“It’s a comfort knowing that the work lives on,” David Chase, the writer, director and producer who created The Sopranos, told me Saturday as we sat down in front of a theater full of students at Chapman University, where I now teach, to record the first of several live episodes of Awards Chatter that I will be conducting on the Orange, California, campus. The 76-year-old, who co-wrote, with Lawrence Konner, new film The Many Saints of Newark, a Sopranos prequel, which we had just screened for the students, continued, “See, I didn’t think that Sopranos would live on at all even after doing it and even after it got all these accolades because I thought, ‘In a couple of years the references won’t work, nobody will know what we’re talking about, the phones will be different, TVs will be different.’ That part of it is true — the technology is different — but apparently what it’s about still resonates with people. So I’m just delighted to see that. To think that you’re really reaching a generation 20 years later is astounding.”
The Sopranos ran for 86 episodes spread across six seasons spanning 1999 and 2007, and is widely regarded as the greatest television show of all time. The first cable show ever nominated for, and also first to win, the best drama series Emmy, it helped to put HBO on the map and ushered in what many regard as the platinum age of television, with auteur showrunners and antihero protagonists and shorter seasons comprised of smarter episodes that could hold their own against the finest offerings of the big screen. Indeed, Vulture described The Sopranos as “the Citizen Kane of TV.” The Guardian called it “the best TV show of the century so far.” The New York Times submitted that “it just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter-century.” And the Writers Guild of America in 2013 ranked it No. 1 on its list of the 101 best-written TV series of all time.
Now, 14 years after The Sopranos infamously cut to black, Chase — a seven-time Emmy winner and the 2008 recipient of the Writers Guild of America’s highest honor for work in television — is opening up as never before about what inspired The Sopranos and The Many Saints of Newark; why, pre-Sopranos, he hated working in television; why he is now furious with WarnerMedia for its decision to release Many Saints simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max; and yes, what actually happened at the end of The Sopranos series finale, which had been one of the great mysteries in TV history.
“I had no idea it would cause that much … of an uproar,” says Chase when confirming, in a major disclosure below, the meaning behind the cut-to-black series ender. “What was annoying was how many people wanted to see Tony killed. They wanted to see him go face-down in linguini, you know? That bothered me.”
You can listen to the conversation via this audio player or read a lightly edited transcript below.
David, thank you so much for coming to Chapman. I want to begin this conversation as we do each episode: Can you please share where you were born and raised, and what your folks did for a living?
I was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in Westchester County, and I was raised in Essex County, New Jersey. My father had a hardware store and my mother was a proofreader for the telephone company, proofreading the phone book.
You were an only child, and you have described your childhood home as “unhappy.” You’ve acknowledged that your mother was the inspiration for Tony’s mother, Livia, on The Sopranos and in The Many Saints of Newark. Was your mother truly that difficult?
Did I actually say that my family was “unhappy”? Well, it was an unhappy home, but at the same time, since I did the show, I would say [to people that] I had a happy childhood, so …
Your mother died before the show. Could you have done the show if she were still alive?
It wouldn’t have gone over well?
No. I’ve always felt a little bit of guilt about that, but you know, you’re a writer. What are you supposed to do?
Many people assume that you grew up around the Mafia. Was that the case?
No, although I had one cousin by marriage who was “connected,” as we say. There were kids in my school whose parents were connected. And I don’t know, if you live around there, you just can’t escape it, somehow.
I’ve got to mention a few names. Joseph Fusco, your paternal grandfather. Did he once acknowledge to you that he had done something violent in his past?
I don’t believe that he was connected to the Mafia. But he had an apple farm, and I was sent up there for a couple of weeks in the summer, and we used to sit out on the porch at night after dinner, which he made. And he told me one night that he had murdered a guy in Buffalo, but “it didn’t matter because the guy was from Rome.” Wasn’t a Paisan. But I was just at a reunion with my cousin, and she said, “No, it was at his bar” — which he did have a bar, in Pittsburgh — “where he killed a guy.” So I don’t know.
Who was Teresa Melfi?
That was my father’s mother.
Now, would that have had anything to do with the name of the therapist in The Sopranos?
Yes, it did. Completely. My grandmother — my father’s mother — was a really sweet woman. I was very fond of her.
Your father’s business partner had a kid who you knew, who was your age, I believe.
And he had a cousin. Who was that?
This is where the Soprano name came from?
Right, yeah. But I don’t know that Toby was connected. He might have been, I don’t know. He had a Cadillac.
So your immediate family was not connected, but you had an interest in the Mafia from an early age. What do you think sparked that?
Well, my father and I used to watch a show called The Untouchables every Thursday night. It was with Robert Stack, and every week he would face off against the mob in Chicago, during Prohibition, and then sometimes in New York. Anyway, his guys, the Fed crew, was not the least bit interesting. I only watched it for the mobsters because they had the really great roles, very theatrical and active and murderous.
