Kary Antholis:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why stories of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is part two of a two-part conversation with David Chase, Creator and Showrunner of The Sopranos, which is listed by Rolling Stone as The Greatest TV Show of all time.

In this second part of our chat, David talks about the origins of the idea for The Sopranos, making a gangster show in the shadow of The Godfather and Goodfellas, how it landed at HBO and the process of getting it to the screen, ending the series and the impact and legacy of the Sopranos.

And so with all that said, here is part one of my conversation with David Chase.

Kary Antholis:

When did the first germ of the idea for the story of The Sopranos come to you?

David Chase:

My wife told me that my mother always got laughs when I told stories about her. Which was true. And I should make a movie about her. And someone else mentioned it to me, too. And I kept thinking about it, but then I thought, well, who’s going to go to see a movie about TV producer and his mother? And so the idea came to me that it should be a tough guy having troubles with his mother. Or kind of flattened by his mother. And I love gangster movies. And that’s how I came up with it.

Kary Antholis:

Using your own experiences with therapy in the show, when did that enter your thinking about the show?

David Chase: 

From the very beginning.

Kary Antholis: 

‘Cause that was a big part of you working through the stuff with your mother?

David Chase:

Yeah. And then we were gonna go, in the show, finally three or four years later. The show was green lit, and we were gonna go, and I was at the Brentwood Country Mart with Lawrence Konner. And I was telling him about it. He said, “You’ve heard about this thing, Analyze This, have you?” I said, “No, what’s that?” And he told me, and my stomach just dropped. So I spent the next year and a half praying that that thing didn’t open before us. And we got lucky.

Kary Antholis: 

Had you thought about making a gangster movie before that? Obviously, Public Enemy had a big impact on you when you were a kid. But you were also living in the shadow of The Godfather and Goodfellas

David Chase:

Yeah. Yeah. I guess, I don’t remember what the story would have been. But I think I wanted to do a story about a kid who wanted to join. But then there was that movie, Marlon Brando, The Freshman. I did want to do a gangster movie. I just don’t remember what the stories were.

Kary Antholis: 

What kind of a deal were you under? Who did you first write The Sopranos for?

David Chase: 

Well, what happened was, I went to Brillstein Grey. And I told them that I had this story, but that my agents had said that mob comedies were dead. But for some reason they decided we should go to HBO. I had always wanted to go to HBO. In fact, when I first went to Brillstein and Grey, I said, “Can’t we take this thing to HBO?” Because they had a couple of shows on. They had the football show. And I loved, uh …

Kary Antholis: 

Larry Sanders?

David Chase:

Ah! That was really the spark. And he said, “No, they’re really not that … They don’t have the money to make it. Or they don’t want to spend the money to make original programming.” And so I did it for Fox at first. It went to all the networks, they all passed. That took two years. And during that time, Bewkes came in. And he was changing things there. And so Brad went back to them, went back to Chris Albrecht, and they said yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

It started as a movie concept.

David Chase: 

I wrote it as a pilot for Fox. 

Kary Antholis: (01:32:45)

And then after HBO bought the pilot, you did a rewrite for-

David Chase: 

I did a rewrite for them. What I did was put in a murder, which the, the first one, the one for Fox, because I thought because it was a network show, couldn’t have a murder in it. And I changed the language, and some other kind of cutesy shit that I had in there for it being a network show.

Kary Antholis: 

You did a rewrite and then they ordered a pilot?

David Chase: 

They ordered a pilot.

Kary Antholis: 

Was it understood that you would direct the pilot?

David Chase:

No. I wanted to direct it. At the same time, my deal at Brillstein was coming to an end. And I was going to have to go to work. So I went and talked to the people at Fox. I talked to Chris Carter about maybe coming on to one of his shows, doing another development deal, running a TV show. It was discussed that I would take over Millennium. So I was going to do that. At the same time, HBO was reading The Sopranos. And I believe it was on the same day that I had a meeting at Fox where I was going to say, “Yes, I’m going to do it,” and sign the paperwork. I believe it was the same day, but that might be me just, my writer sort of head. And then I went to HBO and I had wanted to direct the pilot and HBO said yes, finally. And that was it for me and network television.

Kary Antholis: 

And um, how many days did you have to shoot the pilot?

David Chase: (01:34:56)

15.

Kary Antholis: 

And was that luxurious at the time? For a television pilot? Or was it kind of standard?

David Chase: 

No. I think it was standard. I think. I never felt it was luxurious. I think it was normal. $3 million.

Kary Antholis: 

How did you approach directing that pilot?

David Chase:

Well, I started really thinking about it. What it should look like. And a lot of people expected me to do it in Los Angeles, and I said no to that. Before HBO bought it. I had been around to all the networks, and they all said uh, “So what are you going to do? Are you going to shoot it in LA?” And I said, “No, I want to shoot it in New Jersey.” And they said, “Oh, I see. So you’ll do it like like the Bochco shows. Like, you do it three days a month in New Jersey, and then the rest back here. And I said, “No, I want to shoot it in New Jersey.” And I talked to Dick Wolf about what it was like to shoot in New York. And he said, “What do you want to shoot at New Jersey for? I mean, if you want to shoot in Manhattan, that’s one thing, but New Jersey?”

David Chase: 

I said, “I just think it’s picturesque. I grew up there.” Then I went to HBO, and one of the conditions, Chris Albrecht said to me, “Now you’re going to shoot this. It says here, ‘New Jersey.’ You’re going to shoot this in New Jersey, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” So I knew it was the place for me.

Kary Antholis: 

Tell me a little bit about your conversation with HBO about you directing it. I was always under the assumption that you were always assumed to be directing it.

David Chase: 

I didn’t have the conversations. Brad and Chris has the conversations. I wanted to direct, Brad passed that onto Chris, he told Brad that, “No, no, you know, I don’t think so. He’s never directed anything.” Although I had, but, “Not, he really is not, we can get somebody better than that.” But they never confronted me directly—

Kary Antholis: 

I see.

David Chase: 

And it never really happened that way.

Kary Antholis:

Given that your, most of your past directing experiences were television, when you went into it, I assume you went into it thinking, “I’m not going to direct this like a television show. I’m going to direct this like a movie.”

David Chase: 

Yes, I did. Yes, I did.

Kary Antholis: 

And so when I ask what was your approach, what did that mean to you as you broke down the script and thought about shooting it?

David Chase:

Play it wide. That was mostly what I thought about.

David Chase: 

We had no storyboards. My self and Alex Zakharov, the DP, went over, we shot listed. I wanted to leave it wide. I wanted the pace not to be hurried. There was something else, but I don’t remember what it was.

Kary Antholis: 

Talk to me about casting. I assume, with the exception of Lorraine, everybody read for the part, yes?

David Chase:

Yes. And I think Lorraine did, too. 

Kary Antholis: 

What were the roles that cast themselves quickly? What were the roles that took a long time to cast?

David Chase: 

They all took a long time. Either it’s me and the way I write, it always seems to take a long time. And maybe everybody takes a long time. But, what happens with me is I write a script, people come in and read it. You know, they audition. “No. No, not right. No, not right.” Then, you start to go, “I know what the problem is. This script is shit. This script doesn’t work. It’s not well-written. None of the, the scenes aren’t playing.” But you don’t rewrite it. And then somebody comes in, and it plays great. And that’s what happened with this. That’s what happened with Jim, that’s what happened with Edie, with all of them. Michael, Dominic.

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about, well, two roles in particular, Livia and Tony. Tell me about both Nancy’s and Jim’s auditions, and your experience in-

David Chase: 

Well, Jim’s audition as I remember it, Jim came in. We had a little casting studio up on 79th Street, or something. Jim came in, started to read, and then stopped halfway through. He said, “This is shit, I can’t do this,” and he left. That was like, on a Wednesday. He was supposed to come back on a Friday. And I believe my memory is right about this, where we heard that somebody died in his family, and he couldn’t come on Friday. And then we finally got him to come back, and we read him in my garage in Santa Monica. And we taped it. And he went through the whole thing, and it was great. But I since know this about him, that it’s hard to tie him down. He never feels it’s happening, or he’s got it right.

Kary Antholis: 

Did you have a feeling in the room that, “I think this is going to work?” 

David Chase: 

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. At network that would have been, I don’t know of how many people, but there were three guys. I brought three guys because at networks, if you brought, if you said to them, “I got just the guy,” you would inflame then, and they would demand to see more people.  So I brought two other guys with me. Michael Rispoli was very good, and Steven Van Zandt, who I thought was very good. With the Steven Van Zandt thing, I thought to myself, “Well, maybe this could be like a live action Simpsons.” So, because it already had some comedy in the script. But once we saw Jim do it, he just owned it.

Kary Antholis: 

Take me through the, Nancy Marchand’s audition.

David Chase:

Nancy Marchand, I would say, I say 200, it couldn’t have been 200. We had a, a lot of actresses come in. And a lot of Italian actresses come in. And they invariably would do their stereotypical, or their crazy Italian mama. And Nancy came in and somehow just did my mother. She just channeled it, I don’t know. I mean, I sat there like this, “Holy fuck, it’s my mother.”

