DATE June 22, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Chase, creator and executive producer of "The
Sopranos," talks about the show and the death of one of its cast
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, David Chase, is the creator and executive producer of the hit HBO
series, "The Sopranos," a Mafia story that's as much about stress as it is
about violence. It follows, Tony Soprano, a middle-aged mobster in suburban
New Jersey who has constant difficulties ruling the Mafia family he has, and
relating to his own wife and two teen-age children. His panic attacks have
led him into therapy, although he doesn't really believe in its effectiveness.
David Chase wrote and directed many of the episodes. The second season is
currently being rerun on HBO. I spoke to Chase yesterday, just a few days
after the death of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano's manipulative and
bitter mother, Livia.
Let's hear a scene from last season's finale, Marchand's final show. After
living in a nursing home against her will, Livia had been taken back to her
own home by Tony's sister, Janice, who moved in with her. But Janice had to
leave town after killing her fiance in a rage. Here's Tony, and his other
sister, Barbara, trying to talk with Livia in her kitchen.
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. NANCY MARCHAND (Livia Soprano): Have some eggplant.
Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI (Tony Soprano): I told you, I'm not hungry.
Ms. MARCHAND: Now you won't even accept food from you own mother.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Will you please stick to the topic?
Ms. MARCHAND: Oh, sure, sure. You believe that uncle of yours. I never
conspired with him.
BARBARA: I wish somebody would tell me what you're talking about.
Ms. MARCHAND: Ask your brother.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I'm here to get your living situation settled, now with
Janice gone. Barbara asked me to come here. Beyond that, I got nothing to
say to you.
BARBARA: Ma, you can't come live with us. I'm sorry, but Tom wouldn't allow
Ms. MARCHAND: Janice was right. I won't go back to that place.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: You got that right. They won't have you back at Green Grove.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: She was abusive to the staff!
BARBARA: Maybe Tom and I should just...
Mr. GANDOLFINI: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don't listen to the
manipulation. You got your own life. If you had a mother that had one shred
of gratitude in her, one shred, but you don't.
Ms. MARCHAND: She's taking a page from your wife's book.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Oh, that is (censored) outrageous. Carmela asked you how
many (censored) times to come live with us?
(Soundbite of door slamming)
BARBARA: Well, he's gone. Nice work, Ma. Carmela has been so sweet to you.
(Soundbite of car door)
Mr. GANDOLFINI: (Censored).
Ms. MARCHAND: What--what are you doing?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: You're not going to live with her. There's two tickets,
first class. Go to Tucson. Stay with Aunt Jama(ph). Take Aunt Quin with
you. That ought to (censored) "Les Miserables." Done my part. That's all
you'll get from me.
Ms. MARCHAND: My sister Quintina won't fly.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: So throw her out on the (censored) tarmac!
(Soundbite of door slamming)
GROSS: David Chase says that although Nancy Marchand had been sick, he had
written her into the next season. I asked him what he's going to do about
Mr. DAVID CHASE (Creator/Executive Producer, "The Sopranos"): They have to
be rewritten. I mean, we're trying to deal with this--this only happened two
days ago, so we're trying to sort of feel our way through that creatively, but
I would say the chances are almost 100 percent the death of Livia will be
dealt with in the body of the show, in other words, we won't come back on the
air and it won't have happened between one season and the next, that the death
of Livia Soprano will happen, I guess, in the course of the show.
GROSS: Now usually in Mafia movies or in gangster movies, the mother is
strong and wise and protective of the family. How did you come up with a
mother who's so manipulative and bitter and resentful, who even tries to take
a hit out on her own son?
Mr. CHASE: Well, to begin with, one is always trying just to do something
different, and certainly the mob genre has been done a bazillion times. And I
was thinking `What could make this different?' And I was curious about Mama
Corleone. You only saw her sort of stirring some gravy or crying, and I
realized that you didn't really have any insight into these women. You did in
"Goodfellas;" Lorraine Bracco played a role that was quite interesting of
Henry Hill's wife, but by and large, those women are lost to the doings of the
men, and so that was interesting to me. I thought this may be interesting to
other people, and so therefore, his mother should be interesting instead of
these typical supportive crying Italian mothers.
GROSS: What did Nancy Marchand bring out in the character? What did you see
in here that led you to decide, `She's the one?'
Mr. CHASE: Well, I mean, just how it happened was we were at the end of the
casting process. Almost all of the other roles were cast, and there were some
difficult roles to cast for this series, but the role of Livia was the worst.
Actresses--very gifted actresses--came in, hundreds of them, and by and large,
what happened was, they would overplay it. It became very big. They played a
totally psychotic version, or it just wasn't good, just wasn't there. And we
were despairing, and we though, `Well, why is it that no one seems to get
this?' And then the name Nancy Marchand came up, and we thought, `Hm, well,
that could be interesting.' And then when she came in--this is just the way
it happened, always, at least the way I work--she came in, she read the scene.
