May 2004

On Directing The Sopranos


Few television shows enter the public awareness as brazenly as HBO's The Sopranos. Shortly after the premiere of its fifth season, the DGA hosted the seminar "Directing The Sopranos" in its New York theater. Directors Timothy M. Van Patten, Henry Bronchtein and John Patterson sat down with fellow director Peter Peter Bogdanovich to discuss their experiences on the show and working with creator/director David Chase.

"How would you say David's [Chase] personality impacts on the making of the show?" Bogdanovich asked.

"David certainly is a thinker, a very powerful thinker," answered Patterson, who's known Chase since their college years in the late '60s. "One of the reasons why we all like to do the show is because it has such gravity. It has such a specific shape to it because he has spent a lot of time thinking about it."


(From left) Directors Timothy Van Patten, John Patterson, Henry Bronchtein and Peter Bogdanovich

Bronchtein, who also produces the show, elaborated. "David's had a lot of troubled, complicated and interesting relationships and I think he's very interested in people from a character standpoint. He's interested in people's fears, their quirks, their paranoias, their interpersonal relationships. He weaves a complicated web of that."

Chase who won the 1999 DGA Award for Dramatic Series Night for the "Pilot" of The Sopranos, is not only the head writer but is also very involved with every aspect of each episode. "David is so interested in this show and so hands-on," Patterson, who won the 2002 DGA Award for Dramatic Series Night for The Sopranos episode 'Whitecaps,' " said. "But all of us, every one of us, we're creative individuals, we want to bring something to the table and that causes anxiety."

Timothy Van Patten, who directed this season's premiere episode, characterized his experience slightly differently. "David, more than anybody else I think, lets you do your thing," he responded, "although you do have very intensive tone meetings beforehand."

"What is it you call that?" Patterson asked.

"Defending your life," Van Patten joked. "You go in and explain to him scene by scene what you plan to do."

Bogdanovich plays "Dr. Elliot Kupferberg" which gives him the unique experience of both directing the show's stellar cast and being part of it as well. He described working with one member in particular. "The episode I directed this season featured Edie Falco quite a bit, and I've never worked with anybody better than Edie Falco. She's extraordinary."


(Top) Timothy Van Patten talks about The Sopranos (below) Patterson and Bogdanovich answer questions from an audience member

"They're all so good. Every one of them," added Van Patten. "You usually get on a show and there are a couple of weak spots. There are no weak spots on The Sopranos, and they're all so prepared. I'm not just saying that. These guys would agree that they all come so prepared."

An elevated level of preparation is necessary for the directors to maintain the pace The Sopranos shoots. The schedule is quick, especially when compared to that of a feature. "I see features, the indulgence kills me," remarks Bogdanovich. "They should see what we do on this show. A feature would take five times as long — and it wouldn't be any better."

The crew for The Sopranos is a dedicated one — most of them having been with the show since the beginning. "It's really remarkable how many people are still here," elaborated Patterson. "That's amazing because people are making personal sacrifices to do that ... they value the show, they like the product, they like the camaraderie."

Sopranos directors John Patterson, Henry Bronchtein and actor/director Peter Bogdanovich

While the show is acclaimed for its dynamic characters and raw storylines, it's also received no shortage of attention for its violence, which is often harsh and graphic. An audience member asked the directors about two particular instances from the show's history that most fans would be able to vividly recall. "Was there any discussion beforehand regarding the Dr. Melfi rape and Ralphie's murder of the stripper?" he asked.

"I don't think that was one of David's favorite shows," answered Patterson, who directed the Dr. Melfi episode. "It had a very, very strong impact on everybody. I think my responsibility as a director was to make it have as much impact as possible so people could get a very good idea about just exactly what rape is. How violent it is."

Bogdanovich spoke of his reaction to the Ralphie scene (directed by Allen Coulter). "I thought it was one of the most powerful scenes I'd ever seen. I didn't think it was going too far. It certainly made me hate Ralphie; I wanted him to get it."

"There's been a lot of talk about how The Sopranos glorifies these guys, glorifies this violence," remarked Bronchtein, "but I think David and most people involved with the show don't think it glorifies violence. And to some extent I think these things are made to show the brutality of these people, rather than to glorify them. So I think it's integral to the show."

Bogdanovich may have summed up the show's impact best when he said, "I really don't think it's about the Mafia. I really think it's about America, about an American family. A lot of people who don't go around killing people can relate to this," to which the three other directors and audience agreed. "I think we all agree that being a part of The Sopranos is one of the great things in our lives."


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