Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Details from Life, from Research, and from Imagination in the Sopranos Pilot

In the DVD commentary for the “Sopranos” pilot, creator David Chase discusses where each of his ideas come from, and shows how important it is to draw from your own life and your own research, as opposed to simply using your imagination.

Obviously, Chase is not a mobster, but he is Italian, so he’s able to draw on that. Above that, however, is simply the fact that he, like all of us, often feels like a criminal, as I said here:
  •  Chase was a successful screenwriter, but he was putting his own mean-mouthed mother in a home and she was heavily guilt-tripping him. He thought to himself “I’m such a monster.” He decided to do a show about what it felt like to be a rich guy putting his mother in a home. Except, in the TV version, instead of the meek TV writer he was, he would portray himself as the monster (aka mobster) he felt like.
In the commentary, Chase cites the fact that Livia won’t answer the phone after dark as a detail right out of his own life, as well as several other bits of dialogue. But it goes much further than that:
  • Chase had a real Uncle Junior, and you can see him standing next to the fictional Uncle Junior in his first scene.
  • The stoneworkers story was from Chase’s family.
  • He had an alienated teenage daughter.
  • He was in therapy.
  • Tony’s dream about unscrewing his bellybutton and his penis falling off came from one of Chase’s friends.
  • Surprisingly, the story about blowing up the restaurant came not from his research, but from a family story: “My cousin Tony Pasquale told me about it.”
Nevertheless, there are also elements that come strictly from mob research:
  • The way the HMO story goes down. (We’ll talk more about the value of this soon)
  • There really were gangsters named “Big Pussy” and “Little Pussy” in the 1940s.
That leaves one big detail that came solely from Chase’s imagination, and left him feeling embarrassed: The ducks. When it came time to shoot the crucial shot of the ducks flying away, Chase’s duck handler informed him such a thing could never happen: Ducks need at least a twenty foot taxiway to take off: they can’t lift straight up and fly out of someone’s pool. Chase was mortified. They had to fake the shot.

Does that mean that he shouldn’t have included the ducks? Of course not. It’s a powerful metaphor, even it couldn't actually happen that way. But it strengthened his commitment to drawing most of his details from real life.

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