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The Fretts on Film Interview: “Sopranos” Edition

December 19, 2012

It’s a Family reunion for James Gandolfini, Steven Van Zandt and David Chase on the Sopranos creator’s first film, Not Fade Away. I spoke with all three for today’s New York Daily News about their work on the film, which casts the former Tony as the father of a New Jersey rocker in the ’60s and features music overseen by exec producer Van Zandt. And I’m breaking the code of omerta by publishing their extended remarks here.


You had gone to film school originally. Why did it take so long for you to make a movie?

You’d have to ask the studios. I wrote many scripts. You’d have to ask them why it took me so long.

What’s the biggest difference in the medium? Trying to tell a story in 2 hours versus the open- ended nature of television?

Yes. My biggest hurdle that I had to solve, and I didn’t completely solve it, is I should have made more cuts in the script before we started shooting. I should have cut the script down. I had too much story.

Was it painful to lose things?

Yeah, there were some things that were very painful.

Will we see some of those things on DVD?

Yes, you will.

I would imagine there was some pressure if your specific case because of The Sopranos. How do you deal with trying to top yourself?

Not well.

Do you try to put it out of your mind?

Yeah. During The Sopranos, I was able to push a lot of that stuff away and stay inside a bubble and not pay attention to it. But what’s made it more difficult is the internet and wifi and all of that. It’s just too easy to access, and you become curious. You hear somebody said something and you want to go look at it, and then that takes you somewhere else and then that leads you somewhere else. That’s a constant struggle to stay away from that stuff. It’s toxic.

What was your experience like premiering the movie as the centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival?

It was tremendously thrilling. It was great. It’s so professional and they’re so gracious. It reminds you that there are people out there who really love film. That’s the reason they’re there, that’s the reason they paid for those tickets. They love cinema. And most of them are not going to the multiplex or they’re not checking out cartoons. The fact that there is a theater full of people like that is inspiring, and it’s kind of a relief.

How did you settle on the title of the movie and also the name of the band? Weren’t they both originally called Twylight Zones?

In the original version, the band named themselves The Twylight Zones because it was out there and it sort of sounded like Rolling Stones—they never acknowledged that. But then there was a problem with the people who own the rights to The Twilight Zone. Even though we spelled it differently, they didn’t want us to use it. I was also convinced it would be confused with the Twilight saga. So we just thought it was better to give it a different title.

So in the movie we don’t really know what the band’s name is, right?

No, they never do settle on a name.

How was working with Gandolfini again?

He did seem more relaxed. The Sopranos was a tremendous amount of work. He was in almost every scene of every show. We would do 14 or 16 hour days and then he would have to go home and learn his lines for the next day. It was murder on him playing a murderer.

Steven said he had to get the rights to these various songs.

He was invaluable.

Do you think he got music you may not have been able to get rights to obtain?

I have no doubt.

He said you weren’t necessarily sure what songs you wanted to use until you actually saw them cut together with the film. How did you pick the ones that ultimately made the final cut?

A lot of the songs are written into the script. But then I kept changing it so I’d play that song against the picture and either it wouldn’t work at all or I’d start to get bored with it or it was too similar to the last song. You discover that stuff as you go along. So the playlist was always changing. You just keep experimenting. For example, the song at the end, we must have auditioned 100 songs for that slot with all different kinds of tones and different mood. That was one of the more important ones, but we did that with almost every musical section in the movie. I had it written all down. I changed it in post-production.

Why did you decide to go with John Magaro as the lead? Was there any pressure from the studio not to go with such an unknown?

The studio was really very good about it. They made it clear that it would be a nice thing if we found a name or someone who was “bankable,” but they didn’t make an issue about it, it wasn’t a deal breaker. When they finally saw John and they saw his test, they agreed, he was the best guy for the job.

What did you see in him to give him the role?

It’s a very simple answer. He’s just a very deep actor.

Did you feel a kinship with him? Was he in some ways playing you?

Well, I never really saw it that way. No, I didn’t. I don’t really see Douglas as me and I don’t see John as me. I liked him—you know, we were strangers when we first met and we’ve gotten sort of closer as things have gone on. It’s a different generation.

I didn’t even realize Bella Heathcote was Australian so I guess that shows her talent! How did you find her and cast her?

She came through the typical casting situation. You put out a breakdown and they can start sending clients in, and she came in and she read and then she came back and she read again. And then she came in and she screen tested with John and she got the job.

What do you like about her?

She’s very spontaneous. She’s smart. She has this great quality, I don’t know what you call it, I’ve never been able to figure out a word for it.

She’s seems ethereal to me.

Ethereal! There, that’s good. There is an ethereal quality.

