The first image David Chase had in mind for the show that became The Sopranos was a closeup of Tony Soprano opening his eyes, “waking up for the day”. That scene ended up falling later in the pilot. The opening scene, as any of the show’s superfans will happily inform you, watches Tony eyeing up a sculpture in a therapist’s waiting room with baffled rage. The show is 20 years old this year, and if that makes you feel ancient, “think how I feel,” says creator David Chase, who, at 74, is ferocious looking, with beady black eyes and the intense, long-suffering air of the protagonist whose name has become synonymous with his own.
If The Sopranos was groundbreaking at its debut two decades ago, it now occupies an even rarer category: a show that has become more admired and beloved with time. The Guardian has named The Sopranos the best TV show of the century so far, and its influence continues to be felt across viewing platforms that didn’t exist at the time of its conception. The prestige TV series, which unspools like a Russian novel but engages like a telenovela, set the tone for the boom in high-quality binge-programming – funny, smart, acutely well-observed and immensely addictive – that has reinvented the form.
Chase conceived of The Sopranos after decades of writing for network shows such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure. He was entirely unsurprised when Fox turned down the idea. “They don’t trust their audience at all,” he says. The Sopranos was too indeterminate; not a straightforward mob drama but not a mob comedy, either, although it is funny. In terms of character development, it’s too slow for network tastes. And then there was Tony himself. “I think they were afraid of it. Because how could you like this guy?”
The Sopranos ended up at HBO. Surprisingly, Chase thinks it would have a tough time being commissioned today, in spite of the fact that, after six seasons and 86 episodes, it is credited with changing audience tastes. “In this landscape? Sure,” he says. “Tony Soprano is too fat. He’s too crude. Who cares about New Jersey? I’ve seen these guys before.” There is a long pause. “It’s not dystopian enough. Everything seems to be dystopian now, and this isn’t.” Plus, I suggest, nobody in television can predict what’s going to work.
“Right, exactly. They buy something then they hate it. They hate whatever they buy. They’re all excited when they buy it, a week goes by and then they hate it. They hated Seinfeld. All that.”
We are in Chase’s office in midtown Manhattan, where he is working on his new project, The Many Saints of Newark: a movie prequel to The Sopranos set in 1967 that follows Tony and the other protagonists as young men. The young Tony will be played by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael. Chase originally wanted to work in film; until his own show changed the balance of power, he and almost everyone else in Hollywood considered TV the inferior medium. Now that his wish has come true, he finds himself, with effortless pessimism, missing some elements of the HBO experience. “It made me appreciate the fact that we could write so quickly, on command, for a deadline. Sort of like journalism. Crank it out.” Is making a movie agonising? “Yes it is. I read the other day that Alfonso Cuarón wrote Roma in six days or something.” He looks immensely depressed. “I could never do that.”
Returning to Tony’s childhood has been a strange experience. By the end of filming The Sopranos, Chase and James Gandolfini, who died in 2013, were thoroughly sick of each other. “He was tired of me, for sure. And I was kind of tired of him. But then we went on to make a movie together [2012’s Not Fade Away] and things were fine. It was refreshed.” So too, after two decades, is Chase’s interest in the show’s backstory, although revisiting the characters has not been simple. Not only is the film is set in a different era, but the setting – downtown Newark, as opposed to the New Jersey suburbs where Chase grew up – is unfamiliar. To tell the story of Tony’s childhood, Chase is ranging further outside his own experience than he did while concocting some of the show’s more outlandish plot lines.
The common factor, of course, is the psychological acuity with which Chase writes. The success of The Sopranos lies in the instantly recognisable relationship between Tony and his toxic mother Livia, which Chase based on his relationship with his own mother. The sense of Tony’s mid-career burnout drew on Chase’s own experience too, although when he rewatches early episodes now, what strikes him is how young Gandolfini was – only 35 in the pilot. “I see him now and he looks like a kid.”
It was Gandolfini’s charm, says Chase, that accounted for so much of the show’s popularity, particularly the tricky act of getting audiences to sympathise with a killer. “I could tell you a million reasons, but one of them, I’m pretty sure, is that Jim Gandolfini was a magnet. He was impeccable. His eyes are sad. They’re alive. His problems are our problems.”
Chase’s mother was already dead when he wrote The Sopranos; he doubts he could’ve written the show had she still been around. Looking back, he thinks he went overboard in characterising his childhood as bad. In fact, it was largely happy, a childhood in which he was “free to roam and do what I wanted. Break windows.” His father owned a hardware store and his mother, although difficult, didn’t interfere in his life too much at that stage. He wrote about her before The Sopranos, he says, and “she didn’t recognise herself. I did an episode of The Rockford Files that was kind of like The Sopranos, about an Italian mother and her son who’s a hit man. They were going to give him up so that the mob boss would give her a house. It was a similar tone. She didn’t get it.”
