Making ‘The Many Saints of Newark’
The ‘Sopranos’ godfather on his prequel film, ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ the series’ enduring legacy, and how he really feels about Hollywood
Inside the Sopranos prequel movie with writer David Chase and star Alessandro Nivola.
The day after The Sopranos famously cut to black, the show’s iconoclastic creator, David Chase, didn’t sound particularly interested in a film set in the fictional New Jersey Mob universe he’d brought to life over eight years — you know, the one that changed the landscape of television forever. “An idea could pop into my head where I would go, ‘Wow, that would make a great movie,’ but I doubt it,” he told me at the time. “I think we’ve kind of said it and done it.”
But where Tony Soprano rarely changed his mind, Chase eventually did. October 1st will see the premiere of The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film set in the late Sixties and early Seventies, focusing on the relationship between gangster Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) — father of the show’s Christopher — and a young Tony Soprano (played in the film’s second half by the late James Gandolfini’s own son, Michael). Co-written by Lawrence Konner, the story features younger versions of Sopranos characters like Tony’s depressed mother, Livia (played here by Vera Farmiga), his aggrieved Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), and his future henchmen Silvio ( John Magaro) and Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen). It also introduces new characters like Dickie’s father (Ray Liotta), his father’s bride Giussepina (Michela de Rossi), and Dickie’s African American associate-turned-rival Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.).
Jon Bernthal, who plays Tony’s father, Johnny Boy, was a longtime Sopranos fan who found himself in awe of the famously exacting writer when they worked up close. “He had this encyclopedic, Shakespearean insight into every single one of these characters,” Bernthal says. “Their histories and relationships existed in his heart. It staggered me being involved with this picture, going back into the series, seeing these seeds that were planted. That’s just other-level shit.”
At a bar in Hollywood, Chase discussed why he decided to do a Sopranos movie after all, the series’ enduring popularity, and more.
When did you realize that you actually did want to make a movie?
Oh, it was gradual. In the second season of the show, I think, the Writers Guild arranged for me
Alan Sepinwall is Rolling Stone’s chief TV critic and author of “The Sopranos Sessions.” to be interviewed by [ Oz creator] Tom Fontana. Tom said that he thought it would be interesting to do a story in Newark in the old days, of Johnny and Junior. And that appealed to me, because my mother comes from Newark at that time. My parents met in Newark at that time. So I used to go down to the Italian section of Newark with my mother. Every Saturday, she dragged me down there while she shopped for Italian food, groceries. So that appealed to me, and I never forgot it.
I was also always interested in the Newark riots. In film school or right after, I had wanted to make a movie about four guys who avoid the draft by joining the reserves, and they get sent in a tank into the Newark riots, and it changes their life. But I never did it. All those things combined into an interest in Newark for me. I felt I had some esprit of the place or something. Toby Emmerich, who was the head of New Line [Cinema] in the 2000s, kept pursuing me to do a Sopranos movie. Then finally he was the head of Warner Bros., and I had done a miniseries script for HBO which they wanted to do, but on a cheesy budget, and I refused to do that. So [finally] I thought, “OK.” That was it.
You’re very protective of the legacy of the show.
Absolutely. The idea of a prequel never entered my head. But then I remembered what Tom said, and then that made me think of a young Junior and a young Johnny.
Beyond your own experience, what about that period appealed to you?
It was when mobsters used to dress well. Before tracksuits and all that. I guess that was maybe the highlight of the Mob, in those days, before drugs and before the RICO statutes.
What was different about writing about the glory days of the Mob, versus Tony’s time?
It wasn’t really that different. A little bit less profanity, I figured, as I recall those days. When I was 18, in the beginning of the Sixties, everything was “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” But I think people of that older generation didn’t use that much profanity. That was very simple.
Dickie Moltisanti is mentioned a few times on the show as having died when Christopher was a baby. Why did he become the way into this period for you?
I was always interested in “Who was this guy Dickie Moltisanti that we wrote about?” Just I had interest in him as a character, and Christopher’s father, and the whole story. That Christopher had a father. I was interested in Christopher to begin with. When Larry and I sat down and started to write, we said that we wanted to have it be about a dynamic character. We had to get another Tony, somewhat. And out of the history of the show came Dickie. A mean, tough guy.
Well, Dickie’s father, as portrayed here by Ray Liotta, isn’t exactly a cuddly bunny rabbit. Did you ever approach Ray about being on The Sopranos?
I did. I took a train trip all the way down to Richmond, Virginia, to talk to him to play Ralphie, I believe it was, and he passed.
How does it feel to finally get him in a Sopranos project after all this time?
Oh, it’s great. And to watch him work, what he does is so fantastic. I’ve always been a Ray Liotta fan. I was mesmerized by him in his first big movie, Something Wild. I remember that turn in the last act, when all of a sudden he starts kicking the shower door down. I said, “Boy, that guy’s dangerous.”
Tony and his “uncle” Dickie and “nephew” Christopher are not biologically related. Meanwhile, Tony has an uncle, Junior, who he’s often not treated as an uncle. What about that kind of relationship is interesting to you?
I don’t know if it’s an Italian American specialty. A lot of that used to go around, that people were called “uncle” when they weren’t your uncle. A male family friend who was around a lot was often called Uncle So-and-So.
And obviously Tony murders his “nephew,” while his own biological uncle tried to kill him. These are not healthy relationships, necessarily.
No, no. The show didn’t specialize in healthy relationships.
We see both young Tony talking with his guidance counselor and Dickie speaking with his uncle in scenes that feel therapeutic.
