A Writer’s Road. Famed Writer Speaks To The Rockaway Times

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 Terence Winter knows how to tell a story.  And he’s been recognized for that ability. 

Four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, an Edgar (as in Allan Poe, presented by the Mystery Writers of America), and numerous others.  Even if his name doesn’t quite ring a bell you know his work.  Those awards? They come your way when you write stuff like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street. But how he got to Hollywood is a story unto itself.

As the youngest of five children in a working-class family from Marine Park, Brooklyn, Winter went with the flow during his teen years. He attended Grady High School, a technical school in the Brooklyn, and had no idea what he wanted to do for a career. His dream jobs ranged from rock star to astronaut. But he remembers a teacher, Lainie Gilbert, who saw promise in his writing and encouraged him to continue with short stories.

His first venture into business was after he graduated from high school. Winter went into partnership with his employer and helped turn around a failing deli in Mill Basin. But he had a falling out with the partners, who bought him out at the age of 19.

It was now Christmastime 1980. Winter sat in his small Brooklyn apartment, complete with the sad reality that comes with an orange shag carpet and bad paneling. He had to do something.  A Benjamin Franklin quote, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest,” steered him to college.

It seemed New York University was a popular school and a good place to start. He had not taken the SATs and the only way he figured he could enroll was to select an obscure major. So he chose Medieval Religion, which the only thing he knew about from that era was The Knights of the Round Table. He eventually settled on Political Science, History and Journalism classes.  Although NYU had a renowned institute of film and television, the idea of working in that field was far off his radar.

Besides attending college full time, Winter worked full time at night to support himself. He held various jobs during that period, including a position as security guard at the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn and delivering the New York Times in Mill Basin. During his last two years at NYU, he landed a job as a doorman on the Upper East Side, which allowed him to study and write his papers for school.

He was a doorman but he’d long had dreams of being the guy a doorman held the door for. As a teenager, he would wander around the Kings Plaza mall, specifically the upscale furniture department in Macy’s. This provided motivation to keep pushing forward. He believed the only two professions that would make money involved medical or legal.  Since being a doctor was out of the question, he opted for law school.  But a seed may have been planted as a journalism professor, Jerry Schwartz, wrote a letter of recommendation for Winter, but it also included a private note encouraging him to become a writer.

Winter enrolled in Saint John’s University Law School, graduating in 1988, but with an ever-growing pile of student debt. He went on to graduate, and pass the New York State and Connecticut Bar exams.

He landed a job in Merrill Lynch’s legal department in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. Winter was present for the stock market crash on October 19, 1987, ironically the same day that Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street) was laid off from L.F. Rothschild, down the street.

At that point, Winter was interested in an Assistant District Attorney job in Brooklyn. But being $75,000 in debt at this point, he opted for work at another law firm offering higher pay but a fairly certain road to boredom.

The dreary prospect made him ask himself, “What would you like to do?” The answer was screenwriting.  So, he sold everything and moved to Los Angeles, sight unseen.

The new, unfamiliar Los Angeles sparked creativity and drive. He finally had purpose and passion. He consumed every book on screenwriting and read every sitcom script he could find. In order to get in the game, a successful sitcom screenwriter needs to be able to write for a variety of characters. Winter wrote a sample episode, or “spec” of the show Home Improvement. He watched every episode and deconstructed them scene by scene in order to write a sample script. 

Sharpening his writing skills was one thing, making necessary connections another.  He found out that a law school classmate from St. John’s, Doug Viviano, was bonded as a Hollywood agent so he with Doug’s permission, created an agency under his name. 

Even with this new connection, Winter continued to feel the pressure of a ticking career clock.  He was 30 with nothing to show for it. He started taking his work to every production lot in LA, under the guise of a messenger from the Doug Viviano Agency. At least this way the scripts made it into the building and had a chance of being read.

Then one Friday afternoon, the phone for the Agency rang and an Executive Producer from the television show Fresh Prince of Bel Air was on the other end looking for Doug.  Since Doug was in New York and it was after hours, Winter pretended he was Doug and agreed to provide the Producer with another sample script, this one for The Wonder Years, working non-stop from Friday night through Tuesday, cranking out an episode. He fortunately received a call back and sold them on an idea.

The Fresh Prince opportunity didn’t go anywhere, but two of the show’s producers took notice of Winter and later hired him for the series “Sister, Sister,” a 1994 sitcom.  Around that time, Warner Brothers held a sitcom writer’s workshop, where only 15 candidates were selected out of a pool of over 2000. Winter was one of the 15 selected for this ten-week program that featured a different speaker every week to broaden the attendees’ scope.

Winter’s first staff job was on the Fox series The Great Defender, which starred Michael Rispoli, who later played the role of Jackie Aprile on the Sopranos. There was also another Sopranos connection when he met writer Frank Renzulli, who would later introduce him to Executive Producer David Chase. The Great Defender was a series about lawyers in a stuffy firm, which was right up Winter’s alley. This break supported the adage “write about what you know.”

It felt like his first real job and it ran for eight episodes. Winter couldn’t believe that he was getting paid to write scripts and he became an official member of the Writer’s Guild. At this point, he was saying “yes” to every screenwriting opportunity. Winter hired a new agent and began writing for the Eddie Murphy series The PJs.

In 1997, Winter’s agent provided him with a video for the pilot episode of a new series called The Sopranos, a crime drama television series revolving around a fictional New Jersey-based Italian-American mobster. He was actually trembling as he watched, thinking that this was the greatest thing that he had ever seen. Winter petitioned his friend Frank Renzulli to get him on the writing staff, but David Chase already had selected his first year writing staff, although Winter remained involved with the show by helping Renzulli edit episodes.