Now another big influence on you was one of the great classic crime-doesn’t-pay movies, 1931’s The Public Enemy, right?
I saw that long before The Untouchables. They used to have a thing in the New York metropolitan area called Million Dollar Movie, and they played the same movie for five days, right in a row, at 8 o’clock. And if you were interested in film, which I didn’t realize I was, it was great, because you could watch the same movie, and if you’d miss something, you could go back and you could study it, in a way. It was fantastic. And I saw that movie there. I was probably 8 or 9.
Now, obviously, you are not unfamiliar with people obsessing over the ending of something. A lot of people also were very captivated by the ending of that movie, including you, right?
Oh, it’s fantastic. I mean, it scared the shit out of me. [James] Cagney played a guy named Tommy Powers who becomes a gangster, but he is very close to his mother, and his brother is like the hero of the family. And Tommy goes through a lot of things. There’s also a famous scene in that movie where he’s got a girlfriend, and they are eating breakfast in this high-flying hotel, and she says, “I wish” something that she wants. And he says, “I wish you was a wishing well so I could tie a bucket to you and sink you,” which makes no sense. But then she says something and he picks up her grapefruit and smashes it into her face. It’s, strangely enough, one of the most famous scenes in movies. But the ending, yeah: Tommy gets shot and he is in the hospital and he is bandaged like a mummy; you can see his face, but the rest of him is all bandaged. His mother and brother go home — they’ve been told Tom will be coming home in three days. His mother is fluffing up his pillows for him, singing along with a record, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” she’s all happy, a few pillow feathers are going around. His brother’s downstairs. There’s a knock on the door, and the brother opens it, and there’s a low shot of the door from the floor, as the door opens, and he’s standing there, Tommy, all wrapped in these bandages and a blanket. But then he falls forward into the lens — he’s dead. Oh, it was really a shock. And his mother is still singing up there.
It was to you both haunting and intriguing, right?
Oh, yeah, very much so. I mean, I also liked horror movies, and it was almost like a horror movie, really, especially the way he was bundled up.
Yeah, they were expecting good news, and then they get that.
So interestingly though, for somebody who was infatuated with crime movies and TV, you were not a “tough guy” as a kid, right?
As a little kid I had been easy to scare, and my older cousins used to do it to me all the time. Later, I was not a tough guy, but, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to say that I was a punk. The guys that I hung around with were not nice guys, and I guess I always fancied myself a tough guy, but I wasn’t really.
Eventually, you go off to college, starting with a couple of years at Wake Forest, and then transferring to NYU, from which you graduated in ’68. And then you got your MFA from Stanford University’s film school in ’71. When along the line did you first realize that, A) You are a talented writer and, B) You should be seeing a therapist?
Up until the time I was 13 or 14, if I ever thought about it, I thought movies came out of a big factory in Hollywood, like cars came out in Detroit. I didn’t ask who made it or who did it, or how they did it. When I first started in school, what I wanted to be was a cinematographer — but I have red and green color blindness, so I thought, “Well, you can’t do that job.” And I also thought, “If you ever have to shoot something on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’re not going to be able to do it because you’re scared of heights.” So I didn’t become a cinematographer — although I was the cinematographer of somebody’s thesis film. Then I just started making little dramas or comedies. And I stuck with that, and that’s what my thesis film was at Stanford. There were maybe 30 of us in the first-year class. I really enjoyed it there. I made a film and then I left for Hollywood.
We should note that you also got married at quite a young age. And, from what I’ve read, it was after your then quite new wife had something tragic happen in her family that you first entered therapy.
Yeah. When we first got to Hollywood, I knew that I needed some kind of help. UCLA had some kind of a program where you talk to a medical student, which I did for 10 weeks, and then I didn’t do anything. Then my wife’s sister died, and we went home for the funeral, and all I was concerned about was not my wife’s situation or how she was feeling — I didn’t pay enough attention to that — I was consumed with my parents and how they were feeling. And it was on the plane ride back from that I said, “Yeah, you need therapy.” And that’s when I actually started.
You mentioned moving out to L.A. to try to get into the business. You said once, “I never wanted to work in television. I did it for the money. I’ve always wanted to be working in movies and I never could make that jump.” So how did you get that start on TV? And, for a generation of people who grew up with The Sopranos and the shows that came as a result of it, can you just set the scene of what TV looked like in those days when you were trying to avoid it?
I enjoyed it when I was a kid, and there were one or two great shows — The Twilight Zone was fantastic. The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. The Stones, all those guys were on Sunday nights. It was fun in that way. But as far as drama and comedy went, it was so watered down. There was a guy named Herb Schlosser who was the head of NBC, and he came up with this theory called “LOP,” which meant Least Offensive Programming. So there was nothing in it. It was really just pallid soup. And I hated it.
