After eight years of spinning stories about the New Jersey mafia man and his clan, showrunner David Chase is closing up the writers’ room that for the staff of “The Sopranos” had been the ultimate payday.
Being a member of the gang meant getting to “indulge your imagination and reject all of the ideas and preconceptions about storytelling and TV,” says Matthew Weiner, who joined the staff in 2002 and exec produces the show’s upcoming final episodes. “It was a great, sometimes pretentious, often profane dialogue.”
Writers rotated in and out of the show throughout its eight-year run as they successfully met or failed to live up to the show’s high standards.
“(I look for) just the best possible writer,” Chase says. “(People) who could be subtle and make scenes turn on a dime.”
Chase adds that often it meant having a certain feel for “East Coast ball-breaking banter, sort of casual psychological abuse. … If people didn’t have a feel for that, it became very difficult.”
A strong stomach and sense of humor were also crucial. Weiner explains it as “naturally taking pleasure in the misfortune of others,” while Terence Winter, an exec producer who has won two Emmys for his writing on the show, describes it as “sort of a ‘Three Stooges’ mentality. If I see someone fall down on the street, my first reaction is to laugh.”
Mitchell Burgess, a former exec producer who spent seven years on the show, grew up in Iowa but says his background was equally essential. “I had a family. I knew family drama. That’s really what ‘The Sopranos’ is.”
The original staff came together in 1998, holed up a tiny office in Queens that was situated right above the set of Tony Soprano’s house.
“That first year we worked in obscurity,” says Robin Green, who along with writing partner Burgess spent seven years with the series. “Everyone thought we were writing about opera singers. HBO even tried to come up with a new name for the show because of it.
“But it was heaven. We could do and say anything we wanted.”
Weiner, who recently helped wrap the finale, says he sorely misses the conversations he’d have with the writers. “Nothing was too dirty, too angry, too racist, or too highfalutin.”
Rather than working up grandiose gangster fiction, however, most of the storyline discussion revolved around the writers’ personal lives. Chase would kickstart the dialogue by bringing in a chart of the season’s story arcs and where he thought they’d go, but Winter says it was often their conversational digressions that made the show.
“Usually, we’ll throw a fair amount of what’s on that (original) graph out,” Chase says.
Winter once told a story to Chase about how he pissed off a girlfriend, who retaliated by throwing a London broil at him. In season three, Tony’s frustrated mistress Gloria (Annabella Sciorra) lobs the same slab of meat at him.
“We’d sit around for days on end, just talking free form, free association, telling stories about our lives, ordering a lot of lunch,” Winter says with a laugh. “It felt like procrastination, but it was part of the process.”
The gritty realism that defines “The Sopranos” as prestige programming comes from its grounding in the real world.
“Being specific is very important to David,” Weiner says. “Every name, place and incident that isn’t from our lives is from his, down to the tiniest detail. A birthday present in the background of a certain scene? It’s very likely that it’s from his past.”
But the writers credit the show’s distinctiveness to Chase.
“Everything interesting about the show comes from David. We help him realize his vision,” Weiner says. “We’re a great audience for his ideas, and we shepherd them often using stories from our own lives … but in the end, we’re telling his story the way he wants it.”