“Not Fade Away,” the first feature film directed by “The Sopranos” creator/executive producer David Chase, is a love letter to rock and roll in the 1960s. Even though the movie’s main character, Douglas Albano (played by John Magaro), is a drummer in a struggling New Jersey band (just like Chase was in his youth), Chase says that the story in the movie is not autobiographical or a docudrama, because all of the main characters are fictional. The fictional rock band in the movie in the movie goes through changes to its name and lineup, but what remains the same is that the Rolling Stones primary influenced what inspired the musicians to form the band.
The movie, which Chase also wrote, reunited his him with “The Sopranos” actors James Gandolfini and Steven Van Zandt. Gandolfini plays Douglas’ stern father, who disapproves of Douglas’ decision to drop out of college and be a full-time musician. Van Zandt does not act in the movie, but he is the movie’s soundtrack producer. At a “Not Fade Away” press conference in New York City, several of the movie’s key team members — Chase (who is one of the producers of the film), Gandolfini, Van Zandt, Magaro, Bella Heathcote (who plays Douglas’ love interest Grace Dietz), Jack Huston (who plays charismatic band member Eugene) and “Not Fade Away” producer Mark Johnson — gathered to talk about making the movie.
David Chase, how did the evolution of this particular story as a feature film start?
Chase: Well, I always wanted to be in feature films. I’ve said this before: I never wanted to be in television. I got to really enjoy my life in television once I got to HBO. I worked with some really talented people before that, but I was very unthrilled, very unsatisfied. But this is always what I wanted to do was make a movie.
And why this one? I just really loved that music from era and also when I was doing “The Sopranos,” I liked putting music together with the film. That was my favorite part of it. And I thought this would be a way to extend that pleasure and I guess I also thought and then you can get that past and go get get a movie with a score and grow up. Do this for the last time with this rock and roll stuff.
Mark Johnson, can you talk about any budget concerns for “Not Fade Away”?
Johnson: Well, David kept on saying that he’d never done a feature before and asked me how it was done, but I think he knew exactly how it was done and his instincts both coming from television, but just his instincts about what we were doing were infallible. And in terms of what things cost you’re constantly going through that. You’re saying, “Do we need this scene, do we what is this going to cost or if we reshoot this.” It’s a process that he knew as well as I so it was a great partnership as producers. I’m not sure that I actually filled in a lot of areas that David wasn’t sure about.
Chase: No, he did. He most certainly did.
Johnson: Did I?
Can you give an example?
Chase: Well, how not to curse all the time and get all freaked out and scream at people.
How long ago did you begin working on this with David?
Johnson: What was it, about three years ago?
Chase: I guess so.
Johnson: It was about that.
Johnson: David and I first met in Los Angeles about this about a year before we started shooting and what I’ve said it was a great privilege for me to see the process because the movie, the script that I read when we first sat down and talked while it bears a resemblance to the finished film, it is radically different in so many ways. And we would talk about things and I’d like to think that I had some good ideas, some good notes that would be addressed.
Chase: You did.
Johnson: But then David would then also generate drafts that I didn’t even know where coming with changes and I’d just say, “How in the world did this get in here and this is so much better.” And every now and then, when you’re going through a development process, you’ll take a step backwards. There may have been one of those, but by and large, every time I read a draft it just got better and better.
James Gandolfini, you’re playing the father of John Magaro’s character. How did you put yourself in a position of sort of overseeing this character’s changing and being confused and frustrated by them when in fact it was probably very different for you?
Gandolfini: Yeah. I just basically based this on David’s writing of course and a lot on father. And we didn’t have this kind of relationship necessarily, but there were a lot of similarities. And basically it’s a little bit of an ode to my father and me being a pain-in-the-ass son and now realizing it. But I realized it before he died, so that was good because I got to apologize, I guess.
John Magaro, can you talk about hooking into this character and hooking into the spirit of the times and music of the times? How much you are aware of that music and that spirit prior to taking this role in “Not Fade Away”?
Magaro: I get that question a lot, but it’s a fair question and as I’ve been like answering it I’ve been trying to think about it more and more. But I listened to a lot of ‘60s music growing up and I talked to peers of mine and I thought we all did. I thought we all grew up on that. But apparently not. David even tells the story about how some of the kids who would come in for this were saying “Jäger.”
Chase: Jäger and Richards.
Magaro: Jäger and Richards instead of Jagger. So I guess there was this unaware like my generation is horribly unaware of ‘60s music … I was lucky I guess … maybe because I was forced to listen to it which maybe is good. So I listened to a lot of that music growing up which helped certainly. I love that music. I don’t know how you couldn’t love that music. I think that is what American music is and the good rock and roll that’s being made nowadays is influenced by that.
