Robin Green, rock-‘n-roll schrijver…

De naam Robin Green kende ik wel van The Sopranos. Samen met haar echtgenoot Mitchell Burgess schreef ze 17 afleveringen van de beste serie ooit. Nu hoorde ik op de podcast Talking Sopranos dat ze in de jaren ‘70 schreef voor Rolling Stone Magazine samen met o.a. Gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Haar ervaringen uit die tijd staan beschreven in haar memoir ‘The Only Girl’. The Sopranos en Hunter S. Thompson? Dat is een boek voor mij.

En het viel niet tegen. Op 26 jarige leeftijd kwam Green op de Masthead van Rolling Stone te staan, als eerste vrouw. Het was in 1971, het jaar waarin Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in twee delen in het magazine werd gepubliceerd, mijn favoriete boek aller tijden. Green hierover: ‘Hunter had been sent to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, and when the magazine – ‘aggressively’ according to Hunter, rejected the pages – that story resulted in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’, published in two parts. The first as Hunter had written it, the second derived largely from taped hours of Hunter and Oscar Acosta’s muttering and raving, tapes that landed on the desk of newly hired Sarah Larin to be transcribed’.

En nog meer over Hunter: ‘His writing seemed like a new form as close to rock itself as writing gets. Unrestrained and Unrepressed, wild and reckless and high as a fucking kite. Hunter had found the perfect venue in Rolling Stone. Neither a glossy magazine with a two month lead time nor a newspaper with its limited space and linguistic leeway.’

Green, die altijd schrijver wilde worden, maakte haar debuut bij Rolling Stone met een verhaal over Marvel waar ze als secretaresse van Stan Lee had gewerkt. Ze kreeg 5 cent per woord wat haar 500 dollar opleverde, veel geld in die tijd. Nog belangrijker: ze werd vaste bijdrager aan Rolling Stone en het artikel werd haar eerste cover story. Later schreef ze een onthullend verhaal over Dennis Hopper, waarna haar naam als eerste vrouw aan de masthead van Rolling Stone werd toegevoegd. Haar Hopper-stuk werd in 1992 opgenomen in Movieline’s overzicht van de ‘Ten Interviews That Shook Hollywood’.

Het was een goede tijd voor de journalistiek. Zoals bekend van Hunter S. Thompson’s escapades betaalde het magazine alle onkosten, en dus waren Green en collega’s niemand iets verschuldigd. Ze konden niet makkelijk omgekocht worden door de PR-industrie en schreven wat ze wilden.

En het was een tijd waarin vrouwen voor hun rechten opkwamen. Green: ‘In this world, the world of rock and roll, men ran the show. They were the rock stars. The journalists and editors were men too. Even before that, in college, it was guys who’d been the ones to grab the microphones at sit-ins and demonstrations. A chick’s mandate: to be by their sides at the revolution, looking hip. Women were seeking equality. Hair under the armpits and getting sweaty. Have sex with everybody. Not out of promiscuity, but for freedom. There were no consequences yet. AIDS would not arrive until the 1980’s.’

De tegencultuur waar ze onderdeel van werd wordt tegenwoordig misschien gezien als nogal puberaal, tegendraads gedrag, maar Green brengt hier tegenin dat er ook een hoop was om boos over te zijn in die jaren: Vietnam, Kennedy’s dood (twee keer), Nixon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King… En niet te vergeten: de tragische dood van Jim, Janis en Jimi.

Na een periode van zo’n vijf jaar kwam er een einde aan haar carrière bij Rolling Stone. Ze had een verhaal geschreven over de kinderen van Bobby Kennedy, maar vond dat ze een journalistieke grens had overschreden door met Robert Kennedy Jr. naar bed te gaan. Hoofdredacteur Jann Wenner eiste het verhaal wat zij weigerde. Toen liet hij haar naam van de masthead verwijderen.

Jaren later na vele omzwervingen werd Green televisie-schrijver. Grappig dat ze bij The Sopranos terecht kwam, de eerste echte rock-‘n-roll sterren van de televisie. Ook bij dit andere culturele fenomeen was Green de enige vrouwelijke schrijver. Het laatste deel van het boek gaat over deze periode van haar leven en vond ik verreweg het interessantste. Over hoe ze David Chase ontmoette, het genie achter The Sopranos, en samen met haar man Mitchell in het schrijversteam terecht kwam. Over hoe ze haar eigen jeugdervaringen in de scripts verwerkte en over hoe de serie een fenomeen werd. En uiteindelijk, hoe Chase haar ontsloeg in het laatste seizoen omdat ze ‘de show niet zou begrijpen’. Het had iets met zijn moeder te maken, vermoed Green. Toch is er een happy ending voor de schrijver die nu in de zeventig is. Samen met haar man ontwikkelde ze de serie Blue Bloods, die nu al aan het twaalfde seizoen toe is.

