David Chase: It was hard to get over "The Sopranos"

The show's creator moves on with a movie about music -- and a reunion with James Gandolfini

Published December 17, 2012 7:30PM (EST)

After "The Sopranos" went black, David Chase's next move was never in question: He would make a movie.

In all Chase's time toiling as a writer in television before "The Sopranos" — decades ranging from "The Rockford Files" to "Northern Exposure" — the big screen had beckoned. It reached back to his days as a teenager taking stills of "8 ½" and "Dr. Strangelove" (clear touchstones, still: one, Italian and surreal; the other, darkly comic).

After his first stab at writing a psychological thriller went begging, he turned to an idea of his since the '80s, one he occasionally kicked around in the "Sopranos" writers room.

"I love rock 'n' roll so much that I really wanted to make a movie about the music, not about the personalities involved, not about the ups and downs or the rise and fall of it," says Chase. "I didn't want to do a biopic. If it was going to be a biopic, I wanted to do a biopic about nobodies — which is what it kind of is."

"Not Fade Away," which Paramount Pictures will open in limited release Friday, is Chase's first project since "The Sopranos" remade American pop culture and, among other things, forever changed our relationship to Journey. A coming-of-age tale set amid the generational tumult of the '60s, it's the debut of the most promising 67-year-old filmmaker to come along in some time.

In a recent interview at Paramount's New York offices, Chase's steady demeanor is belied by a romanticism that comes through in his work and his frankness. Though many viewers reveled in the week-to-week whacking of "The Sopranos," Chase summarizes the show (and its infamous ending) as about the fleeting moments of tenderness in an otherwise cold world.

"All I wanted to do was present the idea of how short life is and how precious it is," he says. "The only way I felt I could do that was to rip it away."

Fans of "The Sopranos" will be pleased to find that "Not Fade Away," while a clear departure, bears Chase's distinctive storytelling: its swirl of family dynamics, pop culture and psychology. And New Jersey: The film is set in the suburbs of the state Chase grew up in and where "The Sopranos" made its home.

It's a slightly autobiographical story about a drummer (newcomer John Magaro) in a garage band with outsized ambitions of becoming the next Rolling Stones. Much of the drama comes in the strife between an afro-ed son and his working class family (James Gandolfini, who of course played Tony Soprano, is the disapproving father).

Unlike many '60s period films, the decade's historical events are a backdrop, not the foreground.

Steve Van Zandt, another "Sopranos" veteran, served as a producer and musical supervisor on "Not Fade Away," calls that approach "extremely accurate." The E Street Band guitarist took the young actors of the film through a virtual rock 'n' roll boot camp, guiding them to sound like a genuine garage band.

"Yeah there was the civil rights thing going on; there was the women's rights thing going on; there was this thing called Vietnam going on," says Van Zandt. "Cities were burning to the ground. And we were like: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just get me to band rehearsal and let's figure out the chords to this new Yardbirds song.'"

Whereas "The Sopranos" orbited around the mother-son relationship of Tony and his mother, "Not Fade Away" is centered on the father and son.

"My mother had very little capability for compassion or empathy," says Chase. "My father had that, but he was from his generation. He was a tough guy."

Chase eagerly fled his parents when he, at 22, moved to California with his high-school sweetheart and future wife, Denise, to attend film school. Afterward, he wrote scripts on spec and for studio assignments with Columbia and Universal while working in TV. He got close to having one made by Ridley Scott and another with Michael Mann.

"TV was considered pretty lame at that time," he says. "It wasn't what I wanted. I knew there was something better. I liked movies better, but I just couldn't crack it."

Reuniting with Chase, Gandolfini says, was natural because of their shorthand together.

"It was good to work together again after 'The Sopranos' because 'The Sopranos' was such a big, huge thing and it was nice to just get back to shooting a film somewhere with nobody around," says Gandolfini. "It was kind of just going back to work."

Getting over the sensation of "The Sopranos" was a challenge for Chase, who decompressed for a year in Europe afterward. The pop culture phenomenon, which changed the aspirations of television, rivaled the revolutionary impact of the music chronicled in "Not Fade Away." One friend dubbed Chase and his gang: "The Guinea Beatles."

"It was harder to come down from that than I thought it would be," Chase says. "It became harder and harder. Once I had time and once I had Wi-Fi, I could look up all the things people said about it. So I spent some time doing that. I had never done it before: both the good and the bad. It was a toxic experience."

Chase quit his searching but found he missed the social life of the show, the everyday problem-solving. More than anything, he missed soundtracking the show — marrying tracks like John Cooper Clarke's "Evidently Chickentown" or the Stones' "Moonlight Mile" to the images. "Not Fade Away" is a direct outgrowth of that.

"It was all about the music, really," says Chase.

It comes as some irony that Chase is making his way from TV to film while the currents he propelled are flowing the opposite direction. While personal filmmaking has become ever rarer in Hollywood, "The Sopranos" begat a whole new TV world, from "Mad Men" to "Boardwalk Empire" (both shows created by former "Sopranos" writers).

"They say the good writing is on TV and I know what they mean by that," says Chase, who's developing a miniseries for HBO about early silent filmmaking. "But at the same time, you think to yourself: That's nice, but that big screen and those big speakers are an experience in themselves. Why would TV ideas not be on that big screen? Why do they have to be on TV?"

By Jake Coyle

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