SPOILER WARNING: This story discusses a major sequence in “The Many Saints of Newark,” currently playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
Part of the enduring appeal of “The Sopranos” was how the HBO series operated in counterpoint to decades of organized crime myth-making by Hollywood, from Warner Bros. gangster pictures of the 1930s up through “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas.” The show’s psychologically complex central anti-hero, Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini), wasn’t glamorous or flashy or cool, and the many acts of violence on the show, generally, weren’t either.
So when regular “Sopranos” director Alan Taylor and series creator David Chase agreed to make the prequel feature film “The Many Saints of Newark” — which follows Tony’s formative years as a teenager (played by Gandolfini’s son Michael Gandolfini) with his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) — they had to figure out how to embrace the unsentimental credo of the show while still delivering an experience worthy of the big screen.
Arguably the best example of that approach is a sequence that “The Sopranos” never quite attempted: a full-scale outdoor shootout, between Dickie and Tony’s father Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal), and Dickie’s former subordinate-turned-rival, Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.).
“David has said that one thing he wanted to do was a no-fuckin’-around gangster movie,” Taylor says. “And that’s what this scene is.”
Taylor — who’s also helmed several episodes of “Game of Thrones” and the 2013 Marvel Studios feature “Thor: The Dark World” — directed nine episodes of “The Sopranos,” including the penultimate episode of the series, “The Blue Comet.” That episode featured two climatic acts of violence, including an intricately shot whacking of one of Tony’s lieutenants set in a model train store. But nothing Taylor directed for “The Sopranos” came close to the shootout in “The Many Saints of Newark,” from its complexity and scale to how integral it was to a central narrative of the film: How Harold was adopting the brutal tactics of the Italian mafia and using it to make a power play against Dickie.
“This is a centerpiece shift in the balance of power in the movie,” Taylor says. “There was a more of a story in this violence than I was used to doing on ‘Sopranos,’ where the violence tended to be sudden, fast, and over. This one was more of an opera.”
At the same time, it was critical that Taylor not make the sequence too operatic — it still had to feel of a piece with what Taylor calls the “no-frills approach” of “The Sopranos.”
“David had no interest or tolerance for filigree, for getting fancy,” he says. “It’s very straight ahead storytelling.”
That process started with the storyboards created by artist Jane Wu (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Star Trek Beyond”) — a regular collaborator with Taylor who also happens to be his girlfriend.
“She comes out of the Marvel Universe and a lot of very heightened action things,” he says. “And it took her a while to find the voice for ‘The Sopranos’ because her instinct was to keep hyping up the moments and punching up the violence — making the violence feel good. And this is not feel-good violence, this is kind of feel-bad violence. You don’t get to celebrate it or root for it.”
That said, as Taylor explained exclusively to Variety, he still managed to sneak in one “superhero shot” into the sequence. The full scene from the film — which includes graphic violence and language — is below, followed by Taylor’s detailed analysis of how his team pulled it off.
Keeping the Neighbors Happy
With a $50 million budget, Taylor says he did have “more time and money” for “The Many Saints of Newark” than he ever did on “The Sopranos,” but he still kept production for the shootout sequence to just a day or two. Taylor filmed on a New York City street at night in a neighborhood bordering Queens and Brooklyn where “you could look in both directions and it was period residential architecture that hadn’t been changed.” The only major detail they had to add via visual effects was a vertical neon sign over the nightclub where Dickie, Johnny Boy, and their two compatriots Buddha (Joey Diaz) and Frankie (Nick DeMatteo) emerge.
With so much after-hours commotion — including loud screaming, gunshots, and a VW Bus set aflame (more on that later) — how popular was the production with the local neighborhood?
“I think they were supportive,” Taylor says with a chuckle. “Word had probably gotten around that we were doing a ‘Sopranos’ thing and it’s amazing how much patience and indulgence you can get invoking ‘The Sopranos.'”
Starting Inside Harold’s Car
The shootout follows a scene in which Harold learns that Dickie has whacked Harold’s main lieutenant, and Harold realizes he needs to assert his dominance using the brutal tactics he’s observed spending years working for Dickie and the DiMeo crime family.
Rather than open the sequence with Dickie, however, Taylor chose to put his camera in Harold’s car as it drives by Dickie and Johnny walking out of Club Silhouette.
“Because this is about the rise of Harold relative to Dickey and the others, it begins very much from Harold’s point of view,” Taylor says. It also reinforced Taylor’s desire to keep the entire sequence “grounded in a subjective point of view” as much as possible.
“There’s almost no objective angles in the thing,” he says. “There’s choices about when we shift from Dickie’s point of view to Harold’s and back and forth, but we never to go to objective coverage. It’s part of what makes it not feel-good violence.”
A good example of this subjective approach is when Dickie shoots Harold’s driver in the head, and Taylor cuts back inside of Harold’s car as it crashes into a telephone pole, putting the audience inside of the experience.
It also meant that Taylor could streamline the production, since he only filmed what he knew he needed.
“For the most part, we stuck to the boards we’d done and again it was keeping the camera very close to point of view. That can be an efficient way to shoot, because you’re not having to do multiple setups to repeat the action, if you’ve decided the one way it’s going to play.”
