Series Mania: David Chase – ‘The Sopranos’ Was a Middle Finger at the TV Establishment’

‘Sopranos’ creator speaks at Paris’ Series Mania

David Chase at Series Mania
Copyright: Nathalie Prébende / Forum des images

PARIS — The head of the jury at the 7th Series Mania, “The Sopranos” showrunner David Chase took to the stage for an extended interview, reflecting on a long and varied career that very nearly took some very different turns. Beginning with his childhood in New Jersey, he revealed that his youth was vital to his later career as a writer, but not for the reasons many expected. “We were one of the last families to get a television set,” he said. “My father didn’t want to do it. He thought I would spend all my time watching television. Which is what I did do once we got the television. He said he was going to put a lock on it, and he never did do that. But I did watch quite a bit on it.”

Describing post-war New Jersey as “sauvage,” painting a picture of an outgoing, outdoorsy child, Chase discussed the influence of his parents in those formative years – his father owned a hardware store and his mother had left school at 14. “I have to say, they were two very insecure people,” he recalled. “Insecure about themselves and even about their Italian-ness. They were envious and insecure. I was the focus of everything. I was supposed to be the one that was going to make a change. Like, I would [become] a lawyer or a teacher. I was going to be the educated one.”

Chase claimed not to be a prodigious writer as a child, and gave a brief example of one of his earliest short stories, in which the apostles stole the body of Jesus Christ from his tomb, leading people to the story of The Resurrection. “I thought that was the coolest idea,” he laughed. “I thought that was so original. Like, Wow, man, that’s really heavy!’” Nothing remains of this early work, which his family later threw out and Chase insisted was “a good thing”.

Inspired in his late teens to write a novel by reading Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” Chase began work on a book that lasted a page; he never returned to it. Graduating in 1964, he went to college in North Carolina. He hated it, and returned to New York for the first of two very important events in his life. “I transferred to NYU in September 1965, and in October of 1965 I took LSD for the first time. And I decided I was going to be in films, for some reason.” Several months after that, Chase had a further epiphany on seeing Roman Polanski’s 1966 film “Cul-De-Sac”. “It was the first time I realized that films were made by a person,” he laughed, “that they didn’t come from a factory somewhere. But at the same time I wanted to be a rock ‘n ‘roll star, naturally. I was a double threat.”

After NYU, Chase went to study film at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, making narrative films within its documentary-oriented film department. His master theses film was “pretty embarrassing” he admitted, but, tellingly, it was a gangster film. From Stanford, Chase and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 1971 – he jokingly claimed “to break the concrete heart of Hollywood” – which is where his career began on shows such as “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, “The Rockford Files” and later “Northern Exposure”. Interestingly, Chase spoke a lot about the difference between film and TV in those days, claiming that he’d written 13 or 14 features for film and was often frustrated by the limits of writing for the small screen. “I complained about television a lot,“ he said. “I still do.”

Significantly, it was his New Jersey upbringing that would finally change his life, especially his mother, whom he described as being “so neurotic she was funny.”

“Everybody, my wife included, used to tell me that I should write about my mother,“ he explained. “I thought, ‘Who would care about that?’ Then a friend of mine said, ‘You should write a story about a television producer and his mother.’ [Again] I thought, ‘Who would watch that?’ Then I got the idea of a Mafioso guy and his mother – that would be more interesting. I wanted to do it as a movie, and I pictured Anne Bancroft as the mother and Robert De Niro as the son. It never got anywhere.”

The crucial moment came when Chase changed agents and joined Brillstein Grey, who were then making The Larry Sanders Show. The company had high hopes for Chase and pitched him the idea of doing Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” as a TV series, which he pointed out had already been done. Instead he pitched his Mafioso idea – now called “The Sopranos” – which he shopped for two years. Quoting a line from Elvis Costello’s song “Radio Radio” – “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand so badly” – Chase outlined his plans to make a show that stood out from the series of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which feature stereotypical characters in light-hearted dysfunctional family situations who never talked about mundane things or, crucially, watched popular films or TV shows. “The Sopranos”, which would break all those rules, he said, was “a middle finger at the TV establishment”. Luckily for Chase, on the day he was due to sign on for Chris Carter’s post “X-Files” show “Millennium”, HBO bought in.

Chase was modest about the show’s success, ascribing a large portion of that to James Gandolfni’s portrait of Mafioso boss and family man Tony Soprano, whose therapy sessions – a very un-American break with tradition for the crime genre – kick-started the series. Chase spoke a lot about Gary Cooper as an inspiration for this subversive American hero, saying that Gandolfini brought an unusual “melancholy” quality to the role. “Jimmy’s eyes were so expressive,” he enthused, although he candidly discussed the actor’s faults. “He used to not show up a lot,” said Chase, which sometimes cost the show a full day’s shoot. Chase also discussed the show’s approach to screenwriting, in which the writers took the reins of their own episodes and where Chase deliberately discouraged too much detailed story talk at script meetings and engaged the writers in talk about their own daily lives, ensuring that storylines were rooted in everyday conversation.

Chase ended the talk with a brief, affectionate discussion of his feature film debut, the 2012 rock ‘n’ roll movie “Not Fade Away”. He did not divulge any plans for a return to the world of Tony Soprano, but he did give some insights into the show’s infamous, self-referential final episode. “I wanted to get across the idea that Tony Soprano created his own life,” he said. “In other words, in a way he made the film of his own life, or wrote the book about it. But we all do. We put ourselves in these situations – we don’t just wind up there.”