For his first project after “The Sopranos,” David Chase could have aimed for the moon. Instead, he chose to stay in New Jersey.
Coming off the seven-year run of one of the most celebrated shows in television history, Chase thought he might like to write a semi-autobiographical script about a group of guys in 1960s suburban Jersey who form a rock ’n’ and roll band. He turned to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band-mate Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos,” for advice.
“Steven said, ‘No. Write something else.’ I wanted to do a psychological thriller but I didn’t have an idea that I was happy with. This one was next on the list,” says Chase in a Boston interview. “I enjoyed working with the music on “The Sopranos”; it was my favorite part of the show. I kept pushing and finally Steven said he’d look at it.” Van Zandt ended up serving as producer and music supervisor on “Not Fade Away,” a coming-of-age movie that marks Chase’s feature filmmaking debut at 67.
If a small, period film seems an odd career move, it also makes sense. How can you follow “The Sopranos”?
“Here he was coming off one of the most successful series ever. I told him, ‘You can do anything. Do something big. You can always do your personal film later,’ ” says Van Zandt. “How many opportunities do you have to do something massive? But he wasn’t interested. He was right; sometimes the personal details end up being universal.”
The guitarist calls “Not Fade Away” “extraordinarily accurate” in its re-creation of a time when seeing British bands on TV inspired a generation of young guys to live the rock ’n’ and roll dream. “It’s my story and that of everyone I know,” says Van Zandt. “The civil rights movement was happening, cities were burning down, there was the war and assassinations. But for us it was, ‘What are the chords to the new Rolling Stones single?’ It sounds crazy now, but that’s how we were. Only David could capture that.”
Chase — David DeCesare while growing up in north Jersey — played drums and bass in a nameless garage band as a teenager. “We leaned more toward the Byrds, Dylan. The Rolling Stones influenced our wardrobe, style, and attitude. The Beatles were difficult, musically. The harmonies were hard, the chord patterns unusual. You could never hope to get there. But with the Stones, you thought you might be able to execute that.”
He recalls heading into New York’s Greenwich Village with friends to take in the exploding music scene at bars like Night Owl, the Dugout, and Kettle of Fish. “We were at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. I saw Ray Charles in West Orange, [N.J.]. We saw stuff down the shore in Asbury Park like [the band] Moby Grape.” Chase’s band never broke out of the basement, but it remained a pivotal reference in his life.
“Not Fade Away” (named for the 1957 Buddy Holly song later revived by the Stones) spans the era between 1964 and 1968. Douglas (John Magaro), a teenager from an Italian family in the Jersey suburbs, sees the Rolling Stones on “Hollywood Palace” and is inspired to pick up drumsticks and form a band. He adopts a wardrobe of tight jeans, black boots, and a swagger, and battles with his blue-collar father (James Gandolfini) over his sartorial and musical tastes. Father and son are pulled apart by the burgeoning youth culture represented by rock ’n’ roll.
“I wanted the film to be about nobodies. I didn’t want to do the Doors or Ray Charles or ‘Backbeat.’ I wanted to do it about people who never became anything,” says Chase, who, though silver-haired, still sports jeans — albeit not tight ones — and black boots. His nascent rock career was over by the time he left for California and film school at 22. Before creating “The Sopranos,” Chase worked for decades as a writer for TV shows ranging from “The Rockford Files” to “Northern Exposure.” He’s currently developing the mini-series “A Ribbon of Dreams,” about silent film pioneers, for HBO.
Van Zandt, 62, a Winthrop native who was 7 when his family moved to New Jersey, says he “begged” Chase to hire musicians who could act. But actors with decent singing voices were cast in the end, with Van Zandt charged with teaching them how to play instruments well enough to look realistic onscreen.
If “The Sopranos” plumbed the Oedipal relationship between Gandolfini’s Tony and his mother, Livia, “Not Fade Away” tackles the tensions between a hard-working father and his rebellious, often arrogant son. This part of the film is its most autobiographical, says Chase. “With my father, it was like, ‘We’ve worked so hard to assimilate, why send us back to shabby overcoats?’ Before the postwar generation, the baby boom generation, parents and kids listened to the same music. There was no separate youth culture; it was monolithic, which we seem to be going back to. People find it hard to believe how poorly the generations got along. You had nothing to say to your parents and they had nothing to say to you. . . . If you were OK, you weren’t out robbing banks or blowing up university buildings. You had no use for what they had to tell you.”
He admits his script was going nowhere until he turned to his old pal Gandolfini for inspiration. “I hadn’t originally thought of him. I’d written a complete draft but I was going to quit. Then I got the idea of Jimmy as the father and the whole thing, the whole story, clicked into place.” Chase says Gandolfini worried at first that they might be working together too soon after “The Sopranos.”
“He was concerned, and rightly so, that people would expect the wrong thing,” says Chase. “He’s a smart guy. But, in the end, he was just so good I couldn’t pass him by. I also felt this story — Italian, New Jersey — might be too close, but it was the idea that kept flowering for me. I have a difficult problem writing about things I don’t know.”