HOLLYWOOD — What do you do for an encore after you’ve created one of the most influential and acclaimed TV series in history? If you’re The Sopranos’ godfather David Chase, you take a break and then write and direct a feature about your first love, rock music.
The result is Not Fade Away, a period piece set in the mid-sixties about three New Jersey kids who form a band after watching the Rolling Stones on a TV show in 1964.
While Chase’s debut feature film stars The Sopranos lead James Gandolfini, along with John Margaro and Bella Heathcote, there are no mob hits, bullets, blood and killers — just a heartfelt tribute to the era with a killer soundtrack overseen by Sopranos alum and E Street Band co-founder Steven Van Zandt.
Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Chase talks about making the film, his love of post and music, wigs and his childhood dreams of working as a drummer.
POST: How would you describe this film, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
DAVID CHASE: “It’s hard to type it. I guess it’s a coming-of-age story. I’d ask people, what’s this movie’s genre? I didn’t even realize that ‘coming-of-age’ was a genre, like a thriller or action film. When I began it, I didn’t really tackle it as a genre. I wanted to make a biopic about nobodies — people who weren’t famous and who would never become famous.”
POST: Is it true you were a drummer in a New Jersey band, and that this is somewhat of an autobiographical story?
CHASE: “It’s true, I was a drummer. I rarely talk about all the details, but I played in high school. I took lessons in modern jazz, and then I went to college, and my mother and father sold my drums without even telling me! About a year later, The Beatles hit, and then my friends invited me to join their band as a drummer. But now I didn’t even have drums. I used cardboard boxes, and we weren’t really a band — just three guys who played in the basement. We never got out of there. We never even played one gig — paying or otherwise. We were a theoretical band.
“So although I’ve said this isn’t autobiographical in that the film’s events actually happened, this is certainly very personal and how I felt at the time about music, and all the emotions I had.”
POST: What were the biggest challenges of making your debut film?
CHASE: “Doing this was quite daunting. The big, daunting thing — the thing I was truly worried about more than anything else — was the wigs. We were afraid, and rightly so, that just one really bad wig would sink the whole movie. And we had to use wigs. We couldn’t have the actors grow their hair long because we didn’t shoot it in order. The movie goes from ’63 to ’68, so their hair gets a lot longer as time goes on, but we sometimes shot their earlier scenes last. All that made it very tricky, but I think it all worked and looks good in the end.”
POST: You directed the pilot and last episode of The Sopranos. What did you bring from your TV background to this?
CHASE: “It really helped that the show was always very cinematic in terms of our visual approach and storytelling. Each episode was like a mini-movie in a way. By the end, The Sopranos became this big ship because we were so successful, so we got anything we wanted. We had 16, 20 days to shoot some of those episodes, whereas your usual hour-show gets a week tops. The schedule for this whole film was just 54 days, with all the locations and so on, so it didn’t feel hugely different from making the show.”
POST: You shot this in New York and California. How tough was the actual shoot, considering it’s a period piece?
CHASE: “It went pretty smoothly, but because it’s all a period piece, it’s very difficult to do right, especially this far back in recent times — meaning that it’s harder to do 1963 than 1863. The latter period obviously doesn’t look the same at all now, so you have to build all of it from scratch and recreate it all. But you can fool yourself that you’re getting the right ‘60s look shooting in a small New York town, which we did for some of the scenes, because the buildings are mostly the same. But they’ve actually changed a lot, and it takes a great deal of work to take out all the stuff of 2012 — all the signs, every little display and so on — to get it right.
POST: This was your first time working with DP Eigil Bryld, who shot In Bruges and House of Cards. What did he bring to the mix?
CHASE: “I don’t know how he does it, but he works with a minimum of lighting, and we rarely waited on camera. Sometimes we had to wait for the data wranglers in the digital tent, but Eigil moved very quickly and yet gave every scene this beautiful, rich look.”
POST: Did you shoot film or digital, and what guided your choice?
CHASE: “We shot on the Alexa, which worked great. Before we shot there was some talk about shooting on film. I’d never shot digitally before — we always shot The Sopranos on 35mm. So I was concerned about it and in two minds which way to go. We did some comparison tests, and both looked pretty similar. Because of all the music scenes we were doing, I felt that if we went digital, it would be far easier to just let the camera roll, not cut and reset, and capture the whole performance.
