It seems a bit odd following his groundbreaking work on HBO’s The Sopranos, but at age 68, Not Fade Away marks series creator David Chase’s big screen debut as a director. His new film certainly places a special and different kind of family dynamic front and centre in a story that most closely resembles his own personal experiences growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s far away from the mafia types that made his career what it is today.
Chase takes a look at a band struggling to make it in the wake of the British Invasion of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They have the individual drive and motivation to succeed, but rarely do they ever seem to be on the same page. They all have different ideas and ideals they hold firm to and ultimately each one holds the band back at some point from ever being something special.
Chase’s on screen surrogate is Douglas, played by John Magaro, a utility man that starts off as a drummer, but quickly gets elevated to lead singer status when it turns out he has a better voice than the actual frontman they originally chose. The remainder of his band members are more or less composites of the people Chase grew up with and knew, and his stern father (played by Sopranos star James Gandolfini) on screen definitely echoes some of what Chase experienced at home.
Criticize This! sat down with Chase while he was in Toronto promoting the film to talk about the differences between film and television, his love of music, collaborating once again with Gandolfini and Steven Van Zandt, and more.
The 60s era that you explore in the film obviously has a very personal connection for you. What turned into a project that you had to make emotionally and intellectually?
David Chase: I would imagine that most people who are going to make a movie that meant something to themselves would go back to those years. I don’t mean the 60s, I mean the years between 17-20, when you’re really going from one thing to another. But that wasn’t my reason for doing the movie. My reason is that I love the music form that era so much. I’m not that crazy about the 60s and I wasn’t interested in telling a story about the 60s. But I was interested in telling a story about guys who loved music, talked about music all the time, played music all the time and it came to nothing.
Why did you get Steven Van Zandt to choose the music instead of you?
DC: I did choose it. Most of the songs…Steven and I were friends from the show [The Sopranos] and whenever we’d go out to dinner with our wives, we’d talk about what’s the best track on this album and blah blah blah. He’s a fountain of music knowledge and has great taste. So this movie was kind of an outgrowth of those arguments that we used to have. He advised me not to do this movie actually. But then when I persisted, he felt that his role was to be like a consigliore, not to push his vision of the movie. So most of the songs that are on there are ones that I’ve been saving in my back pocket to put into a movie. But it turns out that a lot of them are songs he really likes because we have similar tastes.
I read you’d been working on this project for 25-30 years—
DC: I haven’t been working on it for 30 years. What happened was that I said to somebody, last week I think, that I had an early version of this that long ago. But it wasn’t this at all. It was about two guys in their 30s who used to be in a band when they were 13 meeting up. And for some reason that spread that I had an early version of this movie. That isn’t the case. The only similarity was that it had a scene where they were watching the Beatles on TV.
For the young people in the film music defines their life, do you that music still has that defining quality for the young people who you cast in the film?
DC: I don’t really know because I’m not really there in their unguarded moments. My guess is not quite, but I have no call to say that.
But it was for you.
DC: That’s all I ever talked about with my friends. That’s all we ever did was wait for the next Stones album, wait for the next Kinks album and talk about that stuff and play it over and over.
The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling play a big role in the film, so I’m assuming you’re a fan.
DC: Oh yeah.
Do you have any other writing idols, past or present?
DC: Filmmaking idols yes. Writers, not necessarily. Serling was a big one. Poe I really like. But filmmaking idols, I like Kubrick and Fellini and all of those guys. Even Marty Scorsese.
You’re making a movie that takes place in a time period that you lived through, but you have to cast younger people in the movie and actors will say a lot of things to get roles. You have to make sure that they get it, so what was it about the actors you met that impressed you and made you think that they were right to play these roles in this time?
DC: Any actor that came in that didn’t say “dude” got into the movie (laughs). It was hard, I’m telling you. People would come in and we’d have to say, “stop saying dude.” I’m telling we’d keep saying, “stop saying dude.” And it’s just impossible. It’s so second nature. “Dude I’ve got my watch on.” I’m really being honest.
