On a perfectly crisp mid-October afternoon, I’’m about to step from the sanitized version of New York City of today — where Wall Street bankers reign and creativity wanes — into a filthy, pulsating and chaotic Manhattan circa 1973.
No, I haven't stumbled through some Kip Thorne-theorized wormhole. Rather, I've crossed the threshold via Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, where HBO is shooting Vinyl — the network's most ambitious and audacious series gamble since Game of Thrones.
Spawned from the minds — and often the memories — of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter, Vinyl offers a debauched romp through the music industry at the height of classic rock and the dawn of punk, disco and hip-hop.
Like Game of Thrones, the on-screen star power springs from some unexpected sources, not those often associated with an expensive one-hour drama.
Bobby Cannavale, who stars as charismatic but mercurial record-label president Richie Finestra, has not previously toplined a series (though he did make an Emmy-winning turn as Gyp Rosetti on Winter and Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire), and his non-TV work has skewed mostly indie film and off-Broadway theater,
Costar Olivia Wilde, who portrays Finestra's conflicted wife Devon, has hung tough through a decade filled mostly with beautiful sidekick roles, despite her enormous talent,
And though Ray Romano — making a career-changing turn as record executive Zak Yankovich — boasts the biggest name in the cast, his credentials as the Emmy-winning star of Everybody Loves Raymond could be considered more of a liability than an asset. After all, on paper, it's hard to imagine Romano involved in the kind of sexually explicit three-way with hookers that he shot for the show,
But after watching Scorsese's two-hour pilot — which will launch Vinyl's 10-part first season on February 14 — it's impossible to imagine anyone but this trio navigating Vinyl's world of musical hustle, shady business practices, orgies, cocaine binges and even murder.
"When I get onto the set, I'm instantly transported back into the time period — the details, the costumes, the way people speak, the attitudes," says Jagger, with emphasis on the last word.
In fact, there might be no better resource when it comes to judging rock 'n' roll swagger or Vinyl's authenticity than the Rolling Stones frontman, who has become an increasingly busy Hollywood producer of late. But Jagger bristles at too much talk of Vinyl dovetailing with his own reality,
"Keeping the details right? I hope that's not my only job," he says, laughing. "I didn't work in a record company. I used to hang out at Atlantic Records during the time period. But Vinyl is fiction. You strike a balance between being completely accurate and wanting it just to be a drama about the unfolding life of these characters."
On set at the offices of the fictitious mid-size American Century record label, it's clear that HBO has spared no expense. Vintage amber glass ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes, cigars and joints share desk space with four-pound dial-up phones and IBM typewriters. An autographed photo of American Century artist Donny Osmond hangs above Finestra's desk. Outside, graffiti and trash are ubiquitous, a shock to the modern eye.
Scorsese regular J.C. Mackenzie is about to shoot a scene from episode four in which his character, American Century sales executive and Hugh Hefner wannabe Skip Fontaine, is stuck warehousing a mountain of Osmond albums that never sold. The original scene, in which Mackenzie lugs a few boxes through his apartment lobby, was shot months ago. But it wasn't illustrative enough for Winter, the ever-meticulous showrunner.
"It didn't quite sell the idea that his life was going to be overrun with these [albums]," Winter says. "I felt like I needed to see a quick shot of Skip in his own environment being swallowed up by these albums as a sort of punishment for the scheme he was trying to pull."
In less than 24 hours, series production designer Bill Groom (winner of four consecutive Emmys for his art direction on Boardwalk Empire) pulled off the trompe I'oeil of Fontaine's apartment. More than 700 boxes emblazoned with Osmond's face were created on the fly, surrounding a fur sofa that Groom spotted the day before at a gallery for S12,000.
"It was terribly expensive, but we got it down to $9,000," he whispers, almost embarrassed by the lavishness. "If you have to have it, you have to have it. And there it was. Perfect."
Perfection is a theme echoed by almost everyone involved with Vinyl, from Groom to series costume designer John Dunn, who is cataloging his Halston and Diane von Furstenberg favorites. "No hard-core 70s polyester, please," he deadpans,
The night before my chat with Scorsese, he's up until 1 a.m., dissecting new cuts of episodes two and three, mulling music options and proposing tweaks to the delicate interplay between music and dialogue.
"I'm even more involved than I was on Boardwalk," says Scorsese, who chooses every actor and directed the pilot. He executive produces the series with Jagger, Winter, Rick Yorn, Victoria Pearman, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, John Melfi and Allen Coulter.
But perfection doesn't come cheap. The pilot shoot alone lasted 35 days (or as Cannavale notes, more than twice as long as one of his recent indie films). Though HBO president Michael Lombardo declines to discuss numbers, he puts Vinyl's price tag on par with season one of Game of Thrones.
"Even though there are no dragons in our show, it's comparable to our most expensive series," he says. "We knew if we were going to do this show with Mick and Marty, we weren't going to fake it. You can't have a show that you deliver the kind of production value and detail that you have with a Martin Scorsese movie, and then feel a thinness in the second episode."
