‘The Many Saints of Newark’: Inside the Making of ‘Sopranos’ Prequel
When Michael Gandolfini arrived at Vera Farmiga’s house to meet her for the first time, he had a bouquet of flowers in hand, like a dutiful son visiting his mother. Which he more or less was, since he would be playing the teenage Tony Soprano to her Livia in the Sopranos prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark (in theaters and on HBO Max October 1st). As a young actor with a modest résumé who snagged such a huge role partly because he was the son of James Gandolfini, Michael was eager to learn whatever he could from his esteemed new co-star. She gave him his first lesson before the door was even open. Dropping into a pitch-perfect impression of the late Nancy Marchand as Livia, Farmiga started to re-create the first scene mother and son shared on the landmark HBO drama.
“Who’s there?” she croaked. Gandolfini was confused at first, but she stuck to the script: “Who are you?” Then it clicked, and he began to play along: “Yeah, Ma. It’s me, open the door.” Farmiga complied, introduced Gandolfini to her (real) family, and they got to work.
Both actors can make themselves sound exactly like their TV counterparts. So can plenty of their Many Saints co-stars, like John Magaro, who nails every curl of his lip as the young Silvio Dante. But the goal of the movie — co-written by Sopranos creator David Chase, directed by Sopranos vet Alan Taylor, and peppered with enough Easter eggs to make fans feel like they just gorged on Artie Bucco’s finest dish — isn’t to mimic the show that redefined television in the 21st century. It’s to bring the world of The Sopranos back to life with a new story that can stand on its own.
In fact, Tony Soprano takes second fiddle in this narrative to his “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti, a.k.a. the father of Tony’s “nephew” Christopher, long dead when The Sopranos begins but a looming presence over both adult men’s lives. Chase envisioned Dickie’s prime years — the film’s action begins amid the Newark race riots of 1967 and stretches through 1971 — as the spine of a classic gangster movie. And Many Saints delivers, with a star-making performance from Alessandro Nivola as Dickie, the most nuanced work in years from Ray Liotta (as Dickie’s father, “Hollywood” Dick), charismatic turns from Leslie Odom Jr. (as Dickie’s henchman-turned-rival Harold McBrayer) and Michela De Rossi (as Hollywood Dick’s young Italian bride, Giuseppina), and enough shootouts, backroom deals, and creatively gory Mob hits to keep things lively.
At the same time, Many Saints is wiseguy heaven for anyone whose spine still tingles when they hear Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” come on the radio. Dickie’s story is entwined with a compelling origin for Tony, one that shows how the future capo was shaped by both his actual parents (Jon Bernthal matches infuriated wits with Farmiga as Tony’s dad, Johnny Boy Soprano) and father figures like Dickie and Uncle Junior (a caustically funny Corey Stoll).
It’s hard to believe this movie exists at all, in part because David Chase sounded convinced for so long that Tony Soprano’s story ended the moment the screen cut to black at the end of the iconic and divisive series finale on June 10th, 2007.
That night, some fans protested that Chase had opted for an ambiguous ending to leave the door open for a film. Did the guy in the Members Only jacket come out of the bathroom to shoot Tony, or did his life just go on (and on and on and on and on)? The next morning, though, Chase told me, “I don’t think about [a movie] much. An idea could pop into my head where I would go, ‘Wow, that would make a great movie,’ but I doubt it. I’m not being coy. I think we’ve kind of said it and done it.”
A TV veteran whose career went back to Seventies detective dramas like The Rockford Files and Kolchak the Night Stalker, Chase was tired of the medium even before his most famous creation premiered. He had originally conceived The Sopranos as a feature idea, and while filming the pilot episode, he fantasized about HBO declining to order it to series so he could shoot an additional hour of material and take it to the Cannes film festival instead. The Sopranos may have changed how the world thought about television, but when it ended, Chase was done with both Tony’s world and TV in general. He directed a semi-autobiographical movie called Not Fade Away, starring Magaro as a young Chase avatar chasing garage-band dreams in the Sixties (and James Gandolfini as a take on Chase’s father), which came and went from theaters in 2012 with barely anyone noticing. All the heat that had built around Chase from the show cooled off. One studio executive still very much wanted to make a movie with him, though — so long as that movie involved some familiar wiseguys from North Jersey.