Tegenover elk succesverhaal dat je leest staan vele verhalen over mislukking. In ‘The Only Girl’ is dat het verhaal van Robin’s jeugdvriendin Ronnie die keer op keer in een psychiatrisch ziekenhuis McLeans belandt, dat bekend is geworden door de film Girl, Interrupted. Later zou ze zelfmoord plegen. Green schrijft: ‘Life is strange in that way. Why is one in mental pain, and the other juicy, healthy and productive? Riding high.’ En ‘riding high’ heeft ze zeker gedaan. Dat weet ze met deze smakelijke memoires goed over te brengen.

Trailer: The Many Saints of Newark

The Many Saints of Newark (marketed with the subtitle A Sopranos Story) is an upcoming American crime drama film. It is directed by Alan Taylor and written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner as a prequel to Chase’s HBO crime drama series The Sopranos. The film stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Vera Farmiga. Set in the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey, using the 1967 riots in the city as a backdrop for tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities, the film follows the teenage years of Tony Soprano and his mentoring by protagonist Dickie Moltisanti in the midst of a violent gang war his family is involved in. Dickie Moltisanti is the deceased father of Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos and is often referred to as a legend in the show. We will now finally find out if it really was the cop who killed Dickie or if Tony just made that up to form a stronger bond with Christopher.

New Line Cinema obtained the rights to produce The Many Saints of Newark alongside HBO Films. Warner Bros. Pictures was to initially release the film on September 25, 2020, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its release date was rescheduled to October 1, 2021, as well as a month-long simultaneous release on the HBO Max streaming service. (Wikipedia)

My Favorite TV Episode of All Time

You know that we do take-away.
We deliver too.
Open twenty-four hours, babe.
Just waiting on a call from you.

The Sopranos
Episode 26 – Funhouse (Season 2 Final)

Directed by
John Patterson

Written by
David Chase & Todd A. Kessler

Regular Cast
James Gandolfini … Tony Soprano
Lorraine Bracco … Dr. Jennifer Melfi
Edie Falco … Carmela soprano
Michael Imperioli … Christopher Moltisanti
Dominic Chianese … Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano
Vincent Pastore … Salvatore ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero
Steven Van Zandt … Silvio Dante
Tony Sirico … Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri
Robert Iler … Anthony ‘A.J.’ Soprano
Jamie-Lynn Sigler … Meadow Soprano
Nancy Marchand … Livia Soprano

Guest Players
Jerry Adler … Herman ‘Hesh’ Rapkin
Federico Castelluccio … Furio Guinta
John Ventimiglia … Artie Bucco
Dan Grimaldi … Patsy Parisi
Frank Pellegrino … Frank Cubitoso
Robert Patrick … David Scatino
Louis Lombardi, Jr. … Skip Lipari
Matt Servitto … Agent Harris
Sofia Milos … Anna Lisa
Maureen Van Zandt … Gabriella Dante
Toni Kalem … Angie Bonpensiero
David Margulies … Neil Mink
Nicole Burdette … Barbara Giglione
Tom Aldredge … Hugh DeAngelis
Suzanne Shepherd … Mary DeAngelis
John Fiore … Gigi Cestone
Robert Lupone … Bruce Cusamano
Barbara Andres … Quintina
Sig Libowitz … Hillel
David Anzuelo … Flight Attendant
Kathleen Fasolino … Meadow’s friend
Ray Garvey … Airport Guard
David Healy … Vice Principal
Ajay Mehta … Sundeep Kumar
Jay Palit … Indian Man

Wrap Up
Tony is feeling pretty good, despite his mother busting his chops after Janice left. He solves it by giving her airline tickets of the Scatino bust-out, so she can go and visit an old aunt (aunt Quinn, the other miserabile). He’s earning good enough money with a prepaid phone card scheme to buy Carmela a mink coat and he’s not so depressed anymore. Another reason for Tony’s untroubled state-of-mind is the demise of Richie, ‘All my enemies are smoked’, Tony tells his crew optimistically during a diner. But it is too good to be true, his unconsciousness tries to tell him. He gets food poisoning the day after. And in a fever dream Silvio tells him, ‘our true enemy has yet to reveal himself’, in true Al Pacino style. Silvio is even wearing the maroon vest Pacino wore in The Godfather III.

