Art of the Cut: Telling Tony Soprano’s Origin Story in “The Many Saints of Newark”

Today we’re speaking with Chris Tellefsen, ACE about editing The Many Saints of Newark: A Soprano’s Story.

Chris and I have spoken before about his editing on A Quiet Place and Assassin’s Creed, and he’s been nominated for several ACE Eddies for titles including Analyze This, Man on the Moon, Joy and Moneyball (which also picked up an Oscar nomination). He also won an HPA Award for A Quiet Place.

Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.

HULLFISH: Thank you for joining me today. I really enjoyed this film.

TELLEFSEN: Oh, I’m so glad.

HULLFISH: You said you recently rewatched it for the first time in a while, right?

TELLEFSEN: It hasn’t been too long. The director, Alan Taylor, had a screening in New York for friends and family about four or five weeks ago, which was really fun. I had some distance from it and that was good. It’s still torture. Watching it last night was torture too because I just keep thinking about how much rearrangement there was, and we did so many screenings with different configurations of scenes.

So, those things are always clicking in my head when I’m watching it, but I’m very happy with the film and where we were able to land it. I think everything landed in the correct place and I feel great about it, but it was a real process.

This isn’t the first film that I’ve ended up with a continuity where it was something like 10, 4, 6, 35… that kind of thing. For this, in particular, there were a lot of configurations, specifically in the very beginning between the funeral and the change to 1971. We were whirling with those scenes, figuring out the right balance to get to that point. There were many lifted scenes, and then we did additional photography of about eight scenes.

We started on March 13th, 2020. A day and a half into that shoot we were shut down for COVID, and we didn’t start up again because there was nothing else to work on except for the new photography and integrating that, which had a huge impact on things, so we’d just be spinning our wheels otherwise. We were down until September and we were first out of the gate to shoot.

It was very challenging especially for the line producer and Marcus Viscidi. That was quite an achievement, but luckily it was just seven days, so it wasn’t a full shoot. That would have been much more challenging.

HULLFISH: Without spoilers, what were some of the story purposes of the additional photography?

TELLEFSEN: Very specifically, something that wasn’t landing in what was originally shot was just understanding who people were and what their positions were and what their hierarchy in the business was. That’s the purpose of the confirmation party, which was to get the sense of Johnny, Junior, and Dickie’s business dynamics because it had been a little confusing.

“It never played the way we really wanted it to play. It never gave us what we really needed.”

There was also a scene that I must’ve edited about 3000 times of an intro of the Soprano family in their Italian section of Newark, which was to contrast the African-American section of Newark, and it never played the way we really wanted it to play. It never gave us what we really needed. It was something that happened before they pick up Giuseppina and Hollywood Dick, or Michela [De Rossi] and Ray Liotta, and it just didn’t play. So, we moved things around.

In the additional photography was also the introduction of David [Chase’s] concept of the sort of Spoon River Anthology style of the graveyard and the voice from beyond of Christopher. We had this spectacular scene of baby Christopher crying, which was always just so amazing. That’s when we first meet Michael, who was such a revelation that we wanted more of him. We also wanted to really land the effect that Dickie had on him as a person.

What I think is so interesting about it—and I think it’s a very Sopranos thing—is that everybody’s in their own hit. Nobody knows what the hell is going on with anyone else. It’s all so guarded and strange, and Junior is such a psychopath. Dickie knew he was a horrible person and that he wanted some kind of strange redemption, even though he was a murderer.

HULLFISH: For those that don’t know what the continuity is, it’s a document that lays out each scene in a single line in the order they appear in the edit. It’s almost a logline for each scene. The continuity for this film was numerically completely out of scene order. Tell me a little bit about the process of coming to that.

TELLEFSEN: As I said, there was the additional photography, which was for the purpose of grounding it and feeling who’s who and what the dynamics are in the Sopranos world, but the other aspect of it was to land the Dickie and Tony relationship. The tragedy of the break was very important.

