From Hitmen to Hitmakers: David Chase’s Latest Project

Sopranos creator David Chase mines New Jersey for a coming-of-age movie about a different kind of family.

James Gandolfini and John Magaro
James Gandolfini and John Magaro in a scene from the new feature film, Not Fade Away.
Barry Wetcher/2011 Paramount Vantage.

Given an opportunity, David Chase might have whacked Tony Soprano himself. Who could have imagined that a mobster from New Jersey would hold television viewers in his grasp for six seasons? Certainly not Chase.

Growing up in a small garden apartment in Clifton, Chase dreamed of making movies. As an adult, he toiled in relative obscurity for more than 20 years, earning production credits on TV series such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Northern Exposure, The Rockford Files and Almost Grown. Then he submitted a two-hour script for The Sopranos to HBO. He always wanted to make feature movies; the studio bigwigs were thinking series.

Even after getting the green light, Chase says he secretly hoped the network would look at the pilot and discreetly pay him half a million bucks to rescind the contract. Then he’d have a nest egg to bankroll a screen adaptation of The Sopranos. Instead, tuning in Sundays at 9 pm quickly became a ritual for millions of cable households. Suddenly the weekly fix of Tony Soprano’s cunning charm, liberal doses of violence and mob humor was being dissected around the water cooler each Monday morning.

No matter how many accolades and Emmy trophies came his way, Chase never gave up his boyhood dream. “Doing a TV series was never my main career focus,” he says. “I always wanted to do feature films.”

Five years have passed since the notoriously enigmatic finale of The Sopranos was shot at Holsten’s in Bloomfield. Chase took a break to recover, spend time writing and contemplate his next move. Bowing to public pressure, he flirted with the idea of resurrecting The Sopranos on the big screen—but quickly dismissed it.

Instead, Chase, 67, has spent the intervening years writing, directing and editing Not Fade Away, a coming-of-age drama about a young musician growing up in suburban Essex County. The film, due to open December 21, is chock-full of Jersey and Sopranos connections. Tewksbury resident James Gandolfini—Tony Soprano himself—plays the aspiring musician’s obstinate father. Jersey boy Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, serves as the film’s music supervisor and executive producer.

The film’s title is derived from the Buddy Holly tune, later covered by the Rolling Stones. It is set in the 1960s, just as the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and their shaggy-topped contemporaries were redefining pop culture on an almost daily, song-by-song basis. Told from a backstage perspective, the story revolves around a 19-year-old would-be drummer named Douglas (played by John Magaro, also to be seen shortly as Tom Hanks’s son in Captain Phillips).

Inspired by a Rolling Stones TV appearance, Douglas and his friends Eugene (Jack Huston, who plays the disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) and Wells (Will Brill) form a garage band. Moviegoers are alerted from the outset that the band is going nowhere. Chase has more essential and identifiable issues to explore, such as family dynamics and the quest for artistic freedom.

Douglas’s extremely dysfunctional family is headed by Gandolfini’s Pat, a first-generation Italian-American, and the boy’s perpetually hysterical mother, Antoinette (Molly Price). Rock stardom is not what Pat has in mind for his only son. The loud-and-clear message occasionally erupts in violence. Rebelling against this interference, Douglas declares, “The band is my family now.”

The band clicks at first, but it isn’t long before creative and personality differences lead to a permanent rift in the ranks. The final phase in Douglas’s path to maturity and wholeness is his budding relationship with high school sweetheart and musical muse Grace (Bella Heathcote). The two take comfort in each other. “They’re planning on getting married, having babies and careers in Hollywood,” Chase explains.
Without divulging the ending, Chase says his protagonist ends up “in a much better place both psychologically and spiritually.”

While Chase denies that Not Fade Away is autobiographical, there are undeniable similarities with his own life, beginning with the fact that he played drums as a teen, followed by guitar and bass. “I was an okay drummer, but my friends were great guitar players. Unlike Douglas’s band that played a few gigs, we never even got out of the basement. We were so pretentious, we thought we were too good to play in high school gyms.”

Clearly, music played a big role in Chase’s formative years. “It taught me about art, poetry, fashion, film and humor…. It brought me to the conclusion that if that was art, it was something I definitely wanted to be a part of.”

As with Douglas, there was considerable friction in the Chase household. “The biggest problem was my appearance, especially my hair,” Chase says. “My parents were first-generation Italian-Americans, and all my dad wanted to do was blend in or assimilate. Anything I did to stand out made him mad.”

Chase, whose family eventually moved to North Caldwell, majored in English literature (and the Rolling Stones) at New York University, then went to Stanford University film school. Today he calls Manhattan home and is married to his high school sweetheart, Denise Kelly. The couple has one daughter, actress Michele DeCesare, who fans of The Sopranos will recognize from her role as Hunter Scangarelo.

Shooting Not Fade Away in his old neighborhood would have pleased Chase immensely, but the expense was a deal breaker. “There was no tax-credit program in New Jersey, so it would have cost at least 20 percent more to film in Jersey,” he explains. “Instead we had to shoot in Rockland County, Westchester and on Long Island. With a few cosmetic changes it could easily pass for suburban Essex County.”

(New Jersey’s tax-credit program for motion picture and television production was frozen in 2011 by Governor Chris Christie. Funds became available in 2012, but all that money was already attached to projects currently in production or already shot, according to Steve Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission in Newark.)

The film’s largest single expense was the music. Van Zandt had the job of securing the rights to the Rolling Stones’ tracks that play a large part in the film. “Steven already had a relationship with the different record labels, and they trusted him,” says Chase. “We had to guarantee them that we wouldn’t use the group’s major hits. The only exception is ‘Satisfaction,’ heard in the beginning of the film.”

Van Zandt conducted a three-month rock ’n‘ roll camp that transformed actors Magaro, who looks remarkably like a young Bob Dylan, and his cohorts into a functioning band. Van Zandt wrote “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” which represents Douglas’s first attempt at writing original material.

Chase calls the soundtrack “a compilation album” of his favorite rock songs. Preceding its release by Abkco Records, a special collector’s double vinyl set will be issued, complete with period art.

Now that Chase has achieved his long-held goal, he plans to return to the small screen for his next project, A Ribbon of Dreams, a miniseries for HBO about the silent-film era.

As for The Sopranos, Chases dismisses the possibility of a reprise. “It’s something I would probably never do,” he asserts.

Winnie Bonelli profiled actor Vincent Curatola in the September issue of New Jersey Monthly.

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