“The Sopranos” is chock full of memorable episodes, but “Pine Barrens,” a Season 3 episode directed by Steve Buscemi, is one of the best installments of the 21-time Emmy-winning HBO series. If you haven’t seen the iconic episode — and you really should — made men Chris and Paulie Walnuts spend the length of the episode hunting down a seemingly unkillable Russian man while lost in the woods of South Jersey, sliding further and further into desperate delirium as day turns to night and temperatures plummet. Eventually, the mission gets aborted, and the duo is rescued by Tony Soprano himself. The whole thing is like a fairytale with no moral: The snowy, forested background harkens back to the beginnings of a 1940s Christmas movie, but in reality, it’s just two hot-headed Jersey gangsters with unparalleled chemistry running aimlessly through the trees. And according to one thorough oral history from the show’s cast and Hollywood legend, filming it was one hell of a bumpy road.
A Hypocrite Politician Forced the Cast Out of New Jersey
Production’s first hiccup came with an unexpected location change: The plan was to film at a park in West Orange, N.J., but James Treffinger, a local politician, swooped in at the last minute and put the kibosh on the shoot. He reportedly feared that the Sopranos shooting in Essex County would give Italian Americans a bad name. Ironically, that politician pleaded guilty to counts of mail fraud and obstruction of justice in 2003, earning him a 13-month prison sentence.
The cast and crew relocated to Harriman State Park in New York State. “Most of the show was shot in North Jersey and New York City. We mostly lived in that area. So most of the time we’d shoot, go home. But we all went upstate,” actor Micheal Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, told The Ringer. “We stayed at a hotel on the grounds of West Point,” added actor Steve Schirripa (Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri). On top of being far from home, they were filming in January, so the days were short and frigid. “Once you lost daylight, the day was over,” said writer and producer Terence Winter. “By 4 o’clock we were wrapped, so by 5:30, everybody was in the hotel bar and having a ball.” Naturally, this led to some off-camera escapades.
A Debaucherous, Debilitating Karaoke Night
One evening after filming, a few of the cast members brought the hotel bar festivities to a nearby dive. “We went out one night. I remember driving Jim [Gandolfini], Michael, me, Steve Buscemi, and maybe one of the crew guys. And we go to some bar,” Schirripa explained. “And there’s a band [and I look up] and Buscemi is singing ‘I Wanna Be Sedated.’ What a wholesome, absurd sight to see. Unfortunately, life has both peaks and valleys, and the following day’s shoot would prove to be quite the mountain to climb.
“The next morning people were hurting, man,” recalls Schirripa. “I remember there was a PA puking in the garbage pail.” Perhaps their hangover functioned as fuel for some method acting, as the characters were supposed to be irritable and tired in those scenes. They made it through the day, but not without Bobby Bacala doing some NSFW baton twirling.
The 3-Foot Dildo “Like an Italian Bread”
Later in the episode, before Tony and Bobby venture to the Pine Barrens to find their crew, Bobby shows up in hunting gear and Tony cracks up. But after the crew had to shoot multiple takes of the scene, the authenticity of Gandolfini’s reaction to Shirripa’s performance wore off, so Schirripa got creative to make the laugh more genuine. He sought out the props department for a solution. “I had this big, giant 3-foot dildo like an Italian bread, and I didn’t tell anyone, not even Buscemi,” says Schirripa. The day of shooting, Schirripa twirled it around off-camera, and Gandolfini burst out laughing. Mission accomplished.
As Buscemi put it, “Pine Barrens” sees “two characters that we have seen in a certain way in almost three seasons, and now you put them in an environment that they are totally unprepared for.” A lot of work went into showing two ruthless antiheroes feasting on half-frozen relish and mustard packets to stay alive, but the strange serendipity of it all ended up producing one of the best TV episodes of all time.