Toward the end of The Sopranos’ third season, Michael Imperioli’s Christopher and Tony Sirico’s Paulie get lost in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. This episode—simply titled “Pine Barrens”—is one of the best in a series filled with stiff competition for that distinction. It’s part-buddy comedy, part-horror story, and a great exploration of two of the show’s main characters. It’s also the subject of a new oral history from The Ringer that provides insight into The Sopranos’ creative process, the origins of the episode’s premise—and just how difficult it is to get Sirico to agree to intentionally mess up his hairdo.
“Pine Barrens” originates with a story meeting for the show’s second season, when Sopranos writer/director Tim Van Patten shared a dream he had about Paulie and Christopher unable to escape the New Jersey woods after a failed hit. Creator David Chase liked the idea and writer Terence Winter ended up scripting the episode that would be directed by series actor/director Steve Buscemi the following year.
Imperioli says that “from the beginning, we had a sense that it was going to be good” and Buscemi remembers reading the episode’s script and thinking “that it was gold.” A lot of the appeal came from putting Paulie and Christopher in a situation where the pair had to survive with only each other to rely on. Director Alan Taylor, commenting on the pair’s dynamic, says that “in this day and age, [Paulie and Christopher] would have their own spinoff, probably.”
The oral history also includes fantastic material regarding what it was like to work with Sirico. Winter says “there’s a very, very thin line between Pauli and Tony Sirico,” and that “they’re practically the same person.” This bears out in stories from filming the episode, like Sirico requiring a production assistant to make “a four- or five-hour round trip” to get his pillows from home since he didn’t like the hotel’s and Buscemi remembering the process involved in convincing him to let someone mess with his hair—which he “was very particular” about.
It’s best to read Terence Winters’ quote on this topic in full.
“The two ways to get Tony to do something was if you told him, ‘You will be really scary or you’ll be really funny.’ I said, ‘Tony, you will be so fucking funny for the audience to see you, who they’ve never seen except looking like a movie star, with your hair [messy].’ So he took like two fingers and just messed up three hairs. I was like, ‘Tony, come on. Come on, man.’ He’s like, ‘All right you motherfucker,’ and he put his hands through his hair and he completely messed up his hair. I said, ‘Thank you so much.’ I turned to Steve Buscemi, I said, ‘Roll camera. Get this on fucking film. It’s not going to happen again.’”
Read the rest of the article for more on the making of “Pine Barrens”—including Chase’s thoughts on leaving open endings in stories, Buscemi’s drunken Ramones karaoke, Steve Schirripa making James Gandolfini laugh on camera by swinging around a giant dildo, and much more.
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