Tony Soprano is one of the most influential characters in television history, clearing the way for such memorable antiheroes as Don Draper in “Mad Men,” Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” and Vic Mackey in “The Shield.” The saga of the New Jersey crime boss with nagging business and personal problems earned 21 Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards during its six-season run on HBO.
Now, 14 years later, series creator David Chase returns to the mob scene with The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel that explores the environment that shaped the young Tony Soprano, played by relative newcomer Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late, much-loved “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini. The script, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is set in Newark in the turbulent late ‘60s and early ‘70s and follows Tony’s relationship with his beloved uncle, gangster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). The impressive cast also features Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Ray Liotta, Corey Stoll, Billy Magnussen, and Vera Farmiga as Tony’s emotionally withholding mother, Livia.
Also returning to the “Sopranos” family is the prequel’s director, Alan Taylor, who helmed nine episodes and won an Emmy for directing the season-six episode “Kennedy and Heidi.” Taylor’s feature credits include Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys, and his many TV gigs include “Game of Thrones,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Oz,” “Sex and the City,” “Deadwood,” “Lost,” and “Mad Men,” the latter earning him a Directors Guild Award.
“Like the series, it’s not just a gangster movie,” Taylor says of The Many Saints. “It’s got that ‘Sopranos’ combination of tones of humor and absurdity and strangeness, and the occasional dreamy moments that David Chase put in the series.” The Warner Bros. release arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on October 1.
How long has this project been in the works, and at what point did you get involved?
It’s been in the works a long time, mostly because of Covid. I didn’t hear about it until it was ready to go. David sent me the script in 2019, and that was the first I’d heard there was even a project in the works. I read it, we met for lunch, and he told me he wanted me to do it. Then he and Larry and I developed the script for several months, and we had a normal prep period and started shooting. And then we were shut down by Covid and had to scramble. Our production manager was smart enough to pull the shoot back together as quickly as we could when Covid backed off a little bit. As he predicted, we had an opening where we could shoot, and then things started to close down again. We managed to finish shooting the movie in that window. We completed the movie early this year, and again because of Covid the release date was shifted by Warner Bros. So, it’s been long in gestation. In some ways, that was kind of a good thing … because it gave us a chance to reflect on the movie we were making. David actually added a couple of scenes that I think ultimately helped shape the movie.
I’m amazed you were able to get this done during the pandemic. That must have been so challenging,
An industry cropped up to handle it. A good friend of mine wound up overseeing the Covid protocols, and that’s become an industry unto itself. A lot of productions managed to do it. But it’s crazy. Everybody has to be in a separate bubble, and you have to be tested three times a week. And the risk of having to shut the whole production down because one person tests positive is looming the whole time. We had to take scenes that we intended to shoot as interiors and move them to exteriors. But some of the changes we were forced to do wound up making it better.
It’s been 14 years since the series ended. How did it feel coming back into that world?
Even when I read the script that David gave me, it felt really good, because there’s such a specific voice to that show and such a specific take on the big questions. Bringing Michael into it was a big part of the return to the show because of his connection to his dad. But there wasn’t that much overlap with the show in the actual shooting, except when we built Satriale’s, the pork store. When people walked onto that set, you could see it affecting them. For me and the crew and some of the friends coming to visit, it was a powerful moment, because you felt like when you walked onto the stage 14 years ago.
How much of a gamble was it to give Michael Gandolfini this big responsibility?
