TV Club

A Sopranos Producer Demystifies the Script-Writing Process

Dear Jeff and Jerry:

Thank you, Jeff, for your terrific idea about the Russian coming back to kill Tony. As you can imagine, we rack our brains trying to come up with interesting story ideas and it’s always enormously helpful when fans of the show pitch in. My favorite unsolicited contribution involved Tony having a run of bad luck (including Anthony Jr. getting murdered) after Carmela has the house feng shui’ed.

And nice catch with the Trees Lounge homage, which I hadn’t noticed before. Here I thought Steve actually gave some thought to how he was going to direct this episode, and now I find out he’s been stealing shots from his old movies.

As you guys have pointed out, the only consistency in the gangster personality is that there isn’t any. I always find it amusing when people critique the show by saying, “A wiseguy would never do that.” Leon nailed it a few weeks ago when he pointed out that despite what they claim, these guys bend “the rules” constantly and even make up new ones along the way to suit themselves. In short, they’re just like the rest of us—they laugh, they cry, they go to the same movies, they bash people over the head with pipes—they’re complex people, albeit complex people with very limited conflict-resolution skills.  

And to clarify, we do write the episodes individually. It works like this: At the beginning of the year, David comes in with a broad-stroke outline for the entire season, including story arcs for each of our main characters. The five writers (David, Robin, Mitch, Matt, and me) then sit around a conference table as a group, pitching additional story ideas and fleshing out David’s story arcs into episode outlines, which consist of one- or two-line explanations of what happens in each scene. (Reading this back, I realize I’m making the process sound too easy—it often takes several weeks for us to come up with just one story outline, with endless debating, second-guessing, arguing, and joking about how a particular story should be laid out.) When we finally agree and produce an outline, one of the writers will take it and go off and write the script. It’s at this point, in the actual writing of the dialogue, that the characters come alive.

After the writer turns in a first draft, David will give his notes and the writer will go off for a second pass. When it’s going smoothly (the story works, the writing is sharp) there aren’t a lot of notes, and David lets the writer handle all the rewrites. On the rare occasion when the opposite is true, David will step in and take a pass himself. In addition to supervising the writing, there is nothing in the entire production of this series that escapes David’s eye—and I mean down to the smallest detail, be it a single word in a line of dialogue or the color of an actor’s socks.   

As for Leon’s comment that he wouldn’t care to get to know Jim Gandolfini, I really can’t offer an opinion since I don’t know the basis of their encounter. As for myself, I’ve worked with Jim for five years and have always known him to be gracious, self-deprecating, and extraordinarily generous in every sense of the word. He also works in a pressure cooker for 15 hours a day for months on end and occasionally gets grouchy, so it’s possible Leon caught him on a bad day.

Thanks for letting me sit in, guys. Next time I’ll bring a pizza from Spumoni Gardens.