This article contains mild The Many Saints of Newark spoilers.
Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, comes full circle in the wet work he’s done for The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Rome, and other HBO murderfests. After almost two hours with the central figure of the film, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), he meets a gangster’s death. We know it’s coming from the beginning. It’s one of the first things his son, Christopher Moltisanti says about his dad in the film’s opening voiceover. The problem is Chris is dead, by the hands of the same guy who killed his father. A man who didn’t get his fingers dirty. The man who pointed the camera.
Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini, may have been the one who squeezed the life out of his “nephew” with two fingers, but it was on the orders of Alan Taylor, the director of the episode, “Kennedy and Heidi.” In the mob, the legendary Umberto “Albert” Anastasia, who co-founded Murder, Inc., was known as the Lord High Executioner. Taylor has no such designation, but he has been the resident assassin on HBO. When The Sopranos’ last underboss, Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa), got shot while waiting for the model “Blue Comet” train to make the last trip from New York to Atlantic City, Taylor is the one who derailed him.
Taylor guided the tortured and disfigured Pearl through her suicide during “Nights in Ballygran,” the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire. Taylor was also dealing from the bottom of the deck when Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt) shot Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) in the back of the head when he was playing cards in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood. Wild Bill folded while holding aces and eights, the “Dead Man’s Hand.”
He also lopped off the head of the popular and seemingly indestructible Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones.
“As an episodic director, you never quite know what you’re going to get when you go in,” Taylor tells Den of Geek. “When you see you’re killing a major character, it is like you won the lottery. When I got to do Ned Stark, that was great.”
While speaking about his latest film, The Many Saints of Newark, death is a recurring subject, and one which never comes expectedly. The director knows the secret of an epic death scene often lies in underplay.
“Maybe I’m just perverse in my head, but one of the guiding things for doing something like the Ned Stark death was to deliberately shoot it in a kind of mundane way,” Taylor says. “I wanted the angle that, where his head gets chopped off, to be a coverage angle that we’ve already been using. No special, heightened dramatic angles for the big event.”
The commonplace vantage point of the ground also played specifically to an audience unaccustomed to the shock value of entertainment rule-breaking.
“I think a lot of people watched that scene, not ready to believe that he was going to die because they knew he was the main character,” Taylor says. “Of course, anybody who read the novels knew what was coming at some point, but a lot of people thought, ‘Okay, got it, a big TV show, here is the main character.’ So, I was trying not to telegraph the inevitable or to overdramatize it. In that one, I was actually shooting his coverage almost like it was a conversation.”
But some epic deaths call for a larger cinematic scope. When capturing the end of a dictatorship in one of the most heavily documented periods in history for the HBO series Rome, Taylor, a former history professor, used every frame of reference at his disposal.
“When I killed Caesar [Ciarán Hinds], I just tried to do it with historical accuracy,” Taylor says. “We did all this research about who stabbed him when and where, and tried to match the reality of that gruesome killing. There are few ways they’re worse to go than being stabbed to death by a bunch of people you know. And trying to capture that feeling and just be true to it, I probably got stylized with that a bit more, remembering the select top shots and slow-motion, and things, but every death is different.”
There are deaths galore in The Many Saints of Newark. People die in fires, crossfires, and in the undertow during a sunny day at the beach. Taylor made his bones a long time ago, he got his button and he still delivers.The Many Saints of Newark premieres in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, Oct. 1.