Creator of The Sopranos David Chase spoke with us for an hour about what it took to make one of the most revered TV shows of all time. Chase reflects on The Sopranos 15 years after it premiered in 1999 and sparked a renaissance in TV programming.
Interviewer: Matt Shedd
Interviewee: David Chase
Matt Shedd: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this.
David Chase: My pleasure.
MS: So I just want to start off, in light of James Garner's recent passing, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind sharing what it was like writing for him for so many years?
DC: That was the classiest operation going in TV, or maybe anywhere in Hollywood, and I think it all came down from him.
He was very much a perfectionist. Very, very concerned about content and quality, but never monomaniacal or abusive or crazy about achieving his ends. In that company--Cherokee Films was the name of his production company--everybody was treated with great respect and affection, and it was…I can't say it was a family feeling, but certainly there was a great esprit and when I first came on that show [The Rockford Files], Stephen Cannell, who had created it, told me, "You know in two years, I've never been called down to the set once. And I've never had to do a weekend rewrite.” And in episodic television, at that time anyway, it was very rare.
So Jim [James Garner] put a lot, a lot of work and concentration in. He had a great work ethic.
But there was none of that hysteria. We were on the Universal lot, which at the time was doing 17 hours of network television, if you can believe it. They accounted for 17 hours of the entire weekly schedule for the three networks.
This was in the time of Baretta and a lot of other shows which maybe you heard were not so smooth sailing. And working for him [James Garner] was…not only, not only was the writing interesting, not only were you allowed to do things that were interesting and different and creative, but I just learned a lot. You just learned a lot. Because everyone on there was really accomplished and there was a great feeling for…. excellence, really.
And it filtered down from Jim, and also his partner in the company Meta Rosenberg, had been his agent, and they became the principals of Cherokee Films and Meta was an extremely intelligent woman. She was an agent, she had been an agent for many years. She had been the head of the Paramount Pictures story department the age of 18. When I met her she was probably 68. Plus Steve [Cannell] everybody had very high levels of taste in what they considered acceptable.
MS: What do you think he brought to the role that people were so attracted to?
DC: Well, not in any order of importance… You know, when he died last week [July 19, 2014] you saw those pictures in the paper: that was one of the handsomest people that ever lived--obviously.
I'd forgotten how good looking he was.
I think his personality came through. I think when you were watching that guy, no matter what role he was in, you felt you were in good hands, that that character was going to do the right thing. Maybe not gladly and maybe not heroically, but in the end you had your back. And that he was a gentleman, really, of the old-school. And I think that made him extremely attractive, especially to women, but to men too. You felt that he would've been a great friend to have. If that guy had been your friend--any character he played--you would have been lucky.
MS: You kind of just mentioned right then.. You’ve talked about how he kind of begrudgingly sometimes did the right thing.
And you've talked about that in the past, that on The Rockford Files you learned that the protagonist didn't have to be virtuous, so long as he's good at his job. Would you say that TV audiences were ready for that before even Rockford happened?
DC: Well, I didn't learn that on The Rockford Files. I had been to college, so I had read some literature, so I knew that such a thing existed; that maybe the protagonist of a piece of work might not be likable, going all the way back to the Greeks. I sort of knew this, but television networks didn't know about it or care to know about that.
And Jim Rockford was a very, very mild dose of…you couldn't call him an "antihero" but he was cranky.
And he wanted his money up front.
That's what Steve came up with. That was the first thing: "$200 a day, plus expenses." And the reason Steve Cannell came up with that was because he thought the other stuff was unbelievable. Why would any private detective on TV or in the movies risk his life over and over and over again when we never even heard if he was getting paid or not. And just the fact that Rockford made such an issue about money made him more realistic and relatable, more real. But, of course, in those days talking about money was considered gauche.
MS: So you think that networks weren't willing to take that financial risk before?
DC: Ah, who knows what they're willing to do? They weren't willing to do anything. There was a man, who shall go nameless, who at that time was head of, I think it was NBC, who came up with this concept called "L.O.P."
And what that meant was he believed that the successful show was what was called least offensive programming.
DC: That if you had the least offensive show, you would be successful. So therefore, you can't have a lot of thought. You can't have a lot of controversy. You can't have anything approaching controversy. You can only have pablum. That was the atmosphere in television when I came into it.
MS: One of the questions I had written down was: "What was so unsatisfying about working in TV?" But I think you got to the heart of it right there.
DC: Well, I mean, I've gone on record as saying "I hated every minute of it," "I loathed it," "I despised it," and that much is true.
At the same time, I've also gone on record as saying I was very fortunate, because I worked almost exclusively with people who were really talented and who were trying to do something a little bit outside, press the envelope a little bit. And were extremely talented and I learned a lot from those people–everybody I worked [with]–I was really lucky.
But, you still had to go to those meetings at the network, and those meetings were soul crushing. Every. Single. Time. You came out of there saying, "Well, our vision's compromised again."
