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Mob Rules 

David Chase on The Sopranos, the small screen, and rock & roll

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
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Two years ago this January, The Sopranos debuted, and in the space of its first 13-week season changed television, shifting the medium’s center of gravity -- of gravitas -- to premium cable, and specifically to HBO, which has come to look like the Grove Press of TV: an encouraging home to unconventional expressions of humankind, or expressions of unconventional humankind. The story (as you must know by now) of a North New Jersey mob boss trying to keep his footing at home and at work, it made most other shows, which largely recycle and recombine proven old forms without actually being about anything, look eminently disposable, and pointed up the degree to which the industry has become, well, industrial. The New York Times called it ”the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.“ If Oz, Tom Fontana‘s prison drama, which preceded it on HBO by two years, is more than its match in terms of graphic violence, language, sexual frankness and moral ambiguity -- in making one care about characters one should by all rights disdain -- The Sopranos has the popular advantage of seeming to be about us: a family drama, and frequently a comedy, in which one roots for Tony Soprano not only to survive his enemies, on either side of the law, but to improve personally, to get himself together as a husband and father and leader of men. It is, for all the murder and mayhem it purveys, essentially tenderhearted. The opening episodes of its third season, which began March 4, drew 11 million viewers, many of whom, it may safely be assumed, subscribed to the network specifically for The Sopranos; it is cable’s most-watched original series and possibly the most talked-about, and critically revered, drama on all of television.

David Chase created The Sopranos, and it remains his baby. He plots each season‘s story arc and scripts many of the series’ key episodes (including this season‘s back-to-back openers); he sometimes directs as well. Chase was born in Mount Vernon, New York, just north of the Bronx; the family name, before his paternal grandmother changed it, was DeCesare. The family moved to Clifton, New Jersey, when Chase was 5, and then to North Caldwell, where Tony Soprano lives. Chase’s father, who had left a job as an engineer, owned a hardware store; his mother, an ”outrageous and provocative“ woman who died several years ago at the age of 84 and was the model for Tony Soprano‘s own peerlessly passive-aggressive mom, proofread telephone directories.

Chase majored in English at NYU, then earned a master’s in film from Stanford. In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles, and in his early 20s began writing for television, first for The Night Stalker and The Rockford Files and later for I‘ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure, on which he was also a producer. He created the short-lived 1988 CBS series Almost Grown, which used pop music to trace a relationship across three decades. He won his first Emmy for Off the Minnesota Strip, a 1980 TV movie he wrote about a teenage prostitute going home to Minnesota, and won again in 1999 for ”College“ (written with James Manos Jr.), a Sopranos episode in which Tony takes advantage of a trip with his daughter to murder an informer. He has also earned a ”Pasta-tute“ award from the Italian-American One Voice Committee as ’‘the Italian-American who has sold out hisher Italian culture and heritage in the media or politics or any other notable field.’‘

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Before landing at HBO, The Sopranos was rejected in turn by each of the four major broadcast networks. It’s probably just as well, for its delicate moral architecture would doubtless have been deformed in the fearful and obliging atmosphere of commercial network television. Whether the show accurately reflects life within organized crime is beside the point; it‘s not a documentary, after all, or an immaculate Scorcesian fact-based re-creation, but first and foremost examines the ways people hold up or fold under pressure, and the struggle to be human in a milieu that has little use for humanity. The show habitually satirizes American mores and material desires, but, says Chase, ”I try not to be too conscious of what it is I’m trying to say. I don‘t particularly have a point, or we don’t particularly have a point, that we‘re writing to. I remember reading an interview with David Lynch in which he said that if you do have a point before you start to create, it’s just politics. If when you sit down to create you have a point that you want to make about society, I think that falls under the category of propaganda.“

I reached Chase by phone in New York, where he spends most of his time now, after three decades living in Southern California. All I can tell you about him on a personal level is that he thinks before he talks, and sounded most excited when discussing Paris and the musical aspects of directing -- his first love, obvious from nearly any episode of The Sopranos, is rock & roll -- two things that made me like him immediately and immensely.

L.A. WEEKLY: Why did you choose to write about mobsters?

DAVID CHASE: I‘ve always been interested in the mob, ever since I was a kid. I grew up in New Jersey, I was an Italian-American kid. And when I was very young, I saw The Public Enemy with James Cagney -- there used to be a thing called Million Dollar Movie, Channel 9. They would show the same movie for five nights, so I watched this movie probably five nights in a row. It was very scary to me, and I guess exciting too. But I remember the ending as being very frightening -- in fact, we used it in the show this year. I don’t know, part of my methodology may be to try to master things I‘m afraid of. Later on, my dad and I used to watch The Untouchables. And it was happening in the newspaper in New Jersey, you know, mob stories, guys found in trunks of cars. I was just always interested in it.