Spoiler Alert. Click/tap to reveal

One of the two very important scenes that were shot near the end was the phone call where Dickie hangs up on Tony. That was additional. Also when Silvio tries to ask Dickie, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing this kind of thing?” after they’re intending to whack Harold. This is a spoiler, of course, but then Dickie’s gone and in the morning Tony’s just waiting all alone at Holsten’s, which is the place where The Sopranos ended. That was the diner that they were in when it cut to black. So, there’s a lot of mythology and weight to that.

HULLFISH: I interviewed one of the Sopranos editors originally. You were not on that original team, correct? Did you go back and watch The Sopranos?

TELLEFSEN: Of course. Before I started, I watched the whole thing again.

HULLFISH: What are some of your muses, not necessarily editing, but when you just want to be inspired what are some of the artistic things that you feel help give you a creative push?

TELLEFSEN: I like to read, and that is inspiring. I just re-read a book by Vladimir Nabokov called Laughter in the Dark, which has been a touchstone for me. Interestingly, it was made into a not very good movie in the late sixties. Tony Richardson made it, and I like a lot of his work but it was not great. Now, it’s actually being made with Anya Taylor Joy and is being directed and adapted by Scott Frank, which is interesting because I’m working on a film with Anya right now.

My background is that I went to art school and that’s where my work came fromjust doing these small films. I mostly shot from television and basically, editing became a process that I loved. It was really very much about found footage and it’s really my medium, I feel. It was never necessarily expected that I’d be able to make it into a real profession, but it worked out because I very aggressively pursued it.

I get inspiration from painting and photography. For some reason, while I was working on this, I would go to the Whitney and see a painting called Hemlock by Joan Mitchell. She is a post-abstract expressionist from the mid-fifties. There’s a wonderful book called Ninth Street Women, which she’s represented in.

I’d say I get inspiration from art and from watching films. We all do of course, but also I just really love the process. Right now, I’m deep in dailies on another project. I’m just two weeks in and it’s really fun. I’m just enjoying it.

HULLFISH: Some editors that I’ve talked to say that their favorite part is dailies, and there are other ones who say, “I hate the dailies part. I like the process after the dailies.” Do you have a favorite?

TELLEFSEN: I don’t have a favorite. I like everything. What I like is that there are so many different things. For the dailies, you’re just swimming in something and trying to figure it out, thinking, “Oh, this is both a combination of performance and placement. This shot would be a great start.” Sometimes they’re very specific. Sometimes things are very deliberately done, and then sometimes you’re discovering things and ways to shape and form a scene.

Sometimes things are very deliberately done, and then sometimes you’re discovering things and ways to shape and form a scene.

What I’m working on right now is being shot chronologically because it takes place all in one space, in a restaurant. It’s a set, so it’s very interesting and very different from what I’m used to because I’m used to getting scenes from all over the place. In that case, the assembly always feels like you’re getting beginning, middle end, beginning, middle end, and everything. Then, you have to make it flow.

HULLFISH: When you’re saying “beginning, middle end,” do you mean that when you’re watching these scenes out of order, you tend to edit them so that each scene has a beginning, middle, and end, but that there needs to be more of a flow of energy that doesn’t start and stop?

TELLEFSEN: In essence, you’re getting something that’s contained and then you have to open it up and figure out what it is. It’s like dovetailing from here to there.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about that confirmation scene that you mentioned that’s early on. If you haven’t watched The Sopranos, you could basically pick up the relationships, especially from that opening confirmation scene. I loved that the opening confirmation scene wasn’t wall-to-wall dialogue. I don’t know how it was scripted, but you opened it up and gave moments of color and pace that let the dialogue breathe and broke it up a little bit. Can you talk about that process?

You want it to feel like you weren’t introducing the characters in a straightforward way, but in a kind of flowy way that is enjoyable to experience.