Pussy’s not feeling so well. He has to give his phone card earnings straight to FBI Agent Skip Lipari. He didn’t get food poisoning though, even though he ate at the same restaurants; an Indian place and Artie Bucco’s. Tony suspects Artie’s shellfish, but when Artie calls Pussy they find out he doesn’t have any symptoms, while they had different courses at the Indian place. Tony starts dreaming again, about him at the boardwalks. First he dreams that he sets himself on fire in front of his friends because he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer (‘what if they’re wrong?’). Then he dreams that he shoots Paulie Walnuts during a card game. He discusses the meaning with Dr. Melfi in a dream therapy session, while he also talks about Pussy. ‘Pussy’ in multiple ways.

Tony knows something is not feeling right about Big Pussy. He also knows someone has to get whacked, because of the Paulie dream. In another dream sequence, a fish who looks and talks like Big Pussy tells Tony he has been working with the federal government. Tony still doesn’t want to believe it, but when he wakes up he knows what has to be done. A little later, Tony and Silvio come by Big Pussy’s house to pick him up to help them buy a boat. Tony, still sick, pretends to get another attack and goes into the upstairs bathroom. While Silvio keeps Big Pussy downstairs with Angie, drinking coffee, Tony searches the bedroom. He finds what he was looking for; wiring equipment and tapes. When Tony comes downstairs he says, ‘who’s ready to buy a boat?’

Paulie Walnuts is waiting by the boat and Pussy is getting nervous. The boat departs and when open water is reached, Pussy is taken below deck, where Tony confronts him with his betrayal. After denying it, Big Pussy has no choice but to confess. He knows his number is up. And after a last round of tequila with his friends, the inevitable happens, Tony, Paulie and Silvio shoot Pussy and he drops dead in the cabin. His body is placed in a bag with weights and entrusted to the Atlantic Ocean.

When Tony comes home, his mother calls to tell him that she is being held by airport security for the Scatino tickets. Not much later the FBI comes by with a warrant. Just when Tony is handcuffed, Meadow comes in with her friends, one day before her graduation. Luckily Tony gets off easy but he is still concerned. The season ends the way it started, with a montage of all the Soprano crew’s businesses, such as Barone Sanitation, the Jewish owned hotel, the phone card scam and David Scatino who’s divorced, broke and leaving town. The scene is scored by The Rolling Stones with ‘Thru and Thru’, an insanely great choice.

At Meadows graduation party the whole Soprano cast is present and it’s one big happy family again. Tony stands alone in the living room, smoking a cigar and reflecting on recent times. The final shot is from the ocean, where Pussy sleeps forever.

Why Great?
This final episode of the second season is extremely well written and directed. It is a powerful and surprising final episode that reminds of a Greek tragedy. Tony has to make his hardest decision yet. This is totally necessary in his leadership position, but he was also the one who loved Big Pussy most whose death is therefore a great loss for him. And for the viewer as well. Pussy’s passing and the dream sequences leading up to it are so far the most exciting and memorable moments of the Soprano saga.

When I first watched ‘Funhouse’, I just couldn’t believe it. I was hoping for a terrific episode to wrap up the season, like season 1 did with ‘I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano’. A conventional finale that neatly ties up the remaining storylines, although The Sopranos was never conventional. ‘Funhouse’ did something else entirely. By adding twenty minutes of dreamtime I got much closer to Twin Peaks than to the mob films it originally seemed to be based on. It does resolve the main remaining story – that Big Pussy is indeed ‘singing’ for the feds – but it does so in a brilliantly surprising way. By delving into the main character’s subconscious and making him realise the ugly truth his conscious self couldn’t accept.

Michael Imperioli (who plays Christopher) has a theory*1 about the episode. That Tony didn’t have food poisoning at all, but that it was the knowledge that he had to kill his friend that made him so sick. And killing his friend he does. The scene on the boat, of which the interior scenes were shot in a studio, is a dramatic highlight of the show. Brilliant acting by the cast, especially James Gandolfini and Vincent Pastore as Pussy. It’s ridiculous that season 2 didn’t win the major Emmy Awards that year, but they weren’t ready for The Sopranos yet. The show has been groundbreaking from the beginning, and this episode really took it to another level again.

