‘The Sopranos’ creator David Chase: ‘I’ve never watched the series. I’ve watched a couple of episodes’

On the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking mob series headed by James Gandolfini, its creator explains how it was born and why he is now revisiting the HBO hit

The Sopranos David Chase
David Chase in his New York apartment in 2019, in an image provided by HBO.DEVIN YALKIN/The New York Times
Natalia Marcos

25 years ago, a New Jersey mobster suffered a panic attack and changed television forever. On January 10, 1999, HBO premiered The Sopranos, heralding the arrival of a new golden age of television. The show’s creator, David Chase, preferred the idea of making films, but ended up working on the small screen because he had to make a living. After The Sopranos, he did not return to the format. Last Thursday, he gave EL PAÍS an interview via video call from his home in Santa Monica, California, to mark the occasion of the anniversary of the premiere of his groundbreaking series. Although he gives off the impression that, to a certain extent, he despises the medium, Chase is television history.

Question. As we’re going to talk about the 25th anniversary of The Sopranos, I wanted to start by asking you how the show came about.

Answer. Well, it was born because my mother was kind of an oddball. And my wife used to tell me, “You have to do a movie or a show about her.” So I had this idea about a gangster and his difficult mother. But I was told by agents, mafia movies don’t work anymore. So I had it stored away. And then, in 1995, my former lawyer told me that I should do a TV series. And he suggested The Godfather. And I thought, well, I don’t want to do that. It’s already been done. And then I remembered this movie idea I had about the gangster and his difficult mother. And that’s how it came about.

Q. You took the series to the free-to-air networks and they rejected it. What issues did they have?

A. They make problems about everything. Everything. At least everything that was a little bit different. What they really didn’t like was the fact that he had anxiety issues and took antidepressants. They hated that. They didn’t care if he killed people. But they didn’t like him showing weakness.

Q. You worked as a scriptwriter on television, but I read that your real desire was to make films. What didn’t you like about television?

A. Because television at that time, with a few exceptions, was so unrealistic, so inhuman. And network television was used to sell corn flakes and feminine hygiene spray. Not really to show you anything interesting. The commercials were better than the shows.

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and David Chase, in an archive image.
James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and David Chase, in an archive image.Peter Jordan - PA Images (PA Images via Getty Images)

Q. And then The Sopranos became a hit. I guess you felt the pressure of high expectations as the series progressed. How did you handle that as showrunner?

A. All the pressure was self-created because HBO was a dream factory to work at. I got no pressure from them to do anything. I mean, they want me to work, but I got no pressure from them creatively about what the content of the show should be. I had one argument, two arguments with the head of the network, just two in what, 10 years? The first one was they didn’t like the name of The Sopranos. They were concerned people would think it was about opera. And the second one was in episode five of the first season. Tony murders a guy, a snitch, an informer. And [former HBO chairman] Chris Albrecht believed that the audience wouldn’t be able to handle that for a TV lead, that they’d reject him. He said to me, “Tony Soprano is one of the most interesting and dynamic characters of the last 25 years, and you’re going to destroy all that by this murder.” And I said, well, but you know, he’s in the mafia, he’s in the mob. And that guy was an informant. And if Tony doesn’t kill him, that’s worse. People will reject him then. And he agreed.

Q. How important was James Gandolfini to the success of the series?

A. Oh, enormous. I can’t overstate it.

Q. How did you find him and why did you cast him as Tony?

A. He was brought into the process by the casting directors, Sheila Jaffe and George Ann Wolken. I had seen him only once, in Get Shorty. And I thought he was good there. What you see on the screen is what he brought to the office. And it was just obvious that it was going to be extremely exciting and extremely deep.

Q. Did you have other options for the lead?

A. Yeah, we did. We had another actor, Michael Rispoli, also a very good actor. And I was also interested in Stevie Van Zandt [who played Tony’s number two, Silvio Dante] possibly playing the lead role. But Stevie always felt a little weird that he was not a professional actor and he might be taking a job from a professional actor. Plus, I think once HBO saw Jim, and probably when Stevie saw him, everybody said, well, that’s the guy.

