On January 10, 1999, HBO debuted The Sopranos — and kicked off a cultural revolution. The series, created by David Chase, sprung from the one-joke concept of “gangster goes to therapy” (there was apparently something in the air; two months later, the feature film Analyze This explored the same idea) but quickly proved itself as much more. The Sopranos was a sprawling examination of familial guilt, organized crime, the American dream, and personal “growth,” anchored by a masterful leading performance by James Gandolfini, unforgettable supporting turns by (among others) Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, and Nancy Marchand, the brilliant writing of Chase and his team, and evocative, cinematic direction by the likes of Tim Van Patten, Steve Buscemi, Alan Taylor, Allen Coulter, and Chase himself.
Among the first critics to champion The Sopranos were Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, both then working as television critics for Tony Soprano’s hometown paper, The Star-Ledger. In honor of the show’s 20th anniversary, Seitz (now at New York/Vulture and RogerEbert.com) and Sepinwall (now at Rolling Stone) teamed up to write The Sopranos Sessions (out this week from Abrams Press), an informative, thoughtful, and handsome compendium of interviews, new critical essays, recaps, and archival writings on the series.
In this exclusive excerpt, series creator David Chase, screenwriter Terence Winter, and episode director Steve Buscemi talk about the classic season three episode “Pine Barrens” (aka, the one where Christopher and Paulie try to dump the Russian mobster and get lost in the woods).
Matt Zoller Seitz: Everybody thinks of this as one of the funniest episodes of The Sopranos. How much of that humor, those jokes, those gags were on the page, and how much of those came about when you were on location?
Steve Buscemi: They were on the page. The point I remember, reading the script and just laughing so hard, was, “He killed Czechoslovakians and he’s an interior decorator!” [Laughter] At that point, I just laughed so hard and I went, “Oh my God, I’d better not f*ck this up. This is the funniest thing.” I don’t know if anything was made up, it was all written.
Terence Winter: Despite what was on the page, when you get those guys out there doing it, you can describe Steve Schirripa walking out in a hunting costume . . . [Laughter] Dickens couldn’t describe that, it wouldn’t be as funny as when you see it! And Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico together are one of the legendary comedy teams. You were always lucky to get a scene of them together, and then to put those two guys in that circumstance, where they’re at each other’s throats—for me, that’s the funniest situation you can put two people in, is when two people are under pressure, literally, in an enclosed space, and have them go at each other.
Matt Zoller Seitz: And I think that’s maybe one of Tony’s best moments, is this episode, because of the madness in his eyes.
Terence Winter: That was maybe the biggest negotiation we’d ever had in the middle of our lives. Tony Sirico is standing in the middle of the woods, and his character is so well put together. By design, the episode opens with him being manicured, in his pristine state, and then we were going to take him and destroy him by the end of the episode.
So when we shot the episode, we were out in the middle of the woods and the stuntman did the tumble down the bank of snow, and he had a wig but his hair was completely askew, so that was our opportunity. We got Tony Sirico in, and he never lets you touch his hair, ever. This is completely true. He does his own hair. We said, “Tony, you’ve got to mess up your hair.” He said, “I’m not touching my hair.” “But this is the reality. Look at the stuntman. His hair is sticking out!” So, he very reluctantly went like this [mimes barely touching his hair], put a couple of hairs out of place, and Steve got involved! We were like, “Tony, come on!” The one way to appeal to Tony as a performer was by saying, “It’s so funny, it’ll be so funny. We’ve never seen you like this.”
Finally, after fifteen minutes of negotiating in three feet of snow, he was like, “F*cking c*cks*ckers!” and he messed up his hair and we were like, “Go, go! Get it on film!” It was great, and he was such a great sport about it. He stayed like that for the rest of the episode.
Matt Zoller Seitz: But the whole style of humor, you’re really going in the Wayback Machine to the ’30s and ’40s. This is the Two Stooges, almost, lost in the woods.
Terence Winter: Yeah, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t reference the Three Stooges at least once a day in that writer’s room in some way or another!
. . . .
Matt Zoller Seitz:I think we need to talk about the Russian. . . . In summer of 2001, HBO did a Sopranos presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour, and everybody was asking about the Russian. What happened to the Russian? Are we going to see the Russian? Is there going to be a gang war between Tony’s gang and the Russian’s? And you [David] got increasingly . . . it was almost like a moment out of “Pine Barrens” because I could see you going, “What does it matter what happened?” You were dyspeptic. Have people ever stopped asking you about the Russian?
David Chase: No. They never have. [Laughs] What do you want to know?
Matt Zoller Seitz: Why doesn’t the Russian matter? Why is it not important to know what happened?
David Chase: I don’t know. I felt that was more in keeping with a Russian folktale or something, that the guy just disappears. Now, we didn’t do folktales every week, but it seemed appropriate for this.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Terry, do you share that interpretation about why we don’t care what happens to the Russian?
Terence Winter: I do, but I have to confess that ultimately, it’s hard for me. We all grew up watching TV and expecting closure. I think I fought for it. And even over the years, I lobbied for it, saying, “It’d be cool to finally pay it off.” I think at one point, I almost had David agreeing with me, and I made the cardinal [mistake] of saying, “People will love it!” He said, “F*ck it! We shouldn’t do it for that reason!” [Laughter]
This was absolutely the right way to go, and we never should have known what happened.
David Chase: That was the other thing—we didn’t want to do a thing where Tony fought the Russians. There just isn’t any combat between the Italian and Russian Mobs. They just don’t have any overlap.
Matt Zoller Seitz: When I wanted to do a Sopranos-related panel, my first thought was, of course, “We’ll show the finale.” And then I thought, “We can’t do that, because David will never come out for that.” You’ve explained what you were trying to do in that finale—generally, not specifically—so many times that I didn’t want to inflict that on you again.
But I kind of feel like we got to do that here tonight, in a way, because this, for me, is the first blatant example in The Sopranos of that kind of thing—the thing that most people would fixate on, the obvious, linear narrative thing like, “What happened to the Russian?” or “What happened after the cut to black?” You said, “That’s not what this is about. This is not important.” You’re not just being obstinate about it. There’s actually a reason.
David Chase: Yeah, there’s a reason. [Pause] I should’ve had the Russian walk into Holsten’s!
Terence Winter: One thing we talked about was that at some point, Christopher, way late in the game in the series, would walk into Slava’s club and the Russian guy would be there mopping the floor and they’d just meet eyes, and then the camera would come around to the back of the Russian’s head and you just see that a big chunk of his head is missing and he can’t communicate. They’re like, “Yeah, kids found him, they sent him to Russia and nursed him back to health, but he can’t really talk.” All through the meeting, he’s just kind of looking at Christopher, and you feel like he knows but he can’t communicate it. That was it.
My proposed ending for The Sopranos was that a very elderly Nucky Thompson walks in and kills Tony Soprano! [Laughs] That was how we were going to end Boardwalk Empire, but it didn’t work.
David Chase: I’ll tell you what Matt Weiner said: he wanted to end Mad Men with Don Draper at age ninety-two, he’s watching the end of The Sopranos, and he takes his beer bottle and throws it at the TV!
Adapted excerpt from the new book “The Sopranos Sessions” by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, published by Abrams Press. © 2019 Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall.