David Chase looks like he wants to whack somebody. Not just anybody, mind you, but the middle-age guy with the bad dye job a few tables away from us in the Library Bar of the Regency Hotel. "Hiya!" bellows the dye job into his phone. "I'm sittin' here watchin' the overtime? You watchin' the overtime?" Then, minutes later, "Hello, Paul! It's Jerry! Hey, I'm in your favorite town! Beautiful!" Finally a pause, during which Chase and I try to remember what the hell we were talking about.
That's right, on this recent Saturday afternoon, we were discussing Not Fade Away, Chase's debut feature as writer-director and the first Chase project of any kind to emerge in the five years since The Sopranos, his landmark television series, ended its run. For weeks, he has been shuttling between the coasts on the long and winding Oscar campaign trail, where Not Fade Away is nothing if not a dark horse: a modestly scaled coming-of-age story done with a minimum of canned nostalgia and a maximum of lived-in feeling, starring a cast of mostly unknowns, with nary a goombah in sight. It's a small gem with a killer rock soundtrack, well worth seeking out amid all the awards-season Sturm und Drang.
Set in Chase's native New Jersey, Not Fade Away traces the ups and (mostly) downs of four high school friends who form a band during the seismic cultural spasms of the '60s, the years of Chase's own adolescence. The central figure is Douglas Damiano (played by newcomer John Magaro, who resembles the young Bob Dylan), a shy Italian-American teen who begins as the group's drummer and, when fate intervenes, steps up to the mic with an inspired rendition of "Time Is on My Side." What follows is that rare movie about trying but failing to hit it big — ideal subject matter, perhaps, for a writer who spent 25 years toiling in network TV obscurity before making his name with a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon.
Chase, too, once drummed, sang, and played bass in a garage band that never quite made it out of the garage, though he has mixed feelings about the "semi-autobiographical" label that has been stuck to Not Fade Away since its première this fall at the New York Film Festival. "It didn't happen in this order; it didn't happen in that place," says the 67-year-old filmmaker, a compact, nattily attired figure who might be mistaken for a banker or a lawyer. "But the feelings of it are real, and the major events of it are kinda true."
Chase looks like he's about to say something else when a familiar voice interrupts: "Hey, what's going on! I'm in New York! Are you in Florida yet?"
"This fuckin' guy," Chase says. "He's driving me crazy. Should we move?"
We tuck into a banquette at the opposite end of the bar, and Chase proceeds to tell me about the one film that changed things for him, that made him start thinking about movies as something more than mere entertainment. It was Cul-de-Sac (1966), Roman Polanski's Beckettian black comedy about two criminals who take refuge in the beachfront castle of an effeminate Brit and his sexually frustrated wife. Chase saw it while an undergrad at New York University. He recalls, "Maybe because there were only four characters, and it never really left that castle, it was the first time that I thought: 'Somebody made this movie. One guy made this movie. And it looks like that could be something really interesting. Maybe I could do that.'"
He soon set down his drumsticks and headed west to film school at Stanford, where he directed a 30-minute thesis project about a man who dreams of becoming a gangster. "It's amazing when I look back on it," says Chase, who saw the film again recently. "The seeds of The Sopranos are all right there." He then made his way to L.A. with his wife, Denise, and began working as an all-purpose assistant for Clover Films, a soft-core pornography outfit looking to break into the horror-movie business. Asked to write a script about a vampire whose half-human son rebels against his bloodsucking lineage, he happily agreed, and though he claims little of his work made it to the screen, it's tempting to see the film, Grave of the Vampire (1972), as early evidence of Chase's signature theme: the fraught relationships between parents and children.
It was another Chase script — one he'd written while still a student — that gave him his Hollywood break, after one of his professors passed it along to Roy Huggins, the TV writer-creator (Maverick, The Fugitive) then serving as a vice president at Universal. Huggins hired Chase to write a series episode on spec, and the rest is history. For two decades, Chase found himself in high demand as a TV writer, eventually joining the staffs of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Huggins' own The Rockford Files, and, later, the acclaimed Northern Exposure and I'll Fly Away. But he couldn't get himself arrested in the movie business. Unproduced feature scripts (including an early version of The Sopranos) piled up in proportion to Chase's mounting professional frustration.
The Sopranos changed all that. It was TV still, but TV conceived in purely cinematic terms, by turns surreal and absurdist and wholly devoid of the audience hand-holding de rigueur at the networks. "I was trying to make a movie, and I couldn't, so I tried to make a movie on television," Chase says. "And that was the directive, that every episode would be a small movie." He takes a sip from his second orange juice of the day. "I didn't want to tell you what you were going to see, show it to you, and then tell you what you've seen," he says. "This was maybe the radical aspect of the show: I said, 'If they don't get it, that's too bad.'"
It was also, by Chase's own admission, a hard act to follow. When the series came to a close, he took a year off and lived mostly in France (where he owns a house in the countryside, near Dordogne), not writing but thinking a lot about his next act. Not Fade Away was one of the ideas that began to stir during that time. He started writing in 2008, and "it just took a long time," including a lengthy postproduction period in which Chase realized he had more story than he needed. (The film was first announced as a fall 2011 release.)
"The thing about it is, now that I've been through this process, I feel like nothing is good enough," says Chase, who's eager to make more films but clearly remains his own harshest critic. "The target is so small that the editor in me — or the studio executive in me — has just taken over completely, saying, 'That's not right because . . .' Just getting up to the plate is so rare that when you get there, you've got to knock it out of the park. Hitting a single or a double? Forget it. Everybody has to hit a home run. And what kind of ideas can stand up to that kind of scrutiny? These are wisps. They're little notions."