As 'Boardwalk Empire' Comes To A Close, Creator Reminisces About Its Start
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" started its fifth and final season last Sunday. My guest is the series creator and show runner, Terence Winter. He also wrote many of the episodes. Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers and directed the pilot. Scorsese and Winter also collaborated on the film "The Wolf of Wall Street," for which Winter was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He won four Emmys for his work on "The Sopranos," on which he served as a writer and an executive producer.
"Boardwalk Empire" is about rival gangsters, corrupt politicians and federal agents in Atlantic City during Prohibition. The series opened in 1920 on the day before prohibition begins when Nucky Thompson, the corrupt city treasurer played by Steve Buscemi, is about to initiate his plan to keep the city awash in bootleg liquor and make a fortune doing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
STEVE BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Mr. Mayor, friends, fellow members of the city council - as you know, in less than two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentleman of our nation's Congress.
To those beautiful, ignorant bastards.
GROSS: The new season jumps ahead to 1931, two years before the repeal of Prohibition. Nucky Thompson is hoping to use liquor connections to go legit as soon as Prohibition ends. He's in Cuba, where he's trying to convince the head of Bacardi Rum that Prohibition will be ending soon and Nucky should be Bacardi's U.S. distributor.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Dom Maxim, I have a distribution network already in place. Deepwater Port on the Florida coast. Agreements with rail lines and trucking companies. The day repeal passes, I intend to be open for business, legally, in the thirstiest country on Earth with Bacardi Rum as my most exclusive offering. Can the two of us come to an arrangement?
GROSS: A scene from the new and final season of "Boardwalk Empire." Terence Winter, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how did you decide that this was going to be the last season, or was it HBO that decided for you?
TERENCE WINTER: It was us - it was myself and Howard Korder and Tim Van Patten. Howard, of course, is one of the executive producers and main writers of the series. He actually wrote the season opener. Tim Van Patten, also Executive Producer and our main director and he directed the opener as well as many, many others of the show.
We sat down, it was somewhere in the middle of season four when I believe Howard and I had a conversation that we felt inadvertently, Nucky's story seemed like it was heading toward a conclusion. Nucky was desperate to get out of this game, get out of this lifestyle that had concocted for himself. He was already making plans to try to relocate to Florida and the more we talked about that, we decided maybe we should start thinking about an end point here.
You know, for us, the idea of just keeping a show on the air for the sake of being able to have a show is really artificial storytelling, you know? And for us, we felt when we're done, let's be done. For me as a viewer, I'm always amazed when I'll hear about a show that's on the air and I'll go, God - is that still on the air?
WINTER: And you can't even remember - wow, that's still going. And I don't want that to be us.
GROSS: So why did you want to tell the story in the first place about a group of gangsters during Prohibition?
WINTER: Well, there was two reasons. One very selfish reason was that when HBO gave me the book "Boardwalk Empire," which was essentially a history of Atlantic City, you know, they said, why don't you read this thing and tell us if you think there's a TV series in there somewhere and - oh, by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this.
WINTER: So without even reading the book I said, yes, there's a TV series in this and I'm going to find it, without even knowing what it was. I just - the chance to work with Martin Scorsese was something I couldn't possibly even imagine and certainly not pass up.
When I went home and actually read the book, there was a chapter about this guy Nucky Johnson - who we later fictionalized as Nucky Thompson, of course - and he was the county treasurer of Atlantic City during the Prohibition years. And Prohibition was really the single event that made organized crime possible. That's where organized crime was born. It made millionaires out of criminals overnight, allowed them to make money to infiltrate other businesses. And it was just an incredible boon to people of that ilk.
It was also sort of the flipside of what I'd been doing on "The Sopranos" for eight years or so. If "The Sopranos" was sort of an exploration of the end of organized crime, or sort of that waning days of organized crime, the Prohibition years was the beginning of that same thing. And it also - you know, the more I looked at it and read about it, there was so many things in the '20s that were really a mirror to current society. Essentially, the illegal alcohol businesses, the drug business; I mean, these were basically drug dealers. The fact that we're still debating women's rights, the fact that - the Scopes Monkey Trial, for example was in 1924 - we're still debating evolution almost a hundred years later.
