Exclusive Excerpt: ‘The Sopranos Sessions’ Goes Inside Groundbreaking HBO Show
There may be no show in the history of television that changed the art form more than The Sopranos. It ushered in an era of brooding antiheroes and complex, serialized storytelling that still thrives today, with an ever-growing roster of imitators (a few worthy, many not). When the show debuted on January 10, 1999, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz were fledgling TV writers at Tony Soprano’s — and creator David Chase’s — hometown newspaper, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. They quickly became obsessives — early to the hype, exhaustive and insightful in their analysis. Twenty years later, Sepinwall is Rolling Stone’s TV critic, while Zoller Seitz holds that title for New York magazine. They’ve written about countless shows from the binge-worthy to the trash-bin-worthy, but their passion for the HBO drama that changed everything has never left them. Their new book, The Sopranos Sessions, takes a microscopic look at the iconic series from every angle — and includes intimate and revealing interviews with Chase. (The videos featured with this article show the co-authors breaking down what they learned from the process of reporting and writing it over the course of two years.) In this exclusive excerpt, Chase discusses the origins of his idea for The Sopranos, the casting process and why, in the beginning, he hoped the show didn’t get picked up.
Alan Sepinwall: You told me back in the day that The Sopranos, as an idea, started more as you telling your friends stories about your mother, and them saying, “You should do a show about that.”
David Chase: My wife was the one who told me. She didn’t say what kind of show it should be, but she said, “You should do a show about your mother. She’s hysterically funny.” I agreed with her, but I didn’t know how to do it. What TV network back then would do a show about David’s mother?
AS: The Sopranos premiered in January ’99, so it was in development for a long time, but do you remember when you started getting serious about the idea of, “Oh, it should be a Mob boss”?
DC: I changed agents, and I signed up at UTA. When I went in to meet them, they said, “What kind of ideas do you have?” I told them the idea that was The Sopranos and my agent said, “Forget that. It’s never going to happen. Not going to work.” But I pitched it as a movie then, and he said Mob movies were out of date, especially Mob comedies. I think maybe . . . what’s the movie with Alec Baldwin?
Alan and Matt Zoller Seitz: [Simultaneously] Married to the Mob.
DC: I think it had not done too well. Because of that, he said a feature with the Mob wouldn’t work. I was going to cast De Niro as the character who became Tony, and Anne Bancroft as Livia. I think it could’ve been very interesting, but he told me to forget about it as a feature. And then, when I went over to Brillstein-Grey on a development deal, they suggested doing The Godfather as a TV series. And I said, “Why would I want to do that? It’s already been done.” Then I was driving home that night, and I started thinking about the fact that the guy had a wife and a son and a daughter, and the shrink could be a woman, and that network TV drama was very female-oriented, so I thought, “Maybe that feature idea could work as a TV series.” It had home life in it, it had . . . women’s points of view, kids, all of that.
AS: Do you remember the first network you took The Sopranos to?
AS: They wanted Anthony LaPaglia to play Tony?
DC: That came later. They had nobody in mind. They got the scripts and maybe a month or two [passed] . . . I hadn’t heard from them, and then I got a call from a woman who’s still in the business. She said, “Listen, we’re getting to the time now when we’re going to be making our pickups, and I want to get in touch with you and tell you before you talk to anyone else that I liked your script a lot. It was really, really good.” And I said, “Great, when do we get started?” And she said, “Let me think about this for a while, because I’m not sure this is something we still want to do. I’m not getting the feeling we may do this for a certainty. But I want to tell you as one human being to another, I really liked what you did.” So I knew I was dead. [Laughs]
MZS: Did you ever get a sense of why they didn’t want to give you a green light?
DC: Anything that would offend anybody was not wanted on network television.
AS: At that point did it go to CBS, or other places first?
DC: I think it went to CBS, and then the other usual suspects.
AS: And you told me once CBS wanted to take out all the psychiatry.
AS: Did they say why?
DC: They didn’t have to. I knew why — “Psychiatry, yuck! The lead goes to a psychiatrist? That makes him weak!” At that point I said to the people at Brillstein-Grey, “Why don’t we take it to HBO?” My deal at Brillstein-Grey was just about up, two years of it. . . . Brad Grey called my agent and said, “David’s deal is about up here, and he did what he said he was going to do. He wrote two really good pilots, and we couldn’t get them on. But I’d like permission to extend the thing, maybe, and take it over to HBO to see if they might be interested, because I think they might be.” I met with [HBO president] Chris [Albrecht] and that was good.