As an Italian-American did you feel mob stories were especially related to you?

I did, yes. The Public Enemy is about -- it doesn’t really say what they are, I guess they‘re Irish -- but one of the things that attracted me was that the images looked like images of my dad when he was young, because he grew up in the ’20s. When I realized that Al Capone was Italian, and Frank Nitti on The Untouchables was Italian, I began to see some connection.

I was a kid who lived in the suburbs. My parents grew up in the city of Newark, and we used to go down to my grandmother‘s house in Newark every Saturday night -- my mother’s brothers and sisters, all their spouses and their children -- and have a big meal, eating in the kitchen, a great big room. The kids would go upstairs afterward and watch The Jackie Gleason Show. Some Saturday nights we went even further, deep into the heart of Newark, into the first ward, as a family, to a restaurant called Nanina‘s. It was a fish store on the bottom and a restaurant up on top. I loved that trip back into the past, into the mystery of what seemed to be our roots, I just loved it. And my cousins were there, we’d eat spumoni and get in trouble and run around. And so going back into that, closer and closer to that immigrant life, was interesting to me.

All your grandparents were born in Italy?

Yeah, around Naples. But different towns.

You‘ve traveled there?

The first time I went to Italy was probably 1986 or 1987. I was the kind of person who just worked too much and never even traveled to Europe at all until I was in my early 30s.

What was it like for you? A revelation?

Not really. Obviously it’s a beautiful country with a lot of contradictions. And when I‘m on vacation -- any place -- I always get very excited, I think, ”Man, what would it be like to live here, this is the place to be.“ And then you realize that there are millions of people all around you who get up every morning there and go to work who are probably thinking, ”I wish I were somewhere else.“ But Italy was not that great a revelation to me. France was a huge revelation. The first time I went to Paris I was convinced I’d been there before. I was convinced I‘d been there in another life. I just felt right at home immediately, and I thought, ”You know what? This is it. This is it!“

What was the cultural climate in your own house?

Conservative, conservative Republican. Very middle of the road, Eisenhower-type Republicans.

How did you first rebel against that?

It’s hard to say. I started cursing a lot around the fourth grade. I think there was something of a social sea change already happening at that time: Kids from the ‘50s and ’60s were probably going to curse more than their parents had. And so I started saying shit and fuck -- outside of the house. I didn‘t do it consciously as an act of rebellion, although it must have been, because my mother hated that kind of language. In fact, in my house we weren’t allowed to say something was stupid or use the word kid. Ain‘t was forbidden.

Was there any art in your house?

No. My grandfather had a love of opera, my mother’s father, which my mother preserved. She used to go to the Met with her girlfriends. And there was a show on TV called The Progresso Hour, it was a kind of an opera show in the early ‘50s -- my cousins and I used to have to watch that. But that was it. There was no art.

How did you discover that there was a world of art?

I guess in school, I guess through literature. I do know that as a kid the greatest thing for me was to be taken to New York City. Even Rockefeller Center -- I was talking to my wife about this last night, we were walking up Fifth Avenue -- it has those murals of America on the go and Indians and World War I vets, that kind of 1920s, 1930s Deco. There’s a big statue of Atlas there. I think just being in New York, somehow or other by osmosis I figured out there was something else going on.

And when did you start to feel you wanted to be a part of it?

In high school I had the idea I might want to be a writer, but first I became interested in music. I‘d always loved rock & roll and I wanted to play the drums, and my mother was against that. I had this older cousin, my cousin Johnny, and he would tell my mother, ”Aunt Norma, he can really keep time, you ought to let him play the drums.“ And she said, ”Over my dead body. Gene Krupa was a drug addict. I don’t want any of that stuff.“ But I persisted and I actually took the lessons -- I had a pad and drumsticks, and I played on that for a long time. [My family] saw that I was actually interested in it and would stick with it. And so I got a used set of Gretsch drums when I was around 15. Music was really my doorway into the arts.

Did you play in a band?

[My friends] had the most happening band in the town, but there wasn‘t room for me. They already had another drummer who was far better than me. I tried to play jazz with another group of guys, and that didn’t really work out. But later, when I was in college, that [first] band, which had been a Ventures guitar-based band, broke up, and the Beatles and the Stones had happened, and I reconfigured with two of those guys in a band with vocals -- imitation fake Beatles stuff. Although we never played one date. It was all garage.

