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David Chase Says He Couldn’t Make ‘The Sopranos’ Today, and That He Was Jealous of ‘Mad Men’

David Chase Says He Couldn't Make 'The Sopranos' Today, and That He Was Jealous of 'Mad Men'

Last night, as part of Vulture Festival, “The Sopranos” creator David Chase sat down to discuss his career with TV and film critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The notoriously cagey and reserved Chase did duck certain questions but supplied Seitz — who, when “The Sopranos first aired, was writing for the Newark Star-Ledger (the paper Tony Soprano would get from the bottom of his driveway every morning) — with rare insights into the show that changed TV and HBO forever.

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Network Roots

Before “Sopranos,” Chase spent decades unhappily writing for network TV. Chase said he was “lucky to work with great people and on good shows,” but that the network notes process was “crushing.” Jokingly, he remarked that network executives had the unique ability to sniff out the most interesting parts of scripts and like “peas that had been boiled too long” they’d turn scripts into mush and remove all the vitamins.

Chase was thankful for the consistent work and the education he got working on shows like “The Rockford Files,” telling the audience that his biggest piece of advice to young writers trying to break into television is “if you get a job, just take it. You’ll learn.”

One specific thing Chase took from “Rockford Files” creator Stephen Cannell was the show’s mantra about protagonist Jim Rockford (played by James Garner): “He could be a jerk off or a fool, but he has to be the smartest guy in the room.” Chase said he borrowed that rule for Tony Soprano and would constantly repeat it to his “Sopranos” writing team.

Asked what early network shows inspired Chase to believe there was potential for television to be better, the showrunner credited the last two seasons of “I Spy” because “they let [Bill] Cosby and Robert Culp go” saying the show was “so cool and so real.” For Chase the most important eye opener though was when David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” hit network TV in 1990. According to the game-changing showrunner, TV had always just been a “talk fest” — partially because “talk was cheap to film” — but that Lynch used silence and imagery the way it was used in Chase’s favorite arthouse and European films.

“Does he have to go to the psychiatrist?”

Chase is convinced that he was extremely lucky to get “Sopranos” on the air in 1999, quoting his former manager Brad Grey (who is now the head of Paramount Pictures), as saying that the “chances of doing this ever again is unlikely.” When asked directly if he could make the same show today, Chase added, “my understanding is things have changed” in television.

Back in 1995, when Brillstein-Grey approached him about doing a series based on “The Godfather,” Chase thought there was little use just doing just “another mafia story,” but the meeting did trigger an idea — Chase had a feature script about a New Jersey gangster in therapy that he thought could be adapted into a TV show.

In 1995, though, his “Sopranos” pitch was rejected by every network. According to Chase, CBS was “fine with all the break-ins and crime” but asked, “does he have to go to a psychiatrist?”

For Chase, the therapy angle — and the mother who drove Tony to need therapy — was what made his show worth doing, and he was unbending about eliminating it from his script. He said that he was incredibly fortunate because at that time HBO was just getting involved in more original programming, and took the chance.

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The series creator said that he did not have an psychology expert on staff and that all the scenes between Tony and Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco, who was in attendance for yesterday’s talk) were based on his own years of therapy. According to Chase, there were two rules about shooting the therapy sessions in Dr. Melfi’s office: the camera couldn’t move, and directors were to embrace the silence, which “felt real” to him.

While Dr. Melfi was directly inspired by Chase’s own therapist, Tony’s relationship with his mother was “autobiographical,” which is why casting Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano was such a key turning point for Chase. After auditioning 200 actresses and being only two days away from shooting, Chase met Marchand and instantly thought, “oh my god, that’s my mother.” He added that Marchand was nothing like Livia in real life, but that he never once had to direct her. She just owned the role.

On Gandolfini

Chase also knows he was fortunate to find James Gandolfini to play Tony — he said that the two things that impressed him most about the now deceased actor were “his range” and “the sadness.” Gandolfini, according to Chase, never felt the need “to protect himself” like other actors. Referencing an unaired scene in which Tony masturbates in a bathroom, Chase added that the actor was (eventually) always willing to lay “himself bare.” Gandolfini would put up a fight and grumble, but “in the end, he did everything he was asked to. [It just could] take a long time to get there.”

The Writer’s Room: Terence Winter & “Mad Men”

Asked why he only directed the first and last episode of “Sopranos,” Chase said he needed to keep “the writing machine going” and was “always nervous about leaving [the writers’ room]” because either “not much progress would be made,” or “progress I didn’t want” would be made.
Chase credited his “Sopranos” writers room as having been filled with incredibly talented writers, but lacking ability fully tap into the “mob mentality.” He did say that the writer he relied on the most was Terence Winter (“Vinyl,” “Boardwalk Empire”). “Terry was the go guy, period,” he said, adding that Winter was particularly good with “scenes with violence or psychological terror.”

He also highlighted Matthew Weiner’s contribution to the writers’ room, but his biggest compliment for Weiner was saying that “he was jealous” of how good “Mad Men” was: “I couldn’t have done that.”

Defying Audience Expectations (“The Pine Barrens”)

Chase knows that his stories would often defy audience expectations. The first time this became an issue was the famous “The Pine Barrens” episode in which Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) failed to kill a Russian mobster, who escapes into the woods.

The expectation and speculation from fans of the show for years was that this would eventually set off a climatic confrontation between Tony’s crew and the Russians, but Chase said, based on their research, that there was no historical basis for a “real war between Russian and Italian mobs.”

“It wasn’t an attempt to frustrate the audience,” he added.

…. And What About The Ending?

Seitz avoided asking Chase about the infamous “Sopranos” ending, which the series creator is clearly tired of being asked to dissect. The Vulture team, though, was ready for it to come up in the audience Q&A. When the inevitable question came, the lights went out — similar to the finale’s cut to black — and Seitz pretended the event was over. The gag got a hardy laugh from the audience.

Chase did do his best to answer the audience member’s question, which focused on the emotions and sense of “separation” the ending evoked.

“I’m filled with sadness when I see it,” Chase remarked. “That’s the dominant emotion.” He then clarified that it this sadness wasn’t due to the end of a show that was the pinnacle of his life’s work to date, but rather because of “what is happening on screen” and “the way the thing builds and the music.” Chase ultimately agreed with the audience member, saying that there is a sense of “separation.”

READ MORE: Why the ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Finale Reminded Us So Much of ‘The Sopranos’ Finale

What’s Next?

Chase made it clear that after 30 years in the business as a writer and then writing producer, series television is way too much work and he has no desire to get another show on the air. He would, though, like to continue to make movies — his indie “Not Fade Away” came out in 2012. And he is also pursuing a mini-series project: “Ribbon of Dreams,” a six-part miniseries that follows characters through the early history of Hollywood. He’s hopeful to hear back from HBO in the coming weeks about its future. 

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