TELLEFSEN: There was a lot of dialogue that was cut too. You just want it to be very atmospheric. You want it to feel like you weren’t introducing the characters in a straightforward way, but in a kind of flowy way that is enjoyable to experience. It had wonderful live music, the recording had a guitar playing these traditional Italian pieces, which was fun. So, I used that to help it flow, and just that very quick thing of the woman saying, “Apollonia was the patron saint of dentists.” There was a whole thing of that. She opened the thing and it was a tooth. It was just too much, but it was enough to just give it some color.

HULLFISH: That was a great line.

TELLEFSEN: She was lovely. The woman was really good.

HULLFISH: I love that. It reminded me of the marriage scene from The Godfather.

TELLEFSEN: That’s interesting. In a way, how could that not be in the back of one’s mind?

HULLFISH: Another thing that I noticed that I really liked was that there were a bunch of scenes—not too many but enough that I noticed it—where it started with dialogue but you were not on the person speaking. You would start on a little moment of detail, on a bit of color.

TELLEFSEN: Well, during the introduction of Satriale’s, the pork store, you hear the radio. It was very specifically meant to be that they were listening to WNEW-AM from that time in the sixties, which was the make-believe ballroom where they played a lot of Sinatra and William B. Williams was the announcer. You hear him talking about the chairman of the board, and then Sinatra comes on.

So, we just wanted to get the color and the pace of the thing, and then just to see the fact that this was a place of business, even though the bosses are just eating and shooting the shit up there, but there are guys on the phone, there’s money being exchanged… just to get that color.

HULLFISH: What is your approach when you sit down with dailies in your bin?

TELLEFSEN: I watched them very carefully. I notate and, of course, look at the script notes. With what I’m working on right now, the script supervisor is really great at making sure she gets whatever the director is saying that he’s picking out, which is great. So, those are things that I definitely want to get a sense of the intention, of course, but I’m also looking and vetting it for detail, for performance, what I feel, and what I’m responding to.

Watching each of the setups, I’m trying to think in my head, “Where do I want to be when I’m here and there?” and then facing it and starting to pull out selects. It’s the process of constructing and figuring and trying to get it to sing, to feel right, and to get the intention.

HULLFISH: So it sounds like when you’re watching dailies, you’re watching them straight from a clip. You’re clicking on a take in the bin. Some people, for example, have their assistants put together a KEM roll.

TELLEFSEN: Sometimes. I’ll watch them over and make notes, or I usually make the notes watching it as if I’m watching dailies in a theater. I have this Apple TV that I can watch the dailies on, so that’s helpful. I miss real dailies in a screening room. That was something I did for ages but certainly not in the last ten years.

HULLFISH: For those that might not know your background, one of the things we talked about in a previous interview was that you assisted for Thelma Schoonmaker. You were a third assistant or something?

TELLEFSEN: It was on The Color of Money in 1986. Marty [Scorsese] was starting to really collect at that time. So, the films that he was buying were coming through and he asked me to work on his archive. So, I worked on his archive for about six months, but I knew that wasn’t going to go on. Marty and Thelma are great, but they see you just as you are then. There’s no movement in that ball, to be honest with you. After that, I edited a short film and that eventually got me Metropolitan.

HULLFISH: You’ve been nominated and won awards. What are some of the reasons you think that people saw them as award-worthy?

TELLEFSEN: I think it’s detail and something flashy, to tell you the truth. You don’t get awards for subtlety, although that sometimes is the most difficult thing. Something like Moneyball was big, and I loved it. It was wonderful work.

HULLFISH: When you’re looking at other editors’ work for awards like the ACE Eddies, Oscars, or Emmys, what draws your attention? What gets your vote?

TELLEFSEN: What gets my vote is what the film does for me and how I am affected by it. I don’t look at it to pick it apart, saying, “This particular thing was particularly well done,” but how is the full whole? I look more to the whole than to the small areas.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about montages. I was thinking about the burning city montage or the looting montage.

TELLEFSEN: We shot with the intention that it was Harold’s view of what was going on. We had to find the right balance where it was seen through the lens of the movie.