MS: Yeah, that's gotta wear on you after a while.
DC: So that's what I meant when I said, "I loathed every single minute of it."
I mean, if I, you know, if I had a catalog of the horrible ideas I heard: stupid, ludicrous ideas, which would make us all laugh now. But it wasn't funny when you had to listen to it seriously.
MS: And do you think the early days of television were like that, in the 50s for instance?
DC: I don't have any idea…I don't…No, I probably…I don't, I don't know. I don't think so.
I mean it was all different because in those days, the sponsors, as I understand it, produced the shows, so you weren't just working for NBC, you were also working for Colgate Toothpaste. So not only would have to get NBC's notes, you'd have to get the notes from the guys at Colgate Toothpaste. And I would imagine there's probably not that many writers who were interested in what the guys from Colgate Toothpaste have to say about a character or a situation.
You know, we've all seen Mad Men now–that's what it was like. You had guys like Pete Campbell telling you how to write a script. But that's before my time–that was just coming to an end when I came in.
DC: I think maybe, I think maybe The Rockford Files was partly sponsored by Pontiac because of the car or something– I forget.
That's all it was for. That's all the whole medium is for is for selling shit. It's not really there to entertain you.
MS: Do you feel that ethic has changed a little bit in recent years?
DC: At the networks? No. I don't really know cause I don't really watch it anymore, but whenever I've tuned into a network show, nothing really seems to have changed very much. But, so yes, that's not the same ethos at cable. The thing they are selling you on cable, what they're selling you on a network, is not the show. They're selling you feminine hygiene spray or whatever it is. The show comes second.
MS: And you constantly felt that?
DC: Oh yeah, yeah. I remember doing a movie of the week for ABC. It was called Off the Minnesota Strip, and it was ABC and the network flipped out. It took them a long time to catch on, but they flipped out because it was a white girl–a white teenage girl–who had a black pimp. And I thought, "Oh…okay yeah, they're concerned about the African American reaction to that–African Americans being portrayed as pimps." No. They were all upset because at one point, he touched her knee. That was network television.
MS: That's interesting because I was gonna ask you about that made-for-TV movie, because you won an Emmy Award for that, correct?
MS: And I was going to ask you if it restored...or if it gave you some kind of hope that you could do something a little bit more complex and a little more of what people call "dark."
DC: No, no it didn't give me… What gave me hope was, I thought, "Well, see. You won an Emmy for a TV movie. Maybe this is going to be the ejection seat that's going to pop you into features." That's all I thought about. But it didn't work out that way.
I was not out to do things that were dark. I don't care about doing things that are dark. I'm not that interested in dark. Dark is kinda easy. I was interested in portraying human beings like they are. At least trying. I'm not saying I get it right. But, there was a total lack of human beings on television. I don't know what those characters were, but they were not real people as I knew them. It didn't look anything like real life as I knew it, not for one... second.
MS: So when, shortly after Off the Minnesota Strip, there was… a lot of critics really liked Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. What was your opinion about those shows?
DC: I never really watched St. Elsewhere. Friends of mine said it was good. Maybe I missed something there.
I liked Hill Street, but I must say, I mostly, whenever I watched it, I watched it because my good friend John Patterson directed a lot of them. You know, I was not that interested in watching TV. It was like a busman's holiday for me. It was no fun for me to watch TV cause I was working in it. And, you know, I was always sorta more interested in movies and just even trying to keep up with the news or read a book. So I liked Hill Street Blues.
MS: But it wasn't something that you think, "Oh, I wanna try and go write for that show"?
DC: No, no. I never really saw enough of it to know. I don't... no, not at all. I was not, you know… Hill Street Blues, the great quality show that it is, was, I was also never that interested in earnest. I wanted things to be kind of be what life... present life kind of like it really was. But there was also a great element of absurdity to life for me.
So, TV went through a phase where it got very earnest. Remember Lou Grant and all those things? It was all issue oriented and courtroom dramas in which they would set up this false strawman thing like abortion to talk about. And it would end up right where they started, and there'd be this phony debate between the lawyer and the prosecutor. That never interested me. Issues like that never interested me.
I was happy on The Rockford Files because it was about a private detective. And it was very kind of true to the absurdity. It really was true to the absurdity of Los Angeles, and it really felt like Los Angeles. I mean, the show had been on the air two years by the time I came on, and they told me to go over and take a look at it, and they showed me two episodes. I had never seen it, but I had heard about it. And I saw it, and I was finished with it, and I said to myself, "God, that looks like it really takes place in a place." In other words, that looks like it's really taking place in Los Angeles, not just in its time slot. I feel that that sort of captures something about the real Los Angeles.
There were so many other shows, you know, I don't know, I mean I used to, those Quinn Martin shows: you couldn't tell where that was. It was like Anyville, USA. Specifics were not the province of episodic, of episodic drama. So, I was never, I always wanted to do something that had touches of comedy to it. And for me, I guess Hill Street, great as it was, was not–-and I'm serious about this–-not stupid enough. The Rockford Files had a nice element of stupidity to it.