So I thought, God, what an opportunity to really do a show that holds up a mirror to current society and it's 90 years in the past.
GROSS: So another similarity between then and now is that you've got a lot of people just back from a war. And World War I is the back story for so much of what happens in "Boardwalk Empire" because you have people who - young people who came back damaged by living for so long in the trenches and by having to kill so many people and for - coming home and feeling dead inside.
GROSS: And not caring if they risked their lives. And I want to play a scene that relates to that. And this is from the first season of "Boardwalk Empire" and you wrote this episode. And this is the scene with Nucky Thompson, who's, you know, like the boss of Atlantic City and he's still kind of part-corrupt politician he's the treasurer of Atlantic City and part gangster. He's not full-time gangster yet (laughter).
GROSS: And Jimmy Darmody is a guy whose life he feels responsible for, for reasons too complicated to get into. But anyways, Jimmy Darmody's back from the war, he's young - he's in his '20s - he's kind of damaged by the war. He's working for Nucky but he's really - he's made a big mistake that cost like, four or five lives and is making Nucky look really bad.
So Nucky is really angry with him and here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Are you that stupid? Have no [bleep] idea how in over your head you are?
MICHAEL PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I know it's a lot...
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Did I not tell you to slow down? I tried to give you money, I tried to help...
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I tried to tell you I'm not a kid anymore.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) And killing - that makes you a man?
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) No.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You got brains, kid. You got a future.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Look, I still got a future. We both do. The war, Nuck, the things I did over there - you live in a trench for months on end, killing, the smell of death. Nucky, I'm nothing but a murderer. You know how many times I went over the top, they called me a [bleep] hero? The truth is I didn't care anymore. I didn't care.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You're home now. You've got a family.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I'm going to hell, Nuck.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Oh, knock it off.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) No, I am.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You are not.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I'm 22 years old, I see fellows like Luciano with a fancy suit with diamonds.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Is that what you want?
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) That's what you want, too. That's what - that's what we all want. At least I got the gumption to take it.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You'd be very foolish to underestimate me, James. I could have you killed.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Yeah, but you won't. Look, you can't be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore. Let me help you.
GROSS: That's Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi in a scene from "Boardwalk Empire," an episode written by my guest Terence Winter, who's the creator of the series.
So there's a line on the clip that we just heard where Jimmy says to Nucky, you can't be half a gangster. That became kind of like a catchphrase. That was a line a lot of people remembered from the series. When you wrote that line did you think, this line's going to stand out?
WINTER: No. I really had no idea. It was - it for some reason resonated with people, but it really didn't make sense. I mean, when - you know, basically what Jimmy was saying was the low-level corruption, the little extortion election-rigging stuff is over; if you're going to survive now, the game has completely changed. Once alcohol became illegal it was very clear that there were millions of dollars to be made and there were people who are going to be pulling a lot of triggers in order to make that money. Unless you were fully capable and willing to be one of those people, you were not going to survive. So that was basically it. It's like, this is now moving into a level that Jimmy did not think Nucky was comfortable with or capable of being involved in. And of course, the big irony is the - when Jimmy tells him, you can't be half a gangster anymore, the thing that makes Nucky fully a gangster is killing the very person who tells him that.
GROSS: Yes, which he does, at the end of season two. And you wrote that episode season too and we have a clip of that standing by (laughter).
GROSS: So you know, in the clip that we just heard Jimmy says, yeah, yeah, you can have somebody kill me, but you're not going to. And at the end of season two, after the relationship between Nucky and Jimmy has deteriorated more and Nucky sets Jimmy up to have a meeting with him in the pouring rain. Nucky's men are surrounding him and Nucky pulls a gun on Jimmy.
And here's the scene. Jimmy speaks first.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) This is the only way we could've ended, isn't it?
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) This is your choice, James.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I died in the trench years back. So who's gonna do it? Manny? You? Eli?
