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Terence Winter Brings Back Booze, Adds Sex, Drugs and Creates Rock and Roll

As "Boardwalk Empire" comes to an end, creator Terence Winter gets ready to rock out with Mick Jagger.
September 10, 2014, 4:00pm

I spoke with writer Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, Wolf of Wall Street) on the Brooklyn set of Boardwalk Empire as he did press for the fifth and final season of the HBO mega-series. He seemed quite at home on the stage of this season’s nightspot, sitting on a seat that may very well be a stripper’s prop.

“This place used to be the Onyx Club, a much more happy, livelier place. It’s now a burlesque club,’ he says, surveying the wallpaper and lighting. “It has remnants of the Onyx Club but by the depression, the way to put butts in chairs was to have semi naked women in here.”

This season Boardwalk Empire leaps forward seven years to the start of the depression and the end of the show. Winter is obviously nostalgic. But the New Yorker is all enthusiasm when talk turns to his new project

The yet-to-be titled project is set “in the world of rock and roll” in New York, 1973. 1973 was a huge year for music in the United States. Not only did Elvis debut his white rhinestone jumpsuit but Alice Cooper, Elton John and Pink Floyd all had major hits.

The scene –which centred on New York City – was also being overloaded with new, experimental sounds. The now famous CBGB opened its doors on the Lower East Side in 1973 and was stormed by wannabe musicians. The audio mess that ensued eventually straightened itself out and gave birth to punk and new wave.

Meanwhile in the Bronx, locals figured out that turntables could be used as instruments and ran extension cords out of windows to street parties below. Even disco was popping up on the scene but as the less cool cousin who wears funny pants, it was relegated to private parties.

A list of New York residents from 1973 reads like a roll call for the Rock Hall of Fame. But at the time and on the ground, all that noise was just plain confusing; the 1973 Creem magazine reader poll ranked New York Dolls first in both Best and Worst Group categories and third in Most Pathetic (Richard Nixon took the title for that one).

Image: Banff World Media Festival

Noisey: I know it’s a big deal, saying goodbye to the world you’ve created over the last five years with Boardwalk Empire, but I’m really interested in your next project, can you talk a bit out that?

Terence Winter: Sure! New York was the place in 1973. Punk, disco and hip hop were all invented within about six months of each other. The city was a different place to what it is now. It was almost bankrupt, it had an incredibly high crime rate – people didn’t ever think the city would come back. So because of that, it was a really interesting and fertile time for art. For some reason in times of economic crisis, great art is produced and that was certainly true in the music world of the time.

Our lead character is a record executive played by Bobby Cannavale, who played Gyp Rosetti (a paranoid, dog stealing and erotic asphyxiation indulging New York mobster) in season three of Boardwalk Empire. His character is named Richie Finestra. He’s the head of a record company and he is going through a midlife crisis when we meet him and something happens in the pilot that sort of spins his life in a new direction.

So you’re going from prohibition and bootleggers in Atlantic City to a 1970s musical revolution in New York City.

It’s sort of 180 degrees away from this (Boardwalk Empire) in terms of what it looks like and feels like and sounds like. We just could not be more excited to spend time in that world though. The 1970s are just an incredible time period and the music is just amazing. We recreated Led Zeppelin in the pilot and New York Dolls as well as some other incredible music. It’s really, really exciting.

Who is this ‘we’? Who else is involved in the series and how did you come up with the idea?

Martin Scorsese directed it and Mick Jagger is one of the Executive Producers. I wrote it and I’m an Executive Producer on it.

It was originally a feature project. Mick Jagger approached Marty (Scorsese) many, many years ago and said ‘Let’s do a version of the movie Casino, only set in the world of rock and roll! A big, sweeping epic.’

It never gained traction as a movie but we thought, ‘Well, what if we did it as a TV series?’ So we took it to HBO and they said yes immediately. Then once Bobby Cannavale came to work with us on Boardwalk Empire we just knew he was right.

You’ve worked with some remarkable leading actors – currently Steve Buscemi and of course James Gandolfini in The Sopranos – who have really owned their roles. I imagine it’s a difficult decision when it comes to casting the right lead.

When Boardwalk Empire started, Marty and I spoke about actors who we wanted to work with and I said Steve Buscemi immediately. And Marty agreed. Then weeks later, Marty called and said, ‘I just can’t get Steve off my mind,’ and neither could I.

When I called Steve to offer him the role he said, ‘Ok well great. I know you’re looking at other people too…’ and I said, ‘No I’m offering you the role!’ and he said ‘Really!? Oh my God, I totally prepared myself not to get this.’

If you have to do a television series and be with an actor for seven years of your life, that’s the guy you want to be with. Bobby Cannavale I think is going to be the same thing, certainly James Gandolfini was. You want a lead actor who’s not only incredibly talented but is also a great guy.

Season five of Boardwalk Empire premiered in the United States on 7 September 2014. Winter says production just wrapped on the pilot of the new project and he is in talks with HBO about its future. With Scorsese and Jagger amping up the production pedigree and given Winter’s mean knack for recreating a time and a place and layering historical and fictional storylines, it’s a safe bet that his new project will have a title and a premier date by late next year.

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