It was just a way to sell commercials …
Yeah. That’s exactly right. It was all about the commercials. And the commercials were, cinematically, more interesting than the shows.
And there were just three networks, so it wasn’t like you had anywhere else to go …
No. And they each had a department called Broadcast Standards, which went over every script and made you take out things that they consider offensive. Nobody could belch. A man and a woman couldn’t be in the same bed.
It was, as I recall, a big deal just to show a navel in I Dream of Jeannie …
Yeah. Stuff exactly like that.
So this was the climate that you were coming into as a young guy starting out in TV, even though your ultimate dream was to find a way to film, right?
Yeah. As much as I hated television and hated working at it, I was really lucky because I worked with, and for, some really talented people. We were blocked from doing what we really wanted to do, but I can’t remember working for a hack — well, one.
I wrote a screenplay at Stanford and my writing teacher sent it to a guy named Roy Huggins, who was the creator and producer of Maverick, which starred James Garner; Run for Your Life, about a guy outrunning a fatal cancer diagnosis; and The Rockford Files. Somehow or other, I got to write on another show that guy was producing, The Bold Ones — I got to write one hour of it because they read the screenplay, which had nothing to do with the kind of things they were doing — and it took me maybe four months to write this hour episode. Nobody said, “Hey, where’s the show?!” I finally turned it in, and I got all excited; the family was all alerted; and my credit came on, and it blew my mind. But lo and behold, a lot of my dialogue was gone. That’s the nature of things. I’d been rewritten. And then I didn’t work again for like three years. A friend of mine who had actually directed a movie was working for Gene Corman, who was Roger Corman’s brother, and we did a couple of scripts for Gene. But I remember I worked an entire summer for $600.
Because I had done that episode of The Bold Ones, I had to join the Writers Guild. And the Writers Guild went on strike, and I had to go on picket duty, and I was outraged because the guild had done nothing to get me work. I thought it was like the plumber’s union or something, “Anybody here good at dialogue? Get in the truck!” So I was outraged that I had to go, but it turned out to be a great time, number one, and a turning point in my life, really, because I met a guy there a little older than me who had just taken over a show called The Magician, with Bill Bixby, and he was going to do what’s called a “back nine”; there were 22 episodes in those days, 13 in the front, and then you were either canceled or you got to do the back nine. And so we did the back nine of that show, The Magician, at Paramount. And then he got to take over a show called The Night Stalker, and we worked on that; he got fired after three episodes, but I stayed on it. And after that, I went to work for a guy named Glen Larson. And then Rockford.
The Rockford Files, a drama series that ran on NBC, was one of the more memorable shows of the 1970s, with James Garner playing a detective. You, in your early 30s, joined the show in its third season and won an Emmy. And then another big turning point was when you wrote and produced an ABC TV film called Off the Minnesota Strip about a teenage prostitute who tries to reunite with her parents. You won an Emmy for that and it was sort of a turning point in the way that people looked at you in the business.
It was. But in that time, I got frightened of directing. I saw what it was, and I just kind of shied away from it. But then I finally got the break on the return of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I did like it.
And then you were the co-executive producer on two drama series created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, NBC’s I’ll Fly Away from 1991 to 1993 and CBS’s Northern Exposure from 1993 to 1995. Again, you were winning Emmys and getting acclaim, but my impression is you actually kind of hated it.
Yes, I did hate it. I’ll Fly Away I didn’t hate. That could have been a good show, but it wasn’t really given a chance; I was proud of the work we did there. I just didn’t want to be working in television. You write a script and you get these notes that you just can’t believe. Tom Fontana, who’s another writer like myself, said, “The difference between network and HBO is like the difference between a week in Dallas and a week in Laos,” or something like that. And it really was true.
Before The Sopranos, which really put HBO on the map, TV was really looked down at as a lesser art …
Oh, TV wasn’t considered an art whatsoever. It was totally looked down on, and you could not make the break from TV to movies. I was at Universal Studios. I had a seven-year deal. Universal makes movies. And at first I was talked out of it. I said, “I don’t want to do TV. I want to work on movies.” And this guy Frank Price, who was the head of the whole thing, said, “You don’t want to do that.” He said, “Believe me, I’ve made movies. It’s nothing but aggravation.” I knew it was all bullshit. They wouldn’t let me cross over. You couldn’t do it.
And just to emphasize the idea of TV being the less-respected medium, you’ve said that pre-Sopranos, somebody sought out an interview with you just twice — essentially that there was no interest in who the auteur was behind a TV show.
Yeah, no interest.
So through all that period of frustration — success, but frustration — in TV, you were still writing film scripts, but getting nowhere.
I was writing film scripts, but I was actually directing more, too.