It was--I was laughing--you know just laughing out loud. And she was Livia.
It just--she understood it, completely.
GROSS: Did your mother have anything in common with Livia, the mother in "The
Mr. CHASE: Well, first of all, my mother never tried to have me whacked,
that I know of.
GROSS: That's a good thing.
Mr. CHASE: Or never conspired with anyone, that I know of. She probably did
say, `I'd like to kill that kid,' a couple of times, but not in the same way
Livia did. My mother had--my mother was a very interesting character. She
was kind of morbid, very much like Livia, focused on the negative, and kind of
in the thrall, by and large, of her own fears and paranoia. It was a little
bit hard for my mother to see anything from anyone else's perspective, kind of
pretty much like Livia. She was--what loomed largest in my mother's mind
always was her view of the world, and it was very hard to shake that view.
GROSS: Did she make you miserable, only to explain that she gave her life for
you, making you feel a combination of anger and guilt, like Tony feels?
Mr. CHASE: Yes, she did do that. Yeah.
GROSS: Now does this mean that you couldn't have written the series with this
character while she was alive?
Mr. CHASE: I don't know. It's been my experience--however many years I've
been in the TV business--that very often, when you base a character on
someone, they don't see that. They don't see themselves in that character.
Mr. CHASE: And that's happened to me a couple of times. Now it's doubtful
that would have happened with my mother, because probably my cousins or
somebody would have said, `Aunt Norma, it's--you know, it's based on you.'
They would have done me that favor, so I don't think that would have happened.
Could I have done it with her alive? I really don't know.
My mother was also a very funny person. I never knew whether it was
intentional--some of it was intentional and some of it was not intentional,
but because she was--she always spoke her mind, and because she was so into
her own preoccupations, that she could be very funny and I recall that in the
early '80s I did this movie "Off the Minnesota Strip." And it garnered a lot
of attention, and it was playing on the air, and it was about a teen-age
prostitute who tries to reintegrate with her family in her small town world.
After spending some time on 8th Avenue in New York, she goes back to
Minnesota. So it's revealed at the end of the film that the reason--one of
the reasons this girl turned out this way is that her father had sexually
molested her when she was very young, and there was--as a writer, which you
hope to be--an artful scene in which her mother finally confronts her father
about what he had done, and there it's revealed why this child has turned out
And my mother was on vacation in Florida, and I called her up to say what
she'd thought of it, and she said, `Oh, it was good.' And I could tell, in a
way, she didn't really get it, and she said she thought that the last scene
was about how they had spoiled her, that they had given her too much
attention, and that they had--and that she was a brat, and that's why she
turned out to be a prostitute. So I don't know that my mother would have
picked up on this thing with Livia. I don't know.
GROSS: I guess you're just too slow.
Mr. CHASE: You never knew what she was going to pick up on.
GROSS: Now therapy is so at the center of the series, you know--Tony is in
therapy. Were you in therapy a lot? Did you...
Mr. CHASE: A lot, yes.
GROSS: Was your mother a lot of the subject of conversation?
Mr. CHASE: My mother was a fair amount of it, yes.
GROSS: You said that she was really a worrier, you know, and she was...
Mr. CHASE: She was really big worrier.
GROSS: Was that contagious? Like, if she was worried that if you did
something, you'd be hurt, did you worry that if you did it, you'd be hurt,
too? I mean, did it make you a more, kind of cautious or...
Mr. CHASE: Hm. I never thought about that.
GROSS: ...inhibited person.
Mr. CHASE: After all those years of therapy, I never thought about that, but
I will say that I was a very scaredy kid when I was little. I was afraid of a
lot of things, and my cousins knew this, and so they--like my cousin Johnny
would--I was about seven and he was, like, 10, and he would say, `Come on, I
want to show you something in the garage'--they had this creepy old
garage--and I'd say, `No, you're going to lock me in there.' And he'd say,
`I'm not going to. Come here--you got to come in here and look at this
thing.' I'd go into the garage, and they'd shut the door and lock me in
And they could do this--and there was always something--there were copperheads
in the brook when we were wa--they could do this, because they knew that I
freaked out easily. And I guess that was one of my mother's traits. She also
did freak out easily. She was a worrier. And then I think as a teen-ager,
later, I became sort of a rebellious, defiant--you know, fast cars and
drinking and all that stuff, and I think that was, on my part, an attempt to
lose that scaredy kid, to put that--not be that any more.
GROSS: Did it work?
Mr. CHASE: I think so.
GROSS: Did you need to leave home to do that?