When did you get interested in filmmaking?

I‘d loved movies since I was little. My friends and I would watch a movie and then act it out like kids always do. I always always always always loved movies. Then in my 20s I was exposed to foreign film, which gave me a different viewpoint. I don’t think I‘d thought about movies that much -- where they came from or who made them -- but watching foreign films, it became evident that they didn’t come out of a factory in Detroit like Chevrolets. I don‘t think I even read credits when I was a kid. But then I started to hear these names like Polanski and Fellini. I’d go look at those things and see that there was personal expression. It wasn‘t even the personal expression so much that got to me, as the sense of mystery that foreign films had -- nothing was ever decided, nothing was black and white, it was ambiguous.

And that felt like a truer reflection of your own world?

It really did. And that’s what I wanted to do. So I went to film school. But the screenplays that I wrote never got produced. There was nothing ambiguous about that.

What were they about?

I did all kinds of stuff -- psychological thrillers, comedies, a couple of things that were sort of music industry--based, light comedic spy movies, love stories. I tried everything.

You got involved in TV pretty quickly.

I got involved in TV pretty quickly, and once I began making money in television and also working in television -- you know, there‘s a great satisfaction in going to work and solving problems and being close to the center of it. I worked at Universal for years, and I used to love to be able to just take a walk through the back lot there where all those great movies were made and see Spartacus Square and all that stuff -- it was very inspiring to me. And so once having done that, I never stopped.

Did you feel trapped by that success? That it kept you from doing what you really wanted to do?

No, I didn’t feel trapped, I felt that I didn‘t have the courage. It wasn’t that I felt like somebody was holding me or that some iron claw was around my leg -- I was too frightened.

TV does have certain formal advantages over movies, though. You have more time to tell your story.

Well, I think the good news is also the bad news. I think that -- and I didn‘t understand this until pretty late in my career -- the good thing about doing TV is that you can do something that is novelistic. But by and large the fact that you’re doing the same thing week after week after week is destructive. For me. I get terribly bored with it, I get terribly bored watching it when other a people do it. And I think it creates many more creative problems than it solves. It has many more dead ends than it does opportunities. It‘s tough to just keep going with the same thing.

The one big problem with a TV series -- and let’s take The Sopranos out of it, because one hopes this doesn‘t apply to it -- is that the leads of a TV series aren’t going to die. They just aren‘t. And they’re certainly not going to die after the fifth week. So once life and death is taken out of a story about life, how pressing is it? In our lives, there‘s life and death all the time. We’re afraid we‘re going to get sick, we’re afraid we‘re going to get hit by a bus, or someone we love is going to die. But in television that fear doesn’t exist, so the whole thing becomes rather . . . uninvolving. You have cops running around getting shot at, but by and large you know that these cops are not going to get killed.

Not the ones you like, anyway.

Not the ones you like. Not the ones they‘re paying $8 million a season. Whereas movies do surprise you sometimes. Even in a very mainstream movie the hero could theoretically go down to some kind of noble death, go down shooting.

Do you watch TV yourself?

No. I mean, I watch MSNBC, CNN, I watch the History Channel. The last TV series I watched regularly was The Larry Sanders Show. I don’t think much about television at all. It doesn‘t play any kind of a part in my life, except that I do this show.

So the models for The Sopranos are from film rather than from TV?

Yeah. I wanted to open it up. My feeling is that, really for reasons of economics -- maybe historical, because of radio -- TV is in a way a prisoner of the word. Dialogue is affordable: You can have a courtroom scene, hire a bunch of extras and three principals and have them talk talk talk talk talk. Where’s the mystery and the poetry in that? Listen, there‘s a lot of talk on our show -- people talk their asses off -- but I like to think that it’s more than just elevated banter, conversation, and that it‘s more open-ended.

In a movie there’s something else that happens -- in a good movie, even ones that aren‘t so good -- because of the size of it, or because the images are so overpowering, or the music is so strong, something happens besides what people are saying. In television it’s only what people are saying that gets through. The image is pretty small and the sound‘s not that great. Nobody really concentrates very much on sweeping you away, by your senses. I wanted to do a show in which the senses were engaged, the visual sense and the audio sense.

Larry Sanders was a model in the sense that I wanted to be on HBO. First of all, I wanted to have a deal at Brillstein-Grey because Larry Sanders was a Brillstein-Grey show. And that’s not a creative model, but I guess it‘s the beginnings of one -- you’re saying to yourself, ”Creatively, I think that‘s where I’d be best off.“ But the only model I really had from television was, to a certain slight extent, Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was a show I really admired.

