The Fade Four: 'Sopranos' creator David Chase dials up '60s rock 'n' roll for debut feature

Wouldn’t you just know that the first time the creator of “The Sopranos” gets to lift his voice in feature-length song as a film director—after a 40-year warm-up in the business—it would come out as ’60s rock ’n’ roll! The HBO series was a virtual playlist of David Chase’s New Jersey youth, underscoring such foreground issues as mobster hits, maternal manipulation and sessions on the psychiatrist’s coach—so, rather logically and inevitably, his big-screen debut accommodates the spillage.

“I’ve been wanting to put ‘Pretty Ballerina’ against film for I-don’t-know-how-long. I went all the way through ‘The Sopranos’ and didn’t get a chance to use it, but now I finally found a place for it,” beams Chase, who has titled his cinematic memoir Not Fade Away after the classic Buddy Holly song that helped set The Stones to rolling.

Before the mob, there was the music as an insistent, life-shaping force. Not Fade Away fades in on Douglas (John Magaro), a late-teen not unlike the boy Chase (then: David DeCesare of Jersey burgs like Mount Vernon, Clifton and North Caldwell.)

“This kid had some things in common with me in that he’s a drummer and he wants to be a lead singer and people tell him he has a good voice and then he decides he wants to follow film—that part is accurate of me,” says Douglas’ director-author, “but in terms of his attitudes and physical attributes, I’d say, ‘No, I’m not in it.’”

“I would say that it’s semi-autobiographical. Not all the events in the movie are autobiographical, and they didn’t happen in that order, but it’s pretty true to what I was feeling at that time—and true to the feelings that I came to have about issues in life, about music, about love, about politics, about art. It all came together then.”

Just as Moira Shearer in full twirl in the late ’40s inspired a generation of young girls to strap on toe shoes and pirouette into ballet careers, the first television sighting of a gyrating Mick Jagger in the mid-’60s gave a direction and artistic identity to undefined males on the brink of adulthood. The guitar strap, as David Carr observed in The New York Times, was a good fit for the chip on the shoulder of Jersey boys who grew up on the other side of the Hudson River watching the Gotham skyline lit up with activities they weren’t involved in. Music was their way across the river.

Douglas/David opted to swim rather than sink by throwing in with a boys’ band of their pals—in Douglas’ case, Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill), known collectively as The Twylight Zones and later as TBD. The band’s double nomenclature alone puts the fictional band ahead of the factual band—by two!

“We never did have a name—we could never settle on one,” admits Chase. “We never played for anyone. We never got out of that basement. We were just always there, practicing and dreaming, getting ready for Our Big Day. It never came. My whole goal in writing this was not to do a biopic about a group that made it but do a story about a group that didn’t make it. That was my story. That was my whole impetus.”

Success in the music biz opens up its own can of clichés, usually about how one or more of the boys in the band fall victim from too strong a mix of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. At least here, the boys barely out of the basement are allowed to get to first base. Getting the girls, historically, has been the number-one reason for going into rock ’n’ roll. Douglas, suddenly and substantially, catches the eye, in his Dylanesque disguise, of the rich girl who previously gave him the air, Grace (Bella Heathcote).

A motorcycle mishap puts the band plans permanently on hold, and Douglas scouts around for another future. Seeing that his new girlfriend is headed west to college, he opts to give film school a whirl, having latently loved the medium all along.

Chase hung the same sharp right turn into film but stayed on the East Coast to do it. “I loved movies ever since I was a kid. I loved acting them out and playing them. I thought of being a movie actor for a while, but once I started film school, I got really interested in the technical aspects of it. I used to love to figure that stuff out or read the directions and get that machine to work. I loved the technicality of filmmaking.”

That was 40 years ago, and this is now. Why did it take so long for him to turn movie director? “I tried, I tried,” Chase insists. “I wrote a lot of feature scripts. They couldn’t sell it, or, if it did sell, then they couldn’t get put together or they couldn’t cast it. Just nothing ever happened. Not a one made it through. This is the first feature film I’ve ever done. I’ve directed TV, but I’ve never even produced a feature film before.”

What did the trick for him was, in two words, Brad Grey, his “Sopranos” producing partner. “After the series was over, Brad became the head of Paramount, and he said that he wanted to make his first movie with me. That’s exactly how it happened.”

The most familiar face in the film—Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini—oddly didn’t enter Chase’s consciousness until late in the screenwriting. “I didn’t consider him at first, to be honest with you. I wrote the whole script, and I wasn’t liking the way it was turning out. Then, the idea came of using Jim Gandolfini, and as soon as I pictured him in the role, the whole thing came together. I don’t just mean his scenes. The whole thing came together. The whole tone of the movie took shape for me.”