Was she proud of his TV career? “Not particularly. She didn’t understand it. My mother was a great one for saying, ‘who do you think you are?’ I took her to the airport one time in Los Angeles and we were waiting for the plane. I said, ‘Did you ever have Thai food?’ I was crazy about Thai food at that time. She said no. I said, ‘Oh, it’s great.’ She said” – Chase’s tone sharpens into sarcasm – “‘Oh really? You’re becoming quite a man of the world.’” He shakes his head. “And her last words to me as she got on the plane were: ‘Don’t get too cocky.’”
One of the mistakes Chase says he made while writing the original pilot for The Sopranos was trying to make it palatable to network tastes: “It was a mob show but I didn’t have anybody murdered. And I think that might’ve been one of the reasons why it didn’t sell.” For a while, he had been happy turning out formulaic scripts on hit shows with big mainstream audiences, not least because it was so well paid. “I mean, that’s the problem: the money. The money was attractive, particularly when you’re raising a family. And I was lucky in that I was working with people who made shows that weren’t disgusting to work on.”
And yet, “there was always a grain of something else, bugging me. I just didn’t feel I was right for that medium. I was very lucky, but I was just never happy, never content.”
Some of this was because of Chase’s ornery nature. But he also chafed against the more absurd notes that came down from network executives. “I remember one time on The Rockford Files, we had a meeting before the season started. And the guy who was our new liaison with the network gave us a list of story ideas they’d like to see for the season. One was Jim’s real daughter, Gigi, is kidnapped and Jim has to go find her. Another was a baby is left on Jim’s doorstep. Stuff like that.” He shakes his head in what-a-world fashion. “It’s absurd.”
Most of Chase’s work is character driven, and his first idea for The Sopranos came from the central dynamic between Tony and “the mother who was problematic and sent to a nursing home; she was his real enemy. That was the first thought. I had that idea for a movie, but my agent at the time told me that mob comedies weren’t happening, so I put it aside.” Around that time, he was asked if he’d be interested in doing a TV version of The Godfather. Chase refused – “because it had been done” – but it revived his interest in his own mob idea. “I was thinking, not The Godfather, but I have that thing about the guy going to therapy. Maybe I’ll try that.”
A mobster-in-therapy was a funny idea, but Chase didn’t see it as a sendup. He himself had been saved by therapy; without it, he would almost certainly have driven away his wife, Denise Kelly, to whom he has been married for almost 50 years: “She saved my life.” He first saw a therapist when he was 31, after his wife’s sister died of a brain aneurysm. Kelly was grieving, but on the way back from the funeral, all Chase could do was complain about how awful his mother had been. She had been pretty awful; when he rang her to break the news of his sister-in-law’s death, “she said, ‘She died from what?’ I said, ‘A brain aneurysm.’ She said, ‘You see David? She was too smart.’”
His mother’s response was beside the point, of course. “My wife had lost her sister and all I could talk about was my parents and the problems they created for me. I was just totally selfish. And my wife said to me, ‘You need help.’” He was in therapy on and off for years and says it helped him immeasurably, although he is still constitutionally inclined to be “gnawed to death by doubt” – the main antidote to which is his wife. “It’s not that she is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, she’s not a Pollyanna. But she’s not subject to this endless dismal terror and negativity. She doesn’t think that way.”
These days, Chase understands that happiness is a moving target. At the height of The Sopranos’ success, life was pretty good – even the pressure was thrilling, compared to the somewhat problematic ease of his life now. “You just had to keep going; you had a deadline. Nowadays, when I’m writing, it gets to the point where if I don’t like it, I throw it aside and don’t finish it. There’s nothing to force me to finish it.”
It’s one of the reasons he likes directing; it doesn’t leave room for doubt. “I have trouble making decisions. Should I have the veal cutlet, should I have something else? Waiter! I’m going to change my order! But directing, you have to make decisions quickly.”
The one thing Chase has no anxiety about is The Sopranos’ endlessly deliberated ending. It ended the show with a precise degree of ambiguity that honoured the subtleties of the preceding six series, although its lack of resolution left some viewers complaining that they wanted closure. “I would say that there’s more symmetry than meets the eye,” he says. But the whole point of the ending was to avoid wrapping it up too neatly.
Chase’s bullishness evaporates when it comes to new projects, however, and he looks anxious again. Writing the prequel has been enjoyable – and also the usual nightmare. “I am like that,” he says gloomily. “I worry about the future. I worry: is it going to be any good?” He furrows his brow with a hint of amusement at his own absurdity and says: “That comes from my mother.”