Q. I guess this is a hard question, but is there any scene or episode in the entire series that is your favorite, or that you’re proudest of?

A. I’ve never watched the series. I’ve watched a couple of episodes, parts of episodes, just to refresh my memory or to do research or to look at an actor that I’d forgotten. But because of the 25th anniversary, I’m doing a lot of interviews and they want to do a screening. And so I’ve looked at some episodes. It sounds very egocentric, but I don’t mean it that way. I was amazed at the shows, how they held up, and mainly the writing and the acting. It’s hard to pick a favorite.

“Tony is insecure. I never thought that. I never understood, never realized that. But that’s a lot of his problem. And I certainly am.”

Q. And any character, apart from Tony?

A. Junior. He was just so funny, so great. That character was just so great. Dominic Chianese just killed it. And here’s an anecdote. After the first season, Tony had taken over as head of the family. So it looked like Junior wasn’t going to be in it as much. So HBO wanted to cut his salary in half. Instead of rewarding him because we had reached such a pinnacle of public appreciation, they wanted to cut his salary. I was upset. I talked to him on the phone, and he said, “You know, David, I’m a stone. And you are the architect. And you put the stone wherever you need it and wherever you want. I believe in the muse and I believe it will all work out.” I had never heard an actor talk that way.

Q. Is there a little bit of you in Tony Soprano?

A. [Thinks for a few seconds] Well, quite a bit, yeah. Anger. And I’ve never said this before, but I just realized it a week ago. Insecurity. Tony is insecure. I never thought that. I never understood, never realized that. But that’s a lot of his problem. And I certainly am.

James Gandolfini and David Chase, in an image from the filming of the series.
James Gandolfini and David Chase, in an image from the filming of the series.Getty

Q. Articles about the end of the show are published every so often. And I suppose that you’re tired of being asked about it, but I’m not asking you to explain the end because, for me, it’s the best ending of any TV show. But, when you decided to end it like that, did you have any doubts?

A. Well, yes. That’s one thing I learned from running that show, and I’d watched people in positions of authority creatively. I’d been there before, but not so completely. One thing I came to understand was if you have doubts, smother them, don’t listen to them. Don’t pay attention to your doubts because you can doubt anything. You can fear anything. So, if you have something, an inspiration that really lights your fire or inspires you, stay with it throughout the doubts. Because literally, I mean, you’re a writer. You could spend all day rewriting everything — “No, I’m not saying that. No, you know what? I shouldn’t have put that sentence in there. No, I don’t know. You can’t do that.” It takes actually bravery, which has never been my strong suit.

Q. It’s been 25 years since the show premiered and television has changed a lot. Do you think The Sopranos would get green-lit by a network or platform today?

A. No. No. It’s all streaming now. The networks are finished. I mean, someone was telling me — I’m not going to say the name — an extremely successful network television producer. And he’s afraid that it’s all crumbling. It’s going to go. I don’t think that’s the case. There will always be room in this world for mediocrity. But even streaming, they’re kind of going back to what it used to be. They don’t want shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Sopranos. They don’t want complicated shows anymore. And they’re even talking about having commercials. So the dream is over.

Q. I imagine that you have given a lot interviews and talks about the show. Do you get tired talking about The Sopranos over and over again?

A. Yes, yes. I mean, this 25th anniversary should be the topper. And that’s all. It’s enough. I’m not saying this about you, but I get tired of answering the same questions from journalists.

Q. You’ve never done another television show after The Sopranos. How come?

A. Well, I just I’m not interested in episodic television. I spent, I don’t know, 30 years there. It’s enough. I came to Hollywood — it sounds so ridiculous — but I came to Hollywood to make movies. That’s what I really wanted. But that never really happened for me. I wrote a lot of scripts. They were all rejected. And so I stayed in TV. And I’ve always felt that I should have quit and I should have gone out there without any money, without any financial support, without a job, and written motion pictures. Maybe I would have done better.

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