Kary Antholis: 

Crazy.

David Chase: 

Really crazy. And then when my relatives saw her on the screen, they said, “David that’s, that’s Aunt Norma, oh my God.” (Laughs), it was amazing. And she later said, she said to my wife,  “Darling, I trust that this creature that I’m playing is deceased?” (Laughs).

Kary Antholis: 

When did, when did your mom die?

David Chase:

’92.

Kary Antholis: 

And your dad in the ’70s? ’80s?

David Chase: 

My dad died, yeah, in the ’70s.

Kary Antholis: 

Tell me about the green-lighting process by HBO at that time.

David Chase: 

Well, we made the pilot. There was a few months where nothing happened. I said to HBO and to Brillstein-Grey, “I’d like to have a little thing, a screening room, for just some friends of mine and some people. Like a family and friends screening, with Italian food.” They refused. Both of them. So I did it myself. And the bill was $600. And I saw how people reacted, and I knew we were in really good shape. They were laughing. They came up to me afterward, they said, “Oh, this is really good.” So then HBO tested it.

David Chase:

They tested it in Hartford, Dallas, I forget, somewhere else in the Midwest, and somewhere in California, maybe LA. And the only place that tested, tested halfway decent was New York, was Hartford. And it took them then forever, it seemed I was just waiting, and waiting, and waiting. They would not give me, they did not give me an answer. And then finally, about six months after that, they said, “Okay, we’re going to do it.”

Kary Antholis:

I had just kind of made the transition from the documentary group to the scripted group at HBO at that time.

David Chase:

Oh, you were there?

Kary Antholis:

Yeah, I was there, and I was actually working for Chris and Anne Thomopoulos on a miniseries side. I worked on From the Earth to the Moon.

David Chase: 

Oh.

Kary Antholis: 

And then I was working on, I think I was working on The Corner as it was finishing.

David Chase:

Right.

Kary Antholis: 

We moved to New Jersey, my wife and I, near Flemington. And I was kind of commuting out to LA, and I remember getting the cassette of the pilot-

David Chase: 

All right.

Kary Antholis:

And bringing it, bringing it home, like, because I asked, “I’ve heard about this thing. I’m from New Jersey, I grew up in, in Florham Park, there was a mob presence there. Like, I, I’m dying to see it.” And I couldn’t contain my excitement about it. And I was like, “What is the-“

David Chase: 

Really?

Kary Antholis: 

“Hamlet thing here?”

David Chase: 

Really?

Kary Antholis:

“This is so insanely great.” Anyway, I  was befuddled by the delay. But I remember it.

David Chase: 

It was a big delay. And I think they had, I think I remember Richard Plepler saying that he was going to talk to Russell Simmons and his people on the street to get their impression, and, (laughs)..

David Chase: 

It’s interesting you mention Florham Park, because two weeks ago, Scorsese said that he didn’t relate to The Sopranos. He’s said this before. Um, he said, a long time ago he said, “I don’t know. There’s all these trees and stuff. I don’t get it, I don’t relate to it.” And this past two weeks ago, he said, “They live in these big houses in New Jersey, and I don’t get it.” But anyway, the fact is that that’s the history of the mob in New Jersey, is they started in Newark, and they went from Newark to Florham Park. And Hanover…

Kary Antholis: 

Livingston.

David Chase: 

Livingston. Whooof. Even when I was living there, right before we moved out in, ’67, a guy in North [inaudible] got blown up in his garage. And then somebody in Roseland got popped. So that’s the truth of it, you know. But he said he doesn’t relate to that, so.

Kary Antholis: 

So finally they said, “We’re going to pick this up.”

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

And they gave you an order for an additional 12?

David Chase: 

Yes.

Kary Antholis: 

And so what did you do logistically to prepare for the storytelling of the 12 episodes? 

David Chase: 

After I thought, “Holy fuck, now what do I do?” See, because I was hoping, I’m sure you’ve heard this story, I was hoping that they wouldn’t pick it up, and they’d give me another $50,000 so I could finish it as a movie and take it to festivals.

Kary Antholis:

Oh I see.

David Chase: 

So when that didn’t happen, I was very disappointed. Because I didn’t want to be in television. I never had, really. And I had gone there for the money, and I was ashamed of that, and, then the show got started. It was the second time this had happened. And I had to do it, and, and then I got to, just fell in love with it.

Kary Antholis: 

What do you mean, it was the second time?

David Chase: 

Well, I did a show called Almost Grown in ’88 or something.