Mr. CHASE: No, I didn't have to leave home. I was very fortunate in that I
fell in with a group of friends who my mother--my parents thought were really
horrible people and didn't want me hanging around with. And as a matter of
fact, this group of people--there was a lot--there's been several deaths from
heroin, there's been--somebody became like a tramp and was run over by a
railroad car. I have to say that this circle of friends of mine from high
school, there's been a lot of tragedy and trouble. In my case, I always feel
that those friends showed me another way of being, which is not to be
terrified all the time. It didn't work out well for some of them, but in my
case, I did not perish with it. And they also in a strange way introduced me
to show business. That my friends were interested in--we there--they there--a
lot of them were rock 'n' roll musicians and we had a band and a couple of
different bands. And so, they were very important in my growing up.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if those friends who, you know, drove fast cars and
did drugs and were much tougher than you were and kind of introduced you into
a new kind of life, if you were able to model anything in "The Sopranos" on
them, any characters on them or incidents or just a kind of way of living in
the world of not being afraid?
Mr. CHASE: I never though--again, I never thought about this consciously,
but as I'm speaking, of course, the conclusions are inescapable that "Soprano"
crew is a very tight bunch of guys who live life on the edge. My friends and
I in New Jersey had no--we were not in any way junior Mafiosi or anything like
that. We didn't gamble or play the numbers. I mean, there were people--there
were people in the town who did that stuff, but we were--in context, we were a
group of kids in high school who later--probably a year later after the
Mr. CHASE: ...became I guess you'd say the first hippies in that town. We
crossed over the line from the James Dean thing into the Rolling Stones thing.
That's just the time at which we lived. And so we were kind of involved with
the Stones and The Beatles before most of the other kids in our town were.
We gravitated to that right away. Kids at that time were saying, `Oh, look at
those faggots with long hair,' and we just immediately said, `Wow. That looks
cool. Let's do that.' We were always looking...
GROSS: Did it...
Mr. CHASE: We were always looking for--I don't know how you'd express
it--just always looking for, I guess, a kind of an outlaw identity.
GROSS: We'll talk more with David Chase after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Chase. He's the
executive producer and creator of "The Sopranos."
As we speak now, season two has ended and it is being rerun on HBO. Let's
talk a little bit about the final episode and what you need in a season
conclusion. I mean, there's a lot of things left hanging, including what's
gonna happen to Tony now that the FBI has a little bit of evidence that they
can use against him? What's gonna happen to Tony's relationship with his
wife, Carmela? And, you know, Tony and two of his men just knocked off
somebody who they had been really close to, who had been part of the family,
but had been informing to the FBI. And once Tony found out about that, it was
all over for Pussy. So they've kind of thrown him into the deep blue sea. So
tell us about creating the season conclusion and how many different, like,
cliff-hangers you wanted to have there.
Mr. CHASE: Well, it's funny. I think people are so conditioned to watching
television that they...
Mr. CHASE: ...that people think of these things as cliffhangers. We never
see them as cliffhangers. In fact, the first season what most people
considered cliffhangers--and we got a lot of credit for--were actually
blunders in which we'd written ourselves into a corner after spending all that
time with Livia as this evil manipulative matriarch and Junior as Tony's
nemesis, we had had the benefit of a million good scenes between Tony and
those two people. Well, once somebody tries to kill you and they fail,
obviously among other things you're not gonna be speaking to them anymore.
You're gonna be angry enough in which you will not deal with them. So
therefore, Livia and Junior were kind of out of the picture. No more Jim
Gandolfini-Nancy Marchand scenes, so that was a problem, that was a thing we
just had to deal with, and people thought, `Oh, wow, what a cliffhanger.
What's gonna happen?' As it turned out, nothing happened. He didn't try to
get revenge. And he and Junior just kind of just sort of made up.
And this year, we might have a little bit more awareness--hopefully we're not
gonna blunder into a situation where we have to, like, spend four episodes
writing ourselves out of a ditch. But I don't really--I'm trying to think
if there are threads. Yeah, there's Tony's legal problems--or that will
be--that's a problem. The way we approach it every--the way I approach it
every year anyway--what I discuss with Robin and Mitch, you know, the other
writers on the show and Terry and Todd--Frank Renzulli was with us. The
whole--every year to me is about--and we're making this up as we go along
because there is no template for "The Sopranos." The first year was the first
season, and we just sort of, as I say, blundered our way through it. What's
important for me is just what's going on for Tony Soprano between episodes one
and 13 in his journey through life--his psychological and emotional journey.
That's the only story that we really focus on.
GROSS: It seems to me that "The Sopranos" started off with a little bit more
comedy and that it's become just more tragic for the characters as time goes
Mr. CHASE: I know, people have said that. And I didn't realize that. I
don't see it that way. So it's very difficult.
GROSS: You don't see it that way?
Mr. CHASE: I don't.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. CHASE: The last show, we did a sudden U-turn, if that's what people are
talking about. That last show...