MS: It didn't take itself too seriously.
DC: I guess, or maybe that's what it is. Neither did Hill Street. It didn't, I mean I know Steven Bochco. I was really good friends with Michael Kozol who co-created it. It didn't take itself too seriously either, but, I don't know. I just wasn't that interested in doing confrontations in a ghetto building hallway, everybody with their guns drawn and, "Come out! Freeze, turkey!" I just...that didn't interest me.
MS: Right, and then so, in the late 80s, you had...88 and 89, you had a show that you started with Lawrence Connor: Almost Grown. I was actually able to find a VHS copy in our archives that the Peabody Awards keeps.
DC: Wow. What’s it on? It’s on a tape?
MS: Yeah it’s on a VHS, because... So CBS submitted it for a Peabody Award that year, and everything that comes in
DC: They hated that show[ laughter]. They submitted Almost Grown for a Peabody Award?
MS: They did.
DC: Well, maybe this is when coke first started coming in to Hollywood, because I never heard that. That so...that so surprises me. They had no… they cancelled that show after eight episodes.
DC: Almost Grown, you’re talking about? The one with Tim Daly?
MS: Yeah, I watched…
DC: Well, you learn something every day.
MS: I watched the episode with the song that it was centered around was "Accidents Will Happen," the Elvis Costello song.
DC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good song.
MS: And it was a great episode, and I mean, I think it captured what you were just talking about: real people in a complicated, emotional situation without an easy or cathartic ending necessarily At least …
DC: Which is not something that I have to have, or always want to do, or always did do. I mean Rockford Files always had a cathartic of some kind. Well... sometimes we ended on a kind of elusive or bittersweet or even a question mark of an ending, but most of the time the problem was resolved.
I guess, now that we're talking about it, I think what's really important to me, also, is mood. And that is what was very hard to come by in network television was any sense of mood. I mean, The Twilight Zone--obviously there was a mood... you know? Everything else, it just always looked... overlit... too bright. You say it's New York, but I know that’s not New York. You say that's Chicago, but I know that's not Chicago. We all know it's not Chicago. We know that that's Los Angeles. We know that's the back lot. And the mood never felt right.
MS: And did you feel like you're able to, I mean... I felt it. I felt a certain mood when I watched Almost Grown. Did you get kind of what you were going after with that show?
DC: Yeah. We did. I was... yeah, I was pretty happy. I was pretty happy with that show and pretty proud of it. We had a real good cinematographer who actually paid a lot of attention to the cinematography. And, you know, there was that whole time travel thing of going back from, what was it? 1988 to 1963? We put a lot of work into making sure that we got 1963 right, and that in itself was moody. The premise was moody. This couple was divorced. The people you're supposed to care about most, the family, is already on the rocks. And that music helped tremendously, and no one wanted to do that. That cost us money, and no one "got it" at all. I guess no one had ever seen a Scorsese movie. I don't know.
But I'll tell you, here's an anecdote that pops in my head. One of the episodes we did was called "It's a Man's, Man's World," and we used the James Brown song for that: "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World." And we put on the front of [the episode]... he had just gotten into all of that trouble with the car chase with his wife and all that. So we put this piece of black, you know, a black screen with white lettering that said "Dedicated to James Brown, the hardest working man in show business." He was still alive, obviously. So it got on the air, and somehow they didn't catch–-I didn't notice anything wrong with it–-and they didn't catch it before it went on the air. And they called me up, and I have never gotten reamed out like that. "How dare you? We don't ever memorialize people, especially someone like that. Maybe if the key grip of a show has been killed by a helicopter or something, seriously, we'll let them put a little thing at the end 'In loving memory of, you know, Joe Headless.'"
That was it. The fact that I had dedicated something to James Brown was anathema.
DC: And if you think that's not racist, think again.
MS: Yeah, I was going to ask if that was racially motivated in your opinion.
DC: Of course it was, partly. What does that mean? "A person like that."
DC: Well, he was in trouble, you know? Okay, yeah he, I don't know, he... there was a car chase and he, you know, he got in trouble. But I believe there was a definite racial aspect to that.
MS: Was that a big undercurrent throughout a lot of your experience in trying to write for network TV?
DC: Well, I've given you two examples so far. The one was the black pimp touching the white girl's knee and the other was this. But I have to say, honestly, no. That was not. You know that's when–well here's what did happen–that's when… the 1970s was when every judge started being played by a black guy, right? And then a black woman. The judge in a police show, law show, whatever, all of a sudden became African American. The judge or the chief surgeon, but very seldom a principal [role].
Oh, and there was obviously also...there were no Italian gangsters. That was not allowed.
MS: Who put the stop to that?