And they aren’t Southern Californian rockers.
DC: I know and we had trouble even after when we were making the movie. Sometimes “dude” would slip in and we’d have to cut. Eventually we had a fine for it. If you said “dude,” you’d have to pay $20. It would slow us down.
The British invasion did change everything, but it was American music coming back to itself—
DC: Yeah, that was what was so great about it. That was my point. People say it’s about the British Invasion. Maybe I don’t stress it enough in interviews. Yes it’s about the British Invasion, but it’s about the British Invasion carrying back with it an American music that the majority of white kids had not idea existed at all. None. That music came from the Mississippi Delta and the Chicago Ghetto and very undervalued places like that where life is pretty tough and pretty sad. That’s why I think it matured rock n’ roll music. It made it about something more than just teenage love and cars.
I wanted to ask about writing the script because doesn’t have a conventional structure and isn’t driven by narrative as much as character and tone. So what were the challenges there?
DC: Well, first of all I’m not sure what people mean when they say it doesn’t have a conventional structure.
I guess just because it doesn’t have the usual hero’s journey of a rise to power.
DC: But isn’t it the hero’s journey on a very low level? Well, there have been a million biopics about famous bands and I wanted to do a movie for all the kids like myself who went out and bought a guitar and drums and tried to do it. I wanted to make a movie for all of us that didn’t become Keith Richards.
Was it tempting at anytime to give them more success or was it always going to be an ode to failure?
DC: No, it was always going to be like this, but there was a draft where they played The Night Owl a club in the Village. The reason I got rid of that is because we were struggling budget wise and all those nights in the club with extras would be expensive. And also, I just liked it better this way. I think it’s so conventional to see them play. People say, “aren’t they going to play in the battle of the bands?” And I’d say, “no, I’ve seen all that.”
Having done so much TV before this, what where the biggest challenges of making a movie?
DC: I would say honestly, the biggest challenge is stamina and being away form your family for that long. You go into an alternate universe and your personal life suffers. It’s hard on your loved ones because even when you’re there, you aren’t there. You’re talking to them, but you’re not thinking about them, you’re thinking about the movie. That was hard and it’s just hard on a physical level. I don’t work out, which I should have done. I kept saying I was going to do it, but I didn’t. So I was tired all the time.
You said that your family wasn’t supportive of your ambitions either in writing or in music, much like the characters in the film. So where did you find support to do what you do?
DC: I found support in my other bandmates. I found support in my girlfriend. It was my girlfriend who told me that “time was on my side” as you see in the movie. That actually happened. And my father gave me this sort of half-assed support. He said, “as long as you finish college you can be a clown in the circus. I don’t care what you do, but you’ve got to finish college. My mother completely didn’t get it at all. She took it as an affront actually.
How much of yourself and your friends did you put into these characters?
DC: Well, the characters in the band are all amalgamations of different people that I knew. But there was one guy…we made this self-financed demo record in a tiny studio in New Jersey. This was like 1965. The guy who owned the studio said, “if you guys sign a contract with me, I’ll let you use the studio whenever you want for free to develop your songs and all that.” My friend said, “we’re not going to sign with him, he’s a nobody.” Well, we had nothing going and we listened to him and probably suffered for it. All the characters are amalgamations off different people. How much of it is me? I just had a better voice than the other people in the band, so those duties fell to me.
Was it tough to decide where to go after The Sopranos and was this always what you thought you would do next?
DC: No. I talked about this a couple times in the writers office for The Sopranos. But when I got done with the show and I had the opportunity to do the movie, I wanted to something more like a psychological thriller. Something very tough. A hard crime story. Not a gangster story, but something suspenseful. I wasn’t happy with any of the ideas that I had and I kept trying and trying. Nothing really clicked. But this was in the back of my mind and I had a deal with Paramount to make a movie. So I thought, since I had the deal I should do this now because this could be a hard sell later. I’d still like to do a thriller though.
