The British director writes about working on an episode of HBO TV series The Sopranos with 'the big Gand'
by Mike Figgis The Guardian
James Gandolfini was larger than life. I directed an episode of The Sopranos and got to know him a little.
This was season five and it was clear that the cast and crew had been in the trenches with the show for a very long time. The characters were so strong that I had some difficulty separating the real names from the fictional.
My first meeting with everyone was a table reading of the episode I was to direct, three days before we were on set. it was the lunch break and everyone was frazzled. I was the only outsider in the room. James sat next to me but we had no conversation. I contributed nothing to the read and then everyone left to continue shooting. Monday morning arrived and at 7am I found myself on the set. Lighting was quick, it was an ongoing set and suddenly the 1st assistant director got everyone's attention and it was over to me.
I was extremely nervous. I sounded pretentiously English among all those New York accents, I knew Steve Buscemi a little but no-one else.
I suggested a way of shooting the scene which involved James turning his back on his gang, giving a nice camera angle and also indicating that Tony Soprano was playing a double game. I had done my homework and thought it all out, or so I thought. James looked at me for the first time, a look of puzzlement combined with a "Who is this guy" expression. "Why the fuck would Tony Soprano turn his back on his guys?" It went quiet. Now I had everyone's attention. I wanted to die. The part of the brain that remains coherent whispered to me, don't argue with him.
"OK," I said. "How would you do it?" This sounded so weak, first bit of directing an admission of incompetence. I sat down and gave the floor to James and his merry men.
Now, there were circumstances. Mr Gandolfini liked to party at weekends and he was nursing the mother of all hangovers. But from my perspective all I could see was my own failure with two weeks of humiliation stretching ahead of me. Perhaps I would be fired.
On the floor, Tony Soprano and the boys tried the scene out ... and it was not working. James got more and more bad tempered and it seemed to me that everyone got more and more tense. Things ground to a halt. I had no idea what to do nor did I have any authority on the set, a new experience for me. "OK, OK," said Gandolfini, "let me try something." And so the scene began again and this time he did exactly what I had suggested in the first place, but it was like he'd thought of it. I wanted to sob, I wanted my mother. And then James turned, looked at me in a very mean kind of way and then a huge grin spread across his face, he stuck out his hand and said, "Fucking honour to have you on the show, big fan, welcome."
I'd been royally wound up by the big Gand'. Later, Buscemi told me he sometimes did that, liked to test directors out a bit. Thank God I didn't cry.
After that we got on fine and at the end of the shoot he threatened to take me drinking but I chickened-out of that offer.
I feel honoured that I got to direct him in such an iconic series. He was a really good actor and a very warm-hearted human being and way too young to exit.