DC: Joe Colombo. Joe Colombo, the head of the Italian...the head...of one of the five crime families here in New York founded a thing called, I think it's called the "Italian Anti-Defamation League."
MS: Which you address quite a bit on The Sopranos.
DC: Yeah. He, in the wake of...in the wake of the whole anti-discrimination feelings that were sweeping the country, which had started with African Americans, he began to feel Italians were being portrayed negatively on TV. And so he invented this… he started this organization, and so it was considered racist and stereotypical to have organized crime figures with an Italian last name. So, if you go back and watch The Rockford Files, you will never see any Italian--any crime figure--whose name ends in a vowel. You will not see it.
MS: I watched [an] episode [of The Rockford Files], the episode that you wrote: "Just a Couple of Guys." I can't remember what their last names were, but I'm sure that that probably checks out. [Laughing.]
DC: One of them had an Italian last name: Canigliaro.
DC: But they were also, in fact I just read a thing about it. There was a thing on the internet about that...that episode.
MS: I saw that. Yeah
DC: Yeah, there were two episodes. One was called "The Jersey Bounce" in which they were two coke-blowing hoodlums from New Jersey who settled down next to Rocky, Garner's father, and made a lot of problems and actually committed a murder and Rockford got involved and blah, blah, blah. And his name was Italian in that. I don't know how that squeaked by. But he was not a crime boss, okay? He was just a punk kid, so that deluded somebody, the standards and practices guy.
Anyway, Fred Silverman saw that and thought those two goons were so adorable that he told us to write a spin-off episode in which they might have their own show which turned out to be "Just a Couple of Guys," in which there is a crime boss, but his name doesn't end in a vowel.
MS: And he's a born-again Christian, right?
DC: Yes, yes, that is correct. There were two crime bosses, neither one of which you could identify as Italian.
MS: I see. So since we're on the subject, let's jump to The Sopranos.
DC: That ends in a vowel.
MS: Right. HBO didn't fight you on that?
DC: Well, actually, that ends in a vowel too. HBO also ends in a vowel, so…
MS: [Laughter] Well, HBO didn't want you to call it The Sopranos.
MS: The Family Man. I'm glad you ended up winning that fight.
DC: Well, we all really struggled, fought tooth and nail with them, including Steven Van Zandt, I think was the most upset. And we were losing that battle, and I tell you, I believe that if that Seth MacFarlane show hadn't gone on the air with Family Guy, we could have lost that one. Once that show went on the air, they said "Oh, okay." Because we had page after page after page of other names, of other titles that they had suggested.
MS: Ones that were better than that one at least?
DC: Better than The Sopranos?
MS: No, no, no better than. Oh, oh...that they had suggested.
DC: That they had suggested.
MS: Oh I see what you're saying.
DC: I mean they... I think they actually hire people. There's like...I think they hire like advertising companies to come up with–-not just them, everybody does it, or at that time they did–-to hire people who might come up with titles. Really, there were reams of them.
DC: Pass Me the Tomato Sauce, I don't know, stuff like… [laughing]
MS: [Laughing] Can you remember any other ones?
DC: I mean close to that.
MS: So, you made the whole first, well...first you made the pilot [for The Sopranos]. Then it got picked up for the first season. You made the whole first season before anybody saw any of it, and then the show was bigger than you could have ever imagined.
What was that like? That transition between making the first season in obscurity and really thinking that you're doing something great to becoming this pop culture phenomenon?
DC: That was an easy transition, that was fun. To be embraced by the audience, that wasn't bad. It was...I must tell you, it was very exhilarating. It was a ride, it was an incredible ride. If you're asking me creatively, was it more difficult because somehow we had something to live up to, the answer is no.
MS: Oh, really?
MS: That surprises me.
MS: Because I remember hearing, I heard an interview with Matt Weiner [the creator of Mad Men] recently where he was saying that he was really nervous about season two after season one was a success. But that wasn't your experience?
DC: No, that wasn't my experience. Matt and I have somewhat...well, we have different tastes in several ways. Obviously, we're two different people, but probably different views of our career, different… Matt was always much, much more...he gave a lot more credit than I did to network television. Not to, I shouldn't say that, but Matt was always very much in awe of Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling and writers from back then and he still is. And to Matt, television was not this swamp that I considered it to be. I had really come up, you know, my really formative years, when I was like in my 20s when he was like watching TV still, I was watching movies. So when I was anywhere from like 18 through 25, I was watching that blip called "great Hollywood movies." By that I mean all those guys that are in Peter Biskind's book: Scorsese, Bogdanovitch, Coppola, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby...
MS: [In reference to the phrase "Peter Biskind’s book"] Easy Riders, Raging Bulls?
DC: Yeah, exactly. So that's where I was at. And so I wanted to be in movies very badly. So if they had said to me, "Guess what, The Sopranos is cancelled," I would have said, and I mean this, "Well, c'est la vie. See you guys around. Cause now I can get down to what I really want to do."
