IT'S PROBABLY NOT GOING TO BE OK
By Wilbert CooperPhotos By Noah RabinowitzTerence in his office at Steiner Studios, where his brainchild, Boardwalk Empire, is made. While filming the first season of Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter spent many late nights in the bowels of Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios. He’d come here after everyone else had left, to blow off steam and mull things over, which involved naughtily rearranging the faceless figurines that inhabited the prop department’s miniature replica of Atlantic City’s boardwalk: one tiny effigy railing another doggy-style, another pair fellating furiously on a little promenade bench. And of course, this makes perfect sense. Terence is the showrunner and its creator, the guy tasked with creating and controlling every piece of the program from the big-picture story arcs to the nitty-gritty minutiae. He loves manipulating his characters into compromising positions. It’s what he does; it is his being.
TERENCE WINTER ON HIS STRUGGLE TO THE TOP AND WHY HE LIKES PLAYING WITH DOLLS SO MUCH
Playing with dolls is nothing new for Terence, now 51. He’s been doing it since the 60s, when he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn who was obsessed with G.I. Joe action figures, even though they were too expensive for his folks to afford. But he’s always found a way to get what he wants, and when he was 15 years old he heard about a spoiled neighbor who threw out a set of G.I. Joes. Terence dug through the kid’s trash, grabbed the toys, and ended up playing with the grubby things all night long, only to blow them to smithereens with an M80 in the morning. It seemed that even at this young age he understood that life does not always have a happy ending, which is the reason the man’s stories for television—most famously, his work on Boardwalk Empire and a scriptwriting run on The Sopranos second only to show creator David Chase—resonate.Today, Terence has a mint-condition 60s G.I. Joe Space Capsule sitting above his desk, symbolizing his long and rambling journey to clinching his dreams. He spent his 20s climbing a seemingly endless and improbable career ladder—from working as a butcher in a gangster-owned neighborhood shop in Brooklyn all the way to becoming a lawyer at a stuffy Manhattan law firm. Then, when he was 29, having ascended to a level no one thought possible, he decided to throw it all away for the absurd fantasy of going to LA and becoming a writer.After seeing him in his element at Steiner Studios, in the midst of a thriving fictional world he’s created, it’s hard to imagine Terence as a Hollywood neophyte hopelessly fumbling around LA, trying to get someone, anyone to read his scripts (which, by the way, included work on masterpieces such as Sister, Sister, Xena: Warrior Princess, and the mid-90s revival of Flipper).
Terence, however, has nothing to hide regarding his past and was happy to take me on a trip down memory lane back to those days of desperation, along the way explaining why Angelinos are pussies and how he managed to grow balls big enough to write movies for 50 Cent, produce The Sopranos, and bring a show as insanely innovative and expensive as Boardwalk Empire to fruition.The miniature replica of Atlantic City’s 1920s boardwalk that Terence is so fond of repositioning.VICE: What was your experience in the trenches of LA?
Terence Winter: Honestly, it was work, work, work. No social life. I’d wake up at night and write—out of terror. I was haunted by the idea I’d be stuck living in a shitty basement in West Hollywood with two other guys forever.Did you yearn for New York? Was she calling you back, saying, “LA is where all the quitters go”?
Listen, I grew up on the street. I’m not a “street guy,” but I am a New Yorker. I totally bought into that whole cliché: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” I had been on my own since I was 17 and done all kinds of shit—every job imaginable. Really hustled. By the time I showed up in LA, I was ready to do anything.What did you think of the city itself, the scenery and vibe?
I thought it was Long Island with palm trees, and I’ve always considered Long Island to be the country. What was jarring to me about it is that you’d be in what would feel like suburbia and then you’d see a homeless person. That’s when I realized this is what they consider to be the city. And, God, was LA clean, too. In New York, bad neighborhoods look like bad neighborhoods. You’d go to Brownsville in 1978 and it was really clear where you were. You go to Compton and it looks pretty nice. There are lawns and houses. It doesn’t get creepy there until the helicopters are flying over your head and gunfire is ringing out.
Do you have any advice for young ambitious people who are looking to make the leap from New York to LA? Perhaps some tips on how to adapt?
If anything, I had to bring it down a couple notches in terms of energy and attitude. I remember driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and a guy walked right in front of my car and I slammed on the brakes. He looked up at me, and I leaned out the window and said, “What are you, a fucking idiot?” And he gave me this look like I was a fucking idiot. And then I realized that if people walk in the street, you are supposed to stop for them. In New York, if someone walks in the street, you run him over.New York is the only city where the pedestrian-vehicle arrangement seems right. If you’re walking down the street almost anywhere else it’s like you’re a hobo.
Someone once told me you can get tickets for jaywalking in LA. I said, “Get the fuck outta here.” And sure enough, a friend of mine got a ticket. Do the police have nothing better to do in that town than give people tickets?Did anything about the temperament of Angelinos surprise you?
I remember waking up at 4:30 in the morning in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake. I sort of rolled out of bed, picked up the phone, and called one of my sisters. I said, “Look, we had an earthquake here.” She said, “Was it big?” I said, “I tell you what, if it wasn’t big I’m getting the fuck outta here.” Have you ever been in an earthquake?
Nope. There was a little shake-up in New York last year, but it seemed like something that only happens a couple times a century.