“Toby Emmerich at New Line, more or less every year since The Sopranos ended, had been having lunch with David, begging him to do a Sopranos movie,” says Lawrence Konner, a longtime Chase friend who worked on The Sopranos and co-wrote The Many Saints of Newark. Even after Gandolfini’s shocking death of a heart attack in 2013, the demand was still there, Konner adds: “Everybody wanted to have Carmela be the center: Carmela is the Mob boss now. David didn’t want to do any of those stories, obviously.”
There was one idea that stuck. Early in The Sopranos run, Oz creator Tom Fontana interviewed Chase for a Writers Guild event and suggested it might be fun to tell a standalone story set in Junior and Johnny Boy’s heyday in Newark, which was glimpsed in occasional Sopranos flashbacks. “That appealed to me,” Chase recalls, “because my mother comes from Newark at that time. My parents met in Newark at that time. I used to go down to the Italian section of Newark with my mother. Every Saturday she dragged me down there while she shopped for Italian groceries. So that appealed to me, and I never forgot it.” In film school, Chase had also contemplated a movie set during the 1967 race rebellion in Newark, “about four guys who avoid the draft by joining the reserves, and they get sent in a tank into the Newark riots, and it changes their life.” The creative seeds were planted; they just needed time to grow.
Before Not Fade Away, Chase and Konner had signed a deal to create Ribbon of Dreams, an HBO miniseries about the early days of Hollywood. It was stuck in development hell for years, before Chase finally gave up rather than make it for the “cheesy budget” HBO was offering. Meanwhile, those Newark ideas had been percolating in his head, along with a Season Four Sopranos episode where Tony and Christopher talk about Tony’s relationship with Dickie, and Dickie’s murder when Christopher was still a baby.
“I was always interested in ‘Who was this guy, Dickie Moltisanti?’” says Chase. “I had interest in him as a character, Christopher’s father, the whole story. That Christopher had a father.”
Dickie, he realized, would be his way back into a Sopranos story. And with Ribbon of Dreams falling apart, he took the idea to HBO to make a trade. But the network’s then-boss, Richard Plepler, knew he didn’t have the budget to do the story justice, Chase says. Plepler suggested Warner Bros., which by then just happened to be run by Toby Emmerich.
As the film was coming together, Chase suffered “simultaneous health crises” in his family that would make directing it an impossibility. So he brought in Alan Taylor, who had directed some of Chase’s favorite Sopranos episodes before going on to Game of Thrones and franchise movies like Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys. (Asked if the turn of events was bittersweet, Chase replies: “It was bitter. It wasn’t sweet at all.”) Taylor admits he had trouble wrapping his head around a Sopranos story that didn’t feature James Gandolfini — until he read an early draft of Chase and Konner’s script. “It was the same tone, the same world, the same wonderful dance between violence and the transcendent concerns that used to be part of the show, and the same humor,” he says. And while he was “intimidated” by the fact that there were new characters and it would be a period piece, Taylor adds, “the guide for me was always what it was on the show, which is, ‘It’s about the same questions, the same vision of humanity.’ The Sopranos man is still the same. Dickie is torn in the same way that Tony is torn.”
Chase views Many Saints as a film about Dickie Moltisanti first and foremost, and bristles at the studio’s emphasis on Tony in marketing the film. “It’s a gangster movie,” he says bluntly. “It’s about gangsters in the late Sixties, early Seventies, in New Jersey, both Black and white.” And for that, he needed to find his gangsters — with Dickie most crucial of all.
“When Larry and I sat down and started to write,” says Chase, “we wanted to have it be about a dynamic character. We had to get another Tony, somewhat. And out of the history of the show came Dickie. A mean, tough guy.”
Twenty years earlier, Chase had cast an unknown James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. This was back when HBO was still relatively new to the original-series business and content to make stars rather than hire them. With Many Saints, The Sopranos itself is the star, along with Chase — whose name figures more prominently on the movie poster than anyone else’s — and that gave him the leeway to again hire a veteran character actor who’d been flying under the radar.
“I remember Alessandro from American Hustle and The Most Violent Year,” says Chase of Nivola. “I always thought he was great, and he’s Italian. I thought, ‘Where has this guy been? Why doesn’t he get jobs?’ And I decided to get him a job.”
Dickie is a more polished, less overtly threatening character than the adult Tony — his nickname is “Gentleman” Dickie, after all — yet Nivola deftly conveys the menace lurking beneath the charming smile and sharp suits, as well as Dickie’s dawning awareness that the life he was born into may be a very bad one. Of his belated big break, the 49-year-old Nivola says, “I would never have been given the opportunity to star in this movie, to be the main role in a film like this, if it weren’t for the fact that there was a built-in audience because of the series, and that they told David Chase he could have whoever he wanted.”