Bella Heathcote and Jack Huston, you’re both non-Americans who are playing Americans in “Not fade Away.” Can you comment on whatever mix of emotion and cultural research went into the portrayals you put in here?
Heathcote: Look, other than the accent which was a huge fear of mine, it’s all the same. And people ask often what was it like playing a teen in that era. I feel like people respond to the same things in the same ways now. Like everything that Grace went through, I went through a lot of similar things and … I was Australian. So yeah, it all seemed the same to me regardless of era or place.
Huston: I think when we were growing up, I mean when I was growing up especially it’s true that music was very much my parents’ music. But it was my music, too, because that’s my first memory to that kind of stuff was the Stones, the Beatles, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, that kind of stuff is very much what I grew up to. So at the same time everyone thinks music today when we were youthful is the present, what we were listening to at that time, it wasn’t. For us it was very much this music, too.
And obviously now, when I made this movie, the amazing thing was it must have been so exciting to have heard this music for the first time. So that was a cool thing for us all to get into. It was like maybe it transformed us a bit like into doing that. And I mean it was nice being English, being cast in the movie because I remember initially David and I think it started where you were just seeing musicians. And then if you were from New York and Jersey, and the rest of America, and then lucky I managed to squeeze in there at some point. So that was good. But good people.
Can the actors talk a little about how David’s approach and the writing and the directing bled over into their approach in terms of their portrayals of the characters?
Heathcote: That’s what I loved about the script when I read it the first time and even more when I read it the second time and every subsequent time. David writes characters like people. And I feel like all the characters, even the roles small or large, they all feel like three-dimensional people to me.
And I don’t know, I just played it like that. I said what I said before about whether they’re Australian or American, whatever. It’s just the way they react in situations seems so realistic to me and I feel like you love all of them. Warts and all their flaws, it just makes them more human. And, yeah, beautiful.
Magaro: I agree.
Huston: I was of the very wicked sense of humor as well like really good one. The best things we’d know on set which is good min the movie is you know if you’re doing something right you’d always hear David’s laugh behind the camera which was really good. Like it was like seriously it was. It was a lot of stuff that was like, it was fun. Like it was funny. Like it was really good sort of humor to the characters as well which makes it better.
Magaro: You’re touching on the humor. I find it a really funny movie ultimately, you know, it’s kind of a comedy, but David and he did this in “The Sopranos” as well, but he draws humor out of real life. Out of our flaws and our warts and the stupid things we say and it makes it really fun. And just as an actor, getting the chance to work on something that is honest and real and you can relate to, it’s kind of a blessing.
Steven Van Zandt, the music and the emotion are tied together almost inextricably. You’re a lifelong musician. And you’ve worked with David Chase as an actor. Can you speak about just how the “Not Fade Away” story resonated for you, and what made you want to be part of it aside from prior professional association?
Van Zandt: Well, yeah I wanted to stretch for this thing. That’s a joke. We talked about it early on actually. A long time ago. This movie business does not fit my ADD [attention-deficit disorder].
In the last couple of seasons of “The Sopranos,” we talked about this thing and the inevitable sort of conversation about what are you going to do next sort of stuff. And David said well I think I’m getting out of this TV racket and moving on here to films. He starts talking about this film. And obviously, he was very passionate about it the subject matter of and I knew he had been in a band and it was going to be a bit autobiographical. So that sort of thing always lends itself to being a little bit more passionate than something strictly fictional.
And he obviously from his use of music in “The Sopranos,” was obviously a very musical guy. And so it was obvious that he was going to head in this direction and I said whatever I can do to help. So we have a lot of conversations about we’re both kind of detailed oriented so in the end I think this thing is quite accurate in its details. And from everything from Jimmy Gandolfini playing all of our fathers of my generation.
It’s a little hard to explain to people now, but I don’t think it’s happened before the ‘60s and it hasn’t happened since. So maybe it was a very unique period of time, but there’s an expression called the generation gap and it really did exist. It was the only time in history I think where the parents and their own children were completely at odds with each other. They did not relate to each other at all.
It’s a little hard to explain to people now how dramatic that was and how traumatic that was and and so and Jimmy does just a fantastic job of it. And of course David writes it so well. That’s very, very, very accurate the way we embarrassed our parents. And I feel very bad for what we put them through as Jimmy mentioned.
So you had that aspect of it and David’s very unique view of the ‘60s. I don’t know anybody else who would write a ‘60s movie and just all of the cataclysmic events that happened in the ‘60s. It was his background for the tunnel vision of this kid. And that is very, very accurate. I was there and it was like, “Yeah, civil rights going on, the cities are burning down, and assassinations and Vietnam, but let’s get the chords to the new Yardbirds song. That’s really what’s important here.” And that I think is catching it in the film. That’s where the tunnel vision behind the scenes of all the big events right into the home and nobody does that better than David.
