Q and A

Insight Timothy Van Patten

Of Prohibition and Posterity: Keeping History Alive on Boardwalk Empire

Published on website: March 19, 2013
Categories: Television , Q and A
L-R Timothy Van Patten discusses a scene with Shea Whigham. ( photo: Macall B. Polay / HBO)
Kelly Macdonald and Steve Buscemi star in Boardwalk Empire. ( photo: Macall B. Polay / HBO)

Actor. Writer. Director. Producer. There isn’t much that Timothy Van Patten can’t do. After getting his start in front of the camera on The White Shadow (1978), Van Patten went on to appear in a number of films and television shows, including The Master and True Blue.

In 1992, the Brooklyn native earned his first off-screen credit for directing an episode of Home Fires. Since then, Van Patten has become a fixture of the small screen, directing hit shows like Sex and the City and The Wire. He cut his teeth producing on Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ miniseries The Pacific. And his work on The Sopranos earned him five EMMY® nominations.

Today, Van Patten is the executive producer and oft-director of Boardwalk Empire. Here, Van Patten talks about the Prohibition-set hit, how to find beauty in violence, and the discipline film requires.

It’s almost become a cliché to talk about film’s ‘cinematic’ look, but it really seems the most appropriate way to describe Boardwalk Empire. While there’s a consistency to the look, it also changes with each episode. How do you work with your cinematographer to match the story to the visuals?
In the best case scenario, we do have conversations before every episode begins. And this dates back to the first episode, when Jonathan Freeman (ASC) was our lead DP. We shaped the series through referencing art, photography and other films. As the episodes went on, we tried to attach a look to the theme of the episode — and yet stay within the overall theme for the series.

Television moves fast, so it’s challenging. You don’t always have the luxury of time to find the subtle nuances. But we really make our best attempt to do so and it’s thrilling when it comes off.

From a visual standpoint, the show’s recent season finale really stood out. There’s a lot of violence in the episode but, like Raging Bull, the violence is beautiful to watch. Was there a specific reference for that episode?
Yes. That episode was shot by Bill Coleman, who came up as an operator; I worked with him on The Sopranos for many seasons. He’s been a DP for two seasons now and the level of work he’s doing is astounding.

We had a very quick turnaround for that episode and had to think fast. So when it came to the montage of violence, I thought, I’m going to throw the kitchen sink at this thing! It’s going to be Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill; I’m going to reference Raoul Walsh’s old gangster pictures of the ‘30s and, of course, we always reference Marty Scorsese’s movies. I wanted to really make it cinematic.

There was a ton of work to do in a short amount of time, so a lot of those montage pieces were shot from the hip. We’d literally say, ‘Get me five bad guys, get me this character, let’s go over to this alley and have them go by in two cars and spray bullets … at magic hour!’ The crew reacts so quickly and so efficiently that we can pull it together, and film’s latitude allows us all to work speedily.

Why is it important for you to shoot Boardwalk Empire on film?
I feel like Boardwalk Empire is sort of a throwback in the way it is presented. With digital, it sometimes feels like there’s too much information on the screen. With film, we can control the image much more. It just feels much more personal.

What’s the biggest misconception about shooting on film?
I think it boils down to the budget. Digital is faster and cheaper and that’s not always a good thing. We can move around quickly and do multiple takes and never cut, but that has its downside as well. There’s a lot of discipline in film.

Why is it important for you to know the images you create will be viable decades from now?
It’s cultural. You look back at films. It’s history!

As much as audiences might hate it, it’s always impressive when a show isn’t afraid to kill off a central character. Even in a show that takes place in a world of violence, is it difficult to make those decisions?
We fall in love with these cast members, but the story wants what it wants, and we can’t just hold on to an actor because we like him or her. Sometimes it’s necessary to kill one off. We just go with the story.

Of all the characters you’ve ever killed off, who has been the toughest?
Adriana on The Sopranos. The day we did that, it was absolutely reverential. No one could deal with the fact that our beloved friend — and a beloved character — wasn’t going to be there anymore.

Anything you can tell us about Boardwalk’s upcoming season?
There’s going to be a heavy body count!