We Spoke To The Intimidating David Chase About His Dark ‘Sopranos’ Prequel
'The Many Saints of Newark' is a strange, dreamlike trip through Tony Soprano's childhood.
David Chase, the man behind The Sopranos, and the new prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, has a rep for being prickly.
I remember a few years back when The New Yorker was writing a feature on the finale. The reporter was asking him to explain the justifiably much-vaunted ending of The Sopranos. Did Tony die? Is he alive? What actually happened after that cut to black?
Chase absolutely cracked the shits, turning to the reporter with “sudden, explosive anger” and asking ‘Why are we talking about this?”
So I wondered what kind of David Chase I’d get for our sit-down together. We’re going through a global pandemic, and his long-awaited film is having its release futzed with as a result. He’s once again talking about the very thing he loudly declared he was sick and tired of talking about, and he’s doing it for days on end, hunched in front of a screen with lights in his eyes.
The David I got, however, was a genial, sincere guy.
…Still scared the crap out of me, though.
Going Forward, Going Back
The Many Saints of Newark, I should point out, is excellent. It’s a dreamlike amble through Tony Soprano’s childhood, true, but the lead is Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher’s late father and Tony’s cool uncle of sorts. Beyond all the crime, capering, and gabagool, it’s really a story about fathers and sons, race, infidelity, and the crushing pressure of the American dream. So I asked David why he wanted to go forward in time, rather than backwards, to tell this new story.
“We couldn’t go forward,” he told me. “Well… I didn’t want to go forward. The story of Tony Soprano… that was the end of it. And I had nothing further to say about that, so if we wanted to do a movie about it at all, touching on the Sopranos, it would have to be in the past.”
At one point in the film, a character (who I won’t name, at David’s insistence) tells Dickie “it’s the wanting that causes pain. It’s the wanting”. Everything bad that happens to anyone in the universe of The Sopranos seems a direct result of said person pining, raging, straining towards something just out of reach. Social status. Respect. Love. Money. They want it all.
“I didn’t want to go forward. The story of Tony Soprano…that was the end of it.”
In the end, Chase seems to be insisting throughout his story, with an almost cosmic vehemence, that all of these lofty things are just stuff. If you start down that road of always wanting, it’ll get you.
“The wanting?” says Chase. “The Buddhists say that. And I believe that is what Buddhism posits. That life is pain, and the pain comes from always wanting what you don’t have. So you’re never in the present, always in the future, thinking about something that isn’t there. Or in the past, regretting something that’s no longer there.”
“It’s interesting to me,” I reply. “That you’ve seeded that ethos in a film, in a universe, where people always want things so much. Whether they want a son, or they want to be a good person, or they want to live in the suburbs…”
David nods. “Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. And you know, that was the theme, really, of the series starting out. Greed. Greed, and consumerism. Money and death, really.”
So is it possible, theoretically, for these characters to maybe one day escape this cycle?
“These characters?” he asks, scrunching up his face in thought. I nod. He scratches his chin. “I mean, I guess, if we sat down and thought about it, plotted it out and some inspiration hit, maybe one of them would? But, no! Basically… no.”
The Grim World View Of David Chase
It’s becoming readily apparent that David has a pretty intense worldview. He looks almost guilty about this. Resigned.
“What I love about this universe,” I say to him in one point in our chat. “Is that it doesn’t seem hateful, or evil… it just seems kind of capricious. There’s a humour to the chaos. You know? It’s slightly unreal when terrible things happen? It seems almost even-handed in that respect. Like, what else can you do but laugh about tragedies? Is this your worldview?”
David thinks about this. He furrows his brow, folding his arms even tighter, pausing for an uncomfortably long time. I’m convinced, for a moment, that he’s fallen asleep, but then he looks up, having cooked up his answer.
“I think I’d say, actually… I wish it was. But it’s, uh… it’s close.” He pauses again, and I realise he’s shutting his eyes, looking off-camera, trying to visualise something. With a start, he’s back. “The pain is…much more painful — than shown on the show, I mean.”
All of these people play-acting at normalcy, pretending the American Dream is a thing that won’t reject them, like a body rejecting a foreign object.
Apart from having a grimness about him, and a kind of lofty birds-eye view of his creations as being subject to a litany of tragedies which he himself concocts with a kind of wry detachment, Chase is also a cinephile.
There’s a great scene in The Many Saints of Newark in which the Soprano family are watching Key Largo, the classic Humphrey Bogart film. Bogart is asking Edward G. Robinson, playing a crook named Rocco, to share his philosophy on life. Bogart asks him what he wants. Rocco responds: he wants more. More! Will he ever get enough, he’s asked? Well, I never have, he muses, and I guess I never will!
All of this playing out in a house bought by Tony’s dad from blood money. All of these people play-acting at normalcy, pretending the American dream is a thing that won’t reject them, like a body rejecting a foreign object.
“Well, that ties in with it all. What does Rocco want? That’s the Sopranos ethos. What do you want? I want more! Why?…What do you mean, why? I want it!” Chase smiles. It’s so edifying to see the creator of a gargantuan body of work put such a neat button on what drives the whole thing.
But why a film? “Frankly,” he admits. “I’ve done television. I don’t think I could have had a better experience, and I wanted to branch out, go elsewhere. I’ve always wanted… I mean, I went to film school, and that’s what I’ve always wanted.” He pauses again. “…I felt like I was where I wanted to be”.
At this point, I feel obliged to show you the tail end of our talk. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more stoked to get someone to smile on camera.
The Many Saints of Newark is a real kick in the pants. If anything, it’s proof that Chase is a born movie maker. And while I’d love for him to return to the world of The Sopranos, this is a damn fine swansong.
The Many Saints of Newark will hit Australian cinemas on November 4.
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and his podcasts, Dish Island and Loose Units, are available everywhere you find your podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can find him (he’s very good at hiding).