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I am.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) My first time, I vomited after. Two days straight. Second time, I didn't even think about it.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) So stupid.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Just try to make yourself calm.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You had everything going.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Breathe, Nuck.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Your whole life.
PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) You'll get through it. All you gotta worry about is when you run out of booze and you run outta company. And the only person left to judge you is your (gunshot).
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You don't know me, James. You never did. I am not seeking forgiveness (gunshot).
GROSS: OK. Putting a period at the end of that sentence.
WINTER: (Laughter). I think that was an exclamation point.
GROSS: (Laughter). Good point. And that was Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt in a scene from the second season of "Boardwalk Empire," a scene written by my guest, Terence Winter, the creator of the show and the executive producer and show runner. And "Boardwalk Empire" just started its final season.
Did you know when you wrote the earlier scene where Nucky says, I could have you killed and Jimmy says, yeah but you won't, that Nucky would end up shooting him himself, as time went on? Like, how far ahead do you look when you're writing an ongoing series like this?
WINTER: I did. Well, I knew that would happen eventually, I just didn't know when. And as the series progressed, it became very clear toward the end of season two that it had to happen then. Going any other way I would not have believed it. If we're saying that Nucky is now going to be a gangster and is going to be in charge of all these men, for him to let Jimmy off the hook it would have just felt like a TV show to me. I would've watched that as a viewer and said, oh OK, they're just trying to keep this second lead of the show alive.
And you would've lost me. And I think part of what makes the show special for me is that we try to be as true to the characters as possible and let the chips fall where they may, in terms of actor deals and commitments and that sort of stuff. We made a deal with ourselves early on on "The Sopranos" that we'd never keep a character alive because we liked the actor who portrayed them because we felt we would never kill anybody. You start to get very close to people and if you start to let personal relationships bleed into the work, it really colors it in a bad way.
So that was the case here. You know, even though I knew how enormously popular that character was and I really didn't have any idea what we would do after it, it was the right thing to do, creatively.
GROSS: When you kill off a character, isn't there a part of you that feels really bad because you know you're firing an actor?
WINTER: Yeah. It's the hardest part of my job, making that phone call and putting people out of work. So it's tough. I mean, I've made a lot of those tough phone calls.
GROSS: You make the phone calls yourself?
WINTER: Yeah. I make the call before the actor reads it in the script or hears it from somebody on the crew.
GROSS: Do they know what's coming when they get a call from you? It's kind of like, uh oh.
WINTER: Yeah. I actually had called one actor and I said, hey it's Terry Winter. And he said, oh well, I guess I'm dead.
WINTER: I said, well, you're fine. Your character's dead, but you're OK. But yeah, I mean, that used to be the joke with David Chase, you know? You didn't want to get a call from David as an actor and suddenly I became - I was in that position as a show runner and that's the same thing.
But then even, you know, inadvertently over the years I've called an actor to say, hey I just saw a cut of the episode. You were terrific in it. And I can hear the trepidation in their voice; they think I'm calling to tell them they're getting killed but I'm actually calling to say, hey you were terrific in the last episode, or hey, let's have dinner, or something like that. So I started to learn to preface things with like, an email; hey, I'll be calling it's not about anything bad, or, you know. So I try to see it from their perspective.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Terence Winter. He's the creator of "Boardwalk Empire," which just started its fifth and final season. He also wrote for "The Sopranos" and wrote the movie "The Wolf Of Wall Street." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Terence Winter. And he is the creator and show-runner of "Boardwalk Empire," which just started its fifth and final season. It's about organized crime and political corruption in Atlantic City during prohibition. Terence Winter was also a writer for "The Sopranos" and wrote the movie "The Wolf Of Wall Street." What's your exposure to organized crime? Do you have any?
WINTER: Not really. I grew up in Brooklyn, you know, as a child there is '60s and a teenager in the '70s. And I guess kind of by osmosis, you rub elbows with people who are involved in that life. So you can't really avoid...
GROSS: Wait, wait. I grew up in Brooklyn. I really don't I think I rubbed shoulders with people in that life. I rubbed shoulders with people in the garment industry, and, you know...
