Nearly nine years after a black screen abruptly left fans of The Sopranos debating the fate of mobster/patriarch Tony Soprano and the meaning of a Members Only jacket, the show’s creator David Chase is gearing up for his next foray on the small screen. He’s reteaming with HBO for A Ribbon Of Dreams, a six-part miniseries. Chase shared details about the Hollywood-set project when we sat down in Paris. He’s in town this week as President of the jury for the Series Mania TV Festival, which has been building its profile the past few years as a hub for discovering what’s new on the international drama front and for honoring masterminds behind some of the most iconic shows of recent times.
We touched on how television has evolved since Chase got his start as a producer and writer on James Garner’s 1970s PI series The Rockford Files and how he sees the medium today. We talked about his Sopranos finale — discussing the real one and revealing the fake one he filmed — the possibility of revisiting the series in some form as well as his relationship with the late James Gandolfini. And we talked about his return to HBO and the departure of Vinyl showrunner and former Sopranos collaborator Terence Winter — something Chase can’t really get his head around.
The New Jersey-born Chase, who used music to such effect in The Sopranos, took a moment to play the piano in our meeting room before we settled in.
DEADLINE: What do you think about today’s television?
CHASE: (Smiles) There’s nothing we can do about it. You can’t stop it now. I think it’s good that there’s more entertainment and that the entertainment is more exciting than it used to be back in the 70s. It’s surprising to me that television has become such a quote-unquote art form.
DEADLINE: Did you not see it as an art form when you started out?
CHASE: Network television? No I did not see it as an art form. I mean, I wanted it to be one and I probably lied to myself that we were making art. But I wasn’t really involved in that so much; I just wanted to make something entertaining. But no, I considered movies to be an art form.
DEADLINE: Did that come with The Sopranos? Did you think you were making art at that time?
CHASE: Well that sounds so pretentious. Truth of the matter is, no I did not think we were making art. What I thought we were doing was something more entertaining than what had been around before, a little more true to human life.
DEADLINE: What do you watch now?
CHASE: I don’t watch a lot. I watch my friends’ stuff, Terry (Terence Winter) and Matt (Weiner). I watch a lot of CNN. News — to cheer me up. I don’t watch a lot of series television at all.
DEADLINE: Because you’re not interested in it or because you don’t have the time?
CHASE: I guess because I don’t have the time. The way it’s structured now you need to see all the episodes and you want to leave time to read books and go to the movies and do other things. I’ve watched some of it, but I’m not really a devoted watcher. I’m not a binger.
DEADLINE: If binging had existed at the time of The Sopranos is that something you would have liked, or preferred to keep it only on Sundays?
CHASE: I think I would have preferred to keep it on Sundays as appointment television. It’s just the way I was brought up; it’s what I’m used to and I like the feeling of each week being opening night with something different and new and possibilities. My favorite thing about The Sopranos was when I heard that people were having viewing parties. I thought, Wow. That was really satisfying. They did it Italian style, served wine and pizza. It seems like things have to be really good to withstand that binge watching and repeat binge watching. It must be pretty difficult to produce something like that.
DEADLINE: There’s an argument now that there is too much TV, and the flipside is there’s not too much good TV.
CHASE: I’ve heard that argument. I really don’t know. What are there? 370 series? That’s really insane. Who watches it? It’s so expensive. How can they get anyone to produce these shows with these small viewerships? These niche shows? I don’t know the answer because we had enough money because The Sopranos was a hit. If it was getting 200,000 viewers on a Sunday night, they wouldn’t have put up with the amount of money we spent.
“We’re talking about one of the best screenwriters I know and I can’t conceive how it could have gotten to this point.” — David Chase on departed Vinyl showrunner and friend Terence Winter
DEADLINE: Have you ever discussed that with Matt Weiner?
CHASE: Matt did an amazing thing which was produce his show for a non-embarrassing figure. He really did. Now, they didn’t go outside a lot, it was all in that office, but it was so good and had such high entertainment value and he kept that bottom line down there. It’s incredible. He still will tell you about it.
DEADLINE: So, you watch your friends’ shows. What do you think of Terence Winter now having left Vinyl?
CHASE: We’re talking about one of the best screenwriters I know and I can’t conceive how it could have gotten to this point. He’s just so good and I’m not there and I really don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it just seems to me like maybe there was just a lot of cooks in that pot.
DEADLINE: How do you see HBO having evolved since your time there?
CHASE: I’m doing a project for them, A Ribbon Of Dreams, but I haven’t worked with them for a long time and what I’ve heard is they don’t rely quite as much on the creator or the artist doing what comes naturally to him or her.
DEADLINE: What you understand is a change from how it used to be?
CHASE: I remember when we did The Sopranos I had three arguments with Chris Albrecht over six seasons, 10 years. Yeah, I had three maybe four arguments with him and that’s nothing. Now from what I understand there’s a lot more back-and-forth.
DEADLINE: You’re now doing A Ribbon Of Dreams with them. Is it a limited series?
CHASE: It’s limited. Their idea for doing it is to have it be three two-hour nights. I’m just getting to the end of the writing process.
DEADLINE: Do you have an eye towards when you might start?
