What it was really like to write for The Sopranos: Exclusive book excerpt
Over the six-season run of The Sopranos, Robin Green wrote 22 episodes with her longtime husband, Mitchell Burgess, including the iconic (and Emmy-winning) episodes “Employee of the Month” and “Whitecaps.” In her new memoir The Only Girl, she reflects on her experiences with series creator David Chase, star James Gandolfini, and more. Below you can read an excerpt of the book, in which Green reveals how she got hired, how episodes were broken down, and much more. The Only Girl can be purchased here.
Mitch and I read various permutations of The Sopranos script, all terrific, one with no swearwords or nudity for the networks, another with both for cable. Fox and NBC declined. CBS too—Les Moonves didn’t mind that the guy was a murderer, but did he have to take Prozac? In the end, Brad Grey convinced David they should circle back to an interested party, HBO.
At the time, HBO broadcast boxing on Saturday nights and had ventured slightly into original content with quirky shows like Dream On and the wonderfully sly The Larry Sanders Show, a send-up of late-night talk shows and TV egos. That year they were to air a fresh new half-hour called Sex and the City, but it wouldn’t prove to have much of an audience—not yet, anyway. But compared with network TV, HBO was nowhere, an elephant graveyard, shuffling off to Buffalo, bye-bye big time.
Still, in David’s discussions with HBO, their creative executives were giving him all the right signals—he should film in New Jersey, spend what was needed, cast non-network types. (Imagine, for instance, if a network-star player like Anthony LaPaglia had been Tony Soprano instead of James Gandolfini.) David signed on and by midsummer had directed, edited, and mixed the pilot. Late one night after Mitch and I had gone to bed, the phone rang and it was David, asking whether, were the show to be picked up to series, we’d want to write for it; we’d have to move to New York. It took us about a nanosecond to say yes.
But nothing happened. Not a word from HBO, zip. They had until the end of the year before the actors’ contracts would expire. Meantime, David so loved the pilot he’d made that he arranged his own screening at Sony’sstudios, invited friends and colleagues, and had a catered Italian buffet set out in the lobby afterward. The show was wonderful—beautifully shot and acted. And, like the scripts, sharp and funny. But still, nothing from HBO.
David advised us to move on and we took a job at the popular Fox hour Party of Five. We tried, we really did, but we didn’t have much feeling forthe show, and the show-runners didn’t have much feeling for us. It was not a happy few months. The day before we were all to head off on Christmas vacation, Mitch and I were in the bosses’ office getting notes on a script when our assistant (no longer referred to as a secretary) poked her head in the door.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but there’s a Tommy Soprano on the phone for you.” (Tommy was Soprano’s original name, but when it didn’t clear legal—meaning there was an actual Thomas Soprano in New Jersey—his name was changed to Tony.)
“You know somebody like that?” one of our bosses said, figuring just from the name it was some kind of gangster. We nodded and smiled, glancing at each other with the silent communication of twins, both realizing that this was David’s way of telling us The Sopranos was going to series. We were saved!
“Tell Tommy we’ll call back,” we said, and our notes session resumed.
Party of Five let us go with no trouble—we had been a bad match there, so good riddance. We were heading, after all, into the then-Nowheresville of cable TV. We were paid per episode, so that meant we’d be making about half the money we had on Party of Five, since that series, like most network shows, had an order of twenty-two, while Sopranos had only twelve. Our agent thought we were nuts, but we didn’t care. We loved The Sopranos and it was—and remained, for a very long time—a labor of love. Especially in that first year.
While we were waiting for the editing bays in Oliver Stone’s suite of offices down the street to be vacated, David, Mitch, and I met for long lunches at an Italian restaurant on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where David filled us in on his idea for the dramatic arc for the season involving Tony’s conflict with his mother. Beyond that, he had four stories in mind—each show, while it served the overall arc, should be strong enough to stand on its own, he said, “like a little movie.” But after those four, he said he had nada, that for all he knew, the whole thing could come crashing back to Earth like the Mir space station.