GROSS: The last show of the second season?
Mr. CHASE: Mm-hmm, the last show of the second season. In that there was a
plan--we had a plan for Tony's emotional growth, or lack of growth, throughout
the first season. The idea we carried over from the first season was OK based
on what we seemed to remember about therapy or know about therapy if you can
press at all because, of course, it takes much longer that this. And so you
get to a point--you're--`My parents did this, my parents did that,' you're
slamming your parents, your--the shrink is saying, `Oh, those parents you had,
what do you expect? You can't be better than you are because'--and you go
through that and then you get to a point where it's, `OK, so your parents were
your parents, now what are you gonna do?' You know, as a shrink once said to
me, `What would you like to do? Should we have an auto-da-fe and burn the old
lady at the stake?' And--`She's your mother, what can you do about it?' And
so we got to that point in the show and the second season was to be--was about
actually, Tony realizing that--people kept saying to him that he was his own
worst enemy, that the seeds of his own destruction and his problems were
internal as they are with all of us, really, in the end. You're here and
there's no excuses for who you are.
The kind of U-turn that we took rather suddenly was as we were doing show 13,
I suddenly--something in me kind of snapped and I got tired of some of the
moralizing that some of the characters were doing. And I began to feel that
Tony Soprano is a gangster, he is a mobster, end of story. And that's enough
said about him as regards to his quote, unquote, "internal development" for
now. And so in the end, the feeling that I got from the last show was
that--and I thought it was also necessary to remind the audience this is a
mobster, this is a gangster, you may think he's lovable. He's also a very,
very scary man.
GROSS: Let's hear a scene between Tony and his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, from
about three episodes from the end of last season. And this gets a little bit
to what you're talking about. This conservation isn't about Tony's mother,
it's about who Tony is and the kind of problems he's responsible for of his
own volition in, you know, the work that he's doing and in the crimes that
he's committing. So here's Tony with Dr. Melfi.
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. LORRAINE BRACCO (Dr. Jennifer Melfi): You know why a shark keeps
Mr. GANDOLFINI: They gotta keep moving or they'll die. They can't breathe
Ms. BRACCO: There's a psychological condition known as elixathimya(ph)
common in certain personalities. The individual craves almost ceaseless
action, which enables them to avoid acknowledging the abhorrent things they
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Abhorrent? What certain personalities?
Ms. BRACCO: Anti-social personalities.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: My future brother-in-law ran over a guy--no reason. Guy's
paralyzed, has to piss into a catheter tube. What happens when these
anti-social personalities aren't distracted for the horrible (censored) they
Ms. BRACCO: They have time to think about their behavior, how what they do
affects other people, about feelings of emptiness and self-loathing haunting
them since childhood, and they crash.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: The scene from "The Sopranos," my guest is the creator and executive
producer of the series, David Chase. Where does that scene take us on the
development of Tony?
Mr. CHASE: Well, it was intended to be building toward some sort of
conclusion or some kind of self-awareness on Tony's part--self-awareness on
Tony's part that it's no longer--you can no longer blame your parents, your
mother, you cannot go through your life or go through therapy just leaning on
that crutch all the time. That after a while, it's you, the problem is you.
It's strange. As you were playing that scene, I became--I felt--that scene
with Melfi, I felt very sorry for Tony Soprano. I actually got choked up. I
sort of heard it for the first time because she's not only saying to him,
`This is what you do to other people,' but she's saying to him that underneath
that there's just a scared person who just hates himself.
Mr. CHASE: And I felt compassion for the guy.
GROSS: David Chase will be back. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Chase, the
creator and executive producer of the hit HBO series, "The Sopranos." Tony
Soprano has constant problems running his mob family and dealing with his
legal problems. He's too preoccupied and worried to give much time to his
wife and two children. He often feels guilty about his home life but isn't
very effective at fixing things. In this scene, he's drinking alone in the
kitchen when his teen-age daughter Meadow walks in.
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
JAMIE LYNN SIGLER ("Meadow"): Why are you sitting in the dark?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I don't know. Like the dark. Sit.
SIGLER: I got to go online.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Oh, come on. Sit for a minute. Come on. So what's going
SIGLER: With what?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Whatever. I don't know. What's going on?
SIGLER: I just told you, chat room. Is that it?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: You know I love you, right, Mead?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: No, don't Dad me. Come on. I want to know. Do you know
that I love you?
SIGLER: Yes, I know that you love me.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Because your mother doesn't think I love you enough.
SIGLER: And you listen to her?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Everything I do and everything I've done and everything I
will do, it's all for you and your mother, you know that.
SIGLER: I think you should go to bed.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I mean, I tell people you're like your mother, but you're all
me. Nothing gets by you and I know you think I'm a hypocrite.
SIGLER: I'm going to bed.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Yeah. All right, go ahead.