CHASE: No. They’re going to have to read like 500 pages and decide. We’re going right to the end. It was reported as kind of a history of Hollywood which it really is not, or at least that’s not what it morphed into. I decided that we didn’t really need a fictitious history of Hollywood because there’s so many real documentaries that you could never capture the scope in a scripted piece. But it’s really about three people who go through their lives in Hollywood and Hollywood isn’t the backdrop, it’s actually the environment and it doesn’t cover everything about Hollywood that ever happened.
DEADLINE: What’s the period?
CHASE: (Laughs) Right now it goes from 1915 to the present day in six hours. Clearly there’s some things left out.
DEADLINE: What about the idea of a Sopranos prequel?
CHASE: I’ve had people talk to me about that. I’ve had conversations with some movie studios that want to do it as a film. So far I’ve rejected the idea but I certainly wouldn’t do it as a television show. I’m always disinclined to say, “No I’ll never do it.” But I think I’ll never do it. I’m disinclined to say that because I don’t want my thinking to be constrained. I’ve said it from the beginning: If I had a really good idea and I thought it could be really entertaining and it wouldn’t upset what was done I might do it. But so far…
DEADLINE: With The Sopranos, you set the bar for finales. Do you have favorites since then?
CHASE: You know, I liked Matt’s (Mad Men) a lot and I thought that the last three episodes of Boardwalk (Empire) just kind of flowered and it was really cool when they had the young Nucky. That was just great. I still remember a shot of these boys diving for quarters under the ocean. And I did see the Breaking Bad one, but I didn’t see enough Breaking Bad to really be able to comment.
DEADLINE: For The Sopranos, is it true that you shot three different endings?
CHASE: No. there was another fake ending that we shot where, I forget what it was… Tony goes back to the Ba Da Bing and has an argument with Silvio or something. Well, it couldn’t have been Silvio because he was in the in the hospital. Well, anyway, it was a fake ending that we shot just to throw people off. This was when we had people trying to invade and get our scripts.
DEADLINE: Did the finale ultimately come out how you wanted it?
CHASE: Yeah, pretty much; nothing ever comes out exactly as you want it but pretty much so.
DEADLINE: Did you know if from the beginning?
CHASE: Not from the beginning but pretty fairly early on I had some kind of a notion that it would end like that. There was an alternative but it kind of had the same feel, just didn’t happen in a restaurant.
DEADLINE: Are you still happy with it? Would you change anything?
CHASE: I am yes. I expected it to cause… I mean, it’s hard to go back to those days but the show was like, I don’t know, sometimes I can’t believe it ever happened — the show was like a moonshot, a dreadnought. It was incredible and everything about it was analyzed and talked about. Anybody who wrote articles about it, any subject, it was, “Oh Tony Soprano would say…,” or “This was a Sopranoesque moment in life.” So I knew there would be some conversation about it, but I never knew it would be like that.
DEADLINE: Does it surprise you that you’re still talking about it today?
CHASE: (Laughs) You’re talking about it.
DEADLINE: But you’re answering. You could say, ‘I’m done.’
CHASE: (Smiles) I’m done.
DEADLINE: Do you stay in touch with the guys from the show?
CHASE: The actors not so much but I talk to Terry, Matt, some of the directors.
DEADLINE: Are any of them going to work on your new show?
CHASE: There was talk of (director) Tim van Patten working on it and then he sort of seemed to just disappear.
DEADLINE: Sticking with The Sopranos, can you share an anecdote, poignant or mischievous about James Gandolfini?
CHASE: (Laughs) Poignant? He wasn’t a very poignant kind of guy. We did (get up to mischief) in the beginning. We used to get drunk a lot. We both liked to drink and as the show went on we did less and less of that and kind of retired to our respective corners — he being the actor, me being the writer and we always felt close to each other. But it’s strange you’re asking about it because now that I’m thinking about it, I think we evolved without ever talking about it. It was a way to work together such that he never got into my business and I never got into his. I said very little about his performance, he said very little about the material.
DEADLINE: Is that a preferred way to work?
CHASE: It worked well for us. Instead of me going down to set every five minutes and having to explain this line or that line. At his funeral I said we were like brothers and that’s sort of true. Brothers don’t necessarily always agree or get along but there was some deep connection there. What I was really happy about was that after the show was over he sort of didn’t feel like hanging out and that went on for a while and I didn’t care. That was fine. But then I did this movie Not Fade Away, and I asked him to be in it and he said yes immediately. He told his agents: “David gets whatever he asks for” and that was great. We had a really good time working on it and a lot of the old tensions went away because we weren’t trying to run this aircraft carrier just the two of us.
DEADLINE: Beyond a potential Sopranos movie, would you do another feature? What’s happening with Little Black Dress?
CHASE: Oh yeah, I’d love to do another feature. (On Little Black Dress) we’ve been developing it and developing it. It’s been at Paramount, and there it rests.
DEADLINE: You live in NY so do you keep in touch with or see people from the old days in Jersey?
CHASE: Mostly on the phone. But once this year we went back; it was kind of fun. My wife and I went to high school together and when we were in high school there was one guy whose house we used for parties every weekend. We went back and saw his place again and went down to the knotty pine basement with his father’s aviator chairs and I saw the place where all these historical parties took place. In my mind it’s like incredible events took place there — so and so said this to that person; so and so left with that person — and it was so small. To me it was epic in my head. It was great. There was a staircase and I remember sitting on that staircase and it was the first time I’d ever smoked pot and I was sitting on that staircase laughing and there it was (now) just this little staircase.