The genesis of Vinyl can be traced back nearly two decades, to an invitation from Jagger to Scorcese for a sit-down at London’s Connaught Hotel. Jagger’s pitch was simple: he wanted to collaborate on a film that would do for the’60S and 70S music industry what Scorcese’s Casino did for Vegas.
"In my mind, it was a movie when I first thought of it," says Jagger, whose original idea was to depict four decades of the music business through the eyes of a record executive and his friend, an African-American blues artist who joins his friend in the company when his performing days come to an end
Scorsese connected personally with the concept and the setting. "I was there at the time, but I was in the film world — [one of] the kids with the beards, you know? [Steven] Spielberg, [George] Lucas, [Brian] DePalma, me, John Milius, we were all there, and this music world mixed with the film world," he says. "I had in mind a film of epic scale — the length would be at least three hours, the way Casino was."
It would take another decade — and five narrative feature films, including Gangs of New York, The Aviator and Oscar best-picture winner The Departed — before Scorsese could turn back to the Jagger project.
In 2007 Winter came aboard; he had recently finished his first draft of The Wolf of Wall Street for Scorsese as well as the pilot for Boardwalk Empire, on which they would collaborate.
Ultimately, the film was set up at Paramount Pictures, and in 2008 Winter delivered a sweeping script that followed a record executive and his rise to industry mogul, starting with his first job in the doo-wop era of the '50s and running through the late '90s. At the center of the drama was a love triangle.
"Then the stock market crashed, and the bottom fell out of the economy. Suddenly the interest in doing a three-hour epic period piece waned quite a bit," Winter explains.
But interest was revived when Winter proposed to Jagger and Scorsese that they reconceive the project as a miniseries for television, which was beginning to explode with the kind of risky fare that Vinyl embodied.
But a miniseries "was kind of too sprawling," Jagger says. Then Scorsese's superagent, WME's Ari Emanuel, proposed rethinking it as a one-hour series, which appealed to all.
Winter, of course, already had the best training in episodic television, having been a writer-executive producer on The Sopranos. Everything coalesced when Scorsese, Jagger and Winter tightened the 40-year arc to a specific year: 1973.
"That was the year that punk, disco and hip-hop all happened within six months of each other, right here in New York," says Winter, a Brooklyn native who as a teen hung out at the iconic CBGB club in the East Village.
"I remember New York very well in 1973 and how incredibly crime-ridden and drug-infested it was. It was Taxi Driver New York. Now it's Disneyland New York."
Meanwhile, Lombardo and HBO CEO Richard Plepler had long been salivating over the prospect of the series, which they knew was up for grabs. One day in 2010, Scorsese asked Lombardo and Plepler to have tea at his Upper East Side townhouse to pitch an unnamed project.
The director didn't mention that Jagger and Winter would be on hand, but Lombardo had been tipped off. The L.A.-based executive scrambled for a flight to New York so that he could join Manhattan-based Plepler for the mystery pitch,
"I'm not too blasé to tell you that it was one of those meetings that as a fan — as a human being — I was excited to experience," Lombardo recalls.
"Had they not pitched anything to us, we would've been there. But [once it was clear it was Vinyl being pitched], we all shook hands in that room and said 'Let's do this.'"
For Scorsese, the decision to plant Vinyl at the network was a no-brainer. "What I found with HBO was a sense of creative freedom that I really didn't have in features," he says, citing running times and the MPAA ratings system as particularly dampening his vision. "With Boardwalk Empire, I felt completely free."
Winter delivered the first draft of the pilot in 2011, in the middle of Boardwalk Empire’s five-year run, though he would not be available to start production until summer 2014.
Before shooting, of course, came casting. And when it came time to find their leading man— a handsome Italian-American around 40 years old — Scorcese and Winter needed to look no further than their own Boardwalk ensemble.
"While we're shooting season three, Marty and I are talking, 'Who are we gonna get to play Richie Finestra?' And I think it slowly dawned on both of us," Winter says. "We went, 'Wait a minute, he's right there. That's Richie.'"
Scorsese made the call to Lombardo to solicit his input. Though HBO has the respect and resources to nab an A-list movie actor — as it did with Matthew McConaughey in True Detective — the network was instantly sold on Cannavale.
"He's sexy in an honest, organic way," Lombardo says. "He's street-wise, but more importantly, he has a range as an actor that I felt had only been minimally tapped in the film and television work that he had done."
Cannavale flew to Washington, D.C., in June 2013 to meet Jagger while he was on tour with the Rolling Stones, and Jagger happily signed off on him. Cannavale was game, as long as production remained in the city.
"My whole trajectory has been about keeping one goal in mind, which is just to stay here," says Cannavale, looking ever the New Yorker when we meet at a Village cafe, decked in sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers, baseball cap and reeking of cigarettes.
"My bullheadedness might have taken some opportunities away from me over the years, but I was raising a son that I wanted to be with every day, so I wasn't gonna go anywhere. From my view, it all paid off. Now my kid is in college, I didn't have to leave and I still ended up doing a hot show on HBO with Marty and Terry."