Obviously you’re working with Gandolfini again who is the most recognizable person in the movie. What is it about him that makes you want to keep working with him?
DC: Well, he’s really smart. He knows where the values lie in a scene. He knows what the important parts are in a scene. It doesn’t have to be explained to him. It’s a hard thing to say. What does Jim bring to it? I don’t know. People are attracted to him. Maybe it’s something in his eyes. He’s got a very human sadness there or sometimes a little glitter or glint. He goes way deep underneath the surface.
How important was it for you to cast unknowns in the other roles?
DC: It turned out to be very important. I said to Paramount when we first started…I was kind of lying, but I said I would keep my mind open to consider casting name actors. But at that age there really aren’t many people who mean much financially. The whole thing is about, “can somebody open a movie in foreign countries?” There aren’t that many people in their early 20s who can do that. So it never became much of a concern. In the end, I’m glad it turned out that way. Because I think if you’d had “famous actor A” you’d assume he was going to rise up from the crowd.
Did you approach writing a film differently than television?
DC: I did. In television there’s a room full of writers and the scripts are written by one of 5-6 people. So what happens is that you develop the stories together and then you hand out the episodes. So I’d get episode one, someone else would get episode 2 and so forth. You’d get four page story outlines with the whole story worked out after you’d talked about it in the room for months. Then you go away and write the script. You’d give it to me because I’m the head writer, I’d give you notes and you’d go back to do rewrites. Then you’d give it to me again and usually I’d go through it and do the last pass at it. But there’s a lot of organization with that and because it’s a factory, you have to know what the story is before you can hand it out. I can’t just say to you, “you know what, you write episode three of The Sopranos?” “What’s it about?” “I don’t know, just figure it out.” That doesn’t happen. So this time, I went about it saying I wouldn’t write an outline first and just let it develop. So I didn’t and it made it much harder.
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that New York is the grand zero for a musical trend but New Jersey is the place where people have more drive to go after it. So what was it like growing up in one of those periods as someone who wants to be a musician looking at New York as your mecca next door?
DC: I think that New Jersey thing is a little overhyped. I think a lot of it has to do with Bruce Springsteen. The whole Springsteen ethos and what his songs are about. It’s the same thing as Saturday Night Fever, the guy dancing in Brooklyn who wants to go to Manhattan. All the cool stuff is happening there. And when you’re 18 years old at the time the movie was set you could drink in New York at 18, but you couldn’t drink in Jersey until you were 21. So people went to New York just to drink. And once that starts happening you get a whole club scene and everything that goes with it. I should have put that in the movie, I just didn’t have time.
I was curious what your approach was to writing dialogue for younger versions of Mick Jager and Keith Richards in the prologue?
DC: I read everything that I could about that meeting. It didn’t really happen on a train, I think it happened on a train platform. But we didn’t have the money to build an English train station. Not only that, but I wanted the movement of the train inside. So I read Keith’s autobiography and Stevie knows everything about it. I just pieced it together from different things. I just invented it. I don’t know, if they see it that might just shit all over it (laughs).
Do you think this is a nostalgic film?
DC: No, I don’t feel it’s a nostalgic film. I don’t feel any nostalgia for the 60s. People say it’s so nostalgic or that I didn’t touch on everything that happened in the 60s. Well, here we are today, we aren’t touching on a lot of things going on write now. You’re journalists, I’m a writer. None of us are in Afghanistan, none of us are protesting Afghanistan. The majority of people just live their lives and that’s what I wanted to capture.
Do you think you’ll ever be going back to TV?
DC: No. I’ve just done it for so long. Not only The Sopranos, but before that I was doing hour television for so long that I’m tired of it. I don’t get much satisfaction out of it and I don’t think I could do it as well again, so…
What do you want to do?
DC: More of these movies, I guess.
Not Fade Away is currently playing in Toronto. It opens wide across Canada on January 4.
Top image: Producer / Writer / Director David Chase on the set of Not Fade Away, from Paramount Vantage and Indian Paintbrush in Association with The Weinstein Company.