David Chase’s Rock & Roll Fantasy

Photograph by Mark Seliger

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.”
Chase’s first cut of ‘Not Fade Away’ was nearly three hours long. Over the past eight months, he’s been whittling it down, and now, finally, he has a final cut (seven minutes shorter than the version I see), which debuted in October at the New York Film Festival. But, as usual, he doesn’t seem to be in an especially celebratory mood. “Happy and David wouldn’t be words I’d put in the same paragraph,” says E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante on ‘The ‘Sopranos” and also served as producer and music supervisor on the new movie.

It doesn’t help that Chase is suffering from writer’s block for the first time in his life – one of the reasons he’s been back in therapy lately, an awkwardly meta-complicated experience, post-‘Sopranos.’ “It came in the wake of finishing the movie,” he says. “It’s probably also in the wake of finishing the show. It’s in the wake of something. My own wake.” He laughs.

Chase doesn’t trust writers who don’t agonize. He once called a new ‘Sopranos’ writer who had been working on his first script for a week, and the writer cheerfully informed him that he was finished. “Are you sure?” Chase asked him, suggesting he take more time. “That’s awfully quick.” The writer said it was as good as he could make it, and he turned it in. “It was awful,” Chase recalls. “Something about that attitude annoyed me, so I got rid of him.”

Chase says his reputation for firing writers is overblown. But as Weiner recalls, the writers’ nickname for the Queens-based ‘Sopranos’ production office was “Survivor: Long Island City.” “Everyone was disposable,” says Weiner, who joined the show’s fifth season. “People don’t become friends with you. It’s that trench mentality where they’re like, ‘The new guys come and go. We try not to get attached.’ I was always terrified when I was going to get the next script.”

As the writers batted ideas around at a table, Chase would often lie on a couch, and sometimes even close his eyes. “He would sort of go into a state,” says Weiner. “He was always mulling over, bearing the brunt of the story work. And then all of a sudden, he would be visited by something, hit by a beam, and he would get up and start writing a story on the board one beat at a time. And you would see joy, the glee of aha!”

Chase’s vision is precise: He’d reject prospective strippers for the Bada Bing! club for being too pretty, not Jersey enough. While shooting a diner scene for ‘Not Fade Away’, he realized they were missing the specific variety of egg-cream glass he knew would have been used. Production halted while the crew ran out to other diners to find it. “There’s certainly a comparison to Bruce Springsteen,” says Van Zandt, who would know. “They’re two very visionary, uncompromising guys, and you can’t compare them with anyone else. You can’t really learn from them, either, because I would not suggest other people attempt what they do. There’s a very deep instinct as to what greatness is, and they’re not going to stop until they get it. They may occasionally act normally and speak normally, but they’re not normal – they’re a different species.”
Early in the filming of ‘Not Fade Away’, Chase indulged in a sentimental moment. The crew was setting up a period-appropriate Gretsch drum kit, and between takes, Chase inched closer and closer to the kit, then picked up the drumsticks, sat down, and began to play. “He was great,” recalls John Magaro, the 29-year-old actor who plays the film’s lead character. But when cast and crew started gathering to watch, Chase stood up and put the sticks down.

Chase once had the same drums, and it’s hard not to see ‘Not Fade Away’ as a version of his own story, especially when the lead character eventually shifts his interests from music to film. “It’s not autobiographical,” Chase protests. “I’d call it personal.” Magaro assumed otherwise. “There’s definitely pressure when you’re playing the guy who wrote and is directing the movie,” he says. “You find yourself picking up his mannerisms, which hopefully doesn’t offend the person.”

The band in the movie achieves some local success, but Chase’s own musical efforts didn’t go that far: The closest thing he ever had to a band never actually played a gig – one member would always say, “We’re not ready,” a bit Chase included in the film. He did once go to a recording studio with his friends, a scene echoed in the movie, having earlier told the lead singer, “I think I can sing that song better than you.” He did, and the results were good enough that the studio owner offered them a contract. One of the other guys was convinced they could do better, so they turned it down. That was it for his musical career.

But as the film suggests, even unfulfilled rock dreams can be powerful. “The Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Dylan – that music changed my life,” says Chase. “With the advent of the British Invasion, I began to see that I might be able to do something artistic. With John Lennon and Dylan and these people, it began to be about death and redemption and work and self-loathing, self-scrutiny, and love on an entirely different level. It dawned on me, ‘Oh, what do you call this stuff? I don’t know. It’s kinda like art.'”

That other Sixties liberator, LSD, was also important to Chase. “It really influenced my writing,” he says. “A lot of the stuff you saw on ‘The ‘Sopranos”, the interest in other levels of consciousness, I think it all came from acid.” He took about 10 trips during his film-school days at Stanford, including watching ‘2001’ while tripping: “That was great. It was unbelievable.”

Three weeks later, he had an experience that ended his acid days. “I went to see Fellini’s ‘Satyricon,’ and as the movie progressed, I became convinced that the Zodiac Killer, who was around then, was gonna come and get me. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. That was it for me.” He laughs, looking very young for a moment.

