David Chase: "I got sidetracked" by "The Sopranos"

David Chase, who revolutionized TV drama, talks about his switch to film with the '60s rock odyssey "Not Fade Away"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 22, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Victoria Will)
(AP/Victoria Will)

“Not Fade Away” feels like a familiar kind of movie – an ambitious coming-of-age story with a strong autobiographical element, from a first-time director immersed in pop music, the mysteries of sexuality and the agonies of family life. But this particular indie drama about rock ‘n’ roll and girls and suburban angst is set in the mid-1960s, and was made by someone who saw that decade firsthand. You don’t meet too many first-time filmmakers who are 67 years old, and who have already had a long and illustrious career as a writer and producer in a different medium.

OK, you don’t meet any. That’s because there is no one in the American entertainment industry exactly like David Chase, who got his start in television as a writer for the mid-‘70s paranormal series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” (a pioneering show, after its fashion) and went on, many years later, to create one of the most famous ensemble dramas in TV history. Through it all, as they say, he really wanted to direct. So it is that we wind up in 2012 with “Not Fade Away,” which has all the young-man’s intensity of a debut film, but also views its characters and their lost world through the long lens of artistic distance.

Like Douglas, the New Jersey suburbanite played by John Magaro, Chase was a teenage drummer and singer in various rock bands that never made it big. One of the things that distinguishes “Not Fade Away” from dozens of other films made about that music and that era is the fact that it’s more a story about failure than about success, more a tale of painful transition than a fable of magical transformation. Douglas and a few of his Jersey pals do start a band, inspired of course by the Stones and the Kinks and the Doors, and the band is pretty good for a while. But as with roughly 99.5 percent of the guys who bought amps and instruments, set up in the garage and tried to play like Keith or sing like Mick, that didn’t turn out to be enough to make them famous.

Younger viewers may be excused for wondering why in the sacred name of Jimmy Page they would want to watch another movie by a baby boomer about the 1960s (as I discuss with Chase below). I think the only right answer is that if you’ve seen “The Sopranos” you know that Chase can turn a completely conventional situation into something unusual. “Not Fade Away” is rich with the lived experience of those years, never tries to make Douglas and his friends seem noble or heroic, and has the same level of writerly craft and covert cinematic abstraction that made “The Sopranos” seem like nothing that had ever been on TV before.

Most of the young actors in the cast are new faces, except perhaps for Bella Heathcote in the role of the Girl Who Gets Away -- and, arguably, the movie’s secret hero. (Chase is careful to avoid the blithe, blind sexism this movie would have had if it had actually been made in the '60s.) But James Gandolfini is on hand, of course, in a superbly restrained role as Douglas’ dad, a conservative small-business owner with any number of socially unacceptable views who struggles manfully to maintain a relationship with his rebellious son. Cinematography (by Eigil Bryld), editing and production design create the convincing atmosphere you’d expect from Chase – but let’s talk about the music.

As any “Sopranos” buff will tell you, Chase’s episode-closing musical selections bespoke a long and obsessive relationship with pop and rock from multiple and not overly compatible eras – and the thing about “Not Fade Away” is that it’s both a movie about the world of music and a movie that wants to be like music. Douglas’ fictional band in the movie, the Twylight Zones, play a lot of period covers you’d expect, from “Time Is on My Side” to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Train Kept a-Rollin’.” But beyond that, this is one of the great movie soundtracks of recent times, stretching from Leadbelly to Nancy Sinatra to the Sex Pistols. If I haven’t made the sale by now, there’s not much more I can do.

I grabbed a few minutes with David Chase last Sunday morning over a cup of coffee, in a luxury hotel suite overlooking Central Park. He was wearing Beatle boots.

I have this private theory about this movie, which is just my prejudice and may not represent anything you believe. It presents as a movie about the ‘60s and about rock 'n’ roll, about being a young guy and about being in a band. But at some level it might not be about any of those things.

OK, yeah. But I think you can say that about any artist or any work of art, can’t you?