SIGLER: Dad, why don't you go to bed?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I'm going to finish my drink.
SIGLER: OK. Good night.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Good night, baby.
GROSS: Well, you're so lucky to have found James Gandolfini, someone who has
such an interesting face to watch and his face is kind of mercurial. I mean,
although I'm sure he's trying not to betray what he's thinking, you can see
what he's thinking on his face. And sometimes he looks very weak and
vulnerable and sometimes he's incredibly cold-blooded looking. How did you
Mr. CHASE: Well...
GROSS: Oh, and let me ask you one thing, too. In terms of looking for him,
you've cast at the center of the series someone who is a very charismatic
actor, but he's not a leading man kind of looking actor. He's got of pot
belly, receding hairline, pudgy face. It's not Al Pacino.
Mr. CHASE: No. It--I always go for the actor. If the actor who came in to
read for this part had been Cary Grant and it'd worked, I probably would have
said, `Fine, let's do that.' But we didn't. What really we were blessed
enough to have happen is that James Gandolfini came through our door and I
honestly mean this. This--you know, without Jim Gandolfini, there is no
Sopranos. There's no Tony Soprano. He is so integral to, I think, a lot of
the--people always ask me, `What do you attribute--why do people like the show
so much? Why the furor?' And it's because of him. That's why the whole
thing, I think, is so identifiable to so many people, because he just is so
human and people respond to him. Their hearts and their heads go out to him,
despite the heinous things he's doing on screen.
GROSS: There's something very `average guy looking' about him.
Mr. CHASE: And how it happened--oh, it's more than that. I think--I don't
think he is that average. I think he is a very, very
sensitive--hypersensitive man. And I think he reflects his environment in a
very, very rarified way. And he comes off as the `regular Joe,' you know.
But that's--I think what's going on there is you have a very, very extremely
emotional person and sensitive person and that's what Tony Soprano has become
as a result of him.
GROSS: Edie Falco plays the role of Carmela. What did you tell Edie Falco
about the character of Carmela after you cast her?
Mr. CHASE: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just comes in, does her work.
GROSS: Was Carmela...
Mr. CHASE: No direction. Honest to God, no direction, no nothing.
GROSS: When you...
Mr. CHASE: That's the case with most of these actors. There's very little
directing going on.
GROSS: When you wrote the character of Carmela, Tony's wife, did you base it
on any of the people who you knew from the old neighborhood where you grew up?
Because you grew up the same township that "The Sopranos" is set in.
Mr. CHASE: Right. Right. But it--when you say the old...
GROSS: Same town, I should say.
Mr. CHASE: ...when you say the old neighborhood, I think people probably get
the idea of sort of like stoops and three-story, you know, brownstone houses.
I grew up in the suburbs and that's where "The Sopranos" takes place. Were
there people in my town like that? I guess actually when I think about it, I
think she reminds me somewhat of some of my cousins.
GROSS: In what way?
Mr. CHASE: Very direct. They'll tell you exactly what's on their mind. My
cousin, Diana, was a very--I'm thinking about this for the first time. You
ask me this, I've never thought about this before. I had a cousin, Diana
Spazado(ph), who is much older than me. Actually, she's a contemporary of my
mother. But she was my cousin--she was my first cousin. And she had this
kind of--she was tough and she had this kind of world weariness about her. At
the same time, she was a great mother and an extremely capable, sharp woman.
But she--you could not push her. And, you know, if you did, you'd hear about
it. She'd come back at you.
GROSS: Well, here's a scene between Carmela and Tony from "The Sopranos."
(Soundbite from "The Sopranos")
Ms. EDIE FALCO ("Mrs. Soprano"): I hope you apologized to him.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: For what?
Ms. FALCO: Tony, you promised him you were going to be at his swim meet.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Oh, (censored) I forgot.
Ms. FALCO: How could you forget?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Something I had to do.
Ms. FALCO: Tony, he almost came in second. You should have seen his face
when you weren't there.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Yeah. Well, I saw his face the other day when he had to go
to the mall when I wanted to take him to the movies.
Ms. FALCO: What are you, six years old?
Mr. GANDOLFINI: I said I'd try to be there.
Ms. FALCO: What is with you, Tony? This whole week you're like an alien
life form among us.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: There's nothing wrong.
Ms. FALCO: Thank you for sharing.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: You know what? Leave me the (censored) alone. I'm
exhausted. I'll make it up to him, the swim meet.
Ms. FALCO: So where were you? Did you go see Christopher at the
Mr. GANDOLFINI: Yeah. I went to see Christopher at the hospital.
Ms. FALCO: Wherever you were, it couldn't have been more important than
letting your son know that you care about him.
Mr. GANDOLFINI: No, only you care. (Censored) you.
Ms. FALCO: No, (censored) you. (Censored) you.
