HBO goes back to New Jersey for ‘Boardwalk Empire’


The sign on the chain-link fence warns “No Trespassing,” and a passerby walking through this industrial Brooklyn neighborhood wouldn’t think there was much to see beyond the barbed wire circling the lot, other than stacks of rust-colored shipping crates piled four high.

But behind them lies the site of one of HBO’s most ambitious series since “The Sopranos.” What was once a parking lot has been turned into a miniature Hollywood back lot: a 300-foot-long replica of the Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1920, which functions as the main set for the network’s new drama “Boardwalk Empire.”

The series, which traces the rise of corrupt quasi-fictional politician Nucky Thompson, comes with an impressive pedigree: Martin Scorsese serves as executive producer and directed the pilot. The show was created by Terence Winter, a “Sopranos” writer who recruited much of the crew from that program to join him, and stars Steve Buscemi as Thompson. The cast also includes Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”), Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”) and Gretchen Mol, who plays a showgirl who has a history with Nucky.

While HBO executives say they don’t expect to ever be able to duplicate the success of “The Sopranos,” they have high hopes that “Boardwalk Empire” -- along with “Big Love,” “True Blood” and David Simon’s upcoming New Orleans drama “Treme” -- can reestablish the network’s place in the zeitgeist. Although the series is set nearly a century ago, Winter said he believes viewers will be captivated by the frenetic energy of the Roaring Twenties, a time of loosening public mores, and see parallels between bootlegging and the modern-day drug trade.

The elaborate set, which took three months to build, matches the scope of the project: sherbet-hued shops peddling palm readings, postcards and saltwater taffy line a 45-foot-wide boardwalk ringed with trucked-in sand. There’s even a “Baby Incubator” building, modeled after a real baby hospital where tourists on the boardwalk gawked at underweight infants.

Dozens of extras wearing fedoras and fur-collared coats strolled down the pine boards on a recent sunny afternoon, weaving past wicker chairs pushed by young men in knickers and argyle socks. On the other side of the makeshift beach rose a massive blue screen, on which the show’s editors will digitally insert footage of the Atlantic Ocean. (They’ll also have to scrub out the top of the Empire State Building, whose spire juts up incongruously in the distance.)

The row of shops is not an exact duplication of the real boardwalk, but an amalgam of 1920s-era edifices that once graced Atlantic City. Little remains from that era in the scruffy New Jersey beach town, which forced producers to hunt for a location that would be true to the period. After scouting Asbury Park, N.J., and Coney Island, they decided it would be easier to create their own boardwalk from scratch. (A 35% production tax credit for filming in New York didn’t hurt, either.)

Back in Jersey

The series, which is expected to debut next fall, opens with the start of Prohibition in 1920 and explores the rise of Thompson, the city’s canny treasurer and local don, whose reach is furthered after he taps into the lucrative rum-smuggling trade. The character is based on Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, a Republican political boss who controlled Atlantic City for three decades.

Thompson is “very charming, smart, shrewd, a master politician -- equal parts politician and gangster,” said Winter, watching from a distance as Buscemi stood in a camel’s hair coat in the middle of the boardwalk, shooting a scene for the second episode.

Winter, who serves as one of the show’s executive producers, developed the concept out of the book “Boardwalk Empire,” a nonfiction history of Atlantic City written by Nelson Johnson. He contemplated setting the drama in the 1950s, “but that started to feel a little too close to ‘The Sopranos’ again.”

“We’re back in New Jersey again and back with Italian Americans again,” he said. “It’s going to feel like Tony’s dad’s show. The challenge was, how do I make this different from what ‘The Sopranos’ was? And the ‘20s felt far enough away historically and in many other ways.”

Johnson provided him with plenty of material. Flush with kickbacks, he lived in the Ritz-Carlton and rubbed elbows with rising gangsters such as “Lucky” Luciano and Al Capone.

Although Thompson is a fictional version of the real power-broker, producers are striving to create a milieu true to the actual era, much as another “Sopranos” alum, Matthew Weiner, has done with the AMC series “Mad Men.” Costume designer John Dunn, who helped shaped the look of that drama, searched across the United States and Europe for vintage clothing for the cast, which includes up to 200 extras at a time. Scorsese screened movies such as “Splendor in the Grass” to give producers a feel for the time.

The drive for historical authenticity forced the writers to rethink the smallest details. Winter had to adjust a scene in which a character is serenaded with the song “Happy Birthday” after discovering that the modern-day version did not become popular until 1924.

“You have to keep questioning yourself and catching yourself,” he said. “You wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Did people say that in 1920?’ ”

Period panic

While much of the action takes place on the boardwalk, the series will be shot in locations around New York -- a prospect that fills production designer Bob Shaw with dread.

“Going out on location and trying to shoot things for period is just an exercise in sheer terror,” said Shaw, who designed sets for “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” “You go out on a street corner and it’s like, they didn’t have handicapped curbs, they didn’t have this kind of street light, people didn’t have air conditioners, they didn’t have big yellow lines down the middle of the street. Asphalt existed, but it probably wouldn’t have been here. . . . If a script has the inside of somebody’s home, you’re just fearing the day when eventually they have to walk out the door, because it’s just a minefield.”

The arc of the 12-episode series will run from the dawn of Prohibition through the 1920 presidential election, delving into the suffrage movement. Ultimately, Winter hopes the drama will be picked up long enough for him to weave the narrative of the entire decade, ending with the crash of 1929. The Atlantic City boardwalk grew even more colorful during that period, he noted, acquiring acts like diving horses in 1928.

“We’re training the boxing kangaroos already,” Shaw joked.