I expected "Sopranos" creator David Chase to be scary and intimidating. He's a sweetheart. I first met him at an industry screening of "Not Fade Away," a look back at his days as a young musician in New Jersey. I followed up with Chase with a phone interview, below.
The movie opened December 21 after a New York Film Festival launch. Is this movie commercial? No. But it's good. And it hits the Boomer demo head on. Did you listen to John Mayall and James Brown in high school? Remember when vinyl records were wrapped in plastic and people wore pea coats and grey suede Vegas boots? Then this movie is for you.
Chase knows that it's thanks to his ex-manager Brad Grey, who runs Paramount now, that the Stanford film studies grad got to make this delicious and personal slice of authentic 60s life with just one recognizable star, Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini. He's excellent and moving as the hard-nosed old-school Italian father of a counter-cultural high school/college kid (John Magaro, pictured) who starts a band, first as drummer and then as lead singer/songwriter. This is the kind of film Hollywood doesn't make anymore: idiosyncratic, not following any sense of pre-determined three-act structure or pacing, organic and real.
The movie cost $20 million (backed by Paramount Vantage and Indian Paintbrush) and at least $2.5 million of that went to the music rights. "Sopranos" star, "E Street Band" member and music guru Steve Van Zandt went first to Paul McCartney, lined up the Beatles at a favored nations rate, followed by the Rolling Stones and eventually Bob Dylan. Everyone else came on board below the $50,000 per song Beatles/Stones deal, except The Who and Jimi Hendrix (whom no one can get). The music in the movie–Chase wrote into the script far more than the finally selected 50 songs–is foot-tapping good.
Van Zandt is crucial to making the young band work. Mostly they do covers (and he had to help determine which ones they could deliver), but there is one original song as well, written by Van Zandt. Chase insisted on casting good actors, not musicians, and they in turn went to boot camp with Zandt at his home studio to learn how to play. Van Zandt also worked with experts to make sure every guitar, mic and piece of equipment was true to the exact period. That's what the band used. And Van Zandt recorded live analog sound; he didn't even go digital until the final mix. Jack Huston ("Boardwalk Empire") had to play guitar and sing (badly), while Magaro ("Liberal Arts") learned drums and vocals. Bella Heathcote ("Dark Shadows") is another one to watch.
One thing that was added for the sake of audience understanding was an over-narration by the kid's younger sister, says Chase. She needed to explain, 'no, this is not a biopic, or about a band that we all recognize.' It's about that band that so many people were part of when they were young who did not make it. And it's about not losing that back beat.
Anne Thompson: Did you ever have to promote a TV series like 'The Sopranos' the way you did this movie?
David Chase: I did not to this extent, and not intensely like this. A show debuts once a year and you do interviews with a few people, and that's it. This keeps happening all through the year. The biggest surprise even thought I knew, was it was three years of work for two or three months of activity. It's the intensity of the activity, I can't believe it's over in two or three months, the movie comes out and it's on to the next.
With TV you live with it for years and you're working at it all year long, the ctiicism or the reaction, what you feel yourself about it changes over a period of time. You watch it on air, it's a much longer connection with the audience.
AT: It's thanks to 'The Sopranos' that you got to make this movie.
DC: Brad Grey had a lot to do with it. Could this movie have been made at another studio? Probably. I can not go back in time four years and think and try to deduce how much heat I had off that show. Someone else might have gone a long way into it, maybe not as readily.
AT: He also made it possible for you to buy all that great music. Do you still play vinyl records?
DC: Yes, with independent financing we wouldn't have had the Stones and the Beatles. My music, I have CDs, my vinyl collection is in bad shape. I don't use LPs in my house.
AT: Were there songs you couldn't get?
DC: We were able to get almost everything we wrote, the only exception, I was brokenhearted that we couldn't get The Who.
AT: Did the studio give you notes and set parameters about what you could and couldn't do?
DC: I can't remember the ins and outs with Paramount, they were not concerned about a great deal. I was given pretty much a clean slate to do as I wish. Once we shot, they had things to say about the edit.
AT: You had disagreements?
DC: It was tough, it took a long time, we exceeded the time limit allotted for the edit. Nobody told me anything. I kept editing for over for a month, they wanted me to edit, I kept selling them on the idea that it would be shorter, which they liked. The first version was 2 1/2 hours, now it's 1 hour and 54 minutes. There was more of the mother in it, more about Douglas's family life than there is now. It got repetitious. Now we're holding to the central story of the band's progress.
AT: Any of the performances surprise you?
DC: Jack Huston. He's very young; I'm sure he'll be a marquee name. He's a good guy. He deserves it, he's a serious actor, like Jim [Gandolfini] in that respect. He's tough on his own performance, wants to make sure to get every little thing, always feels he hasn't.
AT: Would you like to make another movie?
DC: I like the idea that it is finished. I have a sense of completion and closure. This is one of the reasons I'd like to do it again. When a TV series is successful, it goes on and on, you find yourself solving the same kind of problems every week, that's the good and the bad of it. Movies present new challenges you never thought existed, the whole idea is how to solve the problem, to put it in the visual sense.
AT: You had a learning curve.
DC: Yes, true. In fact people who know me said 'you learned a lot.' I did, I remember watching Kurosawa get his Lifetime Achievement Oscar at age 85, he said, 'the great thing about filmmaking is you never stop learning, there's always brand new stuff to learn.' That's a good way to go through life.
AT: What would you do next?
D.C. I don't know, I'm trying to figure it out. This was personal, autobiographical. At the moment I tell myself to do something more genre–I don't consider coming-of-age a genre–more of a psychological thriller cowboy coming-of-age. It's a category. A couple of things I am looking at. I want to make up my own stories, 'Sopranos' was genre. I enjoy that kind of thing. I was thinking about Bella Heathcote, her friend Andrew Dominic did "Killing Them Softly." I envy him his mob man. That's the way it is in the grass-is-greener out-of-genre world. I want to get back into that and amp up. When we first talked, Gandolfini told me, 'you know this is very difficult, you are biting off a lot here.' I stupidly didn't hear him.