After Season One was over, David Chase had fired the first year writing staff, with the exception of Renzulli. Renzulli introduced Winter to Chase, who liked an episode that Winter wrote. Chase had made comparisons of The Sopranos series to the movies Goodfellas and Casino, which was a challenge that Winter was prepared to take on. His time with Chase on The Sopranos taught Winter everything about assembling and running a show, almost like an internship. He describes Chase as gracious, funny and one of his dearest friends.

One of the many things Winter enjoyed about working on The Sopranos was that they worked eight months and had four months off, during the show’s six successful seasons. The four-month layoff allowed him to write features and movie screenplays.

When The Sopranos acclaimed run ended in 2007, Winter continued to develop programs. He was able to schedule his next award-winning series, Boardwalk Empire, which had Martin Scorsese attached to it. The show was an American period crime drama set in Atlantic City, NJ during the Prohibition era.  The chance to work with Scorsese was hard to fathom.  Winter flashed back to the summer of 1976 when he and childhood friend, Bobby Canzoneri, saw Scorsese’s movie Taxi Driver 15 times. Little did he realize that 30 years later, he would be doing a show with Scorsese.

As they worked on the script, Winter and Scorsese both came to the same conclusion that the character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, was the epicenter of the show.  Scorsese worked into the plot that the Prohibition period was the birth of organized crime. 

This was a special time for Winter. Besides his writing and producing success he celebrated the birth of a son.  And he was working on the screenplay for Scorsese’s upcoming film The Wolf of Wall Street. Winter actually read the entire book (of what turned out to be a 179-minute movie) in one sitting, which was on a plane ride from Los Angeles to New York. Having worked on Wall Street himself as well as hustling at entrepreneurial opportunities early on, Winter understood this character well and found the protagonist hilariously insane.

Within three months, Winter had completed the Boardwalk Empire pilot as well as The Wolf of Wall Street screenplay. Then Martin Scorsese told Winter that he wanted him to direct the pilot episode of the new HBO show.  When the HBO executives found out, the text message response Winter received from them was simply “!!!!!!!!!” The show had a successful run of five seasons, winning 20 Emmy awards with 57 nominations.

And maybe, just maybe, Rockaway had something to do with that success.  Boardwalk Empire was a period piece with 1920s Atlantic City as its setting.  But the New Jersey town now has little to show from that period and the logistics of getting cast and crew back and forth to south Jersey was daunting.  Enter Rockaway and Fort Tilden.

The show’s production company was based in Brooklyn, which allowed access to the city’s talent pool. Eventually more than 20 episodes were filmed on the peninsula. The show used the bungalows in Far Rockaway for the early seasons where the character, Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder (played by Kelly Macdonald) lived. The post production crew was able to use computer generated imagery to erase the modern buildings in the background as well as recreate the old streets. The Belle Harbor Yacht club was used to refabricate the Temple University dormitory of Nucky’s nephew, Willie.  A large billboard advertising Atlantic City Real Estate could be seen in the dunes of Arverne east and the boardwalk in the Beach 40s was used for old storefront scenes.

Winter noted that besides the authenticity of Rockaway, there is a lot of unspoiled architecture throughout New York City that can be used for period pieces like Boardwalk Empire. He said it is easier to recreate the 1920’s versus the 1970s because very few rundown areas exist in New York City anymore. As a matter of fact, in the most recent series he’s involved with, Vinyl with Ray Romano, they needed to dump garbage on the set to recreate what the city looked like in the 70’s.

Vinyl was a long time in the making.  In 2008, Scorsese and Rolling Stone front man Mick Jagger were discussing a film depicting the Rock and Roll roller coaster ride which would cover the main character, 1970s Record Executive Richie Finestra, over a 40-year career. Due to the 2008 stock market crash, funding for the movie stalled. Winter’s wife and film producer, Rachel, suggested that the script be done as a television series, though that would have to wait until after Boardwalk Empire ended its run.

And again, Rockaway would make its way into a Winter production.  When a Hamptons-style mansion was needed, the Vinyl team made its way to the beachfront houses of Belle Harbor and Neponsit.  Its style goes beyond what New York looked like. Scorsese and Winter went about recreating the grittiness of the 70s by emulating cinematographic effects from films of that era. Besides filming techniques, the musical soundtrack adds to that overall effect.

Winter loved working with the actors on the three HBO series, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl. All of the actors and crew got along in a friendly and relaxed working environment. They had instituted a “no-asshole” policy to ensure checks and balances.

At the time of this article, Vinyl’s first season just completed. However, Winter has left the show due to creative differences.

Winter is excited about his upcoming project, which is a movie about the boxer Mike Tyson, and will be played by actor Jamie Foxx. No release date has been set since movies can have up to a five-year cycle from inception to release.

Winter’s partnerships with David Chase and Martin Scorsese aren’t the only ones he can boast about. Winter and his wife, Rachel, have each been nominated by the Academy Awards. Rachel and her fellow producers were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture for the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club. Winter was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Besides being a family man and his writing and producing duties, Winter finds time to support a number of charities. Among them are The Brotherhood-SisterSol, which provides comprehensive, holistic and long-term support services to youth who range in age from eight to 22 and Arts Connection, which provides innovative arts programming to millions of students in the New York City public school system.

Terence Winter surprised his friends and family by leaving it all behind to try his hand at screenwriting in Los Angeles. But he didn’t leave it all behind, of course. There are signs of the kid from East 37th Street, who summered at the Breezy Point Surf Club, in every script he writes.  And another good thing, there’s one less lawyer. Ba-da-bing!

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