Pop Culture

David Chase Has Some Ideas About Our Continued Sopranos Obsessions

A generation ago, the landmark show and its creator blew up our idea of TV. With a new movie prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, on the way this fall, the showrunner returns to the scene of the crime.

Of all the whackings, beatings, and ritual humiliations served up over the 86 hours of The Sopranos, one of its cruelest assaults is verbal. It comes late—midway through the sixth and final season’s second half—and takes place a 20-hour trip down I-95 from the show’s usual North Jersey locale. Tony Soprano is on the lam and getting paranoid in Miami with his mostly loyal capo Paulie Gualtieri, who is entertaining their much younger dinner companions with tales of the good old days. Noticing his skipper looking irritable, Paulie asks if everything is okay. The boss, normally gregarious, is being kinda quiet.

“That’s ’cause,” Tony says, James Gandolfini pushing his big brown bear frame away from the table, “ ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

On a sunny afternoon in late spring in Santa Monica, David Chase, the Sopranos creator who in 1998 got an HBO series order he was pretty sure he wouldn’t and then went on to revolutionize the very idea of American TV over the next nine years, was laughing when presented with the line. Before landing in the script, it had bounced around in his head since a buddy at West Essex High had said it decades ago.

“He was a real smart guy, great guitar player, kind of a pissant in a way,” says Chase. “It’s so awful. It’s so cutting. It really is so nasty.”

It is also indelible. So much so that when, a few years ago, news started getting out that Chase was going to revisit the Sopranos characters for a prequel movie set in part against the Newark riots of 1967, some of the show’s more obsessive online fans held it up to justify their anxieties about the project. Not that such concerns about re-treading the past for new material would faze the man who once had Dr. Melfi explaining Proust’s madeleines by way of gabagool to the boss of North Jersey, and who mined his own experiences with an overbearing Italian American lowercase-f family for his life’s great work.

“That’s what being a writer is,” Chase says with a shrug.

Chase was already a TV lifer by the time Tony Soprano entered the American cultural consciousness via that therapist-chic anteroom on January 10, 1999. Now 76, Chase grew up in North Jersey and went to film school in the era of director as auteur. After a long and lucrative network-TV career writing and producing for the likes of The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, he thought he was onto something with a pilot script about a mob boss working out (among other things) his mommy issues in therapy. HBO, then in the very early stages of becoming the greatest thing to happen to television since coaxial cable, ordered a pilot and then sat on it for more than a year. At one point in the drawn-out process, Chase was maybe hours away from taking a job running the X-Files spin-off Millennium for Fox.

“The way I see it is, I was plucked out just in the nick of time,” Chase says, still genuinely marveling at his own good fate. “Before the train hit.”

In 2021 it is impossible to truly remember just how jolting The Sopranos was in 1999—for the quality of its writing and execution, of course, but at a more elemental level, for its willingness to explore its characters’ interior lives and its audience’s attraction to them. It had slapstick and Jung. It shocked and transgressed, titillated and left viewers hanging. Most thrillingly of all, at the turn of the century, it respected its viewers’ intellects up to and including—though some will debate this—the final frame. (For those of us who did not have premium cable and had to rent it one DVD at a time at Blockbuster, it also encouraged a sort of proto-binge-watching.) In doing so, The Sopranos paved the road for all the prestige content to come—a little of it brilliant, most of it now just as trite as the network notes Chase was trying to get away from back then.

“The networks had this unerring sense to go for just what made the thing good and tell you to take it out,” he recalls. “They would always know that that’s where your heart was.”

A year-plus of quarantining helped make The Sopranos a hot property once again. It is the stuff of memes and Gen Z fan accounts. Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who played Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Bacala, respectively, have a hit podcast based on their rewatching of the show. In July, the second “SopranosCon” fan convention was held in Atlantic City. This renewed interest has somewhat surprised Chase, who has said in the past that he didn’t think the series would age particularly well in the audience’s minds. “What I really thought was that a lot of their references were not in play anymore,” he says. “The phones are different. That’s the big one for people.”

“People started telling me, ‘My son is 17. He wants to go to film school,’ ” Chase says. “ ‘He watches your show all the time….’ It was so interesting to me. I thought, What the hell is going on now?”

