David Chase helped change the television landscape with his acclaimed HBO series, “The Sopranos.” Now, nearly 6 years after the series’ finale, Chase has finally returned with a new project – his feature film debut – “Not Fade Away.”
Touted as the 67-year-old director’s love letter to the music of the ’60s, the film takes place at the height of rock and roll mania surrounding The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Bob Dylan. Not immune to the allure is a New Jersey teen named Doug (played by John Magaro), who starts a band with a trio of friends (Jack Huston, Brahm Vaccarella and Will Brill) in hopes of hitting it big.
The film reunites Chase with “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, who plays Doug’s hard-nosed and disapproving father Pat, as well as famed E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante on the mafia series and serves as executive producer and music supervisor on “Not Fade Away.”
After seeing a screening of the film at the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival, I caught up with Chase to talk about life in the ’60s, directing Gandolfini and how Van Zandt ultimately saved the movie.
David Onda: “Not Fade Away” is your first feature film. Given your overwhelming success in TV, is there added pressure to be successful in film as well?
David Chase: I feel that. It’s self-induced pressure, for sure. You’re aware that people are expecting something. And maybe they shouldn’t be, because it’s a whole different field. But, yeah, I sort of feel the weight of “The Sopranos” a lot of times.
Onda: You first started working on the foundation for this film years and years ago, correct?
Chase: I had the idea to do it three decades ago and I wrote a scene in which some kids watched The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan,” and a few other pages, and then I just gave it up. And that movie was about two guys who had been in a band together reuniting in the present day, and one of them is still like a child – an adolescent – and the other one is not. And I decided to not do that movie and do the story of the band itself over a period of time.
Onda: How would you differentiate this movie from other coming-of-age stories?
Chase: I think this is a movie about a young person discovering his artistic longings and potential.
Onda: We all know that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles are massive, but is your personal take on why they were so successful?
Chase: That’s really a complicated question. I think it was the fact that they did it all themselves. I know that The Beatles had George Martin and Brian [Epstein], and The Stones had Andrew [Loog Oldham] as a manager, but everybody’s got that. The fact that they crafted the songs, they played the instruments, they did the vocals, they kind of produced it themselves. There were producers, but it wasn’t the old thing where you’re a kid and somebody finds you in some neighborhood in Philly, has a song written for you, takes you to the studio, tells you how to sing it and then takes it out of your hands. And it’s never in your hands. You’re just a performer. These people were creators.
Onda: What were you like in the ’60s?
Chase: God, I dunno. I was kind of serious. I had a good time. I was on edge a lot, I was scared a lot. My friends were really into smoking pot and doing acid – and I did that, but I was always nervous that we were going to get caught.
Onda: And you played drums.
Chase: I did. I played drums in high school. I played jazz drumming. But by the time the ’60s came around, my parents sold my drums – without asking my permission, of course. I changed to bass guitar, but I was never a good bass guitar player.
Onda: You’ve said that James Gandolfini’s character has similarities to your own father.
Chase: My father and I did not get along at all during that time. We were on the outs, just coming from two different places. The similarity between this guy Pat and my father – my father was an angry guy, and this guy’s an angry guy, frustrated. He’s been through the depression and been through the war – not as a soldier, but in war years – and had a lot to lose and made some hard-fought gains.
Onda: At this point, do you even have to direct Gandolfini?
Chase: Not much. No. Not much at all.
Onda: I really enjoyed John Magaro’s hair and style transformation as the movie progressed – especially when he is lounging at the barbecue in that red shirt and sunglasses.
Chase: Well, the hair was a big fear. We didn’t shoot in sequence. Even if we had, we couldn’t shut down and wait for three or four months for his hair to grow in. So everybody had to be wigged for that. And we all knew that if the wigs didn’t work, the movie would be dead, so we took a lot of care with that. We did a lot of research. We did not intentionally trying to make him look like [Bob] Dylan. That was never part of the plan. Although, once he had that hair on, those jackets and those skinny stove-pipe pants, we kind of went with it that way then. But there was no plan like, “Well, this guy will be like another Dylan.”
Onda: What else did Steven Van Zandt bring to this movie?
Chase: A tremendous amount, if not everything. First of all, he was like the musical inspiration for it in that he loves this music so much that he kept me honest, kept me at it, kept me working on it. He told me a lot about the creation of the music, he told me a lot about the life of a musician – although that doesn’t really apply to the movie that much, because these guys don’t really become musicians. But he told me about their early days when they were first playing swim clubs at the shore, before he even met Bruce [Springsteen]. But most of all, he loves this music so much that he inspired me.
Onda: Was there anything specific you changed because he suggested it?
Chase: Not that I can recall, but I was having trouble writing the script, it wasn’t going very well and I was going to quit. And he just happened to send me a demo of this song “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” which is now in the movie – it’s the song that they “write” and then play for Jerry Ragovoy [played by Brad Garrett]. And I liked the song so much and it was so true to rock and roll and the lunacy and depth of feeling and mad passion of rock and roll. It was such a good rock and roll song that it inspired me and made me wanna keep writing.
Onda: The vocals in this film are quite good. Did the actors actually sing the band’s songs?
Chase: They did. They did not play, but they sang. We started out looking for musicians who could act, but that didn’t work out. So once they were cast – Jack, John and Will Brill, the three main guys – Steven put them through a real training course, got them real teachers, they hung out together every day for six to eight hours and played and practiced and within about two and a half months, they could actually play some of those songs.
“Not Fade Away” is open now in select cities. Click here to purchase tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.