And come 1995, you sign a development deal with the management company Brillstein-Grey, and it was they who were the first to say, “Hey, maybe a show about the Mafia?”
Yeah. I was leaving — they were taking me up to the elevators — and this guy, Lloyd Braun was his name, said, “Listen.” He had been my lawyer, and Brillstein-Grey was a really happening management company. He said, “Listen, the reason you’re here is because we think you have an earth-shaking television show inside you.” And my stomach sank because number one, no one had ever talked to me that way. But also I thought, “I don’t want to do that.” It touched something in me that he said that to me, that he felt I had that much talent. And out of that came The Sopranos. And he was proved right, I guess.
It was basically, “Let’s do The Godfather for TV”?
Yeah, “Let’s do a Godfather for television.” And I said, “I don’t want to do that.” I thought, “There already is a Godfather. Why are we going to do that, guys with long coats and hats?” Now, I had conceived of a feature about a mobster and his problematic mother, and I had pitched it to my new agents, and they said, “Mob comedies? They’re dead.” So I let it go. And then when this came up, I thought, “I wonder if that would work on TV.”
Now, did it ever cross your mind, before or after the Brillstein-Grey conversation, that it could be interesting just to do a show about a TV producer and his problematic mother? More directly autobiographical?
Oh, yeah. I had gotten to that stage. I used to tell stories about my mother and I would get laughter beyond belief, and I dined off of that for years. And my wife had said early on, “You’ve got to do a show about your mother,” and I couldn’t see it. And then somebody else said it to me later, “You’ve got to do a show about your mother, about a TV producer and his mother.” And I thought, “Who’s going to watch that?” And then I was thinking about it and I thought, “Well, man, maybe if it was a tough guy with this mother that was weakening him …,” and that’s how it came to be.
This was considered by several networks, but particularly Fox …
Yeah. I wrote the original pilot for Fox.
And what happened?
I didn’t hear from them for a long time. And then I got a phone call from a young executive. She was a low man on the totem pole. And she said, “Well, this is the time we’re going to make our decisions of what we’re going to produce.” And I said, “Yeah? When are we going to get started?” And she said, “Well, we’re not sure now that we want to make a Mafia show, but I just wanted to tell you that as a human being, I read your script, and I thought it was really good.” And I said, “So when do we get started?” And she said, “Well, I don’t think it’s going to happen.” And it didn’t. But that blew my mind — “as a human being.”
Part of the issue, though, you’ve said in hindsight, was that because you’d spent all these years being conditioned to what would and wouldn’t work with network television, you pulled some punches with that pilot, right?
In that pilot, there were no murders. It was a mob show, but nobody got killed. And after they turned it down, it took me a while, maybe a couple of months, before I thought, “Wait a minute, it was a mob show, but they didn’t get what they were expecting.” So I added a murder and Brad Grey took it to HBO.
Now, you weren’t even that heartbroken about Fox passing, or about the possibility of HBO passing, because to you the ultimate thing that could happen with this would have been to make it into a movie, right?
I really felt this was the first time I was going to direct something that meant anything. And so I did direct it. They questioned me about that, and they finally said OK. And I really, really worked hard, and the pilot was good and the show was good. They, of course, being in the television business, decided they had to test it. And they tested it in four markets, and that took months. And while that was happening I thought, “Well, good, maybe they’ll turn it down. And I’ll go to them — they said they like it — and I’ll go get another $500,000 from them, shoot another 30 or 35 minutes, turn it into a movie and take it to Cannes. That was the ultimate. But that didn’t happen. And I was very disappointed when that didn’t happen. “Damn it, they picked up the show, and now I have to do this fucking thing!” But I got into it right away.
Getting your show picked up by HBO at that time didn’t mean what it means today. At that time, HBO was movies and boxing, right? But let’s talk about how the principal cast came together for the HBO pilot, which I assume was a different cast than the one that would’ve been there for Fox …
I mean, Tony would’ve been Frankie Avalon. He would have to be helping the government fight terrorism in his spare time, by night. What’s strange is that that did sort of happen toward the end, but it wasn’t like that.
It was on your own terms.
Yes, and I didn’t even realize it until later on.
So with the HBO pilot, you were getting a second shot at doing this show for TV, and you’ve got to cast the main guy, Tony Soprano. Stevie Van Zandt from E Street Band was somebody you had on your radar. You were apparently considering Michael Rispoli. And then you find James Gandolfini, who at that point was known, if at all, for True Romance and Get Shorty?
Well, I was seriously considering Stevie. And I was seriously considering Jim. Michael? See, at a network, if you said, “I want Jim Gandolfini,” they would’ve said, “No, you have to bring in five people here for us to look at.” So I brought these other guys besides Jim and Stevie. With Stevie they just said, “Come on, no, this is millions of dollars; the guy’s never acted.” And we all could see that it was Jim.
