A titan of television, David Chase is the man responsible for The Sopranos, and was a guiding hand behind such classic shows as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure. He makes the leap to the big screen with Not Fade Away, an ode to the power of ’60s rock music that gives the writer/director a chance to explore his relationship with his father. He talks about how personal the film is in this roundtable interview where he also discusses his love of the Rolling Stones, the occasional effectiveness of using unknown actors, and why New Jersey seems to be so special to the artists who grew up there.
Q. How autobiographical is the movie?
A. Semiautobiographical. It’s autobiographical in terms of the feelings involved on the part of the lead character, but not necessarily the events or the other people — except for the part about the father. That was kinda me and my father.
Q. Do you think having a well-known cast can take away from the story?
A. I certainly think that can be the case. I mean stars are stars and they’re useful in many different ways. Paramount said, “Leave your mind open to the idea of casting name actors.” And I said, “OK, I will.” And then I wasn’t really trying all that hard, I mean, I didn’t really break my neck to try and find [name actors], and it didn’t work out anyhow. So now when I look back on it in retrospect I’m really glad we didn’t. I think it would have skewed the movie in a way that I kind of felt instinctively, but I wasn’t really fighting for that.
Q. What was your experience with bands in that era?
A. You could say I was in a band that played in my friend’s basement, or various basements. We did that for about three or four years, but we never played for the public. We never even did a high-school dance or a fraternity party. Some of my friends did that, but in the configuration I’m talking about that band never played for anybody.
Q. Why do so many sons and daughters of New Jersey end up writing about it or making it central to their fiction?
A. You’re right, I think that’s true. I was thinking about Detroit, which has obviously given so much musically, rock & roll wise. I was thinking, “What’s that all about? Why Detroit?”
Q. I think in New Jersey and Detroit we have a chip on our shoulders and that’s where the pride emanates from.
A. I could go along with that. I mean I don’t remember thinking, “I’m from New Jersey, it’s not as cool as being from New York.” But I remember at 14 I got into trouble and my father sent me away to work at a camp in the summer as a dishwasher, so I wasn’t one of the campers, I was one of the workers. A lot of those kids were from Long Island, and they seemed much more sophisticated than my friends and I.
Q. Is this your ode to the ’60s?
A. It is not my ode to the ’60s. I don’t feel any allegiance to the ’60s at all or any particular love for the ’60s. I have a love for that music from that time. Depicting the ’60s is kind of a fool’s errand, it’s been done and it’s been done and it’s been done. That’s why you don’t see bellweather events of the ’60s [in the movie]. Nobody goes to a protest march. You can assume they’re taking drugs, but you don’t really see them do that. One guy goes to Vietnam, but you don’t follow him to Vietnam. Civil rights also, a lot of history was going on, but I didn’t want to focus on that.
Q. Do you see parallels between the ’60s and today?
A. I think that the ’60s never got solved, and I think it still is the ’60s in a way. We’re fighting the same things that started that. There was a group of Americans who don’t want to hear about change, and there are a group of Americans who embrace change. And we’re still fighting all that — sexual politics, gender politics, and racial politics. It started then — probably started a long time ago — it really came to the fore then and I think we’re still doing it. [However] there’s no music to lead you through that.
The whole idea of hip died. Now everybody is tattooed and has piercings. Everybody looks like an outlaw and they’re not really. People back then who looked like outlaws were outlaws.
Q. This is your first feature film after a career in television. What changes did you make to your creative process?
A. During The Sopranos, or any series that I would do, you can’t write it all by yourself, so you have a staff of people and you have a writer’s room. You sit around and you talk, and theoretically you come up with the stories together, the actual story structure. If this was a writer’s room and I was in charge of the writer’s room, if I was the creator of the show, I’d be saying yay or nay to any particular idea you might have. I’d say, “Oh that’s good, let’s go with that.” We’d develop that idea, we’d write it down, put it on a board, type it up, we’d do three of those: an A story, a B story, and a C story. Then if I said to you, “Well, that was your idea so you should write this script,” you would take that outline that was already done for you, fairly detailed, and you’d go write the script. That’s the way I always did it, there was always a solid outline. This time I decided to say I’m not going to do an outline. I’m just going to sit down, write “fade in,” and see what happens. And that’s what happens. So that was a real change in the writing process.
Q. What was your first pitch, what was the first script?
A. I worked with a friend of mine for Roger Corman’s brother, Gene Corman, on a movie called Fly Me, which was about stewardesses — a sex comedy about stewardesses. I worked all summer, six months, for 600 dollars. And it never got made.
Q. Are there any sequences on the cutting-room floor you wish had made it into the film?
A. There was a sequence in which [points at the movie’s poster] these two people are living together in his apartment, and it’s wintertime, and the landlord comes to kick them out of the apartment. Douglas, the lead character, goes down to talk to the landlord, and the woman, Grace, is left in the bed smoking and she’s looking at the guitars and drums that are all set up. She looks at that stuff, gets up out of bed, and it’s very cold, and she picks up a Fender Jaguar, turns the thing on, and starts to play at — picking at — it to see what it feels like, and she feels that she doesn’t belong there and that she can’t go there and she puts it very gingerly back on the rack and leaves. I wish that could have been in there, that said a lot about her character and where women were at at that time. That’s something I really miss. There was a lot more stuff with him and his friend, the African-American guy at the golf course. I wish I could have kept that.
Q. Could you tell us about particular acts or songs from the era that you felt really belonged in the movie, outside of the obvious mega-hits?
A. “Pretty Ballerina” by Left Banke. “Down So Low” by Mother Earth. I never did get the real Kinks song I wanted in the movie, “See My Friends,” just couldn’t justify it. There’s no Byrds, there’s no Cream, but there just wasn’t room for it. But I regret it. I believe when you go to clear Rolling Stones music you have to ask Marty Scorsese. “Gimme Shelter” is the best Rolling Stones song and you could use that song in any movie, it’s the greatest song ever written.
Q. Any reason the Rolling Stones are more prominent than the Beatles for the characters?
A. I love the Beatles, I was crazy about the Beatles. I probably at the time played them equally.
Q. You end the movie on the Beatles.
A. Yeah, that’s a whole other story. [Laughter.] The band in the movie is more inspired by the Stones. I wanted to make a connection between white teen America and African-American Delta blues. I wanted to show that what happened in that period is the music that came from the Mississippi Delta, really came from some of the least valued people in our society, changed the world through a white microphone. That’s what I was trying to point out.
The Stones cultivated that whole bad-boy thing and I think that’s why, aside from the fact that the Beatles are harder musically to emulate, for a kid who’s 17 years old learning to play the guitar, it’s easier to learn those blues power chords than it is that Paul McCartney bass line or those harmonies. All that George Martin stuff is pretty heady material. The Stones is like simpler blues-influenced music. And I think the attitude is also what appealed to young boys.
[The publicist enters the room and says: Sorry for the interruption but that’s all the time we have.]
Q. I want the story about why it ends with the Beatles!
A. Thank God! [I can’t believe] I opened my fucking mouth! [Laughter.]