Sopranos mastermind David Chase talks process and his debut feature film
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It’s hard to imagine a tougher act to follow than The Sopranos, especially for David Chase, who rose from obscurity to become one of the most revered figures in television history. So it’s not surprising that his first feature film represents a pronounced change of pace. Sure, it’s set in New Jersey, but the protagonist of Not Fade Away is a teenage boy named Douglas (John Magaro) whose love of British Invasion rock ignites a drive to be in a successful band. Chase, who toyed early on with the idea of playing music for a living, reconstructs period detail with loving care, and with the help of Steven Van Zandt, he filled the soundtrack with canny music choices, gathering the not-quite-hits that defined the era as much as its overplayed classics. Chase talked to The A.V. Club about the importance of wigs, what The Sex Pistols are doing in a movie set in the 1960s, and why he misses the writers’ room.
The A.V. Club: There’s a 2001 interview that talks about you working on your first feature: If I Fell, a story about a rock musician. Was that Not Fade Away?
David Chase: No, that was something else, a current-day thing about a musician and Christian rock.
AVC: Is that project dead now?
DC: I hope so. [Laughs.]
AVC: But obviously music has been important to you, and it’s been something you’ve wanted to address narratively.
DC: Yeah, I do like it. I keep thinking I should grow out of this sometime and do something else, and I really should. But I do like it and while I’ve got the opportunity to do these things, I did it.
AVC: When was the germ of the idea for Not Fade Away planted?
DC: About 1981 or so. Some friend of mine who I’d been in a band—to call it a “band” is to give it too much credit—that I’d played music with, came to visit me in California. And he really hadn’t changed much since the time we were 17. I was already in the TV business, and I just thought that was very interesting, that he was still a kid and I wasn’t. So I wanted to do that movie, about these two old bandmates who get together. I started writing it, and then I just never really got into it. There’s a scene in which they watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and I wanted to do a movie about the British Invasion, because that music changed my life and changed the way I think. And when I say that, I’m including Dylan, those years.
AVC: The movie isn’t autobiographical, but there are elements from your life, like meeting a future bandmate while looking in a music-shop window. Like your protagonist, you were a drummer who moved up to singing lead.
DC: Yeah, that kind of stuff happened. Where it’s most like my life is the relationship with the father.
AVC: Is there a line where putting your own experience in starts to become too obvious?
DC: I was hoping that would be a seed, which would then grow into something else. That’s what I was trying to do. I would plant those seeds and they would become tomato vines, you know?
AVC: It’s a cliché, but you’ve quoted the idea of “Write what you know.” But that’s more wisely taken as an emotional guideline than a literal one.
DC: I guess that does mean write about what your feelings are—emotionally, just like you said. But I think it obviously doesn’t hurt to write about people and places you know something about. All those details mount up. If you’re Faulkner, you write about the South.
AVC: My feeling is always that art is more personal than anyone else will ever know, but often not in the ways that people would expect.
DC: That’s a good way of putting it. It goes through all these filters inside you, and it gets all changed around. People will say, “Aren’t you Douglas?” And you go, “No, not at all, it’s a totally different character from me.”
AVC: Maybe you’re in The Sopranos, but instead of Tony, you’re Artie Bucco, trying to run a legitimate business in a corrupt world.
DC: That’s a good way of putting it. It’s personal in that my mother was like his mother, and we’re an Italian-American family from New Jersey, and it wasn’t a happy household and all that. But there was no mafia connection or anything.
AVC: You haven’t murdered anyone, as far we know.
DC: As far as I know… not in that way. [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned writing people and places that you know, and with a period film, especially one about a place and a time you lived through, that comes into play on every level: every piece of furniture, every stitch of clothing. Are there details in the movie that were especially important for you to get right?
AVC: Even things that people wouldn’t notice?
DC: Again, I would answer the same thing: everything. You don’t know what people are going to notice, and that’s the whole thing about it. The frame is full of stuff, and if people look at the wrong thing or it’s just not right, it’s hard to do it. It’s hard to say, “Let’s shoot.”
AVC: What’s an example of a little thing that was important for you to get right?
DC: What I was most worried about was hair, guys’ hair. I knew we’d have to do wigs because we couldn’t wait for their hair to grow in. And then to get to something more like you’re driving at, the instruments were very important. They had to be the instruments from that time.
AVC: It would kill the movie for some people if you had, say, a ’68 Les Paul in there.
AVC: You probably didn’t cast him for this, but when John Magaro’s hair is long and curly and he’s wearing the white shirt and black vest, he’s a dead ringer for Bob Dylan.
DC: His hair just happens to be like Dylan’s when it grows out, so that’s the kind of wig that he got. We didn’t realize that, but once we saw it we put him in those Dylan-type pants and all that.
AVC: There are so many songs that define the era. Is it true that 10 percent of the budget went to music clearances?
DC: I would say more like 15.
AVC: And that’s even with discounted rates.
DC: Yeah, we got some sort of discount rates.
AVC: If you asked the wrong way, “Satisfaction” could probably cost what the entire movie cost.
DC: Yeah, absolutely, just about. We told them we weren’t going to use any of the really famous material, anyway. We wanted to explore the album tracks, which we basically did. That whole “Satisfaction” thing at the beginning was just something I came up with toward the end.