But didn’t he initially come in for an audition that went off the rails?
He came in for his audition and he was doing the scene and he stopped in the middle and said, “Ah, I’m not doing this good. I’m leaving.” And he left. What we had seen was really good, and he was supposed to come back on Friday, but Friday came and — I swear this is what happened, and yet I can’t believe he would’ve done this — I got word that his mother had died and he couldn’t come. What I found out later is his mother had been dead for seven or eight years. But we kept pursuing it and kept pursuing it. I had come back to L.A., and he came to my house and auditioned in the garage, and I taped it and he was great. I showed them the tape. And that was that.
Edie Falco came over from Oz. A lot of people came from Goodfellas — Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico and Vincent Pastore. That was just because you loved that movie?
I did love that movie, but that’s not the reason why. For example, if you had told me this guy Tony Sirico was in Goodfellas, I would go, “Really?” I knew Lorraine was in it. But that was the pool of Italian American talent who might make the cut at that time in New York. And I insisted that everybody be Italian American.
It seems like the toughest role to cast might well have been your mother …
Livia. She was very difficult. We must have seen a hundred Italian American actresses. When I was thinking of doing it as a movie, I kept thinking about [Robert] De Niro and Anne Bancroft. But when we were casting the pilot, a hundred women came in and did a crazy Italian mama. And then Nancy Marchand, who was not Italian American and had made a career for herself playing snooty rich women, she came in and she just did it. I sat there and my mother’s ghost was in the room. It was really strange. She just had it nailed.
So you have your core group. The pilot eventually gets picked up. And the first episode drops on Jan. 10, 1999. How early on did you realize you guys were onto something?
Immediately. Before the premiere, I got a phone call from a woman at HBO and she said, “I want to talk to you about the premiere party.” HBO always had a party when they were launching a show. And she said, “We have a party where the crew comes and some family and friends and we have it at” — she named some place — and I said, “Oh, good.” She said, “But you’re not going to have that kind of party.” She said, “We have a second tier of party, which is a big party, and we spend a lot of money. And they’ve decided that’s what you’re going to have.” So I thought, “Well, this sounds good!” And then the reviews came out the day that it aired and there was nothing but raves. This had never happened before to me. One guy didn’t like it.
Should we name and shame?
Well, I don’t know. He was from Miami. But some other critic said that he’s in an oil drum somewhere in Miami Bay.
Well, that was knowing that it was clicking with the public. When did you feel that your writing really kicked into high drive? I heard it was maybe that fifth episode of the first season, which to this day is discussed as one of the great ones, “College.”
It’s a good one. But I mean, the pilot also. It brought stuff out in me. By the time we got to the fifth episode, the first time Tony killed somebody, I got a call from Chris Albrecht, who ran HBO, screaming about, “How could you do this?! You’ve created one of the most dynamic characters of the past 20 years, and you’re just going to ruin him. You’re going to kill him right now because he kills that guy!” And I said, “Well, then don’t air it.” And he went nuts. I wasn’t trying to be a smartass. And I said “Chris, he’s a captain of a crew, and he comes upon a guy who was a rat. If he doesn’t kill that guy, the show’s over.” And he said, “OK, OK, OK.” But he made me make some small little side thing, that the rat was also selling drugs to kids in high school.
Because this was how foreign the idea was that your main protagonist could be …
A murderer. And compared to what I was used to, I made that compromise because I thought, “We’ve got something here, and that’s not such a big deal. And maybe he would be selling drugs. I don’t know.” So I said, “Yeah.” And that was the only time they ever asked me not to do something.
There have been some great TV writers rooms — Your Show of Shows, which had Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon; Mary Tyler Moore; and the list goes on. You guys, at one time or another, had Terrence Winter, who would go on to do Boardwalk Empire; Matthew Weiner, who would go on to do Mad Men; Tim Van Patten, who would go on to direct Boardwalk and Game of Thrones; and the list goes on. Can you talk about how you chose writers and how things worked in the room?
Two of the writers I knew from prior work, Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, and they really liked the script and they said all the right things; I could tell they understood it. The other people? You just read scripts, agents send in scripts and you read them, and the ones that you like, you meet with the person, and if you hit it off you bring them on. But I did something which I thought was smart, actually: I said, “We could hire them, but I would like to have an option after episode five to get rid of them if it wasn’t working out.” And HBO said, “OK,” and all those writers agreed to that. So we got rid of like five people.
But basically, you guys would gather — I’ve heard you had a bad back or something, so you’d lie down on a couch — and just have what you called “bullshit sessions,” right?
