The Sopranos' creator says Tony’s vulnerability is what attracts viewers
‘THIS SHOW ISN’T PRETTY’
The Sopranos' creator says Tony’s vulnerability is what attracts viewers
DAVID CHASE admits to having a few things in common with his most famous creation, Tony Soprano. For one, a difficult relationship with his mother, now deceased. (Tony’s mother plotted to whack him; Chase’s merely threatened to poke his eye out when he annoyed her as a child). For another, both have undergone psychotherapy. And like the fictional mob boss, Chase, 57, is an Italian-American from New Jersey (his family name, De Cesare, was dropped in the early part of the 20th century). For the past 30 years, Chase has worked as writer and producer of a number of top television shows, including The Rockford Files, I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure. But it’s only as creator, producer and writer of Home Box Office’s The Sopranos that Chase feels he has really lived up to his own rigorous standards. Maclean’s Calgary Bureau Chief Brian Bergman spoke with Chase last week in Banff, where he was on hand to receive the Award of Excellence at the 24th annual Banff Television Festival.
Before HBO agreed to do it, The Sopranos was rejected by Fox TV and several other major U.S. networks. In retrospect, was that a good thing?
Oh yes. It would have been an aggravation for all of us. I might have deluded myself into thinking they were ready to do something different. But we’d have argued every day. It would have been the case of two different sets of expectations crashing on the tracks.
It’s hard now to imagine anyone other than James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano. But would a mainstream network have let you cast him?
Probably not. I think they would have been so worried about the content of the show they would have wanted it to be personified in some really handsome guy. Like that would make it any less evil.
Were you surprised to learn that CTV had decided to run the series in prime time, albeit
with a lot of viewers’ discretion warnings about profanity, nudity and violence?
I was amazed when they did that. I still can’t believe it. I can’t conceive what the meetings leading up to that must have been like.
I’ve heard people talk about The Sopranos as a guilty pleasure. They really like the show, but feel a bit sheepish about the fact. Do you understand that reaction?
Sure. I can see that, I can understand it on an instinctive basis. This show stakes out some terrain that isn’t pretty. We’re watching this big baby’s bad behaviour and saying to ourselves, “you know, I understand where he’s coming from.” To me, the most interesting, and amazing, thing is that so many people watch and love this show.
And what does that tell you?
That life is more complicated than we’ve generally been shown in the television universe. And people are willing to see that. They don’t need to be constantly reassured. They can deal with the complexities.
In a weird way, The Sopranos is about family values. Tony is a cold-blooded killer, but he’s also a family man. Is this one of the complexities you’re talking about?
I figured the only way to make a mob drama work on television was to deal with a family. That’s not an original thought; it’s what The Godfather was about. But I also thought it was crucial to bring the women up from the background. Starting with the mother, Livia. Tony’s original nemesis was not the gang lord across town. It was his mother.
How inspiring was your own mother in developing this theme?
Very. My mother was not a sociopath like Tony’s mother, Livia. But it’s fair to say that, for whatever reasons, she was someone who never grew up. She had some immature, childish, strange narcissism about her. She just behaved in the most outrageous ways. I used to tell people stories about my
mother, how she’d say things to me like, “I’d rather see you dead than avoid the [Vietnam] draft.” My wife would tell me that I should really do a show on my mother, that she was hysterical. And I’d say, “who would want to see a story about a TV producer who has problems with his mother. That’s so me-generation, so yuppie.” But then I started thinking: what if the guy was with the Mafia? He’s a real tough guy and you put him with this overbearing mother. Maybe that would work.
Growing up in New Jersey, how aware were you of the mob?
I was fascinated with those guys. They were Italians and they weren’t being pushed around. They gave as good as they got. That appealed to me as a kid.
And yet The Sopranos has taken a lot of heat from some Italian-Americans, who say the show defames them.
Oh yes. They say, “he’s got us all wrong. We’re not all mobsters. Italian-Americans do great things.” Well, yeah. But this is a TV show. It’s about action, the struggle for power, good and evil. Anyway, at this point, Italians have done so well in the U.S., they are in such positions of respect, how can they let this bother them?
In explaining one of the threads behind The Sopranos, you’ve noted that the U.S. is the only country to enshrine a right to the pursuit of happiness and yet so many people are depressed. What are you getting at?
People come to America from all over the world to make it. We are all promised so much by the media and by advertisers. It’s a wearing, despairing kind of march. And when you get there, you think, “I don’t feel any better about myself now.” And that’s Tony Soprano.
Is it true that psychiatric associations in the U.S. have given The Sopranos awards and that some psychiatrists say more male patients
are coming forward because of the show?
Yes. I think it’s done something for their industry. By and large, they say we give a more honest representation of what the job of psychiatry is like.
About your decision to work in television rather than movies, you once said the following: “I did a bad thing. I took the money. I didn’t have the guts to stop it. I compromised, hugely.” Do you really feel that way? I do.
But all the series you’ve been involved with are a cut above the quality of your average TV show.
I know. I’ve worked with, and for, great people. I’ve been very fortunate. But I know from my personal standards that what I wanted to do was something that took a lot more personal courage.
And I didn’t do it. I got used to having a long-term paycheque. I became too chicken-hearted to venture out and say, “OK, you want to write movies? You’re going to say no
to all that money and security and just sit there in your garret and write those scripts.” I didn’t do it.
Do you feel better about what you do as a result of The Sopranos?
Yes. HBO has provided me with a place where it’s been possible to express my kind ofwriting and how I perceive human life. I’ve just been so lucky. I’m getting this award for excellence. But I should be getting an award for luck. iifl
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.