood comes to Atlantic City in the form of sharp-witted U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph.
The A.V. Club: You talked earlier about what you can do with special effects to expand your existing set, but with this episode, you had to do a lot of building to show the Brooklyn streets, correct?
Terence Winter: Yeah, that entire street is an alley that exists in New York. It’s actually in Manhattan, down around Tribeca. I forget the name. Bill Groom, who’s our incredible production designer, just transformed that street over the course of about 48 hours. He and his team just did a phenomenal job. Just really gorgeous. Just brought a different world back to life.
AVC: So that was away from your usual set?
TW: Yeah, that was a set dressed on location.
AVC: And yet you only used that street for maybe a minute and a half, two minutes.
TW: Yeah, yeah. But it really creates a world. Even with the boardwalk. We don’t see it every episode. If you pepper it in a few times, it gives you the idea of scope. You can do one massive shot of the boardwalk that might be a minute, just one little scene out there, and you see the world and you see the ocean. And you can do five more interior scenes after that, but y’know, just outside Nucky’s window that boardwalk is there. You feel it because you’ve seen it. A little of that goes a really long way. I think the street for Margaret in New York was a good example of that.
AVC: One of the recurring criticisms of season one was that Margaret didn’t seem to have enough of a story, but this episode really addresses who she is to a large degree: this idea of being cut off from her family and a stranger in a strange land, and what that means in terms of the choices she has.
TW: Right. She’s really isolated here, and I think the more that she and Nucky become estranged during the course of the season, and the more you realize that she doesn’t really have a relationship with her family, and she’s here in this strange country, there’s a lot of things about herself she doesn’t even recognize anymore. She’s now living in this big fancy house in Atlantic City, and there’s really nothing in her world that can ground her. It’s sort of the perfect storm that sets her up for her tryst with Owen at the end—being rejected by her family, and her brother saying, “There’s no one here who knows you.” She’s in a really dark place, and when we pick up Owen at the end of the episode, he’s in a similarly altered state based on what he just did. I think he feels adrift as well. He’s not home, either.
AVC: That’s something that’s maybe not that familiar an emotion to people today: feeling so far removed from home.
TW: Yeah, I mean, it’s not like she can hop a plane and in five hours she’s back in Ireland. This was a two-week journey on a boat that not a lot of people could afford to do. And you can’t just pick up the phone or send somebody an email. You really would be completely isolated. I remember when I moved from New York to California in 1991, driving down the Santa Monica Freeway thinking, “If I died right now, nobody knows me here.” It’s a weird feeling. I’d just moved to strange city. I didn’t know anyone. And that’s just from New York to L.A. It’s not that big of a deal. If I felt that in 1991, and all I had to do was take out my cell phone and call home, what is somebody like Margaret feeling? Or Owen? A hundred years ago? It’s a big, big thing. The concept of home and family and who knows you is so rooted in our DNA. It’s really effective for drama.
AVC: This episode also deals with the big dramatic question that you mentioned a few episodes back, which is: Why don’t they just kill Nucky? In this episode, finally they just decide, “Okay, now.” But why at this point did the characters decide that Nucky has to go?
TW: At some point, if you’re dealing with gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, you have to say, “This is enough pussyfooting.” They’re only going to put up with a certain amount of pussyfooting. [Laughs.] This is a legitimate way to solve problems in that world. It would have been phony or false for us to not at least have considered that as an option for these guys. We knew at some point along the way, it’d have to be something they’d try and, of course, fail—if we wanted to keep Nucky alive, which we did. But to not address that as a potential option would have been false in the storytelling. Again, I didn’t want this whole season to be about a running gun battle between Nucky’s gang and their gang, but at some point we knew it had to come to that.
AVC: It’s interesting, too, because even at this point, Jimmy still does not have any conviction about it. He doesn’t want to do it. He just sort of has to do it to look strong.
TW: Yeah, he was really hoping that Nucky would just go to jail and go away, and that this would work out where no one got hurt, and everybody would get what they wanted, and nobody would have to die. Unfortunately, at this point, the world is sort of closing in on him, too. Even Eli now is completely comfortable with it, and his mother’s whispering in his ear, and the other guys, they’re all looking to him. “You’re supposed to be in charge of this thing.” He gets led along into a plan he’s not really comfortable with.
AVC: You have two big fight/gun scenes in “Peg Of Old.” You have the Owen scene in the washroom, and then you have the shooting of Nucky. How much time does it take to choreograph those sequences? Because they’re both very stylish and very kinetic.
