This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer and creator of HBO’s ‘The Sopranos,’ David Chase. Chase’s newest project is “The Many Saints of Newark,” directed by Alan Taylor, which traces the early years of many of the characters from the HBO series. Chase co-wrote the film with Lawrence Konner. Chase tells The Treatment he doesn’t consider himself a nostalgist even though he often sets his stories in the past. He says the prescience of “Many Saints” was basically coincidental. And he reveals the joke he told himself as the guiding principle for “The Sopranos.”
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. It's been almost 10 years since David Chase was last here for what I think was a terrific feature film, "Not Fade Away," one of my favorite soundtracks of the century. He's now a co-writer and brings the story of "The Sopranos" to the big screen with "The Many Saints of Newark."
We go back to "Almost Grown,” which is an incredible pilot and short lived series David and Lawrence Konner did in 1988, I think the thread [of impatience] runs so much through what you did in that show and "Sopranos" and just feeling trapped inside of a house and what it does, because what we can say about this movie, interestingly, is that people are very different outside versus inside.
David Chase: Hmm, well, here's what I think I know. When I was 15 through 20, I got totally the jitters, being in the house. But that's every kid, isn't it? Especially at night, I had to get out of there. The idea that there'd be something going on that I wasn't part of used to drive me crazy. And I remember one time, one of my best friends ditched me, never came to pick me up. And I've never forgiven him, in a sense. I'm not sure that people that age now feel that way. But I don't know. I don't know those people.
I know my daughter. When she got her license, she took the car. And I said, Well, you have to go pick up your mother, and she and I got into an argument. And she said, f--- you and she took the keys and she left. And for that reason, she got to be on "The Sopranos." I made her go like my father used to make me go to work in the hardware store. So she came down to Brillstein-Grey. And she was doing xeroxing and stuff, and she asked if she could read. And she did and she got a part. And there was no favoritism extended, believe me.
KCRW: There's this thing that pop triggers for people, the thing you were talking about, not wanting to be in the house, about feeling like there's something bigger and greater because it's the thing that Tony talks about in the pilot, that greater purpose of being an American had disappeared before his eyes.
Chase: Well, I mean, "The Sopranos" was intended to be and was my feelings about America at that time, which I felt was headed for something not good, having to do with self-interest, self-regard, and selfishness. And the joke was never in the show, but when I was writing it, the joke I told myself was, things are so greedy and so bad, so selfish, that even a mobster can't take it. That was kind of the guiding principle.
KCRW: A big part of what this movie is about is people wanting things and thinking somehow that things will offer a moment's peace or escape?
Chase: Yeah. I always felt that about the series itself. People say, what was it about? And you know, it's about a lot of different things. But I think at its root, it was about money and death. And the two are related.
KCRW: I just think about how many times in "The Sopranos" Tony is talking about things and his affection for something he used to have because he can never appreciate it in the moment that he had it.
Chase: Yeah, he's kind of a nostalgist. He's kind of living in nostalgia.
KCRW: How often do you sit down, especially in the case of "The Many Saints of Newark,” and think about thematically what you want to do versus narrative terms. You've got so much you can use in terms of narrative, I wonder if thinking about who these people were and where they were going to be, and starting it in a literal riot and to contrast with the Summer of Love that's supposed to be going on around everywhere.
Chase: I have to say no, no, it was all about the narrative. I personally have never sat down and started to write from a thematic point of view. It's only stories; it's all about stories. I was talking about this with a psychiatrist the other day. Human beings love stories. They really do and I don't know why they're extremely important. So I never think about thematics but somehow or other it does always come back to the same place for me.
The whole thing about the materialism of America in the series, I will tell you, I'm as guilty if not more guilty than the next person in terms of coveting stuff, cars, stereo systems, you name it. And I never think of, Oh, this is an escape, I think, Oh, it's so beautiful. So I got to have that thing.
KCRW: You revisit a period where there was this kind of aspiration to be something greater or to be part of something greater. And we can even see this in his Great Uncle, kind of twin played by Ray Liotta. I mean, the character who's given up that quest for things, and has found peace in of all places, prison.