MZS: So then you get the green light to do the pilot of The Sopranos for HBO. How did you [cast it]? What was the process? Did you have particular people in mind?
DC: I never write with people in mind. We hired [casting director] Georgianne Walken and her partner, Sheila Jaffe. What happened was, I saw Steve Buscemi in Trees Lounge and thought, “Who cast that? That’s an amazing cast.” I found out, called them, and they said they wanted to do The Sopranos. In the process of meetings, they would say to me, “Have you heard of that person? Do you know who this person is?” It was a two-people casting process, and they were the ones who introduced me to Gandolfini.
AS: You talk all the time about Steve Van Zandt being in the running for Tony. How seriously was he ever considered for that part?
DC: To my mind, he was pretty seriously in it. It was a completely different show. The whole show changed — I saw it as a live-action Simpsons, and I was pretty serious about it. Once Gandolfini showed up, it was pretty obvious that his face and his words helped direct me to what it should be.
MZS: That’s quite a compliment to him.
DC: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Then I recognized him from Get Shorty, but in that he’d been a sweetie pie, holding the baby.
MZS: Can we back up for a second and talk about James Gandolfini’s audition, or his reading? Can you put yourself back in that room and describe what you were seeing and feeling?
DC: He came in and he started to read and he was very good. All of a sudden, he stopped, and said, “I have to stop. I can’t . . . I can’t focus. Something’s up here. I’ll come back in Friday.” So I said, “All right,” and then Friday came along and he couldn’t come in. I swear this is what we were told: his mother had died. It turned out his mother had died years before!
AS and MZS: [Laughter]
DC: So he never came back, but he’d done so well, and [the casting people] were really pushing him, too. He finally came to my house in L.A. and we went to my office at the house there, and we taped him doing it. He did it and it was great. After that, I had to bring the three of them over to HBO to read for Chris and Carolyn [Strauss, former president of HBO entertainment] and I forget who else. And Cathy Moriarty as Carmela. I remember Jim reading with Cathy. It was great.
AS: Did he read with Lorraine Bracco as Carmela, or had she said by that time she didn’t want the part?
DC: Lorraine never said she didn’t want to play Carmela. Maybe she said it to her rep, but she never said it to me. I said, “I think she’s really good . . . but I’ve seen her do this role. I might be interested in seeing her do Dr. Melfi.” Lorraine might have been amazing as Carmela, too, but you would’ve had this feeling of, “I’ve been here before.”
AS: One of the most important scenes in the pilot, from your perspective, was Tony grabbing Christopher. How was it written, what did Jim do that was different, and how did you react?
DC: It was written that Christopher says something like, “Hey, what are you talking about?” Then Jim would go [jabbing a finger] — da da da — like a love tap. I wouldn’t call it a love tap, but hey, just like that: Wake up! But when we shot it, Jim grabbed him by the collar, yanked him up out of his chair, and I remember Christopher had a bottle of beer in his hand, and it fell accidentally. While Tony was talking to him, you heard the bottle skidding along the concrete, and it was great! It was the bottle that sold me on this. I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s the real Tony. He’s not love-tapping anybody. That’s the real guy.”
MZS: Right before I think season four or five, when everybody was renegotiating their contracts to come back, I [asked Gandolfini], “Do you want to come back?” He said, “I want to come back, because it’s the greatest part I’ve ever had, but I also don’t want to come back because no matter how long I spend in the shower, I can’t wash the stink off me from this guy.” How much of that stink came from the character as written, and how much was the darkness he dredged up for himself as he played the guy?
DC: I had questions myself about Jim Gandolfini. I’ve always asked myself, he’s such a big guy, and yet he’s such a sweetie-pie. But he could really be nasty and unpleasant if he had to be. I’ve always asked myself, is Jim such a sweetie-pie because there’s a tendency there to be a bully, and the ability to be one, because he’s so big? Does he overcompensate and be this nice guy everyone loves so he won’t come off like a bully? I never got an answer.
MZS: He was a big guy.
