“You want to be what? You can’t do that!”
Some of you may have had a discussion that went something like that before. Though well-intentioned, what they’re REALLY saying is, “I can’t do that!”
Maybe they can’t, but maybe you can.
I had the opportunity of interviewing someone whose whole future was predicated on that; one of my mom’s former students, Terence Winter.
If you need motivation, he is the living essence of it.
Meet Terence Winter. The executive producer and writer of the Sopranos. [Update: He’s also the series creator of Boardwalk Empire on HBO, and the writer for the upcoming movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. In question #21, Terence talks about The Wolf of Wall Street.]
Me and Tony Soprano. (Headphones are so we could listen to what they’re saying during filming.)
1. Why am I lucky enough to be in a position to interview you and do fun things like visit the set of the Sopranos? [Update: he also invited us to the set of Board Walk Empire. Post coming soon!]
Your mom made a major impact on me. She may not know it or fully believe it – in some ways she may feel she was just doing her job as a high school English teacher, but the fact that I had the good fortune to be her student was a major factor in my future success. I have a theory that there are maybe 4 or 5 people in each of our lives, who depending upon their opinions and whether or not they encourage you in your formative years, can have a tremendous impact in shaping the direction you take in life.
Usually that group of 4-5 are comprised of some combination of parents, siblings, friends and/or teachers. If you get the wrong combination of people – relentlessly negative, fearful, constantly pissing on your dreams, etc. — it can crush your spirit and lead to your not believing in yourself or not taking chances in life. If you get the right combo – people who encourage you, believe in you, etc. – it can make all the difference in the world.
My mom, just a bit starstruck, with James Gandolfini.
The fact that your mom let me know that she thought I had merit and talent made all the difference when I reached a point in my life a few years later when I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to even go to college or whether or not I actually belonged there. But in my moment of doubt, I remembered that your mom thought I could do it and her belief in me got me to believe in myself.
Terence Winter and my mom
2. What was your biggest dream as a kid?
Because I liked to build things, I started out wanting to be one of Santa’s elves; when that dream was dashed, I moved on to professional boxer, then becoming a rock star.
My bro-in-law looking very much the part
3. What did you do right after high school until you decided to take the leap of faith and move out to California?
Right after high school I was co-owner of a delicatessen in Brooklyn. That didn’t work out for me and at 19 years old I enrolled at NYU full time while simultaneously working full time at night to support myself. I drove a cab, was a hospital security guard, I delivered 400 New York Times’ every morning 7 days a week for over a year straight (at 4 a.m.), I managed a paint store, and finally, during the last two years of college was the midnight to 8 a.m. doorman at an apartment building on the upper east side of Manhattan.
After college I went to St. John’s School of Law, also working my way through by working in the Merrill Lynch legal department during the day. After graduating and passing the New York bar, I practiced law for 2 years and was so miserable that I did some soul-searching. I decided that what I really wanted to do was write, so I packed up and moved to Los Angeles.
Silvio, and Bobby ‘Bacala’
4. When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
I think I always knew it in my heart but didn’t have the balls to admit it to myself or pursue it seriously until I was 29.
5. My mom talks about how you said all you wanted to do was to make a lot of money and then when you were a lawyer (making a lot of money) you realized you hated it and that’s not what you were after. Can you please explain?
I grew up in a working class family in Brooklyn with 5 kids being raised by a widowed mom. We weren’t poor exactly, but I didn’t really have nice things and wanted them and that meant I had to make a lot of money. It seemed to me that everyone hated their job, so I decided that I’d rather hate my job as a rich lawyer than hate my job as a poor auto mechanic. Money was my sole motivation – the idea of “loving what I do” wasn’t even a concept I could grasp. Love work? Huh?
6. So you move out to California and what did you do from there?
First thing I did was take a day job as a paralegal, which was a big step down from being a lawyer, but the hours were steady (9-5) and it paid enough for me to survive while still leaving my nights free for writing. At this point I had never written a script and started from scratch teaching myself screen writing. I became a student of TV and film, reading scripts, watching movies, taking notes constantly. I also read every script and book on screen writing I could get my hands on. And I wrote. Then wrote some more. And some more. Every day.
7. How did you promote yourself? How did people find out about Terence Winter?
I got on the phone, cold-called agents, sent my scripts out to anyone who would agree to read them.
8. Can you elaborate on some of your lowest days, times where you were saying what did I do? Or times when you know that if you could push through you’d be on the right path?