But that's not what they said. It became a big hit. And over time, I became very, very pleased to be working there, working on it. I mean, the first season I had a great time too, but I began to realize I had been given a gift. A big one, and I began to treasure it.
MS: When would you say that started? When you realized that it was a gift?
DC: It probably started in season one but it wasn't enough to really sink into me that I... In other words, I think you probably heard this story that when I made the pilot, we had a great time making the pilot. And I knew it was different, and I wasn't embarrassed by it. And I had a lot of the things I had in my mind that I wanted to do. I had gotten to do, and I knew I was working with, with intelligent people at the head of–I guess they're not called a network, HBO, whatever you want to call it, the company. I knew I was working with people who also wanted to extend things, change things, try things.
It started then, but I also was still interested in making movies. And so when I made the pilot, it took them a long time to decide to put it on the air. And I was hoping at that time that it wouldn't make it on to the air. I had written and directed it, that was a big career thing for me, to write and direct a thing like that. And I thought, "If maybe I can then get another half a million out of them, it won't go on the air, and [I'll] shoot another 30 minutes and make a feature out of it." That's what I was hoping would happen. But, obviously... that's not what happened.
And every year, for maybe two years, three years, for quite a while, I began to realize that I had to have the attitude that if this ends tomorrow, so be it. Because if I got to be where I was like dependent on the show, I would start to change the show. I would start to lick the audience's face like a puppy and ask for love. And I knew that I couldn't do that, so I had to have this ... I had to maintain this attitude of if it ends, it ends. I knew the puppy licking the face was not going to work. That's what network TV was all about: coming out of the screen and licking their face. "Love me, love me, love me!"
MS: And that would have resonated, I mean the show wouldn't have...it would have stopped resonating if...
DC: Yes, I would have started to compromise the show in order to engage the audience's affections.
DC: And I somehow got this in my head, I don't know… I somehow got, began to realize that that actually wouldn't be good for the show. That it wouldn't be good for the audience. They would start to get stuff that they thought they wanted, but it would have changed the show tremendously.
MS: David Simon [creator of HBO's The Wire] has this great quote about the audience doesn't know what's good for them. Would you agree with that?
DC: Uh, yes. I think...I don't, I don't think they know what they want, especially nowadays. I mean, you know, you read these blogs, and it's like, I mean, Matt Weiner [creator of AMC's Mad Men]--that guy gets raked over the coals. Every episode is dissected, and, you know, [imitating bloggers] "Peggy shouldn't have put her shoe on then." "I don't know what that's supposed to mean." "I think what it meant was that she's a right-footed type of girl."
You know, you read this stuff, and they're just all over it. And they don't like things that are done, and they're very vocal about it. But that doesn't mean that it has to be done the way they, because how can you do what THEY want. THEY are so many people. There are millions of them [in the the audience]. How can you do what four million are telling you to do?
Cause they are not all saying the same thing: "I like Peggy." "Well, I like Joan." "Well, I hate that Pete Campbell." You know, how can you pay attention to that stuff? But that's what network TV [was like]. They would have been testing all those characters. "Maybe we should get rid of Joan. I think her Q [score] is going down. Maybe her breasts are too large. Maybe we should do something about that. I think she's making some women jealous. Let's ask some people what they think." That's the way it would have been done.
MS: You end up giving yourself a lot of bosses that way.
DC: Exactly, exactly. I mean, I just don't think that's the... you know, that's not our job. Our job is...I think our job basically is to surprise people and show things that take them by surprise. I think surprise is a nice emotion, and interesting, and if they know what's coming, or they've seen it before, or it's what they expect, in the end, I think they're not happy with that. But, I don't know, maybe they are. Maybe there is a large segment of the audience who wants to know exactly what's gonna happen. "Oh I've seen this kind of story before. The butler did it." Maybe people like that. But that's not what made cable TV what it is.
MS: So you won your first Peabody in 2000. It was for the first season, so it was for what was aired in 1999. But then you came and accepted it [in May 2000], and I watched those tapes of when you accepted the award. There was a post-ceremony interview when the reporter asks you about a question about why you think the show is so popular. And you kinda say, "Well, I don't, it probably wouldn't be that good for me to think about it too hard."
But then you went on to say "Our leading man, James Gandolfini," and I'm reading the quote:
"We have an actor who portrays a great deal of simple, true human emotion and human weakness, and also the potential for human greatness. I think that Jim, in that role, people say 'I know him, that's part of me there.'"
And that was in May of 2000, so when you look at the whole scope of your partnership with him [that’s] pretty early on. Is there anything that you would add to or change about that statement in lieu of all the years that you ended up working together?
