On the set of The Sopranos, nobody takes any notice of the noises. Perhaps when you're working on the finest TV show around, you have too much else to think about. But perhaps it's more that, over time, the strangest distractions come to seem normal. Sometimes they are basic helps, bellows, shouts, hollers and roars. Sometimes, loud animal noises. David Chase, The Sopranos' creator, remembers the first day's filming on the show's pilot episode. "I kept hearing these chicken noises," he says. "And you think, 'OK, what is this?' I never said anything."
All these noises are made by one man, James Gandolfini, and they can usually be heard just before a director shouts, "Action!" and Gandolfini fully slips into the guise that has made him famous, the role of Tony Soprano. "Oh, yeah," acknowledges Gandolfini when the subject is brought up. He suggests that his habit's roots might lie in something he once learned in an acting class, about how a sharp noise can release tension. "It's almost like, you are about to make a fool of yourself, so you might as well make a fool of yourself right away," he reasons, "and then making a fool of yourself on camera is a little easier."
When asked whether different animal noises conjure up different moods, he insists otherwise – "No, totally random," he says – but he does concede that he is still trying to expand his menagerie. "I've been trying to do a pig noise for a very long time," he says, "and I can't seem to master it." For him, the gold standard in this field is Gérard Depardieu's splendid porcine snort in the movie Green Card. "I don't have anything that would even come close to that," he says. "Rent the movie, man – it's worth it just for the pig noise."
What do you think The Sopranos is really about?
Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi): Family life. Tony Soprano's wife and children, and how a working guy goes about his business. It's as simple as that.
Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti): I'd say it's about an American man in his middle years who has had a certain degree of success, and his unhappiness with it.
Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante): I think it's about the American dilemma. It's all about what I call our time-deficit disorder. No one has any time anymore. Everybody has two families: Everybody has work, everybody has a family at home. And we just don't have time for either one.
Aida Turturro (Janice Soprano): A family and relationships. That's why so many people – from a lawyer to the guy working at the deli to, you know, a fireman – like the show.
Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano): A suburban family at this time, and the struggles of the patriarch to survive.
Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior): It's a family show – it's about a mother, a son, an uncle, a wife and children, and all the ramifications, and then the guy's job, which happens to be hustler, con man and a killer. It has nothing to do with gangsters – it's all about society.
Robert Iler (Anthony Jr.): I think it's like a mix between a Mafia film like GoodFellas and, like, The Honeymooners or even, like, Married With Children. Like, my grandparents can watch it, and they can appreciate, like, the family and the loving, and the people who are in college can watch it because of, you know, the cursing, the strip club, the hanging out and killing. So it's kind of like it has everything.
James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano): I heard David Chase say one time that it's about people who lie to themselves, as we all do. Lying to ourselves on a daily basis and the mess it creates.
David Chase: I can't say, and I don't want to say. Because if I think that, then that's what I'll start to make it about.
David Chase is fifty-five. He has worked in television for most of his adult life. He says that this has been a mistake and marks a failure of courage on his part. He wanted to make movies. "Frankly, I did a bad thing," he says. "I took the money. I didn't have the guts to stop it. . . . I compromised. Hugely."
His childhood was spent in New Jersey, in the kind of small towns you see in The Sopranos. Both his parents were Italian-American. He was a very fearful child, something he inherited from his mother, and was scared of ambulances, people with bandages on, monsters under the bed and plenty else. Though he's at pains to point out how much his mother also cared for him, her fearfulness and self-pity were her greatest weapons and exhibited themselves in extraordinary declarations and actions. Once, when he was seven and they were cooped up in side during a snowstorm and he kept going on about wanting a Hammond organ, she threatened to poke out his eye with a fork.
"Oh, poor you," she'd sometimes say. Or, "I wish the Lord would take me." Or she'd tell him, "I'd rather see you dead than avoid the draft." She wouldn't answer the phone after dark.
Chase's father, who ran a hardware store, wanted Chase to be a labor negotiator in South America, but Chase had other ideas. He wanted to be a drummer – "Over my dead body – that Gene Krupa was a drug addict," his mother said – and then, studying English at NYU, he got interested in foreign films: Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni. He loved their mystery: "They didn't spell everything out for you," he says. He moved to California to get into movies. ("Those people will grind you up," his mother told him; her example, this time, was Frank Sinatra.)
In 1974, Chase got a job writing on Kolchak: The Night Stalker (the series that would inspire Chris Carter to invent The X-Files) and was soon happily working on The Rockford Files. For the next twenty years, he would alternate between writing for and eventually running TV shows (he ran the last two years of Northern Exposure, and also I'll Fly Away) and developing TV series and film scripts. He created one TV series himself, Almost Grown, in 1988; it ran for only six episodes. He made plenty of money and became increasingly frustrated. At times, he began to hate TV, and he'd think to himself, "If I see one more establishing shot of a skycraper and then they cut into the office and talk for four pages, I'm going to kill myself." On and off, he would vent these and other frustrations to therapists.
Sometime in the Seventies he had thought of a story idea involving therapy. "About a CIA guy seeing a shrink," he recalls. "He and his shrink would meet on a bridge over the Potomac River to have their therapy sessions so no one could tape them." His wife had always told him that he should write a movie about his complicated relationship with his mother, and in 1988 he mentioned that to Robin Green, one of the writers on Almost Grown. The next day, she came in and told him she'd been thinking about it, and that it would make a great movie: "A TV producer and his mother." But he wasn't convinced: "I felt it would be too boomerish, too yuppieish – a TV producer complaining about his unhappy childhood."
A while afterward, he figured out away it might work: Make the guy a gangster, a gangster in therapy. "This mobster who was depressed because his mother was depressed," he says. (Chase emphasizes that by now this was not about his mother, though the mother would borrow many of the same ways of expressing herself.) He pitched the idea to his agency. "Nah," was the anser. "Mob comedies, no. Mob movies at all, no. Psychiatry, no." Now and then, he'd think about this story. "I kept pitching it to myself, saying, 'Someday I'll do this,' "he says. Over the years he would write nine or ten movie scripts that would never become movies, so another unrealized story idea was low on his list of woes.
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