How David Chase Breathed Life into the The Sopranos

Warn­ing: watch­ing the above video essay with David Chase, Matthew Wein­er, Ter­ence Win­ter, and the oth­er writ­ers of The Sopra­nos (along with select longer-form videos below) may send you into a binge watch (or re-watch) of the HBO series. Just say­ing, because you might want to set aside some time.

It is hard to believe that the series pre­miere was over 20 years ago, since its insights into Amer­i­ca, our love affair with vio­lence, and the mob hasn’t changed. (I mean, look at the gang­sters cur­rent­ly run­ning the coun­try).

David Chase orig­i­nal­ly balked at the idea of a God­fa­ther-type show after it was pitched to him, but the gang­ster idea stuck and mutat­ed into an idea for a fea­ture film about a mob boss seek­ing ther­a­py. Across town in one of those Hol­ly­wood coin­ci­dences, Harold Ramis was hav­ing the same idea for a film called Ana­lyze This.

Ramis’ film would be a per­fect­ly fine com­e­dy and Chase wound up tak­ing his fea­ture idea and turn­ing it into a tele­vi­sion series. It would go on to rev­o­lu­tion­ize tele­vi­sion and change the gang­ster genre for good. For now here was a show about gang­sters who were all very aware of the film and tele­vi­sion his­to­ry of the genre, and they act­ed accord­ing to the roles that they idol­ized from The God­fa­ther and from Good Fel­las. Yet, as Chase points out, the char­ac­ters nev­er real­ly know how to feel about all this:

To me it wasn’t just the end­ing that was ambigu­ous. There was ambi­gu­i­ty going on all the time. And you know what that comes down to now that I think about it—the char­ac­ters in the piece were ambigu­ous them­selves. They didn’t know how they felt. When you write a scene some­times you think, does this guy real­ly believe what he’s say­ing? Does he real­ly feel this? Or is this just a place­hold­er in his mind? ‘I’ll say this line just so I can eat my sandwich’…That’s why [the show] is so fun to write, because usu­al­ly you are writ­ing what peo­ple are think­ing of feel­ing, but in The Sopra­nos you’re always writ­ing what they’re *not* think­ing or feel­ing.

These were brutish, dumb guys who believed they were the clever, fun­ny guys they grew up watch­ing, and you can extrap­o­late that to quite a lot of our his­to­ry from the Cold War and beyond—electing peo­ple based on who we want them to be, or for the role they play, not for who they actu­al­ly are. The end point of Tony Soprano’s ther­a­py ses­sions is not that he was “cured,” but that he learned the lan­guage of ther­a­py in order to jus­ti­fy his actions to him­self. As Wein­er says, Dr. Melfi’s real­iza­tion was, “This was all a waste of time. He can’t be helped. I’ve just made him be a bet­ter crim­i­nal.” Once a sociopath, always a sociopath.

Chase also reveals how the show was struc­tured for each of its sev­en, 13-episode sea­sons, with char­ac­ter arcs orig­i­nal­ly being plot­ted as sep­a­rate sto­ries. But inevitably in the writ­ers’ room, the the­mat­ic con­nec­tions between the sto­ries would reveal them­selves and the scripts would be tweaked accord­ing­ly. Con­ver­sa­tions in the room would often be about every­thing *except* the sto­ry and the char­ac­ters. In the end this was all mate­r­i­al that would wind up in the show, the mulch that would cre­ate the gar­den.

This is a good time indeed for a rewatch. Not only did crit­ics Matthew Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepin­wall drop the lov­ing­ly detailed The Sopra­no Ses­sions last year, but actors Michael Impe­ri­oli (Christo­pher Molti­san­ti) and Steve Schirri­pa (Bob­by Bac­calieri) have a pod­cast where they are cur­rent­ly rewatch­ing and com­ment­ing on the show, one episode at a time. You can find all their episodes so far on this youtube playlist. The show is also list­ed in our new col­lec­tion, The 150 Best Pod­casts to Enrich Your Mind.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

HBO Is Stream­ing 500 Hours of Shows for Free: The Sopra­nos, The Wire, and More

How Mar­tin Scors­ese Directs a Movie: The Tech­niques Behind Taxi Dri­ver, Rag­ing Bull, and More

60 Free Film Noir Movies

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.