Twenty years ago, two assholes got lost in the woods. “Pine Barrens,” AKA the one with the unkillable Russian, arrived deep into The Sopranos’ third series, just as it was beginning to hit its peak, in both creativity and popularity. It was a simple story, pitched on a whim by one of the show’s most-decorated directors, Tim Van Patten, based on a dream he had: Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri (Tony Sirico) take a mope out to the Pine Barrens (a vast woodlands south of New Jersey) in the dead of winter to whack him, only to lose him along with their bearings.
Nothing monumental happened in “Pine Barrens.” In fact, it barely moved the plot forward at all. For the most part, it stewed joyously in the tension between two of the show’s most hot-headed and petty characters as day turned to night and they began to think they might not make it out of the snow-covered expanse at all. But it nevertheless encapsulated the spirit of the show’s trademark dark humour, with Paulie and Christopher epitomising the dichotomy of the typical Jersey gangsters that the show satirised, who were at once silly and terrifying. When Christopher begins to wonder if Paulie is going to kill and eat him while he slept, the audience can’t help but also question whether he would be capable of it, too. It’s an absurd proposition, but stranger things had happened on The Sopranos.
Though Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Bobby Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa) eventually saved the two freezing idiots – the former plucked from a flaming row with his mistress, Gloria, the latter dressed in ridiculous hunting gear – the towering Russian, who escaped despite Chris shooting him in the head, never resurfaced. It would become one of the show’s great unresolved mysteries. What happened to the Russian? Fans would grill creator David Chase and the show’s writing team at every opportunity. But Chase has remained consistent in his messaging for 20 years now: it doesn’t matter and it never did. “I think what I was feeling then was the more you answer, the more questions that are gonna be raised,” he tells GQ over the phone, looking back. “That was one part of it. And that’s what The Sopranos was. The Sopranos was ambiguity. With a capital A.”
We spoke to Chase, the episode’s writer, Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Wolf Of Wall Street), and the show’s most-decorated director, Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire), about the making of a masterpiece that has only grown in stature over the course of two decades.
The Sopranos as slapstick comedy
The Sopranos was comedic from the very beginning, but it really found its groove in series two and three, as an understanding of the characters’ various eccentricities enriched the viewing experience. “Pine Barrens” was a sweet spot for this.
David Chase: From the first frame [of the pilot] it’s kind of comedic. You know, the first frame is Tony looking at this nude statue. I mean, that all played to me as absurd, at least.
Terence Winter: When we used to hand in our scripts for The Sopranos, the writers would compliment each other, usually by saying, “Oh, your script is so funny.” You know, we kind of wrote it like a dark comedy. I remember in the third or fourth series we had a premiere of the show in a big movie theatre and it was really fun to get to watch it with hundreds of people at the same time. There was a situation where Uncle Junior had just entered a room and apropos of nothing said, “Well, I’ve fucking had it” and the audience howled with laughter. They don’t even know what he’s actually talking about. They don’t know what he’s had it with or why he’s upset. It’s just the fact that you know this guy so well and he’s such a curmudgeon. The fact that he’s just annoyed is funny to people. And when you know who they are, you know all of their little peccadilloes and all their little traits.
DC: The TV industry insists on pigeonholing things into comedy and drama – it’s got to fall into one of those two boxes. I just don’t believe that The Sopranos ever did.
Tim Van Patten: We all were weaned on Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges informed everything at some level. There’s a lot of slapstick, you know, like when Tony beats up the guy in the Bada Bing! with the fish – what did they call it? – the Billy fish that plays a song [Big Mouth Billy Bass]. And, you know, hitting someone over the head with a phone or Uncle Junior falling down a flight of stairs.
DC: Laurel and Hardy, that’s a big one for me. WC Fields, big one for me. Richard Pryor too.
TW: You know, in general, in the writers’ room there was a lot of bullshitting and storytelling and “One time this happened to me” and “I had a dream last night” and just things that didn’t seem like they had anything to do with the series. But ultimately all of it somehow would work itself back into the show somehow. In “Pine Barrens” there’s a moment where Gloria Trillo, Tony’s mistress, hits him on the head with a piece of London broil. And that happened to me in real life. I was on the receiving end of that London broil in 1982, from an old girlfriend who apparently took umbrage with something I said and nailed me in the head with this thing, and I just thought, “I’m going to use that somewhere.”
The origin of Pine Barrens
It was all a dream…
DC: Tim mentioned to me that he had this dream…
TW: I was sitting in our writers’ room with Todd Kessler, who was a writer on the show at the time. We were just batting around ideas. And Tim happened to walk in and he said, “I have an idea. It was a dream I had. It’s really stupid.”
TVP: I call it sort of a waking dream. I think part of it was a dream. The long story is, when we were kids, my father was a horse player and he used to take us to racetracks all the time, all over the country, all over the East Coast. One of the tracks was down in Atlantic City and he had to sort of calm us into going by, you know, telling us that there’d be a great adventure included. Part of the adventure was he would pull off into the Pine Barrens and he would fill our heads full of stories about the “Jersey Devil” [a mythical, hoofed creature said to inhabit the woods] and about people who go in there and disappear.