David Chase: 

And they picked that show up. I directed the two hour pilot for that. I wrote it with another guy, Lawrence Connor. They picked that up, and I remember calling up Peter Benedek, my agent, and saying, “Well, I’m completely fucked. They picked that show up.”

Kary Antholis: 

(Laughs).

David Chase: 

You know, he didn’t understand it. Kept saying, “You’re crazy. You just got a series picked up.” But I didn’t want that.

David Chase:

And the same thing happened with The Sopranos. But the, but they canceled Almost Grown, but The Sopranos, they just, it grew on me very quickly.

Kary Antholis: 

So, so tell me about the planning of it. And also in the course of talking about this, you’ve mentioned kind of conversations with your wife about story. I’d love to know a little bit more about that kind of working relationship. Or like, how you and she communicate about your work.

David Chase: 

I mean, I always wrote screenplays. And then when I started working in television, she wasn’t really reading the stuff anymore. She would watch it. But I continued to write screenplays, and she would always read them, and we’d talk about them. And then the story you mentioned before called Female Suspects about the women, I asked her to read it, and she said, ” No, I’m not reading your screenplays anymore.” And I said, “Why?”

David Chase: 

She said, “Because you always argue with me. You never like what I have to say. It doesn’t pay for me to do it. It comes between us. When I say I don’t like something, you say, ‘No. You don’t understand it. What’s really going, blah, blah, blah, blah.'” So she hadn’t read a screenplay of mine after 1980. Once The Sopranos got started, and we would go off for a break, I would come up with story ideas and things, and I would run them past her. And she would usually get excited about, we had fun doing it.

Kary Antholis: 

That, but that’s second season forward.

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

So you have this, “Oh, fuck,” moment, where, “Oh, I got to do this now.” And then, what’s the first thing you do? Do you reach out to writers?

David Chase: 

No. No, what I did first was I thought I had this hour story — don’t forget, this was going to be a feature. So what you have to do is take that feature story, stretch it out like saltwater taffy, to make 12 episodes out of it. Which is what I did. And Livia was supposed to die at the end of that feature, and she was supposed to die at the end of The Sopranos 12 hours. But she was just too good, and she said to me, “David,” she was sick. She said, “David, please just keep me working.” So that’s what we did.

David Chase: 

S, I just stretched that out, and then we began to talk about like three basic points. Tony puts mother in nursing home. Gang warfare. Tony finds out his mother is his enemy. The end. Four. And I thought, “Okay, got to stretch that out over.” And then I put a writing team together, and we started to plot out story with those four bench posts.

Kary Antholis:

How, how did you assemble the writing team?

David Chase: 

Well, I went to Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, who had, I’d worked with on Northern Exposure. And I had worked with Robin on the show Almost Grown, the one that got canceled. And they liked it, they loved it, in fact, was what they said. And they came aboard. And then it was just reading material.

Kary Antholis: 

And then who else was in that first group?

David Chase: 

Robin and Mitch, Frank Renzulli. Jason Cahill, maybe? James Manos, and a, another Italian guy, forget his name.

David Chase: 

I asked for a thing where I could, I could terminate any of them after five episodes. I knew what it was like to get somebody, and it doesn’t work out, and you’re paying them money.

Kary Antholis: 

And how far ahead of production did you publish scripts?

David Chase: 

I think we had five scripts by the time we started. Five scripts ready to go, I think. Because that was usually what we tried for, and I think that’s what we had.

Kary Antholis: 

What was the kind of working process of the room? In other words, did you just sit back and let people talk? Did you go in and kind of lay out the broad structure of the, what the-

David Chase:

I did that. But it was very, very broad. And by the time we got to the room, I had some ideas for various episodes, and we just started talking. And Frank Renzulli had a lot to say. Frank was sort of a gofer kid, in a mob social club in Boston. So he had a lot of cultural stuff, details and things. And he showed us a tape of the boss in Boston in the room. And he told us a lot of things about it, and he was very funny. And then we started trying to just put the stories together.

Kary Antholis:

What was your kind of M.O. in observing, processing, and kind of calling what worked and didn’t work?

David Chase: 

I don’t know how to explain that, except to say that, except for Frank, mostly on the local color and all that stuff, I believe, I was the only one coming up with stories. Maybe egotistically, I was the only one I listened to.

But it was all, it was all me doing it. I don’t remember anybody else coming up with anything. Um, except I did, by episode five, I said, “I’m tired of this show already. These guys in Newark, and I’d like to get, take it out of town.” And I had just taken my daughter on, you know, the college tour. And I thought, “Well, that’d be cool if Tony took his daughter on a college tour.” And then Frank came up with the idea that he sees a snitch up there and murders him. So that was done.