We ate pasta puttanesca, drank Chianti, laughed, and talked about Tony and Big Pussy and Uncle Junior and about both David and my familiarity with the Mob in our own hometowns. He filled us in about the writers he was hiring, Frank Renzulli in particular, a special case who, like the character Spider in Goodfellas, had served as a gofer for the boss of the Boston Mob at his Maverick Square social club/headquarters in East Boston. Frank was the real deal and a terrific writer too, but, David warned, he was also a compulsive talker, a mass of nerves and tics, and David didn’t know how Frank would work in the collaborative setting of a story room.
Soon, the offices were ours and we met as a staff around a conference table—David, Mitch, Frank, Jason Cahill, James Manos Jr., Mark Saraceni, and me (once again the only female). And boy, did Frank talk. And David let him talk. And talk. For hours that day, until finally he’d talked himself out. And boy, was he worth it, providing so much of what someone later called “the authentic Italian marinara.”
For instance, it was Frank who came up with one of the best ideas, an Emmy-winning idea, for that first season. We’d broken stories and created outlines for the first two episodes after the pilot when David came into work one morning and declared he was feeling claustrophobic and needed to get out of town—not David himself, but Tony. He’d had this idea that Tony should take his daughter, Meadow, on a college tour, already a wonderfully antithetical scenario for a hardened Mob boss, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Something more than the delicious irony of a gangster driving around visiting ivy-covered campuses had to happen.
We all pondered for a stymied few minutes, until Frank piped up: Tony should come across a man he recognized as a Mob rat who was now in witness protection somewhere in remote New England. The idea was perfect: he had his daughter with him but still had to find time to kill the bastard. The back of the story for the fourth episode, “College,” had been broken. David went immediately to the whiteboard, grabbed a Magic Marker, and wrote out the beats, scenes that just seemed to lay themselves out in a way that was almost automatic. Once David saw a story, he was a master.
In the morning, Mitch and I came back with beats for the B story, in which Tony’s wife, Carmela, bedridden with the flu while Tony’s off with Meadow, has an almost-dalliance with her priest and also learns from him that Tony’s therapist is a woman.
The writers’ assistant typed up the beats for both stories and then I cut those pages into strips, a strip for each beat, laid them on the table, and then, as if solving a puzzle, moved them around and married them to create a cohesive outline for the episode. (Unlike network TV, there was no four-act format with act breaks that were mini-cliffhangers to ensure viewers stayed through commercials. Here, it was one continuous fifty minutes or so with more of a movielike, three-act, no-break structure.)
Taking scissors to beat pages, rearranging them, and Scotchtaping them down was one of the things I loved most. Was it a craftsy/girly way of doing it? Maybe. After all, I’d learned it from a former ballerina. Whatever it was, I was good at it and it was deeply satisfying, much in the way that counting the words of all my Rolling Stone pieces had been.
James Manos, whom we called Macho Man behind his back, was to write the episode, though David ultimately shared writing credit because he rewrote so much of it. It seemed fitting when, more than a year later, at the Emmy Awards, Manos was outside smoking a cigarette when it was announced that he and David had won the Emmy for writing, and, since no one was allowed back into the auditorium while the show was on air, it was left to David alone to take the stage and accept the statue.
Finally, it was June 1998 and time to go to New York to start filming. Frank had stayed behind in LA with his wife and children, but David and Mitch and I found sublets and moved east for the four-plus months it would take to shoot the series. Our writing offices were housed in a vast space in Silvercup, a converted bread factory in Queens across the East River from Manhattan. Downstairs and down the block were our stages and sets: the interior of the Soprano kitchen and dining room, an exact replica of those in the house in suburban New Jersey where David had shot the pilot, and also the Soprano Mob family social club and Artie Bucco’s new restaurant (Tony having blown up his old one in the pilot).
