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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'The Many Saints of Newark' expands the 'Sopranos' universe

October 8, 2021
4 min read time

Who is Dickie Moltisanti? That’s the question that lies behind The Many Saints of Newark

The film's marketing describes it as "a Sopranos story," which is crucial to consider as the Sopranos universe begins what is likely to be an expansion. The hit show, created by David Chase, ran from 1999 to 2007 and is oft-cited as one of the best examples of television programming. It has a laundry list of compelling characters that it can reference for future stories.

Dickie Moltisanti, as viewers of The Sopranos know, is the father of Christopher, who is a cousin of Tony Soprano and one of the powerhouse players in the crime saga. 

The Many Saints of Newark shows the formative years of Tony Soprano as he, a teenager at the time, marvels over his Uncle Dickie, and how the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s becomes a turning point in the crime family’s history.

The Many Saints of Newark was written by Lawrence Konner based on the characters by David Chase, and stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, and Michael Gandolfini as the teenage version of his father, James Gandolfini’s, legendary Tony Soprano.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from The Many Saints of Newark:

1. This is a 'Sopranos' story

Just like there’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe, this movie is part of a grander story arc. There are rules that the writer must follow and characters they must use. While it’s okay to introduce new characters and storylines, it must fall in line with the expectations of the universe.

Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola) was never seen in The Sopranos series, but he is part of the universe and plays a prominent role in creating the world of his son, Christopher, and nephew Tony Soprano.

What a writer also needs to know when taking on a story like this is that, even though it’s part of The Sopranos universe, it must also work as a stand-alone for viewers unfamiliar with the series. There can be breadcrumbs and Easter eggs throughout, but considering the series has been off the air for 14 years, there’s a good chance that viewers have forgotten some aspects of the show and new viewers want to enjoy the film without being confused.

Following the example of Marvel, viewers can watch origin stories like this year’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings without having to know the previous stories or see any of the other films.

2. The antihero

Dickie is a bad guy. He’s not likable. Yet, the viewer can’t help but watch.

This was a concept that drove the intrigue behind the Sopranos series. Tony Soprano wasn’t a good person. He cheated on his wife, hurt and killed people, was a criminal and used people seemingly without batting an eye.

Tony also had a family, he had children who went to college, and he was in therapy divulging secrets that could get him killed.

He was human (not a role model) and there was something about him that connected who he was with the audience.

The same for the lead character of The Many Saints of Newark. Dickie Moltisanti is the compelling character that makes viewers wonder how his actions will impact others and how far he will go to run the crime family.

Writers can see how the protagonist of the story doesn’t necessarily have to be a good guy, but rather someone that the audience will want to go on the journey with.

3. Historical context

The Many Saints of Newark is not a modern-day film. Everything from clothes to music to the culture of the time must represent the era. What writers can see from this film is how the story weaves in the pop culture as well as the chaos that defines the characters.

For someone like a teenage Tony Soprano, he is influenced by the music. The downtown area experiences riots; which is not just a setting, but plays a role in how the characters talk and how they act in their given circumstances. Meanwhile, other characters are being impacted by the civil rights movement.

While this film isn’t based on a true story and it isn’t a biopic, historical occurrences play a background role at times while other events become a catalyst for action. Writers can see how everything from an ice cream truck to a military recruiting station can be used to put the audience deeper into the historical-based story by look and feel.

4. Plant the seeds

There are many winks to the Sopranos universe as well as little breadcrumbs that show the viewer how some of the characters in the TV show become who they are in the television series. Some references are grand, such as seeing how Tony’s parents treat each other and the way his mother treats those around her.

Other smaller examples are how Tony speaks with his guidance counselor in school. Even in just one scene, the audience can see the glimpses of the way he talks around someone early in his life that would guide his decision to talk with a female therapist later on.

Writers can see how they can almost reverse engineer a character’s personality.

5. Small moments that define the future

One thing that made The Sopranos so compelling to watch was how the characters interacted with one another and how seemingly small moments led to major outcomes. The film is no different. Sometimes it’s just a line or a look that the camera focuses in on. These moments tend to stick with a character and they can’t seem to shake it even as others don’t think much of it, a thought that is quite human and something the viewer can relate to.

In one pivotal scene, there’s a slip and fall. But the reactions of those around this incident causes a significant turn of events. A writer can see how these apparent innocuous moments can be used to drive a character to change or, in the case of The Many Saints of Newark, act out in unexpected ways.

The Many Saints of Newark is currently in theaters and on HBO Max.

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