I think in the end it was not a gamble at all, but yeah, up front it seems like it could have been one. We were looking at other young actors to play that part while we were still ruminating on the possibility of it being Michael. There were a lot of questions. One was whether Michael wanted to, whether he would be emotionally up to taking on something that would be so personal for him. Then once we decided we wanted to try it, he had to come in and audition for me and David and show that he could handle it. Because it wouldn’t be good for anybody if he wasn’t quite up to it, But the audition was really, really good. We also just felt the rightness of it in the room, being around him. Right before we even started shooting, we had a final dinner with the cast, and Michael stood up at one point and said he wanted to thank everybody for giving him this chance to say hello to his dad again, and to say goodbye again. And there was not a dry eye in the house. At that point we hadn’t even started shooting, but it became so clear that we were doing the right thing. So when we went into the movie, it didn’t feel like a gamble anymore—none of us wanted to make a movie that didn’t have him in it by that point. I don’t know about other directors, but I second-guess everything and live in the constant agony of anxiety and regret. But occasionally there are decisions that just feel right. And getting Michael into the movie was one of those.
Did you have to work with him much to evoke Tony Soprano, or did that come naturally to him?
I think some of it came naturally, for obvious reasons, but he did work on it. He immersed himself in the show, which apparently he had never watched before. So you can imagine how strange and emotional that would have been to hole up in his apartment and watch season after season of his dad. But he did it rigorously, to get the gestures and the mannerisms and the voice down. There was a real range of tones for the character, because this is Tony before he darkened and hardened up. So we’re seeing a particular flavor of the character in the movie, partly because Michael has a different disposition than Tony. Allowing him to bring that side of his personality into the performance was really important.
I’m sure you’re proud to be part of what’s considered one of the greatest TV series of all time. How are you dealing with people’s expectations about the movie?
Mostly lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, with self-doubt and anxiety—that’s normal. In some ways it was the hardest job I ever did, partly for that reason. I felt such respect and pride for the original, and the idea of stirring it up again was daunting. Wanting to make sure that we were true to the show, but also make it cinematic. And not wanting to disappoint the fans, but not wanting to disappoint David Chase himself, which was a horrific prospect. I think I took it on partly because the challenge was so enticing: How do you take this and put this on a big screen? One of the great insights of “The Sopranos” the show was to take the classic gangster movie and put it on the small screen and make it contemporary. When you take that and make it period and put it on the big screen, you’re taking away some of the things that defined the show. So you think about what the essence of “The Sopranos” is and how you translate that to a bigger screen in a way that’s in a continuum with the show. How the camera moves or doesn’t move, what lenses we use, the tone of the humor—those are things I certainly wrestled with. How to bring the aesthetic of the show to the big screen.
Aside from “The Sopranos,” you have an amazing list of TV credits. Does it still feel very special to you to make a feature for movie theaters?
Yes, for all kinds of reasons. I think all directors feel like the distinction between what’s considered TV and what’s considered a movie is getting vaguer and vaguer, and the border between them is getting softer and softer. From the golden age of TV onwards and with things as big-budget as “Game of Thrones,” TV was certainly getting more and more cinematic. And at the same time, a lot of the movies people go to see are basically episodic—you know, Spider-Man 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, sort of episodes in the grand continuum. So it’s harder and harder to say what the difference is between movies and TV, but I do still carry some of that snobbery. I went to NYU, and we all want to be filmmakers, not TV makers, so I have some residual visual snobbery from that. But the scale of the image that you’re seeing in the theater, and also sharing it as an audience, is a big difference. I think there’s still something different and exciting about creating something that’s more meant to be a social experience than seen on your laptop. Many Saints in a way was really personal for me, because it was a chance to fuse my TV experience and my movie experience, which I’ve never been able to do before.
Vera Farmiga really captures the tone of Nancy Marchand’s Livia Soprano. Casting the younger versions of the TV series’ characters must have been one of the fun parts of the process.
It was fun partly because there’s so much respect for the “Sopranos” property and so much respect for David that we had access to wonderful actors who wanted to do it. So getting Vera as Livia, getting Corey Stoll to be Junior, getting Jon Bernthal to be Johnny Boy—we could really reach for who we wanted, and people trust the world enough that they were ready to come on board. They’re also so good at what they do that they were all striking the right balance between their performance of the character and the performance of the previous actor.
Alessandro Nivola is such a solid actor. I always thought he should be a bigger star than he is.