(Soundbite of fighting)
Mr. GANDOLFINI: What's wrong with you?
GROSS: My guest is David Chase. And he's the creator and executive producer
of "The Sopranos." Writing "The Sopranos" for HBO means that you can say
things and show things that you couldn't do on broadcast TV. So here's some
of the things you've done that you wouldn't be able to do on broadcast TV:
using a lot of expletives in the dialogue; you show a couple having sex, front
to back with the guy holding a gun to the woman's head because the gun turns
him on; disposing of a body by putting it through a meat grinder, although you
don't really see anything explicit during that scene. Tony has had food
poisoning and we hear all the sounds that he makes in the toilet. I've never
quite heard that on TV. Let's start with the toilet. Why be that graphic
with the sounds?
Mr. CHASE: Just seemed real. I just felt that I--I mean, I've had food
poisoning and that's the reality of it. And we do try to do things--we try to
make things real as much as possible. The reason for doing the food
poisoning--that was not an idle choice, like, `Oh, wouldn't it be funny to
have Tony have food poisoning?' That came out of a need that I felt and I
hope most of the writers agree with--I think they did--I just didn't want--in
other words, Pus--OK, Pussy's a rat. How's Tony going to find out?
I really just didn't want to do some kind of procedural thing in which Tony
gets some little clue and then he sends somebody to find out and then people
are trying to get the case on him and they're reporting back to him and all
that exposition. It just--it bored me terribly. And I just wanted Tony to
know on some kind of subconscious level. And the food poisoning--I mean, I
guess you could say maybe the food poisoning was caused by--if you believe in
the mind-body connection, by this overwhelming sense that he had that his
friend had betrayed him. You could probably make--you could make that case, I
suppose, that that's where it came out, was in his stomach. That's where his
body broke down. And out of that delirium came this feeling, this dream that
seemed to click very solidly for him that, in fact, his friend had betrayed
him. Of course, he then did go and get the information; he found Pussy's
But we didn't have a lot of people talking it and trying to prove it or
anything like that. And so once we made that decision, then--we always just
try to do realism. It was not a--the toilet sounds were not a desire to--I
mean, they are funny. Frankly, I laugh at that stuff. But it was not--that's
not the reason we did it.
GROSS: My guest is David Chase, the creator and executive producer of "The
Sopranos." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Chase. He's the creator
and executive producer of "The Sopranos."
When you're working for HBO and there are no limits to what you say and what
you can show, then you have to consciously decide how far you really want to
go because there isn't--you know, like somebody else is going to insist that
this is the cut-off line. What kind of talks did you have with yourself or
with your fellow writers about how far you wanted to take those liberties?
Mr. CHASE: You know, it's interesting working for HBO because very early on,
before there were any other writers, when it was just me--that's during the
pilot phase--Chris Albrecht, who's the head of HBO, said to me, `You know, we
shouldn't just do things because we can do it.' And I really completely
agreed with that. So I guess there are times when we actually do have to stop
ourselves. But everything that we put--we really just try to make things
real. Everything we put in there we don't put in there because it's shocking.
I mean, the thing about the guy, you know, having sex with his girlfriend from
behind holding a gun to her head, this is something we read in a book about--I
forget the name of the book. It was a book about actually mob women in
Italy. And to my mind, it wasn't that we were just trying to, `Oh, man, look
at that.' Later on, that gun was going to come back and that scene was going
to come back to haunt that man in a big way.
Mr. CHASE: It was going to result in his death, not that that's the reason
he got killed, but, you know, you shouldn't hold a gun to somebody's head when
you're having sex, I guess. And in the great little karmic universe of the
Sopranos, he paid for that.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned you found out about that--a story like that in a
book. Where else did you go to find out about mob life? Did you have any,
you know, like connected guys who you could call up and ask questions to and
who could feed you stories? Or was it through books that--or just
Mr. CHASE: Well, it started out--I was very interested in this from a very
young age, growing up in New Jersey. I used to read the newspapers and you
know, fairly regularly during that era, they'd find a Cadillac with a body,
you know, shot, in the back of the trunk. And this is--"The Untouchables" was
on the air, the original "Untouchables" with Robert Stack and my dad and I
used to watch that all the time and I love that show. So I began immersing
myself in mob lore very early on. And so I brought to the show a lot of that.
And you know, I have to say right away that the work of Martin Scorsese has
been a tremendous influence and, obviously, a huge pleasure for me to watch as
long as he's been making films. And so I've consistently gravitated toward
it. And so I brought a lot of that with me.