MZS: And he seemed even bigger. Something about his physicality was almost overwhelming. He reminded me of Zampano, Anthony Quinn’s character in La Strada, or King Kong.
AS: And other than when he’s incapacitated by something else, there’s not a single fight in the run of the show that Tony does not win.
DC: Well, that’s probably true. There were none that he lost?
AS: He may have been sucker-punched once or twice, but physically he could not be beaten, and that was a part of the legend of the character as he goes along.
DC: Seemed realistic to me. That guy was enormous. Even when he was in high school. What do you think his sport was?
MZS: Really? [Laughs]
DC: Everybody says football. He was thin and tall.
AS: What do you remember of Edie [Falco] coming in? Had you seen her on Oz, or did casting people bring her to you?
DC: I didn’t see her on Oz until after she read for us. She came over on skates [laughs] at HBO headquarters out here in NY, and that’s all she wrote. I felt so lucky all the way through, for however many years it was. I felt so lucky with that cast. I can say that without feeling I’m being sentimental or anything. There wasn’t anything they couldn’t do.
AS: What was it like writing for Edie and watching her work over the years?
DC: Watching her work was great. You could stay down there on the set twenty-four hours, just watching what she did. Never missed a line. Not one. I don’t know how somebody does that. She didn’t hide herself or do anything like that. She was there, she came in, did her work and went home, and it was always faultless.
AS: There’s not a lot of Carmela in the first few episodes. Had you planned for the role to be as big as it became?
DC: Yes. That’s what I said from the beginning; the reason I thought this whole thing might work as a family show. Family shows were a women’s medium, and this was a family show. I thought this might be successful, or at least keep its head above water, because it would attract, unlike most Mob pictures, a female audience because of the family show aspect.
AS: Can you recall the first time you realized what she was fully capable of?
DC: The thing that comes to my mind is the audition. She was just so good! I mean, there couldn’t have been anybody else. In the audition, she went pretty seamlessly between comedy and drama, or the mixture of the two.
AS: Did you know Nancy [Marchand] before this?
DC: I knew her as Margaret Pynchon [the publisher on Lou Grant], so when I saw her show up, I thought, “What the fuck is this?” [Laughs] Then she started, and that was it. That was really something, because the character was my mother, and it was like looking at my mother all over again. And she later said to my wife, “Honey, I trust that this entity that I’m portraying is deceased?” She channeled it, I’m telling you. I can’t explain it.
AS: At what point did Nancy tell you that she was sick?
DC: She was coughing when she came in for the initial reading. Coming up the stairs. We were on the second or third floor of this little building on 79th Street or something, and she was coughing then. She was very straight up about it. She didn’t say, “I only have a year or two to live,” but it was passed on to us that she was ill.
AS: Did it give you any pause?
DC: No, because at that time I had no belief this thing was going to go anywhere but the pilot.
AS: Knowing what you know now, would you have thought about somebody else?
DC: There was nobody else. I think over 200 women came in, and they all did this crazy Italian mama thing, but when she came in, she did what you see . . . she got my mother’s inflections right, she got everything.
MZS: I’ve seen Season One so many times, but I’m still not sure how much of her malice in manipulating Tony and Junior is conscious and how much of it is simply instinctive. There are times I don’t even know if she’s aware of what she’s doing, and I wonder how much of that is in the scripts and how much of it is in the way she delivers the lines.
DC: I don’t know, but I do know that if I was to think about my mother, my mother did not consciously manipulate anybody. She was incapable of having a plan. But I will say that it’s more like that than it is that she’s a conscious manipulator, or an evil person.
AS: In the third episode, where Brendan dies, there’s a scene where she’s talking to Junior, and Junior is basically asking her without asking her if it’s OK to kill Christopher and Brendan, and she says that she likes Christopher, because, “He put up my storm windows one year,” but she tacitly gives her approval for Brendan. And Junior goes and kills him. Is she conscious of what she’s doing there?
DC: I believe that’s the kind of thing that comes right from my mother’s mouth. “I like him because he put up my storm windows one year.” She was always getting cousins to do things for her, coming to adjust the antenna on her TV. . .
AS: You’d wanted to direct forever, and you got to direct this pilot — what did you have in mind in terms of what you wanted it to look like, to sound like, to feel like?
