What won’t you hear much of in the language of “Boardwalk Empire”? Well, “won’t,” for one. Contractions were not a staple of speech patterns back then, a fact it took series creator Terence Winter a while to grow accustomed to.
Everyone focuses on the tangible things when watching a period drama. You can see the set design. See the clothing. See the vintage phone on the table, or vehicles on the street.
But then there are the intangibles, the speech patterns that add another layer of reality to the proceedings.
“Whenever there are many things to adjust to, whether it be etiquette, language, physicality, there is always a level of difficulty in it,” said actor Michael Pitt, who plays Jimmy Darmody in the series, via e-mail.
As he worked to adapt “Boardwalk Empire” for the screen, executive producer and writer Winter had to get used to creating 1920s Atlantic City from the inside out.
“Just the way people spoke — it took me a long time to feel comfortable, putting words in those peoples’ mouths,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they sounded like real people and not cartoons.”
You look at some productions set in the 1960s, Winter said, and every other word out of a character’s mouth is “groovy.” That is just the type of caricature he wanted to avoid when assembling dialogue for his series.
That’s why contractions are avoided. In his research, Winter found even the average working man was better educated than they are today, resulting in a refinement of speech.
“Different dialects are very useful tools in creating a new character,” Pitt said. “The more challenging the part, the more interesting the character.”
And sometimes, the use of language is played for laughs.
Early in the season, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is speaking with Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), a black bootlegger Nucky is trying to do business with. Within the conversation, Chalky tosses in a colorful expletive: mother ___ .
Nucky looks confused, but doesn’t let on. When Chalky walks away, he turns to his driver and asks what it means.
“That expression,” Winter said, “was unique to the African-American community.” It had not yet been co-opted by the general public, and is just another example of how the cast and crew behind “Boardwalk Empire” strived for authenticity.
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