TW: Allen Coulter is such a talented director and so methodical in his preparation. I know he had Charlie Cox—who plays Owen—and the actor who played the guy he killed work for days with our stunt coordinator, choreographing that entire sequence. You’ve got really limited time. That was done here on the standing set, while the Babette’s sequence was done on our location of the Babette’s nightclub. But they worked for several days getting that just right. It’s physically really taxing, and because you are on a schedule, you’ve got to get it done within a certain amount of time. For matters of safety and ease of production, the better prepared you are, the better it turns out. Allen knew exactly the shots he wanted and had the whole thing planned out in advance, and maybe even storyboarded. So putting it together worked well, but those guys were exhausted by the end of the day. It’s maybe not quite as exhausting as actually killing someone, but pretty close. [Laughs.] It has to be.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that you were sort of picking up the mantle from Martin Scorsese and trying to carry forth what he did in the pilot. Trying to ape anybody’s style—and particularly somebody as masterful as Scorsese—must be difficult. How did you manage it?
TW: It’s a lot of watching over and over what he’s done, and breaking it down into its component parts. It’s all about color palette and lighting and set design, and all that stuff sort of goes together. It’s really just deconstructing. Y’know, that’s probably a better question for Tim Van Patten than me, in terms of the types of shots, the types of lenses used, that sort of thing. I think Timmy just nailed it. It was completely seamless. Timmy directed episodes two and three of the series coming right out of the pilot. For me, it was completely seamless visually, and continues on in that vein.
AVC: Is it frustrating that there are people who still assume this is Scorsese’s show?
TW: No, not at all. I mean, it is his show, in large part. He’s the reason we have a show. My first meeting with HBO, they said, “Martin Scorsese’s attached to this,” and I remember going home and saying to my wife, “I’ve just been handed a television show. If I can figure this out, we have a TV show, because Martin Scorsese’s behind it. This will happen. I just have to not fuck this up now.” [Laughs.] Even though he’s only directed the pilot, he’s involved. He gives us notes on scripts, and he watches dailies, and he weighs in on casting, and we talk all the time. He’s very much involved. He’s definitely a presence creatively for all of us.
AVC: The Esther Randolph character really brings a new energy in at this point in the series…
TW: Yeah, and such a great actress, Julianne Nicholson. Wonderful across the board, and beautiful, and just a pleasure to work with. Really fun for us because we finally get an opportunity to have a really strong woman on the show, who’s a different kind of woman. She’s not a showgirl. She’s not some tough hooker chick. This is a really intelligent, strong woman. For us it was sort of a breath of fresh air to be able to write that character as well.
AVC: And she’s based on Mabel Walker Willebrandt, but you decided to not to make it Mabel Walker Willebrandt. Same reason as with the Nucky Thompson/Nucky Johnson decision?
TW: Yeah, same thing. We don’t know where we want to take her. Who knows where she may end up in the future, or even in her reality of being in Atlantic City? We thought, “Close enough.” She’s clearly based on this woman, but why not give ourselves the latitude of letting her go places where the real Mabel didn’t go?
“Two Boats And A Lifeguard” (Nov. 13, 2011)
A wounded Nucky makes his play, pretending to give Jimmy what he wants by stepping down from power, just to prove to Jimmy that he’s not ready to attend to the thousand little details that make running the city such a challenge. To underline that point, Nucky privately urges Chalky to mobilize the block community into causing labor trouble. Making matters worse, Manny has come to Atlantic City to demand from Jimmy either the money or the booze he was long ago supposed to have received, but Jimmy doesn’t yet have either, because Nucky hasn’t made it easy to do business. And Jimmy’s wife Angela commences a sexual relationship with another woman.
AVC: “Two Boats And A Lifeguard” opens with a dream sequence, which is something that frequently happened on The Sopranos as well. What’s the reason for using that device to help tell this story?
TW: I felt that if there was ever a time in Nucky’s trajectory so far that would lend itself to a dream sequence, this was it. He’s really in a dark place. He’s obviously under tremendous pressure. He’s got the world closing in. He’s just been shot—almost murdered. So I just thought, creatively, we really earned it, in the sense that he’d really be having a lot on his mind.