Kary Antholis:

And I seem to recall that there was some conversation about the idea of Tony killing somebody with their bare hands?

David Chase:

Yes. After that episode, in which he killed that rat with his bare hands. Chris called me up, very upset. He saw the episode, and said, “What are you doing here? You’ve had, you know, you have your lead guy kill somebody.” And I said, “Yeah, well, you read the script.” And he said, “Well, I don’t know, I read the script, but this is,” he said, “You, you’ve created one of the most compelling characters in the last 20 years, and you’re going to kill it now when he does this to this guy.” I said, “I don’t agree with you.” I said, “I think if he doesn’t kill that guy, he’s not worth us looking at. He’s not really a criminal, not really a mob boss. He’s got to do it.”

David Chase: 

“It’s, I, we can’t. We can’t, we can’t. This is…” And I said, I wasn’t being a wiseguy, I said, “Well then don’t air it. We’ll just go onto the next one.” And he flipped out. “Don’t air it?” You know, (laughs). So we came to a compromise where there’d be a scene which would portray the rat as living in this small town in New England as now selling dope to kids or something. And I agreed to that. And we shot it, and we did it, and there it is. I mean, I really regret it now, that I even, you know. That was the only two times we had a fight.

Kary Antholis: 

Only two times?

David Chase: 

We fought about the name of the, of the show, and we fought about that.

Kary Antholis:

I remember the fight about the name. What did they want to call it?

David Chase: 

They had some company, you know, they do that all the time. They had some company come up with I think 1,000 other names. Just terrible shit. And the one, and the one that they liked the most was called Family Man. And they were going to go with it. This was right before we were ready to go on the air. And I remember telling the, the cast, “This is going to be called Family Man, this is, or that’s what they want.” And I’m trying to fight it. And I remember Steven Van Zandt went ape shit.. “We can’t let them do that.” And, uh, we didn’t know what to do. And then along comes a show called Family Guy. So-

Kary Antholis: 

Solved the problem.

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

Let’s talk about Steve for a second. Tell me about how he came into the orbit of auditioning for the show in the first place, because there was kind of an unconventional-

David Chase: 

Yeah.

Kary Antholis: 

Was he out there reading for parts or—

David Chase: 

No, no. He… You know, I was, I was, and still am, I’d gotten on the Springsteen bandwagon pretty close to the beginning. The first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, I didn’t know about that. But Born to Run… So I would buy Springsteen albums. And they were, you know, big 12 by 12 things by then. And this little Italian guy always caught my eye. He, to me, he looked like Al Pacino. And I thought, “Who is that guy?” Then I came to realize who he was, and by reading about it. And I always thought, “Oh, that guy’s got a great look.”

David Chase: 

And then we were casting the show, and my wife and I were watching the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Awards, and they inducted The Rascals, New Jersey band. And Steven did the induction. And he was dressed in a Rascals costume with the collar and the shorts. And he was so compelling and so funny. Your eye just went to him. I said, “That guy has got to be in the show.” 

So by that time, he was out of the E Street Band. And he had his own band, which I had bought the albums from, too, called Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. And again, I thought, “This guy is great.”

David Chase: 

Meanwhile, he got involved with the whole South Africa thing. That was over, and he wasn’t doing anything. As he tells it now, he was at home. And the phone rang, and somebody wanted to put him in a TV pilot. He came in and he read for, he read for Tony. He went to the store in Caldwell where all the Jersey wiseguys bought their clothes, and he bought some, bought a suit, or whatever he did. He had a little bit of personal connection with it, too. He just made it. It was great.

Kary Antholis: 

Was the Silvio role a role that you had conceived?

David Chase: 

No. I wanted him to be in the show. But the script was already written, I believe. And we were talking, and he told me that he had wanted to do a movie about a guy called Silvio Dante. A mobster who ran a ’40s style, in present day, but a ’40s style supper club, big club. So I said, “Well, why don’t we do that? Why don’t you play that guy, but instead of it being a supper club, it’ll be a strip club?” He agreed. As he always says, he says, “I was walking my dog in those days. That’s all I did.” On he came, and the Bada Bing came to be.

David Chase: 

If you were to re-watch the pilot, you’ll notice that Van Zandt, when he comes on, the guys all go, “Hey, what’re you doing here?” And they have some conversation. He wasn’t really even a member of the crew at that point. And we sort of skate over that, but that was the case.

David Chase:

In the pilot, there was a meeting in The Bada Bing, and he has lines in The Bada Bing. He became a member of the crew in the pilot.

