In a wicker rolling-chair, two well-heeled tourists spent Monday wheeling along the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
But the cheery teenage boy at the chair’s helm, dressed in red-and-cream diamond-checked socks, kept having to make U-turns — because this boardwalk — in Brooklyn — is just 300 feet long.
These tourists are just extras in Martin Scorsese’s imagined version of Atlantic City — a place where meticulous historical detail meets fiction head-on.
A place where you may see old-time posters advertising performances by boxing cats — true to Atlantic City’s past — but won’t see the ocean. (Artists will paint it in later.)
In the summer, Scorsese directed the pilot episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” the newest series now picked up by HBO for the 2010 season.
But while the show’s title alludes to a book by prominent local attorney and now judge, Nelson Johnson, who spent years researching the rise of Atlantic City and its colorful fraudsters, the TV show has its sights set higher than just adapting the written account.
It isn’t even shot in New Jersey: New York outbid the Garden State in promised tax-credits to the show’s makers if they filmed their first season this fall and spring in the five boroughs.
“The book was a jumping-off point,” said Terence Winter, one of the show’s executive producers, recently known for his work on another New Jersey gangster drama — The Sopranos. Winter and the other writers decided to focus on the volatile years during Prohibition — which take up just a few of Johnson’s chapters.
Then they took creative license with the names of instantly recognizable characters: Johnson’s book charts the rise of Nucky Johnson (no relation) — the real-life Atlantic County official-turned-powerbroker who capitalized on 1920s Prohibition to turn Atlantic City into a rum-running, bootlegging paradise.
But by the time Nucky actor Steve Buscemi steps out onto the recreated Boardwalk set Monday afternoon, we know his character as Nucky Thompson.
“I wanted to fictionalize these people,” Winter said. “So theoretically, with our Nucky, anything can happen.”
With that loose interpretation, visitors at the set Monday — seeing a boardwalk built from scratch in a Brooklyn parking lot — may have expected designers to bend the rules.
What it certainly does is bend perspective.
With the boardwalk’s shortened length, production designer Bob Shaw said it also had to be narrower than in real life — 45 feet, not 60.
“Or else our buildings would look too short,” he said with a laugh.
That would be a shame — since the set crowds together some of the most famous names in the city’s oceanfront history.
Buscemi paced back and forth in front of a re-created taffy shop with a hybrid identity.
“That’s sort of a combination,” Shaw said, looking at the recognizable Fralinger’s sign. “Because Fralinger’s has that interesting name, but James’ had the better facade.”
In the same way, the true-life Babette’s nightclub received the better-than-life-size treatment: In reality, Shaw said, the bar was made of half a wooden boat. But the show’s early set-piece, where Nucky and crowds of partiers gather in the pilot episode, Shaw said,“We made it a large boat! We had some fun with that.”
Want a 10-cent frankfurter? Maurice I. Saul’s diner will happily serve you. Faded posters offer curative baths, fortune-tellers, minstrels and countless sideshows.
Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi, who was not consulted on this production, said she was unfazed by the show taking some creative license.
“Everyone’s going to be glued to this show,” she said excitedly. “I mean, Scorsese’s producing it!”
Levi gave a thumbs-up to the presence of an old-time photo studio — Dittrich’s — and the absence of a convention hall, which did not exist at that time.
But she did wonder about one big-picture detail: “Do they have a Steel Pier?”
As Tim Van Patten, who is now directing episodes two and three, put it: “We built a tin pier.”
But the defining detail remains an illusion: The Atlantic Ocean will be added offshore, as a digital effect.
And the show’s stars may do a lot of gazing off at the sea.
In one pointed detail, the benches on the re-created boardwalk face out to sea, rather than onto the promenade, Shaw said: “I think because Scorsese wanted them that way.”
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