Chase: Well, it wasn't until we were finished writing the script for "The Many Saints of Newark" that I realized it was taking place in 1967, which was very important to "Not Fade Away" because it was “Sergeant Pepper.” And those guys had already changed everything. And that was like an atomic bomb. And I didn't realize that here I am back again in 1967. I've been telling myself lately: if I do any more work, I have to get out of the 60s. People think it's nostalgia, but it isn't. A lot of important things were happening. In fact, this whole miasma we're living through right now started then. All this confusion, this turmoil, this hatred, this division started then. Remember Nixon's "silent majority." Those were the guys who were smashing their way into the Capitol Building. Not so silent anymore.
KCRW: You said something really interesting, that you didn't realize until you guys had finished writing that it was 1967. But how did you end up landing on that time?
Chase: While I was doing "Not Fade Away," and maybe while I was living that life, when "Sergeant Pepper" came out, that's all I really knew about. How much did I know about the Newark riots happening eight miles away? How involved was I with that? My girlfriend, now wife, was working downtown at the Prudential Insurance company. And I used to drive her to work every day. I remember sitting around with my friends at night, saying I hope they burn that f---ing place down. I never saw a single flame from where we were. So what do I really know about it?
We actually shot the majority of this movie before the murder of George Floyd and it was about the riots. Yeah, that was all there. We didn't change a lot of that. And then COVID happened. We all got to go home for a year and come back to it. And George Floyd has been murdered and everything that comes after that happens. And turns out the movie, people say it was prescient. I said to whoever I was talking to, I was so surprised. My God, nothing has changed. It's still the same. Well, then I realized as I was saying that, I'm sure Black people weren't surprised. They knew it was all still the same.
KCRW: Often, stories are being told, especially in "The Sopranos" about the characters' ignorance towards Black people and Black culture. I can't help but think about the way Black people reacted to "The Time Has Come Today" versus the way white people reacted to it. We get a chance to see Harold [McBrayer] played so well by Leslie Odom Jr.
Chase: Here's the best thing he does. He drags his feet when he's walking back from the car, and he's been given that tip. He's dragging his feet. It sounds like he's got cleats on. It is so cool and so real.
KCRW: We get to see him evolve physically from those early times with Dickie [Moltisanti], to becoming the person he is and the way his shoulders change, as Dickie just seems to get smaller and smaller and more wound up by these things that are eating at him, we're watching Harold flower in his way.
Chase: Yeah, that's a really good word, getting smaller and smaller, getting ground up. Harold goes up from North Carolina; he's alive for the riots; the riots opened his eyes in some way. And his answer to it is to start a business. He doesn't join the Panthers. In fact, we had a scene that we never shot where a panther hits him up and says, you're gonna be a big success, and can we count on you to help fund the children's breakfast? He never did any of that stuff. He became an extreme capitalist. I guess that's the American story, really.
KCRW: I got to see the film in a theater where you can see these physical tensions realized, and this goes, obviously to Alan Taylor's direction, but also having Leslie in the movie, the way he can he inhabits a frame, he starts moving closer and closer to the center of the frame, if we're paying attention from when he's introduced to the time, where he gets to really become who he is. And those are all great things to see on a big frame.
Chase: I have to say this, I mean, the studio, probably, although I was told by the guy who came up with the day and date thing, that it's understandable that filmmakers would be upset with that. But I think this movie begs to be seen on a big screen, and that people shouldn't say, Well, you know, Sopranos looked Okay, on a small screen. Let's stay home, f--- it. It's a different experience, really.
KCRW: So much about the aggression of “The Sopranos” is about the way people enter rooms and the impact they make, or somebody sitting in the center of the room and the way people revolve around those characters. Whereas in “Not Fade Away,” it was about people almost hanging on the edge of the frame looking for a way to get out.
Chase: Well, you're more perceptive than I am. Seriously. I'll tell you this, though, if you were to go back and watch “The Sopranos,” every scene, somebody enters the frame. We never cut to the middle of a scene, to the middle of a conversation, anything like that. In fact, it's kind of a joke or a diss that everybody's always going “There he is.” And people would come through the door and the scene would go on. We never started in the middle of the scene.