I don’t know what it’s like right now in writers rooms. I hear a lot of stuff. But back then, it was basically up to me to think of all the stories — even though that’s what they were there for, I would reject almost everything they said, because I had this vision in my head, and the visions that they had were either from Mafia movies or television. I kept rejecting everything they wanted to do, and we were all sitting around a table, and after a while they’d start talking about something that was related to it, but wasn’t really it. And I would just go lie down on a couch and try to think while they were all talking, and then something would hit and I’d get up and I’d write it on the board. And I kind of felt like it was jazz at that time. I’d write one, two, three, four, five — really quickly. So scene one, scene two, three, four. And it was really just riffing, you know?
And then you would delegate an episode to a specific writer? I mean you wrote a lot of them yourself, but for others it was just a feeling of who should do it?
Yeah. Just a feeling.
And just to be clear — because there are a lot of shows now where there’s improv — that did not happen on The Sopranos, right?
No. Once we started shooting, there was no change of dialogue — not even one word was allowed. I mean, it’s amazing now to think that Gandolfini put up with that, but he did. He complained a lot. Oh, he bitched like crazy about everything, but if I said no, he would always fold and do what I asked.
A lot of these episodes feel like stand-alone movies …
Oh, you couldn’t have said anything better. (Laughs.)
I mean, “Pine Barrens” or any number of them …
I’m so sick of hearing about “Pine Barrens.” (Laughs.)
Well, another thing that was different about The Sopranos was that not every episode connected directly to something that would come in the next episode. You dealt with surrealism and all sorts of things. And I think it was just consistent with treating the audience with more respect than most of TV had done up to that point. I mean, not everything needed to be spelled out for people. Not everything needed to be neatly resolved. You once said there was only one rule on the show in terms of camera work …
During the therapy scenes, the camera was not allowed to move. We wouldn’t do any dolly push-ins on somebody’s face as they’re really getting into what they really mean. I said, “No, that’s just not the way therapy is. You’re not told when it’s getting important. You’re flailing your way through it.” And so no dolly-ins. I also had a rule about no overhead shots, but that was a different thing. That was just about money.
So as the show progressed and became a phenomenon. Gandolfini, as will often happen with the leads on successful shows, became a little temperamental or demanding …
It was never “star” issues. When I worked on Northern Exposure, there were two stars — they can go nameless — and when I first took over and I went up to Seattle, there was a first assistant out there with a big, long tape measure, and he was measuring the distance from each of their trailers to the door, because if one was longer than the other, there would be a problem. And that’s the kind of stuff a lot of people are into, just star tripping.
Another new concept for TV with The Sopranos was taking a little bit of a longer-than-usual hiatus between seasons, right? You benefited from that?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, all of us were from network television where you did 22 episodes; that’s really tiresome in a season. Now we were only doing 13, but that also meant that our pay scale — the way we had been living — was cut in half. And so to stick with that show, you had to really love it.
The 2018 book The Sopranos Sessions was written by guys who wrote, at the time of the show, for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the paper Tony always read, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall. They interviewed you and asked you to talk about the June 10, 2007, series finale with of course, “Don’t Stop Believin’” and the famous cut to black. You said, “Well, I had that death scene in mind for years before.” A) Do you remember specifically when the ending first came to you? And, B) Was that a slip of the tongue?
Right. Was it?
I’m asking you.
Because the scene I had in my mind was not that scene. Nor did I think of cutting to black. I had a scene in which Tony comes back from a meeting in New York in his car. At the beginning of every show, he came from New York into New Jersey, and the last scene could be him coming from New Jersey back into New York for a meeting at which he was going to be killed.
And when did the alternative ending first occur to you? I’ve spoken with showrunners who said, “I knew at the beginning exactly how my show was going to end.” Or by season three or whatever. It sounds like when you were writing, you liked to stay six scripts ahead of where you were in the action.
Yeah. But I think I had this notion — I was driving on Ocean Park Boulevard near the airport and I saw a little restaurant. It was kind of like a shack that served breakfast. And for some reason I thought, “Tony should get it in a place like that.” Why? I don’t know. That was, like, two years before.
What did you make of the reaction to the finale? The whole episode was great, but people sort of fixated on …
Yeah, nobody said anything about the episode. No, it was all about the ending.
And was that annoying?
I had no idea it would cause that much — I mean, I forget what was going on in Iraq or someplace; London had been bombed! Nobody was talking about that; they were talking about The Sopranos. It was kind of incredible to me. But I had no idea it would be that much of an uproar. And was it annoying? What was annoying was how many people wanted to see Tony killed. That bothered me.
They wanted to see it. They wanted confirmation.
They wanted to know that Tony was killed. They wanted to see him go face-down in linguini, you know? And I just thought, “God, you watched this guy for seven years and I know he’s a criminal. But don’t tell me you don’t love him in some way, don’t tell me you’re not on his side in some way. And now you want to see him killed? You want justice done? You’re a criminal after watching this shit for seven years.” That bothered me, yeah.
