Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Martin Scorsese behind the bar

Lavish, layered ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is back

by Gary Levin

Enoch “Nucky” Thompson was on top of the world in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire last season: Atlantic City’s corrupt leader made a killing from Prohibition and had some enemies killed along the way. But a year later, he’s in a tough spot, and in a late-season episode being filmed at an Upper East Side mansion, he turns to his former nemesis, New York gangster Arnold Rothstein, for some legal help.

Dressed in a plaid, rust-hued suit, custom-made to replicate period garb, Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is meeting with Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his lawyer. “Arnold tells me you’d like to go in a new direction,” the attorney tells Nucky. “Preferably away from jail,” he answers.
So it goes in the world of the 1920s distilled by Boardwalk, which begins its 12-episode second season Sunday (9 ET/PT). The sprawling series, which blends historical figures such as Rothstein and Al Capone with fictional characters, has an obsessive attention to detail and an impressive pedigree: producers include Martin Scorsese (who won an Emmy Sunday for directing the premiere episode), Mark Wahlberg and key Sopranos writer Terence Winter, the series’ creator.

Considering that Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, Prohibition, is premiering Oct. 2, why the fascination with the hangover induced by the 18th Amendment, which ushered in the decade and Boardwalk‘s first season?

The improbability makes it a compelling subject, says Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, published last year.

“The minute you stop to think about the fact that for 14 years it was against the law to buy a glass of beer in this country, it becomes impossible to believe; it doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “And it’s really not taught in schools. It gets treated as an aberration that’s more worth forgetting than remembering.”

Burns says backers of Prohibition could never have anticipated its side effects: “They could not see organized crime, female alcoholism because of the emergence of speakeasies and the corruption of institutions, and how that would impact on ordinary lives.”

Winter has a modern-day analogy in mind. “You’re taking these young ambitious thugs who want to make a lot of money quickly, and all they have to do is sell this illegal substance that a lot of people feel should be legal anyway. It’s pretty much a perfect template for the drug business.”
$5 million tab per episode

Whether or not they see that parallel, viewers have been eager to take a walk on the ambitious and expensive Boardwalk.

It’s HBO’s No. 2 current series, behind True Blood, with an average audience of 3.2 million for Sunday premieres that balloons to nearly 11 million once repeats, on-demand and DVR-delayed viewing are included.

Its production is lavish, with a price tag to match. Each episode costs more than $5 million and takes 15 days to film, double the figures for a typical network drama. An elaborate boardwalk set, built in a Brooklyn parking lot, cost $2 million alone. “It seems like I’m shooting one big, long movie,” Buscemi says.

Most surprising to the star is that “a lot of young people like the show, and I didn’t necessarily think it would appeal to people in their 20s. I thought the time period would be a turn-off, but maybe because it’s in color — I’m serious — it doesn’t feel like it’s old.”

Much of last season’s action centered on the advent of Prohibition and how Thompson and gangsters in Chicago and New York jumped into the fray to profit, and jockey for turf.

Nucky’s chief foe was Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), an odd-duck federal agent who took up with — and impregnated — showgirl Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), whom Nucky had cast aside in favor of Irish immigrant Margaret Schroder (Kelly Macdonald).

Now Nucky’s partners in crime, including brother Eli (Shea Whigham), protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and mentor “Commodore” Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), are conspiring against him to seize control of the liquor business.

“He was under attack by Van Alden and the forces against alcohol,” Buscemi says, “and now he’s kind of under attack from the people who were his allies, so there’s a power struggle. The stakes are even higher because of the unpredictability of the people who used to work for him; he knows what they’re capable of.”

Winter says he “wanted to really amp up the pressure on Nucky.” Sunday’s premiere opens with the 1920 Irving Berlin song After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It, “which is sort of thematically the whole Season 2,” he says. “On one hand, everybody has sort of gotten everything: Margaret has moved up in the world and is living with Nucky, they’re a family; Nucky’s firmly in control, things should be booming, they should be great for everybody — and of course they’re not.

“Everyone’s dissatisfied, and the conspiracy that was laid down last season is now coming to fruition. It’s putting Nucky under enormous pressure (by) having him question who was on his side and who wasn’t.”

Except for that wary truce with Rothstein. Though “they’re certainly not friends, they are friendlier,” Buscemi says. “They can appreciate each other and their positions, and how hard it is to stay in those positions.”

Producer/director Tim Van Patten, who like Buscemi is a Sopranos alum, says this season is “darker and bigger in scope” than the first, which mostly concerned itself with the advent of Prohibition: “It’s all about loyalty and betrayal.”

A lot of story, characters

Plots will delve more deeply into characters’ personal lives, and Margaret’s reconciliation with Nucky has domesticated him in a new Atlantic City home.

“At the start of the season, they’re on more of an even footing,” says Macdonald, who was an Emmy nominee (as was Buscemi). “She’s very helpful to Nucky.” But she’s still uncomfortable with her trade-off, and by the season’s end, domestic bliss begins to fray.

The Scottish actress says the Irish immigrant is tricky to play. “Margaret talks differently than the other characters; she sounds a bit like Yoda, with shorter sentences,” she says. “And I’ve been trying to get (her) to sit back in a chair and it’s just impossible; Margaret can’t relax.”

Jack Huston is now a series regular as Richard Harrow, the tragic World War I hero who lost half his face and is now a hitman for fellow vet Jimmy. “This season, we get to discover a lot more about Richard and who he is,” says Huston, part of an acting dynasty that includes great-grandfather Walter and aunt Anjelica. “It’s an emotional ride; he’s come back to a world he doesn’t fit into anymore, and that’s why he focuses so much on his gun and killing people. That’s what he knows.”

And the already-large cast adds new characters: Owen Slater (Charlie Cox), an aide to Nucky; George Remus (Glenn Fleshler), a powerful real-life Cincinnati bootlegger; and Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), a dogged prosecutor. Thompson is a fictionalized version of Nucky Johnson, whose exploits controlling Atlantic City were chronicled in the book of the same name on which the series is partly based.

“It is a complicated show,” Winter says, with “a lot of characters and a lot of story going on. You can’t balance a checkbook while you’re watching.”

HBO programming president Michael Lombardo concedes, “There’s a challenge in crafting a story as big and as layered as Boardwalk.” The period setting is “a strong suit, but also a distraction from the relatability of the characters.” Still, “I find myself as a viewer almost forgetting it takes place in the 1920s.”

How will it all end? “I would love to do six or seven seasons,” Winter says. “There are so many interesting characters, and it’s such a rich period.” But the series might end with thestock market crash of 1929, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, or merely another momentous event in the life of the fictional Nucky.

By then, Scorsese, an active consultant, might be back to direct. “His attention to detail is unbelievable,” Winter says. “This is a guy I grew up idolizing. He was the reason I got into the business. Taxi Driver changed everything for me, and working with him is a dream come true.”

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