In the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., HBO and executive producers Terence Winter ("The Sopranos") and Martin Scorsese have brought a 300-foot section of the Atlantic City (N.J.) Boardwalk, circa 1920, back to three-dimensional life, for the history-inspired drama "Boardwalk Empire," premiering Sunday, Sept. 19.
Although the view beyond the sandy beach is of a wall of stacked shipping containers -- and some of the taller bits and further-away bits will be filled in with computer-generated animation -- from certain angles, the illusion is remarkable and complete.
Based on the nonfiction book "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City," by Nelson Johnson, the series stars Steve Buscemi ("The Sopranos," "Fargo") as county treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a political fixer and backroom dealer who runs the city from his room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
While Nucky has carved out a comfortable niche for himself between politics and organized crime, the arrival of Prohibition and also of a lovely but unhappily married Irish immigrant, Mrs. Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), threaten simultaneously to line Nucky's pockets and put him in peril from the grimly determined Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
Also starring are Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frank Crudele, Vincent Piazza, Stephen Graham, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gretchen Mol, Dabney Coleman and Paz de la Huerta.
On this chilly April night, an election is under way, and there's a carnival atmosphere on set, aided by a stilt walker in striped pants and the Wild Man of Borneo. Extras, many in vintage clothing from the period, stroll the planks or, as with a group of seersucker-suited young swells in straw boaters, are pushed along in wheeled wicker carts.
With the luxurious lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, the swanky dress shop and the sweetshop selling salt-water taffy, it could be any seaside resort -- except for one attraction. Created when the inventor of incubators could not convince doctors to buy his creation, the glass-walled "Incubator Baby" room boasts "Babies Under 3 Lbs.," cared for by nurses in the full view of the public.
"It became a sideshow exhibit," says Winter, a few months later in Los Angeles (with Buscemi and Macdonald also present), "and saved thousands of lives."
While such an exhibition would be unthinkable today -- except perhaps in a reality-TV show -- Winter doesn't see this world as being all that different from our own.
"It's very much about America and ambition," he says. "The one thing that jumps out at me as I write this is, the more things change, the more things stay the same, in terms of political corruption and being in bed with big business -- and essentially Prohibition is the drug trade.
"Young guys who are ambitious and violent, who want to make a lot of money, traffic in this illegal substance. You just change the commodity, and it's the same thing.
"So it really holds a mirror up to society."
While other historic locations in New York also appear, it's the boardwalk itself that's the heart of the show -- and it's helpful to the actors as well.
"Sometimes when we're shooting in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton," says Buscemi, "which is huge, I go, 'All right, this was all built.' It's incredible."
"The boardwalk was hugely helpful for me," says the Scottish Macdonald, "because I had no reference. I think about Atlantic City, and I think about Boardwalk and Park Place (in the Monopoly game). Atlantic City conjured up no images."
While he played a tough gangster in "The Sopranos," Buscemi is actually rather gentlemanly as Thompson, who would rather deal than fight.
"I can't help but like him," Buscemi says. "He's a fascinating guy. He's complicated. I think he does have a good heart. He genuinely wants to build this city. He wants to give the people what they want, and I think his attitude was, 'If they don't want me to do it anymore, I won't be elected.'
"He likes being a politician, and he likes being a leader -- and he likes the amount of money he siphons off. But he spreads the wealth. What's good for him is good for Atlantic City, and it's good for the people there.
"When Prohibition hit, it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. Certainly, it made him even more corrupt, but I think he just saw it as, 'This is the way things are going, and I'd be a fool not to join in.' "
"Nucky's a realist," says Winter, "and knows this is what it takes to run a city. Sometimes palms need to be greased. It's not always going to be easy or the right thing, people are going to get hurt and paid off, but that's what it takes.
"Hopefully, politicians, at the end of the day, do more good than bad."
'Boardwalk Empire': Steve Buscemi and company find the present in the past
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