Having just wrapped the successful five-season run of “Boardwalk Empire” — and having been onboard for the finish of “The Sopranos” — producer Terence Winter is clearly an expert at telling the end of a story. His own Hollywood tale got off to a challenging start, when he gave up a successful career as a lawyer. But he eventually landed a place in Warners’ TV writers workshop — and his first mention in Variety.
Do you remember seeing this mention in Variety?
Very well. If nothing else, it’s hard evidence that for a very brief fleeting moment I was in show business. It’s something I’d been working so hard for. I’d devoted my whole life to that single moment, and to see it in print was surreal. We had a 7-Eleven by my house, and I ran out and bought probably like 10 copies.
How did you get into the workshop?
It was absolutely a blessing. It’s one of the few programs in Hollywood that offers a conduit for emerging writers. And suddenly agents are calling you. For me, it made all the difference. Until that point, I’d been writing spec scripts that would come back in the mail unopened. The first year I applied and was rejected. The second year I applied again, and they misplaced my file, and said I would have been accepted had they read it, so try again next year. And the third year, I got in. Coming out of the program, I got hired into “The Great Defender.” That’s where I met Frank Renzulli, who later introduced me to David Chase, who hired me on “The Sopranos.” That wouldn’t have happened if I’d gotten into the workshop the second year.
What did you learn from the workshop?
Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. It tried to create a writer’s room experience. On night one, they went around the room and said, tell an embarrassing story about yourself. It was very clear that the people who were willing to open up their veins and really put their stories out there were the ones who were going to survive the writer’s room. The people who clammed up and didn’t want to share their stupid moments … well, that’s what TV shows are made of.
Do you remember the embarrassing story you told about yourself?
Yes, I do. It had to do with playing in the bathtub with a plastic army tank when I was 3 years old. I was playing in the bathtub with a plastic army tank that came apart. I stuck my penis in the top part of the tank and it got stuck in there and I freaked out. I jumped up out the tub and went running through the house with the army tank hanging from me, and my mother had absolutely no idea what to do. My older brother had to hold me down and forcibly remove it. Now to this day when I see a World War II movie I get strangely aroused.
What was the best thing about that time in your life?
It was exhilarating. I had finally admitted to myself that I wanted to be a writer three years earlier. I had given up a career as a lawyer. Finally I found the real version of who I was. This was the vindication of this. I was right. I thought I could do it, and tried to do it and someone agreed with me enough to give me a job.
What was the most frustrating thing during that time in your life?
I was ancient at the time: I was 33. And that wasn’t fun. I had no money. I’d made a huge bet. I’d walked away from a very comfortable career at a New York law firm to do something that was so uncertain, and would have made a very good living — a very respectable living if there were any respectable lawyers.
If you could go back to that time, is there anything that you would do differently?
I truly wouldn’t have. I was like a monk who breathed, drank and ate making my writing career happen. If I could have done anything differently, I would n’t have even come out to Hollywood earlier. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have wasted those years being a lawyer. But it sort of all adds up to who you are. I think it worked out pretty well.