I came very close to getting hired as a TV writer many times before my first break and it was tremendously painful each time it wouldn’t work out. I was so sick of hearing how talented I was, but we just hired someone on our writing staff, blah, blah, blah, etc. I used to fear that I’d go down in history as being the one really talented writer who somehow never got that break.
Eventually I came to realize that allowing myself to dwell on these near misses was a waste of time – I decided to allow myself exactly one day of self pity when things went wrong, then get back on the horse. I kept telling myself that if I hadn’t made it yet, it must be because I wasn’t working hard enough, so I worked harder. Each new rejection only strengthened my resolve – I refused to consider failure as an option.
A.J. Soprano’s bed
9. What was your first big break?
I was accepted into the Warner Bros. Sitcom Writer’s Workshop (they now have one for drama writers also), a high-profile, yearly 10-week program that allows writers access to show runners who can potentially hire them. Two veteran TV writer/producers (George Schenck & Frank Cardea) had created a new show with a writer named Frank Renzulli called “The Great Defender” about a blue collar lawyer who goes to work for a stuffy law firm. I was hired on staff and that became my first TV writing job.
10. When did you realize that you your decision to become a writer was the best choice you have ever made?
When I realized I would make more money than I ever dreamed about making as a lawyer and yet it felt like I didn’t even have a job.
11. Do you ever get star struck?
One time only. Muhammad Ali.
12. How did you get on the Sopranos?
I had been working on an animated sitcom called “The PJs” and just wrote the first draft of “Brooklyn Rules” when I saw “The Sopranos” pilot. I called my friend Frank Renzulli (from The Great Defender) who had already met with and been hired by David Chase. Frank gave David the script for “Brooklyn Rules” and David hired me on the show as well, at the beginning of Season 2.
Sitting at the desk in “Bada Bing”
13. As one of the main writers, executive producer, master minds etc., of the Sopranos did you ever think that the show was going to become one of the most popular shows in T.V. history?
By the time I joined the show in Season 2, it was already a huge hit — but when I first saw the pilot a year earlier, I knew right away that this was something special. That said, I’m not sure I could have predicted it would become the monster hit that it became.
14. Will there ever be a Sopranos movie?
I don’t think so, but I’d never say never.
Walking down the stairs Tony Soprano has walked down hundreds of times in his robe. (BTW, those stairs don’t lead anywhere. The set is all one floor.)
15. 3 things that most people don’t know about the Sopranos. The cooler the better.
1) None of our characters has ever said “Fuggedaboutit”.
2) Steven Van Zandt (Silvio) came very close to being cast as Tony Soprano.
3) HBO wanted the show to be called “Family Man”, but finally relented and let David Chase call it The Sopranos when “Family Guy” came on the air.
16. How did it feel when you won your first Emmy? Do you remember it? How about the other two?
I was absolutely stunned – I had been nominated twice before for writing (Pine Barrens; Eloise) and sort of got used to losing. When I heard my name everything went into slow motion. I was so stunned I even forgot to kiss Sharon Stone, who handed me the statue. The second win came later that night when the show won Best Drama (and I got another Emmy as one of the shows producers) and that was hugely satisfying because the entire cast and crew were recognized for their terrific work. The second writing Emmy last year absolutely blew me away – I told my family not to come to the ceremony because I couldn’t imagine ever winning twice. When I heard my name I was terrified, because I really hadn’t prepared a speech.
17. I love when my mom tells me about your new projects. She told me that you’ll be writing 50 Cent’s movie. I know he recruited you to write his movie. How did that go? What did you learn from the experience?
The writing of the script was terrific – 50 couldn’t have been nicer or a better collaborator. He gave me full access to his life, told me everything I wanted to know and I even went on tour with him. The project soured for me when Jim Sheridan was brought on board to direct and essentially gutted my script, rewriting something I was at one time very proud of. The results of Jim’s efforts are what you now see on screen – which is a shame, because this could have been a really great movie.
Tony and Carmela’s bed
18. Your new movie Brooklyn Rules is set to come out May 18th and is already getting rave reviews! What is this movie about?
The movie is a semi-autobiographical story about me and my two best friends growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s. When one of the three friends flirts with joining the mob, it tests the loyalty of all three to each other.