As you might suspect from Gandolfini’s gruff, combative, non-communicative persona, he’s not the sort of dad who warmly embraces the notion of a rock-star offspring, and he makes his feelings thunderously clear—but he gives the film its most poignant moment, a father-son dinner where (cancer-stricken like Chase’s own father) he struggles to reach, in his parsimonious fashion, a common ground.

His wife, played constantly in the upper register of hysteria by Molly Price, also opposes their son’s chosen profession but compounds the problem by imagining the worst-case scenario. “She was kinda like my mother—as was Livia [Nancy Marchand of Soprano family infamy],” admits a pretty candid Chase, “but this will be the last time I will do that particular kind of character—this carping, endlessly negative shadow in the room. I’ve done it twice now, so I think I’ll give it a rest.”

The boys in the basement were a bugger to cast because of the exacting expertise of the film’s music supervisor, Steven Van Zandt, who interrupted his job as guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band to serve as consigliere to the Soprano crime family. “Steve and I both wanted to have singers play the roles—singers we would teach to act—but it didn’t work out that way,” Chase admits. “We read a lot of musicians—quite a few musicians—and you didn’t feel them acting. They just didn’t have the acting depth that would take them through the whole picture. The acting’s got to come first. You gotta go with the actor before anything else. Then comes the new problem of getting the actor musically up to speed.”

The band that emerged—for auditions only—consisted of the nerdy, depressed student in Liberal Arts (Magaro), “Boardwalk Empire”’s Richard Harrow and the soon-to-be-seen Jack Kerouac in Kill Your Darlings (Huston, representing the next generation in the famed film dynasty), and the award-nominated elder brother in off-Broadway’s Tribes (Brill). Chase had not seen any of their previous performances when he picked them for the film.

He must have picked well, because the film was tapped to be the Centerpiece Gala selection for the 50th New York Film Festival in October—a profound distinction for a product of the Jersey burgs: “It was a tremendous honor and a huge trip. I couldn’t believe it. I come from across the Hudson River, and I’ve heard all about the festival. You read the Sunday Times, and it looks so elevated and illustrious and filled with interesting, sophisticated work. To be there at that festival with so many great movies that they viewed—it just blew me away. I was really, truly excited.”

All that, and Chase still managed to get in the soundtrack of his youth—with no small thanks to Van Zandt’s string-pulling skills. “Not only is he a music consigliere and a partner and a teacher, but, from a business sense, he led us into relationships where the licensing of music otherwise might not have been done at all.”

The film’s CD starts with “The British Invasion” of the U.S. in 1964 and includes 24 tracks, featuring the likes of The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Animals, et al.

“Some songs were harder than others, but, by and large, they were all fairly attainable once we had The Stones and The Beatles. We made a deal with each of them for four songs. We told them we would not use any of the big songs because I really wasn’t interested in the big songs. I wanted to use the more reticent songs, so we were able to come up with a favored-nations situation where nobody got paid anymore than anybody else. We paid the same for each of the songs we used.”

And how does Chase want the audience to receive this film, which is pretty close to the story of his life? “I guess I want them to feel that they didn’t know where it was going, that it was full of surprises. I would want that, and I would want them to feel what a great miracle rock ’n’ roll is—what a great miracle all music is. It gets us a bit closer to the divine. For people who aren’t religious, you sort of sense some other powers if you’re involved with that music, either playing it or really listening to it.”

In its final stretch—when Douglas switches coasts—Not Fade Away does fade away into a kind of golden silence. Dispensing with the weight of words, Chase lets the music of his times take over, underscoring the disconnect he feels as a stranger in the strange land of Hollywood. It has the effect of an emotional fadeout, which is pretty much what Chase had in mind: “I wanted the film to go to another level.”

“I was more anxious to do that part of the film than any of the other parts,” he confesses. “We went to California and took four or five days. Sunset Boulevard—we shot it on Sunset, but we had to completely alter it visually because it doesn’t look like that anymore. We took the Cinerama Dome Theatre and moved it two blocks up the street from where it is. And Wallach’s Music City doesn’t exist anymore. All of that had to be manufactured for the film. I thought the digital people did a good job.”

Chase hasn’t any idea where his second feature film is coming from yet, but he does have a project that will keep him in Hollywood—and silent: “I have an HBO miniseries that I’m working on, tentatively called Ribbon of Dreams. It’s about the early silent-film days. Early Hollywood has a great deal of attraction for me. I just find the stories in Hollywood fantastic, and Hollywood as a creature is amazing. As a culture, as a city, there’s no place else like it—and that’s interesting for me, but my impetus for wanting to do this grew out of all the problems that I had as a director learning how to direct, how to use the camera, how to place the camera and not screw things up—screen direction and continuity and all those things. I wanted to do a story where you saw people discovering the close-up and elapsing time.”