Martin Scorsese has been a landmark filmmaker since his very first movie Mean Streets opened in 1973. 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, for which he finally won the Academy Award for Best Director.
Scorsese has at long last made his mark on television as Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire, also directing the pilot. Set in the 1920s, the dawn of Prohibition, the drama stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the Atlantic City’s treasurer, politician and gangster.
You’ve said that you had considered doing a series before this. What was it about this project that made you say, ‘Now is the time?’
I think it’s the charting of this underworld world, as in Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.
For me, it’s the nature of America’s love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero. In the famous Warshaw essay, he described loving the gangster for doing everything that he can’t do, but wanting him to pay for it at the end.
I think Warshaw was writing about it from films like Public Enemy and White Heat, pictures that are the classic ones. So for me it’s the charting of this world and how it resonates today, not only in America, but around the world even more.
In the past ten years, the work that’s been happening on television, and especially cable, has been revolutionary. You are one of the landmark filmmakers of the ‘70s generation. Do you notice any parallels to what’s going on in television now?
Well, I think it’s certainly interesting that what’s happening now in the past nine, ten years, particularly at HBO, was what we had hoped for in the mid-‘60s when films were being made for television at first. We hoped that there would be this kind of a freedom and the ability to create another world, and the long form of developing character in a story narrative.
And, of course, this is a good example. And HBO has really been the trailblazer in this, the extraordinary series that they’ve had. I’ve been tempted over the years to be involved in one of them because the nature of the long form and the development of character and plot. They’re thoughtful, intelligent, and brilliantly put together.
It’s a new opportunity for storytelling, which is very different from television in the past. So this was my inroad, so to speak, is my temptation to do this sort of thing and be involved with it.
You’ve done a lot of work with stories about gangsters in different eras. Is there anything specific that is true of gangsters in the 1920s that is only true of them and not true of the gangsters of other eras?
One of the things is that the good intentions of prohibition is what helped create (the gangsters in the ‘20s). I should say it seems to us from reading over the years, and from becoming obsessed with the research of gangs in New York City, going back to Gangs of New York, the film, and it seems like it allowed crime figures of that time, Luciano and Capone and Torrio, to organize to become more powerful.
Something that I guess pulled all the way though 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 political, 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, at least, the decade of the ‘20s alone leading to 1929 with the crash that so much went on.
How did you know Steve Buscemi could pull this off?
I’ve been watching Steve’s work since Parting Glances back in the ‘80s, and we got to work together briefly in New York Stories, and I always wanted to work with Steve again. I love the range he has and his dramatic sense but also his sense of humor, and there’s something that’s very strong on camera, with Steve as a character whatever he plays, whether it’s in The Big Lebowski or Ghost World.
I think it was a very interesting idea that Steve would play this part, because it’s a character, as Steve says, that I do think basically is a decent guy, but in that world, corrupts him so much. He’s a pragmatist, too. He’s practical. He’s in the position of being a treasurer. Yet the treasurer runs the city in a sense.
You directed the pilot, how did you establish the style that the rest of the series would follow?
I just went ahead and tried to, based on what Terry (Winter) had written, visualize the picture as best I could, just like it’s a feature film. I shot it quickly, and it was an energizing experience. I had a great time with the actors.
For me the ‘20s are very special, because when I was growing up in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, the ‘20s was only 15-20 years in the past, and my father and mother spoke about it as if it was the present day. So this is something that I felt very comfortable with.