The other key new figure would be Harold. The role is a unique one in the world of The Sopranos, which had periodically featured Black characters — Bokeem Woodbine as rap mogul Massive Genius; Charles Dutton as a cop whose career suffers for giving Tony a ticket; Meadow’s biracial boyfriend from Season Three, Noah Tannenbaum — but almost always presented them, as so many Mafia stories do, from the viewpoint of its white, openly racist protagonists. For Odom, the genre’s treatment of Black people wasn’t problematic given the hands he was in.
“We’ve had years of watching Mob stories malign us,” Odom says. “I’ve learned to look past that if it’s [about] the truth of the meaning. The thing about art is to show how people are acting in private, to show private moments publicly. While they may be hurtful or lacerating or surprising, that’s the point. Anytime Scorsese does it, or David did it, I knew I was in the hands of someone thoughtful, someone showing me a truth. It was my choice if I would continue to look at this truth. I knew I could trust the creative. I’ve seen that throughout.”
Chase says it was essential that Harold be presented as an equal counterpart to Dickie. And when it came to the riots, he and Konner dove deep into research to make sure they were faithful to the moment. The pair pored over news stories, books, and documentaries about the uprising and tensions between the city’s Black and Italian communities during that era. Of the scenes set in Harold’s world, Konner jokes, “Who would know more about that than two old white guys?” But, he adds, “What we did was, believability. It’s just human emotion. That’s the thing that’s universal, and that’s the thing you don’t necessarily need to be Black to write.”
Perhaps the trickiest casting decision would be the teenage Tony (who enters the film midway through, after William Ludwig plays him as a kid in the 1967 scenes), given the long shadow of James Gandolfini. And though Chase and Taylor started out looking at other actors, Chase couldn’t shake the thought that Michael Gandolfini — by this point a young adult with a few acting credits (most notably as Chris Bauer’s son on HBO’s The Deuce) — looked too much like his father to ignore. The young Gandolfini was terrified of the idea when he first heard it, for reasons both professional (living up to one of the most acclaimed screen performances ever) and personal (stepping into the shoes of the father he was still mourning). His knee-jerk response to his manager: “Fuck that! No way!” Eventually, though, he agreed to audition, and forced himself to watch a handful of Sopranos episodes for the first time as preparation.
The studying paid off. “When he walked in the room,” says Konner, “everybody fell silent. Just, without speaking a word, it felt like this man was going to grow up to be Tony Soprano. The way he held himself, the way he looked — his little head twist that Jim did. He just inhabited him, in a beautiful, slightly eerie way.”
Farmiga, who had auditioned to play one of Tony’s mistresses (Valentina La Paz) on the series, was the first choice for Livia. And in hiring Ray Liotta to play Hollywood Dick, Chase finally bagged the Goodfellas star, whom he’d once tried to convince to play Tony’s least favorite captain, Ralphie Cifaretto. The rest of the core cast would be filled with a mix of actors who knew and loved the show — Bernthal, Stoll, Magaro — and those like Farmiga, Gandolfini, and Rome native Michela De Rossi, who had actually never watched it before they got the job. (“Everyone in Italy knows about The Sopranos,” says De Rossi. “But it’s kind of my parents’ generation’s thing.” When she finally binged it, she dubbed it “the Hamlet of the television world.”)
The one thing they all had in common when production got underway was trying to please their notoriously difficult-to-please godfather. “Those first few days,” Stoll recalls, “I would do a take and I would look to David, and he would [shrug and say], ‘Yeah, that was good.’ Trying to get praise from him would be a fool’s errand, but that’s not his job.” Mindful of Taylor’s authority on set, Chase would often sit, Sphinx-like, watching the director work with the cast. He was insistent that he wouldn’t talk to the actors without Taylor’s go-ahead, but once he had it, those conversations could get extensive.
“I’m a line changer,” says Bernthal. “That’s how I like to work. David at times would correct me on the most minute change, and the reason why would be deeply, deeply important to him. When you dug in and asked him why, there was a real resonance. It wasn’t just him sticking to his way of doing things. That’s what you want out of a leader in this thing. You follow a guy like that anywhere. Every decision has been made for a reason, with heart and deep care, and with unrivaled passion.”
