When The Sopranos cut, controversially, to black at the end of its last season, fans were left guessing (and continue to guess) about Tony Soprano’s fate. But for many of us, the real question had to do with the show’s creator and guiding-spirit David Chase. What would he be up to next? On the one hand, once you’ve made the most influential series in recent memory, almost any door is open to you. On the other hand, how can you top that?
The sixty-seven year old writer reconciled the paradox by doing something “same-same but different”: he left the world of television to direct his first feature film. Not Fade Away, which Paramount released last week, reunites Chase with two of his famous muses: James Gandolfini and the state of New Jersey. But unlike The Sopranos, the tone this time around is more Wonder Years than Godfather. Set in the 1960s suburbs, Not Fade Away chronicles a fictionalized garage-band as they try to make it big. Try being the key word. As the lead singer’s younger sister (who narrates the film) says, “Like most bands, you’ve never heard of them.” The result is less a testament to fame than it is to youth, friendship, cars, and girlfriends. Although the film isn’t perfect, it’s as personal and heartfelt as Hollywood entertainment gets.
You’ve said that this film is not an autobiographical film but it’s a personal film. What do you mean by that?
Well, the events didn’t happen exactly as they’re depicted. I mean, I did play drums in a band and was the lead vocals for a short time. But we did even less than the band in this movie. So it’s not exactly like what you see. But I did want it to be true to the way I felt at that time, about music and about love and death and the state of the world.
Did you guys have a name?
No, we didn’t. We never settled on one.
Were you more of a Beatles or Rolling Stones guy?
Both, no dichotomy.
Did you always want to make feature films?
Yeah, I always wanted to make features.
Then why did you end up in television?
Circumstance. I went to a film school where you could make narrative films if you wanted, but the real emphasis was on documentary. But I wanted to make narrative films, and through a professor there, I wrote a script and got my first job in Hollywood, which was on a TV show. And I did one of those, and then I didn’t work for two years, and then I did another one, and even though I was writing movies I was getting farther away from it. I ultimately found work in television.
What about this film in particular, when did this idea first come to you?
I’ve always had this little tiny bud of this thing, maybe for thirty years or so, but not in the form that it’s in now. I really started thinking about it in earnest during The Sopranos, I remember talking about it in the writers’ room a couple times.
What about your reunion with Gandolfini? Did you write the script with him in mind?
I didn’t write it with him in mind. Part way through I was having trouble, the script wasn’t really gelling for me. It had almost a creepy tone to it. Some teen comedy shit. And for some reason after about one draft or so, I thought of putting him in the father role, and that made the whole movie gel for me in terms of tone and everything else.
The scene when the father sees his son and his girlfriend off was the most poignant moment of the film for me. Do you think your own father would have liked this film? Do you ever think about that?
I never thought about that. Would my own father have liked this film? I’m not sure he would have understood it.
Was Gandolfini’s character partly modeled on your own father?
Well my father took me out to dinner, kind of like the scene in the movie. And my feelings about that were twofold: one, he was ill, and I was already leaving for California and he knew it, and we’d had a really tough five or six years, battling. And I think he saw that he was probably not going to live much longer, and he wanted to reconnect with me. I think the other part of it was, he wanted me to know that he wasn’t just some schmuck. That he had had a youth, too, and he had been around his own version of what I’d been in. Hence the whole thing about driving golf balls into the water and all that. But I think this character, by the end, has more self-awareness than my father did.
How did you and Steven Van Sandt first collaborate? The music in the film is, of course, amazing.
When I used to buy all the E-Street Band albums, back in the vinyl days, you used to actually play the record and read the liner notes and stare at the pictures while you were listening to the music. And I always noticed his face. We were both Italian-Americans, he looked very Italian-American to me, almost like Pacino at that time. But it wasn’t until we were almost done casting The Sopranos, that I saw him on VH1 during an induction ceremony for the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. He had so much charisma and was so funny, I said to my wife, that guy’s gotta be in the show somehow. So the casting people set out looking for him, and we found him.
I want to ask about Bella Heathcote, who is jaw-droppingly beautiful in this film, and with a great deal of mystery. What qualities were you looking for in her, and what did you find?
I wanted somebody who was very sexually attractive. And at the same time smart, and that you would believe that in her own way she was fuzzy about where she belonged on the planet and what she wanted to do. She knew that there was something more than just going to work every day and making money or being a housewife. She had her own yearnings, and also her own sadness and trauma. Actually, more than Douglas [ John Magaro] did. They were both from dysfunctional families. I wanted someone who could convey that effortlessly, that sense of sadness underneath all the trappings, all the beauty and all that. She’s just a great actor.