Kary Antholis: 

I mean I’m a big Springsteen fan, and I’ve often thought that the Silvio – Tony relationship was kind of the mob version of the Bruce – Steve relationship.

David Chase: 

Yes. And I think that’s the way he wanted it, too. We would talk, and he’d say that he advised Bruce to do this, he advised Bruce to do that. And it was like… that’s just the way it worked.

Kary Antholis:

You know, they call him The Boss.

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Kary Antholis: 

When was it in the course of that season, you mentioned by the time you got to episode five you were getting a little bit weary. When was it that you realized this was fun? 

David Chase: 

I was enjoying it, even then. But I was bored with the stuff in town. I don’t know. I didn’t want to think up any more stories, I guess. And I thought, “Why can’t they just go somewhere else, and do something else?” I guess I kind of get bored easily. But it was fun from the very beginning. The pilot was fun. The whole first season, which we made and finished before it went on the air. We had a ball. Everybody did. And I remember Edie Falco saying to me at the end, “Well… well, it’s all done. What, what happens now?”

David Chase:

And I said, “Well, it is a lot of fun, and for that reason, I think we’re finished, because they’re not paying us to have a lot of fun.” I said, “I think we’ll probably be on the air for one year. That’s it. We won’t do anymore shooting.” Everybody was disappointed. Because as you know, a TV show is a tiny, tiny target. It starts out here, with the idea, and then do they pick up the script or not? It goes like that, right? Yes, they did. Then, we’re gonna make the pilot. Yep, they’re gonna make the pilot. That’s a big deal. Okay, so it goes like that. Then they finish the pilot. It goes like that. Then, they look at the pilot. It goes like that. We test the pilot. Does it go for six episodes, or ten? So I thought, like most shows, it’s  gonna go nowhere. And that’s what I told them.

Kary Antholis:

It’s funny, I… when I interviewed David Simon, ’cause one of the first things I worked on was The Corner with him. And I remember having a cup of coffee with him, and saying-

David Chase:

Back then.

Kary Antholis: 

Back then. Like right at the beginning, as HBO was about to green light, on certain conditions, The Corner.

Kary Antholis: (02:10:55)

I remember thinking, “This guy does not get that he’s part of the lucky sperm club.” He wrote a book called Homicide. That got turned into a TV show that went six seasons.

David Chase:

Right.

Kary Antholis:

He wrote a book about a crack neighborhood in Baltimore and that’s getting turned into a TV show. (laughs)

David Chase:

(laughs) Sperm… lucky sperm club, I like that. Yeah.

Kary Antholis:

I mean, to this day, like the fact that, that David has the body of work that he has, is to me one of the most unlikely stories, particularly for anybody who knows how the business works.

David Chase:

I remember, I think it was Josh Brand said, “This is a great life, having noble failures.” (laughs)

Kary Antholis:

(laughs) In the course of making that first season, and, and coming to really enjoy it, was there any epiphany, that after all of that time, aspiring to make feature films that you were actually able to do things creatively, that were as fulfilling as anything you might have done in the feature world?

David Chase: 

I don’t remember whether that was a realization that that’s what was going on. Or whether I was saying, “Fuck it, that’s what I’m gonna do.” I don’t recall. I don’t know whether I sort of floated into it. I sort of knew that’s what I wanted to do. I had been working on TV shows for so long, and I had narrowly escaped going to work on Millennium, which is a good show. But I was done. And I didn’t know what was gonna happen. So I didn’t care. I was just like, “I’m just gonna do this.”

Kary Antholis: 

When did you first experience that The Sopranos was becoming a kind of cultural phenomenon? 

David Chase: 

Um, I’m not sure. But I do recall that I had said to some people, I think even before The Sopranos started, I’m an Elvis Costello fan and he used to have a song “Radio, Radio.” And the lyrics are “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly. I wanna make them wish they never seen me.” I used to think about that lyric all the time. And I told people, that’s what was my goal.

David Chase:

Well I was making a living doing network television. And I wanted to bite that hand. And it was feeding me very well. And I wanted to bite it very badly. I wanna make ’em wish they’d never seen me. And that’s what happened. And we did wish they never saw me.

Kary Antholis: 

And you think The Sopranos was that-

David Chase: 

Was that.

Kary Antholis:

… that statement.

David Chase: 

People think… I’m misunderstood. You know, I have the reputation as hating television. I mean, I hated some television. I never really did hate network television. I hated the meetings. I hated the thought process. I hated the compromises. Mostly it was the meetings, that I really hated. Where they always had a knack for finding the best thing about it, and saying, “That doesn’t work for me.” I was really done with it.

