David Chase’s "The Sopranos"
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JIM LEHRER: David Chase, welcome.
DAVID CHASE: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you believe “The Sopranos” has been so successful?
DAVID CHASE: That’s a very difficult question. I get asked this all the time. And I think this level of success that it’s having, I think — first of all, you’d have to ascribe a tremendous amount of it to luck, to something, some planetary alignment, something for the reason that this particular show caught on the way it has.
When we first started making the show, before anybody had seen it, those of us who wrote it and acted in it, thought no one would ever watch it, no one. We thought maybe we had a cult, a small cult following, so I think – I think part of it is unexplainable. The part that is explainable, why do people like it, I would hope it’s because we really pay attention to details. We try to put a lot of detail in it and try to pack it with stuff, so that every minute there’s something going on.
JIM LEHRER: You’ve been writing or directing or something in television for 27 years. Could you have done this in the 70′s when you first began? Is this the time –
DAVID CHASE: Could I?
JIM LEHRER: I mean, could “The Sopranos” have made it back in those days?
DAVID CHASE: That’s so hard to say. I doubt it. As I recall, it seems like centuries ago — JIM LEHRER: No, I mean, is television today also responsible for some of the success, I mean, the changes in television — is your reading of what goes on in television today that different?
DAVID CHASE: It is, but it’s very complex. I think that – I think that television is like a prisoner of dialogue; that really, that’s what all television does, is dialogue. And I think this show would have been just dialogue had it not been on cable, because on cable, on HBO, they sort of got into the idea that we could – what we’re saying is open it up, make it look – try to do a feature every week – try to do a small movie, which means more than just talking heads.
And they like that. I don’t know that that was going on. And I don’t think people cared about the visuals back in the 70′s. The first show that I can recall – hour drama – that did care about the visual was “Miami Vice”– I think that made kind of a sea change. But then nobody seemed to care about it after that.
JIM LEHRER: Well, much is being made – you know — about the profanity in “The Sopranos.” How important is that to the success of it? Forget success – the fact that it works for you, how important is it?
DAVID CHASE: It is important. I can’t comment as to whether – how important it is to the success of the show — but it is important. I’ve heard people say, well, you know, they can do all that swearing on HBO. They can show all that violence; they can show all those bare breasts, and I don’t believe those are the reasons that the show is a success. I believe you could do this show on a network. The only place you’d have a problem – because you could do it with less violence if you so chose to — you could probably do it with – you wouldn’t need to have the Bing dancers be naked – that’s not an absolute requirement, but it would lose something only in language, I think. I think language is important.
JIM LEHRER: So it wouldn’t be the same program – wouldn’t be the same story?
DAVID CHASE: It sounds crazy to say that if you can’t say the “f” word it’d be different, but all I can say is that would be the one place where I would have trouble. I’d be writing stuff I thought wasn’t accurate. And that I think would filter down — that language thing – I guess language is important to people – I think that language thing would filter down to other aspects of the show and kind of a creeping unreality would get into it.
JIM LEHRER: The critics have, as Kwame [Holman, NewsHour correspondent] said in his piece [the video shown just prior to this interview], have given you terrific praise for this series. Some of them have even said it’s the closest thing to art as anything television has ever done. What does that mean to you? Do you ever think of television as an art form?
DAVID CHASE: I heard about it. I mean, I think people used to say back in the 50′s, I guess, that Chrysler Theater or some of these things were art. But those were anthologies. I never do think of television as an anthology.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see yourself as an artist?
DAVID CHASE: I see myself as someone who aspires to be an artist. I just don’t know if I am or what that means. I tend to think sometimes if I was really an artist, I wouldn’t have done the countless sell-outs that I’ve done during my life, but here I am, and I’m really trying hard to be an artist.
JIM LEHRER: And you’re trying hard with “The Sopranos” to make it art?
DAVID CHASE: Yes. Yeah, sure….
JIM LEHRER: Whatever that means, whatever “art” means….
DAVID CHASE: I mean, — I don’t know what it means -
JIM LEHRER: Sure. But, you know, an artist who does – uses a brush or an artist who uses words -
DAVID CHASE: Right. But what does it mean to be – What’s the difference between what’s art and what isn’t art? That’s the hard question to answer. The only thing that I guess I believe is that a lot of what I see on the air and in other places is giving answers, and I don’t think art should give answers. I think art should only pose questions. And art should not fill in blanks for people, or I think that’s what’s called propaganda. I think art should only raise questions, a lot of which may be even dissonant and you don’t even know you’re being asked a question, but that it creates some kind of tension inside you.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think people may have figured that out in “The Sopranos?” Do you think that may be why it’s successful, because it’s doing that? Would you hope that was one of the -
DAVID CHASE: I would hope, sure, sure, I would hope.
JIM LEHRER: A personal question. What does all of this success mean for you? What gives you the greatest satisfaction out of this, for instance, just seeing that four minutes [reference to the video set-up preceding the interview], you know, going through the success of this – say, what part of it gives you the greatest kick?
DAVID CHASE: I like the editing process the most.
JIM LEHRER: Now, explain that. How do you edit? What are you doing?
DAVID CHASE: Well, these shows are just like in a feature film, a movie, or any other television show. After the shows are shot – you know, they’re not shot in continuity; they’re shot like a movie script, a movie schedule. You might go from — the show could go from, say, the New Jersey Turnpike to Tony’s house, but you don’t shoot them in that order. You shoot all the scenes around the New Jersey Turnpike in one day or two days and all the scenes are on Tony’s house in two or three days. And then editing takes place. And then all that’s put together. Editing is like the greatest thing that mankind has ever devised.