And as exacting as Chase may be, he’s not totally inflexible. De Rossi says they collaborated a good bit on her character, and that Chase trusted her input to make sure Giuseppina’s Neopolitan dialogue was idiomatically correct for the region. When Bernthal showed up for some additional shoots with a mustache he’d grown for another movie, Chase simply wrote a line into his first scene in the film to justify it, deepening our understanding of Johnny Boy in the process. “With problems like that,” says Konner, “there can be 10 [solutions], and one of them is not only the best one, but better than the one you originally had. I think David thinks like that a lot.”
While the cast was being assembled and Chase and Konner were fine-tuning the script, Taylor and his crew were tasked with re-creating the Newark of the late Sixties to a degree of specificity that would satisfy the famously detail-obsessed Chase. This is a man who demanded to see 20 different golf hats before picking the one Furio Giunta would swat off a doctor’s head at a country club in one Sopranos episode. And age has not mellowed that impulse. Gandolfini says he went to Chase for advice on a classic-rock playlist he could listen to as he got into character; when he mentioned Led Zeppelin, Chase replied with scorn, “Tony does not listen to fucking Led Zeppelin.” (Gandolfini: “I was like, ‘Noted.’ Just, like, delete the Led Zeppelin songs out of that playlist.”)
For production designer Bob Shaw (another Sopranos vet), the toughest job may have been convincing his bosses that the best way to capture Newark at that time would be to film outside of Newark. The riot scenes were shot in the city, but many other sequences had to be done elsewhere in the tri-state area. “All of the houses had been covered with vinyl siding and had replacement windows,” says Shaw. “There are certain neighborhoods in the Bronx that have held on through the years. They still have the corrugated awnings over the front door. But you don’t see so much of that in Newark. I literally had to go through historical photos with David and pictures of what the houses look like now and explain [why] we couldn’t do it there.” Dickie’s swanky nightclub base of operations, meanwhile, was filmed in a shuttered Danish sports club in Brooklyn.
The club is meant to be a Rat Pack-era counterpoint to the Bada-Bing, just as the gangsters’ attire is far classier than what Tony and his crew waddled around in. “Nary a tracksuit,” laughs costume designer Amy Westcott, who outfitted Nivola with 19 different custom-tailored suits to convey how meticulous and revered Dickie is meant to be. As a nod to where wiseguy fashion would be headed in later decades, she dressed Billy Magnussen’s young Paulie Walnuts in a mustard leisure suit in one sequence, asking, “What is the past version of a tracksuit? I was trying to push the envelope of fashion a little bit, because Paulie does that on the show.”
It was one of countless creative choices meant to evoke The Sopranos without slavishly copying it. The series established that Johnny Boy and Junior were already using the back room of Satriale’s pork store as an office during this period; thanks to a bigger budget and advances in lighting and camera technology, Shaw was happy to rebuild the familiar space with an actual ceiling. Westcott looked to the handful of Sopranos flashback episodes as a starting point for how Livia and the others would dress; but, “because all of these characters were new actors,” she says, “it was important that we not follow the flashbacks exactly. To have respect for what they’re doing with the character, it had to be a bit of an overhaul.”
The actors playing familiar Sopranos figures had to toe a similar line. Everyone wanted to seem recognizable without resorting to sketch-comedy impressions. Magaro, who has known Stevie Van Zandt since they worked together on Not Fade Away, already had most of his friend’s mannerisms and inflections as Silvio down long before he showed up for filming. “From decades of being a rock star,” he explains, “there’s a confidence that he has, and a kind of don’t-give-a-shit attitude.” Others needed more time to find their voices. Dialect coach Kohli Calhoun worked extensively with most of the cast, especially Farmiga, Gandolfini — who had false teeth made to resemble his father’s — and Nivola. Magnussen observed that Tony Sirico’s elderly Paulie Walnuts “had this quality where words fall out of his mouth a little bit,” but the cadence proved so tricky that Chase asked Sirico to record all of the young Paulie’s dialogue for Magnussen to listen to. Paulie, Chase explains, is “the most cartoon-like. The way he talks, his gestures, all this stuff. Nobody can touch his hair. The stories. The way he bugs his eyes when he’s surprised. Great expressions. It was sort of beyond doing.”
As for dialogue, Chase and Konner tried to include as many nods to the show as they could without overindulging themselves, from repeating famous lines (Livia to young Tony: “Oh, poor you!”) to dramatizing memorable Soprano family stories that were discussed but not seen on HBO. Some of these moments aren’t entirely consistent with how they were described (or occasionally shown) on TV, but this was intentional.