I had spoken with Jack Huston at the Boardwalk Empire premiere about the film, and he said Terence Winter had recommended him to you.

I asked him if he knew any young guys that would be good and he mentioned Jack.

What do you like about Jack as an actor? He seems to have a lot of range.

He’s got a tremendous amount of range and he’s just so positive. He likes direction and you give him a piece of direction and he goes, ‘Yeah yeah yeah! Yes yes! Let’s try that! That’s interesting, that’s good!’ He’s just got so much energy and he’s so positive. The same is true for Bella. They’re game—they’ll try it, they’ll give it a shot.

I guess Jack has got it in his genes.

I guess so!

Steven was saying he was kind of begging you to hire musicians that could act so you didn’t have to go through this boot camp with them, but was it just impossible to find?

We did an online search and searched all the colleges and Juilliard and put the word out in all those places and Broadway, and we didn’t find anyone who had any musical chops that could also handle the acting. So we finally went through the conventional way of casting. But we did find two guys in that early process.

What’s your style like as a director on the set? You seem like a soft-spoken guy, but I’d imagine you have strong opinions about what you’re looking for.

Yeah, I have strong opinions and I’m kind of a perfectionist and I hope I don’t over-direct, but I will sometimes dwell on something until it’s the way I want it.

Do you consider yourself more of a writer than a director or is it equal?

Well, I used to consider myself more of a writer. But I always wanted to be a director. And now I’m starting to consider myself more of a director. I think equal, actually. For me, it’s all part of the same process.

I want to talk to you about the ending of the movie. I won’t ruin it, but it struck me as unconventional and experimental, kinda like the Sopranos finale. Were you concerned with putting out another ending that might divide people?

I knew this ending would please some people tremendously and other people would hate it. I wasn’t really conflicted about it, and neither was the studio that much, to tell you the truth. But I don’t see it the same—I think The Sopranos was much more open-ended than this ending. At the end, you know all you need to know about Doug and you’ve got a pretty good idea of where he’s headed.

Why is music so important to you?

I just love it. I don’t know. I just love listening to it. It’s that simple.

Is it a different visceral experience than film or television for you?

A little bit. Certainly than television. But yeah, music and movies are very, very similar. I think Stanley Kubrick said music has a lot more in common with movies than with literature. I think they both have this ability to affect you really deeply emotionally. I remember when I was a kid when I first doing this, I noticed that movies can actually affect you physically—people cringe in their seat, they laugh, they cry. Your body gets into it, as it does with music.

It’s more gut-level, less intellectual?

Yeah, less intellectual, I think.

Why do you think television is different than that? Is it more casual?

Television, a lot of it’s a listening environment and not a watching environment. Television used to have nothing to do with emotions. Network television I think still doesn’t. I don’t know what it’s about, but it doesn’t affect anything on a gut level, at least for me. It didn’t used to, and I don’t watch it that much, but it still doesn’t seem to. Even if you go over to cable, you’re in your home and the phone is ringing and people are talking. It’s not quite the same as being in that dark room looking at a huge screen.

Do you think you’ll do another TV series or are you a movie guy now?

I don’t think I would ever do another TV series. I would do a miniseries, but once The Sopranos was over, I decided I would not do a weekly series anymore.

Because you can’t top it? Or is it just too much effort?

I just don’t love it. Been there, done that. It’s a lot of effort. There’s only so many years in a life.

Any chance of a Sopranos movie?

I don’t think there is. Every time, my standard answer is, I’m not working on it, nobody’s working on it, I occasionally get some ideas for it, but an idea is not going to cross my brain and make me want to actually tackle it. There’s some limitations with it to begin with. It would have to be some sort of prequel. At the same time, I would never say never, but every time I say that, I see only, ‘Oh he says there might be a movie.’ I didn’t say that! All I said was, ‘Probably not, but never say never.’

I didn’t realize that your first bit of directing was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Have you seen Hitckcock yet?

I haven’t seen it, but I’m looking forward to it.

It’s about a director in his 60s who’s fighting to stay relevant. Do you see any parallel between where you are in your career and Hitchcock?

Well, I think I’m getting as fat as he was, so I guess I see a parallel there.


Your title is music supervisor, but it sounds like you had a lot more responsibility than just putting the soundtrack together.

Yeah, yeah. This stuff is fun and it’s nice when you can connect it to the score, so to speak, and in this case, it’s a needle-drop type of score so the soundtrack and then all of the great 60 songs becomes a score. But the bulk of my work was with the band and turning actors into a band, and then designing the sounds of that band from ’62 to ’68 and it was a lot of fun. It was really a very unusual type of gig and something that I have been practicing my whole life for.