JIM LEHRER: Why? Explain that.
DAVID CHASE: Because you get pieces of film; you wrote a script and you thought you knew what the thing was about, and you think, oh, it’s going to work this way, he’s going to come in the door, and he’s going to look over here and then he’s going to walk down the hallway and, you know, something’s going to fall on him. And then you have the pieces of film and you put it together, and there’s this miracle that happens with film, and, sometimes something else happens.
It jumps out; when the two pieces of film are put together, the connection itself is like you didn’t realize what it was going to be like, and so it’s a whole, complete revelation, and it can take things in a different direction. It’s very much like writing, except without all the heartache and misery of writing, which is sitting down with a blank piece of paper. You can only do so much because the film has already been shot, and then if you can do all that stuff and then you can put music on it and change it and try different songs — I recommend it.
JIM LEHRER: What if you get to one of those spots, though, and you don’t have that piece of film you need to make it work. Has that ever happened to you?
DAVID CHASE: Sure. That happens all the time.
JIM LEHRER: What do you do?
DAVID CHASE: Well, it’s called the magic of movies. Even though it’s about a TV show, it’s the magic of the cinematic thing– that’s the best part of it. You’re forced to deal with these limitations and then cut around it somehow or keep – taking a frame off, a frame here or put another scene in-between or change the order of the scenes. And sometimes because you’re trying to solve a problem, this whole great thing opens up, something you never saw.
JIM LEHRER: How long does that process you just outlined usually take for, say, an hour, an hour segment of “The Sopranos,” how long do you edit it?
DAVID CHASE: It’s hard for me to say because the way we do it, I sometimes edit – I’m editing several shows at once. I’m going from editing room to editing room – anywhere from a month to two months, I guess.
JIM LEHRER: On a segment?
DAVID CHASE: On one -
JIM LEHRER: All right, now, you must have at some time in your life said, my God, if I could just have a huge success, then I would then do – umm – what’s the “umm”? What is the –
DAVID CHASE: This is what I’m talking about all the time. I don’t know what the “umm” is. Right now I’m leaning toward nothing.
JIM LEHRER: Nothing? You mean, no – another television –
DAVID CHASE: No, for sure no television.
JIM LEHRER: Make a movie?
DAVID CHASE: Yes, I would like to make a movie, but right now, I’m thinking maybe – I don’t know, I wouldn’t do that either…
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
DAVID CHASE: I guess after a year — when this is over – after a year or so – I’ll probably want to make a movie or do something else – six months, four months, whatever it would take – but this has been – I’ve been doing this for four years now, and it’s just a lot of work, and I think I would need to recharge my batteries before I did something else.
JIM LEHRER: If you were to rewrite your own bio, and you’d say, okay, David Chase – comma – and then put the words in order — what is the most important word, “writer,” “creator,” “director, ” what’s – “editor”?
DAVID CHASE: I’m not an editor. I mean, there is an editor.
JIM LEHRER: No, no, I mean the editor in the sense you were talking. No, no, I don’t mean the physical editor, the technical editor. Writing, you want to write a novel? You want to write a play?
DAVID CHASE: No, I haven’t got the discipline for that.
JIM LEHRER: Disciplined? What could be more disciplined than what you’re doing?
DAVID CHASE: Sitting in a room by yourself and writing.
JIM LEHRER: Don’t you start that way, though?
DAVID CHASE: Yes. There comes a point when you write an episode and that’s bad – that’s what I mean – that’s why I say editing is better than writing – I mean, to begin with, I don’t write all the episodes myself. There are other talented writers who work on a show and write these episodes. But each one of us has the same problem of being in a room by yourself and the blank page. You know, you’ve heard a million times; it’s a cliché, but it’s true. So to write a novel – I don’t know — I don’t think my command of English is good enough.
JIM LEHRER: I hear you. (laughing) Finally, you know, when you started all of this, you were a kid, and you knew very early on you wanted to make movies or something like that, didn’t you?
DAVID CHASE: –In film school — I guess what it was – in the 60′s I figured out – what I figured out first was that I didn’t want to go to work in an office or be a lawyer or do any of those things; I guess very few people do. But I figured that out, and then I was very much interested in rock’n roll music, and I played drums and then bass guitar; and that’s what I wanted to do for a long time in my late teens/early twenties.
And that’s what I was dedicating myself to. But then I had been watching television all my life, and I’ve been going to the movies all my life, and then in the late 60′s this whole idea of cinema kind of opened up; American movies changed, and they became quite different, and film school began – people began talking about film school-but most of all I was exposed to foreign films and once that happened, that was a big step.
JIM LEHRER: When you allowed yourself – when you first began as a kid, when you allowed yourself to think in terms of doing things for television, was this the ultimate – was this to have created something of the quality that is receiving the acclaim “The Sopranos” is receiving? Was this your dream? Are you living a dream?
DAVID CHASE: It has turned into a dream. It is the best thing, from a career standpoint, that’s ever happened to me. It’s the best experience, it’s the best people. It’s just great raw material. HBO is extremely supportive. Until I got to this point, and I kind of, in a way, blundered into it, until I got to this point, I was miserable in television, and I kept wanting to be in movies, but I never wrote a screenplay that got made; it’s that simple.
And I wrote about eight or nine of them and, you know, for one reason or another they didn’t get made, so I was always taking these TV deals to bankroll my real interest, which was feature films – and then this happened, so this has been completely satisfying, creatively.
JIM LEHRER: Well, congratulations to you and nice talking to you.
DAVID CHASE: Thank you.