As best he can figure, it is our eternal fascination with outlaws, a subject the series probed often. Or it might be the appeal of exploring the idea, expressed in the pilot, that all of us 21st-century Americans have arrived for the story’s last chapters. Also: “I think Christopher and Paulie were probably huge attractions.”

All of this freights the October 1 arrival of the prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, with even more anticipation. (It will be on HBO Max simultaneously for 31 days.) Chase, who wrote the movie with Lawrence Konner, first began thinking of returning to the characters a few years ago. There was a never-used idea for a flashback episode around Johnny Boy and Junior Soprano, and when Warner Bros. Pictures chairman Toby Emmerich floated the idea of revisiting the series, Chase felt ready. He had by then directed his debut feature, 2012’s semiautobiographical Not Fade Away, and was set to direct Saints too but eventually ceded it to longtime Sopranos director Alan Taylor.

The movie focuses largely on Dickie Moltisanti, father of Christopher, who winds up at war with a former associate after the 1967 Newark riots. Along the way, the film offers a view of a preteen and high school-age Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, whose father died in 2013 at age 51.

“I looked at some tape, to see if he could put one word in front of the other,” Chase says. “But no, I had no hesitancy. I just had this sneaking suspicion that the DNA was going to be the same.”

In the course of its two or so hours, the movie comes again and again to two other of The Sopranos’ great themes: the cycles of violence we perpetuate as a species and the Herculean effort required to make progress on a personal level, never mind societal. All of which was cast into relief last year. Filming had been largely completed in 2019, and the production took a long pause because of COVID, during which the 2020 uprisings took place. In the summer of 1967, Chase was 22, driving from the burbs to pick up his future wife at work at Prudential Insurance each day. Seeing the riots and the living conditions that had brought them on settled on his psyche. “What was going through my head was ‘God, it was still the same; I can’t believe it,’ ” he said of watching the news last summer.

Long ago, when Chase first left North Caldwell for L.A., he’d had an idea for a script about four guys riding around in a tank during those fraught days in Newark. The Many Saints of Newark is not that movie, so it’s clear Chase still has projects in the desk drawer to play with. He says he’d do TV again, but a limited series is more his speed. The Sopranos, especially those last few seasons, seemed to take its toll.

“Features are still my first love,” he says, before doing the mental math on what’s become of the entertainment business in the 20-something years since Tony’s first therapy appointment. “I don’t know. Is there a feature business? Do movies really exist?”

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vanity Fair: It was actually 14 years, two days ago to the day, that the series finale aired. At what point did you start to think about coming back to these characters and this place?

David Chase: Well, I never had any interest in doing it. And then—I don’t know what year it was… I had an interview with Tom Fontana and he said it would be interesting to do a story about Johnny and Junior in Newark. And because my parents, my mother especially, came from there, I thought, “Oh, that would be interesting. Yes. That could be cool.” And then I forgot about it, but I never forgot it completely. Then I got interested in the Newark riots. 

You were there at the time?

We were going to get married and my wife took a job working for the Prudential Insurance company in Newark. And I would drive her down to work every day in Newark from our house in Caldwell which was, I don’t know the mileage, but 45 minutes, an hour, and then I’d pick her up. And then the riots started. They stayed open, Prudential, as far as I remember. We were going down there every day. I remember some friends of mine saying—I was 22 years old at that time—“I hope they burned the place down.”

Just that being the sort of revolutionary spirit of the time?

Yes yes. And it was bad. Newark—it was bad. To see black people living that way, it was bad. 

The movie was shot largely in 2019 and mostly in the can last year and then we had the summer that we had last year, nationally. I don’t know if this is something you’ve played up in interviews over the years or if it’s true, but I know that you have a penchant for second guessing yourself. 

Yes I do.

What was it like to sit on a movie that was almost done for a year, year and a half?

It felt okay. I didn’t want to tackle the problems and I wasn’t anxious to tackle them as well. I had written 15 additional pages to be shot to augment the movie that existed. It was good to get those shots once COVID had settled out.

Obviously the subject matter being the Newark riots, last year we had another summer of rage. What’s going through your head?

What was going through my head was, “God, it is still the same. I can’t believe it.” And I was surprised at how few young black people that we worked with didn’t know anything about the Newark riots.This one young woman said, “Well, you know, I went to a private school in Manhattan,” and I said, “Well, that’s the school’s fault and your parents fault that you don’t know about it.”