And then just--you know, you kind of--some of it was soaked up from growing
up--you know, I'm sorry to say this, but it's the truth--in an Italian
American family in New Jersey. A little bit of it was just soaked up, it's
kind of in the air, just a touch. When we actually sat down and did the show,
the problem was that--what's difficult about it, is it's always difficult to
find--I knew all that stuff about "Longy" Zwillman and Johnny Diaguardia(ph),
but it's very difficult to find out what's going on in the mob now because no
one's going to talk about it. So we did talk to some law enforcement people
who were in a position to know. And then--I don't know how much of this I can
actually say--one of our writers on the show, who we miss terribly, did have
connections in his hometown to connected guys. And he was able to talk to
those guys via telephone and bring back information. So it was really--we got
it from as many places as we could.
GROSS: You were talking about how interested you were in mob lore when you
were growing up. What is the appeal of the Mafia? It's been the subject of
so many TV shows and movies and you've been interested in it, you know, all
your life. Can you put your finger on what it is?
Mr. CHASE: I just go from thing to thing. I've never--I really can't find
one sort of unified field theory that covers it. I just know that people just
seem to just relate to it in some way. I think it has to do with--I read a
quote, I believe it was by John Boorman. He had made this film "The General."
It was about an Irish mobster. He said he believed that in our life today,
everything is so bureaucratic and institutions control and actually comprise
so much of our life that there's nothing tribal left anymore and that a
gangster film is a tribal film. And I thought that struck a chord with me. I
sort of--I did believe that.
GROSS: What's your response to Italian Americans who get angry that the
connection between Italian Americans and the mob is perpetuated through "The
Mr. CHASE: I don't--you know, clearly, I'm sure this doesn't come as a
surprise, I don't have a great deal of sympathy with that position. And
there's many reasons for my attitude. You know, I go back to--I was working
on "The Rockford Files" when the Italian Anti-Defamation Movement(ph)
started in the 1970s and, you know, I grew up--as a young person in the '60s,
I recall and I still know how black people--African-Americans suffer, to this
day, suffer racial discrimination; how Hispanics, to this day, suffer racial
discrimination. And that was--the '70s was when all that--late '60s and early
'70s was when all that was really starting to boil over and along comes the
Italian Anti-Defamation League. But, of course, that was started by Joe
Colombo, who was a mobster. And so I've never been able to completely shake
Now I know that the groups around now are not run by mobsters, as far as I
know. I assume they're not. But I think what's really the most frustrating
about it is, is that--my understanding of it and I'm pretty sure about this,
is they do not represent the majority of Italian Americans. Most Italian
Americans I run into say, `Oh, we love "The Sopranos." My, God, did you get
it right.' Now what does that mean? It doesn't mean that they're gangsters.
It's true. Mobsters are a very, very small percentage of Italian Americans.
But I don't know what it is with these people, why they never stop and say to
themselves--just possibly let this thought into your head, `What am I missing
here? What is it that so many of my fellow Americans see here and see in a
very deep and profound and seemingly endless way. Is it possible that I'm
overlooking something that a lot of my fellow Italian Americans even like.'
And for whatever reason--I don't understand this--the Italian American
gangster story has become a national myth. And why people persist and they
kind of, I think, have parochial concerns in the face of that, I sometimes
want to ask them, `Are you an Italian American or are you an American,'
because this is an American story.
GROSS: My guest is David Chase, the creator and executive producer of "The
Sopranos." The second season is currently being rerun. Seasons one and two
will be replayed sometime beginning in the late summer. The third season will
begin in March 2001. David Chase will be back after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is David Chase, the creator and executive producer of the HBO
series, "The Sopranos." You initially wrote "The Sopranos" for broadcast TV,
Mr. CHASE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and then it got moved to HBO and again, Fox's broadcast--HBO you
can say and show more. How was the story different when it was for broadcast
Mr. CHASE: As I recall, there was--we never said the `F' word. And that's
about it, as far as the pilot script goes. Also, when Fox passed on it, I had
the sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons why it happened was that nobody
got killed in the pilot episode and I thought that--I thought on some level,
`You know what? People want a mob show. These guys want a gangster show.
And you didn't kill anybody.' And so that's kind of what they wanted. And so
when we did the pilot, I thought, `Well, we need to correct that. Probably
someone should get whacked in the pilot episode.' But, see, I don't really
believe that whacking is that endemic to daily--what I want to show is just
sort of daily life. And wise guys don't go around whacking people every day.
It happens very seldom. And less and less all the time. So I was trying to
do it realistically and in a way, I guess, I think that kind of hurt the
show's chances at a network.
GROSS: Well, that's funny because...
Mr. CHASE: I know. It's a strange, stupid paradigm.
GROSS: Right. Not enough violence, although you couldn't use certain
language. But the criticism would have been...
Mr. CHASE: No. No one ever said to me, `You know, David, you should have
had somebody whacked.' I came to that conclusion myself.
GROSS: Right. I see.
Mr. CHASE: They--it was just way too dark for them at Fox. It was just never
going to happen.
