Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | Features

Crime Scene

By Judy Polumbaum
Four of the seven Emmy Awards won by Robin Green and Mitch Burgess dominate the library in the couple's New York home, where they wrote many of the scripts for The Sopranos.

Murder, rape, drug deals— they’re all in a day’s work for Emmy Award-winning writers and UI alumni Robin Green and Mitch Burgess. Judy Polumbaum dodged the bullets and the swear words when she visited the couple at home in New York and on the New Jersey set of the hit cable television show The Sopranos.

A van glides through mid-afternoon New Jersey traffic, evading potholes, squeezing amidst trucks. An affable TEAMSTER is driving. MITCH is settled in the front passenger seat, dressed in jeans, a white shirt, and a tweedy coat, wearing shades, his long legs sprawled out in front, studying the Wall Street Journal. ROBIN, in brown hooded sweatshirt and jeans, and JUDY, a.k.a. the VISITOR, also dressed casually, are behind him; CREW MEMBERS fill the rear seats.

Voice-over (VISITOR)

It took months of e-mailing and a week of cooling my heels in Manhattan to get time with Robin Green and Mitch Burgess. No, they weren’t playing hard to get. They just were in thrall to the same fictitious mobsters who have captivated millions of other folks with an idiosyncratic mixture of mayhem and the mundane.

Mitch, 78BA, and Robin, 77MFA, were into their sixth year writing for The Sopranos. In case you’ve been under a rock, that’s HBO’s highest-rated series and a huge critical success. Each installment pulls in about ten million viewers. After a year without new episodes, shooting for the sixth season began in May. It will air starting next March.

Back to Jersey traffic.

MITCH

When I came here from Iowa and California, I thought: Why are we dragging all this stuff across town and through tunnels? But, Jersey has an authentic feel. It’s hard and expensive to shoot on location. But it makes a big difference. You can’t recreate it; there’s nothing in Long Beach or Santa Monica or anywhere that looks like this.

The van passes auto repair shops; bodegas; the Starlite Motel; a commercial stretch with Parth Video, Kiran Beauty Salon, and Riwaz Garments, and women in saris on the sidewalk; and the county courthouse, where a happy new bride holding a bouquet and two young men in black suits rest on the front steps. A cemetery comes into view, then a vacant lot with two highway overpasses swooping above.

ROBIN (surveying cemetery)

Now I know where we are. We’ve buried many people in this cemetery.

MITCH (pointing to lot)

That’s where we’re doing our shootout tonight. It’s all technical—they’ll spend hours getting the calves’ brains and fake blood on the windshield right. Sopranos characters drift across the screen.

Voice-over

How we’ve missed New Jersey mafia chief Tony Soprano, his shrink, Dr. Melfi, his suburbanite wife, Carmela, kids Meadow and A.J., relatives, associates, adversaries, and all the rest, in this show about greed, deception, self-interest, and the American way of life. Robin and Mitch have been putting words in the mouths of these characters since the show’s mastermind, David Chase, created them.

ROBIN

Tony’s basically a selfish, self-serving criminal with a sentimental streak. People like him in a vicarious way because he gets to do whatever he wants. It’s what’s fun about the show, and what’s disturbing. Disturbing is good. Assumptions should be rattled; people should question themselves. They should question themselves for liking Tony Soprano.

MITCH

He’s not that nice a guy, really. You don’t have anything to do with him, ’cause it’s gonna cost you. But he’s conflicted. He thinks too much; that’s his problem.

The van pulls up at a gloomy-looking elementary school. Passengers disembark. Trucks, RVs, and other vehicles are parked all over. People wheel carts of equipment into a ground-floor entrance—cameras, sound gear, lighting, props.

MITCH (motioning to generator on truck trailer)

We bring everything, including our own electricity. We don’t plug into stuff; we’d melt the school.

COSTUME DIRECTOR

(from doorway of container crammed with racks of clothing) It’s like camping. This is a very sophisticated campsite.

Mitch and Robin enter school and round corner to cafeteria, with its concrete floors painted gunmetal gray, grills on the windows, whitewashed brick walls, exposed pipes—perfect setting for a prison waiting room. Folding tables get moved around, extras dressed as corrections officers and tattooed cons in orange prison jumpsuits mill about, the commotion builds as the space is transformed.

Voice-over

This is for a seven-line scene from episode two of the forthcoming season. Incarcerated New York Mob boss Johnny “Sack” is getting a visitor. He learns he’s been dissed, and orders a hit. That’s about all I can tell you—otherwise I’d have to kill you, too.

Back outside, Mitch peruses catering truck, grabs some food, walks past prop and lighting trucks to RV door designated “Writers,” enters and settles on couch with his lunch.

MITCH

I was born in Iowa City, baptized at Saint Mary’s Church. My dad drank at Dave’s Foxhead. I would return his beer bottles to John’s Grocery for a nickel. Around age seven moved to Cedar Rapids. We lived across from the Kernels’ baseball stadium—met legendary slugger Stan the Man, shined pitcher Vida Blue’s shoes.

After high school, I was working in a meatpacking plant, throwing hams around and wondering what I was gonna do. I just had the sense that the world was gonna change. So I joined the Army.

Voice-over

Two years later, he’s enrolled at Iowa on the G.I. Bill. His freshman comp teacher likes an essay he wrote and directs him to a writing workshop. The instructor is Robin, Rhode Island native, graduate of Brown, now in the Writers’ Workshop.

Scene shifts to townhouse in Greenwich Village; Robin opens front door and admits Visitor.

ROBIN

I still remember that essay. It was humorous, sad, and totally original.

It was my second year, my first time teaching, and Mitch came into my first class. I could deal with the 18- and 19-year-olds, but here was this handsome man. He really flourished in my class. After the class was over, I missed him.