Sure. OK, I was struck by the way “Not Fade Away” begins. One of the things about your work is the use of sound. You use sound so beautifully in “The Sopranos” – pop music, of course, but also music as noise, and sound as noise. At the beginning of this movie, you have that horrible test-signal sound, the Emergency Broadcast System signal, which I assume no one under about 40 can even remember. And that sound goes right into the opening chords of “Satisfaction,” like the greatest rock song of all time. And it’s the same sound! So that woke me up right there: OK! This might not be your typical rock 'n’ roll movie with all the customary clichés.

It’s probably not a typical rock ‘n’ roll coming-of-age story. In what ways it differs I’m not sure, but I was playing with some things – there were some things I wanted to do. I was always interested in the dream state, and the correspondence between film, the way it unspools and the way dreams work. They seem to be so closely related. They happen in the dark, or at least they used to. You never know what’s going to happen next, and a lot of it is inexplicable. There’s something very dreamlike about film, and I will always be very fascinated by that, and I’m always tempted to go in that direction.

The first episode of “The Sopranos” that I ever saw was one in which Tony had one of his dreams. People had been telling me to watch this show, and I was like, “Not another damn TV show about the Mob!” Then I turned it on and was immediately struck – OK, this is something new. And the funny thing is, you’re risking the same reaction here. I’ve already had younger colleagues ask me, “Is there any reason to see this? Or is it just another baby boomer talking about how great the ‘60s were?” You seem not to be afraid of that.

Oh, I’m afraid of that, and it’s going to happen. I knew it was going to be a problem. I also had the hope that it wouldn’t be that; it wouldn’t be another baby boomer talking about the ‘60s. I don’t think it’s nostalgic for the ‘60s. I don’t think it holds any brief for the ‘60s. I don’t think it says, “Oh man, it was so cool back then – God, did you guys miss out!” I don’t think it does any of that. I think what it does ... I will stand behind the music of that time and say that was really superior. And that’s what I hope it says.

Going back to what you were just saying about the dream state, though. I would argue that the more you watched “The Sopranos” the less it seemed like it was about the Mafia, and the more it was about other things, including a vision of American life as a dream state.

I agree with you.

Some people may look at your work and see a guy who is using very traditional narrative forms. I look at it and see a degree to which your work isn’t narrative at all.

People have said that to me, and I don’t know what it means: “It’s not narrative.”

Maybe that’s overly intellectual. But you’re not stuck on the three-act structure, where there’s a beginning, a middle and an end in the most familiar form.

Honestly, I don’t think I venture too far from that. I think I try to hit those things. There are some Aristotelian things that I probably need to hit -- maybe not in the same place, or as hard, or in the same way as other people do. At the same time, I love the effect of the unconscious on filmmaking.

Here’s another way of putting it: Both in a TV show you worked on for many years and a two-hour movie, you don’t hit a classic final note. By the standards of TV, the ending of “The Sopranos” was like postmodern experimentation! And in “Not Fade Away,” you stop at a point that, in another kind of movie, would be the middle of the story, with Douglas just wandering the streets of L.A. and his fate unresolved. In both cases, the story remains unfinished.

That’s true, but I would say that this one is much more conclusive than “The Sopranos.” I think you know, or you sort of know, that Douglas is going to be OK and you kind of know where he is headed. Whether he and Grace will be together or not -- they’re 21 years old! So, no, they’re not. Is he going to work in Hollywood? Probably. Is he going to be successful? Most likely. It wasn’t supposed to have the same effect.

You’ve always liked to break the frame at certain moments in your stories, although that’s not so conventional these days. By the end of the movie I had forgotten that “Not Fade Away” had a narrator [Douglas’ little sister], and then she comes back. I loved that final touch, but why did you want to do that?

Well, the narration wasn’t in the original script. The idea of her addressing the camera wasn’t in the original script. But as I was in post-production I was working on the project, and we showed it to certain audiences. A lot of people didn’t realize that the band didn’t become some famous band! So it became necessary to state right out front: You’re not watching a movie about the Doors! These people did not become Paul Revere and the Raiders!

I couldn’t believe that, but it was necessary. And because they didn’t understand that, a lot of the movie didn’t play. It was funny. When the guys are having all their self-delusions, and having all their [imaginary] press conferences, that wasn’t really playing. Because I guess people thought, “Yeah, they’re going to have press conferences. This is an American movie -- it’s going to be about success. They’re going to be somebody huge! It’s like ‘American Idol’!”

