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what tony soprano taught me
lessons in life from tv writing
by marianne ruane (@marianneruane)

James Gandolfini was in my dating pool. Not that I ever dated him, but he was only seven years older than I was when he died of a heart attack. What a reminder of the brevity of life! I think sometimes about the mortality of my parents, or the parents of my friends, or of my older aunts and uncles, but not of a potential boyfriend, and certainly not of my own. I strive to find love and joy in every day, to enjoy it for whatever it is on a scale of one to ten, with acceptance, but I can get caught up in the dramas of life like anyone. That life is a blessing to be appreciated probably can’t be repeated enough. That it was a lesson from James Gandolfini is particularly poignant for me, as he is inextricably tied up with one of the biggest challenges and successes of my time in film school. Life really is short, and I am reminded again of the call to fulfill my creative potential.

I signed up for a television writing class my third semester of film school. Feature film writing seemed like such a lonely pursuit, hours spent in forced solitary confinement, all objectivity lost in a fantasy world of my own creation. I thought television writing would suit me better, particularly the opportunity to collaborate on script ideas as part of a team – the support, feedback, and camaraderie to stave off the dogs of doubt and feed my social self. Plus the characters already existed; all I had to do was think up interesting situations for them and see how they would react. The only problem was that I hadn’t watched any television since 1992.

I had been living in Russia for almost eight years before I started film school in 2000. While films from the U.S. were not too hard to get access to then, American television series were not commonplace. At one point I was completely mesmerized by the entire run of Twin Peaks shown in addictive daily installments, but that was an anomaly. The series had been over for years by the time I saw it in Russia; I needed to write a spec script for a current show. My apartment in Florida had a television, but no cable, so I hadn’t watched any TV my first year back. Who had time? I didn’t even know what shows were on television then. I’d always lived in a bit of a pop culture vacuum, but my overseas experience sealed it shut.

I signed up for television writing at the end of my first year, in the spring, but I spent that summer before the class started back in Moscow shooting my thesis film. No American TV there! I had two weeks before the semester began again when I returned, and I was in a bit of a panic. I needed to watch at least one entire season of a series before class. In 2001, there was no Netflix or Hulu or other TV series download site. All the eggs in my basket were betting on Blockbuster’s movie rentals.

That’s where I discovered The Sopranos - my only option then for the entire season of a series. I had no idea what it was – something about a choir maybe? When I found out it was about a mob family, my stomach sank and slithered out my toes. What did I know about the mafia? My only connection was that my aunt had married peripherally into a reputed mafia family. She and my mother weren’t close, so I had met very few of my uncle’s relatives, and I had only seen my older cousins a handful of times. At the one Christmas party at my aunt’s house that we did go to when I was little, my brother convinced me that an elderly Italian man carrying a violin case was a hitman. (Even if he hadn’t been carrying the most obvious of gun camouflage, he was wearing a pinstripe suit which my brother assured me was a dead giveaway.) After dinner we both sat, eyes bugging out of our heads, our little bodies frozen with terror, as the old Italian opened up the violin case with a grand gesture and pulled out… a violin. Everyone (except for me and my brother who were recovering from our shock) joined in singing Christmas carols.

Maybe I could write something about a non-mafia family that was related to the Sopranos family somehow? I rallied. Anyway, I had no choice. There were no other complete seasons of a series in the store.

I watched the thirteen episodes in insatiable sittings straight through two days. (Part of the reason I don’t watch television is my reluctance to be sucked into another world so completely on a regular basis. Too hard to regulate.) A mafia boss who sees a psychiatrist to deal with mother issues – what a brilliant premise! It was a perfect vehicle to make a ruthless crime boss human, to bring him down to a level of universal understanding. What great dialogue, interesting plot twists, excellent acting! I was completely blown away. I don’t remember what actually happened in the first season, but I found enough family drama and moral conflict to work with. I wove in elements from my own life: my mom’s miscarriage and hysterectomy years earlier, concerns about childbirth and legacy, my knowledge of the Russian banya. I think I even had Adriana take Christopher to a yoga class.

I worked on the script throughout the semester with a big push at the end to finish the final draft. I worked straight through the weekend before it was due, taking only short food or bathroom breaks and sleeping a few hours each night. I was so completely immersed in the lives of the characters that I told my dad afterwards I felt like I had gone to New Jersey for the weekend. It was exhausting and exhilarating. It was empowering too, but not in a Dr. Frankenstein or Pygmalion kind of way. Tony Soprano’s image and personality were developed by the show’s creator, by the writers, by James Gandolfini with his nuanced performance. Such a perfect artistic collaboration to create new life! That life already existed independent of me and I merely threw roadblocks in its way, like the moving barriers of a pinball machine adjusting the ball’s trajectory. I heard Tony respond, saw him react, and the way he did determined his destiny for the episode.

The characters were a summation of their life experiences so far and could only react in a way that made sense given what had been revealed in previous episodes. In any good story, the main characters have an arc, some kind of evolution as the plot unfolds. Changes come gradually, forging tiny chips in the armor that eventually cracks and breaks, hastened on by crisis and conflict. I could provide opportunities for Tony’s enlightenment, but I couldn’t make him understand until he was ready. Art really does mirror life.

Despite all of my doubts early on, I got an A+ for the class, the only one I received in film school. Unbeknownst to me, a well-written spec script had been in me all along, my life experiences providing everything I needed to write a complete story. James Gandolfini, through his art, in his perfect portrayal of Tony Soprano, provided an opportunity for me to expand beyond the limited beliefs of what I thought could accomplish. I had changed.

His untimely death reminds me that my story is not over. I can continue to change, to adjust my reactions and responses to the situations in my life without waiting for crisis and conflict. I know that all of my doubts are unfounded in the infinite realm of creativity; I have all of the skills I need. I’m grateful for the reminder, for the continual chance to really live.


I';m an international writer/ filmmaker who came to Philadelphia by way of Washington DC, Novosibirsk and Moscow (Russia), Miami, and Los Angeles after earning degrees from Cornell and U of Miami in Russian studies and film production. Originally from Scranton, PA, I am loving my new city, imbibing all the history I can and scarfing down all the pork belly I can get my hands on. I love telling stories, whether in pictures or words - thanks for indulging me!

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