I can’t even describe it. You don’t know what is going on… But the point of that story is that the earthquake happened on January 20, and later that day it was 82 degrees. Thirty seconds of terror and then it’s 82 degrees in January! With LA, even the bad things about it are all right.This is the same type of mask character Richard Harrow wears in Boardwalk Empire to cover up his disfigured visage. As a veteran marksman fraught with angst and suicidal tendencies, he might be the fictional embodiment of the toy sniper Terence used to carry in his pocket. You’ve dabbled in the movie industry, namely when you wrote the screenplay for Get Rich or Die Tryin’. How does it compare to working in TV? Specifically I’m talking about HBO, which really isn’t “television” as most people think of it in the classical sense.
It was a fucking nightmare. I had written a script that I was really proud of that got green-lighted immediately. But we had a director, Jim Sheridan, who basically took the script I wrote, tossed it aside, and sort of made up his own movie. It was a disaster once Sheridan came on board, frankly. The whole thing unraveled, to the point where the film is undecipherable from what I wrote. The movie’s embarrassing, frankly. It was really the worst experience of my career.
But you’re attached to some feature projects now. Were you wary to go down that rabbit hole again?
Well, the sad thing for a writer in the feature world is that you don’t have a lot of control. In TV, the writers are the ones running the show, so it’s easy to make sure that what’s on the page gets on film. In features, you turn in a script and might have nothing to do with it after it leaves your hands. So I hope in the future I work with some talented directors who are respectful and wise enough to say, “OK, let’s talk and try to achieve our mutual goal, which is to make a great film.”To be fair, I think you’re a bit of an exception in the TV world in terms of the control and freedom you have. If more people had that type of purview, do you think there’d be a lot less shitty TV?
I consider myself lucky. I think a lot of people who are working in television would love to have the latitude not just to be able to portray nudity and language and violence but to be able to tell stories in a way that is challenging. To not get network notes that the viewers aren’t going to like this or people are going to be really upset if you do A, B, or C.You’re definitely not afraid of upsetting your audience.
Some people watch TV for wish fulfillment. When we do something like kill off Jimmy, they act like I’ve broken a deal I had with them. But we never had that deal. I never shook your hand and said it was going to be OK. It’s maybe not going to be OK.
Is that why, on the other end of the spectrum, Downton Abbey is so successful? Because they are afraid to show what happens when it’s not OK?
I watched that whole series to the end, and I said they could redeem everything if it ended with this butler hanging from the gallows. But of course, they didn’t do that. There are no stakes, no consequences to anything that happens on that show. I don’t mean to pick on them because most shows are like that. But in reality, things don’t work out. For me, that is so much more interesting as a storyteller and a viewer.What were some of your favorite shows as a kid?
In New York in the 60s and 70s, WPIX, channel 11, was the local station that ran reruns of pretty much everything. A lot of it was Abbott and Costello, The Honeymooners, The Bowery Boys, and movies from the 40s and 50s like Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals. In the afternoon it was F Troop, The Munsters, and all kinds of cartoons. They also ran the old Warner Bros. gangster movies. So there was just this wealth of old sitcoms. It was sort of like this graduate-degree education in early comedy and TV.There definitely seems to be a hint of slapstick in the violence of your work.
The early comedy stuff really formed my sense of humor, and then also, living in New York, I’m convinced there is just a different sensibility with humor. It’s definitely more violent and angry and self-deprecating. We do a lot of ball-breaking. I’ve had girlfriends who lived in California—and even my wife—who can’t believe how my friends and I talk to each other. And we say, “That’s because we love each other.”
I think everyone has to admit that they long to see people get hurt, especially fictional people. But like you said, then they want a happy ending as a resolution.
There was a trailer for the movie Like Water for Chocolate, ten or 15 years ago, and it was playing in the art houses for months. It was this big dramatic trailer, people would be yelling back and forth, and at one point in the trailer somebody gets slapped right across the face. Every time I’d see it, I’d laugh out loud. I was the only asshole in the theater laughing at that moment. Like I knew it was coming… here it comes… “Ha ha.”It takes a lot of guts to take the risk and commit to producing something as challenging and expensive as Boardwalk, when nearly everybody else is playing to the lowest common denominator. Where’d you get the balls?
My dad died when I was seven. I had a great relationship with him up until that point, but it’s very difficult to have a relationship with a dead person. Suddenly, I was on my own. So I sort of developed a weird way of dealing with my problems. I used to love playing with toy soldiers, and when I would have a problem at school, when I was nervous about something—psychologists would have a field day with this—I would transfer all my anxieties onto my little green sniper soldier.Why a sniper?
The sniper was cool because he was A) a sniper, and B) fit in your pocket really easily.Would you talk to him?
I would make believe the sniper was upset about something, like a bully or a test or whatever, so I’d say, “Look, don’t you worry, you stay in my pocket, you hide in there, and I’m gonna take care of all this.” So suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore, it was the sniper who was scared. The sniper would hide in my pocket, and I would deal with the bullies—say, “Eh, fuck you,” or whatever—then on the school bus on the way home I’d take the sniper out and say, “I told you I’d take care of it, what were you worried about?”Do you still have him with you?
I don’t know at what point I actually, physically stopped carrying him. But I sort of developed this split personality with a veneer of phony confidence. Eventually if you do anything enough—and this is some real Tony Robbins shit—it becomes second nature.Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter: @WilbertLCooper