He had us completely sold on this and we would go in there and he would drive around a little bit and we’d get a little bit lost – or we thought we were lost. And it would just fill our heads full of all sorts of nonsense, and he got to go the racetrack and he would go play the horses and we’d run around. So I was thinking about that and I had a dream about it. Because it’s an unforgettable place to find your bearings. I guess the breaking point was I said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to take someone out there to whack them, and it goes bad and the guy disappears, and the guys get lost and the victim disappears.” And that was pretty much it.
‘A game of telephone for stupid people’
The writers knew they had struck gold when they decided to place these two morons with short fuses in such a perilous situation. A standout exchange comes halfway through the episode, when, over a dodgy phone line, Tony tells Paulie that the guy they lost had killed Chechens and “worked for the interior ministry”, with Paulie interpreting it as “a Czechoslovakian… he’s an interior decorator!”.
DC: In our writers’ room, there was always a lot of laughing and joking. For every episode, including ones that were serious or sad. We didn’t sit there all serious, it was just part of the job. There wasn’t a particular laughter about this one or high spirits, but if that came across on the screen, that’s great.
TW: We all knew we had comedy gold in that it was going to be Christopher and Paulie – those two characters together were always magic. They just clicked. You know, much like with Uncle Junior and Bobby Bacala, there were certain combos of characters that you knew you had gold all the time. So Christopher and Paulie in a tense situation we knew immediately was going to be funny.
TVP: You couldn’t find a better trifecta than to have Paulie and Christopher get lost and then have Bacala try to find them. It makes me laugh just saying it out loud.
TW: It was really the question of like, “How do we make these circumstances even worse for these guys?” David came up with the idea that Paulie loses his shoe and then we laughed about that for a while. OK, and then they shoot something. But then, OK, what if it’s not actually the guy? What if it’s a deer? You know? So it’s just constant, like, how does it get worse? How do we ramp up the circumstances?
DC: Paulie was jealous of Christopher’s position. Because he was, quote-unquote, related to Tony. That’s part of it. I think Paulie was jealous of Christopher, because he was young. And Paulie was coming towards the end of his run. Christopher didn’t like being bossed around, or being directed by Paulie. It was a power struggle.
TW: It’s always fun to write for Christopher, because of his use of language, his malapropisms, you know? He thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is. And he tries to use words that he doesn’t really quite understand, or turns of phrase that he doesn’t quite get. I knew Paulie would not in a million years know what the interior ministry was, or, you know, Chechen, as opposed to Czechoslovakian, so it was about interpreting it through the stupid filter in his brain. So that was fun, too, because the phone kept dying out. So basically, it’s like a game of telephone for stupid people where, you know, I whisper in your ear and you whisper to the person next to you.
The enigmatic Tony Sirico
Sirico was a big influence upon his character, Paulie Walnuts.
TW: The first time you see Paulie in the episode, he’s getting a manicure. So my idea was that I wanted to take Paulie from his most pristine to completely disheveled in the course of that one hour where you’ve never seen him like that before.
DC: I mean, [Tony Sirico] didn’t come to us and say, “Oh, it would be a good idea if Paulie was like this,” he never did that. None of the actors did that, except for Joe Gannascoli, who did it once, that [his character] Vito was gay. But, no, Tony never did that. But he would say things that we would observe and they would seem to fit right into the show.
TW: They’re very, very similar. There’s an extremely thin line between Tony Sirico and Paulie Walnuts. You’d say, “OK, go into wardrobe” and when he came out, he would look exactly the same as when he went in. He is very much like that guy. It’s no secret that Tony Sirico had been to prison as a younger man and had been involved with, you know, various aspects of organised crime in and around New York City, so he certainly understood that character very well.
He was like the real-life Fonzie. His hair was, like, you know, perfectly coiffed all the time. Tony didn’t let the hairstylist on the show touch his hair. He would do his own hair. And he once told me his whole system. If he had a 6am call, he would wake up at 3am. He would comb his hair to get it into the shape he wanted. And then he would spray hairspray in the air and let this spray mist down on his head. Much like snowflakes. And he would do that repeatedly until it formed a protective shield around his hair that was sort of impervious to wind and the elements, and I swear you could hit him on the head with a lead pipe and the pipe would bend.
And there’s a bit when Paulie loses his shoe and rolls down a hill and the stuntman who did the stunt was wearing a wig that looked exactly like Tony Sirico’s hair. And when the stuntman got up, his hair is completely disheveled. So I said, “Just look at his hair.” I said, “That’s what I need you to do.” He’s like, “I’m not doing that.” And after having worked with him for so long I knew that the way to get him to do something was tell him it’s really going to be scary, or it’s really going to be funny. I said, “Tony, it’s going to be so fucking funny for people to see you with your hair messed up. No one has ever seen you like this.” And he went, “All right, you c***sucker” and he put his hands through his hair. And he completely fucked up his hair and it stayed like that for the rest of the episode.
What happened to the Russian?