AVC: Were there songs you really wanted that didn’t make it for one reason or another?
DC: Well, you can’t get any Hendrix. Period. Apparently nobody can. And we wanted The Who—it was the only time the studio couldn’t negotiate their way into some kind of favorable situation. I don’t know what it was.
AVC: Any specific song, or you just felt they should be in the mix somewhere?
DC: I thought they should be in there. “Boris The Spider” was what I think we were talking about.
AVC: One of the things Not Fade Away does very well is to get at the ordinariness of certain aspects of the ’60s, the fact that life was going on as usual even as all these other tumultuous events were taking place.
DC: I’m really glad you feel that way, because that’s what I was trying to get. I’ve done a million of these interviews now and I keep saying to people, “You know, even in America, a really tiny minority went to Vietnam.” Five hundred thousand guys, something like that—compared to the rest of the country, that’s very few people. Even a lesser minority ever went to a protest of Vietnam. Even a lesser minority went to Woodstock. Even a lesser minority dropped acid. I wasn’t interested in doing those markers or seeing those scenes again or exploring that turf. It was an interesting time, but I just wanted it to be about people who were sort of in the backwater of it.
AVC: It’s about people who want to be a part of what’s happening, but all their information is second-hand.
DC: Right, exactly. [Laughs.]
AVC: We won’t get into the ending of The Sopranos, but it’s noteworthy that Not Fade Away ends with a similar kind of unexpected turn. Does part of you resist the idea of closure?
DC: No, I don’t think so. The film takes a turn about three-quarters of the way through, and now you’re watching a story about Douglas and his girlfriend. So it turns into kind of a romance at that point. So are they going to be together or not? That’s the big question. Are they going to ride off happily into the sunset? My feeling about them is they’re too young for us to really believe in love forever with them. I just wouldn’t believe it. They’re just too young, and I wouldn’t want to limit either one of their futures, and that’s why I ended it this way. I want them both to have big futures, and not necessarily together. That was a phase of his life, and it’s over.
AVC: It’s The Sex Pistols’ version of “Roadrunner” at the end, right?
DC: It is.
AVC: It’s obviously a very pointed choice in that you’ve got a song that wasn’t written for several years after the film ends, and a version that was recorded years after that.
DC: It’s supposed to point to the future. It’s supposed to point to the fact that rock ’n’ roll didn’t die, doesn’t die, won’t die. We auditioned 300 songs for that spot and that one just felt the best. To me, that song has a very garage-y sound, and it expressed the most about the suburban disaffected rock ’n’ roll experience. You know, “I drive by the Stop N Shop / I walk past the Stop N Shop / 50,000 watts of power / I’m alone here in the dark / But I’ve got the radio on / I’m in love with the modern world.” To me that’s about being an adolescent in suburbia.
AVC: It’s also interesting because it’s a rehearsal track, not an official release. The Sex Pistols were meant to have come out of nowhere, but that song hearkens all the way back to something like Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” which in turn points to the fact that the Pistols were rooted in what had come before. The sound doesn’t fade away; it just gets passed on.
DC: Yeah, and the music was different when the Stones first started, and Keith Richards even talks about this, they were punks. They had all the attitude and they were bad boys, and all of that.
AVC: There are a lot of things that are different about the process of making a movie from making a show, but one of the biggest is that you write it yourself. Do you miss the writers’ room?
DC: I do. That was a great part of it, even though I used to feel annoyed in there a lot. We’d be trying to plot a story and somebody is coming in and saying, “Oh, we can’t shoot at this location. There’s a big Shell tank and they won’t let us cover up the name,” or whatever. That was constant, that kind of thing. I really miss the room a lot. I didn’t realize that I would, but I did, after a bit of solitude. I just like the idea of solving problems all day long. It’s better than writing. Somebody comes in and asks, “Which color hat do you want him to wear?” It’s easier than sitting down and writing a story.
AVC: Once you’ve made the decision you know what kind of hat he’s wearing, whereas you never know when a scene is done.
DC: No, you don’t really know when a scene is done, and it’s also nice to get in a car and go out and look at the location. And casting is fun. You meet people. It’s good. It’s social.
AVC: How did the size of this production compare to The Sopranos?
DC: It seemed similar to me.
AVC: You obviously had a lot of control over the show even though you only directed two episodes. How did your role differ on this? Were you more singularly the person at the top?
DC: I was the person at the top in The Sopranos for sure, and I was the person at the top of this, but I guess it has to do with voice. They were both my voice. In the case of The Sopranos, I couldn’t direct them all or write them all and didn’t want to, but I was the last word on what it should be. I was calling the shots in a sense. I wasn’t making the shots.
AVC: One thing that distinguished The Sopranos was your willingness to depart from the master style of the show, even in the later seasons, and Not Fade Away has a lot of tonal shifts as well. How do you determine what’s too far?
DC: You go by instincts. Some things seem really important, or there’s just something you want to do. You really want to shoot some kind of a scene. Like this movie, I really wanted to do the ending, the whole California sequence. I was really interested in shooting that and making that work. Rebuilding Sunset Boulevard digitally and getting that feeling of night in Hollywood, that strange, mysterious Santa Ana wind. I wanted to do that period. I wanted to do other things too, but I really wanted to do that, so I engineered it such that that’s where it wound up.