I was very aware of him, and his work is always great. But he’s never had that breakout role. David and I both fell in love with him for this. And then he did an audition on his own on tape and just nailed it. It was clear that he was the right guy. I do hope this becomes a breakout for him, because it really is his story and his character goes through absolutely everything. … Dickie is a “Sopranos” leading man in many ways, because he’s torn in the same way that Tony is. He knows he’s got a monster in him and he’s trying to wrestle with that.
Was it a deliberate goal of David Chase to explore the racial tensions in Newark at the time, considering what we’ve been through in the past two years?
It’s interesting how that’s played out. I don’t think David would say he was interested in exploring the racial tensions. I think he was interested in trying to capture that time that he experienced and all its volatility. The funny thing is, we wrote this and started shooting before the explosion of George Floyd, before the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. So when we paused midway because of Covid and then got back into finishing it, it was a little daunting to think: Is the movie we made before all this going to speak to the world that we’re in now? I’m relieved and grateful that it actually does seem to transfer well. In fact, there were some people who saw the movie who couldn’t believe we’d come up with it before all this happened, because it seems to speak to our current moment. I was waiting to see what key people thought, like Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Harold—he saw the film and was happy with it. So that was sort of, OK, I think we got this right. But it does seem to be supercharged in terms of concerns that have become very foregrounded recently. It’s challenging stuff. Like all of David’s stuff, it’s about America as much as anything else. It was risky to take that stuff on, but I think it’s done in a way that holds up.
Here you are making a period crime film. Were there role models in your head as you were doing it?
I tried to have the [TV] show be a big compass on how to do things. You can’t get into this territory without Scorsese dominating your peripheral vision, because it’s American gangsters in New Jersey and New York, early ’70s. What I ended up doing was focusing on the things that made us different from everything else. There are things in David’s voice that only take place in the “Sopranos” world, that set it apart from other gangster movies or other filmmakers who go into this world. And part of it is there’s a slight surrealism at times in “The Sopranos,” a dreaminess. In the show we’d frequently drift into dreams, and you didn’t really know you were in one until you emerged from it. There’s a sense of the absurd you’d feel in the show that I think is in our movie too. Anything I could find where I could say, “OK, this would not happen in a Scorsese movie,” that was like a guidepost for how to approach things.
But there was always this deliberate Goodfellas connection to “The Sopranos” [including cast members Lorraine Bracco and Michael Imperioli]. And you strengthened it even more by casting Ray Liotta in this film.
We had lunch with him, and we just knew that we really wanted him. I had heard that David and Ray were actually talking about Ray being in the series at some point. I’m not sure exactly what they had in mind, but that never happened. Yeah, you’re firmly into Scorsese territory. I would say that you’ll see that we did something interesting with the way Ray’s cast that puts it firmly back in “Sopranos” and David Chase territory. It’s a connection to the Scorsese vision, but it’s a little strange.
Can you talk a bit about David Chase and the influence he’s had on your career?
I feel like I sort of grew up on “The Sopranos.” I came out of film school, and I had done maybe one TV thing and one feature. David saw the feature and hired me for the first season of “The Sopranos.” I don’t even know if he liked the movie, but it took place in New Jersey, so I think that sort of reassured him that at least one of his directors had worked in the streets of New Jersey. So I was there for season one, and off and on throughout the series, and I was there towards the end. It became one of the constants in my filmmaking life. … I learned a lot from David’s rigor on what was right and what was wrong—there was a way to shoot “The Sopranos” that was not like other shows. I remember when I was shooting “The Sopranos,” I was also shooting “Sex in the City,” speaking two completely different languages. There was one occasion where I did a dolly shot that really belonged on “Sex and the City” and did not belong on “The Sopranos.” And David came down and yelled, “We don’t do this!” That was a way of learning how the camera is a language and how it’s appropriate for every show to ideally have its own language. And I applied that later to the process of, what is the language of “Game of Thrones”? What is the language of “The West Wing”? What is the language of “Deadwood”?