Tony Soprano is in trouble.
The New Jersey teenager destined to become a fearsome mafia leader was just kicked out of school and is getting lectured by his wiseguy uncle, Dickie Moltisanti. The scene — from the upcoming Sopranos prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark — is marked by writer David Chase’s characteristically subtle mood swings as Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) attempts a series of ploys — chumminess, bullying, sweetness — to convince his wayward nephew (Michael Gandolfini) to straighten up.
And in between takes, the film’s director, Alan Taylor, kept his actors focused on every slight tonal pivot.
“Dickie is trying to be a father figure for Tony and failing over and over again — the whole movie is in that scene,” Nivola says. “Alan was really insightful about each moment where Dickie changes tactics and tries something else. The good directors have an innate sense of where those dynamic shifts should come.”
Taylor has a long history of handling dramatic shifts — both onscreen and in his career. During the course of three decades helming prestige television, the Emmy winner introduced the world to Don Draper on the Mad Men pilot, brought dragons to Westeros on Game of Thrones, staged Carrie’s devastating breakup with Aidan on Sex and the City and directed acclaimed entries of The West Wing, Rome, Lost, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Deadwood and, of course, The Sopranos. He also, somewhat notoriously, tackled two major big-screen franchise films (more on that later).
Now Taylor has returned to the Jersey mob world with Many Saints, a high-wire act of franchise expansion that seeks to add to the legacy of a series some consider to be the finest TV drama of all time — except without the use of any of the series’ familiar cast (some voiceover notwithstanding) and set during a very different time period (1967). The film primarily focuses on mobster Dickie, father of Christopher Moltisanti from the show, as he navigates the local crime scene against the backdrop of the Newark riots.
“There’s a kind of irony to the fact that David took the classic gangster movie and put it on the small screen and made it contemporary, and here we are going back in time and putting it on the big screen — so we’re undoing the clever thing he did,” says the lean, white-haired Taylor in his usual rapid-fire delivery. “Also, part of the show’s visual power was contemporary trashy America with this New Jersey style in the 1990s. We’re going back to a time that’s more romanticized, a time that Tony thought of as the golden age.”
So how do you make a Sopranos movie that is, in some ways, exactly what The Sopranos was reacting against?
“Doing this in a way that would work for David’s vision was a huge challenge, something I would lie awake at night thinking about,” Taylor says. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever done.”
And given Taylor’s career journey that led to the Many Saints, that’s really saying something.
It was 1992 and Taylor was getting beat up.
The son of a video archive creator and a museum curator, Taylor had been a history professor who switched career paths in his early 30s to study filmmaking at NYU (“I had a claustrophobic reaction to academia,” he explains). Then his student film caught the attention of Homicide: Life on the Street showrunner Tom Fontana.
“I watched it and thought, ‘OK, this kid’s got something,'” recalls Fontana, who let the unknown helm episodes of the acclaimed NBC cop drama.
But on the set of his first professional directing job, Taylor ran into a problem. The show’s director of photography, “whose name I won’t mention,” Fontana says, “was very arrogant and thought he should be directing all the episodes. And here I hired this punk kid from college. He treated Alan miserably. He was harassing him. He was so dismissive of how Alan wanted to shoot.”
So Fontana went to Taylor with an offer. “I said, ‘Look, if you want, I’ll tell this guy to go fuck himself.’”
Even all these decades later, Fontana sounds surprised at Taylor’s reply. “Alan, on the first job of his career, says, ‘No, I’m the director and I have to handle this myself.’ Then he did. He got him to back off. He could have easily come to me whining. He could have taken my offer to help. And I think that tells you everything about his character.”
Those traits — obvious directorial talent combined with an ability to calmly solve problems on the set — led to Taylor finding steady work in episodic television. For a while, he longed to segue into making movies. Then he got an early look at the Sopranos pilot in 1998. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this was a whole different animal,'” he says.
Taylor would helm nine episodes of the HBO drama, which he described as a “training ground” for learning to work with actors. “When I direct, I tend to be like a pointer — a dog that goes right in and focuses on one thing,” says Taylor. “We did a take of a scene and there was a line [James Gandolfini] hit that didn’t quite sound right. So I went over and talked about what I thought was going on. Jim looked at me for a while and said, ‘OK, OK …’ We did the next take and his entire performance shifted — all the way through — and then he nailed that line. He took my comment about one beat and shifted everything else to get there; he didn’t do anything in a stand-alone way.”
The same might be said for Taylor’s approach. There’s a grand, sober exactitude to his style, peppered with shots that are — as Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss put it — “cinematic and precise.”
For instance: The artful way Taylor wordlessly introduces a secret federal investigation while simultaneously showing the shifting hierarchy of the New Jersey underworld at the end of his season one debut episode of The Sopranos.
Or take his staging of Julius Caesar’s murder in Rome. It’s an agonizing build-up to a mesmerizing whirlwind of white robes as a horde of armed senators circle and stab and slice the regal tyrant, followed by Caesar’s agonizingly mortal last gasps.