DC: Well, the only thing I would probably change is that now we know that Tony Soprano did not achieve any human greatness. He...he never was gonna be...he was never gonna "go straight" in my head, ever. He was never gonna renounce organized crime, in my head, ever. But, he...I believe Tony was a thinker and that he was reflective, and he was a searcher. I think he maybe covered it up a lot, and maybe it wasn't evident, but I think he was always looking for an answer. I think he wanted to believe there was something more than what he was seeing every day. And I think that's a form of greatness when people are in touch with that. When they're looking for some kind of sense or truth-some people don't want to think about it or some people just want to go to church and have it spoon fed to them. "Yeah here's the meaning right here."
People are smacking Woody Allen around this week because of Magic in the Moonlight. I don't understand it. I don't get it. I don't know. I don't know. Maybe on some, I guess, on some aesthetic level, you can complain about that movie, but I think he tackles some very big questions there.
MS: Oh yeah, I haven't seen it yet. You liked it?
DC: Yes, I did. By the way, [in May of 2000 at the Peabody Awards] they were asking me… [What] were they asking me? Why did I think the show was... what was the question that I was posed at the interview?
MS: I believe it was something... I didn't write down the question. But I believe it was something like: How do you account for the popularity of the show?
DC: I mean, I had to come up with an answer, obviously.
DC: And what I was doing was throwing it to Jim, really. And that's true. Whatever I went on to say about the potential for greatness and all that--I think he, I think that is certainly what he brought to. People would go and say, "You know what? That's partly me. I have those feelings. I sometimes feel that rage. I sometimes feel that contempt. I sometimes feel that regret. I sometimes wish I hadn't said that." That's true. And he did that. And no show can be a success unless the main actor or the main performer is very powerful.
MS: Did your sense of his ability to do that grow even more over the years, because, I mean you were asked that question in 2000. I imagine that you had many more hours of working with him and cutting film that he was in and watching him perform. Did that appreciation deepen even more?
DC: Yes, it did. I also began, you know… I came to know him more as a person. I saw how he interacted with people. That unfortunately, if it's unfortunate, kinda bleeds into it, you know what I mean. So, you try as you might, [but] you can't keep...you just can't keep it all separate. And yeah, my esteem for him and for his gifts only grew. My love for him did not always, but my esteem for him certainly did.
MS: The moment in the pilot that and the anecdote behind it that I really like is that when [Tony] grabs Christopher there at the end, that was originally written as a slap, and then that was James Gandolfini's decision to grab him like that, almost strangle him. When I, I didn't know that story when I first saw it, but I thought "Oh wow, that's so brilliant, you know, that they foreshadow the fact that Tony was going to eventually strangle him in the episode." But come to find out, that didn't really seem like part of your plan.
DC: Oh, don't you believe it! I had it all worked out. That strangling motif. I brought that to it from The Rockford Files. We were gonna do that there, and I didn't get a chance. No, no you're absolutely right. That is interesting the way that worked out. I never even thought about that. But obviously there was some physical connection, some physical connection between those guys. How many times did he almost choke him?
Now sometimes, sometimes you can look at it and it's almost like The Three Stooges.
MS: Was that an inspiration?
DC: The Three Stooges?
DC: Sure. Sure it was. I mean, for that show in particular, the answer is "yeah, probably." Abbott and Costello also. Laurel and Hardy also. But yeah, the Three Stooges are an inspiration for, you know, to everybody. Maybe not to Franco Zeffirelli, but they are, you know.
MS: I cut you off, you were talking about the physical relationship between those two guys, and I was….
DC: I was just pointing out, you made me think about how many times he had Christopher by the scruff of the neck, you know? And it was like spitting into his face as he was shouting at him.
MS: One thing that really surprises me, even now when I read interviews with you, that people still bring up Adriana's death so much, and then also Pussy's. But to me, the most tragic was Christopher. You know, not that [Tony] didn't on some level know that he had to do, but it seemed like the inevitable tragic ending to his inability to kind of balance being able, you know, to maintain his crime organization and then also connect to his family member. And I was just, I guess my comment is that I was just surprised by how few people seem as troubled by that as they do by Adriana or Pussy. Have you found that?
DC: That's a good question. In thinking about it, as you're talking, that, that is the death scene that actually, even right now, could bring me to tears. The others...don't. On some level, I guess that's a father killing his son, I guess, now that I think about it.
MS: That's a powerful thought.
DC: On some level I think it is. Now, you know... and Tony's father wasn't really present. Tony's father was really Junior, and look how painful that relationship was. I don't mean Tony's father was really Junior, but that was the closest we got to... I mean it was an uncle-nephew relationship, but boy was it close. And you remember the scene in which Tony says to him on the couch, "Don't you love me?"
MS: Right. He wants it so bad.
MS: That last scene between the two of them is also heartbreaking. I just watched the last episode again yesterday when he's saying... basically saying goodbye to him and can't get any sort of coherent response. Yeah, that's another one that that really gets me.