Why?

Because it had transcended dialogue.

You came of age in the ‘60s. What kind of mark did that leave on you?

Pretty indelible, I would say. I hate to be a cultural imperialist, but I think in terms of music I got to hear the best when it was happening. When I was listening to the radio I was hearing the Stones and Hendrix and the Beatles, and sometimes I think about that, sometimes I think that I was really lucky that I lived at that time. A lot of it was getting high and listening through the headphones. In some way that I can’t even explain I think I learned a lot from it, I learned a lot about creating from all that listening on headphones.

Did you subscribe to the hippie ideal of a possible world of peace and harmony?

I don‘t think I subscribed to that. But I thought there was room for improvement, and that there would be some improvement. I can remember lecturing my parents and a bunch of my aunts and uncles that drugs were going to change the world -- and I was right [laughs] -- that drugs were going to change American society. They just looked at me like, ”What is he talking about?“ But I thought that LSD was fundamentally going to change consciousness.

Did it change yours?

I think it did. I think I saw that this is maybe just one plane we’re living on, that maybe there‘s something else out there. And I must stress maybe. I’m not sure and I don‘t know, but it had some pretty profound effects.

Did you have a religious upbringing?

I did. Even though I’m Italian, both my parents are Protestant. So I was sent to a Protestant Sunday school and there was always a battle about trying to get me to attend church, but that never really took. It‘s funny, because my mother’s Protestant, yet most of her sisters are Catholic. My grandfather being a socialist, he didn‘t bring his kids up in any way. There was no obeisance to the Catholic Church, so they were free to do what they wanted. My mother and a couple of her sisters happened to wander into this Italian Protestant church for youth group kinds of things. And there she met my father. My father’s family were Baptists from Naples -- don‘t ask me how that happened.

Do you have the sense that the mob family in The Sopranos is close to what you might find in the real world, or is it a kind of fairy-tale mob family?

I’ve tried to answer that question for myself many times. As a matter of fact I was talking to Rudolph Giuliani, who grew up in Brooklyn, grew up among all this, and actually prosecuted any number of these guys, and he said just like in everything else in the world there‘s a spectrum: There are guys in the mob who are total stone humorless sociopaths, and there’s not really a candle going on in there, and there are people who are pretty much regular people except that they do this job. So I don‘t know if it’s a fairy tale or not.

Do you think of Tony Soprano as a good father?

[After a reflective pause] I think he‘s a loving father, I think he really loves his kids. I don’t think he does what‘s right by them very often. I mean, he gave his daughter a car he’d gotten as a result of a gambling debt. That‘s not a good idea, that’s not what a father should do. And sometimes when I think about that, I have to ask myself, he must have known what he was doing. Was he really trying to put her face in it? I don‘t know the answer. I mean, a good father would probably get out of that. Take them all to Utah and go into the program. I suppose. Right?

Unless your definition of being a good father is to provide material comfort.

Columbia University? [Meadow Soprano is a student there this season.] Not everybody has to go there. People don’t have to have widescreen TVs. Food on the table and clothing is good enough. That‘s what I mean. It’s a rationalization. And from what I understand, that‘s very often the rationalization for guys in organized crime: I’m doing it for my son and my daughter, I‘m doing it for the children. But Tony does it because he likes doing it, he loves being out there on his own and not having to answer to anybody.

Was there another future possible for him?

I think there was another future possible for him. That’s the first time I‘ve ever been asked that, and off the top of my head I’d say there was.

You‘ve often been asked about your mother, on whom you partly based Tony Soprano’s mother. What sort of relationship did you have with your father?

My dad kind of reminds me of Tony in some ways. My dad was a very generous guy. But he was an angry man, and could be very volcanic. Now, his brothers and sisters remember him as being funny. He was one of the only ones who went to college out of 10 kids. But he really cared about me, and he was, in a sense, an island of sanity in my house -- he knew that my mother was kind of out there, so if there was some issue, he would always say, like, ”Here, take the $50, go to the rock festival, keep your mouth shut about it and don‘t tell your mother.“ You know what I mean? But he was very angry about I don’t know what -- I guess his childhood. But he was a good guy after all.

What kind of father are you?

I think I care, I think I‘m a pretty committed father, but I also have probably acted out too much in front of my kid. Behaved like a baby.

When you look out the window, does the world seem to you a friendly or a frightening place?