When we ended up putting that piece on and then abstracting the sound, it just felt better. It felt as if we were going a little macro with it.

HULLFISH: When you are cutting the scene of Dickie driving through the riots, was the idea of perspective in the forefront of your mind?

TELLEFSEN: It was discovered. It was a process. It wasn’t predetermined per se. A lot of it was very covered and it could have been a lot more, and it was a lot more at some point, especially the bit of the burning city, there was a lot more to that.

It was taking away from the perspective of the movie. It was too much. So, we had to figure out the right balance so that you felt it but you felt it as it was resonating for the other characters too. Interestingly, when he goes to the last parts in 1971, he comes out of there thinking, “I’m going to take over the numbers game,” which is basically exploiting his people.

HULLFISH: One of the other things that I noticed you did a couple of times was pre-lapping music starting at the very end of one scene and having it continue into the next scene. Can you talk to me about doing that?

TELLEFSEN: There is no score and there’s no composer. It’s all music that exists. It’s meant to not only be something that’s being listened to, but it goes above and beyond. That’s also a way to tie things together or arc the rhythms of the scenes into one another.

HULLFISH: You referenced the idea of a Spoon River Anthology at the beginning of the movie. How was the beginning originally scripted?

TELLEFSEN: Originally, it started with the scene where Harold is chasing Leon, who is the gang member, and then Dickie comes in. You get the sense that there’s a relationship between him and Dickie. Then, you go to the Soprano family, there’s like a Madonna in a garden kind of thing, an American flag, and Tony throwing a football with his dad and his mother. Then, Dickie comes and picks him up and they go to pick up Ray Liotta and Michela at the ship coming in from Italy.

That was how it originally started. Then, right after that was the dinner scene where you get to know Michela somewhat, and then he hears them having sex. The next day was the taxi driver who was beaten up by the cops. That basically was the instigating incident of the Newark riots.

Then we went so far away from that, that it got a bit lost in the rearrangement. We more or less consolidated that story closer to Harold and Queen Isola talking about the numbers game while the little boy is still getting rid of the hair straightener, then dovetailing into Satriale’s where he gets dressed down by Dickie, and then you see him kill Leon in the recruiting center, which was—if you noticed on the continuity—scene 53 which now is in the placement of scene 12, I think.

Sometimes you have a sense of chronology that you can’t really screw around with, or things happen very consecutively, whereas that wasn’t the case with this. They didn’t have a temporal need to be one after another.

Another area where we did a lot of movement was after the introduction of Michael to the shootout. There was a lot of juggling and there were a lot of lifts. That was meant to keep the midsection alive.

There were two wonderful scenes that had to be sacrificed. It was a “kill your darlings” situation. There was a wonderful scene where Livia wakes from a nightmare thinking that she lost her teeth and the whole family is dealing with her, and then the father basically says, “I’m going down to Florida. You can take care of her now.” Then, there was a nice shot of having a nightmare in the foreground and him in the background. It was a terrific scene. It’s a really strong scene, but it brought down the pace of the middle section.

There was another really strong scene that David [Chase] was never convinced of because he felt that during the writing there were questions of new references to Dickie having killed his followers, so he wrote that scene where Johnny and Tony go to where Dickie worked.

They go there and Johnny is going to buy a pinball I think, and he’s really insulting to Tony and puts him down. Then, he goes off to one of the assistants to look at stuff and Tony and Dickie have a little conversation in which Tony says, “God, I hate him. I could kill him,” and then he smacks him and says, “Don’t say that.” Then, they got into a literal fight and the father had to break them up. It was really good as a scene and interesting, but story-wise just to see a certain kind of strife between them and having Johnny break it up just didn’t scan in the whole. It took it in a direction that felt disjointed.

HULLFISH: Is that something that you realize as you’ve put this movie together? Once you’ve assembled it and you’re sitting with the director and you’re watching the entire thing, what’s going on when you pull a great scene?