Finest Moment: Pussy on the Brain
Tony is having fever dreams while suffering from bad food poisoning. All dreams have certain elements in common; danger, cancer (destruction from inside out) and Pussy. It all leads up to this final dream; the dream in which Pussy – in fish shape, but it really looks like Pussy! – reveals to Tony that he is working for the government. It is in moments like this that The Sopranos is at its most powerful; using a dream as a method to really push the plot forward. In the first season, when his mother wanted him whacked, Tony was in denial and started fantasising about a Madonna. But he didn’t acknowledge the truth until he heard his mother speak on the FBI tapes. Now, Tony has learned to listen to his subconscious. He has been having a strange feeling about Pussy for a long time and now he is open to the ultimate truth. When he wakes up he knows. The fish is also a brilliant find. In a macho gang like the Sopranos, it is considered unmanly to betray your friends. Therefore, it is Pussy – the guy with the feminine name – who’s a rat. There is also a pussy joke in there, pussy smells like… you get the picture. The reference is also to death, as in ‘sleeps with the fishes’, and it foreshadows Pussy’s ultimate resting place, the ocean. This dream is the perfect crossover between the series’ essentials; the mob and psychiatry.

*1 Talking Sopranos Podcast, episode 26 – Funhouse.

How to Write a Television Series

Originally published on FilmDungeon.com on 24-12-2007

As a lifelong devotee of the moving image, I developed the idea of writing screenplays. What better way is there to get your break into movies when you’re a non-professional that wants to be a filmmaker? I had already written a movie screenplay. A low-budget horror-comedy comparable with Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste. The problem with actually filming it was that a considerable budget was required. I am from the Netherlands where even renowned filmmakers struggle to get another project done. So who was going to invest in a cult film with a microscopic target group and an inexperienced director?

It was time for a strategy change. TV-series are the next best thing. And being the creator of a TV-series is what many would call a dream job. So would I. You get to write and produce a mini-movie every week, and when successful, you can continue it for as long as a decade. So I decided to start the creation of my very own TV-series. I already knew my subject. Or concept if you will. Now I needed some ideas on how to craft my screenplay.

To get this done I bought a book: The Sopranos – Selected Scripts From Three Seasons. This is an extremely useful book for aspiring TV-writers. But knowing the show is probably a prerequisite. It describes the process of writing a series. The creator of the show, David Chase, explains how he came up with the overall theme of every season. Then, together with his writing team, he started working on the individual episodes. Every episode has three or four storylines. One major storyline called A. Then there are smaller ones called B, C and sometimes D.

Once the storylines were decided, the actual scenes were described. The five example screenplays in the book are in between 35 and 80 scenes long, and approximately 60 pages (1 hour of TV). When the scenes for every story were decided they are sequenced in a logical order. Then the episodes were divided among the writers. They had approximately two weeks to come up with the first draft. Then the show’s creator read it and gave the writer feedback on what he liked and didn’t like about it. Then the second draft was written and this process continued till the final draft was ready for production.

A great benefit of this book is that it contains five example TV-plays. If you need direction on the format of a TV-screenplay, all you have to do is check out one of these. After finishing the book I was ready to start the creation process of my very own TV-series. First a lot of research had to be done. I collected newspaper articles and started reading books on my subject. I started shaping my fictional world by describing the characters, their life stories and their personality traits.

The research and preparation took me a whole year. Of course I did it all in my spare time. I also had a day job to keep going. After this year I was ready to write an actual episode; the pilot. I wanted to do this in one go, because I thought it would make the writing process easier. So during a holiday in Crete I wrote the pilot script. It was certainly fun to do. But finishing the script was a weird sensation. I was proud that I had not given up, and had now completed it. But I was also wondering if what I wrote was actually any good…

Update 2021
No, that pilot tv-script I wrote is not very good. However, I haven’t lost my passion for this writing business. I recently decided to give it another go. That Bad Taste like script I mentioned earlier, I have decided to rewrite it. And it will be in English, so it is fit for international audiences.

Will it ever be a movie? Small chance. No one will want to produce it, that’s for sure. It’s too weird and has no commercial appeal I think. But if I ever get my hands on some money that has no immediate purpose, I might produce it myself. It has the potential to become a fantastic amateur cult movie.

And I would put it straight on YouTube when it would be done. It would be a lot of fun to make for the voluntary or underpaid cast and crew, that’s for sure. So I take another advice from David Chase, don’t stop believing!