I tell you, I go up and down, up and down, up and down all the time. I alternately become terrified and comforted, furious and then forgiving. But I guess this is what it’s like to be human. My wife says I don‘t have as much middle ground as other people. I’m much more in black and white. Good or evil, good or bad, funnynot funny, tastes goodtastes lousy, assholegreat guy.

Which is interesting, because The Sopranos is not at all black and white. It engages your sympathies in almost perverse ways and doesn‘t let you make up your mind about anybody.

I think that’s maybe because as a person I go from pillar to post so often, I‘m bouncing back from one to the other. My wife also tells me I have this very bad tendency toward historical revisionism. Something that I thought was disgusting, repulsive, a year later I’ll say, ”You know, it wasn‘t so bad.“ And she’ll say, ”I can‘t believe that -- do you know how much crap I had to hear from you about this, and now you’re telling me it wasn‘t so bad?“ I think that’s maybe the reason why it‘s in the middle, because I can never decide.

When you look at the rest of your career, what do you see or hope for yourself?

I’m not sure. Sometimes the idea of nothing has a lot of appeal. Really. I would like to make a movie and see how that goes, and if it does make another one. But if I didn‘t I don’t think it would be the end of the world, where it used to be it would be the end of the world.

What would doing nothing be for you?

I don‘t know. Get a house in France and just . . . walk around the property all day. [Laughs.] Read, listen to music, maybe learn how to paint -- but that wouldn’t work out. I‘m sure I would try to do something else again, try to make a film.

You could be happy not working?

I don’t know. I‘ve never done it. Let’s put it this way -- the idea that I could pick and choose with a little less feeling of dread is a good one. Then again, I‘m a guy who never went freelance. As I said, I always took the money. That’s been my problem.

The Sopranos has put you in the spotlight. Is that a good place to be?

Of course. I‘ve wanted it, who knows since when? Certainly since I was a teenager I wanted to be rich and famous, and I came, I think, much later to the idea of doing something really good. I’m not sure all artists are like that. I know there are artists where the art comes first, and then the a idea that they could be rich and famous comes second. But, you know, I‘m American, so what can you do?

Back when you were playing in a garage band, did that give you a sense of your future opening up, of possibility?

It really did. I learned lessons in that garage band I still use. First of all, I learned the tremendous high that comes from creating -- nothing is like it -- and when it’s really happening, when it‘s going, it’s transporting. It has nothing to do with rich and famous, it has to do with the actual thing itself, with the process, and with what happens to your consciousness, maybe even how it goes away while you‘re creating. I guess I saw somehow that what I wanted to do was to repeat that experience as often as I could.

Do you have those moments writing?

Yeah, and directing is even better, because directing is more like performing -- it happens within a time frame. Between the time you say ”Action“ and ”Cut“ it’s a piece of time, it‘s like a song, and either you’ve gotten it and it‘s really grooved along or it hasn’t, or it had some unexpected peaks or somebody did a really cool solo that you didn‘t expect -- that’s the best, that‘s the greatest.

It’s also social, where writing is solitary.

Exactly. And obviously actors are throwing things back and forth to each other, and watching that take place. It‘s great. And the other thing I began to see in those garage bands was that you would have to say some unpleasant things to people to get what you wanted, which I wasn’t prepared for. You know how when you‘re a kid you don’t like to insult people or ask for things, and in those garage bands at the age of 18, 19 or 20, I realized I‘d have to say something to my best friend like ”I think I can sing better than you and I think I should sing lead on this.“ I began to see that somebody in a creative endeavor has to take a hand. And I guess that’s what we call show business -- exercising power, or trying to achieve what you think it should be, what your vision is.

There‘s also that element of giving up power, in the sense of going with the flow.

Well, that’s the flip side of directing, this is why directing is so good for me. I‘d hear these stories about these guys who screamed and scared all the actors to death, and I thought, ”Well, I’ll never be able to do that.“ Then when I started directing, I began to realize that the thing for me was to let things happen, to go from being a writer, where you control every comma, every period, and obsess about every one of those, to something where it‘s going to happen in real time: You’re gonna say ”Action“ and stuff‘s gonna happen, and you’re gonna ride it.

The most talented of my friends said to me when I was about 21 or 22 -- we were parked in my car in the Village, and I was going to get married and I was thinking of going to film school out in California -- and he said, ”I don‘t think you’re ever going to be anything much more than the drummer in my band. I‘m just telling you that for whatever it’s worth.“ [Laughs.] And that was a big spur. It was very motivating. More motivating than anything my parents ever said to me.

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