Finally, at age 67, Sopranos creator David Chase can add “film director” to his résumé. His directorial debut, the semi-autobiographical Not Fade Away, is a nod to his own youth in New Jersey, as a drummer in a sixties garage band that never got anywhere, but toiled away in obscurity. Chase doesn’t want to run any more TV shows, but he won’t say no to the odd HBO miniseries (he’s still working on the silent-film-era piece A Ribbon of Dreams) — even if his goal is to continue working in film. (The next one, he says, won’t be from his own script, so he’s open to ideas.) Chase spoke with Vulture about seeing the Stones for the first time, fighting with his father, and avoiding thrillers.
The Sopranos stemmed from your relationship with your mother. Safe to assume that Not Fade Away is in part about your relationship with your father? Have you been working out your issues?
[Laughs] No. It’s all in the past, you know? It’s just from me being told by people who knew them that it makes good storytelling. I was told, “You should write about your mother. She’s a real case. She’s hysterically funny and strange.” And in some way, I kind of wanted to … I’m going to say honor my father, but that’s not it. Of the two of them, my father had some glimmer, some idea of what I was trying to say and accomplish, and I guess I wanted to acknowledge that. But the scenes in the kitchen [with James Gandolfini] are from my father. He used to say to me all the time, “You and I are going to tangle.” We’d have an argument, and that’s what he’d say. We did actually tangle once, physically, and my mother broke it up. I think I was 20 at the time.
So he understood a little bit more than your mother about your interest in music and art. The movie opens up with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meeting on a train. When did you first see the Stones?
Back in ‘65 in Newark. I went with a friend of mine, and they weren’t what I expected at all, even though I had seen them on TV. They were much more dynamic. They were an amazingly kick-ass band. And the actual moment I realized pop music could be art might be when I heard their song “Tell Me.” “Tell Me” is a big song in this film. That was the first song the Stones wrote together. But when I heard those songs, a lightbulb went off in my head.
You’ve been wanting to direct for a while, so what was it about this script, of all the ones in your drawer, that made it the one you wanted to do first? Apparently people were advising you against it, to do a thriller instead?
I’ve written a total of about thirteen or fifteen scripts over the years, but I probably only have four or five in my drawer. And Steve Van Zandt and Terry Winter told me the same thing: Do a thriller. I wanted to do a thriller, but there wasn’t a thriller to do. I didn’t have any ideas for a thriller. They’re very difficult to plot out so they don’t lose their credibility. And I had this idea, and I always wanted to do this anyway. But really, I just wanted to get going on something, so why not this?
I think my strongest suit is character; character and dialogue, not plot. But I’ve learned a lot about plotting over the years, and I think, for example, The Sopranos was fairly well-plotted, each of the episodes, and I got to enjoy that. I didn’t used to enjoy plot, because I have a problem with math, crossword puzzles, stuff like that, and I used to think plot was like that. You have to figure out, Why did the guy do that? He appeared there at 10 o’clock at night? Well, wouldn’t she have seen him? Ugh, I couldn’t stand that at first. But I got to like it.
You’ve said before that you originally considered doing The Sopranos as a movie. What would Not Fade Away the TV show look like, versus Sopranos as a movie?
The first season of The Sopranos was the plot of that movie. A mobster is in a power struggle, he has a bad relationship with his mother, he puts her in a nursing home, she feels very bitter, she sides with his enemies, and they plot to have him killed. That was the movie. But Not Fade Away as TV? No. I haven’t even thought about it. I guess there could be a way for it to work, but not really. I mean, The Sopranos was a genre piece. We all knew what we were watching, a gangster movie. We had certain expectations.
So did viewers, which you thwarted with the show’s ending, when you went to black. You wouldn’t have ended a movie version of The Sopranos the same way.
No. And you know I was just kidding when I said that we could have swapped endings with Seinfeld. I never will learn this: You can’t make jokes in interviews! [Laughs] But the ending of the movie was that the shrink had figured out that Tony’s mother had participated in the murder attempt against him, he storms out of the shrink’s office — as he did on the TV show. Smashes her table. Goes up to the nursing home and smothers his mother to death with a pillow. That’s the way that ended. It would have been the end of the movie. In the TV show, because it was Nancy [Marchand], and because she was so good, and because she was ill and she wanted to keep working, we changed that, and left it open-ended, what happened to her.
What do you watch these days?
On TV? Only Boardwalk and Mad Men. I like them both. The Wire was on during the time I was making The Sopranos, and I never had the time for it. I just never had the time to watch it. And now, it’s like, How many seasons do I need to catch up on? You know? I also need to read and eat and take a walk. So I watched part of season four, and I liked it, but I haven’t gone further. Breaking Bad, [producer] Mark Johnson is my partner on this movie, but I have not watched that show! I mean, I guess in the nursing home I can.