R.I.P. Big Pussy’s Papa
Unaware Harold is stalking him in the background, Dickie gets into a petty squabble with Buddha after Buddha — the father of future Soprano family enforcer Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero — speaks crudely about Dickie’s mistress Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). As Johnny Boy and Frankie stand watching, Dickie starts viciously punching Buddha — until Buddha’s head explodes from a shotgun blast.
“We do it with the only fancy shot in the sequence,” Taylor says. “It’s basically supposed to play like a regular coverage angle. Part of the shock is that you’re basically just covering the dialogue, and we’re on Joey Diaz’s character when something horrible happens and the camera swings up to Dickie’s reaction. Dickie falls out of frame and the camera’s already moving — it charges in towards Harold as he approaches.”
To achieve the shot, Taylor placed the camera on a dolly track, and used that set-up to shoot Buddha’s coverage for the fight with Dickie before he gets shot, which made pushing into Harold’s car afterwards much easier.
“We were just shooting Joey’s coverage on that angle and then we were ready to do a take with his dialogue and then ran off to charge at Harold,” Taylor says. “So I don’t remember there being very many takes. Probably just a couple.”
The impact of the bullet on Buddha’s head was achieved with visual effects, Taylor adds, but otherwise the rest of the shot was entirely practical.
“In the old days, it would have been really tricky to do a shot like this,” he says. “Now, it’s only mildly tricky to do a shot like this.”
Creating an Alleyway
The next of Dickie’s compatriots to die is Frankie, a musician who works at Club Silhouette — or, as Taylor jokingly calls him, “the red shirt” of the scene.
Without a gun to defend himself, Frankie tries to make a run for it, only to be shot down in the back. Taylor wanted Frankie to run down a narrow alleyway instead of an open street, to give the moment more visual focus. There was just one problem: While Taylor loved their location, there wasn’t an alleyway for Frankie to run down.
So Taylor created one by parking a bunch of semi trucks along the sidewalk instead.
“But it feels like an alley, right?” Taylor says with a grin. “I wanted to give it some kind of depth, and it seemed to work.”
Wait, Was That a VW Bus?
In “The Blue Comet,” Taylor staged a grisly shootout that climaxes with a motorcyclist bystander getting accidentally run over by a Toyota Prius — a perfect “Sopranos” detail, bringing the mundane into the world of mobsters. Or as Taylor puts it, “If it’s a car, it’s going to be a Prius, which is the least action-y vehicle in the world.”
Similarly, in “The Many Saints of Newark,” just as Harold is close to getting the better of Dickie, some poor bystander in a Volkswagen bus drives right into the middle of the shootout and gets caught in the crossfire, crashing into a parked car and bursting into flames.
“That felt like a bit of an echo with something I’d done on ‘Sopranos,'” Taylor says. “Somebody bumbles into the shootout and they’re driving a VW bus, which is the least cool shoot ’em up vehicle in the world.”
Because he wanted to keep the audience’s attention on Dickie and Harold, Taylor chose not to focus on whomever was driving the bus.
“Also, there’s a kind of humor to the absurdity of this VW van being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. “And it ain’t funny if you’re inside and you know [who’s] driving. So it just lets it be an event for our main characters rather than going into the painful subplot.” He smiles. “I’d like to think the driver survives and makes a run for it.”
Harold’s Fiery Entrance
Given cover by the VW bus, Dickie escapes into Club Silhouette, so Harold follows him, setting up what Taylor calls “the closest thing to a superhero shot” in the movie: Harold stepping inside the club, backlit by the VW bus in flames.
“It lets Harold be a superhero, or a supervillain, for a second,” he says.
But Taylor also wanted to evoke an all-too real event which Taylor depicts in the first act of the movie: the Newark riots of 1967, sparked after police beat-up a Black cab driver.
“Harold is radicalized by the violence in ’67 and the fires in Newark,” Taylor says. “You see him participating. And so the fact that he’s coming in now, as a kind of, you know, Avenger backed by the fire, it feels like he’s carrying that with him into this.”
Dickie and Harold’s Confrontation
The sequence ends with Dickie cornered inside the club, after he grabs a shotgun behind the bar to protect himself. Taylor shot these scenes in a different location, dressed to look like a 1970s nightclub, but initially, the scene wasn’t going to go inside the club at all.
“The original version of the shootout ended outside,” Taylor says. “And then I think David [Chase] and I both felt that, really, its main job was to turn into a standoff between Dickie and Harold, so that’s when the the second portion of the shoot was written. It became a two act shootout, and the second act is more about tension and suspense and these two personalities, and the first one was more just chaos and violence and bullets.”
Taylor liked stretching out the tension by forcing Dickie to go hunting for shotgun shells when he discovers his weapon is empty, and then hanging on Dickie’s face as he waits behind a closed door for Harold to emerge.
“Alessandro saw this shot of him as we push in on him down the barrel of the gun, and he said it was the favorite shot that anybody’s ever done of him,” Taylor says.
In another gangster film, this sequence might have been the climax of the entire movie, with either Harold or Dickie emerging triumphant. Since this is based in the world of “The Sopranos,” however, both men live to see another day, making the sequence, Taylor says, “less about killing each other than, I think, the impact on Dickie.”
“He can’t believe that Harold would have the guts to go after him like this,” Taylor continues. “You see his world shifting.”