It’s interesting, too, because as we’re shooting the first scene, he comes out of that dream and Dr. Surran is changing the bandage on his hand, and Nucky’s saying, “Am I daydreaming or did I nod off?” We really couldn’t decide. I said, “I think it could be either. It could’ve been that your mind is wandering, or maybe you might be thinking about a dream you had the night before.” With actors generally, the best course is to just give them a direct answer. With Steve [Buscemi] though, he’s a director himself. He actually gave me that advice when I first directed. He said, “Look, if anybody asks you a question, just give them an answer. Doesn’t matter. You can always change your mind later. ‘The red one. The blue one. Anything.’” So I know he knows that trick, so I said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know.” I said, “Whatever works for you is good.” And I guess whatever works for the audience is good, too. We know it’s obviously not reality. Whether he nodded off or daydreamed, it doesn’t really matter.
AVC: You mention the bandage, and there’s a moment in this episode where Nucky meets with Chalky and suggests that now might be the time for a strike, and Chalky reaches out his hand to shake, and Nucky gestures toward his bandage as if to say, “Sorry, my hand can’t do it.” But this also means that nothing’s official, because Nucky never shook on it. Was that intentional or inadvertent?
TW: [Laughs.] Yeah, you’re maybe reading into a little bit. That wasn’t intended. It really was just about his hand.
AVC: What was the thought process behind Chalky’s arc for this season, and in particular the revelations that he’s illiterate and harbors resentments toward the middle class in his community?
TW: Again, coming into season two, one of the great advantages of getting the pick-up to move forward was that we got to start to really peel back the layers of who these characters are. We realized we had an opportunity to go home with Chalky and see what his family life was like, and really start to explore who this guy is and why he is the way he is. It was really just starting from there. We mentioned in season one that Chalky had a big house, as big as the mayor or bigger. We thought, “Who is this guy? What does he want?” Well, he’s this guy who’s got aspirations to have his kids do better than he did, and go to college. He’s got this beautiful wife. But we also realized that it’s very possible that Chalky, being this guy from the streets, has a lot less in common with his kids than the guys he works with. In doing all this hard work to give them every advantage, he’s sort of an alien in his own house. His kids grow up and make fun of him behind his back. He’s illiterate, and they goof on him a little bit. The little girl says, “Daddy will you read me this book?” and the son says, “You’re asking Daddy?” It’s sad in a way. Here this guy’s breaking his back—even though he’s completely a criminal—to give these kids everything, and in some ways, they’re embarrassed of him and resent him, or at least he perceives that they do.
That was something I really wanted to explore, and it really is a sad and poignant moment at the end of episode four, where he really does feel like a “field nigger” in his own house. He belongs out in the shed, while the fancy people belong inside the house that he’s provided for them. I was really interested in exploring that aspect of who he is, and of course then layering in the idea that he does wield a great deal of power in the African-American community in Atlantic City, because they really made up a large part of the infrastructure of the town. When they were organized, they made the difference between whether people were making money or not making money in Atlantic City. Suddenly there were no waiters, no busboys, no dock workers, no people pushing rolling chairs, that sort of stuff. Chalky really, being the guy who controlled all that, wielded a great deal of power. We set that up very early on and that would pay off later in the season.
AVC: You introduce Angela’s new lover in this episode, who unfortunately is not going to be around for very long. But here, she and Angela go to this party on the beach, with artistic types and homosexuals, and it’s like another world within the world of the show, and one that we haven’t seen too much. Do you develop characters for Boardwalk Empire with the thought that, “Okay, with this character we’ll have a chance to explore the gay community of 1921?” To consciously expand the scope of the show?
TW: No, it’s not conscious. Angela’s artistic, and she’s certainly got a bisexual component to her as well, so just taking those as some of her basic character traits, we say, “Where might we go with that?” Then it’s really a question of opening up the world from there. I didn’t consciously give her all these different character traits, thinking that was going to lead us down the road into a lot of other interesting areas. It’s just that once you start to explore who someone is, you can sort of expand from there.
Margaret is another good example of how that works. We knew she came over from Ireland, and that was her characteristic initially. She’s an immigrant. Then we came up with the idea that she came here when she was 16. She lost a baby on the trip over. Then we were thinking, “Okay, why did she leave Ireland? Who did she leave behind? What happened to those people? Where are they now?” We came up with the idea that they were in New York. She could contact them. You just sort of expand it as it goes along, and create new situations by asking questions.
“Battle Of The Century” (Nov. 20, 2011)
While Jack Dempsey prepares to defend his World Heavyweight Championship in Jersey City, Jimmy declines an offer to go to the fight in person and chooses to listen to it on the new medium of pay radio, while in the process finding his morose friend Richard a girl to fool around with. Chalky encourages Dunn to lead a strike against the Atlantic City hotels, while Esther Randolph shakes up the local law enforcement to get info about Nucky. And while Margaret deals with the revelation that her daughter has polio, Nucky is in Ireland, negotiating a guns-for-booze trade that is next phase in his “stymie Jimmy” plan.
