Interview: Producer Stephen Levinson’s creative empire
“Boardwalk Empire,” the new HBO series set in Atlantic City, N.J., during Prohibition, has attracted plenty of notice, in part because of the pedigree of its creative team, which includes director Martin Scorsese and creator Terence Winter, a writer and producer on “The Sopranos.”
Less well known is the executive producer who brought the mob drama to the network, Stephen Levinson, who is actor Mark Wahlberg’s manager and producing partner. The duo also produced two earlier high-profile HBO series, “Entourage” and “In Treatment.”
Their latest effort, “Boardwalk Empire,” was renewed for a second season after its premiere last month attracted 4.8 million viewers -- the largest debut for an HBO series since 2004’s “Deadwood.”
Levinson, a native New Yorker who like others in Hollywood began his career in a talent agency mailroom, recently talked to Company Town about his latest TV and film projects and his decades-long association with Wahlberg.
Question: How do you go about creating the worlds in your HBO series that seem to entice viewers?
Answer: The great thing about HBO is there are no boundaries. They allow you to dream up whatever you want to dream up. In the case of “Entourage” [loosely based on Wahlberg’s and Levinson’s early days in Hollywood], we were living it. We were inside of it and we were experiencing it -- but from an outsider’s point of view.
With “In Treatment,” a world could be something as finite as one room, in a therapist’s office. As somebody who hasn’t been to therapy -- but I’m sure certainly needs it -- I think you wonder what goes on inside of those walls. In the case of Dr. Paul Weston (“In Treatment’s” central character, portrayed by Gabriel Byrne), the format has you go inside the four walls, then you go inside his head.
Q: What attracted you and Wahlberg to “Boardwalk Empire”?
A: We’re always looking for interesting material. It comes to us in a variety of ways. In this case, Ari Emanuel [ William Morris Endeavor Entertainment co-chief executive] sent us the book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City,” written by Nelson Johnson. We thought it had great potential for an HBO show. Once we declared that we were interested in it, Mark got on a plane and went to visit Marty [Scorsese], who was in Boston shooting “Shutter Island.” Marty thought it was interesting. Then we took it to HBO, which sent the book to Terry Winter, who conceptualized the show from scratch.
Q: Why did you think this book had series potential?
A: There were a whole host of interesting characters and a great and rich history. A lot of different choices could have been made, and I think that Terry made a brilliant choice in deciding to focus on the ‘20s. As a matter of what’s interesting to us, I love the blending of fact and fiction. Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” was a spy novel that I always found intriguing and interesting. That did a really great job of blending fact and fiction, so you’re not sure where reality ends and fiction begins. That’s a great way to tell a story and create a world.
Q: What about your own journey to Hollywood? What prompted you to leave New York and move here?
A: In some ways, it’s analogous to our approach to shows and movies. I grew up going to the movies and watching TV and I wanted to visit [that world]. I thought I would love it. I packed up my Honda Prelude, which is featured in the early seasons of “Entourage,” and drove out here. One of the articles I just happened to read was about Ron Meyer [president of Universal Studios and co-founder of Creative Artists Agency] and how everybody started in the mailroom. It just solidified what I was hoping to do.
A friend of mine was living out here and he invited me to play in a basketball game. One of those guys who ended up playing in that game was Patrick Whitesell [who at the time worked at now-defunct InterTalent Agency and is currently co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor]. For about eight weeks, all I did was pass the ball, hoping to get an interview at InterTalent. And ultimately he got me an interview for the mailroom.
Q: How did you meet Mark Wahlberg?
A: I was working at InterTalent Agency as an assistant and he was a client of my boss, David Schiff. We struck up conversations over the phone, and a friendship. There was common ground when it came to our philosophies. We started talking about material. We like the same movies, the same shows. It’s been the same for close to 20 years. We’ve spoken almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day.
Q: What’s next, creatively?
A: We’re developing several films. One is a remake of an Icelandic film called “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” which takes you into the world of smuggling. Another project is based on Jon Roberts [a drug smuggler], who’s featured in the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys.” We’re developing a couple of comedies as well. It’s fairly eclectic. You never know how quickly a movie is going to come together. But if you get after it, you hope you catch a break.