Many Saints of Newark, The: Director Alan Taylor’s Challenges

Director Alan Taylor, ‘Many Saints of Newark’ on Tackling Newark Riots and Race

The ‘Sopranos’ prequel director, executive producer Marcus Viscidi talk about portraying the 1967 riots as the film’s backdrop and the unexpected timeliness of a story more than a decade in the making.

 

When The Many Saints of Newark began shooting in 2019, the national conversation around Black racial justice looked and sounded different, to say the least.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and as it shut down the world, the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police forced the country out of its homes. Issues around systemic racism became the heartbeat of entire neighborhoods, cities and institutions for months.

The Sopranos prequel, a decade and a half in the making and set to the backdrop of the 1967 Newark Riots, and so the material had an unexpected weight and some unavoidable parallels.

For Alan Taylor, the film’s director, telling the story of the Newark Riots was a chance to recreate a moment of significant history, and one few know about.

 

The Sopranos

But he was also really daunted by it, a feeling that likely grew during the “strange” experience of having started a film in one year and by the time filming ended, delivering it in “a very different world with a very different consciousness,” he said at the opening night of the Tribeca Fall Preview screening.

That cultural shift due to the 2020 protests impacted some of what audiences will see, and some things that were reshot.

Corey Stoll, who plays Junior Soprano, said: “They went back and did some reshoots and there was real re-examination in  light of last summer. And that was a really good thing to do because we can’t understand what’s happening now without looking at our history.”

Those changes, says executive producer Marcus Viscidi were about authenticity and sensitivity. “When we looked at the movie again after the riots, we tried to look at and go, ‘OK, are we commercializing, in any way, or taking advantage of something that people went through that affected their lives significantly in the ’60s,” he said ahead of the New York City screening. “We really tried to make sure that we felt that the scenes we shot, and the moments we shot, were truthful. We wanted to make sure that we never took it out of context or out of the reality of what people were actually experiencing.”

“To try and get it right was hugely important and so I just did a ton of research,” Taylor said about his work. “Almost every image you see was grounded in visuals we found from the time so that we didn’t sort of go off and do make-believe.”

There is a moment in the film where a young Black kid is shot during the riots, which the team “lifted from a story of a boy who wound up on the cover of Life magazine.” While 26 others died in Newark during what became known as “the long host summer of 1967,” that boy, Joe Bass Jr., lived after being hit by bullet from a police officer.

One of the moments drawn for real-life, it helps underscore the approach taken by the director and team, including long-time collaborator and Sopranos creator David Chase. They also brought in consultants, including a Black Panther imprisoned for 13 years. “We showed the film to him and he said we got it right,” the director said.

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Alan Taylor at the premiere of ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ at Beacon Theatre. TAYLOR HILL / FILMMAGIC

The film was dedicated to bringing authenticity to their recreation of those four fiery days after the brutal police beating of Black Newark resident and taxi driver John William Smith. “We had people coming out of their homes from the neighborhood, older people who remember from their childhood. Some of them had tears in their eyes saying it was exactly as they remembered it. So that was also a kind of confirmation for us.”

But the movie delivers its own kind of Sopranos brutality. Taylor said that setting the riots as the backdrop was about more than just delivering on the violence the HBO series was known for. While Viscidi said the riots don’t really inform Tony’s development (much of that credit goes to his uncle Dickie Soprano’s journey), it plays monumental role in the arc of Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer.

“It’s not just to show the violence. It’s also thematically part of our movie because there’s one character Harold, played by Leslie Odom Jr, who participates in this and is radicalized by this,” Taylor explained. “It changes the way he thinks of himself, and it’s because of those events that he gets empowered in himself to turn against the mob and to wise up.”

The backdrop also plays role in one of the movie’s central relationships. “The riots were a critical moment for the race relations between Italians and Blacks living in Newark,” Viscidi said. “I think it is clear that David wanted to set that up as a pivotal moment in the relationships between the two cultures at that time in 1967, and it reflects in the story with Harod McBrayer and Dickie Soprano] who grew up as high school friends and now they’re on opposing sides. And to me, those opposing sides — the riots — are part of that work and propels the story.”

As for young Tony, his story is driven by something different. a highly anticipated on-screen appearance portrayed in his teens by the late Sopranos‘ star James Gandolfini’s son, Michael.

While fans might expect an origins story about the gangster who changed TV forever, Taylor said “he’s not the main character and this is not really an origin story as such.”  Young Tony is “the heart of the movie” and one set of eyes through which audiences will see the background conflicts of the riots and foreground conflicts of the Soprano family and business.

“There are a lot of scenes, like the funeral and we’re watching Dickie explode, and it’s absolutely grounded in Tony’s point of view. We sort of see it from that little kid’s point of view, looking to the grown-up bodies at what’s going on,” Taylor said. “I think it was important to feel him powerfully in the movie even though structurally it’s Dickie’s story. I just kept thinking that Tony is the heart of the movie and Michael became the heart of the movie when we were making it.”

For young Tony, those eyes are influenced by family patriarch whose cultural and familial obligations are underpinned by lessons and mindsets around sexism, racism and masculinity. Dickie’s is “an image of perfection and control,” says Alessandro Nivola, of a man who “inside is slowly unraveling emotionally.”

“This was the height of the Italian patriarchal family. I play somebody who really was expected to have a wife and a mistress, to have women cook for him, to have his own freedom and autonomy,” Nivola said. “But women in his life are not afforded the same kind of luxury. It’s not even questioned. It’s just part of a natural order of things at that time in this particular culture.”

“We’d like to think that we’ve moved on from there but in the same way that the racial discrimination that’s depicted in the film exists, it looks almost identical to the stuff we’re still seeing and saw last year,” he added.

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Michael Galdolfini, Alessandro Nivola and William Ludwig at the ‘The Many Saints Of Newark’ Tribeca Fall Preview at Beacon Theatre. ARTURO HOLMES / WIREIMAGE

Despite the riots informing the film’s Black lead and his former friend, the issue of racism has shaped  others of the film’s characters. Jon Bernthal, who plays Tony’s father, Johnny Soprano, says it’s an issue his character represents, helping illustrate the story of our country, the people who occupy it and the continuous flow of gains and losses around progress.

“These characters — especially the one that I play — are enormously upset with change. And he’s enormously trying to control both the family that he chose and the family that he’s born into. He wants to keep control over it so tightly. He hates change. Hates the way the country’s going, and he is so afraid of it,” Bernthal said. “I feel there’s so many people in this country that feel right now. It’s like, my god, man, you gotta let that shit go. But it’s also important to portray those kinds of characters and try to understand that this is something we’ve been dealing with.”

“I think that it was very smart, that David Chase set this story smack in the middle of that environment and that struggle,” he continued.

Actress Leslie Margherita, who plays Iris Balducci, said that being in a story that’s portraying the big social issues of the ’60s as they’re happening around you in real life can be difficult.

“You watch this film and literally it’s happening now. It’s so timeless,” she said. “To be in that world and recognize what’s happening in our world now, it’s still really really difficult as an actor, as you’re having to play the truth of what life in the ’60s was and realizing that it’s crazier that things haven’t changed enough.”

As for how well The Many Saints of Newark ultimately delivers on the truth of its moment in time, Taylor says: “I was nervous about whether or not it was going to make the transition. I think we did a good enough job and it made the transition, but we’re gonna find out by the audiences reaction.