Both subjects naturally came up Monday night at IFC Center’s Split Screens Festival screening and conversation about the much-lauded episode titled “Pine Barrens.”
Prior to the panel discussion, Chase was awarded the festival’s inaugural Vanguard Award, presented by co-executive producer and co-writer Terence Winter and the episode’s director (and series guest star) Steve Buscemi.
“The Vanguard award is specifically for people who have created significantly evolutionary advances in the way we tell stories, and I can think of no better person to be given the better first one of these awards than David Chase,” said Split Screens Artistic Director and film/television critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who moderated the hourlong conversation.
All three guests had never seen the episode on the big screen or with an audience.
“I think we need to talk about the Russian,” said Seitz. “Have people ever stopped asking you about the Russian?”
“No,” Chase replied.
“Why is it not important to know what happened to the Russian?” Seitz asked.
“I don’t know. I always felt this episode was kind of like a folktale. It’s just the feeling I got from it,” Chase answered.
Several little known facts about the making of the episode did come to light: shot between December 2000 and January 2001, it wasn’t cold enough to see the actors’ breath in the woods, so a little new (and expensive) technology called CGI was utilized; as funny as the episode is, not a single line was improvised; Buscemi was the only one who could aim a steak at James Gandolfini’s head; and the episode was originally slated for season two, but the stars aligned and it found a home as the 11th episode of season three.
“[Buscemi] came to be a part of the show as a director because he had done the movie — I think it’s a great movie — called “Trees Lounge.” And I love that movie. I thought it was so well-directed and so clear and not baroque or anything like that,” said Chase. “And from that movie we got our casting people: Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe. They were the casting directors at that time on his movie.”
Seitz then asked the audience if anyone had not seen the movie and after a few raised hands said, “You should go see this movie immediately. All you need to know is there’s a rather long sequence where an irate Steve Buscemi drives an ice cream truck. If that doesn’t sell you on that, I don’t know what will.”
Buscemi was asked by an audience member later if he got more satisfaction from acting or directing on “The Sopranos.”
“When I acted on the show I was very nervous and intimidated, but they just made me feel so welcomed. I loved acting on the show. Directing always makes me a little more anxious. There’s so much that you have to sort of keep in your head. But as a director, I also get to act every part in my head,” said Buscemi.
Seitz even brought up the final scene of the final episode. “I feel I should mention, and not that I want to encourage this debate, but we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of the final episode and what I wanted to do for a ‘Sopranos’ panel was show the finale and we’ll talk about the finale but thought, ‘We can’t do that because David will never come out for that.’”
He continued, “You’ve explained what you were trying to do generally, not specifically. To me, this is the first blatant example to me of that kind of thing that people will fixate on, the obvious sort of linger narrative.”
To conclude the panel, Seitz gifted Chase, Winter and Buscemi with black T-shirts that read: “Stop asking me about the Russian.”