Now considered to be arguably the greatest television show of all time, one rule on The Sopranos’ set could explain why. Running for six seasons, the mafia family drama redefined what audiences could expect from television and cable. The acting and directing were consistently stellar, but the show’s writing is what set it so far apart from other series on the airs at the time. The Sopranos showrunner David Chase’s vision is seen across all 86 episodes, earning him six Emmy Awards.
David Chase has worked on television since the 1970s, on successful series such as The Rockford Files or Northern Exposure. While The Sopranos is definitely his most prestigious project, Chase was far from being a rookie by the time he produced the series. Having a clear vision for what’s wanted was massively important, particularly for a series such as The Sopranos. To keep the vision consistent, David Chase implored one key rule.
The Sopranos Had A Strict ‘No Improve’ Rule
While many movies and shows find great success with their actors’ wit and ability to ad-lib lines, The Sopranos set had a firm rule against improvisation. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter for the 2021 prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase described the rule, saying: “Once we started shooting, there was no change of dialogue — not even one word was allowed.” This rule may seem strict, given how celebrated great improv moments are in television and film. A long list of TV shows, both old and new, benefited from actors’ creativity on set.
David Chase described frustration from lead actor James Gandolfini, saying “I mean, it’s amazing now to think that Gandolfini put up with that, but he did. He complained a lot. Oh, he b***** like crazy about everything, but if I said no, he would always fold and do what I asked.” A lack of freedom can definitely be frustrating for actors who have their own ideas for their characters. Luckily for The Sopranos, David Chase and the writing staff represented their characters with consistent accuracy, proving that sort of structure could work on set. Scenes had to be filmed by the book, with “Pine Barrens” moment in The Sopranos being among the few exceptions to this practice.
How The No Improv Rule Helped The Sopranos
On the surface, this rule may seem restrictive, but the dialogue in The Sopranos still always managed to feel natural. A singular vision for a series may be difficult, since television is such a collaborative process. However, the writing on The Sopranos is so strong that it’s difficult to imagine it being changed. A situation with too many collaborators wanting to see their thoughts carried out on the set can create a counterproductive environment, and this rule allowed the autonomous vision of the writers to thrive.