The Sopranos goes off in 2007. Five years later comes a beautiful little movie, Not Fade Away, about a young Italian American growing up in 1960s New Jersey with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll career and a skeptical father. That logline might also describe one David Chase, no?
Yeah, that’s true. The Beatles and The Stones happened and almost every kid bought a guitar — every boy. And I had friends who had a rock ‘n’ roll band for a long time before the British invasion, but the British invasion was the first time we saw a band not playing instrumentals, not playing “Riptide” and stuff like that, but singing. And anybody who was interested in music and in rock ‘n’ roll got into that. And so we formed a band that never went anywhere because of shortsightedness and scrapping. And so I wanted to do that movie.
And the title, just for the record, comes from?
A Buddy Holly song called “Not Fade Away,” which was The Rolling Stones’ first hit in America.
Now the father in this film is played by Gandolfini. Correct me if any of this is wrong, but at the end of The Sopranos you guys had not been on the best of terms, and yet when push came to shove about casting your feature directorial debut, he was not going to let somebody else play that part …
Yeah. We really weren’t talking — I mean, not like I refused to talk to him, but there was coldness between us. He had done something that I thought was really rude and mean to somebody else. But he was up for the role of the father in that movie — I guess the casting people went to him and he said, “No, no way, I’m not going to do it” — which came back to us. Then I was on the phone with him about something else and he says, “How you doing? And how’s your movie come along?” And I said, “Well, I think I found the guy who’s going to play the father.” He said, “Who?” And I named the actor, and he said, “No, I can’t let you do that. I’ll be in the movie.”
And the movie came out one year prior to his tragic passing …
So it’s nice that you ended on good terms.
Well, we didn’t exactly. Something happened after that. But he may not have known it, so …
I was there on the night that the movie premiered at the New York Film Festival, and there was a party afterward at Columbus Circle, and it was a very celebratory occasion — but it sounds like your experience with that movie was all downhill from there.
From there, it was. I mean, that night was good. That was a great night — we were the centerpiece of the festival. And what Paramount did was they heard that we were the centerpiece of the festival — that was like, I don’t know, September 15th or something like that — and instead of continuing to promote it until Oscar season came around, like we are now, they took it, they put it on the shelf and they didn’t show it anywhere. They put no money behind marketing. And then it opened on December 21st and nobody went to see it.
What do you think that was about?
Look, if the movie was no good, I’ll take that. What can I say? But nobody even went to see it.
It’s certainly an interesting movie and you got great performances out of people. I remember thinking that, for sure, this young actress, Bella Heathcote, was going to become the biggest movie star in the world …
Everybody did. We all did. I mean, I still don’t understand it. It seemed it had to do with picking projects.
Right. There were several that year with Paramount.
So during the nine years between Not Fade Away and The Many Saints of Newark …
I can’t believe it takes this long. Five years after The Sopranos. What the hell was I doing?
You worked on a number of other things that haven’t necessarily seen the light of day yet. Can you talk about one that sounds particularly interesting, which has a Hollywood connection …
Yeah. That was a six-part thing about the history of Hollywood. It’s about two guys who meet on a set in 1912, and one’s an actor and one’s a director, and they become friends. At first, they hate each other; then they become friends. Then the actor — this is a true story that happened to Raoul Walsh — has his eye put out and he can’t be an actor anymore. He was a Latin matinee idol. So he went into directing. And a female comes between them, and she becomes an alcoholic and drug addict. And it takes them all the way to old age, really, in six hours. The last two hours was their grandchildren, like Hollywood kids, were making a movie contemporaneously. And the ghosts of the first people, the grandparents, came. They didn’t really haunt them or even interact with them, but they put some kind of mojo on it, as I recall.
I guess the big-picture lesson for people is that you can literally make the greatest show of all time — and then even so, the same network is not going to just say, “I’ll take a chance on whatever you want to do next.”
All right, this brings us to The Many Saints of Newark, which this audience has just seen. People have been on your case for more Sopranos material for the past 14 years and here we have a prequel, set between 1967 and 1971 in Newark. The angle that you arrived at was to focus on Dickie Moltisanti, the father of Christopher and Tony’s uncle who is discussed, but not seen, on The Sopranos, because he’s gone by then. You had been reluctant to revisit the Sopranos world. How were you convinced to do it? And why this angle?
Well, because the things I was doing weren’t happening, for one reason. When I was working in episodic TV, I could write really fast, but I wasn’t writing fast. It was taking me a long time to do anything. And then there was illness in the family, and my friend at that time, Lawrence Konner, said, “Come on, let’s get to work. Let’s do a Sopranos thing and get you working again.” And New Line always wanted to do it — Toby Emmerich, the boss, was always on my case about, “Let’s do a Sopranos movie!” So I said, “OK.” So then we wrote it, and I was not happy at all during the shooting, during making of it, until we added some additional scenes after COVID.
