The chair didn’t look right. It was too ... rigid.
In almost every other context, this might be satisfactory. Uncomfortable, perhaps, but more than sufficient. But when the chair in question is of the rolling variety, a facsimile created for HBO’s new series “Boardwalk Empire,” a little inflexibility just wasn’t going to cut it.
“That’s a very iconic image of Atlantic City of the period,” said prop master Tommy Allen. “You do not want to screw it up.”
Rolling chairs are a bit player in the Prohibition-era drama, which debuts tonight amid “Sopranos”-style expectations. They pop up in the occasional Boardwalk scene, often in the background. But the quest for the perfect rolling chair is proof of the production’s slavish devotion to period authenticity.
From the lavish, 300-foot re-creation of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk to minute, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background details, “Boardwalk Empire” sweats the small stuff. It may be historical fiction, but that doesn’t mean cast and crew didn’t want to strive for perfection.
“If we took liberty with some of the characters,” said Shea Whigham, 41, who plays Sheriff Elias Thompson on the series, “we didn’t do that at all with what they were wearing, what they were driving, where they’d be living.”
As such, every design decision was fueled by a dogged investigation of the resort’s past, led by a man whose family tree grows right through Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s Atlantic City. Johnson, of course, provides the inspiration for the character of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the man around whom all else revolves in “Boardwalk Empire.”
Ed McGinty’s grandfather worked at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where Johnson lived, climbing from bellman to facilities manager during his career. McGinty’s father was a page boy, often running messages for the political boss. The elder McGinty still lives in the resort.
On “Boardwalk Empire,” McGinty serves as research adviser, and also has a bit part as a ward boss. But the series’ local ties only begin with him, and weave through a who’s who of Atlantic City historians that includes Nelson Johnson, whose “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City” forms the series’ foundation. Filming may have taken place in Brooklyn, but Atlantic City’s DNA, like rum runners on an illegal shipment of booze, is all over this production.
Judging from the high praise coming from city historian and “Boardwalk Empire” historical consultant Vicki Gold Levi — sentiments echoed by others — executive producer and writer Terence Winter and his crew nailed it.
“When I first went on the Boardwalk, I was blown away,” said Levi, no stranger to film, television and stage sets — good and bad — attempting to re-create America’s Favorite Playground. “Nothing has come close to the creative design authenticity, the evocation of the era, the feeling behind it.”
A ritzier Ritz for Nucky
Which isn’t to say the Atlantic City of “Boardwalk Empire” is an exact replica of the resort as it once was. There is, out of necessity, a certain amount of dramatic license that needs to be taken.
The Ritz, where “Nucky” Thompson lives, looks nothing like the actual building located on the Boardwalk at Iowa Avenue — the original is too “blocky,” production designer Bob Shaw said. But within the show’s Ritz, all the details are there.
“The question, right out of the gate, was, ‘Do we want to do a stylized version of Atlantic City? Or, do we want to make it real? And we opted for real,” said the show’s creator, executive producer-writer Terence Winter said.
“Boardwalk Empire” bows at the dawn of Prohibition, in 1920. The real Ritz didn’t open until 1921. For the fictionalized version of the place where Nucky lives, Shaw said he drew on other hotels of the time, such as the Marlborough Blenheim, tossing their design elements into a blender.
Instead of the original’s rectangular design, the Ritz on the series features shells, dolphins and other ornamentation. It is a bold departure, but one Shaw feels was necessary.
“(The original) didn’t seem fanciful enough. It didn’t capture the imagination. And, it doesn’t make the statement about Atlantic City that we wanted it to make — that Atlantic City was a different world,” he said.
Before producers could break with history, however, they had to learn it. When Winter, fresh from “The Sopranos,” came to the project — hearing that Martin Scorsese was aboard as one of the executive producers sealed it for him — he immediately immersed himself in the history of the time, reading books and watching old movies.
Before long, it dawned on the Emmy winner: This is big. Capital ‘B.’
“Re-create the Atlantic City Boardwalk from 1920? The more reading I did, I thought we wouldn’t be able to,” said. It wasn’t until he saw what the network was doing for its epic miniseries, “John Adams,” that he began to feel at ease.
“They did stuff digitally that blew me away,” he said of re-creations of 1775-era Boston.
Researching the facts
A mutual friend put him in touch with McGinty in spring 2008. McGinty, armed with historical photos and stories, met Winter for breakfast. When the meal was done, he had a job.
As research adviser, McGinty spent much of his time in the writers’ room, spinning yarns his father had told him and answering whatever questions Winter and his staff peppered him with. If he didn’t know, it was off to find the answer, on his own or by tapping into one of his local contacts.
Levi recalls supplying period photos at times and making suggestions of her own. Nelson Johnson said he answered a few continuity questions, matters of who died first and so forth. Others tapped include Allen “Boo” Pergament, of Margate, and Heather Perez, archivist of the Alfred M. Heston collection at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.
While the writers did their thing, other members of the production team embarked on their own historical crusades. McGinty tried to touch base with all of them, but each had their own resources committed to perfecting the look of 1920s Atlantic City.
Allen, the prop master, made a trip to the resort’s library to explore its collection of microfilm.
Costume designer John Dunn began his adventure at the Brooklyn Museum, the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
Even McGinty, despite being able to tap into his own considerable knowledge — he’s read Johnson’s “Boardwalk Empire” three times — needed more. He found a treasure trove of information at the Library of Congress and Duke University, which has an archive of billboards, including those erected on the Boardwalk at the time.