WINTER: I bet you, and you didn't realize it.
GROSS: ...Grocery stores.
WINTER: You never know who's standing behind you on line. I mean, if you're aware and you know who's doing what and who owns what store and what club and that - you know, people are around, you know. And I was a little more aware of it, I think, growing up. So - and I was interested in it. You know, somebody asked me recently, where did it begin for you, the fascination with this? And I traced it back to the movie "Oliver!" I think from 1968. I watched that, and I wanted to be the Artful Dodger. I wanted to be in that gang. And it was his very exotic and glamorous. And then a couple years later...
GROSS: Be a professional pocket picker?
WINTER: ...I saw "The Sting." Pick-pocket, yeah.
GROSS: Pick-pocket, yes.
WINTER: I thought that was so cool. It seemed great, and then "The Sting" came out, and I became fascinated with conmen. And then I started to read, you know, books about the mob. And again, you know, just having been in New York and Brooklyn at that time, you know, it's sort of - that stuff was everywhere - so just sort of, you know, soaked it in and was always interested.
GROSS: So depending on what you read about you, you either worked for a butcher that was run by Paul Castellano, who's head of the Gambino crime family at the time, or you worked for a deli that was run by him. Did you work for anything...
WINTER: It was a butcher's shop.
GROSS: It was a butcher's shop?
WINTER: It was a chain of butcher shops that allegedly was owned by Paul Castellano in the '70s.
GROSS: When you worked for this butcher shop that may have been run by Paul Castellano or owned by him, what were the rumors and what was any - did that interest you at the time because you were interested in organized crime stories?
WINTER: Yeah, it interested me enough, but not enough to ask any questions. I think I was a smart enough kid to just keep my eyes open and my mouth shut. You know, occasionally guys would come in, and they'd say, take a walk. Guys in suits would come in, and there was a big walk-in refrigerator in the back of the butcher shop. And they would go in there and have conversations that I, of course, was not privy to. And after, you know, 20 minutes or 30 minutes, they'd leave and I'd come back and continue to cleanup.
I also - when I was in college, I delivered The New York Times in the middle of the night. I was they guy at 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, you know, with the massive paper route delivering The New York Times. And one of the areas in Brooklyn I delivered two was Mill Basin, which was a little enclave of expensive homes on the water and home to a lot of doctors, lawyers and allegedly mob figures as well.
Sometimes when I would deliver the newspaper in the middle the night, I would turn a corner, and I'd see a car parked with its lights on. And I would come back because I didn't want to stumble on something I wasn't supposed to see because, you know, a lot of innocent bystanders end up in trunks of cars with stuff like that. And I just, you know - just again, I think just from growing up there to know, you know what? If it doesn't concern you, don't ask, don't look, don't tell. Just shut up and keep doing your job.
GROSS: Martin Scorsese is an executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire," and he directed the film that you wrote, "The Wolf Of Wall Street," and he directed the first episode, the pilot, of "Boardwalk Empire." I read they he screened gangster films of different eras for you and the other people working on "Boardwalk Empire" when you got to work on the series. What were some of the things Scorsese pointed out about some of the films that he screened that you hadn't noticed yourself that you found valuable as a writer and producer?
WINTER: Well, first of all, that entire month of going to Martin Scorsese's office and watching gangster films with him was the best film course you've ever had times a billion.
WINTER: It's just - it's getting to sit with him watching Rod Steiger's "Al Capone," "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre," you know, all these classic films, and hear his live commentary. He's very much about truth and real moments and real performances. You know, he understands the juxtaposition of violence and humor or having an incredibly tense scene and then letting the air out of it, let the audience breathe with a light moment.
Some of Martin Scorsese's films that are very violent, "Goodfellas," for example, "Raging Bull" at times, can be very funny. I mean, these guys are so absurd in some ways that you almost can't help but laugh at them. And I think "The Sopranos" was like that, too. It was often very funny. I think a lot of times when we write scripts on "The Sopranos," we would compliment each other by saying how funny your script was, not how dramatic or how poignant. It was, God, your script was so funny.