GROSS: Uh-huh. You've worked in broadcast TV and you've worked on cable. Do
you feel like you have more freedom on cable?
Mr. CHASE: Oh, there's no doubt about it. But I really want to make
things--something that people ask me about all the time, `Wow, you know, you
c'--and it's interesting because the networks sort of say, `Gee, well, they
can swear and they can show breasts and all that,' like--you know, `But he got
to do it,' you know. Like that's the reason. It's like we're children in,
you know, junior high or something. But I don't believe that that's where the
freedom lies is in the cursing and the nipples and all that stuff, or the
violence. The freedom that we enjoy at HBO is the freedom to tell stories in
a slow, slowly unfolding, complicated, strange, anti-rhythmic or very
rhythmic, as we choose, way of telling a story. That's where the freedom
lies. The rest of it is just window dressing.
GROSS: When you were growing up, were there movies that really scared the
heck out of you, but you couldn't take your eyes off of them?
Mr. CHASE: Oh, of course. Yes. That's the kind of movies I always
gr--that's the kind of movies I always liked. As I said, I was a scaredy kid
and yet, horror movies and scary movies, to me, were--I could not get enough
of them. And I think I found things to be terrified of in movies that other
people didn't. I--the--I think a pretty big influence on me was this William
Wellman movie, the "Public Enemy," which I saw a million dollar movie when I
was probably eight or nine. And they would play a movie all week long. And
in it, the gangster, Tom Powers, is--you know, it's the one where
Cagney's--you know, after this life of crime. Actually, the mother is very
important in that movie, too. He's got this sort of sweet, little old Irish
But after this horrible life of crime and smashing the grapefruit into that
woman's face and everything else that he did, he gets shot and he says, `I
ain't so tough,' and he collapses on his knees. But at the end of the movie,
he's in a hospital and he's--and the rival gangs call his mother's house,
says, `We're sending Tom home.' And his brother runs up the stairs, says,
`Ma, Ma, they're bringing Tom home.' And she put on his "I'm Forever Blowing
Bubbles," record and it's playing and she's making the bed and she's sort
of singing and feathers are going every place. She's happy and his brother's
all excited he's coming home. And then there's a knock on the door and the
brother opens the door and you see Cagney, he's wrapped up in a blanket with
his head all in bandages from the hospital, tied up like a mummy and he's dead
and his dead eyes and he just kind of topples toward camera right into the
lense. That's the end of the movie. This was the most frightening thing I'd
ever seen. I was scared about this for a month. I could not get that out of
GROSS: What was it that was so scary?
Mr. CHASE: I don't know to this day. Just the idea--those people's
expectations in the house. It's actually making me kind of sad. I don't
know, their expectations of what was going to happen and what really did
happen, that they were so happy that he was coming home and he was dead in
such a horrible way and how he wasted his life.
GROSS: Now that "The Sopranos" is so successful, I'm sure you're getting
offers for movies and television networks and so on. What direction would you
most like to head in at that time when you're through with "The Sopranos,"
whenever that is.
Mr. CHASE: I'm not getting as many offers as you probably think...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Mr. CHASE: ...or as I would like.
Mr. CHASE: But what direction I would like to head in? I don't intend to do
anymore television series. In fact, I can state that as a certainty.
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. CHASE: Well, I would never go back to network television again. There's
just no reason to. There's nothing there for me. And I've had such a good
time doing this show, no matter--whether it's on network or wherever it was,
that it'll be impossible, impossible situation to top. And so I wouldn't even
try. And, you know, I've never really wanted--this is the other thing
that's--it's a long story, but I've never really, really wanted to be in
television. I always wanted to be in the movies and I never could make that
break. Feature films is what I love.
GROSS: Do you ever hear from people who are in the mob and watch the series
and comment one way or another?
Mr. CHASE: No. Not directly. There are people who work on the show in New
York who know people who know people who know people. And the word has
filtered back through that pipeline that--the first season what we heard was
they just were OK. That's all we ever heard. We're OK. But then recently in
the New York metropolitan area, stories are pending about a Jersey crime
family who--FBI transcripts came out in which they talked about "The Sopranos"
and they felt that "The Sopranos" was based on them, which it isn't. I want
to be quick to assure them. No, it is not at all. I mean, we make up a lot
of this stuff and it's interesting that it happens to coincide with what they
feel is real life. And actually, I mean, in terms of--from a realistic
standpoint, I have to take that--I'm glad. I'm glad that they fe--I'm glad
that we're getting something right about that life because as I said, it's
impossible to penetrate.
GROSS: All right. Well, David Chase, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you
so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHASE: Thank you very much. It's been really great.
GROSS: David Chase is the creator and executive producer of the HBO series
"The Sopranos." The second season is currently being rerun. The new season
begins in March 2001.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.