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The Family Portrait
After 10 years of redefining the meaning of "family drama," The Sopranos returns to HBO on April 8 for a final nine-episode run. In this exclusive footage from the shoot for the April issue, Annie Leibovitz captures cast members past and present—from James Gandolfini and Edie Falco to Drea de Matteo and Steve Buscemi—as they reprise their roles from this extraordinary series.
See the April issue for Peter Biskind's
feature on how the greatest show in TV history got made—and how
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A Special Thank You to Charles C. for bringing this to my attention
The Family that Preys Together
An exclusive Q&A with Sopranos creator David
In outtakes from interviews for his April cover story, on The Sopranos, Peter Biskind talks to David Chase, the show's creator and executive producer, about his use of music on the show, his own rock-'n'-roll past, Fellini, The Godfather, the show's "infantile" sense of humor, and the outing of gay mobster Vito Spatafore. Plus: Sopranos director Tim Van Patten recounts a dustup with the real-life Cosa Nostra.
Peter Biskind: You put a lot of effort into finding exactly the right music for the show. Does it influence the structure of the episodes?
David Chase: It doesn't really influence the structure. Once in a great while we shoot sequences to match pre-selected music. Most of the time, we shoot the shows, we edit them, then start thinking about throwing music up against it, and see what works. [Producer] Martin Bruestle and I have collaborated a lot on musical selections for the show, but the score music we use has been my choice; he does more with source music, the background. It's my favorite part of the whole thing.
The music is so great that I look for the music credits when I don't recognize something, but they go by too quickly.
There are no music credits. They would take up too much space.
Didn't you originally set out to be a drummer? Weren't you in a rock band in high school?
I was about 14. I was staring into the Caldwell, New Jersey, music shop, on Main Street, at a drum set, which I wanted to buy so badly. I looked over, and there's another skinny kid looking in there, Peter, and we start talking. It turns out we had a mutual friend my age, a year older than him—this guy named Donnie. And Peter and Donnie had a band together—they were the hottest band in Caldwell—called the Earthquakes. I never really made it into a band, but I kept on practicing the drums, and then after high school, music changed completely—the British invasion—and those guys came to me, because I had a fairly decent singing voice, which they did not have, and we started a band together. We never played anywhere—we were too good for that. So we played in the basement of the garage. We had all the personality conflicts that the Beatles or the Stones had, without the talent or the drive. So after two or three years of this, the band was over, but Peter was so talented that everyone thought he was going to make it. I also had gotten bitten by the film bug, so I had decided I was going to go to California to film school. So we were sitting in a car in the Village getting high or something, and he said, "Well, you can do that, but I frankly I don't think you'll be anything but a drummer in my band." It was the great motivator of my life.
When you did get into movies, which ones did you like?
I was so besotted with 8½ that, when it was on TV, I used to take pictures with my 35-mm. camera of the frames of the film. That was the first time I'd ever really seen Italians on screen. And even though it was Italy, I thought: Oh, my God—that's my family! He looks like my grandfather! He sounds like my grandfather. He's behaving like my grandfather! … I couldn't believe it.
You took the script for the Sopranos pilot to the networks first?
I was leery about doing this at a network. I'd been leery from the first. I began to think, this is a collision of conflicting expectations—this is not going to work out. Network television and those who run it are phenomenal at putting their finger on whatever it is that really excites you about the project and telling you to take that out or change it. It's genius. We went to CBS and we told 'em the whole thing. And they said, "It's great—this is fantastic. But … I don't know about the Prozac. And does he have to be seeing a psychiatrist?" And that was, of course, what made it different. Tony's lying [to Dr. Melfi], and you cut to what he's describing, and he's obviously not telling the truth. Just the cutting back and forth from Melfi's office—that, in itself, would have been, "People won't understand it—they won't understand where they are." The major difference [between doing a show for HBO as opposed to the broadcast networks] is the pace at which you're allowed to let the story roll out. [At HBO] you could do a slower pace, a slower release of information, longer silences. Nothing is really happening. It's a different style of editing, not bang-bang-bang-bang all the time.
Did you ever feel intimidated by the company you were keeping, genre-wise, having to hold your head up with Mean Streets and GoodFellas?
Yeah, sure. I mean, we always tried—and it wasn't an effort—to be very laudatory about those prior films. Our characters love them. I think it almost says, right in the body of the show: We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those people.
It was a clever way of dealing with the history, to incorporate it into the show and make the characters obsessive fans of those movies.
Well, we did more riffing on The Godfather, only because I think the real wiseguys—or connected guys—my impression is, it is more of a trip for them, because it's a period piece, and it's more operatic and …
It glamorized them, driving these fancy cars, and with these great clothes.
Right—yeah. And the family was very tight. It was always our conceit that our characters would sort of learn from those films. How to behave.
How involved are you in the editing of the shows?
I do all the editing. I sit over the editor's shoulder. I hardly ever even show [my cut to] my colleagues. The truth is, what you really want is for people to say, "It's perfect! My God—don't change a thing!" (Laughs.) And when they say anything other than that, you tend to say, "Well, they didn't get it." We take a long time to do postproduction. We change the stories, and we take scenes that were meant to have one purpose, and re-purpose them to do other things. Or change the whole order of the way the story's told. Often, because it's somewhat of a serial story, we'll realize—like, say, in Episode 8—"You know what? We really should have introduced this guy earlier on." Or introduced this idea earlier on—so it doesn't come out of the blue. So we'll go back and do some retrofitting of information, or character, or some story points.
You're famous for not tying up loose ends.
I think, probably, that's because that's not what the story was about. It's not important. It seems to be part of life, too, that things recede into the background or whatever. Something that was so important to you Thursday—all of a sudden, you're caught up in something else and it's not important Friday.
When The Sopranos was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, you had them show a Laurel and Hardy movie with it, Saps at Sea. Why?
I really like comedy. There's always a choice, when you're writing: you can either go for the joke or you can go for the story, the important stuff. And a lot of times, we'll go for the joke. The Sopranos is filled with really retrograde humor. Bathroom humor, falls, stupid puns, bad jokes—infantile, adolescent stuff, but it makes me laugh.
I'm told you don't like improvisation on the set.
It's not that I don't like improvisation. This is kind of a factory, and it's got to be a standardized product, and you can't have—how many cast members do we have? You can't have everybody just saying what they want. People who do improvisation work on these things, before the movie starts, and then that stuff is written down. We don't have time for that. It's got to be exactly as we write it. Otherwise we would get so bogged down, and so out of control. I would like to do more of that. I think Larry David works that way: "A bagel? A bagel?! Not a bagel—a bagel! Yes, a bagel!" (Laughs.)
Last season, did you feel that the story line that involved Vito being outed was risky?
No. We had this big plan for it, and then all of a sudden I hear about this movie that was coming around Christmastime called Brokeback Mountain. I thought, Oh, God. Why did we ever do this? I wish we had never done this gay thing. But in the end they didn't really touch each other too much. Part of the reason for doing it was there were and are a lot of gay shows on TV, and they paint a picture of acceptance and tolerance, and I think under the surface in America that's not there, and that's what I wanted to show. You can watch all these shows where it's fine and dandy, but that attitude has not really changed in some quarters. I thought that needed pointing out.
During the show's second season, some of the cast and crew filmed on location in Naples, where they had a real-life encounter with organized crime.
Tim Van Patten: We had to watch our back while we were shooting in the nooks and crannies of Naples, because it's a very dangerous place. We had befriended this scugnizzo, which is like a street kid—"Max," we called him. On the last day, before we leave for the airport, I asked him, "Can you take me to a real rough neighborhood market? I want to go where you would go." He goes, "O.K." So Jim [Gandolfini] finds out that I'm doing this, and he goes, "Well, I want to go, too." Federico Castelluccio [who played Furio] goes, "I want to go, too." David [Chase] goes, "I want to go, too."
So, the morning of our departure, we all meet this kid, and we drive to an open market somewhere in the heart of Naples. It's a bazaar. I mean, there's people from all over the globe: there are North Africans; there are Polish people. I mean, it's like a black market. You can buy anything: a whole swordfish, VCRs, telephones, cigarettes, nuts, screws, everything. It's this wild place. So we get in the middle of all of this, we're walking down this narrow street—it's tight—people are selling stuff at your feet, and, suddenly, a man is sort of plowing through us. And he brushes against David's shoulder—grunting in some kind of Arabic or something, right? David goes, "What? What?" The man points up, like there's bird shit on David's shoulder or something.