How much did you really have to teach the actors? Sounds like you started from scratch with some of them at least.

Yeah, it was remarkable. We ended up getting really lucky. A couple of the guys could play, but the main three guys couldn’t. they never sang, never played, not even a little bit. But now, you look at the film, and you see the master shot. There’s nothing being faked, he’s actually playing the drums! It’s amazing. And even more lucky, both John and Jack ended up being able to sing, and that was critical. If we have to fake the playing, that can be fake—luckily we didn’t have to—but the singing, it’s always a little weird for me. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it’s hard when actors sing to make it believable. It’s just one of those strange things. I don’t know why, maybe they feel like they have to act like a singer. There’s something that happens that makes it just always seem a little bit kind of false. So our whole movie depended on that not being the case.

In terms of putting the soundtrack together, how much did David know he wanted and how much did you suggest tracks?

Well, David had everything to do with the songs. We went through every single song. Ultimately, David picked—we ended up with 25 or 30 in the movie out of 50 or 60, I think we licensed. Not every film studio would understand that because we really—we did get fantastic deals everywhere because it was David Chase—but you have 50 songs, and we’re talking Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, it’s no joke. It can add up. We were lucky that everybody really gave us great deals, but still, 50 songs, it’s a lot of money. So anyway, David was really involved in the picking of the songs and I insisted on him being in the studio every single day. Look, this is the movie about these guys in a band. David is extraordinarily musical, of course, it’s partly autobiographical, he was a drummer and all that. So I said, ‘Look, I want you there because as a producer, I’m going to be making decisions about every 15-20 seconds, that’s what happens when you’re making a record. And I can go a little bit this way, and a little bit that way, I will get you whatever you envision, but I need you there to get really specific about it.’ So he was there and it’s tricky stuff—they’re just starting out so how good do you make them? Well, you want them to be good enough that the audience is going to root for them and dig it, but at the same time, you can’t be too polished and too slick and all of that. So it was a fun challenge, and in the end, it really turned out very much what David had in mind. That was the main thing. That’s my job is to help him realize his vision, and he really is very specific with his visions, and it worked out good.

How much do you think it helped that it was you putting in these request for these songs with your cred that you bring?

It did. Usually, you license a song and you’re very specific. you go to the publisher, you go to whoever controls, and you say, ‘We’re using this song and we’re using 35 seconds of it from this part of the song to that part of the song.’ Very, very specific. In this case, I had to go to everybody and say, ‘Listen, David definitely wants a Beatles song, but he doesn’t know which one and he’s not going to know which one until he tries every single one of them, which is going to be a post-production type of maneuver.’ So I was working like a year or two ahead of time telling these people that we want something, but we don’t know what it is. So it was especially challenging with him, but I know how he is. I’ve known him so long now. He’s just not going to settle, he’s not going to decide early. It’s going to be a process and everybody’s going to have to go with that process. And everybody did out of respect to him so it was wonderful!

How much of a different challenge do you think it was for him to direct a movie versus his TV career?

I think we all grow up as movie fans, you start off by being a fan of the art form, andhe probably could have made a film at any time in his career, to be honest. He’s one of those very talented guys. And I think there’s probably a bigger challenge with the script, rather than the actual directing. Directing is pretty much directing. The process is a little bit slower with movies, maybe a little bit more with the lighting, there’s a little bit more coverage. But it comes down to the script—you gotta condense it, you’ve gotta take what you would normally spread over 8, 10, 12 episodes in a year or something like that and make it a beginning, middle and end right there in that two hours. So I think that’s probably a bit of a bigger challenge because TV is really nice that way. You can relax and kind of just let things develop and let things slowly evolve. But this. not only does it gotta be condensed and evolve and have your beginning, middle and end, but it has to all happen in a very, very limited amount of time so I think that’s probably a bigger challenge.

What’s his style like on the set? I’ve talked to him a few times and he seems like such a soft-spoken guy, but obviously he’s very opinionated at the same time.

Yeah, not a lot of hysteria [laughing], no it’s not like that. It’s more of just a calm—he’s very pleasant, very funny and totally miserable at the same time. But I can totally relate to him, I’m the same way. We share that kind of working-class sort of productivity. I think we have that attitude like, let’s just do something that’s great.

And what’s his dynamic like with James Gandolfini? Obviously he’s bringing a very different character to this movie, but what do you think they brought from working together on The Sopranos

Yeah, it was very different. Jimmy was a lot more relaxed. Jimmy on The Sopranos, he had never been a lead on a TV show and was used to making movies and it’s a lot less pressure being in a movi. Then being thrown into a lead role, you go from doing 2 pages a day to doing 7. And guess what? 5 of those 7 are you! The poor guy. But he rose to that occasion, obviously, but he’s just one of the greatest actors of all time in my opinion.

