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The Empire Strikes Back

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Ahead of the TV hit of the year’s second season, ShortList’s Jimi Famurewa spent the day with the cast and crew of Boardwalk Empire.

Reclining in a wood-panelled room on the sort of gigantic floral sofa your gran would favour, Boardwalk Empire star Michael Pitt is showing ShortList his knife skills. Thankfully though, we’re in a modern New York hotel rather than a sinister Twenties bordello, the bottles on the table contain mineral water instead of contraband bourbon, and the blade he’s jabbing between his fingers is entirely imaginary.

“I saw the [knife game] scene in the script so I asked to take it home for two weeks’ prep,” he explains. “I’d be in the kitchen banging this knife on the cutting board early in the morning and my girlfriend would come down and be like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing. It’s for work.’ I mean, I used a duller knife — I’m not crazy — but I caught myself a few times. It’s trial and error.”

Repeatedly stabbing yourself in the hand in the early hours for the sake of an acting role may sound a mite extreme, but Pitt (who plays tortured First World War soldier turned Mob enforcer Jimmy Darmody) isn’t the only member of the Boardwalk Empire team going above and beyond. During a long, coffee-heavy day in the company of the cast and crew, we encounter tales of trick-shot lessons with world pool champions, intense gun-training sessions, Forrest Gump-style apparatus (Pitt admits he straps a brace to his leg to achieve his character’s trademark limp) and the sort of book-cracking historical research that would shame a Mastermind contestant.

Vincent Piazza, who plays real-life gangster Lucky Luciano, knew his character’s history so well that he was directly responsible for an uncomfortable doctor’s office scene in Season 1 — “I remembered that he caught the clap to get out of serving in the First World War, so I told [creator and writer] Terry Winter,” laughs Piazza. The Wire star Michael K Williams (once stick-up legend Omar but now bootlegger Chalky White) was so keen to find out about the boxer on which his alter ego was originally based he ended up quizzing Mike Tyson about him.

So it’s clear that the crew behind this bloody prohibition saga are committed to their work. And the approach seems to be paying off. With a £13m pilot directed by Martin Scorsese (who we’ll come to later), Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire earned HBO an Emmy award and its biggest US ratings debut in six years. Steve Buscemi snagged a Golden Globe for his portrayal of crooked Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson, and the show was lavished with perfume-scented love letters from awestruck critics.

But there were still some dissenting voices. Snipey bloggers branded the slow-burn drama ‘Bored Walk’, while the New Statesman claimed that it didn’t live up to the hype. Have they responded to these small but persistent pockets of criticism?

“A lot of my friends did say, ‘Oh, it’s a bit slow at first, but once you get into it it’s great,’” admits Stephen Graham, who returns as a young and impressively un-Liverpudlian Al Capone. “But I think that a lot of television is dumbed-down. They treat the audience like idiots. [This year] the show’s found its feet, the characters have evolved and it’s not apologising for anything any more. It’s a big f*ck-off monster.”

BLOOD AND BOOTLEGGING

Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire broadly focuses on a secret plot against Nucky, led by his one-time protégé Jimmy. Or, as Buscemi — still weary after wrapping filming late last night — puts it: “This season there’s a different set of people that are after him and trying to squeeze him out.” And the sentiment that this year’s episodes hook you right from the start is echoed by other members of the cast.

“There’s definitely a different atmosphere [this year],” says Williams from the edge of another gargantuan hotel settee. “But like The Wire, it’s similar to a good book. You may need to read a few chapters, but after that it’s a runaway train.”

Listening to what the audience wanted also shaped the tweaks for Season 2. A pair of characters to whom viewers gave a resounding thumbs up — Williams’ Chalky and Richard Harrow, the tin-masked sniper played by Jack Huston — have had their roles expanded.

“We try to ignore what the audience wants and do what we think is the best show,” reasons creator and former Sopranos writer Winter. “But they really responded to Chalky and Richard, who were both characters we wanted to spend more time with.” Elsewhere the grasping struggle for power leads to blood flowing as freely as bootlegged booze, and although there are flashes of black humour (Jimmy to Nucky at a Ku Klux Klan funeral: “What a waste of good tablecloths”), a large chunk of the team characterise this season as darker. Are there shock deaths on the way?