“Memory is faulty, and things are gilded,” says Taylor. “This was the period of the Mob that Tony idealized later in life. My favorite line [from the show] is when he said, ‘I came in at the end of something,’ which is such a great line about the Mob and about America. And this is the period that he probably was thinking of: Dickie and the glamour. But in the movie, we see that behind the glamour was very Sopranos, tawdry, petty, shitty stuff going on. The memory is not always accurate.”
One thing nobody expected, of course, was the real-life events that would unfold at the tail end of the Many Saints shoot. The riot sequences, like the majority of the movie, were shot in 2019, before Covid-19 and then George Floyd’s murder changed the world. Suddenly, this period piece about another moment in American history where white cops and Black citizens came into conflict felt surprisingly — and unnervingly — current.
“As events started to go in that direction, there was a troubled feeling of ‘Oh, my god, there it is again,’” says Taylor. “And an anxiety in me of ‘Have we ventured into territory that’s too loaded now?’ But as we finished the movie, I spoke to Leslie about it, and I think we did feel good that, just by chance, a thing we were wrestling with was reasserted, and then the need to wrestle with it was reasserted. So we started thinking, ‘OK, this movie is actually timely in a way that we hadn’t expected, and that’s necessary and useful.’ David doesn’t give any easy answers to this stuff, but he shines a light on it.”
Odom says he occasionally had thoughts on the race material, and was greeted with essentially the same response Bernthal got when he tried to change his lines: “More often than not, David wasn’t so much interested in my idea as he was in getting me to understand the reason why he wrote it the way that he did. So what am I gonna do? I haven’t done enough films to think that I know everything. There was nothing about it that felt shameful or degrading. Outside of that, it was like, ‘Ah, shit, I’ll do it his way. I’ll be of service.’”
Though Many Saints contains enough characters and stories to fill a three-hour-plus version — if not a season of prestige television — Chase was determined that the final cut be two hours or less, “just to keep the drive going.” Yet as he studied early cuts of the film, he realized he needed to write a few additional scenes to make it work. Some of this new material was just adding depth to the Dickie-Tony relationship, while other scenes were meant to give the movie some of the more surreal flourishes that had been a Sopranos stock in trade.
The cast and crew regrouped to film in March 2020, only days before the pandemic lockdown began across the globe. (“I’m in my fucking costume again, my hair, I’m looking in the mirror in my same trailer a year later, and I’m ready to go,” recalls Nivola of the moment he found out on March 13th that the shoot was shut down.) The new scenes would largely have to wait until the fall of that year to be shot, and then the finished film would sit on a shelf while Warner Bros. figured out how to distribute movies at a time when people were afraid to sit in movie theaters. Eventually, Many Saints wound up as part of the temporary arrangement for all Warner films to debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, meaning that Tony Soprano is basically right back where he started, in our living rooms.
Back then, there was a stigma about movie actors doing television — a stigma erased by The Sopranos and the many shows inspired by it. But the irony of Many Saints existing is that the success of The Sopranos helped kill this exact type of mid-budget movie for adults, along with film studios increasingly relying on superheroes and other franchises based on familiar intellectual property. To tell a story like Dickie Moltisanti’s today would ordinarily require selling the eight-episode version of it to Netflix or Hulu. The only reason it didn’t? The Sopranos’ powerful legacy.
“For a movie like this to be made at all was an anomaly,” says Nivola, “and it was only being made because [of] the IP of the show, the brand of the show.”
Maybe it won’t be the last Sopranos movie, either. Chase spent years with little interest in making such a film, and spent most of the Many Saints process with even less interest in making another. But he admits that doing additional shooting “brought the movie much more to my heart.” He’s talked with other writers who might be interested, he says, “and if one of those guys was going to do it, I might do it with him.” But, he cautions, “that’s really not high on my list of what to do. I’m not getting any younger. I want to make another movie, hopefully, and it would not be this one.”
Some of the actors are hopeful he’ll change his mind. Gandolfini went from not wanting to play Tony at all to dreaming of sequels, starting with one that would explore Tony’s early relationship with Carmela. “If we’re lucky,” says Magaro, “maybe we’ll get to tell more of the story. I think it would be really interesting to see more of Tony’s journey.” Farmiga goes even further: “I hope there’s a Many Saints of Newark 2. Honestly, it would be my heart’s delight if they would just do a prequel series. That would be my absolute dream. I’m not ready to let this character go. I feel it’s just the beginning.”