Not Fade Away director David Chase amplifies the ‘60s
David Chase has had a longer career in TV than most professional showrunners would care to admit. Of course, a track record that runs from The Rockford Files to The Sopranos, along with Northern Exposure and I’ll Fly Away Home, is something to brag about. But Chase had never directed an actual movie in all that time, and he was determined that his big-screen debut would be more personal than anything he brought to the tube.
“My ambition was always to be a writer-director for movies,” Chase says on the line from a Toronto pit stop. “I was not really happy in TV, as I’ve said, really, from the beginning, and I started talking about making movies during The Sopranos. When I was finished with that series, I wanted to do something in the suspense field—if not a horror film, at least a tough-assed psychological thriller. Still, I was never quite happy with the ideas I came up with. Guess I could have done a different sort of crime story, but I had done all that, with guns and betrayals and beatings and everything.”
So Chase hit the Reset button and travelled back to his own adolescence, when the most compelling things in the world were bad girls and good songs.
“One of my favourite parts of doing The Sopranos was picking the music, and finally I thought, ‘Why not go whole hog and do a story about music?’ ”
The result is Not Fade Away, a period-perfect recapitulation of growing up in the mid 1960s. The film, which opens here Friday (January 4), stars young TV veteran John Magaro as a nebbishy New Jerseyite who gets caught up in the music revolution of the time—itself shadowed by the Vietnam War and an extreme generation gap. (James Gandolfini plays the kid’s working-class dad, so just imagine how that goes.)
“It’s a rock ’n’ roll movie, but I didn’t want it to be about famous people,” Chase explains. “We tried not to go for the usual benchmarks. And, of course, it helped that I got exactly the cast I wanted.”
Cast, shmast. The important thing is that he got the guitar amplifiers right!
“That was Stevie Van Zandt,” Chase allows with a chuckle, speaking of the E Streeter who served as music supervisor for The Sopranos and Not Fade Away. “He brought in a guy named Andy Babiuk, who wrote the book Beatles Gear, to get that right.”
Chase also concentrated on the hippest song cues, elevating more obscure classics over the obvious signifiers.
“Yes, I had a whole bunch of songs in my back pocket that I always wanted to put in any movie, regardless of what it was about. But, honestly, I don’t feel nostalgic for the ’60s. People forget that it was also a mean and nasty era: assassinations, war, and really vitriolic racial relations. Fascinating times, but it wasn’t the Age of Aquarius.”
Chase—born David Henry DeCesare in 1945, just a few weeks after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima—played bass and drums in a few New Jersey bands of the period. But he never tasted tangible glory.
“Didn’t even come close. Some guys I played with went on to make a few waves in the music industry, but nothing huge. In the ’60s, everything was improvised. By the next decade, rock ’n’ roll became ‘the music business’, and there were these templates for success. But I wanted to capture the rawness of sheer possibility that was in the air, and I think these young actors do that.
“We spent about six months casting this film, and the other people we saw just lacked the edge you see in the finished film. Will Brill, who plays the bassist, is really a fine actor, and this is his first real motion picture. And, of course, Jack Huston is great; he has this whole Errol Flynn side to him that’s hardly been tapped.”
Probably best known as Richard Harrow, the masked sniper on Boardwalk Empire, Huston plays the central band’s guitar star and main singer until Magaro’s character begins pushing him aside.
“Jack is so positive,” the director declares. “He’s up for anything and gets very excited when you give him a direction he likes. Apparently, on the set of Boardwalk Empire they call him ‘the butterfly’ because he’s all over the place—not that it shows up, in that role or any other, because he’s so controlled on-screen.”
The lanky, handsome actor, who just turned 30, is the grandson of American directing great John Huston, as well as the nephew and great-grandson of character actors Danny and Walter Huston. He is also related to French and British nobility on his mother’s side; he grew up in England and speaks with relaxed London cadences, as the Straight discovers when he calls the following day.
“As a director, David was just incredibly focused from day one,” Huston recalls on the line from New York City. “It’s great when you have a master steering the ship with such confidence. It’s just so gratifying to be able to absorb… whatever, I don’t know, substance rubs off. It was also tremendously good fun, and the shoot fostered some friendships which, hopefully, will last for a good time to come.”
Not Fade Away’s original cut was three hours, now pared down to 112 minutes, and Huston says there was a lot of material to shoot in a short period. Certainly, the young ensemble worked hard prepping for its musical demands, but with nothing as punishing as, say, the boot camp demanded for Band of Brothers.
“We absolutely ended up playing everything you hear in the movie. None of us started out as actual musicians, but after spending three months of six hours a day with Steve Van Zandt, we could jam away with the best of ’em. We can still play all those songs quite well, including solos. For my birthday just last week, my girlfriend bought me a Les Paul Zakk Wylde model, and I play it all the time. What a great job this is, that you get to hang out with all these wonderful people and learn skills you can use in the everyday world!”
Having previously played Warhol factotum Gerard Malanga in Factory Girl, and a smallish part in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Huston will next be seen as a young Jack Kerouac in Kill Your Darlings, with Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. After that, he plays a Portuguese revolutionary opposite Jeremy Irons in Bille August’s deluxe adaptation of Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon.
“I consider myself a character actor, or hope to be. The fun of it is disappearing into personalities who are as little like you as possible. I enjoy period pieces and have done quite a few of them. At the moment, I happen to be the go-to guy for mustaches.” Or half-mustaches, in the case of Boardwalk, which, he assures us, has retained his services for another harrowing season.
As for Chase, he’d be happy to leave period pieces behind.
“Yeah, I don’t want to do this again,” the director says, wrapping up that earlier call. “It might be possible to do a sequel, perhaps, set in the darker part of the ’60s, but it wouldn’t be a movie like this.”
Whatever direction he takes, it could mean leaving behind the relative anonymity of being The Guy Behind All Those TV Shows You’ve Liked for Years.
“Well, I kind of enjoyed working behind the scenes,” he admits. “But look, this is show business. I went into show business for a reason; there’s a narcissistic streak in there somewhere that wants the attention.”
So there’s still some drummer lurking inside the successful TV maker?
“Still some drummer, yes—still some lead singer in there, too!”