“I’d come into this business with a really, really strong work ethic,” Terence Winter says. The creator of Boardwalk Empire, Emmy-winning writer on The Sopranos and Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Wolf of Wall Street, knows what it means to put your nose to the grindstone -- or rather, pen to the grindstone. To prove his worth in order to snag a job on The Sopranos, Winter would wake up at 3:30 every morning to write before he’d go to a full-time day of writing on a different show. As he explains, “Just based on a life of working my way through college, working my way through law school, working as a lawyer, so the idea of getting up at 3:30 in the morning to get something that I wanted [The Sopranos] was fine… I’d do it again, I’d do it to this day.”
Work ethic, writing what you know, and the importance of naps are among the writing tips Winter discusses during his visit to Yale Podcast Network’s To Live a Dialogue in LA. In honor of The Sopranos 20th anniversary, here are some excerpts from that episode.
1. Appreciate Acting in Order to Write Better Characters
“When I started writing, someone had recommended that I take an acting class,” Winter remembers. “Not because I wanted to be an actor but they said it’s really helpful for a writer to walk in an actor’s shoes to sort of understand what you’re asking of an actor.” Winter goes on, throwing in a joke, “I learned a lot -- mostly that I can’t act…” But the experience, nonetheless, informed his writing. It also gave him fodder for future creative ideas: “[David Chase and I] talked about Christopher [from The Sopranos] taking an acting class,” Winter says, “And that became part of the first episode I ever wrote.”
2. Let Your Background Inform Your Writing
Winter can appreciate his luck in landing his job at The Sopranos. But it also took a lot of hard work, as he mentions above in his thoughts on work ethic. What helped was his background -- he knew that Sopranos world. He grew up with those type of people. He could relate. “Part of the job of any TV writer is to mimic the show that you’re writing. That’s a really important skill… I kind of grew up in and around an area that had people like the characters on The Sopranos… kind of by osmosis I understood that psychology and understood what these people sounded like and how they thought.” Before The Sopranos, Winter wrote on a TV series for Flipper and it was a different experience, to say the least. As Winter remembers, “I can’t say the same about writing for Flipper -- I have no idea what a marine biologist might say to somebody and it was really, really challenging to write a show like that.”
3. Train Yourself to Write Anywhere
Winter admits that his writing environment “generally has to be quiet,” he says. “I can’t listen to music, can’t really have any distractions.” At the same time, though, his ability to write anywhere wins out -- “I don’t have to [write] in the same place. I trained myself early on to be able to write anywhere because I knew… I may very well be writing on a staircase, on location… on a set… so I’ve written anywhere. If I’m on a deadline, I’ll drop my son off at tennis and sit in the parking lot and write in my car.”
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4. Believe in the Power of Napping
“If I’m tired, I can’t write,” Winter states simply. Of course, there’s a remedy for this: naps. Winter’s aware that being able to write for a living affords him this opportunity -- the opportunity to take a midday, kindergarten-like nap while at work. But it’s crucial for him. “Around 2:30, 3 o’clock I would literally say [to the Writer’s Room], ‘naptime’ and I’d say we’ll take a break, I need 30 minutes to lay down, you guys can do whatever you want.” It didn’t matter what the other staff did -- food break, coffee break, cigarette break -- Winter just needed that nap. For him, there was no sense in forcing words that wouldn’t come. A 30-minute power nap would be just what the doctor ordered.
5. Openness and Vulnerability: the Secrets to Writing Success?
While working on The Sopranos, Winter saw first hand the people David Chase would hire: “Those really willing to share, really willing to open up their veins, so to speak, psychologically and really be comfortable in a room where they could share intimate details of their lives and tell stories about things that happened to them,” he says. He says he owes so much to Chase and all that he learned from him. This -- hiring those willing to share, as well as yourself being open and willing -- is the key takeaway for Winter. As he says, “That’s the stuff we make TV episodes about and if you’re not willing to share, you’re not helping me.” But Winter knows he has to meet halfway when it comes to this. He admits, “[I] have to make it a safe place where people can say, hey, I’m gonna tell you the worst thing I ever did to somebody or the most horrible thing I ever thought or meanest thing I ever did and that’s all that we write about.”
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
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