GROSS: Terence Winter will be back in the second half of the show. He's the creator and show-runner of the HBO's prohibition-era series "Boardwalk Empire." The fifth and final season started last Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross back with Terence Winter, the creator and show-runner of HBO's series "Boardwalk Empire." It's set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. The fifth and final season started last Sunday.
Winter also worked on "The Sopranos" as a writer and executive producer. Several of the episodes he wrote became classics, including the "Pine Barrens" and the one in which Silvio kills Adriana. Winter wrote the screenplay for "The Wolf Of Wall Street," which was directed by Martin Scorsese, who was also an executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire."
When you were on our show when "Boardwalk Empire" was just starting and you spoke to our TV critic David Bianculli, you told him that to get started in television, you lied a little bit. You didn't have an agent. You realized you needed one to send people your scripts. So you found a former classmate from law school who had just become an agent but really wasn't one yet. He wasn't really practicing. So you created a fake agency, a fake address, fake stationery. You pretended to be the agency's delivery boy, and dropped off a lot of scripts. And it worked. That's how you got your first job. And were there other times that you so creatively got around obstacles? (Laughter).
WINTER: Yeah, at NYU. I had grown up in Brooklyn and went to a trade high school where I studied to be an auto mechanic. And to say that I was not prepared for college is kind of the understatement of the century. This is the God's honest truth - in my senior year of high school in 1977 into '78 we read "Death Of A Salesman" from September until June. And I'm not kidding. That was senior English in William E. Grady High School in Brooklyn in 1978. You know, the city was near bankruptcy, it was a city school. That was it. That was all I read in high school in my senior year.
So a couple years later when I decided I needed to go to college, I was sort of stumbling around Greenwich Village and walked onto the campus of NYU and without any further knowledge or preparation, I decided well, this looks like a good college, I'll go here. I went in, got the brochure, read it and it became very apparent to me that I was not going to get into NYU with my vast knowledge of "Death Of A Salesman."
WINTER: But you know, my instinct was, OK how do I make this work? How do I figure this out? So at the time NYU had offered a major in medieval history. Or, I'm not sure if it was medieval history or medieval religion. I do remember there was a religious component to it. And I said, all right, well, if I pick this major I'll eliminate 95 percent of my competition who are putting down pre-law, pre-med. I'll - let me pick something no one wants and see what happens. So I got a call a couple weeks later from somebody there and said, so you have an auto mechanic's license and you want to study medieval history. How did that happen? I said yeah, I think that's something I'd really like to study. And the guy was like, OK, that's very interesting.
And suddenly I got a letter in the mail saying I was accepted to NYU, provisionally. I was admitted as an adult student because I was ancient, I was 19 at that point, where everybody else was 17. And I worked full time during the day and went to school full time at night and then vice versa. My last two years of college were spent as a doorman on the midnight to 8 shift at a building on the Upper East Side and I went to school full time during the day, and just powered through it.
GROSS: Did you stick with medieval history?
WINTER: No, I actually got a call from a dean a couple years in saying, you know, do you realize you haven't taken one medieval history class yet?
WINTER: And I said, really? I said, wow, I think I'm going to change my major.
You know, having grown up in Brooklyn in a, you know, fairly working-class environment, I knew cops, and firemen, and nurses, and plumbers and guys who owned butcher shops. You know, the important jobs I knew were doctor and lawyer, those were the only two. So for an ambitious kid, I thought, all right well, I want to make a lot of money; I'll be a lawyer. And I set my sights on that, even though I didn't like to write and actually had a journalism professor who alternately wrote me a recommendation letter for law school and then a side letter, begging me not to go to law school and to pursue writing. And I thought, well, that's great.