Meanwhile, every young actress in Hollywood was jockeying for the role of Devon — and the chance to work with the Scorsese-Jagger-Winter troika, But Wilde, who nearly landed the female lead in Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street (it eventually went to Margot Robbie) and was now the director's choice for Vinyl, wasn't entirely convinced.
Pregnant at the time, she met with several HBO executives about "playing the wife," Wilde says, rolling her eyes as she recounts the experience two years later.
"I think there was something about me being pregnant that made me very ballsy, but I said, 'Listen, if you want a wife character back in the shadows with no development, hire someone else,'" she recalls.
"I just had been doing it too long to play that. I was like, 'You'll find someone who really wants that role. It's not me. I'll watch the show every week, but I'm not going to be your housewife.' And they kind of laughed and said, 'Oh, no, no. We can assure you.' And they completely delivered on their promise."
Just four-and-a-half weeks after giving birth to her son Otis (named after Otis Redding), Wilde started prep for the role as a former Warhol Factory girl with substance-abuse issues. She describes the time as intense, "but I didn't want any of these boys to think, 'Is she too delicate to handle this?'
"So I would just go and pump [breast milk] and come back to rehearsal and pump and come back to set. And I felt so incredibly grateful that I did."
In a serendipitous twist, Vinyl reunites Wilde with Jagger, whom she once tried to boot from her dining room. Her parents, accomplished investigative TV journalists based in D.C., met Jagger through mutual friends and invited him to a party they threw at their home for intellectuals and luminaries.
"I was probably 10, maybe a little younger, and he was sitting in my seat at the dinner table," Wilde says. "I came in and demanded that he get off my chair. He told me to go to bed, which was hilarious at the time, even more hilarious now that he's my boss."
Wilde isn't the only Vinyl cast member who spent time with Jagger as a child. Jagger's 30-year-old son James landed a pivotal role in the series as the junkie lead singer of proto-punk band The Nasty Bits, marking the first time father and son have worked together professionally.
The elder Jagger insists that James received no edge thanks to his famous last name,
"They were looking at people, and I said, 'I gotta tell you that my son is an actor, and he plays in a proto-punk band. I'm not saying he's the best for the job. I just want you to see him,'" Jagger recalls.
"He went in for an audition, and they really liked him. I do think he does a fantastic job, so I think he really worked out." The rock icon even helped write the Nasty Bits song "Rotten Apple," performed by James (as his character, Kip) with wild abandon in the pilot.
Though he's an obvious on-set resource, Jagger says he largely let his son figure out the role himself.
"Sometimes he asks me about his part — how is it playing and how is the acting going — and we talked about his back story a bit, but I would more or less leave him alone. It's good to make your presence known, but you don't want to be [too meddling]. You can get on everyone's nerves."
If Wilde and James Jagger's Vinyl casting could be described as full circle, Romano's defies geometry altogether. As the hairy, Jewish record executive, Romano is playing a galaxy away from type. But, the actor maintains, it's not such a stretch.
"For me, the Italian mother, the Jewish mother — very, very similar," he jokes of the cultural bridge to his Italian upbringing. "I don't think the families are much different. The mother is overprotective, and everything is about food. Food can cure everything."
But Romano's family-friendly comedic skills weren't necessary to land the part of the coked-up Yankovich. Prior to casting him, Scorsese had no idea who Romano was.
"Never, ever heard of me, ever," Romano says. "It's odd, but it's not crazy because he doesn't watch TV."
At the urging of his agent, ICM Partners' Eddy Yablans, Romano put himself on tape on a Thursday. By Tuesday, casting director Ellen Lewis called Yablans and said Scorsese had liked what he'd seen.
"I don't care that he'd never heard of me," Romano continues. "What mattered was that he was considering me at all. It ended up being a blessing because he had no preconceptions of my sitcom character."
The part of embodying Yankovich that was a stretch, Romano insists (repeatedly, for comic effect), was that sex scene.
"My wife doesn't read the scripts, but my twin boys read every script after I get it. One of them asked me in a group text, 'How did that scene go with the hookers?' And my wife was like, 'What hookers?'" Romano recalls."Every once in a while she would remind me how we don't need the money."
If Romano with cocaine and hookers seems illogical — or Cannavale's transformation into full-fledged leading man, or Wilde's willingness to walk away from an opportunity to work with Scorsese — it's all part of the unpredictable but painstakingly executed whimsy of Vinyl and its depiction of an era when artistry took its last gasp before being hooked up to a corporate ventilator.
And it was on that precipice that the Finestras and the Yankovichs of the industry teetered alongside the Jaggers and Scorseses,
"It was 40 years ago, and everybody was a little crazy," Winter says. "I mean, the level of drug use and absolute piggish behavior was rampant. From today's perspective, the excesses really were just absurd."
For its part, HBO is hoping that nothing succeeds like excess. And for viewers, there will be no hangover after this bacchanal.