He may be best known for the game-changing HBO series "The Sopranos," but David Chase has made his feature-film directorial debut with something small and evocative, not big and bold.
"Not Fade Away" is a subtle, episodic look at a teenage rock 'n' roll band in 1960s New Jersey, with all its attendant (and perhaps ill-fated) dreams of stardom; it has little in common with the Emmy-winning HBO series Chase created, other than the Jersey setting, the presence of James Gandolfini and a music supervisor, the E Street Band's Steven Van Zandt, who also put in some time on "The Sopranos."
The film, which Chase wrote and directed, is an understated character study and one of the few films that portrays a young rock 'n' roll band in a way that feels true. Chase spoke to TheWrap about abandoning his rock dreams, making a movie that everybody told him not to make and finding the spiritual difference between film and television.
After "The Sopranos" ended, you probably could have done any number of things in television. Were you focused on making a movie instead?
Yeah. I really wanted to do a movie. I had always wanted to write and direct a movie, so coming off "The Sopranos," I had built enough capital within the business that I could use some of it to get a movie made.
Was it always going to be this movie?
No. I had a couple of ideas, and a couple of desires without ideas attached to them. And everyone told me not to do this, including Steven Van Zandt. They said, "Do a taut crime-intrigue kind of thing."
But I just didn't have an idea for that kind of movie that I had confidence in. This one kept coming back to me, and I thought, this will be so hard, and licensing the music will be so expensive, that if you ever want to make this movie, do it now while you have that capital coming out of "The Sopranos."
When Steve Van Zandt said, "Don't make a rock 'n' roll movie," what was his argument?
I don't know what his argument was. But he said it, Terry Winter said it, my wife said it, a couple of other people said it. I just think they thought it would be easier for me to not to do this.
Was it hard?
I didn't realize how hard it would be. Maybe it was so hard because it is personal. Every moment of the way you're thinking, Who gives a s—? Who cares about your experiences in a band in Caldwell, N.J.?
Also, the idea of doing something about the '60s was problematic. People get so sick and tired of hearing us boomers talk about the '60s. So in a way, this is a kind of self-inflicted movie.
As you mentioned, licensing songs from people like the Rolling Stones can be difficult and expensive. Was that a concern for you?
I was kind of spoiled. We used a lot of this kind of music on "The Sopranos." And when I first started that show, I told HBO I wanted $50,000 an episode for source music. They said, "What for?" I said, "I can't explain it." We got it, and of course we began to exceed that budget. But I was very used to being able to license anything I wanted, and I didn't really think it was going to be a problem.
It's rare to see a movie about music that feels right, whether it's the depiction of musicians onscreen or the way music works in people's lives, But this movie did.
Well, that was what I really wanted to do. I wanted to show the experience of what it feels like to play rock 'n' roll. I'm glad you thought that way, because that was the whole impetus for it.
I wanted to do a movie for all the guys like myself, and maybe you, who were in bands for 15 minutes and had the rock 'n' roll dream, and it didn't pan out. I wanted to make a movie for those guys, and about those guys.
Is there a lot of you in the lead character, the guy in the band who ends up going to film school?
Yeah, there's a fair amount of me. I can't say that it's a strict autobiograpy. The events didn't exactly roll out like they did in the movie, but there's elements of myself and my father, myself and girlfriend, myself and my friends I played music with.
How did you make your own switch from playing music to studying film?
I started seeing foreign films. I came out of seeing "Cul-de-sac," the Polanski film, and I thought, number one, what the f— was that? And number two, that's what I'd like to do.
It was the first time it really got through to me that there was a creative intelligence behind a movie, that It wasn't made by a factory called Universal or Warner Bros. That was the first time I really thought, Yeah, there's a whole art and science to be learned here.
Had you abandoned your dreams of rock 'n' roll glory?
I was still having my dreams of rock 'n' roll glory, but the band did nothing. We did nothing, and I was getting kind of fidgety with that. I was getting married, and I knew I had to leave the East Coast and go west. I just knew that that would be better for my marriage.
My friends and I were talking about making it all the time, talking and talking and talking but never really playing. And so I was getting fed up with that, in the same way that I was seeing film in a whole new way that I hadn't thought of it before.
The film is paced more like episodic television than a typical film. It takes its time, it doesn't feel like it's driving to get to the act-two climax. I don't know if that's just the way you tell stories …
I think it is the way I tell stories. I think my exposure to European cinema, to foreign films, worked its way into my brain. The whole driving-story thing doesn't live naturally with me. Maybe that's what those people were telling me: "Do something with high stakes in it. Don't do something like this, where it's – what's the word? – kind of picaresque."
I heard that you added the film's narration late in the process, after the studio was worried that people wouldn't know the cultural touchstones as well.
It wasn't the studio. It was me. We had some early screenings, and test audiences didn't get it. They said, "Who is this band? What band did they turn out to be?" They assumed that because we made a movie about the band, they must have gone on to be a successful band.
And I realized that because of that, there were things in the movie that weren't working. Everything they said that was self-aggrandizing or delusional or pretentious wasn't playing like that. Because if you say in the movie, like we do, "Well, we're going to be going to a lot of press conferences and photo shoots and stuff like that," that's not a funny line unless you know that they're not going to be going to any press conferences and photo shoots. So that's why I decided to set the stage with the narration.
Do you want to continue making films now, or can you see yourself going back to TV?
I don't see myself going back to TV in a weekly series. I did that for 30 years, and I don't really have any ideas for it. I would go back for a TV movies or miniseries, but not for a series. Overall, I'd just like to continue making movies.
But it's a strange time for making movies. You say you want to work in movies, and everybody says, "But all the really great work is being done on TV."
Do you agree?
Most of the really good adult work is probably being done on TV. But there's still a huge technological difference between the two. The experience of watching a movie in a theater with 100 other people, in the dark, with 25-foot high close-ups and really powerful sound, is a different experience than watching it even in a really good home theater. There's a technological difference, and that becomes a spiritual difference.