And I investigated the job opportunities at the Associated Press, where he worked and discovered that an entry-level position paid half of what I was making at the time as a doorman. And I thought, well, this is crazy. I went to college and I'm - at the time - $40,000 in debt from student loans and I'm going to take a job that gives me a 50 percent pay cut from my doorman job? Forget it. This is ridiculous. I'm going to law school. I did that. I ended up going to law school at night. Worked for Merrill Lynch during the day, which was great training for writing "The Wolf of Wall Street" years later. Graduated from law school and then was absolutely miserable for two years. And at that point I finally had the courage to confront my true self and say, what is it you want to do when you wake up in the morning? Forget about the money and the perceived respect that you're getting as a lawyer. How would you like to spend your day? And the answer was, I wanted to be a writer.
GROSS: And so you knew you wanted to write for television?
WINTER: Yeah. I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter. But the thing I could get my head around at the time was writing a half-hour sitcom. I couldn't imagine writing something that played out over two hours. It just felt so daunting.
GROSS: Well, one of the sitcoms you wrote for earlier in your career was "The New Adventures Of Flipper"?
WINTER: Yeah, that wasn't actually a sitcom, although it was comedy, inadvertently. That was a one-hour drama.
GROSS: Oh, it was a drama? I never saw it.
GROSS: I always assumed there was comedy in it. Was it just heartwarming and drama?
WINTER: Yeah, "heartwarming," with quotes, I guess. Yeah. I mean, it was a very light family affair. Had you seen the old "Adventures Of Flipper"?
GROSS: No. I never saw any of the "Flipper" shows.
WINTER: The "New Adventures" are not nearly as interesting. Flipper was a dolphin, of course and "The New Adventures Of Flipper" took place in Florida, if I'm remembering correctly. And it was about a marine biologist and a friend of his and they - a lot of the stories involved the dolphin, which is extremely challenging because I think there are probably only 10 stories in the world that organically involve a dolphin.
WINTER: And when you have an episode order of 22 and once you get to the tenth one, it's really a lot of looking at each other across the table thinking, what do we do now?
That was a hard job. That was tough. But you know, at the time, I was thrilled to have any job. The fact that people would pay me to write something was just - I still can't get over how lucky I am.
GROSS: Did writing for Flipper the dolphin prepare you at all for writing for Tony Soprano?
WINTER: It prepared me in the sense of you've got a job to do and you've got to do it. So even when it's tough, you know, you've got a crew of people waiting for you who are waiting for you to finish your script. So I know you can't think of anything to say or have this dolphin do, but you'd better sit down and figure it out because that's your job. Some of the darkest moments I ever had as a writer were on "Flipper." And actually, coincidentally bringing up "The Sopranos" - my friend Frank Renzulli, who introduced me to David Chase several years later, he and I were talking and I - it was a holiday weekend. I was supposed to write a "Flipper" episode and I could not think of - I just couldn't do it. I mean, I took this job just because I wanted the job and not because it was anything about the show that interested me. And it was the holiday weekend and I just ground to a halt. And I don't really suffer from writer's block and I don't even know if this was writer's block. I just was paralyzed. And I called Frank and I said, I can't do this; I have to quit this show. And he said, get a grip - go out for a walk, come back, sit down and do your F-in job. And I said, OK and I came home an hour later and I sat down and I did it. And I called him up and I said, thank you - thanks for talking me off that ledge; you were absolutely right. And I said, I'm going to take you out to dinner when I'm done with this thing. And that's what we did.
GROSS: And he's the guy who got you the job on "The Sopranos" later?
WINTER: Yeah. He was one of the first of people David hired on "The Sopranos" - David Chase hired on "The Sopranos" - on season one.
And I actually had got - my agent had sent me a video cassette - I'm dating myself - of "The Sopranos" pilot episode. And he said, just - I want you to watch this.
And I said, what is it, opera? Why?
And he said, just watch it. And I think I was about 30 minutes into it and I was trembling. I thought, I know these guys. I know how they talk, I know how they think. I know I can write this show.
As it turned out, Frank had already had a meeting set up with David Chase and I said, you got to get me in there with you. He said, I'll do whatever I can.
