At IFC Center’s inaugural Split Screens Festival, David Chase, creator and executive producer of The Sopranos, was awarded the first-ever Vanguard Award. Presented by television critic and festival director Matt Zoller Seitz (New York Magazine, RogerEbert.com) along with Chase’s colleagues Terence Winter (co-executive producer, writer) and Steve Buscemi (director, actor), the honor is an acknowledgment of the drama’s innovating storytelling, in which character plot points were left unwrapped at the end of episodes. Audiences saw sparks of this pioneering narrative mechanism throughout the series (including “Pine Barrens”), and were left to grapple with it for years after the series finale’s abrupt cut to black.
Chase, Winter, and Buscemi joined moderator Seitz for a post-screening discussion of “Pine Barrens” (Season 3, Episode 11), one of the series’ outwardly humorous hours, but one that also left fans wondering — what the heck happened to the Russian? The episode, directed by Buscemi, sets itself in the woods of South Jersey, where Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) attempt to dump the body of a low-level Russian gangster after a job gone wrong. Except the seemingly indestructible Russian survives and runs away, leaving the ill-equipped Paulie and Christopher wandering in subzero temperatures in search of him.
Here’s what Chase, Winter, and Buscemi had to say about the episode, which premiered back in 2001.
Paulie’s and Christopher’s frozen breath came courtesy of CGI.
“It was very expensive,” recalled Winter and Buscemi. Those scenes, where Paulie and Christopher huddle for warmth in the truck, were filmed on a soundstage. The script, they explained, wasn’t originally written for wintertime, so they had to work with post-blizzard weather.
Neither Paulie nor Tony Sirico were happy about what happened to his hair.
According to Winter, the actor who embodied Tony Soprano’s captain, Paulie Walnuts, preferred to style his own hair on set. Thus, he wasn’t thrilled when Chase, Winter, and Buscemi approached him about messing with his ‘do. “By design, the episode opens with him getting manicured so you see him in this pristine state,” recounted Winter. “But then we messed it all up.”
Steve Buscemi was the one who threw the London broil at Tony.
A turning point in the episode focuses on the tumultuous relationship between Tony (James Gandolfini) and Gloria (Annabella Sciorra), who, in a fit of rage, throws a steak at the back of his head. When asked how many takes it took to get it right, director Buscemi revealed he had to take matters into his own hands. “Annabella and the prop guy kept missing him. Finally I said, ‘Gimme that.’ ”
Gathering the crew for the shoot “was like a class trip.”
Though set in South Jersey, the scenes in the woods were filmed in Harriman State Park in upstate New York, where the entire crew was stationed at a hotel outside of West Point. Chase assigned Winter some rewrites on the next episode, so he couldn’t hang at the bar with the rest of the crew. “I heard these stories about Steve getting up on the bar,” he recalled. “But I had homework.”
It’s not about what happens to that guy.
“I always felt this episode was like a folktale,” said Chase. “It’s not about the Russian. The guy just disappeared,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to have to satisfy that whole story. The Italian and Russian mobs don’t really have anything to do with each other.” Winter added, “Growing up, on TV you wanted closure. So I fought for it. I said, ‘David, people will love it,’ so of course he said, ‘Well then f*ck it, we shouldn’t do it!’ ”
Moderator Seitz then presented Chase, Winter, and Buscemi with T-shirts that read: “Stop asking me about the Russian.”
Watch every episode of The Sopranos on HBO.