New Jersey gets a starring role in “The Sopranos,” but not star treatment: The show is raw, dark and refuses to romanticize its Mob subjects.
“David’s angle was always to be as poignant as possible, acute as possible, and by acute I mean not glorify anything, to shoot as simply and naturalistically as possible,” says d.p. Alik Sakharov of creator David Chase’s vision for the show. “He grew up in New Jersey, and the show was designed with his intimate understanding and knowledge of New Jersey.”
The look of the show — “David likes contrasty images; I photograph colors in values using black-and-white techniques,” Sakharov says — has a lot to do with the aesthetic of Chase as executed by the production team, including production designer Bob Shaw, costume designer Juliet Polcsa, Sakharov (who shot the pilot and the first six episodes) and Phil Abraham, who has been trading lensing duties with Sakharov for a few seasons.
“The decisions were laid down by David in the pilot,” Sakharov says. “His sensibility is very filmic.”
And what’s on the page also dictates what’s onscreen.
“The script very much influences what we’re going to do,” says Abraham, noting that what’s on the page doesn’t change, and they find a way to visualize the words.
“What those guys write is amazing. I call David the king of subtext,” Sakharov says.
The show never followed TV drama conventions.
“Wide lenses were our hallmark in the beginning, but like anything else it changed, because maybe you want to try something different,” Abraham says. “But the underlying thing is that New Jersey is the central character.”
Sakharov says that since the approach is very theatrical, it “dictates a certain way of covering” the scenes, not moving the camera, and sometimes withholding information, sometimes exposing it — for instance, Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
“I’ve been experimenting with Tony in the sessions, nothing’s resolved, and the shadows are getting deeper,” Sakharov says. “But (Dr. Melfi’s) lighting is always a little different, she’s much less hidden as a character, whereas Tony speaks in code; he’s a deeply conflicted man. If I would front-light him and show everything, I would fail as a d.p.”
That round therapy room may be tricky — and even a bit boring — for the lensers, but on a conceptual level, Shaw says, it’s “very interesting. There are no corners; it’s a very different statement than putting them in a room with corners.” Indeed, there’s nowhere to hide, nor does the therapy solve anything.
It’s this kind of visual depth that helps raise “The Sopranos” from just another TV drama to full-on theatrical event, week in and week out.
“The show is about so much more than the Mob; it’s about culture,” Shaw says.
The characters’ homes reflect the socioeconomics of the north Jersey Mob: The upmarket, striving, aspirational Sopranos live in a showy manse that can’t be differentiated from the Wall Streeter next door or the attorneys across the street, yet “there’s also a certain generation in that business that led a lifestyle that didn’t reflect great wealth,” says Shaw, himself a half-Italian New Jersey native.
Shaw and set decorator Janet Shaw (no relation) approached elderly Uncle Junior’s (Dominic Chianese) dark home — sporting decor and furniture circa the late 1950s/early1960s — with the facts of that character’s life in mind: Here was a man who never married and probably took over his parents’ home after they died. “Someone of his generation never left the family house. People weren’t mobile in those days. Even if they had the means to move, they didn’t,” Bob Shaw observes.
The apartment shared by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo) echoed “a New Jersey guy’s idea of sophistication,” says Shaw: a modern place that was decked out in black leather and chrome.
Costume designer Polcsa brings a different mandate to the set. “I design for character, not atmosphere,” she says. She made Carmela (Edie Falco) sexy and gave her some “oomph, and there had to be oomph,” says Polcsa, who has spent many years in the New York entertainment scene. “I went to malls and really studied women. Carmela needed more jewelry, the right nails, form-fitting clothes.”
She was also up against the “Married to the Mob”/”Casino”/ “Goodfellas” axis of preconceived notions about what Mob wives and girlfriends look like.
“You get the genre, but I was always concerned that Carmela is not that woman. She’s a fine line between tacky and sophisticated,” Polcsa asserts.
That fine line informs the costume designs of the whole show. Polcsa and her crew hit the local Jersey malls and small boutiques.
“When I was doing research, I came across this store called Cache,” Polcsa recalls. “Some of the stuff can be tacky and some is sophisticated and some is sexy. This is geared for women over 30 and 40, and it takes a lot of confidence to wear it.”
Confidence and inner strength are other influences behind the women’s clothes. Polcsa has discovered that the Mob guys had a decade that they liked and stuck with it, while “the women follow fashion but not the trends.”
But when Carmela when to Paris, her makeup, hair and clothes showed that she was on an internal journey: She was softer and less Jersey. “Carmela had an appreciation and understanding of things she came across in Paris, and it would have taken away from that message if her clothes were too tacky,” Polcsa says.
Similarly, when Tony was in a coma, Falco was stripped down, no makeup, hair unkempt, basic sweatsuits and T-shirts, very little jewelry. “Her world could collapse, and you see her vulnerability,” Polcsa says.
Does she miss dressing the flamboyant Adriana? “God yes!”