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who care about what happened to the Russian and those who do not (David Chase is famously the latter).
TVP: I don’t care. And it took me a minute to get there. David Chase, when I asked him the question, he was like, “I don’t care, because that’s not real life. Number one: I don’t pander to what the audience wants, and, also, that’s just like in real life, you know, that likely wouldn’t happen, you know?” And I guess I sort of subscribe to that.
TW: Everybody was convinced this was setting up a storyline where it’s gonna be a big mob war between the Italians and the Russians. And, of course, that never happened. And then they were never even mentioned again. And that’s real for me. Like, that’s one of the many brilliant examples of David’s work, where it always defies expectations. Whatever you think is gonna happen generally is the opposite.
People kept clamouring for closure. I think we’re trained from, whatever it is, 70/80 years of TV watching. We are trained that, you know, stories wrap up and you find out what happened at the end and you find out who the killer is and then you got that sense of closure. And part of what makes this show different – and I think part of its greatness – was that it doesn’t answer all your questions. You know, there’s a famous saying, I don’t know who to attribute it to, but it’s “Art asks questions, it doesn’t give answers”.
Mystery is good. It’ll give you something to think about at night when you have nothing else to do. It reminds me of back in the 1970s. You’d leave a movie and it was ambiguous and you’d talk about it with your friends. What do you think this meant? What do you think that meant? And where do you think they are now? It’s funny, I was watching Out Of The Past, a film noir with Robert Mitchum recently. Robert Mitchum dies in the end and it’s the kind of thing like, oh, yeah, they used to kill people in movies. The main character would die at the end of the movie in 1945. And now it’s like nobody ever dies. Because what if we want to do Out Of The Past 2 or Further Out Of The Past? I like the idea that things don’t work out the way you expect, or don’t work out necessarily the way you want, and then they’re confusing and ambiguous. That’s what art is.
Bringing the Russian back
Van Patten and Winter both initially wanted to see the Russian resurface in a later series. They pitched Chase an idea that he ultimately turned down.
TW: As people kept clamouring for closure, I finally said to David, “It would be so amazing for the audience if we finally paid off the Russian somehow.” And, you know, I thought what if Christopher comes, a year later, into the Russian mob boss’ headquarters and sees Valerie, the Russian guy, and he’s there sweeping and they look at each other and it looks like Valerie recognises Christopher. And then Valerie returns and the whole back half of his head is gone and you realise that, oh, Valerie’s mentally incapacitated because of that gunshot. Maybe he does recognise Christopher but he can’t say anything – he’s just incapable of expressing it.
David liked the idea and we were planning on maybe doing it. But then I made a fatal mistake of saying, “The audience is going to love that.” And David said, “Well, that’s the worst reason to do it. I’m not doing it. I’m not just doing this to, you know, to fulfil audience wishes and desires. I’m telling the best story, it’s not wish fulfilment.” So that was the closest we ever came to closure.
DC: I’m satisfied. It was a long time ago. I didn’t need to bring the Russian back. I’ve always said that the episode was a fairy tale. It’s like a Grimm story – two guys are lost in the woods in the snow. It sounds like Hansel and Gretel or something to me.
The supernatural touches
There was some speculation that the Russian was a supernatural being, in keeping with some of the more surreal, near-magical occurrences in other episodes of the show, like when Paulie visits a psychic who appears to know his deepest, darkest secrets. But Chase denies this.
DC: I enjoy including that feeling [of the supernatural]. Like Tony’s whole trip to the nether world in Los Angeles [in series six]. I really enjoyed all that. I never thought that… what was the Russian called? Vitelli? Vladamir? I never thought of him as being from another world. However, I did keep telling people it was a fairy tale. It’s a fairy tale. That’s all I ever said.
TW: In their reality that is the only way they can make sense of it, that he must be supernatural. When they shoot him in the head, you clearly see the headshot. There’s no question. They shot the guy and then he keeps running. And then, you know, the spookiness of being in the woods and they’re frozen and hungry. And Christopher tells the story about the Jersey Devil, which is this myth of this preacher that used to live in those woods, and it just gets worse and worse. I think their imaginations start to take over. That said, you know, there are other little supernatural moments throughout the show. And, you know, David Chase and I are really interested in that stuff and just the whole mystery of life. And there’s an episode later on, where Paulie sees the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing!. Paulie, particularly, with his experience with the psychic, is more open to that kind of stuff than any of the other characters.
‘The humour and the horribleness’
After our phone call, Chase called me back up to make one final point about the way he and his writers tried to ground the show in the comical absurdity of real life.
DC: I don’t know what you call it, the humour and the horribleness. We had one show in which we featured a homeless woman with a New York Daily News up her bum. And you can be outraged by that – and only the Daily News complained – or you can be saddened by that. Or there’s something funny about it. And Terry [Winter] had seen that and I said we should put that in the show and we did. And the point about it is it was real. That was real life and that was what we were always trying to do.
This story originally appeared on GQ UK with the title, “David Chase and The Sopranos writers break down ‘Pine Barrens’, 20 years on.”