That was intentional. It had worked the first time [with Tony and Dr. Melfi], and it’s really good, or maybe it’s a sign of laziness, when a character can just tell you what they’re thinking and feeling. One thing I always prized about The Sopranos was that people did not tell you about every feeling. Whatever they said, you couldn’t depend that it was true. But when you were in Melfi’s office and Tony said something that wasn’t true, you knew he was lying, because you knew you had seen the truth. I just like playing with that.
When did you first start thinking about the idea of having Michael Gandolfini play the teenage Tony?
Right away. Mostly because he looks like his father, and moves a little bit like him. He is his father’s son. So for a movie that’s supposed to be the same character, I thought, that would be the best.
When Michael started really capturing the essence of that character, what did that feel like to you, having been there when Jim played that role?
Well, it felt miraculous. And sometimes when things are miraculous or astounding, you start laughing, because it’s so incredible. But I remember looking across the room at the table read. And he was sitting there like this [re-creates adult Tony’s suspicious posture], and it wasn’t
“One thing I prized about ‘The Sopranos’ was people did not tell you about every feeling. What they said, you couldn’t depend it was true. ”
his scene. He was doing this thing and I thought, “Holy shit. That’s incredible.”
How closely did you want the actors playing Sopranos characters to stick to what the actors before them had done?
I probably would’ve been content with impressions. I probably would’ve gotten a kick out of it, if it was really working. But I would’ve known that that was wrong. Whether I would’ve had the willpower to stop, I don’t know.
How did Alan Taylor wind up directing the movie?
He did some of my favorite episodes of the show. I was going to direct it originally. That was the intention during the making of the deal and everything, and that’s also why I wanted to do it — I’d get to direct it. But there were simultaneous health crises in my family, so I couldn’t do it.
Was that bittersweet?
It was bitter, it wasn’t sweet at all.
The show had very few African American characters, and they were viewed from the outside by Tony and his friends. In the film, Leslie Odom’s character, Harold, is integral. Why was that interesting to you for this story?
Well, I wanted the audience to feel that he was as important and he was as powerful a character as Dickie and the white gangsters. I wanted him to be more equal.
You shot the movie in 2019. Then it was shelved due to Covid, and during that time in limbo, George Floyd was murdered and antipolice protests picked up around the world. As you were watching those events unfold, did you think about how you’d made something that was going to reflect the times?
I didn’t think of it that way. What I thought was, “Here we go again.” Or, “Well, it’s still going on.”
The show had a moment during the pandemic. It seemed to be something everyone was watching again.
It started happening before the pandemic. Anywhere I went, I’d meet guys of an age, I don’t know, in their forties or early fifties. And they’d say, “My kid just watches your show. He couldn’t watch it when it was on, he was a little kid. But him and his friends, that’s all they do is watch your show.” I thought, “Oh, that’s so great. I’m so glad to hear that.” And I would hear it, and hear it, and hear it. And then when Covid came along, it expanded, it burst open. I mean, if you were me, it was just astonishing. What is it about millennials and Gen Z people that they got into The Sopranos? I just don’t know. What do you think?
I think they see what Tony says to Melfi in that first session about his fear that he “came in at the end — the best is over,” and they recognize the show was right. All the things you had to say about the state of America, the world, culture, how bad things were getting, they’ve for the most part been proven, unfortunately, to be correct.
I believe you’re correct. And when you think about something like that — “Well, you proved to be correct” — you hope that it’s helpful. I don’t know if it is. I mean, are people ever changed or really fundamentally moved by a TV show or a movie? I’m not sure. I mean, I was. But I’m not sure that everybody is.
Have you thought about how the movie is going to play to people who have not seen the series at all?
Yeah, sure we did. That’s been a concern from the beginning. That’s why I really need to stress that the studio has made a lot about the fact that this is a Tony Soprano origin story. It wasn’t written that way. There is some of that in it. But the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti, and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late Sixties, early Seventies, in New Jersey, both black and white.
Whose idea was it to market it as “A Sopranos Story”?
The possibility that that would happen came up very early on. And then when we were doing the marketing, it didn’t come up for a long time, and then it did. And by the time it did, I was so exhausted from so many arguments with them that I . . . But I never expected the font to be that big. I always used to think about, “Well, ‘A Spike Lee Joint,’ so what can we put? ‘The Sopranos Salsiccia?’ ” We never did get around to thinking of something interesting. It was on there as a surprise to me, and I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t go back and fight.
Would you be interested in making another movie set in this universe?
I was not interested at all in that. Then we did some additional shooting, which brought the movie much more to my heart. And then I’ve had some conversations with other writers that I’ve worked with who might be interested in doing it, and if one of those guys was going to do it, I might do it with him. But that’s really not high on my list of what to do. I’m not getting any younger. I want to make another movie, hopefully, and it would not be this one.
Due to the bizarre circumstances of the past 17 months in our lives, the movie will be premiering on HBO Max at the same time that it’s in theaters—
[ Sarcastically] Isn’t that wonderful? I consider that . . . What’s that word from The Godfather? “Infamnia!”
What are you hoping for the audience’s response to it to be?
Well, I’m hoping that a lot of people go to see it. I couldn’t say anything more than that. If they don’t, they don’t. I have had arguments with the studio about things that they want, because it’ll put butts in seats, as they say, that I just don’t want to do and won’t do. It’s unfortunate for Hollywood and for major studios that their business happens to contain an art form. I have no sympathy, and if they wanted that not to be the case, they should’ve gone into the shoe business.