It happens very quickly. So we move on. David had on a black shirt, and was sort of carrying a satchel. I stop and am looking at these antique pictures—probably not really antique, but they looked antique—of saints. I buy one of Saint Anthony. David goes, "How much are those? Because I'd like to have one." So he reaches into his satchel—of course, his wallet's gone. And he goes, "Goddamned motherfucking! This motherfucking place! I've been robbed! The guy stole my wallet! THE GUY STOLE MY WALLET!" I say, "Aw, shit." And Saint Anthony, mind you, is the patron saint of lost things. There's like a level of panic that now hits us. We're going up the alleyways, looking under cars, finding hypodermic needles and dead cats. So this kid Max goes, "Come, come—follow me!" So we follow him back up that alleyway, to the same street where it happened. He's looking around. "Do you see the man anywhere?" And we're all looking: No, no, no, no.
The guy was very distinctive—a tall guy. Suddenly, this kid Max calls out, to all these guys—vendors, whatever you want to call them. In a Neapolitan dialect he goes, "Attenzione, attenzione! This man's wallet was stolen, and I want it back! Immediately, I want it back!" No one even listened. They all go back to selling their shit.
So we're all standing there. Now we have a plane to catch. And Max goes, "My uncle is so-and-so! Attenzione—my uncle is so-and-so!" Now it gets a little more quiet. He has their attention. He takes out his cell phone, and he holds it up over his head, and he says, "If this man's wallet is not returned, I will call my uncle." Right? Now the street is still. And we're all sort of standing there in amazement. We finally get back to that spot where it happened, and he shouts again, "I will call my uncle." Suddenly, a guy goes, "I know where the wallet is." So this kid Max—very tough, you know, sort of a squat guy, probably 20 years old—takes this guy around the shoulder and starts to walk up the street with him. We're all sort of trailing them. And we wander that way, we wander this way, and we were all, like, saying, "C'mon, you should just forget this, David. Let's move on, we've got to get back." But Max is determined.
Finally, this guy that he had around the shoulder splits, and Max keeps walking, and we are really getting deep into this neighborhood. He stops, and we look up. He's got the guy, right there. That's the guy! We all run across the street. He was standing in a doorway, and there was a line of cars, so we sort of locked him in. And this kid Max goes up to this guy, and he says, "Did you take this man's wallet?" And the guy sort of grunts.
Max hauls off and just busts his face open. BOOM! I tell you, my heart was pounding. The guy's bleeding, and Max goes, "I'll ask you again—did you take this man's wallet?" And the guy says—he points at the ground, and underneath the car is the wallet. Max reaches down, this kid, picks up the wallet, all the while, sort of keeping his eye on the big thug. He asks David, "Is this your wallet?" "Yes, it is—it is my wallet!" He goes, "Is your money in it?" "Yes, it's all in here!" Max says to the thug, "If these men were not here, I'd kill you." BOOM! And he cracks him again. And then he kicks him up the street, towards Jim. And, suddenly, we all get brave, right? And we all started chasing after him. "Son of a bitch!" And the guy staggers off into the bowels of the city, right?
So we're all so juiced up, we take this kid and we go right to a bar, like one of those sort of stainless-steel bars in a little storefront. We order some shots—Max is now our hero. "Anything you want"—we're throwing money at him. You know, "You are with us—anything you want, you come to America, we'll make … " Long story short, we leave. We give him a farewell, we all get on the van, we continue drinking. We all head back to the airport and go home.
That was in the summer, I believe. In the winter we're out shooting, in front of Silvercup [the show's home-base studio, in Queens]. And I see this figure coming up the street, and he's starting to look familiar. I go, "Goddamn—it's Max!" He says, "I'm here—in America!" I'm like, "Oh, my God!" You know, never expecting him, in a million years, to show up. So he comes up and goes, "Where is David? Where is David?" "He's up in the writers' office." "I must see David"—right? So the kid goes up into David's office. And then he comes down with a very fancy Sopranos leather jacket. And he basically never leaves … for like a month. He ends up living with Federico Castelluccio, and he rings up this enormous phone bill. And then disappears.
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