TELLEFSEN: You’re trying to track it and trying to say, “Oh, is this right? Is this configuration correct? Is this playing?” Actually, the whole aspect of it is: will it feed the ending?

HULLFISH: Were there screenings?

TELLEFSEN: Yes, many.

HULLFISH: What were some of the things that they revealed to you? Since this was COVID, did you get a chance to actually sit in on those or did you just have to go with the cards?

TELLEFSEN: Once COVID happened, nobody was there because we did a preview in the Midwest or someplace that they actually had theaters open, so we just saw that bizarre shot of the audience. I just can’t stand that infrared shot of the audience.

HULLFISH: For the screenings that you were able to go to, what were some of the things that you sensed?

TELLEFSEN: We just got a feeling of certain aspects that weren’t landing, and we had to make them land. So, we worked and figured, then it came to a point where it felt necessary to do some shooting. David took the time to write and we were all excited about what he wrote. It really elevated what we had.

HULLFISH: Did you edit this film from home?

TELLEFSEN: I did everything in an editing room until March 13th, 2020. I had a hiatus then until September 4th when they started shooting, and I worked remotely from September 4th to November integrating the additional photography. We did a lot of other work as well. It wasn’t just integrating the additional photography.

HULLFISH: Were you working from home as a secondary location or was that your primary edit for this?

TELLEFSEN: It was my primary edit. This [his home] is where I did remote work from Many Saints of Newark. I was in this space.

The film that I’m working on right now, called The Menu, directed by Mark Mylod for Searchlight is shooting in Savannah and they have their own challenges with COVID to deal with. They don’t need an editing room to throw into the mix there, so I’m working remotely here.

My assistants are working remotely as well and that’s working out okay. There are so many people working remotely and here I am on the East End in Sag Harbor, and we have one internet provider called Optimum, and they’re not the best. So there are some challenges. I will be going into the city to work with Mark, the director, in November.

“It’s interesting to work with new people. It just is.”

HULLFISH: Do you have any discussions with him whatsoever during the shooting?

TELLEFSEN: We talked at the very beginning about the piece quite a bit, and he’s very busy right now. We communicate, but not constantly. I’m pretty much on my own.

HULLFISH: Is there a trick to coming up with a collaborative methodology with different directors?

TELLEFSEN: It’s interesting to work with new people. It just is. I’m very adaptable and I’m very collaborative and they’re definitely collaborative. We click, and it becomes a process, a discussion, and a creative thing.

HULLFISH: Some people will say, “My collaborative process is very verbal.” Other people say, “No, if you want something, I’ll just cut something new and show it to you and we can have a discussion through the footage.” Do you adapt to that, or do you have a preference?

TELLEFSEN: I like to work on something then work together and discuss. Sometimes it makes sense to be together, and then sometimes I’ll just say, “Give me a couple of hours.” It depends on the challenge of the particular problem. Sometimes I need to do that by myself and sometimes it’s helpful to be working together. I don’t have one way of working, especially when I’m working with a director. I usually try to really feel out what’s comfortable for them.

Sometimes I need to do that by myself and sometimes it’s helpful to be working together.

On Many Saints of Newark, I was working with both Alan Taylor and with David Chase. It was sort of like a feature film with a showrunner. After Alan’s ten weeks, I was doing simultaneous cuts of what David was looking for and what Alan was looking for, and then they came together. It was challenging in a way. Interestingly, I think that they are a really interesting pairing because David is so story-oriented and Alan is very visual. We did a lot of things together of cutting silent for rhythm.

HULLFISH: Even dialogue scenes?

TELLEFSEN: Yeah, even dialogue scenes.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about how you make your determinations of shot size or the shot angle from dailies?

TELLEFSEN: When I’m looking at dailies I’m looking at different sizes plus the performance. Maybe it’s something with a lot of movement, or it’s something with a lot of connectivity. The piece that I’m working on right now has some hugely chaotic scenes, which I’m very excited about, and I have to really vet it, figure it, and play around with where to be at what time. It’s super fun, but it’s difficult to make it all play at first.