Just taking three steps back here. The Sopranos originally was a movie. It becomes a TV show that changes TV. Now you go back to these characters for a movie. Is there anything different about writing for a movie, in a 100 page screenplay or something versus what you were doing with each episode at this point, or are you…

My answer would be yes and no and I don’t think I like to go into it more than that. The first rule of any of these things… Or did you say rule? Anyway, the first thing about movies, and now TV, is that there are no rules. 

To go to Dickie Moltisanti for a second, that character sort of looms over the Sopranos as a kind of legendary figure who is spoken a lot about. What made you want to explore him at a feature length?

I don’t know. He was such a bad guy, bad actor. And I guess we were just interested in seeing him. We wanted to do a movie where the lead could have the warrior-ness, and complexity of Tony. . . He seemed to be a totally different guy, but would be interesting in a different way.

I think you’ve spoken about this, but one of the themes of the show is these cycles of trying to … I have the quote here somewhere … your exact words were, “Why is the world still a fucked up place, generation after generation?”

That’s what Tony said, or that’s what I said?

I think you said that in interviews.

Uh-huh.

Is that something that you were. . .

I’ve always been wondering about that. . .I don’t know that that was a rhetorical “why?” I think it was a real “why?” I don’t know. It does seem that the human race is progressing, doesn’t it?

Yes and no.

Yeah, yes and no.

The way that people talk about therapy and trauma now is something that I think The Sopranos predicted.

I do know that therapists had a huge upsurge in male clientele. They told us that. We were given an award by the American Psychoanalytic Association, and they told us that business was up.

I think The Sopranos had some part in normalizing that, or bringing it to the fore. And I also wonder, at times, if that’s why so many people have re-embraced the Sopranos, in the last year and a half, or two years.

Oh, I never thought of that. . .Because of the therapy?

Well, yeah, I think so.

That’s a good point. I never thought of that. What did I attribute it to? Well, I’d like to attribute it the fact that the show is that good.

Which I think it is. I think that’s not debatable.

But I knew it connected to their way of life, but maybe because of the theory. . .Tony said, “It’s good to get in on the ground floor, but I came too late for that.” I think there’s a general feeling around, among people under 40, that the best is over.

I’ve said that, a version of that, to my own shrink, about the magazine industry or journalism.

Yeah. It’s over.

Is that just a perpetual American trait, do you think?  

No.

No?

No. I think there were times, from what I understand, that Americans really thought they were tip-top, that they owned the world. Not owned the world, I shouldn’t say that. They had invented something new, had invented a new society. Where did I just see this in a movie? The Razor’s Edge. Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power. Those well-to-do people in Chicago really believed that it was endless, this boom, this great expression of Americanism, was going to go on and on. And the Depression hit.

Did you feel that as a child, this idea of America still being in growth mode?

Well, as a child, I was extremely aware that we won the Second World War. I was a boy, my uncle had served in New Guinea, in combat, and we had defeated the biggest evil around. I was certainly aware of that, and believed that.

I think I took a lot of the material part of it for granted. I still remember to this day, being in fifth grade. During our civics part of the class, we were being taught how municipal water is purified, and I was just fascinated by that, that that even existed. My god, they clean all the water, and there’s these big turbines. I still think about it all the time. And sewage, too, how that works. And I just thought … I knew that everybody didn’t have this, but the fact that it was in a textbook, it just represented “clean” to me, cleanliness.

And I loved the idea of water going through pipes, massive amounts of water. I used to cut holes in a wax milk carton, and run the tap down and it would come out the side, and I loved doing that. I would do it for hours.

That’s funny.

Yeah. So I knew we were clean, and I knew that there was plenty of food. Although I guess we were taught there was poverty in the world, and in the United States. But we weren’t taught that very heavily. And I also knew that things were not right.

I was always a fraidy-cat kid, and that was half of my personality. I was terrified of the atom bomb at the age of seven, eight. Getting underneath the desk, and pictures on TV of the mushroom cloud, and imminent doom for mankind.

Can you talk a little bit about Michael Gandolfini, and casting him?  Was he ever on set as a kid? He was little, right?

Yeah, he was. … As a little kid. And his father used to greet me, “Hello, Satan,” as we passed. 

I know that, towards the end of the things, towards the end of The Sopranos production, you and he had gone your 13 rounds. 

Yeah. We were tired of each other. . .Or at least I was tired of him. And I’m sure he was tired of me.