DC: Yeah, that's a, that's a big one in my book too. But the Christopher death--the reaction to the Christopher death thing is a little bit of a puzzle to me. I guess, I guess maybe what it means is that we had created such a scumbag in Christopher that people were glad to see him go. If I was to admit any wrongdoing, maybe there was some unconscious feeling like he should have been gone a long time ago. See cause I sorta thought that. I sorta felt: "How long is Anthony Soprano, boss of this family, gonna let this clown endanger everything? This is dangerous. What he's doing is dangerous, letting this guy with his, his... He's on drugs, he's off drugs. He falls off the wagon, he's back on it. This was dangerous." And what we were trying also... that I believe is what we were trying to show. And I think we actually sorta mentioned it in the show, was that, as I recall it, Christopher was supposed to have been picking Meadow up somewhere and also Christopher had a baby, and Tony looked into back seat of the car and a tree branch had completely destroyed the baby seat in the back seat. And that if things had gone differently, Christopher's baby would have been in that seat when that car rolled over eight times and that tree branch came through and he would have wound up killing his own child because he was so out of control and so weak. And I think that was all swirling around Tony's head.
MS: Right, he even mentions it to some of the other guys afterwards, they're trying to get some sort of reaction out of them.
DC: And he gets nothing. They don't, they don't... they don't get it.
MS: It's interesting that you said maybe what it signals is that you created such a scumbag in Christopher. Because despite...I mean it's his weakness and his vulnerability, I guess, and obviously Michael Imperioli's performance that makes...I mean, he's my favorite character, you know. And I, I just connect with that character so...it's something about the continual struggle for sobriety and his inability to do it, and something, and even though I've heard you talk about how he's the, you know, the depths of his self pity are boundless, but despite all that...
DC: Everybody on that show, the depths of their self pity was boundless. They were consumed with self pity, every one of the them. Maybe not Carmela, but most of the guys, certainly. Well, obviously Livia was, and I think most of the males on the show, and also Janis, were consumed with self pity. I mean, they used to say to each other, "Ah, poor you!" They used to say all the time. It was the worst thing they could say to each other.
MS: Was that your....
DC: And the other thing, the other thing they used to say all the time was, "Well, no good deed goes unpunished." This is after they tried to do something nice and it backfired. Right before they killed a person, it was like, becoming a problem, they would say, "Well, you know what, I tried to do something nice and this is how I get paid back." And they very seldom tried to do anything nice. It was all self-interest.
MS: Right. Another interesting thing that I've heard you tell...
DC: I'm sorry, it's just interesting to hear you say that Christopher is... I don't hear that much, if at all. I love Christopher, I thought he was really, really... I love Christopher, I love them all obviously, but Tony probably more than any of them. But Junior and Christopher to me were... those guys were just out there.
MS: I think what really sold me on Christopher was his aspirations to be a writer and particularly that episode where he does the Rebel Without a Cause scene, and you see that he, he has this… Michael Imperioli's performance of Christopher playing James Dean is great and you see that he has these, you know, he has this inner, inner life that he really wants to express but just cannot articulate in any tangible form, except for, I mean, he has a moment there where he's doing that scene and it kinda bowls everybody over.
MS: That was when I was really hooked on Christopher as my, the most relatable to me.
DC: Well, I think that's a really good point, and he, that's a really good point about the fact that he obviously did have an inner life. Junior, God knows what his inner life, I mean I really... every writer's favorite guy to write for was Junior because the guy would say anything. He was like Livia–anything would come out of that guy's mouth. There was absolutely, as Hesh once said about Livia, "Between brain and mouth, there was no interlocutor." And Junior was the same. He would just say things that, you know, were so embarrassing, so mean, so small. And so every writer on the show could express his worst thoughts through that guy's mouth.
Christopher was similar to that, but Christopher did have an inner life. And now that we're talking about it, there was probably a reason why Christopher shot heroin. I think he needed it. I think he needed to be sedated. I think it was too much. I think life was too much for him.
MS: Yeah, I guess that's what the drug addiction... I mean I found it really--although it was, you know, selfish in a sense, I guess, or endangering, endangering the family---it was the only way he knew how to take care of himself, I guess.
DC: I guess. I mean look: drug addiction is a very, very serious, sad state of affairs. Obviously you don't need to be in the mafia to have it be a danger to your family. I'm just saying that his, his actual final choice of drugs--heroin--I think is a... I think that's really very telling about him, that he, he, he just couldn't take it on some, some level.
MS: So, two of your former writers from The Sopranos now have their own shows–Matt Weiner with Mad Men and Terence Winter with Boardwalk Empire. Do they ever ask your advice? Seek your counsel?
DC: Terence Winter, no. Matt...Matt and I talk about, you know we talk, but Terence has never said "Should I do X, Y or Z?" Matt has never said "Should I do X, Y or Z?", but he has run things past me, as I do, as I do now with him. I mean if I write something now, I ask his opinion of it. I also asked Terry’s [Terrence Winter’s] opinion of things. I let them read what I've written and say "What do you guys think?" But Terry--no never did say: "Well, what do you think about this or that? We're gonna do this on the show." He, smartly I think, felt he had to go off on his own and just do it. I mean... especially because Terry was doing a gangster show so for Terry to come and ask my opinion or my advice is one thing. That's...okay so, I'm the professor of gangster shows and we gotta go ask Uncle Dave what should we do. That's one thing. Matt was doing something completely different, so I think there was more leeway for Matt to say, "Here's what I'm kinda thinking about." Which he doesn't do anymore, but when it first started, he did.
