Emmy winner talks to The Writers’ Room about writing the '20s — and what he misses about the '80s
"Boardwalk Empire" creator Terence Winter has already figured out the show's ending.
He doesn't know when it will be, of course. He hopes for five or six seasons of the HBO Prohibition drama, which returns for its second season in the fall after its first scored 18 Emmy nominations, including for best drama.
Endings are especially important to Winter after his run on "The Sopranos," which resolved with perhaps the most disputed conclusion in TV history: A dinner out for Tony Soprano and family that ended with an abrupt cut to black.
Winter, thankfully, won't say anything about how his "Empire" will end – except that it probably won't be happy for all involved.
"This is a gangster show. As you saw on 'The Sopranos,' bad things do tend to happen to people," he told TheWrap. "I don’t know if it will be a cause of so much debate, but I hope it makes people wonder and think, certainly."
Winter, a Brooklyn-born former attorney who won four Emmys for "The Sopranos," two of them for writing, talked to The Writer's Room about how he writes, what he misses about the '80s, and how much he's willing to change history.
As the showrunner, you not only write your own scripts but are also in charge of all the scripts. How much writing do you ultimately do?
I take a pass on every script. You'll have a script that's assigned to someone else on the writing staff. I'll take my pass through it so my fingerprints kind of go on everything. That doesn't mean I'm rewriting a lot… sometimes scripts will come in and they don't need a lot of work at all. And then a lot of times the story changes as we're going along. But yeah, in general, I'm the filter through which every script has to pass before it gets on TV.
Where do you write?
I try to do it at home if I can because it gives me a little more latitude. I have two really little kids, so… once they go to bed is when I get work done. I'll also go into the office on a weekend and just spend a day there.
I sort of trained myself early on to be able to write anywhere. Because I knew I'd get myself in trouble if I became one of those writers who could only work under certain conditions and it had to be the same desk or the same window at Starbucks or whatever it was. If you're going to be working in TV, there's going to be times when you're writing in a trailer or writing on set or just finding a dark stairwell with a laptop so you can sit down and write a scene.
How much time do you need for it to be a productive session?
I generally need at least about a 90-minute clip of time to get anything meaningful done. I'm always amazed at people who can sit down for 15 minutes and work. I think my brain takes at least that long to get revved up. Then I have to add some more time to procrastinate and surf the Internet and then there's the actual 40 or 50 minutes of actual writing time. And I can also then write in chunks of 12 or 14 hours. When I get going I can really get into a zone where I don't get up from the chair except to eat and occasionally take a nap for 20 minutes when I need to. I really like those long sessions because it's really living inside the script.
Sometimes watching your show or "Mad Men" I think how great it must have been to live in a time before everything was online and immediate.
I'm nostalgic for the 1980s, where you didn't have to call someone back until you got home to listen to your answering machine. Now you can't hide from anyone.
Is part of the attraction of "Boardwalk Empire" being able to write about characters who can disappear for a few days, without anyone calling them?
Writing a show like "The Sopranos," if someone wants to convey information to someone, they just pick up the cell phone and call them. On our show unless the guy is actually near a physical telephone – and there weren't at all that many – or they saw somebody face to face, it takes time to get that information across. In a lot of ways that sometimes affects the storytelling. Because it's not like Nucky's character can just pick up a cell phone. We've got to explain: How did so-and-so end up in his office? You have to get messages to people through Western Union. It really does kind of screw you up sometimes.
How much pressure do you feel to be accurate when you're writing about real people? You've replaced the real-life Nucky Johnson with Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson character, for example, which gives you more dramatic options — since we can all go online and see when the real Nucky died.
I try to be faithful to the history of that person and the spirit of that person. For example with Al Capone or Lucky Luciano, there's a lot that's known about their history. A lot is also not known about their history. For example, I know Al Capone spent a lot of time in Atlantic City, so I feel like I have creative license to imagine he might have been friends with a guy like Jimmy Darmody. And then knowing enough about Al Capone's personality, I feel comfortable putting him in situations with these fictional characters. But I'll never change the history of a real character. … I'll fictionalize them.
How much input did you have into the ending of "The Sopranos"?
David [Chase] had pitched me that ending sometime around Season 4. He said he knew how he wanted to do it, he pitched me a version of what became that ending, and I loved it immediately. So there was basically no input, except to say I was completely on board with it. I thought it was great.
So I'm sorry to revisit this yet again, but maybe with some time passing you can tell me whether my interpretation is right. Tony's dead, right? We saw a guy wearing a Member's Only jacket, which I think references the "Members Only" episode you wrote, in which Tony was previously shot. The Members Only guy is kind of lurking around, and then everything goes black. Members Only guy shot Tony, right?
The Members Only jacket is… just an article of clothing that sort of reads a little ominous. A lot of these guys are throwbacks to a different generation and they might tend to be possibly somebody that you might be nervous about. It's really subject to interpretation. The idea is that when you're Tony Soprano, even going out for ice cream with your family is fraught with looking over your shoulder and paranoia. Whether or not someone came out of the bathroom that night and killed him is almost of irrelevant. One day someone's going to come out of that bathroom or a bathroom somewhere.