Tulsa King showrunner Terence Winter wouldn’t usually jump at the chance to make a Western. But a Western about a fish-out-of-water gangster, written by Taylor Sheridan and starring Sylvester Stalone? “It was an automatic yes,” Winter says.
Winter’s crime-story storytelling bona fides are flawless. Most of us know Winter worked on the Sopranos, wrote the Wolf of Wall Street, and created Boardwalk Empire. But you may not know he also draws inspiration from working as a kid at a butcher shop in Brooklyn called the C&S Meat Market, which was owned by Paul Castellano, head of the Gambino crime family.
“I met a lot of these guys and observed how they acted and talked and learned the rules of that world by osmosis,” says Winter.
Tulsa King finds a new angle to tell a Brooklyn gangster story: It takes the gangster out of Brooklyn, without taking Brooklyn out of the gangster.
Sylvester Stallone plays Dwight “The General” Manfredi, a mafia capo who went to jail for 25 years and never ratted anyone out, despite attempts to make him flip. Manfredi isn’t shown the loyalty he is due, and his gang sends him to Tulsa, Oklahoma to expand their reach into the Midwest.
But surprisingly, Tulsa proves lucrative for the aging gangster. He puts together a new crime family and deals with the turmoil over the broken relationship with his daughter. The way “The General” handles his grief is pure Winter. Think: Tony Soprano’s surreal coma arc.
MovieMaker spoke with Terence Winter about splicing together the western and gangster genres, stumbling across a site in Tulsa called “The Center of the Universe,” and how he worked with Stallone to make Dwight more like the actor than anyone else he’s played. Also: Apparently Winter didn’t know what Sopranos creator David Chase recently said about Tony Soprano’s fate in the final episode of The Sopronos — so we told him.
Joshua Encinias: Sylvester Stallone’s character Dwight “The General” Manfredi is a mafia capo from Brooklyn. He’s sent to Oklahoma and suddenly he comes across like a cowboy too. How did you bring the mafia and western genres together?
Terence Winter: Taylor Sheridan wrote the pilot so he could answer this better, but I’m certainly glad he thought of it. For me, that was the appeal right from the beginning. One of the challenging things about doing a mob show is to find a fresh way in, and taking a mobster and dropping them in the middle of cowboy country was that way. It’s absolutely brilliant and such a fun premise. Obviously, the Western is something Taylor does better than anybody else, and for me, it’s a great gift to be able to play in that playground.
Joshua Encinias: Tulsa, Oklahoma is an interesting place. My brother’s bachelor party was there over the summer at the Hard Rock Casino, and just down the road is Black Wall Street. How did you use Tulsa to build the world of Tulsa King?
Terence Winter: We filmed in and around Tulsa. Most of the show is filmed in Oklahoma City, which is about 90 minutes away. Oklahoma City has a bigger infrastructure for shooting, it’s got soundstages and things that Tulsa doesn’t have. But we tried to utilize the city as much as possible to capture the vibe and tone of Tulsa. When I was writing my version of the pilot, I spent three days alone in Tulsa. I stayed at The Mayo Hotel where Dwight lives and I walked around everywhere. I’ve been to the Hard Rock Casino, I’ve been to Black Wall Street, and I’ve been to “The Center of the Universe.” All those little places that you see on the show come from my research. Its wide open spaces and blue skies make it a wonderful place to shoot. You take a guy that looks like Sylvester Stallone and drop them into the middle of a horse farm… it gets your attention.
Joshua Encinias: “The Center of the Universe” in Tulsa is this place where no one can hear you speak, so Dwight goes there to confess his sins and express his real feelings. It’s a surreal place where a homeless woman tells him she doesn’t want his “scuzzy money.” It’s got a touch of the coma arc from the Sopranos and other surreal elements of your work.
Terence Winter: Yeah! I stumbled into that area when I was wandering in Tulsa. I saw a couple of people standing there talking and looked like they were yelling, I couldn’t hear them. I walked up and introduced myself and said, “What is this thing?” and they told me what it was. I thought it was so cool and I tried it myself. Then I thought, “Well, I can make something out of this.” I wasn’t sure what until I wrote the second episode and decided it would be a type of confessional. The homeless woman says to Dwight, “People talk to God in there.” I thought that’s a really sweet idea that this is him confessing and talking to God, apologizing. It was one of those happy accidents that lent itself to the storytelling.
Joshua Encinias: Stallone really likes giving his characters what he calls sentimentality. I think he’s talking about giving male characters feelings and making them care about things other than success. Did you work with him to add those character traits to the story?
Terence Winter: It was a little of both. I think a lot of it was in the script. One of the best compliments he gave me when he read my version of the pilot was that it felt like a tailor-made suit for him. I had the luxury of knowing a little more about Sly than most people. I knew he’s really smart, incredibly well read, very funny, self deprecating, very soulful. So I wrote my version of that guy as a gangster. He’s said he feels this character is closer to himself than any other character he’s ever played, except, of course, for the mafia stuff. One of the great things about working with Sly is you get, not just a great actor, but you get a writer, a director, a producer and editor. Guy’s been doing this at the highest level for decades. You’d be crazy not to collaborate and listen to his ideas and bounce things back and forth.
Joshua Encinias: I’ve spent a little time in Oklahoma in the last year, and the thing I noticed right away is the dispensaries all over the state. It’s a great touch that a lot of the action in Tulsa King takes place at a gas station that was converted into a dispensary.
Terence Winter: The original idea that Dwight shakes down a dispensary came from Taylor’s original pilot, but that was based in Kansas City. I didn’t know when I changed the location to Tulsa that Oklahoma has maybe the biggest proliferation of CBD stores in the country. That just happened to be a coincidence, and it worked out.
Joshua Encinias: I want to ask some Sopranos questions if you don’t mind. What’s your favorite episode of the show?
Terence Winter: The pilot. I mean, it’s where it all begins. I remember watching it for the first time and practically trembling at how great it was, and how much I wanted to be part of it. I don’t think I finished watching it and just called my agent. I said, “You gotta get me on this show.” It was so groundbreaking. I felt like I knew these people. They didn’t feel like actors to me. It didn’t feel like anything I’d ever seen before. It just felt so real with the way people actually talk and behave and look, and it was a world I knew intimately.
[Spoiler warning: Don’t read this part if you don’t know about the Sopranos ending.]
Joshua Encinias: Last year, David Chase hinted that Tony died in the last episode. Do you think he died?
Terence Winter: I wasn’t aware that David said that. I always thought that if he didn’t die that night, certainly, that’s kind of his legacy. At some point in this guy’s life, somebody’s going to come out of a bathroom or a doorway and it’s going to be over. That’s the message that I took away. When you live that life, and when you’re Tony Soprano, even going out for ice cream with your family is fraught with danger. You’re always looking over your shoulder, you’re always suspicious of people. “Who’s that guy? Why is that guy looking at me?” It’s that self imposed hell that he created for himself because of his life.
Joshua Encinias: Last year you said would write another Sopranos story with David Chase. Is there any movement on the project?
Terence Winter: No, not as of yet, but hopefully David’s still thinking about it. He knows anytime he wants to do it, I’m ready. You know, we’re very dear friends, I see him all the time. I don’t nudge him about it. If he’s ready, I’ll do it. If he’s not ready, I’ll respect that decision, too.
Tulsa King airs Sundays at 9/8c on the Paramount Network.
Main image: Sylvester Stallone in Tulsa King, courtesy of Paramount Network.