Instead of making trippy, boundary-pushing movies, Chase more or less fell into the steady craft of TV writing – a couple decades’ worth, working on ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’; ‘The Rockford Files’; and eventually, ‘Northern Exposure.’ “The way I analyze it now is that I was too chicken-hearted,” he says. “I had a facility for writing. I could write good dialogue. I could contribute in a writers’ room. And television, they just need material. I began to enjoy the artisanship of it. But while I was very proud of being associated with The ‘Rockford Files,’ it wasn’t the same as going to see ‘Apocalypse Now,’ or a movie by Bergman.”

Chase was taking studio writing assignments the whole time, but he’d always get replaced. “I blamed the movie business most of the time,” he says. “I probably should have blamed myself more. I was going to do this comedy for Universal in the early Eighties, about these women who were low-life street criminals in New Jersey. So I went to see ‘Raging Bull,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, OK. I’ve got it figured out now.’ Well, ‘Raging Bull’s not a comedy! So who should be blamed for that? Who drew the wrong conclusions? Whose expectations were off?”
When David Chase makes a Freudian slip, you really have to pay attention. Today, it comes as he discusses his initial difficulties writing ‘Not Fade Away’. “I didn’t know those characters,” he says. “‘The ‘Sopranos”, I knew Paulie and Meadow left and right. I knew what was going to come out of their mouths. But this was a hard writing job. I wasn’t particularly well-behaved during it. I complained a lot. I was about to give up at one point. At two points, I was about to give up. No, at four, 500 points.”

But then a revelation came. “Somehow or another,” he says, “I saw Tony as the father.” He blinks, blows out air. “Not Tony! I saw Jim as the father. Don’t make anything out of that. I don’t expect to see that in print!” He laughs, finally.

Thing is, Chase does associate both Tony and the actor who played him with his own dad. “Jim will do things that my father would do,” he says. “Like, in hot weather, he’ll put a wet rag on his head, very Italian laborer, just sort of sit there with a bottle of beer. There were lines in ‘The ‘Sopranos” that were right out of my father’s mouth. My father was not a big guy like that, but he was bald, and he was pissed off all the time.” There’s an early ‘Sopranos’ scene where, after Carmela’s been pressuring Tony to get a vasectomy, the two of them watch their son, A.J., drop a pan of lasagna. Tony yells, “That’s my male heir and you want me to get a vasectomy?”

“That’s the kind of thing my father could say,” says Chase. “Mean shit like that.”

“It’s better than reminding him of his mother,” says Gandolfini. “We come from similar backgrounds. I told him, ‘Between me trying to kill your mother in ‘The ‘Sopranos” and now playing your father, I don’t know what to make of any of it.'”

The father in ‘Not Fade Away’ is the only part Chase acknowledges as straight autobiography: He runs a small store, is tormented by his joyless wife, and is horrified by his son’s fruity fashion sense. “I had, you know, boots and tight jeans, that whole Sixties thing,” says Chase, whose long-since-vanished hair was too curly to grow long. “He didn’t want a misfit, someone dirty and poorly dressed. He didn’t want that in his house.”

There’s a scene where Gandolfini’s character gets into a physical altercation with his son, and that’s true to life too. “We had one or two wrestling matches in the kitchen like that,” Chase says. “But Jim’s huge and scary. He’s scarier than my father, I’ll tell you that.”

Chase’s father lived to see his son’s success in show business. “He was proud of it, but he still didn’t get it, just didn’t understand. He would have much rather, I’m sure, I’d have been a lawyer. People used to tell me that they would go into his store, and my father would start bragging about me. He was obviously very pumped up about it. But not with me.”

A lot of creative people have at least one parent who encouraged them, but not Chase. “They were not telling me that I was great,” he says. “In fact, just the opposite. They had such a focus on me that I felt very special. It was a negative focus – but I felt I was different from anybody else in some way. And then, also, I married my girlfriend, Denise, and she’s still my wife. And she began to tell me that I had something I really should believe in. And it’s a great thing to have somebody feel like that about you.”
Chase knows that many people are still baffled by the ending of ‘The ‘Sopranos”, that brutal cut to blackness. He joked to the ‘New York Times’ not long ago that he should’ve swapped endings with ‘Seinfeld’ – with Jerry and Kramer ending up in a diner and Tony in jail – but there’s a growing consensus that the show’s ending is actually very clear. The final image, the empty void, is simply one of the show’s many point-of-view shots from Tony’s perspective: He’s been whacked, probably by that guy in the Members Only jacket.

Chase comes very, very close to confirming this theory. “We did a lot of POV stuff,” he says. “I did a lot of setups with POV shots in that episode. People have not picked up on that.” (Watch the final series of shots closely: He sets up a pattern of them from Tony’s point of view.) “The only thing I would say definitively about it is, whatever happened, Tony put himself there. It was the world as he saw it. He was responsible for where he ended up – wherever that is. Just as in the beginning, he sent himself to therapy and he was looking at that statue.” (He’s referring to the very first POV shot in the show – another tacit confirmation.)

Despite Tony’s apparent fate, Chase doesn’t think we’re all facing that void in the end. “I don’t believe in the afterlife and all that,” he says. “I try to go along with, I guess, the Buddhist interpretation of it, which is that the flowers are made up of nonflowering elements. That a flower is part water, part sunlight, and that somehow we’re all part of that. That’s what I try to tell myself.” Soon after, I get up to leave, and Chase offers me a cookie to go. Then, peering out from beneath those heavy lids, he says, “You’re really gonna play that Freudian slip, huh?”

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