You were not happy because they were deviating from the script you guys had written?
I didn’t like the movie.
And so you think that the additional scenes that were added later made it better?
I know so. I mean, I saw the difference.
You did not direct it — you had intended to, but these health concerns arose …
But one of the big decisions you all had to make was what to do about Tony because, of course, James Gandolfini is no longer with us. Where did the idea of casting his son, Michael, as the young Tony, come from?
Well, I knew Michael when he was a little kid on the set of Sopranos, but not really well. I don’t think I ever talked to him — I may have said, “Hello.” Then, when his father died and he was 13, I had a conversation with him that day. And then, in 2018 or so, he came back from L.A. to New York to go to university, and we had lunch and I thought, “God, he’s not like his father at all. He’s a very L.A. kid, very soft.” And I thought, “Nice kid.” But then I heard he was acting — I saw him in three seconds of a movie, I forget what the name was — and he was good. He played a busboy and he was really good. We were not having any luck casting the part of young Tony, and I thought, “Well, what about Michael?” And he came in and he auditioned three times — I don’t remember any of that, but he did — and he got the role.
Having never even watched The Sopranos.
He never watched the show — his father wouldn’t let him, and then he never wanted to because it would remind him of his father.
I get it, yeah. He was excellent. And Alessandro Nivola …
He’s really, really good.
And a good theater actor, too. But you’d seen him in American Hustle and A Most Violent Year?
Yeah, that was it. And maybe other times I didn’t recognize him.
In 2021, the relationship between film and TV is totally different than it used to be because of The Sopranos. Because The Sopranos made TV a cool, sexy, appealing place, the mid-range budget film —
— is basically gone just as you, who has always wanted to be a filmmaker and make that kind of film, is getting that chance. And I guess the other thing is that, thanks to COVID-19, WarnerMedia, which owns Warner Bros. and HBO Max, has decided to release all 17 of its 2021 movies in theaters and on streaming simultaneously. What’s your take on all this?
Oh, I think it’s disgusting. And there’s all kinds of reasons for it, which you kind of can’t argue. But what they could have done was give every movie a four-week theatrical window, or a two-week window, or a one-week window, and then go on TV. But that was not their idea. So they did it with all 17 movies — like Dune right now; King Richard, this movie that’s coming up; every movie that they made. But I tried to explain to them, “Don’t do this with this movie because our IP is a TV show and now you’re going to put us back on TV at the same time we open theatrically.” I said, “If you’re sitting at home and you say, ‘Oh, look, there is a Sopranos movie! I can see it in the movie theater, or it’s going to be right here at home. Well, to go downtown to the mall, park the car — screw it, we’ll just watch it on TV! It worked on TV before.’” I think it hurt us a lot.
Because your preference would be for people to watch it on the big screen.
Oh, yeah. It’s a different experience. It’s a different viewing experience.
In our last minute or so, just a few rapid-fire questions. The Sopranos always competed at the Emmys as a drama. Do you believe it was a drama or a comedy?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I mean, I guess it was a drama. Dramatic things happened, but …
So do funny things! What do you regard as the greatest TV show of all time if we eliminate The Sopranos?
The Twilight Zone.
In October, you signed a five-year, first-look deal with WarnerMedia. I assume that means you’re itching to do other projects soon. Can you tease anything about what might be next?
Well, of course, the movie didn’t do well in theaters, but it, like, broke the machine on streaming — it was huge. So now they want me to do another series of Sopranos from the time the movie ends until the time the series begins.
How do you feel about that?
I’m not that anxious to do it.
What are the chances that still happens, even though you have some reservations?
No. I would do one more movie.
Yeah. Because I have an idea for that that I’d like to do. But I don’t think they want that.
Last question from me. Brad Grey, Nancy Marchand, James Gandolfini and any number of others who were part of the journey to this point, are gone now. But in 2021, The Sopranos is widely still considered the greatest. It was discovered by a new generation during the pandemic — there was a giant New York Times Magazine piece about that phenomenon. Here you are with a spinoff movie and people wanting you to do more going forward. For a guy who had a pessimistic mom that we’ve talked about and has your own skeptical side, is there some comfort in knowing that people come and go, but the work lives on?
I’ve never thought about that, that people come and go, but the work lives on. It’s a comfort knowing that the work lives on. See, I didn’t think that Sopranos would live on at all even after doing it and even after it got all these accolades because I thought, “In a couple of years the references won’t work, nobody will know what we’re talking about, the phones will be different, TVs will be different.” That part of it is true — the technology is different — but apparently what it’s about still resonates with people. So I’m just delighted to see that. To think that you’re really reaching a generation 20 years later is astounding.