West Coast-based writer-producer David Chase (Northern Exposure, I'll Fly Away) assumed the pilot for his first HBO series, The Sopranos, the story of a New Jersey mob guy in full-fledged midlife crisis, would be shot in Los Angeles. "Fortunately," the New Jersey-born, Emmy Award winner recalls, "HBO said, 'We want New Jersey.' I've always felt it has a special combination of industrial and woodsy areas, which has been underutilized by film and television. While we were location-scouting, I even took my daughter all around the town where I used to live," he laughs.
While scouring his boyhood neighborhood, Chase also hired a top team of New York-based production veterans for his East Coast show. Working with pilot production designer Ed Pisoni and director of photography Alik Sakharov, Chase made meticulous choices when it came to actual locations, including the Sopranos' house, described as a "neo-Italianate villa," located (ironically enough) across the street from one of the last victims of the Unabomber. There's also the pork store (a part-time "social club" with a back room that's the site of a murder), the obligatory strip club, and a restaurant that explodes.
"Living in New York can be a career liability," claims Pisoni, though his film and television credits show otherwise. He left teaching to become Santo Loquasto's assistant for three years before his mentor, Tony Walton, got Pisoni his first film. "I worked with Tony on Sidney Lumet's The Wiz and then again on Bob Fosse's All That Jazz," Pisoni remembers. He then went on to become Lumet's art director on the Oscar-winning Prince of the City and production designer on The Verdict, in addition to almost two dozen other major films.
"I'm the kind of designer who works to make the location fit the script," says Pisoni. That credo is evident in The Sopranos, as the production designer turned a real barbecue at the Soprano location house into a planter and an existing Portuguese restaurant into the script's exploding Italian restaurant by adding some booths and a mural of Naples.
"For the triggered-to-explode faux facade, we created a 20' segment with windows, plus a fake back wall," he elaborates. "There's also a major water motif, so we found a fountain, a waterfall, a pool, and a lake. We needed a poolside bar effect, but we couldn't afford to drain the pool and build a new bottom, so we created the look we needed with an underwater platform." Pisoni also created the pilot's original interior designs. For one of the show's pivotal plot points--the mobster's surprising decision to go into therapy--Pisoni came up with the expensive but tastefully decorated office-in-the-round for his female therapist, a fixed centerpiece of the series. "A round room is both spiritual and womblike and there are no corners you can hide in," Pisoni says with great satisfaction.
For the regular run of the series, production designer Dean Taucher (New York Undercover, Dellaventura, Miami Vice) came in to recreate and enhance Pisoni's original pilot work, especially the interior and backyard of the Soprano house, at Silvercup Sound Stage in Astoria, Queens. "Of course," he explains, "the pilot was shot in the real house, so we took its spirit and created its geography on our set. In reality, it's a single-story house, but thanks to the construction of the garage, we were able to make it appear to be two stories, allowing us to create an upstairs wing of bedrooms, which was not in Ed's original design." Taucher also had to create several new swing sets at Silvercup, including a nursing home for Soprano's mother, and two different "back room" setups --one that doubles as an office for the strip club, and that all-important one at the pork store. "There was no room at the actual location, just meat," he laughs.
Set decorator Janet Shaw has a resume that reads like a "Who's Who" of top TV producers, from Michael Mann (Miami Vice) and Bruce Paltrow (Tattingers) to Dick Wolf (New York Undercover), Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (OZ), and now, Chase. She also worked with Taucher on all those cop shows. "I worked with Dean before," she says, "so I understand his expectations and he trusts me. And David didn't want the house to scream 'mobster.' We decided that while these people had money, they had no decorating sense at all. Everything they own is expensive and comes in sets and/or suites; the drapes even match the bath towels." Shaw's color scheme contains a lot of soft aquas and pinks, carried through a certain beigeness from upholstery, rugs, and drapes to glassware. Although she finds movies easier (she's worked on several Woody Allen films), she admits, "I've been locked into series work for the last five years. With a series, there's no end point. We're always reading scripts and dressing one episode while we pr ep the next."
According to Taucher, "Each episode shot for eight days, and an ideal ratio would have been half on location and half on the soundstage, but it didn't always break down that way. The physical logistics of this series included scouting almost every day, and we often spent more time in the van than on the set. We'd shoot around Carney, Caldwell, and Perth Amboy in New Jersey, then head into Rockland County and even Delaware. With our sound stage in Queens, we had many rivers to cross, but we never cheated exteriors. After all," he jokes, "these are New Jersey mobsters, not New York mobsters."
Even with all this extra travel time, toward the end of the June-to-November shooting schedule, Taucher was able to return to his theatrical roots, winning raves as set designer for Naked Angels' critically acclaimed production of David Marshall Grant's Snakebit.
The Sopranos premiered on HBO in January.