Interestingly, there’s that whole process during dailies where I can’t spend a week on a scene because there’s stuff coming in. So, I do kind of a first touch, and then I say, “Okay, I can put that to sleep now and move on to this,” so that I can keep up with the shooting to understand if there’s anything that’s problematic or anything that needs attention, or maybe I have to tell them that I could use this or that. So, I just keep on moving.

Then, let’s say I have a week after shooting ends, then I really get to stand back and look at what I have, but I usually keep the first cut 80 to 90 percent to script just for intention. The script is something that’s been worked on at home and figured so I want to give that a chance. Then I think, “Oh boy. We have to do this, we have to do that. This has to be lost. This is where you want to bring the emphasis.” Then, you find the structure.

There are so many angles, performances, and tons of strong ad-libs. The writers were on set too, and they love some of the ad-libs that the actors were doing, so those notes are on there and there are things I’m responding to as well. So, I’m trying to play that and that affects continuity and everything.

HULLFISH: How do you deal with ad-libbing? Are you ScriptSyncing? Are you making notes?

TELLEFSEN: I’m making notes with the ad-libbing and there’s so much that my assistants are starting to think that maybe we should start ScriptSyncing because they’re ScriptSyncing the script. I don’t cut with ScriptSync, per se, but with something like this, it’s super helpful. To see the same moment in 20 different places just can get very confusing if you’re doing it in selects. Interestingly, the first eight films I cut were on film and that affects my approach. I look at it like film, and ScriptSync is not like film.

HULLFISH: You are talking to me from New YorkSag Harbor as you said. Is there a “New York editor” vibe and an “LA editor” vibe?

TELLEFSEN: I think that was more like a sixties thing. Let’s face it, the New York thing was Dede Allen, Alan Heim, Evan Lockman, and of course Thelma [Schoonmaker], but there are a lot of Hollywood editors especially from the past that I really love.

HULLFISH: I do feel like there’s still a difference, but I don’t know what it is.

TELLEFSEN: I had a very interesting experience on David O. Russell’s film, Joy. It was very odd because the two editors he was collaborating with weren’t immediately available, Jay Cassidy and Alan Baumgarten, so he got Tom Cross to start, then Alan and Jay became available. Then, I had a window of time and he reached out to me. So, at one point it was all four of us, and they were all lovely and we really enjoyed the confluence.

That was very interesting, although it was a little insane. I adore David O. Russell, and Flirting With Disaster is one of my personal favorites. I enjoy the process of editing so much and I just love the movie as well, but he likes chaos. He’ll stir that pot.

HULLFISH: Is that chaos something that he feels adds to the creativity, or that there’s some creative value to?

TELLEFSEN: I think so.

HULLFISH: Is there anything else that you want to talk about that you feel like we’ve missed?

TELLEFSEN: The Many Saints of Newark was a great process. It was really fun to make the music work. We had one point where we thought, “Oh God, we better thin this out.” It was just too much, but then we got a good balance.

A lot of music is very specific and reflective but not written in. The only thing that I’d say would be written in was—I actually chose the piece of music—this Dionne Warwick piece because she refers to Dionne Warwick, and I love her. I actually bonded with David in our first meeting because I grew up in West Orange, New Jersey and he grew up in Verona, a couple of towns over.

HULLFISH: Was there a big challenge with wanting to add score at certain places?

TELLEFSEN: It was all a matter of asking, “What are we going to use here? Let’s play.” So, there was a lot of experimentation. I have nothing against scores. I love scores. I really loved working with Mychael Danna on both Capote and Moneyball. I think Mychael is such a talented composer. If you listen to those scores, it’s like the music is flopped. Especially if the writing process was believable with what he composed.

HULLFISH: That’s very interesting. I’m going to have to go back and listen to those soundtracks again thinking about that. Thank you so much for giving me the time.

TELLEFSEN: Thank you. Bye.

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.

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