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My own tiny corner of the Empire

NOVEMBER 20, 2010
I've been really loving HBO's new series Boardwalk Empire, about prohibition-era Atlantic City. I have to admit I was a little leery about seeing it after all the hype before the debut, but it's damn good - great characters, riveting story, and rich with visual details.
That richness sometimes almost overwhelms - I often pause it to soak in it like a warm bath. I've been working on a graphic novel set in 1920, and although I've been gathering lots of picture research for it, there's nothing like seeing real humans inhabiting such a real-looking world.

A lot has been written about the attention that the Boardwalk Empire film makers paid to period detail. You can tell from just looking at the show, but I can confirm that from my own experience as well. I started working on the show about a year ago, doing small paper props.
The closest thing to a hero prop that I've done so far was the photo album. While flipping through it, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), sees a photo of his wife in a provocative pose and suspects an affair with the photographer. He closes the album and we see a slose-up of the cover with the photographers name in gold. Be still my heart....
If you do it right it doesn't show, but a lot of thought and work can go into the simplest props. For starters, all names and addresses have to be cleared by legal - in this litigious age filmmakers have to be very careful about what they use. That's the reason everyone in tv/movie world has a 555 telephone exchange. There were also several meetings about the look of the photo album. The landscape format was chosen to accommodate the screen shape. Prop master Tom Allen came out to my studio for a couple of meetings - we pored over period books, albums, scrapbooks and notebooks and talked about things we liked and didn't like about each. We also looked through my paper samples and binding material swatchbooks, but very few modern binding book-cloths resemble the stuff they were using in the early 20th century. The modern stuff is thin and hard and shiny and saturated and a poor substitute for the rich thick warm materials that binders worked with back in the day. I've done a lot of roadwork on finding period-looking materials to use on props, and whenever I stumble upon anything likely-looking I snap up as much as I can. I've had some stuff custom made for certain movie projects, but the mills have 60 to 100-yard minimum orders - that can be over a quarter ton of material, enough to fill the back of a pickup.
For this album, we picked a special paper that resembled some textured faux leather we'd seen on an early 20th century photo album. The binding style was common for photo albums and scrapbooks from that period it allows for pages to be easily added or subtracted, or for the binding to be loosened to accommodate a lot of pasted in photos and mementoes. The handset lead type - 19th century fonts that were still in common use in the 20's - was hot stamped with 22k gold.
Inside, we used beautiful gold photo corners that I salvaged from the old photo album. The pages had to be soaked, and the photo corners slowly peeled off the paper with a razor.
I also supplied most of the many notebooks that have shown up in the hands of bagmen, gangsters, cops, reporters and federal agents. This particular one showed up in the opening scene of last weeks episode. It was used by Nucky's bagman to record the amount of the latest payoff he collected - just before he was jumped by bandits

I made several of these larger wallet/notebooks, based on a century old copy. You might wonder why they didn't just browse ebay for old notebooks and photo albums. The problem with old paper is that it looks... old. These things had to look new and unused - they would have been bought new in 1920. It's very hard to find old notebooks in general - they tend to get tossed out. The few surviving ones are pretty trashed - they're old, they're scribbled in, and the old paper is crumbling. They make good reference for designing the props, though.
In the show, we saw one of these notebooks, closed, on Nucky's desk, in the shot where his brother is filling in for him, and is rearranging the items on Nucky's desktop.
I also made lots of these little pocket memorandum books. They were covered in 2 different cover materials. I made several copies each in green, black, brown and blue. In the show there's a scene with Nucky sitting on a couch totalling up some of his payoffs. He writes some figures in one of these notebooks.