If you ever got a kick out of giving out-of-state visitors your own “Sopranos” tour — “And this is Holsten’s, where Tony had his last meal. Or maybe not.” — be sure to thank Mark Kamine.
Born in Jersey City and raised in Wayne, Kamine joined the crew of “The Sopranos” right after the pilot, and for the rest of the run his chief responsibility was finding the real-life exteriors, and sometimes interiors, of where the show shot. And — from tiny Pizzaland to Tony’s McMansion — he almost invariably found them in New Jersey.
After the show went off the air, Kamine went on to other projects. Other jobs, too, including producing; he won an Emmy as part of the team behind “The White Lotus.”
But with “The Sopranos” celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, his thoughts have drifted back to those Bada Bing days — memories he has collected in a new book, “On Locations: Lessons Learned from My Life On Set with The Sopranos and in the Film Industry” (Steerforth Press, 208 pp., $25), and shared recently with us.
Q: You ended up going to film school, but you sort of got a late start.
A: I was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania. After that I moved to Manhattan, where I did some editing and writing. But for a long time I was having little or no career. Basically, I was working as a super. I saw there seemed to be this boom in independent filmmaking in New York led by people like Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, so I applied to NYU for graduate school, which is where they had gone. And I got in.
Q: What was your first job in the business?
A: After graduation, the wife of a friend of mine recommended me to this producer of a very low-budget film, who hired me as location manager — a job I promptly got fired from. But later he hired me back, saying “The guy we replaced you with was even worse!” So that was my start. But you know, these weren’t the sort of jobs film school prepared you for. I remember one low-budget movie, I had to save some on-street parking for the crew. Except the producers wouldn’t give me money to buy traffic cones, so I drove over to the Lincoln Tunnel where I’d seen a bunch lying around. A cop stopped me as I was putting then in my trunk. Luckily, he just made me put them back and sent me on my way.
Working on these little indie films, that’s the job: You do whatever you need to do. But I started meeting a lot of people, and that’s how I got a job on my first big movie, “Quiz Show.”
Q: That’s a film that takes place in New York, but ended up shooting a lot in Jersey City. And ended up giving you a real introduction to filming on location.
A: Yeah, I mean I grew up in North Jersey, where my father was a lawyer. And I had been a super, in New York. So I had been around some people who, let’s say, were less-than-straightforward at times. But still … I mean, one day on “Quiz Show” I’m told to go to this cop car and hand over an envelope full of $100 bills so we can get a street closed down for filming. I learned there was only so much you could accomplish aboveboard; the rest meant paying people off.
And it wasn’t just that film. I remember working on this indie, “New Jersey Drive,” when someone put a boombox in their window and turned it up, blasting away. We couldn’t record a line of dialogue, and so we go over and it’s, “Oh, you want me to turn off my radio?” And they’ve got their hand out. People were always pulling scams like that.
Q: How did you land the location manager job on “The Sopranos”?
A: It was through the line producer, who had worked on “Quiz Show” and knew me and trusted me. And the New Jersey thing helped in a big way working with (creator) David Chase, because we started out on the same page; I had grown up not far from him and I knew the area, so that really worked to my advantage. I mean, when the script called for, say, a garden apartment complex, I knew where to find one that would work.
Q: What was harder, finding the locations or negotiating with the owners?
A: The challenge was always the negotiations, although that challenge changed over time. At the beginning, we’d tell people we’re filming a show for HBO, and back then that meant nothing to people. HBO? That was where you watched boxing, and movies. And the cast … unless you were a film buff, unless you’d loved “True Romance,” you didn’t know who James Gandolfini was. So at first, just getting in the door was hard. Then, once the show was popular, it was, “Oh, you want to shoot outside my house, it’s going to cost you this much.” Or, “I want to meet the actors.”
Once someone told me they knew a captain in one of the crime families was interested in “consulting.” I didn’t know what to do about that. Do you take the meeting with the guy, whatever that means, or not take it and risk offending him? I ended up telling the person to tell their friend we weren’t allowed to meet with outside people for copyright reasons; it was strictly a legal thing. That seemed to end it, luckily.
Q: You write about how sometimes the scripts themselves got you into trouble.
A: The first season there was a scene in a funeral home, where Uncle Junior is paying his respects. And he’s supposed to look down at the woman in the coffin and say, “She gave me my first handjob.” And the owner of the funeral home explodes: “What the hell, you can’t say that here, this is a family business!” He would not let us film it. So what do you do? We have a contract, but we also have 150 people on the clock. We don’t have time to bring in lawyers. So I call David at the office, and he rewrites it over the phone; now Uncle Junior’s line is, “She had great legs.” So OK, we hang up, we’re ready to go, and then David calls back and says, “Forget it, either the original line stays or get the hell out of there.” And the owner wouldn’t budge so, fine, we packed everything up and shot it on a soundstage.
Q: You would think people would sort of know what to expect with a show about mobsters.
A: It happened again with the Pine Barrens episode. We were going to do it in South Mountain Reservation, where we’d shot before. We had a spot picked out and we had put in for a permit, which was usually a rubber-stamp kind of thing. Then days before we were supposed to shoot, we got word our permit was going to be held up, which sounded kind of bogus. And then Essex County Executive James Treffinger announced he was denying us permission because our show “perpetuated harmful stereotypes.” We ended up having to film at Harriman State Park in New York, which was an extra expense, because now we had to put people up in hotels.
Of course, the ironic thing is the episode ended up becoming a classic. And Treffinger ended up going to prison for obstruction of justice and mail fraud.
Q: You spent years with James Gandolfini, who was so dedicated to his craft and yet could be so undisciplined in his life. What do you remember most about him?
A: What I remember most, honestly, is how generous he was — more generous than anyone I ever worked with. There are very few people in this business, in any business, who will directly try to help others. But when he renegotiated his contract and got a big bump in pay, he wrote out personal checks — I mean, tens of thousands of dollars apiece — to other cast members. We typically worked late on Friday nights, and every Friday night he would pay for a big catered spread for everybody; at the end of every season he’d give out nice watches, or $500 gift certificates. He had a great sense of humor and we had a lot of fun.
But it would also distress him, playing this character, saying the sexist and racist things that Tony would say. He’d beat himself up about his performance, too. And yeah, then there were the excesses; he’d go down to Atlantic City and party and then the next morning show up hungover, or hours late, or he wouldn’t show up at all.
When we heard Jim died it was still a shock, for a lot of us. But I also remember David saying he’d been expecting that call for years.
For more on “On Locations: Lessons Learned from My Life On Set with The Sopranos and in the Film Industry,” which features a foreword by “The White Lotus” creator Mike White, visit steerforth.com. The book will be published on Feb. 6.
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