Is the movie true to you in terms of your experience in that era?

Very much. We talked a lot. David wanted to make sure that every single moment was accurate, and not only with his experience, but with mine. Obviously that’s my world. So yeah, it was very, very accurate, and Jimmy’s playing everybody’s father. That is entirely accurate—that whole generation gap thing, which is hard to believe now, but that’s what happened back then.

Any chance of a Sopranos movie as far as you know?

[Laughing]. I don’t think so unfortunately. But Silvio’s still breathing—if there is one, he’ll be there! But I don’t think so. I’m doing Lilyhammer now. David’s making movies. Jimmy’s busy. So I don’t know. I guess you never can say never, but it would be difficult to figure out exactly how to do that. Half the cast was killed [laughing] and that causes all kinds of complications. I wouldn’t hold my breath.



David said you had some hesitation about if it was a good idea for you guys to work together again? What were your concerns?

It wasn’t for us to work together again. It’s that this is a different kind of movie and I didn’t want people—the small amount of people that would care—I didn’t think it would be good maybe to have me and him together again because they would have a certain connotation to that.

Like people would expect it to be a Sopranos kind of movie?

Yeah, maybe they’d expect something like that. I don’t know—it just seemed like it might shift something, as opposed to just getting somebody else to do it, and it might be better for the movie and for him. But he came back and said everyone had thought about it because no one was sure either and then they said it would be a good thing. Of course I wanted to work with him. As I have said, when you find somebody much smarter than you that wants to work with you, do it because you’re going to end up looking good.

Steven was saying he felt like you were more relaxed this time because you didn’t have so much pressure on you to carry the whole project playing the lead and being in so many scenes in The Sopranos. Was that your experience?

Oh yeah. I’m much more relaxed in everything now. Of course. It was less hours and it was kind of fun to be around some of the crew members that were from the Sopranos so it was nice to go back to that. It was also kind of a tribute to my father in my mind a little bit. That was another thing why I was glad to be doing it.

What in particular reminded you of your dad?

Well, my father is from that generation. They had a different idea of happiness and different idea of a lot of things. And then at a certain point, you realize your father was a guy who had dreams of things that he wanted to do, and perhaps he had to sacrifice a great deal to raise a family. And when the son realizes that, that’s when he looks at the father with different eyes. And there’s a scene in there that’s a little bit like that. And I remember when it happened to me and how shocked I was that my father was actually a fully formed human being who had his own ideas and dreams. And I think that’s an important thing for everyone to come to realize at some point or else you just end up being a nasty little shitty kid the rest of your life.

Are you referring to the scene when they go to dinner together?

Yeah, the father’s saying, ‘Hey. I had something that maybe I could have done.’ And I think he’s asking the son—he knows the answer already—what’s his mother going to do and if he says, ‘Oh she’ll be fine, I’ll take care of her’—that’s what he wants to hear, but even if he heard that from him, he couldn’t do that. And the way John played it was so perfect because he said the words, but there was absolutely no real intention behind them whatsoever. He’s a kid, he’s a teenager, it’s not what he’s supposed to be doing.

David is taking on a new challenge in this film. Obviously he’s very experienced in writing and directing television, but did he seem nervous at all taking on something new at this stage of his career?

No. This is a very personal story to him and he certainly knows how to do this. He’s very funny because he complains when he’s on set—it’s too cold, it’s too hot, I’m tired and my back hurts—but in a funny way. But I don’t think there’s anything he would rather be doing. He does love the editing more. He says shooting something is a pain in the ass, but again, I don’t think there’s anything he’d rather be doing.

What do you think his biggest challenge was on this? Telling a story in 2 hours rather than being open ended?

Absolutely. He’s got so much depth of the characters and each character has their own thing whereas a lot of movies, one or two characters matter and everyone else is fodder for them. He has fully formed characters and it’s difficult to put that into two hours.

Did you get a sense of how autobiographical the story was for him?

I think very.

Did you feel like you playing his father as well as your own?

Yeah. We come from similar backgrounds and I think we have a shorthand on the way our families were. I think the main thing is that I get his humor because his stuff is really funny, and when you read it on the page sometimes you can take it the wrong way and not play it that way. But he assembled a cast. Especially Molly Price—she got the humor also. The pain of it, but also it’s funny—it’s funny shit.

Do you guys have a shorthand having worked together for so long? Can you read each other’s minds in some ways?

I think so. And he also knows that—I come from theater—so I try to serve the writers. I’ll go up to him and say, ‘What do you want here?’ And also, he lets me do plenty. But yeah, we have to. If we don’t have a shorthand by now….

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