LAST SUPPER David Chase directing James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Robert Iler during the final scene of the original series.COURTESY OF HBO.

But you guys wound up working together again.

Yes we did. And he was very good, as always. And the way that came about was … I don’t know why I was on the phone with him, because we weren’t speaking, really. But I was on the phone with him about something, about the movie, about Not Fade Away. He had said, through agents and everything, “Not interested, pass.” Maybe I called him about it, I don’t know. But I was on the phone with him, he said, “So what are you going to do?” So I mentioned another actor, he said, “Oh, well, I can’t let you do that. All right. All right. I’ll do it.”

Casting Michael Gandolfini in the role, did you have any hesitancy there?

No. I looked at some tape to see if he could put one word in front of the other. But no, I had no hesitancy. I just had this sneaking suspicion and the DNA was going to be the same, or was going to prevail.

On set, did it feel the same? Obviously he’s very different.

No, it did not feel the same at all. At that time in his life, Tony was a different guy. But when he did have to be rough, you bought it. And I could really see the grownup Tony in [Michael], when I watched dailies. Sweet, earnest, curious. Yeah, I could really see it. Tony was always, for an underworld character, he was the guy who thought too much. He was more reflective than most of those people are.

In the film there’s so many characters that we’ve seen, that we were so familiar with as an audience. To have them come back here with different actors, was there a line to walk, between parody. . .

Yeah, there is.

How did you navigate that?

Really good actors. People who would bring their own thing, no matter what you said or did, but that was accurate. And I don’t think we lapsed into parody. Well, not too much. It is a very difficult line. Like Paulie is such a character that, is there a straight rendition? You know what I mean?

For you as a writer, going back and doing the pre-stories for some of these people, there’s also a line to walk between things that might be … I guess the term of art is “fan service.” Was that something that you were thinking about?

To a certain extent. If it was fun for us, we did it. If it wasn’t, we didn’t do it.

You have read some of the fan stuff on the internet.

Yeah. Not a lot. . . It’s better than writing, you know?

I 100% know.

You’re there with the computer. What can I look up? I wonder what they say about The Sopranos.

You would do TV again if the right opportunity arrives?

Nowadays there’s limited series. I would do that. Features are still my first love. I don’t know, is there a feature business? Do movies really exist?

It’s interesting to hear that you still hold the feature in this regard. To a lot of people, you sort of climbed the mountaintop with the Sopranos in the first place.

I love them. I’m extremely lucky. But then you go and see a movie, like a Parasite, and go “Oh yeah. Okay.” But that’s a completely different culture from ours. There’s not a lot of room [in the U.S.] for stories about people.

It seems to almost exclusively exist on TV, which is something that I think you guys obviously helped bring about in an enormous way. So much of what the first seasons, as I understand about the show, was about you sort of pushing back on all these network conventions that you had had for 30 years.

Always. The whole thing.

The issue that this is going to be in, one of the themes is the shifting of the culture around the Millennium. I’m just curious, once you guys became that phenomenon, what was that like? Between season one and two, filming and sitting down to write it?

It was wonderful, of course. The main reason was, the more that happened, the more we would get to do exactly what we want. Or I would get to do exactly what I wanted. If the show had been flailing in the ratings or something, that probably wouldn’t have been the case. Although, I don’t know that HBO at that time interfered. I think they let the filmmakers do their thing.

Do you watch much TV now?

No. We got the Criterion Channel about a year ago and that’s all we watch. Before that, all we watched was Trump news. That’s it.

Why would you do that to yourself?

That’s a good question. That’s a good question.

You had said previously that you didn’t think that the show would age well, or that you thought people wouldn’t think that the show aged well. Obviously the opposite has largely been true.

What I really thought was that a lot of their references were not in play anymore. Maybe there weren’t that many references, I don’t know. A.J. listens to outdated music. The phones are different. That’s the big one for people. TVs are different. I think the first standalone episode, other than the pilot, they were robbing DVD players.

It’s such a nostalgia piece for me, because I was a junior in high school. We didn’t have HBO, and we would have to go to Blockbuster and rent the DVDs on the installment plan. 

That was the beginning of a whole new era. I remember being in film school, I was thinking about this the other day, in the early seventies. My friends and I would say “oh man, someday movies are going to come right into your house. That’s going to be so cool.”

And it’s not. It’s the same, unfortunately.

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