Martin Scorsese builds “Boardwalk Empire”

Martin Scorsese builds Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire has master-filmmaker at helm for HBO

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For really great characters from the “Jersey Shore” you have to go back to the roaring ’20s, when crooked politicians, gangsters and bootleggers went wild in Atlantic City. That’s the setting for HBO’s acclaimed series Boardwalk Empire. Set at the start of the Prohibition era, the drama stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the Atlantic City treasurer who ruled the town with organized crime. Behind the television production is an iconic filmmaker, Martin Scorsese.

The series is based on Nelson Johnson’s book “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City,” a non-fiction account of the seaside resort town with a shady history. For Scorsese, focusing on a gritty, tough world filled with gangsters is familiar territory. And that’s one of the reasons he signed on for this series.

An Oscar-winning director, Scorsese is the executive producer and also directed the pilot of the period drama. The series was created by executive producer Terence Winter (The Sopranos). Both Scorsese and Winter seem to have a fondness for the mobster genre.

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Scorsese is somewhat of a historian about America’s love affair with the gangster, who he says is often portrayed as a tragic hero. He noted that a famous essay by Robert Warshaw speaks to our fascination for the gangster because he does everything that we can’t do. But we want him to pay for his crimes at the end. That’s been the theme in many movies.

Scorsese said he thinks Warshaw got that idea from classic films like Public Enemy and White Heat. But for Scorsese, he said he likes charting the underworld and how it resonates today, as he did in his films Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.

The same intense style Scorsese brought to those films is evident in Boardwalk Empire. It is a brilliantly crafted production, with wonderful characters, and a recreation of Atlantic City, the Boardwalk, the brothels, burlesque, and speakeasy joints of the era.

What was it like to do television? Scorsese said, “I shot it quickly, and it was an energizing experience. I had a great time with the actors.” Although he left his mark, he explained that he wasn’t trying to establish a style that the rest of the series would follow when he directed the pilot. “I just went ahead and tried to, based on what Terry [Winter] had written, visualized the picture as best I could, just like it’s a feature film.”

Giving a little history lesson, Scorsese said it was the good intentions of prohibition that helped create the gangsters of the Roaring ’20s, and establish organized crime. He explained, “From reading over the years, and from becoming obsessed with the research of gangs in New York City, going back to the Gangs of New York, the film, it seems like it [bootlegging] allowed crime figures of that time, Luciano and Capone and Torrio, to organize and become more powerful.”

He added, “That’s something that I guess pulled all the way through until the ’70s ended an era. The film I made, GoodFellas, takes place in the ’70s. Of course, Gangs of New York is the 1850s, 1860s, but the gangs were not organized. They were more organized along ethnic lines. In the ’20s there was a seamless tapestry of organized crime and the politics of the time. That’s why it’s interesting, the decade of the ’20s, leading to 1929 with the crash. So much went on.”

The first movie by Scorsese, Mean Streets in 1973, was about a small-time hood, and he went on to produce and direct such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Color of Money, The Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed in 2007, for which he finally won the Academy Award for Best Director.

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He’s done a few television projects over the past decade, directing great documentaries, such as PBS’ American MastersNo Direction Home: Bob Dylan; and Lady By the Sea: the Statue of Liberty. He even produced a documentary series, The Blues: A Musical Journey. But mostly he’s made his mark on the big screen, until Boardwalk Empire came along. It’s on Sunday nights on HBO.


Frank Barron is the former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, having served twice in that capacity. In between, he was West Coast news director for Billboard Publications, supervising their five magazines. Barron also created the western TV series “The Man From Blackhawk” for the ABC network. For more than three decades he and writer-wife Margie Barron have covered Hollywood for Production Update magazine, and they currently contribute to numerous publications. Frank started in showbiz as publicity director for the KHJ radio and television station. Before moving to California, he was a sports editor in New Jersey.

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