MS: And now he's faced with the difficult, well yea, the difficult problem of how to end that story and I'm really...
DC: They both are.
MS: Yeah, that's right, that's right, they're both ending soon. So, I only have a little bit more time with you here, but I watched the tape from May of 2000 when you, you got up on stage and accepted the Peabody Award and you said something about you were surprised, you were really surprised that this, this show with this kind of content won a Peabody. Do you have any recollection of what your reaction was? I mean by that time, you probably....
DC: I have a very strong recollection of it. Very strong recollection of it. What I said on stage didn't begin to express what I was feeling because it went beyond surprise and mystification. I was, you know, okay, we're going to get the Peabody Award and I'm glad. Let's go down to the Rockefeller Center, or wherever it was, and then you know the, then they start to hand out the awards and there are stories--you know most of it is non-fiction, I think, as I recall. And there are stories about children injured in war, land mines. There's stories about national policy concerning education. They award people a Peabody for a documentary about someone's triumph over addiction and then they award a Peabody Award to a show where what they saw was Tony Soprano trying to run some guy over in a car as they ran around a parking lot, laughing to himself. And I thought, I felt like crawling under the table. I thought, "What are we doing here? I mean, all this, all this other material is so serious and quote...unquote "worthy and ernest and worthwhile and…" And what does that got to do with this...with some guy trying to run somebody up, trying to run some other guy down in the parking lot while laughing while trying to do it." I was stunned, and I really felt embarrassed.
MS: Do you still feel that way?
DC: Well, you know, I mean since then, I guess, you know, our other hour dramas have gone on to...TV dramas have gone on to win the Peabody Award and it's kind of, maybe now, more of a... more of an accepted thing. Or maybe TV dramas were winning them before, but I didn't know that. But the story of a hoodlum and a killer and a sports book entrepreneur in that company, it just floored me.
Do I still feel that way now? I still don't quite understand it, but here's what I guess. I mean, I guess I can intuit what was going on which was that people finally saw something on television– which was actually… My complaint had been, had been prior in my career, as I said… They saw something on television in which they saw something about human life that seemed to be kinda related to life as they knew it. I hope that's what it was. That it felt real.
MS: My last question is how did you access the--I mean, it's a big question--but how do access the kind of courage that it took to follow this vision despite so many people saying what a bad idea it was, and that the fear of maybe of losing millions of dollars. How do you get that kind of resolve and commitment to a vision that seems absurd to a lot of people?
DC: I'm only partly kidding--well, you've seen the show, you've seen the protagonist of the show--I'm only partly kidding when I say I was fueled by such rage and anger. That was a big motivator.
MS: At your experience.
DC: At...yeah. At the kind of watered down weak tea that I was always being ordered to produce. And as I say, I got to work with some really good people, and we managed to get around that quite a bit of the time. But just going through those meetings and knowing what was wanted and how they wanted to deracinate everyone and how they wanted to strip all the details out and how they wanted to strip any thought out of it. It just, after I don't know how many years, how long I had been in the business at that time--27 years--I was just totally fed up and I, I just didn't care.
And if they had said to me, "Okay, The Sopranos was a big flop, and guess what David Chase? You're out of the business." I would have said, "Thank you, and fuck you." That's the way I felt at the time.
So, that's kinda where I was coming from, and I was at least aware enough to realize I was being given an opportunity by, that some, you know, HBO had changed its business model and I was being given… I was fortunate enough to be washed up on some kind of an island, and that on that island, maybe we could do things a little differently, but the ship was going down and I had washed up…[been] fortunate enough to wash up on this beach. I kinda had that feeling. But what I used to say to myself… Well, the fact that I used to talk… I think I've said this in print before: my feeling going into it was the Elvis Costello song "Radio, Radio" which is about how commercial radio is so awful and his lyric in that song is "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me, I wanna bite that hand so badly. I wanna make them wish they'd never seen me." And that's kinda where I was coming from. And so, that helped me to stay true to, I don't know, vision or whatever you want to call it. Vision or whatever it was.
MS: Well, I'm glad you did. I mean, what you brought to the screen certainly has made a big impact on my life so I appreciate it.
DC: Good, I'm glad. I'm glad. And I don't want to make it sound like...I hesitate to use the word fun, but it was a blast. It was--in every sense of the word. Artistically, for me and for those of us who worked on it, it was really a blast and a trip. And it was a gift. We all should thank somebody.
MS: Well, I want to thank you very much, Mr. David Chase. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
DC: My pleasure.