The production spent half its time filming there and the other half on location in New Jersey. The trucks were loaded— wardrobe, electrical, makeup, props, the actors’ three-bangers and two-bangers and Winnebagos—and Teamsters drove them over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, through Manhattan, into the Lincoln or Holland Tunnel or over the George Washington Bridge, then onto the labyrinthine New Jersey highway systems to locations north, west, and south.
The day would last twelve or fourteen or fifteen hours and then it was time to load the trucks and go back again—highways, tunnels, bridges, and streets to Silvercup. The actors and other above-the-line personnel like David, Mitch, and me would make the trip in vans that would pick us up somewhere in Manhattan and drop us back off late at night, sometimes well into the next day if shooting had started late enough, say at noon, the day before. We didn’t shoot closer to home in New York because David rightly felt it would look inauthentic.
That summer, we filmed in the heat of New Jersey’s marshy, mosquito-ridden suburbs, in a Trenton cemetery, and at the Bada Bing, the name on our signage for an actual strip club on Highway 17. Frank had originally called it the Final Lap, which, because it was the name of a strip club in Minnesota, didn’t clear. In New York, when David learned it hadn’t cleared, he called Frank in LA, and then and there Frank came up with a new name: the Bada Bing.
Before each episode, we had a table-read, all the actors reading their lines in the new script. “Look at us,” Lorraine Bracco exclaimed in her lusty, growly voice at the first one. “Look at all these Italians!” And except for Nancy Marchand, Mitch, me, and Ilene Landress, the line producer, they all were, the rest of them, first-, second-, third-generation Italian.
Unlike network shows, which air while you’re still writing and shooting, all our shows would be in the can by the time we went on the air in January, David working by phone with editors in LA, color-timing and mixing at Lantana once we’d finished in New York. Which meant that now we were working in a bubble—breaking stories, writing, casting, at tone meetings going over every line and scene with that episode’s director to make sure we were all on the same page—with no idea how the show would be received. All of us—writers, producers, cast, and crew—were working for the sheer creative joy of it. That’s what it felt like that first season.
Also unlike network shows, where getting script notes from executives at studios and networks has been likened to being pecked to death by ducks, there were no notes from HBO. Well, there was a note once, when Chris Albrecht, then head of programming creative, suggested David add a scene in “College” to further justify Tony’s choking the witness-protection guy to death with his bare hands, since his having been a rat might not be seen as enough reason to kill him and could alienate Tony forever from his audience. The scene was added. But that was it for notes. And, also unlike the networks, there was no questioning of costs. HBO never said no.
Late one afternoon, when filming was done and the show was wrapping, Mitch and I were sitting around with David in his office.
“So, what do you think?” David asked. “You think this thing’s got a chance?”
“I think,” I said, “that it will either change television forever or sink like a stone.”
David rolled his eyes. “Robin… ” he said, trailing off with a world-weary shake of his head.
Looking back, I can see that the show might very well have sunk like a stone if, say, the Columbine massacre—in which twelve students and a teacher were shot to death by a couple of asshole seniors at a high school in Jefferson County, Colorado—had taken place the week before the show started airing instead of three months after. The audience most likely would have had no stomach for the violence of The Sopranos; people would probably have been repelled, unable to find any of it funny in the least. In that way, television is a crapshoot, dependent on the zeitgeist.
But there was no such pall over the premiere of The Sopranos. The screening was held on a cold January night in the basement theater of a record store on Times Square. After the show ended, Mitch and I went out to the lobby and watched as the audience filed out, and we could see from the expression on everyone’s face that we had a hit. People were beaming. The energy was high. Even my highbrow friends were smiling ear to ear. We all headed into the night to the afterparty around the corner at John’s Pizza.
The following year, we’d have our season premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater, the afterparty at a nearby Hilton. The next year we’d fill Radio City Music Hall and the party afterward would take up all of Rockefeller Plaza, inside and out. After the very first episode aired, the show exploded. Scholars likened us to Balzac. HBO’s ratings skyrocketed. We got nominated and won every award there was. And just as I’d said we might, we ushered in a new golden age, changing television forever.
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