Tell me about the other frame-breaking moment, when Douglas and his girlfriend are watching a movie. Is that “Blow-Up”? Well, I guess you’re not exactly making “Blow-Up.” [Laughter.] But then, what’s the line? What does he say?

“What kind of movie is this?”

Right. Well, some people may have the same question here. You’re saying that people are expecting it to be a movie about stardom or success, and it’s definitely not that.

Yeah, I was aware of that. This is probably something I shouldn’t do. You know, we test-screened it and people were like: “Boy, the guy in the movie theater really said it all! [Laughter.] The director might want to look at that scene again.”

Here’s how I’ve been selling the movie to my friends. It’s the idea that you’re trying to do something very difficult, in transferring one art form into another. I don’t think this is a movie about rock 'n’ roll so much as a movie that’s trying to be like rock 'n’ roll. You’re trying to capture the emotional state of a great pop song, which isn’t about narrative or the conscious mind.

That’s really -- I think that’s really perceptive. I don’t know if I ever phrased it like that, but that is true. Maybe it gets back to what we were talking about originally -- yeah, it’s a movie about some kids who form a band, but it’s more. I don’t know, it’s a feeling. I can’t explain it any better than that.

David Lynch likes to talk about “films that make you dream.” Few people have compared you to David Lynch, probably, but I would argue that the two of you are approaching American experience through a similar lens. Of course when he says that, he’s mostly talking about Bergman, Fellini and Hitchcock, the filmmakers that matter the most to him. Which I imagine ...

Yeah, they’re mine too. And David Lynch is also someone I look up to. I have a great deal of admiration for him. Nobody does dreams like he does.

What you really capture in this film is that feeling when you’re in a band and it feels, for a moment or a day or a month, to be working. I honestly don’t know how you went from actors and a script to capturing that so it felt completely real. That was like magic.

That’s what I really wanted to depict. I really wanted to depict, among other things, getting into a groove, a musical groove, and what that feels like. Not about the audience, not about people watching them, but about being in with them, and watching that feeling take over. That out-of-body thing. It’s like, you know, “We’re playing this fucking song!”

And somehow you took actors who were not musicians and successfully faked it.

Well Steven Van Zandt was a really great help. He wrote a great song, number one. He produced a great song, number two. And he taught those guys everything -- how to play, how to stand, how to edit, how to think.

He actually did teach them how to play? Because at a certain level, with acting, you can’t fake it, right?

Well, he found them teachers to teach them chords and stuff. But he taught them stagecraft, or not stagecraft exactly but musicianship. How you teach that I don’t know, but he did it. A journalist suggested to me they went through the same process that any garage band does. They formed; they got together; they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing; they started trying to work out these chords and they made mistakes, and mistakes, and mistakes; they developed an esprit and kept on going. Fortunately, they had enough baseline talent that we could make it work. Now, it’s not them playing their instruments – they performed to a playback. But it is their voices, it’s them singing.

I’ve made the case in print that you moving from TV to film was perverse – you’ve gone from the more popular medium to the less popular! And when you consider that you created something revolutionary in television, a show people will remember for a long time. So why was it important to switch?

I always wanted to be a filmmaker. In my view, I got sidetracked by TV.

What’s the difference, as you see it? Especially, what’s the difference now?

Well, nowadays it’s really largely technological. The thing about movies now is in a way what it always was: The screen is huge and now the sound systems are too. And you never get that with TV. Even with a home system, it’s never the same. Especially for a movie like this, with the music, to see this on the big screen at a major theater with those speakers -- it’s just like, that’s the deal. The storytelling skills haven’t gotten any better. Maybe they’ve gotten worse. [Laughter.] I’m serious! There’s so much stuff that just doesn’t touch me at all.

I think maybe it has gotten worse. Is it disheartening to consider that maybe 50 percent of the people who see this film aren’t going to see it in a theater with a great sound system? They’ll watch it on a TV, if you’re lucky. A lot of them will watch it on their iPad, or their phone.

Mm-hm. So you think, well, why bother? No, it is disheartening. But look -- I had a prior deal in place to do a miniseries for HBO, so I’m not done with TV. But I basically want to stay in movies. This is where I was meant to be.

"Not Fade Away" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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