19. Who is in it? How was it working with them?
The film stars Alec Baldwin, Freddie Prinze Jr., Scott Caan, Jerry Ferrara and Mena Suvari, all of whom were great to work with. Freddie was especially interesting because I had only known him as a teen idol type heart-throb – he’s actually very deep and a terrific actor.
20. I can’t imagine this movie not doing well. You are a brilliant writer. Any hopes or predictions?
From your mouth to God’s ears. It’ll be tough, however, given the very limited exposure the film will get initially. We’re only opening on 7 screens total at first. I’m just thankful that people will have the chance to see it. Michael Corrente did a terrific job directing and we’re both really proud of the film.
My family in the kitchen
21. I was so excited for you when I heard about the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorcese. When is that set to come out, and how does it feel to be working with two of the biggest stars in Hollywood?
It’s a dream come true. Watching Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” was the first time I ever realized movies could be art and I’ve been a MAJOR fan ever since. I’m in the process of writing the script for the project we’re working on, called “The Wolf of Wall Street”. With any luck, it will be out in about two years.
[Update: One of the reasons why it took so long for this movie to happen (even though Terence wrote the script over 6 years ago) is because of the Bernie Madoff fraud. Jordan Belfort’s 200 million dollar scheme paled in comparison.]
22. Where can we see your new movie?
Check Moviefone.com for listings. It opens in limited release on May 18th.
23. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you were hoping I would?
24. I’m a sucker for wisdom, especially from people who are at the top of their game. What is the number one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to make it big in their respective field?
Work harder than everyone else.
Tony and Silvio (see far right of pic) shooting a scene in Artie’s restaurant
25. What is one thing you wish you knew way back that you now know?
I wish I had the courage to completely believe in myself at an earlier age.
26. As you are completely self made (nothing better in my opinion) do you ever look in the mirror and say “holy shit” or pinch yourself or just thank your lucky stars? You have won 3 Emmy’s already and obviously are now one of the best, if not the best, in the world at what you do.
I try to not waste too much time congratulating myself or resting on my laurels – there’s too much else I want to accomplish. That said, it is important to stop and smell the roses occasionally.
27. What is the coolest thing about being Terence Winter? What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I get to make 10 million people laugh, cry or gasp at the same time.
James Gandolfini is a really nice guy
28. What is the purpose of life?
Call me when I’m on my death bed. I’ll let you know.
29. I’ll never forget in 5th grade when you first reached out to my mom and you were writing for the Bill Cosby murder series. You told her to make sure to watch a certain episode and I remember telling all of my friends to watch as well and Lainey Gilbert was a character’s name in the show.
What are the chances of an Adam Gilbert becoming a character in one of your future projects or better yet making an appearance as an extra? Or getting Mr. Tony Soprano himself to go on the MyBodyTutor.com program?
[You can read about that call here.]
Adam Gilbert as an extra or character I can definitely make happen. Tony Soprano on MyBodyTutor? Probably not.
Terry, your story is incredibly inspiring and incredibly motivating. Learning about one of the main guys behind the Sopranos and “Brooklyn Rules” is absolutely amazing and a real treat for everyone!
My pleasure. Thanks for spreading the word about “Brooklyn Rules“.
I truly want to thank you again from the bottom of my heart for making my mom’s life complete. She is so grateful for you speaking to her classes. And then you speaking at her retirement party was absolutely amazing. That was the best retirement gift anyone could have ever gotten!
I’d do anything for your mom.
Make sure to look out for Terence Winter’s name as the writer this Sunday night for the Sopranos and be sure to go see his new movie “Brooklyn Rules” out today!
Some reviews of “Brooklyn Rules”:
“This was the best film of the season!”
“This film will take its place among ‘SCARFACE’, ‘GODFATHER’, ‘GOODFELLAS’, ‘HOUSEHOLD SAINTS’, ‘MEAN STREETS’, ‘THE DEPARTED’, etc. but only time will tell…Best thing in the movie was the fu – – dog thing. Dogs work in a lot of films, ‘PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK’, ‘AS GOOD AS IT GETS’, ‘MEET THE FOCKERS’, but I think this is the first time a significant dog has appeared in a significant mob gangsta movie…”
“A well made, well written, well acted, well crafted film! It was worth it just for the bridge shots and the cinematography. This movie is why movies in movie theaters must live on!”
“Best thing from Brooklyn since ‘SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER’.”
“Fabulous! Better than ‘GOODFELLAS’.”
“’ENTOURAGE,’ Brooklyn style.”
So you can’t do what? Says who?