DC: I wanted to open it up. I wanted it to be expansive, to be wide. I didn’t want it to feel indoors-y and TV-ish. All I remember wanting to do was, I’d always been completely taken by the Meadowlands, and I wanted it to have that feeling. That’s as far as I took it.
AS: So you finished making the pilot. At that point, you didn’t want HBO to pick it up, correct? You just wanted to be able to take it and [get] some funding and complete it as a movie?
AS: What would the second half of the movie have been? There’s twelve more hours of plot that ended up unspooling on TV.
DC: There would have been a couple more incidents of violence. It probably wouldn’t have had as much family in it — as much of the kids or Carmela.
MZS: It would’ve still included Tony putting a pillow over his mother’s face?
DC: No. I had never gotten that far when I was thinking about it. The original story, the Anne Bancroft–De Niro version, he was going to go up to her and smother her with a pillow. But [Nancy] worked out so well. And she said to me at the end of the season, “David, just keep me working.” She was pretty sick by that point, but she was so good [that] I just couldn’t kill Livia, so we had to invent this whole thing where she was left alive, and “Look at her, she’s smiling!” That had to go in. And then she really wasn’t as germane to the second part of the second season.
MZS: How open were you to actors adding or changing lines?
DC: Not open at all.
MZS: You never let something through?
DC: A couple times I did, especially a little bit more toward the end. But I felt that if we started having actors changing lines, we couldn’t let it go on like that. Those guys were so, so desirous of getting their faces in front of the camera, telling each other what to do — all the guys in Tony’s crew, especially. Tony Sirico was a part-time director all the time. “Stay, stay, stay over here! Come on over here with me!” [Laughs]
AS: Dreams were obviously a big part of the show, as much as certain people wished they weren’t. When you first started doing them, were there certain stylistic rules or ideas that you wanted?
DC: There were, and I’m sure we talked about this before: no moving camera. Just recently I read that there were two rules, but I forget what they are.
MZS: Why no moving camera?
DC: Because if you push in on somebody it means, “This is important,” especially in TV. That’s why there were no music cues in the shrink’s office, because in a typical network TV show, when patients start to get down to business and reveal themselves about why he’s so happy or what the truth really is, they’d push in really slowly and you’d hear a synthesizer, you know? I hated that stuff. And I didn’t want to punctuate what was important in the scene and what wasn’t.
MZS: Did you have a model for the Tony–Melfi relationship?
DC: Yeah, a shrink that I’d had in L.A.
MZS: What was your relationship with that therapist like?
DC: It was like a re-mothering. She’s probably dead now, and I haven’t called her. Yeah, it was mostly kind of a re-mothering. She was very good at making me feel better about myself.
AS: Melfi does some of that with Tony, but a lot of their relationship is her calling him out on his behavior to varying degrees. Sometimes she dances around it and sometimes she can be confrontational.
DC: There were things Tony did that really offended her.
AS: How did you figure out, over time, what those boundaries were, and where she’d be more willing to say, “What you are doing is bad?”
DC: You know what’s odd? To a certain extent, and this is only a slight bit, but it’s there — with certain issues, it would be hard to tell the difference, in my head, between Lorraine Bracco and Melfi. If I felt “Lorraine would probably hate this,” a little bit of that would seep into Melfi. I tried to avoid that, but I couldn’t always do it.
MZS: Was it just a matter of knowing Lorraine as a person and her value system?
AS: Let’s talk about [Episode Five] “College.” At what point did you become conscious of the fact that Tony hadn’t killed anyone [in the show] yet?
DC: When we were trying to write the fifth episode. I had shied away from it when I wrote the pilot the first time, when I handed it in to Fox. I was thinking, “Network TV won’t let you do that kind of thing anyway, so don’t put in any murders or bombings or anything like that. Just do gangster tropes.” Then, once Fox turned it down, I thought, “You stupid asshole, that’s what people watch these things for.”
MZS: “Less yakking, more whacking.”
DC: Right! So when HBO bought the show, I knew that we had to get to it sooner or later. But I also didn’t want to be dependent on that stuff. I’ve said it a million times: The Sopranos, in one season, had more gangsters in New Jersey than there had been in twenty years, and more whackings! And when it was time to do “College,” I was starting to get bored with [the killing]. I was bored being there in New Jersey all the time. I said, “Let’s take them out of town, on vacation,” which turned out pretty well.