David Chase: 

Tom Fontana, somebody asked him, he said, “Well, a meeting at HBO is like a meeting in Paris. A meeting at a network, is like a meeting in Albuquerque.” (laughs)

Kary Antholis: 

(laughs) I also feel like I remember you talking about the purpose of a network show is to sell soap. Something like that. And that, that with The Sopranos, especially given Tony’s voracious appetites, it was actually, in some ways a critique of consumerism. I mean, when you quoted the Elvis Costello song, and you talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Beyond just the meetings —

David Chase: 

I thought television had a long way to go, creatively. To be about people. To reach something called “art.” There was a few things that got there, but I thought it was just so generic, and so vanilla. And really, had squandered so much of its potential.

Kary Antholis:

And I don’t wanna get kinda professorial here, but as I think about that Tony character, and these appetites that has. His crudeness, his gluttony, his sexual voraciousness. It’s almost kind of an implicit criticism of the appetites that Madison Avenue is appealing to on television.

David Chase: 

Yes, it was. It definitely was that. It was definitely that. In fact, some journalist wrote a story around that time, maybe before the show came on, saying, “We’re gonna entertain ourselves to death.” Because that’s all people were doing, was escapism. That’s all they wanted to know. I agreed with that. And it was a criticism, but that’s why Tony watched a lot of TV. We had an episode called “Watching Too Much Television.” And very much, that was in there. What I began to believe was that network advertising was propaganda for the capitalist state.

Kary Antholis:

I remember when I was working at HBO and all my father’s friends who became obsessed with The Sopranos, they were the guys who were out screwing around. They were the guys who were gluttons, like the guys he played poker with. They weren’t mobsters. But they were capitalists.

Kary Antholis:

And I remember thinking-

David Chase: 

And male. Very male. Take. Take. Agglomerate.

Kary Antholis:

Yes.

David Chase: 

You know.

Kary Antholis:

You know, misogynistic-

David Chase:

It was about fucking money.

Kary Antholis:

Interesting.

David Chase:

That’s what the show was about. At least initially, it was about money. And, and there was no other shows on TV, on this advertising networks, that was about money. That was kind of crazy to me.

David Chase: 

That was the male… more money, we’ve gotta get that promotion. We’ve gotta take over that store. It was all that. My brother in law, who was a banker, said that his boss, after watching the show one night, said to his wife, “I wish I was Tony Soprano.” He was the bank president. Now, some of that, and some of the things you talked about, obviously the womanizing, coming home late, or not coming home at all, all that stuff.

Kary Antholis:

I’m gonna go back to a question I asked earlier. I’m not sure we got there. After the show came out, how long was it before you started to feel… it becoming this cultural phenomenon?

David Chase:

First of all what happened was, we made the show. We were gonna have a party. And a woman named Francess, she called me up, and said, “I want to explain something to you. We’re having a party. And you know where it is, and all that.” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, we have two kinds of parties  at HBO. There’s that kind of party, and then we have a party which is really bigger, in a more important theater, with better projection, and a better restaurant. And we have decided that you’re gonna have that party.” So I thought, “Oh, well that’s interesting.”

David Chase:

Then the show came on the air. There was one bad review. And the TCA convention was happening at that time. And one of those people who was writing there said, “The one guy with the bad review, that knucklehead, they’re gonna find him in Miami Bay in a barrel.”

Kary Antholis: 

(laughs)

David Chase: 

And I thought, “That’s right, there’s no bad reviews here. What is going on?” And then once Vincent Canby wrote that, best whatever it was, piece of pop art in the last 25 years… I thought, “Wow, something is really happening here.” But I don’t think the ratings reflected that, right away.

Kary Antholis: 

How long was it before you and HBO figured out you were gonna do a second season?

David Chase: 

You worked there. You probably understand this better than I do. They never told me. Every year, I was never told we were coming back. In other words, you would have thought they would have said, while the show was on, it was gaining all this momentum, “Okay, well next year.” Show ended. I sat there. Nothing. And then finally, a couple months later, they would decide. Every year it was like that. No matter how hot it got. And I don’t know what that was about.

Kary Antholis: 

And did they make you pitch? 

David Chase: 

No. They never made me pitch anything again. I never did pitch it. No. 

Kary Antholis:

Did they ask you, “Do you wanna do another one?”

David Chase:

No. They would finally say, “Okay, we’re gonna pick the show up.” Well let’s talk to Business Affairs. See what you want, all that. (laughs) I think what it had to do with… this is only a… possibility… is that Chris felt that the show had too much control over the rest of his life. How much it cost, and how much hullaballoo there was about it. He became too dependent on it. I think that’s what it was. And one time he told me he wouldn’t have enough money for new development if it came back. And somehow he found it.