But what Rome viewers didn’t realize — yet perhaps could feel on some unconscious level — is that Taylor researched each of Caesar’s 23 wounds to make the stabbings accurately placed and in their correct order. So: Cinematic, yes, but also precise.
“Often [Taylor’s notes] were about little things that might seem totally insignificant,” Nivola notes, “but it’s the tiny details that make the scene.”
Taylor’s Emmy-winning Sopranos episode, “Kennedy and Heidi,” is known for its deliberately non-epic death of Christopher Moltisanti. Along with shooting the demise of Caesar and Deadwood’s Wild Bill Hickok, it helped gain Taylor a reputation as HBO’s “executioner for hire” — the director who gets the Big Death episodes.
So when Benioff and Weiss needed someone to tackle the pivotal final two episodes of their fantasy drama’s debut season, which included the shock killing of Ned Stark, the show’s seeming protagonist, Taylor was the obvious choice. “If you’ve been watching television this century and you’ve been paying attention to the credits, how could you not be a fan?” the duo said via email. “He directed some of our favorite episodes of some of the best series ever made.”
Taylor pulled off the execution of the Stark patriarch (even saga author George R.R. Martin declared, “the death of Ned Stark could not have been done better”) as well as the birth of the show’s dragons. For the latter, Taylor guided star Emilia Clarke, in her first professional role, as she silently conveyed the transformation of Daenerys Targaryen from an abused widow to the Mother of Dragons.
“I was butt naked in front of people I didn’t know,” Clarke recalled in the Thrones oral history Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon. “Alan saw the fear on my face and said, ‘Let’s lean into that then.’ ” The suggestion inspired Clarke to show viewers her personal feelings of apprehension and uncertainty, which resulted in one of the most iconic shots in TV history.
Taylor also pushed Benioff and Weiss to change the scene from night (as described in Martin’s book) to dawn so he could pull back in the season’s final shot to dramatically reveal the vast landscape as the baby dragons cried out. “The sequence and timing of those shots was in his head from the beginning,” Benioff and Weiss said. “The scene is pretty much exactly the one he described to us from before we shot a frame.”
Taylor returned for the second season of Thrones (and this time he was given four episodes) and would have stuck around even longer.
But that’s when he got an offer from Marvel.
Looking back on his decision to abandon Westeros to direct Thor 2, “It seemed like this was the next big step,” Taylor says. “It felt necessary and ‘onward and upward.’ “
The 2013 Thor sequel was subtitled The Dark World, which hinted at the film’s original tonal intention — something darker and more grounded than director Kenneth Branagh’s debut entry. “[Marvel president] Kevin Feige was always smart about looking at what worked and didn’t in the last iteration and trying to retool from that,” Taylor says. “So I came in to ‘bring some Game of Thrones to it.'”
The Dark World is considered one of the MCU’s weakest entries, even if it was a box office success (drawing $644 million). Some known factors in its creative troubles included a tight production deadline and a script that was seemingly never finished. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was initially attached to the project but wisely bowed out. “I did not believe that I could make a good movie out of the script that they were planning on doing,” Jenkins said in 2020. “It would have looked like it was my fault.”
Instead, it looked like Taylor’s fault, and the director watched as the film changed radically during postproduction editing and reshoots.
“The version I had started off with had more childlike wonder; there was this imagery of children, which started the whole thing,” he says of the unseen “Taylor Cut.” “There was a slightly more magical quality. There was weird stuff going on back on Earth because of the convergence that allowed for some of these magical realism things. And there were major plot differences that were inverted in the cutting room and with additional photography — people [such as Loki] who had died were not dead, people who had broken up were back together again. I think I would like my version.”
Taylor modestly suggests certain writer-directors (he is typically a director and producer) might have been able to turn around the beleaguered project. “I really admire the skill set of somebody who can go in with a very personal vision — like [Thor 3 director] Taika Waititi or James Gunn — and manage to combine it with the big corporate demands,” he says. “I think my skill set may be different.”
A few months before The Dark World was released, Taylor received an offer to direct another massive franchise picture and, once again, it seemed like a no-brainer: Terminator: Genisys. His girlfriend, Jane Wu, a storyboard artist he met while working on The Dark World, urged him to turn it down.
“Well, she read the script,” Taylor explains with a laugh. “She said, ‘You should be doing something you love right now, something that’s more personal.’ “
But the prospect of working with star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who impressed him during their meetings, and the chance to build on the legacy of James Cameron’s acclaimed Terminator films was too tempting. “All the voices in my head, and all the ones around me, were saying I should do it because who didn’t love the first two films?” he says. “I thought we would go in and fix the script and everything could be great.”
Once again, the film was profitable, grossing $440 million globally (in fact, only the beloved Terminator 2 earned more than Genisys in the franchise). The critic and fandom mobs, however, were brutal, and their impact on Taylor was profound.