“I think using the Alexa did save us time and money, ultimately. Our music budget was pretty steep so we had to save money somewhere. Having said all that, I’m probably the last person to ask about the ins and outs of cinematography, because even though I’m very interested in all that, I don’t see colors all that well. I’ll say ‘blue’ when it’s purple and vice versa. I’m not color blind, but I don’t actually see colors really well. So I’m not sure I see the same colors other people see.”
POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
CHASE (pictured, right): “We did it all at PostWorks in New York, and it was a pretty long post. We began editing in April 2011 after we stopped shooting, and cut for a couple of months. Then we went back to shoot some summer scenes in June, and began cutting again, and post went on until September this year, so it was longer than usual.”
POST: Do you like the post process?
CHASE: “I really, really love it. Two things: I love editing and trying things out. I love changing the original intention of a scene, and I even love having to change it. The miracles that happen during that process can alter the whole movie. All the pre-production and shooting are quite stressful, and then you get in the edit bay, and post for me is where the real magic happens.”
POST: Tell us about working with editor Sidney Wolinksi, who cut The Sopranos from beginning to end, and whose credits include Rome and the pilot for Boardwalk Empire for which he won an Emmy. How does that relationship work?
CHASE: “In addition to being a very meticulous and creative editor, he’ll try anything. He won’t throw the rule book at you if you suggest something really weird. He’ll never say, ‘You can’t do that.’ He may think that, but he’ll try it. He won’t sabotage it either. If it doesn’t work, he’ll keep working on it and come in early the next day to try and make it work. He’s so dogged. He came on the set a little bit, and then he put his first assembly together while I was still shooting. Then we sat down together with the Avid and gradually made the film. We actually worked together before The Sopranos, on a pilot for CBS in 1986, Almost Grown, that was also music-themed.”
POST: Who did the visual effects work and how many visual effects shots are there?
CHASE: “There’s a lot — hundreds! The whole VFX world had changed so much in just the five years since the end of The Sopranos. I was shocked. But it’s amazing and so great for a period piece like this where you’re continually having to take modern stuff out of a frame or scene, or create period stuff digitally. PictureFrame did all the work, and whole last section of the film, which is set in LA at night, was created digitally. I was very involved with all the visual effects work and I enjoy all that side of post, too.”
POST: How important are sound and music to you?
CHASE: “Well, as a kid who wanted to be a drummer, music has always been my first love, and the whole British Invasion of the ‘60s — The Beatles, Stones, The Who and so on — was like my window on the world for everything from politics and fashion to art and humor. It was during that era that pop music evolved into an art form and for the first time it hit me that rock music could be real art, and that maybe I could become an artist. So the use of music and sound effects has always been of crucial importance to me.
“For a long time, I’ve always done a lot of my conceptual thinking while listening to music — mainly rock and blues, so it starts right there. When I first got into TV, my whole basis for anything was dialogue, because I was skilled at it, and TV back then was pretty primitive visually. Then Michael Mann came along, and for me was the first person to focus more on the cinematic side of a story. That really impressed me, and then you had David Lynch and Twin Peaks, and his great use of music and sound, and all that changed the whole TV landscape for me.”
POST: Did you do a DI?
CHASE: “At Deluxe. But I didn’t get too involved because of my color-seeing problems.”
POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it while writing the script?
CHASE: “It changed a lot from the original idea, which I first had years ago…before The Sopranos. But the film’s last section, which takes place at 4am on Sunset Boulevard, turned out exactly how I’d pictured it.”
POST: Are you a fan of digital?
CHASE: “I am now.”
POST: Is film dead?
CHASE: “Not yet.”
POST: What’s next?
CHASE: “I don’t have anything lined up. I had this idea for about 20 years that I wanted to make, and suddenly there’s another film coming out with the same concept, which is very disheartening.”
POST: Would you consider directing another TV series?
CHASE: “Not a regular TV series. I’d do movies for TV or a miniseries, but I’d like to focus on movies more now.”