Kary Antholis: 

How many months after it had finished airing did you get picked up for a second season? A few months?

David Chase:

Yeah, a couple months.

Kary Antholis:

And so how did you approach crafting a story for that second season? In other words, you’d done this for a season, you told the story of a mobster and his mother who tried to kill him.

Kary Antholis:

What more was there to say? How did you come to the notion of what else you wanted to say about this guy?

David Chase:

I think I came to that through character, which is usually how I come up with stories. But I, I come up with stories either as gimmicks or through… like showmanship, or through character. And I think I came up with that real… thinking about, well what happens to him and Uncle Junior? And what happens to him and his mother? And I think that was the story into where Junior became the boss, and Tony set him up as the boss, and all that.

Kary Antholis: m

Talk to me about bringing the show to an end. When did you come to the conclusion that it was time to wrap it up.

David Chase: 

I was getting a little bit tired of it. And I was also thinking this show couldn’t be any hotter. Now is the time for you to go make a movie. Right around then, Chris Albrecht said to me, “I think the show should come to an ending. I think we should have an ending, instead of it just ending. So I think you should start thinking about that.” That was about a year, a season and a half before. And so that, he’s got me started thinking about it.

Kary Antholis:

You’ve talked a lot about the ending, and the way it played out. Were there any conversations with Chris about the ending?

David Chase: 

No. I never spoke with Chris about the ending. Even afterward. Carolyn yes.

David Chase:

She read the script, and she was like, “Wow, so, um… and it’s just gonna go to black?” “Well, yeah.” “Well, maybe…”. I forget what she said. She had something to maybe help a little. And I said, “No, no, it should be like this.” It was a very brief conversation. And I could tell she was worried. 

David Chase: 

And this is why it was great to work at HBO. Because yes, I could tell she was worried. But she didn’t pass that worry on to me. Um, or say, “Uh, this is not… you, we can’t do this.” Now, they had good reason. The show had been, you know… golden for them for a many years.

Kary Antholis: 

To this day, are you happy you ended the show that way?

David Chase: 

Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Kary Antholis:

Why do you think it was the right ending for the show?

David Chase:

Well, you know, life is very ambiguous. It’s hard to figure out the meanings of life. And the show kind of specialized in that. And I thought this was a continuation of that. I also thought, okay, so it’s a story about a mobster. So you can have him, like, keel over in his chair like Al Pacino. Is he gonna die on the steps of the cathedral?

Kary Antholis: 

(laughs)

David Chase: 

Is it going to be, “Aw, is this the end of Rico?” And I thought, no. You can’t do crime doesn’t pay. Because it does pay. We’ve said it all along on this show. Because besides the Soprano family, we talked about Enron, and all these people making lots of money. So we know that crime pays. Everybody in America knows that crime pays. And we can’t do it and say crime pays. Because not everybody is a criminal. So that was that. I just didn’t wanna do either of those two. I didn’t do the crime pays like a dark, existential hip kind of thing.

Kary Antholis:

Two last questions. I’m not gonna ask you to talk about the new movie. What I would like to do is ask you about revisiting that mythology, and that world. Did you always have in the back of your head that you wanted to revisit that mythology?

David Chase:

No.

Kary Antholis:

When did you come to the notion of doing that in a movie?

David Chase:

It first came to me… the writers guild wanted to do an interview with me, in like the second or third season. And somehow we did it at Tom Fontana’s house. And he was involved in it somehow. Uh, whether they interviewed both of us, or he interviewed me, I, uh, I don’t know what it was. And he said, “Must be interesting to you to think about Johnny and Junior and the old days in Newark.” And I s- said, “Yeah, it is.” Um, ’cause that’s where my mother was brought up. And we used to go down there to shop for prosciutto and all that stuff. And yeah, and it was interesting. So that was the first time I thought, “Well that’s an interesting story.”

David Chase: 

And then we did a couple of flashbacks. I always had this in the back of my mind… Doing a little bit more of the immigrant story, would be interesting.

Kary Antholis:

Last question. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

David Chase: 

I mean in terms of work or art or whatever, the best piece of advice I ever got was just do it. Just do what, what you think, and what you want. And, in general, the best piece of advice I ever got was from my wife, who said to me, ” Just smile. Smile. Um, people want to see you smile.” ‘Cause I was, you know, sort of a surly kid. She was, she was right. It was really good advice.

Kary Antholis:

David Chase, thank you so much for your time.

David Chase:

Thank you.

End of Part 2