Sitting on a glass coffee table in David Chase's apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is a sheet of paper with 'LEADING FILM IDEAS, May 8, 2008' printed at the top. The day he sat down to type this document, Chase was 62 years old, fresh from an 11-year run on 'The 'Sopranos'', the odd, deeply personal, gangster-in-therapy creation that certified him as a pop-culture genius and served as a consciousness-expanding drug for its medium, helping push much of Hollywood's creative energy away from film and toward TV. But the guy who killed movies still wanted to make some: There are 20 of them on his list alone, almost certainly more than he could possibly live to finish.
One of those films has a direct 'Sopranos' connection; the other 19 include a historical biopic, a couple of showbiz stories, and experiments in science fiction and horror. Chase is off in the kitchen getting us coffee; when he returns to see what I'm reading, he flips it over with extreme prejudice, cringing like he just discovered a tap on his phone. Scanning the table for other contraband, he notices, next to a stack of 'New Yorker' magazines, a brochure for the Ferryman Psychiatric Institute. "That's not real, by the way," he says.
It is, in fact, a prop for the number-one movie on the ideas list, where it's referred to as "Band From New Jersey." It's now called 'Not Fade Away', and, at 67, Chase is finally finishing his first feature film – a goal he's been chasing for four decades, with nine unproduced screenplays to his name. "I always thought TV was shit," says Chase. "There will always be nothing like a movie." As with 'The Sopranos,' 'Not Fade Away' is the story of two families: in this case a middle-class Italian-American clan in 1960s New Jersey and a close-knit, betrayal-prone, ill-fated rock & roll band formed by that family's rebellious son. It's a small-scale throwback to a more personal era of filmmaking, with a cast of mostly unknowns (save for 'Sopranos' vet James Gandolfini), deliberate pacing, and yet another elliptical ending. "'The 'Sopranos'' was small too," Chase shrugs. "It got big, but the material was not big. The movies now are a big, loud, noisy, crunching, stomping, exploding world, and you have to just hope that some small segment of the audience likes it."
Chase looks like a pretty ordinary 67-year-old: dad-ish pale jeans (ironed, with a distinct crease), untucked but starched gray button-front shirt, shiny leather sneakers. But he is an intimidating presence. "Especially in Los Angeles, a lot of people greet you with a big smile," says Gandolfini. "But he's just a very serious guy." His eyelids droop over remote brown eyes; his affect can be ominously flat, with pursed-lipped expressions so unreadable that some actors become convinced he hates their work.
Chase swears that it's just how his face is. "Ever since I was in high school, people said I was sour or unhappy," he says. "I have pictures of myself in a baby carriage with a big frown on my face. I just don't know where that comes from." He acknowledges it may work to his advantage on set, though. "If my basic demeanor slows people down from coming around to complain or question, that's fine with me. As James Cagney said in 'The Public Enemy,' 'I ain't so tough.'"
His laughter is warm and rippling, if you can elicit it – it helps to quote amusing lines from his own work, and there are a lot of those. (The depressed mother in 'Not Fade Away' has some great ones: Her little daughter chirps, "Happy Thanksgiving!" and she replies, "Easy for you to say.") "David is as funny as any comedy writer I've ever met," says 'Mad Men' creator Matt Weiner, who worked for Chase as a 'Sopranos' writer. "He is a comedy writer in many ways. There was a lot of laughter in the writers' room, and a lot of the jokes came from David."
Chase is private enough that he's uncomfortable with too much description of the apartment he shares with Denise, his wife of 40 years. But it's safe to say that the shelves lining his study are packed with books. There's one row devoted to presidential politics, another to World War II. He owns many Carlos Castaneda books, along with 'The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion;' there's serious fiction, too: John Gardner, Saul Bellow, John Barth. The windowsill holds a bunch of Emmys; a corner shelf has DVDs: German Expressionism, Billy Wilder, a collection of 'I Spy.'
He has a second home, a château in southwestern France, acquired after 'The 'Sopranos''' success. When he's not working, he likes to go there and do nothing whatsoever. "The property is right on the river, and I like to watch it go by," he says. "It helps me think of story ideas." His hobbies are minimal. "Eating and drinking are really high on the list," he says. "I'm more interested in spaghetti than I am in spaghetti westerns."