MITCH (in RV)

She stayed around another year while I finished school. Then Robin wanted to go to California, and I was in love with Robin, so we went to California. I sold and programmed computers.

Voice-over

More years went by. They broke up. Robin got a TV gig. One day she phoned Mitch with some writing problems. He helped out. They formed a professional partnership. The personal partnership eventually rekindled as well.

ROBIN

Finally, after 30 years, we decided to get married. Living on the East Coast with the Teamsters and all, it started to seem unseemly. We tied the knot three years ago.

MITCH (in RV)

I proposed at a restaurant in Paris. That’s not bad for a kid from Iowa.

ROBIN

Mitch is the one who shops and cooks. If it were up to me, all we’d have in the house would be Scotch and popcorn. Mitch gets the oranges and coffee. There’s always something in the fridge.

We rent this place. This is our virtual life. We still have a house in L.A. but we haven’t lived there for about five years.

Wanna see our Emmys?

In adjoining library, four Emmys sit on shelf.

The rest are back in L.A. We have seven—our first from Northern Exposure, four for Sopranos writing, and two for producing.

Back on set, ready to roll. Mitch and Robin sit on high director’s chairs with their names on the backrest, earphones on, watching over monitors, as jump-suited JOHNNY SACRAMONI (played by Vincent Curatola) faces his captain PHIL LEOTARDO (Frank Vincent) across a table. DIRECTOR walks around with cigarette blowing extra smoke into the air.

MITCH

I remember as a kid I wrote a few plays and we put ’em on in the garage. This is just the big version of that. It’s better than a real job, and I’ve had a lot of those.

DIRECTOR

Take one. Action!

PHIL

To add insult to injury…

JOHNNY

[inaudible]

Voice-over

Expletives deleted. Iowa Alumni Magazine will not permit such language in its pages.

MITCH

Some people credit the show’s success to naked breasts and swear words. That’s bullshit—there are so many movies with those. I was talking with actor Michael Imperioli—who plays Tony’s nephew Christopher—and he said it best: “You know, I think it’s just good.”

The first year we told people we were going to work on The Sopranos, they thought it was about opera singers. We took a lot of shit.

ROBIN

After the first season was written, there was a gap before it aired. We went back to L.A., and our agent said, “You have to find a real job.”

MITCH

But the reviews were fabulous, and after five episodes it started showing up in the news and on the op-ed pages. By the end of the year, it became a cultural phenomenon, and we were part of it. You don’t get many of those.

Voice-over

Each season starts with David Chase’s vision. He and his writers spend weeks in a conference room plotting out episodes. Every episode is a mini-movie, with three or four story lines and 60 or so scenes. Scripts emerge from additional weeks of writing and revision.

Back in Greenwich Village apartment living room; on coffee table are neat piles of magazines and a script labeled CONFIDENTIAL. Robin goes downstairs to office, furnished with desk, computer, two chairs, photographs on walls.

ROBIN

We wrote the scene where Tony kills Ralph—blocked it out, choreographed it—right here in the basement. We’d never done that before, where you kill somebody with your bare hands.

MITCH

The writing process is amazing; you don’t know where it comes from. Some people wonder how I write women. I’m not a woman. We’re not Italian. I’m not even from the East Coast. I’m definitely not Mob.

We’re professional writers. There’s no writer’s block at this level. There can’t be. For one thing, you get fired. But there’s not been one day in ten years when we couldn’t do it.

We have our outline, beats, and scenes, but when you start you still have a blank computer screen. You just slog it out, hour by hour. The second pass is a little shorter. After about the third time you’re ready to turn it in. By the end you can add a scene and the scene takes ten minutes to write instead of four hours because you know exactly what you’re after.

You’d like to keep the focus you have at the completion of one script as you start the next, but it never happens. Once in awhile, though, something just flows. We won an Emmy for “Employee of the Month,” the episode when Dr. Melfi is raped. It’s hard to say that’s my favorite episode—but that came very easily.

Voice-over

Some things come very hard. Mitch and Robin cancelled a long-planned trip over Memorial Day weekend to rewrite the new season’s episode four.

MITCH

We have to find the story. The original one didn’t work. We’ll figure it out—we can’t shut the production down. See all those guys out there? They want something to do. There are probably 160 people, and everybody’s in showbiz.

Mind you, I thank my lucky stars that I ended up in show-biz. We deliver. But the planets had to be aligned a little bit.

ROBIN

The best year was the first year because we just did it for fun. We were getting away with murder, literally. We had no idea if anybody would like it. Once it proved a success, there were huge expectations.

Our screening the first season was in a sub-basement at Tower Records in Times Square, and the party afterwards was at a pizza parlor two blocks away. Three hundred people came, mostly our friends. Now our screenings are in Radio City Music Hall and the party fills all the restaurants in Rockefeller Center.

Voice-over

In addition to writing, Mitch and Robin oversee production for several episodes per season. Mitch is in charge of this shoot.

MITCH

As executive producer on this set, I’m ultimately responsible for everything. The sizes of guns, how many wine bottles on the table, how many extras at the bar after ten o’clock, what are they wearing, how much luggage, is the briefcase in his right hand or his left…? It’s just endless. It’s like life.

Voice-over

And, like life, real stuff happens—even when you’re dealing with made-up mobsters. In an unexpected plot twist, Robin and Mitch parted ways with their creative boss a few months ago and are no longer writing for The Sopranos.

Not that they don’t have other ideas.

ROBIN

Last year, when we had a whole year off from Sopranos, HBO gave us a development deal and we wrote a pilot for them. We invented our own world of horrible people. I think they liked it.

MITCH

I would like my own show. Because you’re the boss of bosses. And you’re always right.

Voice-over

That old TV adage, “stay tuned,” seems apropos.