“It’s a gangster show, so everything is on the table. I’ll even kill Al Capone,” Winter chuckles. “Nah, that I won’t do. But anything can happen.”

“No one’s safe,” smiles Shea Whigham, who plays Sheriff Eli Thompson, a man still nursing a bullet wound from last year. “It’s like a high wire without a net. After I got shot [last season], I was taken outside to this outhouse by Terry [Winter] and the other writers and he said, ‘Look, you’re going to be all right.’ I swear I nearly broke down. It was like he was The Godfather.”

But for all the visceral bursts of violence on screen, there was plenty of fun when the cameras were switched off. “Mike Pitt and me have become very close,” says Graham. “He’s like a little brother. He came over to England when I was doing Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and I had a day off… Do you know what? I’m not going to lie, I was in the next day [laughs]. Me and a couple of my mates went out and got him absolutely wasted. A proper session. I saw him the next day and he was like, ‘F*ck, man. I don’t know how you English do it, but you can drink.’”

Later we relay this story to Pitt and he shakes his head ruefully. “That was rough. The last image I have of him [Graham, after that night] was me putting him in a van so he could go to work on Pirates. I was like, ‘Don’t worry, man, pirates are drunk all the time, right?’”

MAIN ATTRACTION

Away from the grim examination of the Mob’s murky beginnings, there’s still plenty of meticulously recreated period detail to admire in the new season. Almost every cast member talks about the showpiece main set — a 300ft-long purpose-built stretch of boardwalk that cost £3m — with wide-eyed wonder. But there’s a fair bit of creative trickery at play.

“We actually wanted the boardwalk to be about 30ft or 40ft bigger, but we had to pull back because it was hugely expensive,” admits Winter. “We also can’t afford to have extras in period haircuts and costume for every scene, so we’ll have 100 and do digital duplication.”

And although the dapper Twenties touches look incredible, they’re not always fun. “Those shirts are constricting,” complains Williams. “Plus you’ve got suspenders, garters on your socks, collars that have to be buttoned on, cuff links… After this show, I kind of know what women go through.”

Graham reveals vintage automobiles are so tricky to handle that he was “smacking perfect old cars into walls” in one episode. And Vincent Piazza says the chain-smoking can take its toll. “In the pilot we were smoking real, unfiltered cigarettes instead of the herbal ones we normally use,” he says. “Which is fine until Marty Scorsese does, like, 50 takes and you’re nearly dead.”

That brings us to the bushy-browed executive producer on everybody’s lips. Scorsese (described by Piazza as “a divining rod for on-set tension”) didn’t have room in his schedule to direct an episode this year, but he’s still heavily involved.

“He reads all the scripts and gives me notes on them, watches the dailies and advises on how the episodes are cut,” explains Winter. “He’s great for pacing and the way people speak. [Marty] always says, ‘Nucky is smarter than everyone else around him. He thinks faster, he talks faster and he probably knows what you’re going to say while you’re saying it and overlaps.’ [Scorsese] is obviously such a master storyteller, so his guidance in that sense is really important to us. And his memory is just impeccable. I showed him a slightly different cut of an episode 12 weeks after he’d first seen it and he still called me up and said, ‘Why did you change that?’ I didn’t even remember we’d done it.”

Winter hopes that Scorsese will be back in the director’s chair next time out, but there’s some mystery as to whether Season 3 has been confirmed or not. Graham lets slip that he expects to be back filming in February, but Winter cagily says that nothing is confirmed. That said, how long does he see the show running?

“Well, the real Nucky was in power until the Forties,” says Winter. “The guy ran that city for decades. In terms of exploring the Twenties, we could take it to the stock market crash and the end of prohibition in 1933. But I certainly think there are a lot of stories to tell, we love the show and I hope there are several more seasons to build these characters.”

With a storming second season, a decade-hopping blueprint for the future in place and an Oscar-winning director at the wheel, it doesn’t look like Boardwalk Empire is going anywhere soon. And that’s good news for discerning television-watchers — but possibly not for Michael Pitt’s fingers.

Boardwalk Empire Season 2 starts on 8 October at 9pm on Sky Atlantic HD

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