AS: One of the reasons it hits us as hard as it does is that Febby’s not a threat to him, he’s just a guy living his life.
DC: That was intentional. The network didn’t start complaining about that episode until after we’d shot it, and it was because that murder was really great. I don’t think a lot of TV actors would’ve done that, or given their all for that, the way Jim did. He had spit coming out of his mouth. When HBO read the script, they didn’t see any of that. Once they saw it and he was schvitzing and everything like that, that’s when Chris Albrecht called. He said, “We gotta do something about this,” and I said, “If he doesn’t kill that guy, he’s a scumbag. He’s a traitor and an informant. He has to be killed.” Then I came up with the stupid idea of the guy selling drugs to kids in high schools, which was, to me, a terrible cop-out.
AS: Junior is a housebound adviser and is increasingly senile in the later years, but he’s very proactive first here as a captain, and then as the on-paper boss. Did you miss that in the later years when you couldn’t do that anymore — because if he was active, Tony would’ve killed him?
DC: No. I was always very satisfied with the stories about Junior, what Junior became and how it started. He was everybody’s favorite character to write.
AS: Really? Why?
DC: I don’t know. Well, first Livia was. I guess it’s because they’re so outspoken. They’re senior citizens, so they just say whatever’s on their mind. They never pull their punches, they’re always very direct and outrageous. Christopher was another one we had a soft spot for, even though he was monumentally stupid. The characters who were the most fun to write were the ones who took themselves very seriously. The line people always quote to me is Livia’s, “Psychiatry? That’s just a racket for the Jews!” [Laughs]
AS: Speaking of psychiatry: the idea of doing this long bit [in “Isabella”] where Tony’s hallucinating and we don’t know it, and it ends up being a big part of the plot — where did that come from?
DC: I don’t know. I just dreamed it up, I think.
MZS: It’s the first instance of Tony having a dream or fantasy that leads him to a conclusion about his waking life — with Melfi’s help, of course. There’s a chain of realizations that leads him to figure out that his mother never loved him and wants him dead. I feel like “Isabella” and “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” are two halves of a two-parter. You have this psychic eruption in the first one that is analyzed and resolved in the second one.
DC: Yeah. You might say that Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is kind of a precursor, although I suppose people have done psychotic episodes, breakdowns, in movies and TV before where you didn’t know if it was the real thing or not. I think it was just sui generis.
AS: Was there ever a point where you wanted to leave the question of whether Isabella was real unresolved?
MZS: Okay, because later on you do leave things unresolved.
DC: I caught that disease. [Laughs] I wasn’t a spoiled baby at that time!
MZS: Tony has a long history of being in situations where he has to decide whether or not to kill a guy, and the answer is usually, “I’m going to kill him.”
DC: And he’s killing people he shouldn’t be killing personally.
MZS: The failed hit on Tony in “Isabella” is another instance where, in reference to “College,” he seems more alive, more emotionally connected to the world, happier, when he’s killing somebody or fighting for his life.
DC: I totally believe that. I think that would happen to any of us. We’d feel elated on some level. Or maybe not — maybe we’d be so blown away by the fact that we just came out of a near-lethal experience. But in his case, on a biochemical level, I believe that whatever those natural drugs are, they’d be kicked in by that happening.
MZS: You mention drugs, and in this show, a lot of drugs are used and a lot of people have issues with them, or are in recovery and should be, or they go into it, come out —
DC: And then they go back in.
MZS: Is violence a drug for Tony?
DC: I guess I’m gonna say yes.
AS: The orange juice — is that meant as any kind of Godfather homage?
DC: Not that I knew about!
AS: That just makes me think of all the theorization of the meaning of eggs in The Sopranos and how eggs represent death, and Valentina makes Egg Beaters so she only gets burned and doesn’t die! Was the egg thing something you were conscious of?
DC: Absolutely! [Laughs]
MZS: So the egg thing in The Sopranos is what oranges are to The Godfather!
DC: [Sarcastically] Exactly!
Katherine Heigl Reflects on 'Difficult' Label After 'Grey's Anatomy' Exit: 'I Got on My Soapbox'
- Heigl's Highs and Lows