If you had to pick a definitive episode of The Sopranos, “Pine Barrens” (season 3 episode 11) would work. In that Steve Buscemi-directed installment, the audience follows two members of the Soprano crew as they stray far from their familiar North Jersey environs.
It all begins with a botched collection by Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). Instead of a paper bag full of money, Chris and Paulie end up with a very large, apparently dead Russian mobster.
From there, things really slip out of control for the bumbling duo, who spend the night in South Jersey’s snow-covered Pine Barrens. Nearly two decades later, the Emmy-nominated writing, direction, and editing of “Pine Barrens” all hold up.
The same goes for the extraordinary cinematography. For Sopranos director of photography Phil Abraham, the episode remains a standout for several reasons. And it started with the change in conditions when they arrived on location.
The ‘Sopranos’ crew had to change the plan for ‘Pine Barrens’ when a snowstorm hit New Jersey
Would “Pine Barrens” have worked as well without snow? No one can say, but the original plan simply involved shooting in the woods. Snow didn’t factor into it until a major snowstorm hit New Jersey and left the woods covered in white powder.
On the Talking Sopranos podcast, Abraham recalled arriving at the location and having to change gears. “In terms of scouting it with no snow and showing up and there’s snow … that was just crazy,” Abraham said. And he described the snow’s impact on one memorable scene.
“We were there in the morning figuring out the first things we were gonna do,” Abraham said. “We were worried about leaving tracks in the snow.” Abraham noted how they stressed over the stunt in which Paulie falls down the hill and loses his shoe (and messes up his hair).
“There were a lot of conversations about we could do this,” Abraham recalled. “Because now the rocks were covered with snow. You couldn’t see them, and there was no way to do [the tumble down the hill] safely.” Fortunately, a crew member displayed exactly how to handle the fall.
An intrepid ‘Sopranos’ crew member demonstrated how to handle the key ‘Pine Barrens’ stunt
Abraham and the rest of the Sopranos crew stressed over the down-the-hill stunt because of the obvious dangers. But one bold crew member decided to show them how an experienced stunt-player could handle the job.
“It was going back and forth,” Abraham said on Talking Sopranos. “How we were gonna stage it, what we were gonna do. [Then] Jimmy Levy, our Teamster captain, said, ‘What the f*ck are you guys talking about? You do it like this.’ He goes up the edge, tumbles down the cliff, all through the rocks. And he stands up and goes, ‘There! What’s so hard about that?'”
That demonstration blew the crew’s mind. Eventually, they followed Levy’s lead and got their shot. But the drama didn’t end there. They still needed to convince Sirico to mess up his hair. That was probably harder than the stunt player agreeing to tumble down a snow-covered, rocky hill.