BANFF, Alta. – Terence Winter has always had criminal leanings but fortunately, the creator of the critically acclaimed “Boardwalk Empire” channelled his lifelong obsession into something good.
“Boardwalk Empire” is a period drama starring Steve Buscemi that focuses on Enoch (Nucky) Thompson, a political figure who rose to prominence and controlled Atlantic City, N.J., during the Prohibition period of the 1920s and 1930s.
It has been renewed for a third season.
The inspiration that has driven Winter to spend much of his career writing about criminals â€” he was also a major writer on “The Sopranos” â€” came from an unexpected place.
“I’m always interested in criminals and crime. People ask me how this started and aside from growing up in Brooklyn in an area that kind of has a long history in mob type behaviour I could point it to the movie version of ‘Oliver Twist,'” Winter said with a chuckle during a break at the Banff World Media Festival. He is also listed as a writer and executive producer of the show.
“I remember I was a kid growing fascinated with pickpocketing â€” that was the subplot â€” Fagan and his pickpockets in that underground gang. A year later ‘The Sting’ came out and it was all about con men and I became interested in that.”
Winter, 51, also worked in a butcher shop that turned out to be owned by Paul Castellano. who was then the head of the powerful Gambino crime family.
“I got to rub elbows with guys not unlike the people who were in the Sopranos and just saw how they thought and how they talked and how they operated. It was just a world I was familiar with and was comfortable writing about.”
Winter was an executive producer for “The Sopranos” and wrote or co-wrote 25 episodes over the HBO series six year run.
Then came “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I was just finishing up on ‘The Sopranos’ â€” HBO gave me the book and said why don’t you read this to see if you think there might be a TV series in here, and by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this thing,” he said.
“I said, ‘OK, there is a TV series here and I will find it. I guarantee it.'”
Winter credits Scorsese for igniting his interest in the craft after watching “Taxi Driver” in the mid 1970s. He said during casting it was unanimous to pick Buscemi for the lead role.
“He’s hilarious. He’s a very funny guy and a very tough guy,” Winter said.
“A lot of people don’t know it but he’s very strong and wiry … like a wrestler. He was a New York City firefighter. He’s deceptively strong and really a tough guy.”
Neither Buscemi nor James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, are what you would call your average leading man â€” except in Winter’s eyes.
“Tony Soprano, yeah, Nucky â€” those guys are interesting and fascinating. It’s a tried and true genre too,” he said.
Winter said gangster stories are now every bit as legitimate as the western or the romantic comedy and it is keeping him interest.
Whether “Boardwalk Empire” will match the longevity of “The Sopranos” remains to be seen.
“God willing we could run six years that would be wonderful for me. But I take it one season at a time. It would be terrific,” he said.
“You have to feel you’ve got more stories to tell. The 1920s is a backdrop and Prohibition is a backdrop and there’s so much going on and so many characters on the show there’s always something interesting.”
He said the appeal of period shows such as “Boardwalk Empire,” “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” gives people a look at something both new and familiar.
“Also the ’20s are so attractive because there are so many parallels to today. It’s an ability to comment about modern life by exploring the ’20s.”