David Chase has said that the goal of each episode of The Sopranos is to function as a mini-movie. Few individual episodes provide a more memorable example of that ethos than Season Three’s ”Pine Barrens.”
The action was simple enough: Tony tells Paulie and Christopher to pick up some money from a Russian mobster for Silvio, who’s sick with a virus. Already grumbling, Paulie and Christopher show up and Paulie picks a fight that ends with the Russian apparently dead. The two decide to bury the body in the Pine Barrens, an enormous tract of woodland in southern New Jersey. When they arrive, the putatively dead Russian hits Christopher with a shovel and takes off, leading the guys on a chase that leaves them lost in the freezing woods.With increasing joy, we proceed to watch them fall apart.
Part Deliverance, part Abbott and Costello Meet the Russian, part Blair Witch Project, and all Sopranos, the resulting episode is also a case study in how good television is often a product of both good planning and happy accidents.
DAVID CHASE: As I remember it, Tim Van Patten had some sort of dream about Paulie and Christopher lost in the forest. You know, two guys from Nutley with their city shoes on, walking around the woods.
TIM VAN PATTEN, DIRECTOR: My father was a horse player and he used to take me and my brother to Atlantic City. On the way down, he’d always try to make an adventure out of it, so we’d stop off at the Pine Barrens. He’d tell us these crazy stories about the Jersey Devil — half-man and half-beast — living in there. It was a spooky place with a kind of magic in it. So, I was lying in bed and I sort of half-dreamed this idea.
TERENCE WINTER, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Tim mentioned the idea to me, and I said, ”If you don’t go into David’s office and tell him this, I am going to steal it and go in myself.”
Van Patten had his dream during Season Two, but it wasn’t until the end of Season Three that the idea fit into the show’s plot. Steve Buscemi drew the directing duties, the first of four episodes he’d direct.
STEVE BUSCEMI, DIRECTOR: Originally the idea was that this was going to be an easy episode: The guys go into the woods and it’s short and simple. But it turned out to be the first episode that took twelve days to shoot.