AVC: Where were the Irish sequences shot?
TW: Westchester. There’s a big mansion out there, and we did a lot of green-screen, blocking things out, adding some rolling Irish meadows, that sort of thing. But it was all in New York.
AVC: There’s a terrific bit of staging in this episode when Nucky is driving away from that mansion, and we see McGarrigle getting shot way in the back of the frame, seen through the rear window of the car. This episode was directed by Brad Anderson. Did he conceive that shot or was that in the script?
TW: That was in the script.
AVC: How much freedom do your directors have to play around with the visual components on an episode?
TW: They have freedom as long as they run it by me first, and we discuss it. First and foremost, it’s about telling the story. Any shot has to service getting the information across. That being the ironclad rule, starting from there, okay, I’m certainly open to hearing different ways of presenting that information. As long as we’re telling the story, and the information we need to convey is getting out there, that’s great. Then it’s a question of what actually are we talking about. I’m not really a big fan of elaborate shots just for the sake of being able to do them, but always interested to hear or see a different take on something.
AVC: McGarrigle gets shot by his former allies in part because he’s become a weaker leader since his son died. Was there any intentional parallel between that and the storyline of Emily getting polio?
AVC: The spinal-tap sequence with Emily—where Margaret is stuck behind a glass partition—is excruciating to watch, especially for viewers who have young children.
TW: Yeah, absolutely, and excruciating to do. The girls, Lucy and Josie Gallina, who play our little Emily, are so sweet, and such good screamers and criers. [Laughs.] It’s so painful to hear them even pretend to be afraid or pretend to be hurt. Kelly [MacDonald] is a mom herself, and I’m a dad, and just about everybody on the set has kids or is around kids, and you can’t help but put yourself in that situation. You’d so gladly trade places with the child for anything, and of course, you can’t. It’s really painful. Steve Buscemi told me when he read the script, and came to the last line when Owen reads in the telegram that Emily has polio, he flung it across the room. He said he was so upset, as if this was a real kid. He thought she was going to die, and was relieved that she was only going to be crippled. [Laughs.] You really get invested. It’s incredible.
AVC: Emily getting polio drives a lot of what happens in the rest of the season. At what point did you decide this was the direction for that character and for Margaret’s story?
TW: Very early on in the plotting out of the season. I knew that was going to be the thing that really just completely rocked her world. I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, and just assuming Margaret was Irish Catholic at the end of the 19th century in Ireland, regardless of what her opinions are about religion, it’s almost part of your DNA. Bad things start to happen, and you look skyward and think, “Okay, I’m being punished.” And what’s a worse punishment for a mother than to have her child afflicted with this horrible disease? You start to internalize. “My child’s being punished for my sins.” It lent itself so perfectly to the very thing Margaret was being asked to do. It all goes back the death of this child’s father, killed at the start of the series by Nucky’s men. Even for a rational, thinking, modern woman, given her background, it made perfect sense to me that she would start to spin wildly out of control and think, “I am being punished for this.” For me, there’s no question she would absolutely succumb to that way of thinking.
AVC: You don’t show any of the actual Dempsey-Carpentier fight, though it appears briefly on the radio. Did you entertain the idea at any point of actually shooting a boxing match?
TW: We did. Because it would have been prohibitively expensive, we decided that it wouldn’t really work for us, and because this was the dawn of radio and the first sports broadcast ever, we thought, “Wow, that’s a fun thing to do, might be a more interesting way to go since we can’t afford to do the actual fight.” And it worked out pretty well.
That was the first pay-per-view event—or pay-per-listen. And they had no idea if that was going to be successful or not. They couldn’t get their heads around the idea that, “So they’re going to fight, and you’re going to talk about watching the fight over the radio? People are actually going to listen to this?” We couldn’t get a copy. There’s no copy that exists of the actual broadcast. But I did read an article about it, and it said that the broadcaster was very calm and methodical in his description. We thought, “If our broadcaster does it like this, it’s going to sound so weird,” so we did it more like the 1940s-style fight broadcast that you’re more used to. I actually recorded that voice for the fight announcer. That’s me on the TV there.
Check back tomorrow for part four, which will cover episodes 10 through 12, from “Georgia Peaches” to the season finale, “To The Lost.”