The Five Spot: Terence Winter

Despite a career as a lawyer in New York, Terence Winter finally embraced his life’s passion of becoming a writer and moved to Los Angeles in his late 20s. Winter landed a spot in the Warner Bros. Sitcom Writers’ Workshop, and at the end of the program scored a job writing for the short-lived Fox series The Great Defender. Winter went on to executive produce and write for The Sopranos, followed by Boardwalk Empire as a creator, executive producer and writer. For HBO’s Vinyl, premiering Feb. 14, Winter has teamed up once again with Martin Scorsese, with whom he worked on Boardwalk and The Wolf of Wall Street, and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Set in 1970s New York City, Vinyl follows Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a man trying to save his record label during the birth of disco, punk and hip-hop. An edited version of Winter’s conversation with B&C contributing editor Luke McCord follows.

Why did you decide to leave law and pursue a career in writing?

TV writing, in particular, was my deep dark secret ambition, and the truth is I just didn’t have the courage to pursue it. It just felt like, coming where I came from in a fairly blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn, people didn’t grow up to go to Hollywood and become writers. For me, becoming a lawyer was a great achievement. It sounded like a really important, stable job. But the problem was I hated it, and I wasn’t very good at it accordingly. It wasn’t until I got into my late 20s that I started confronting the idea that I might never pursue the thing that I really in my heart knew I wanted to do.

What drew you to making Vinyl and creating a show set in the 1970s New York music scene?

Martin Scorsese asked. That was all the encouragement I needed.… He called in 2007 and said, “I have this feature film project I’m doing set in the world of rock ’n’ roll, and I’m doing it with Mick Jagger. Do you want to be a part of that?” And I was like, ‘Yeah, actually I do.’ Working with Martin Scorsese was the biggest thrill of my life. He truly was the reason I got interested in film in the first place, after I saw Taxi Driver. Adding Mick Jagger into the mix, I had to pinch myself. Literally the first album I ever bought was Goats Head Soup by The Rolling Stones, released in 1973, the year that our series is set.

How involved were Scorsese and Jagger in the project?

Well, both were very involved. This is subject matter that’s near and dear to both of their hearts. By the time I came aboard, they were already working on this thing for 11 years, so I came way late to the party. And then it took us another nine years to get it actually to where it’s going to be on TV.

How has growing up in Brooklyn informed your writing?

I’m very comfortable writing guys like Richie Finestra. Richie is sort of an alpha, a loud, funny, brash male character. I knew a dozen Richie Finestras growing up, and I still do and many of them are my friends.

Do you think fans from your pervious shows will enjoy this?

I think it’s got certain commonalities with Boardwalk Empire, with The Sopranos in some ways, with Wolf of Wall Street in the sense of it’s sort of New York-based. It’s big, brash, loud, funny, aggressive characters under pressure. The tone is similar in a lot of ways. If you like those things, I’m pretty sure you’ll like this.