Shaw had his own research coordinator: Sometimes, when he and executive producer Tim Van Patten were trolling for locations, they’d hold impromptu research smackdowns that would involve sending the same question to their respective researchers — art-department coordinator Miriam Schapiro for Shaw, McGinty for Van Patten — to see who would come up with the answer first.
Getting the right feel
To a person, the production team calls building “Boardwalk Empire” from the Boardwalk up a monster of an undertaking.
And, they say, it is one thing to re-create the 1920s. It’s another thing entirely to bring 1920s Atlantic City to life.
“It really was like no other place on Earth at that time,” Shaw said. “We’re really trying to have the Boardwalk and sets convey that, that there were things you would see there that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.”
So, you’ve got your baby incubators set up in a Boardwalk storefront. The sport of midget boxing figures into one episode. The familiar Fralinger’s candy shop will be a welcome sight for resort regulars.
Naturally, there are rolling chairs. Those confounding rolling chairs.
Rather than rent rolling chairs, the production bought one. They considered having duplicates made, but apparently folks who work with wicker aren’t readily available, and the three-month waiting period for custom-built chairs didn’t mesh with the production schedule.
That left Shaw and Co. to build copies — six or eight, Allen can’t quite remember which — for themselves.
They began with vacuformed plastic molds, but during construction Shaw realized that they looked too rigid, not like the rolling chair they wanted to replicate. It was the chair’s sleigh-like front that proved vexing. Next, they made a mold of the front using flexible latex. Much better.
To finish it off, sash cord — like clothes line, only thinner — was braided to resemble the wicker work on the original chair. Voila! A finished rolling chair.
“There are some things you think, ‘Who’s going to remember? Who’s going to know?’ And then there are things that everybody’s going to remember,” Shaw said.
Yet for all the research, there remained quite a bit left to the imagination.
For instance, how to create Nucky’s bedroom suite? To Nelson Johnson’s knowledge, there are no photographs of the space. And yet HBO’s version of the living quarters looks very much as he’d imagine it to be.
Ultimately, Shaw said, it comes down to this: “It’s about creating a feeling, and giving people the sensation of being there.”
Expanding the world
Capping the city’s look are liberal dollops of digital effects.
Many scenes exemplify this, although Winter cites one in particular, which appears during the season’s 10th episode. People are sunning and cavorting on the beach. You see the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, and the shot pans up the beach to the Boardwalk.
He defies you to see where bricks and mortar and pixelated set dressings meet.
Computer-generated effects are responsible for everything from extending the Boardwalk in either direction to the Ferris wheel and giant Gillette sign towering above the boards. It gives the city depth and the ocean breadth.
All of this glitz and grandeur, of course, costs money. Ask Winter or Shaw about how much and they quickly demur — “I don’t want to know sometimes,” the executive producer said. “I don’t want to be hindered by price. I just want to write it.”
HBO, politely yet firmly, won’t comment on the series’ cost. But reports in the Wall Street Journal and Variety peg the Boardwalk set alone at $5 million, with the series pilot topping out at about $18 million.
Watching the initial episodes, it is apparent how seriously all involved approached the series. So, whether it’s Shaw exploring the underside of the Boardwalk to see just how vibrant a green the scum gets or Allen driving to the middle of nowhere Maine in search of a vintage Rolls Royce suitable for Nucky’s limousine, it pays off in the finished product.
“In some ways,” Allen said, “a period piece can be easier. You want a car from 1920? It’ll be a Model T. You want a car from today? You’ve got umpteen choices.”
Are these sometimes minor details? Sure. But, like crafting the perfect rolling chair, they were deemed essential.
“They’ve got the feel, they’ve used the right colors, they have the right names, they have the right curiosity shops. I felt they captured the feel, the tones, the colors, all of the things the Boardwalk did look like in the 1920s,” Johnson said.
The viewers decide
Now it’s time to sit back and await the viewer’s verdict. McGinty admits to a few sleepless nights while wondering what the continuity police might find. But Shaw will have none of that.
“I said to the art department that they were going to have to recite the ‘Serenity Prayer’ pretty often while working on the show,” he said.
That is because there will always be people out there who will focus on the minutiae of a given period. Like, for instance, the antique-stapler-enthusiasts website he encountered while working on AMC’s “Mad Men” a few years back.
“You cannot,” he said, “make it your business to satisfy the antique-stapler enthusiast.”
When you re-create a place in time for a period drama — whether it’s the always-mutating ’60s of “Mad Men” or taking over a western Maryland farm to film a Civil War epic — the sets are as much a character as the actors populating them.
Strictly speaking, this may not be Nucky Johnson’s Atlantic City. But he would feel very comfortable here.
“Probably the best day of my life is when I invited my dad onto the set. He looked at it and was just floored,” McGinty said. “He had been riding his bike that day on the (real) Boardwalk. He went up the steps and surveyed everything. He leaned back and put his elbows on the rail. He was pretty amazed and convinced that it was the Boardwalk he grew up on. It won’t be exact, but it will really bring a sense of nostalgia. Because people will remember.”
Contact Kevin Clapp:
‘Boss of the Boardwalk’
A documentary about the life of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson, airs 3 p.m. today on WMGM-TV 40.
The series premieres at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Don’t have HBO?
If you don’t subscribe to HBO and want to catch “Boardwalk Empire” … you’re out of luck. The only way to watch at home is to pay for it.