“I had lost the will to make movies,” Taylor says bluntly. “I lost the will to live as a director. I’m not blaming any person for that. The process was not good for me. So I came out of it having to rediscover the joy of filmmaking.”
Slow and small at first. “A couple really tiny things.”
There was a pilot called Roadside Picnic based on a Russian sci-fi novel, and an Amazon anthology show titled Electric Dreams. “Doing stand-alone episodes felt like going back and doing student films again,” Taylor says. “I loved it, and it was exactly the sort of personal things I should be doing.”
There was a return to Thrones for two episodes in the penultimate season (fortunately for Taylor, not in the final season — the fandom uproar on that one might have driven him out of filmmaking forever). “That was a healing process, too,” Taylor says.
Then, in 2018, a fateful lunch with Chase, who offered him the long-awaited Sopranos movie. The film is a prequel, of course. Chase would never allow a sequel because it would have to “explain what happened in that room,” Taylor says, referring to the show’s infamous cut-to-black final shot (of which Taylor has a firm opinion: Tony’s dead).
Yet Taylor wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice for the project. The Sopranos employed a murderers’ row of recurring directors — Tim Van Patten, Allen Coulter, David Nutter and even Chase himself, who helmed the pilot and finale. What made Taylor the right pick? Chase told Taylor he felt like he did some of the show’s finest work. But there was also something else.
“He said he felt like I gave him the most trouble,” Taylor says, sounding perplexed. “I don’t know what he meant by that. I don’t remember giving him trouble.”
Explains Chase via email: “In tone meetings, which were always terrible for the director, the directors had to tell us scene by scene, line by line, what they were planning to do. They all hated it. Had I been directing, I would have hated it. Alan, I think, particularly disliked it, and he would cavil about what he was planning to do when I didn’t respond favorably. He would go off and do some of what he had planned [anyway]. I [rewatched the episodes] after the series ended, years later, and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great episode.’ He makes wonderful pictures.”
Despite Taylor’s instincts being proved right over time, the director was hesitant about diving back into another big-screen project, even if it’s one that unifies a pop culture franchise with his prestige TV comfort zone. “Having been through the Marvel and Terminator experience, I know that when you are coping with a fan base, they’re very forceful,” he says. “They have strong opinions, and it makes a huge difference whether you win them over or not.”
The casting of Michael Gandolfini — James Gandolfini’s real-life 22-year-old son — as Young Tony wasn’t a given. The Deuce actor had to do a full audition. Yet Taylor and Chase knew they made the right decision when the team had dinner before production began. “Michael stood up and said he wanted to thank everybody for giving him this chance to say hello to his father again, and to say goodbye again,” Taylor recalls.
Giving direction to Gandolfini’s son playing a young version of the iconic mobster had its surreal moments, however. Michael learned Tony’s mannerisms and gestures, and even added a chipped tooth. During one eerie line, Young Tony notes he would never want to be shot in the back — foreshadowing, perhaps, the character’s eventual fate.
One challenge was to keep Michael’s performance from becoming too much like his father’s. “We were reminding each other that he’s still a kid, he hasn’t hardened up yet,” Taylor says. “Sometimes a line might come out like he was already that gangster, and we had to back off to the less-formed version.”
Taylor faced a similar dilemma behind the camera: how to make the film echo The Sopranos but still feel like its own feature. Taylor decided to retain the show’s visual storytelling language to “distill the essence of The Sopranos“— the way shots are framed, the way the camera moves — amid the film’s more elegant costumes, lighting and set design.
There are other more obvious echoes from the show as well: There’s a mobster who finds an unlikely outlet to regularly confess his sins, murders that never go quite like you’d expect, and dreamlike scenes (Taylor’s favorite), which may or may not have really happened.
But after production wrapped, there was one serious concern. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, would the film’s depiction of the Newark riots still seem appropriate? Like with staging Caesar’s murder, Taylor’s penchant for historical exactitude inspired him to directly re-create shots from archival photos and footage, which perhaps keeps the scenes from being as sensational as they might otherwise have been. “We were thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is there still a place for this movie?’ ” Taylor says. “We showed it to some consultants and to [Many Saints actor Leslie Odom Jr.], and I think we did it in a way so that it becomes more heightened and more conscious.”
Looking ahead, Taylor’s plate is once again full. He’s directing the pilot for AMC’s Interview With a Vampire adaptation and has signed on for Netflix’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
For the moment, he awaits the reception of Many Saints, which hits theaters and HBO Max on Oct. 1. As important as the film is to the Sopranos legacy, it might not be the last. The story plays a bit like a lavish pilot for a series that doesn’t yet exist, and it’s easy to imagine HBO Max backing up a sanitation truck full of cash for a Sopranos prequel series. Taylor has his doubts that will happen but mentioned an eyebrow-raising exchange with Chase.
“David said something that sounded like he was talking about [making more content]. I said, ‘Wait wait, are you talking about a sequel?’ And he said, ‘Maybe.’ “
Isn’t that just like the mafia — and franchise — world: Just when you think you’re out …
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.