Frank was the last guy David hired for season one. And I sort of sat out on the sidelines during season one, you know, listening to the stories about how they were developing episodes. And Frank was actually sending me scenes and I was proofreading his work. So I sort of got to work on "The Sopranos" from home, without David knowing it. And it wasn't until season two, David - a lot of the people who were on staff in the first season didn't survive to the second season. Frank was one of them. Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, of course. And finally when season two started, David said, all right who's this guy Terry Winter? And I met David and the rest is history.
GROSS: Let's pause here and listen to a scene from an episode of "The Sopranos" that was written and directed by our guest, Terence Winter. It's from the final season. Tony Soprano's teenage son AJ is very depressed because his girlfriend recently broke up with him. He's been kind of threatening suicide. Tony is worried and feels partly responsible for his son's depression. He explains why in a session with this therapist, Dr. Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.
Tony, played by the late James Gandolfini, speaks first.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) Obviously I'm prone to depression, a certain bleak attitude about the world. But I know I can handle it. Yet kids though - it's like, when they're little and they get sick, you'd give anything in the world to trade places with them so they don't have to suffer. And then they think you're the cause of it.
LORRAINE BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) How are you the cause of it?
GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) It's in his blood, this miserable existence. My rotten, putrid genes have infected my kid's soul. That's my gift to my son.
BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) I know this is difficult. But I'm very glad we're having this discussion.
GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) Really? Really. 'Cause I gotta be honest. I think it sucks.
BRACCO: (as Dr. Melfi) What does?
GANDOLFINI: Therapy. This. I hate this [bleep].
Seriously, we're both adults here, right? So after all is said and done, after all the complaining and the crying and all the [bleep], is this all there is?
GROSS: We'll continue our interview with Terence Winter after a break. He wrote for "The Sopranos" and is the creator of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Terence Winter. He's the creator and show-runner of "Boardwalk Empire," which just started its fifth and final season on HBO. He was a writer for "The Sopranos" and also wrote the screenplay for "The Wolf Of Wall Street." Let's talk about "The Wolf Of Wall Street." Let's start with a clip. So Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, who is a stockbroker, but then the company he works for is a victim of the crash of 1987. So he answers an ad for a broker - for a stockbroker and shows for his job interview at this storefront at rundown strip mall. And ,you know, this isn't a really a legit brokerage house. It's a bunch of guys who know nothing about the markets trying to con people into buying really cheap stocks that are worthless and are going to basically stay worthless. But he's such a great salesman and con-artist, and he's so unethical that he just cold-calls a potential buyer and lies, sells a lot of stock, makes a big commission. And in the middle of this spiel, everyone in the office stops working so they can listen to him make this phone call 'cause he's just so good at it. Here's the scene, and the company that he's selling the stock of is called Aerotyne.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Hello, John. How you doing today? You mailed in my company a postcard a few weeks back requesting information on penny stocks that had huge upside potential with very little downside risk. Does that ring a bell? OK, great. Well, reason for the call today, John, is something just came across my desk, John. It is perhaps the best thing I've seen in the last six months. If you have 60 seconds, I'd like to share the idea with you. You got a minute?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Actually, I'm really very busy...
DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Name of the company - Aerotyne International. It is a cutting-edge, high-tech firm out of the Midwest awaiting imminent patent approval on the next generation of radar detectors that have both huge military and civilian applications. Now - right now, John, the stock trade's over-the-counter at 10 cents a share. And by the way, John, our analysts indicate it could go a heck of a lot higher than that. Your profit on a mere $6,000 investment will be upwards of $60,000.
ACTOR: (As character) Jesus, that's my mortgage, man.
DICAPRIO: (As John Belfort) Exactly, you could pay off your mortgage.
ACTOR: (As character) This stock will pay off my house.
DICAPRIO: (As John Belfort) John, one thing I can promise you, even in this market, is that I never ask my clients to judge me on my winners. I ask them to judge me on my losers because I have so few. And in the case of Aerotyne, based on every technical factor out there, John, we are looking at a grand-slam home run.
ACTOR: (As character) OK, let's do it. I'll do four grand.
DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Four-thousand? That'd be 40,000 shares, John. Let me lock in that trade right now and get back to you with my secretary with an exact confirmation. Sound good, John?
ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, sounds good.
DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Great. Hey, John, thank you for your vote of confidence, and welcome to the Investor's Centre.
ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, thanks a lot, man.
DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Bye-bye.
ETHAN SUPLEE: (As Tony Welch) How'd you [bleep] do that?
DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Just like that, I made two grand. The other guys looked at me like I just discovered fire. I was selling garbage to garbage men and making cash hand over fist.
The only problem you're going to have is that you didn't buy more. So I was selling them [bleep]. The way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket. I knew how to spend it better.
GROSS: That's a scene from "The Wolf Of Wall Street" with Leonardo DiCaprio, and my guest, Terence Winter, wrote the screenplay. So what interested you in this story? It's based on a memoir.
WINTER: Well, you know, it goes back to my interest in conmen. You know, Jordan was a very slick salesperson. And there was a lot of Jordan's life that was very similar to my own. We were basically the same age. He was a very ambitious, young kid who was kind of a hustler who grew up in Bayside Queens. I was that same kid in Brooklyn. He would sell Italian ices on the beach in the summer to make money. I was selling stuff, you know - I was - you name the job, I did it as a teenager - just very both obsessed with becoming successful. We both worked on Wall Street, a mile away from each other in 1987. The crash of '87 was the thing that spun me into a different direction - you know, becoming a lawyer and then ultimately going on to be a writer. That same crash sent Jordan out to Long Island to sell penny stock. That's where our paths diverged. But up until that point, there were a lot of similarities. And I felt like I really understood him. I understood that driving ambition and that willingness to cross lines in the sand, you know, maybe engage in things that were not quite ethical or half-truths as long as the perception was you weren't really hurting anybody. And then of course in Jordan's life, those lines in the sand kept get getting further and further out into the ocean until he was really hurting people and ultimately hurting himself and his family.
GROSS: You wanted to be rich, but did you want the kind of excess that Jordan Belfort has in "The Wolf Of Wall Street"? Just, you know...
WINTER: No, no. I wanted...
GROSS: ...The jewels and mansions and cars and airplanes and, you know...
WINTER: No, none of that stuff has ever been important to me. Now I just - the security to do what I want to do in life and just know that my family is secure, and, you know, that's really all - that's really what I wanted. I didn't know it at the time - probably think I perceived that I wanted to be rich. When I was a kid, I used to walk around Kings Plaza, the shopping mall in Brooklyn.
GROSS: Oh, God. I remember that place. (Laughter).
WINTER: I used to walk through Macy's and look at all the fancy furniture and think, one day I'm going to have this. That was how I used to inspire myself. I would walk through those furniture departments and think, you know, one day I'm going to have this, you know, Oriental dining room set. And it's going to be so cool. That was the stuff that sort of fueled my ambition. You know, I lived in this tiny, little house in Marine Park.
And I remember the Franklin Mint used to do these mini-ingots that they would advertise in the back of the Daily News magazine. And at 15 years old, I sent away for those ingots thinking, you know, when I'm a millionaire one day, I'm going to need stuff like this for my mansion.
WINTER: And I actually still have it. And so my millionaire friends will come over, and we can look at my Franklin Mint ingot collection. But the funny thing is now, you know, my house in LA, when my friends come over, I do take out my ingots and say, you have to let me live this fantasy out. Here were my mini art treasures of the Louvre. And they come with a little magnifying glass, and I am doing that, but not the way I imagined it at 15.
GROSS: Terence Winter, it's been great to talk with you. Good luck with the final season of "Boardwalk Empire," and congratulations on the series.
WINTER: Thank you. This was a lot of fun. Thank you for having me. This was really a lot of fun to do.
GROSS: Terence Winter is the creator and show-runner of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." The fifth and final season started last Sunday. We have an extra for you that there wasn't time for on the show. It's about Terence Winter wrote the scene in "The Sopranos" in which Silvio kills Adriana. You can hear that story on SoundCloud at soundcloud.com/fresh air.. Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan, reviews the new novel by David Mitchell who also wrote "Cloud Atlas." This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.