BROOKLYN, N.Y. - The benches face the ocean. The ocean!
Unlike on the real Atlantic City Boardwalk, where any bum can tell you the benches face inward, idiosyncratically skewing the view toward people, not sea foam, the benches on the set of HBO's new 1920s Atlantic City drama, Boardwalk Empire, face the ocean.
Why? Because Marty - that would be Martin Scorsese, it's his baby, he directed the pilot - wanted them that way.
"Martin Scorsese preferred them facing out," said production designer Bob Shaw, who added that he was puzzled that the real place did not do more to "optimize" the oceanfront location.
And so the benches face the ocean, or, more precisely, toward a stack of ocean-blue railway containers onto which the Atlantic - at least the part that runs by Rockaway, Queens - will be digitally projected.
Yes, we have traveled from the real Atlantic City by bus and jitney (the Hamptons kind, not the Pacific Avenue kind) to an outdoor studio lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (with a view over the East River of the Empire State Building), with a gaggle of TV critics to see how HBO has replicated the landmark.
The series will debut in 2010 with 12 episodes. It was created by Sopranos veteran writer and producer Terence Winter after HBO optioned a book by the same name written by an Atlantic County judge, Nelson Johnson. It has another Sopranos guy, Emmy-winning Tim Van Patten, directing and producing.
Boardwalk Empire will feature Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a fictionalized character based on the real-life Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the master glad-hander who oversaw both politics and organized crime from his ninth-story perch in the Ritz-Carlton during the glory years of Atlantic City's notorious not-in-our-town Prohibition era, when firemen helped unload the illegal liquor from boats.
"He was the guy who really ran everything," said Winter. "He was the guy without whom nothing moved in Atlantic City." The series will also feature organized crime figures like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, Dabney Coleman as Commodore Louis Kaestner, based on another Atlantic City political heavyweight, and Michael Kenneth Williams - Omar Little on The Wire - as Chalky White, the de facto mayor of the black community, which made up nearly the entire hotel labor force then. Gretchen Mol plays a showgirl. The Miss A Pageant, begun in this era, may make a cameo.
On Monday, Buscemi could be seen on the HBO Boardwalk set - about a block long - schmoozing a couple in a brown wicker rolling chair, lots of flapperish dapper dans as extras, one lady crossing the Boardwalk for a bit of taffy from Fralinger's, passing over an inexplicable parallel-planked median strip of sorts, an HBO oddity not seen in real A.C.
And speaking of weirdness, HBO's version of the famed Steel Pier (Winter quipped it would be called the Tin Pier due to budget constraints) was built so it runs straight across the Boardwalk, perpendicular to the other buildings, like a dead end.
Ah, but we quibble. The great digital fill-in technology will make it all moot, and add several stories behind all the buildings anyway, and multiply the crowds on the Boardwalk, especially, Winter said, for the epic scene on the night Prohibition begins, in the pilot.
And so we will just briefly mention that if you pay attention to how the building numbers go on HBO's set (1503 is Abe Klein's Delicatessen on the corner, with an "Olive Mayannaise Sandwich" for 10 cents, just past Babette's Supper Club at 1505, down the block from the cool '20s oddity of the Baby Incubator Hospital and the Canton Tea Parlor-Chop Suey shop, and across from Silver's Baths, closed for the season), you'd be walking northeast in Atlantic City, from Kentucky to New York Avenues, and so the ocean on the HBO set would be - how do we break the news? - on the wrong side.
But we move on. That's why it's television.
Winter said they weighed filming in Atlantic City or Asbury Park, but that tax breaks were 35 percent in New York, compared with 20 percent in Jersey. Not to mention, Van Patten said, that "there's not much left on the Boardwalk that would suit us."
Added Winter, "As far as the ocean, buildings by the ocean, we found that stuff in Rockaway." Ouch.
Winter and other HBO execs took pains to say that the series is fiction, their Boardwalk set an amalgam of "our favorite buildings schmooshed together" and not a literal re-creation. The book whose rights were optioned by HBO - Boardwalk Empire by State Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson, published by Plexus Publishing - was only a starting-off point, they said. No word on whether Johnson will be in the credits.
But you can see what caught their eye in the book, which combines characters like Nucky Johnson (described as a "decadent monarch" who rose at 3 p.m. and indulged in the services of a personal valet) with historic analysis and pithy observations: "Everybody knew the resort was a sanctuary for out-of-town whores."
Winter said his Nucky Thompson had plenty in common with his Tony Soprano, except that Nucky worked openly with both organized crime figures and elected officials. Other than an ocean view, South Jersey did not differ much from North.
Prohibition gave them something akin to the drug dealing of the modern era, Winter said, and there was no shortage of organized crime figures floating around Johnson/Thompson. "Nucky straddled two different worlds," he said. Winter considered focusing on 1950s Atlantic City, where another seaside resort impresario, Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, also walked a fine line between politician and mobster in the Rat Pack era (and had a nifty murder take place in the basement of his Ventnor home, to boot), but the idea felt like "Tony's Dad's show."
Shaw, the production designer, noted with astonishment that in A.C. itself, one of the only surviving hotels from that era, the Dennis Hotel, had been painted bright colors to blend in with its neighbor, the Hollywood-faux western facade of Bally's Wild Wild West, blurring any real authenticity. The Ritz itself, where the real Nucky Johnson lived and held court, is still standing at Belmont Avenue on the Boardwalk, but there's a Burger King on the ground floor. (But also a fudge shop, dating to 1910.) It is now the Ritz Condominiums.
Its "fairly generic" brick architecture was too plain for Shaw; he modeled HBO's Ritz on more fanciful erstwhile Boardwalk landmarks like the Spanish-Moorish-styled Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel or the Traymore, famously shown imploding at the beginning of Louis Malle's film Atlantic City.
On the jitney over, HBO showed a time-lapse video of the Boardwalk construction project, which made it look like the implosion in reverse. In any case, the HBO Boardwalk sustained much less damage during this week's nor'easter than the real one. That's showbiz.