What did you learn about yourself from making “Not Fade Away”?
Chase: I really can’t say that this film exorcised anything for me or any work that I’ve ever done or has ever like helped me to work something out inside. I’ve heard people talk that that happens, but it’s never happened to me. I guess I saw maybe just the other day that all along this was partly a way to acknowledge the fact that my father had some inkling more than my mother of who I was. Some tiny inkling. They were both really on the same page. But he had something in him understood my ambition or what I felt I needed. So I guess that just invalidates everything I said at first.
This question is for Steven and Jack and John. Can you talk about the paces that you put these guys through in your musical boot camp? And to anybody else on the panel, were you ever in a band when you were kids growing up or wanting to start a band?
Van Zandt: Well, I said it before. I begged David to please hire musicians that could act and of course he didn’t. He tried. I know he tried. No, no, no, there’s a few, yeah. But the main ones these two … David’s a genius at casting among other things, OK? He’s really good at it.
But the one thing you can’t really cast is work ethic. And this is when the instinct really comes in. Forget about experience. This now becomes pure instinct and I think David has that instinct because these guys they had to learn in three months how to play what took me three, took them three months. OK? I’m not kidding. OK?
Five, six hours a day, every day in my studio, seven days a week for three or four months. And they learned how to play guitars is one thing, drums is another. And you can see we could have faked it and we didn’t have to because I mean you can see the camera pulls back and John Magaro is playing the drums. That’s really him playing. It’s amazing.
And then we really got lucky. My biggest concern of all was the singing because every movie I see the actors, I always have trouble with actors singing or pretending they’re singing. I never quite buy it. So I knew that if we faltered in any way having to do with the band being real or the singers being real, the whole film would just fall apart. And so we got very, very lucky. They both are actually singing it’s really them.
And by the time the cameras roll, they were a real band. They could play, OK? They could play, they could do a set right now for you. So it was wonderful that they had people talk about this generation having no work ethic. Well, these guys are the exception to the rule I assure you they really rose to the occasion and you can see it in the film. It just made the whole film so totally authentic.
Why are most the Rolling Stones songs that were featured in the movie were from the Stones’ early days as a cover band? Was it because of budget reasons that Mick Jagger/Keith Richards compositions weren’t available?
Chase: We have the song “Tell Me,” which is a big song in this movie, and now it came out in 1964. That’s an original song. That was the first song that they wrote together. There’s that one and then we had another one which we left out called “Right On Baby,” and there were a couple songs that were left out of it, but it had nothing to do with money and it had nothing to do with availability. It had to do with what was right for the script.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film obviously is when the characters discover the Rolling Stones and the impact that the Rolling Stones’ music has on their lives. Can you talk a little bit about how maybe the Stones or any other band had a huge impact on your lives and maybe your favorite memories?
Van Zandt: Well, I’m probably the only one old enough to answer that question. I was watching that show that’s in the movie, “The Hollywood Palace” show that’s in the movie. I saw that when it happened. And I saw my past and future in front of me. Dean Martin making fun of the Rolling Stones. And it was the first or second most important moment of my life because the Beatles happened four months earlier, which was the first most important moment of my life. But they were so good.
We caught the Beatles in the middle of their career. They’d already been playing five, six years. We’d had them for five or six years after that. They were ridiculously good and their harmony was perfect and they looked perfect and they were too perfect to relate to other than opening up this whole new world of this band thing. But the Stones four months later, they didn’t have the great harmony and they wore different things and their hair was a little bit messed up, except for Brian Jones. And they just made it seem more accessible. They were the first sort of punk band, if you will.
I mean, the only other band that would have that much impact as far as accessibility would be the Ramones probably 12 years later. So it was very, very, very impactful in a sense that they had a street thing about them that was anti-show business. And the most important thing for me was I’d never seen anybody in my life sing a song on TV and didn’t smile. OK? And Mick Jagger was the first guy I ever saw do that which was extraordinarily important because it was just not show business and I was never interested in show business honestly. Still not.
David, you mentioned earlier about wanting to marry music and image and that’s always been an interest of yours and it’s an idea that’s mentioned in the movie by John’s character. And I wondered in terms of how that extended into the editing room, how many different kinds of songs you applied to your various scenes. If there were any that dropped out, if there were any you wish you could have gotten that didn’t work out.
Chase: It was all called out in the script, right? I mean we wrote it because we had to clear it. We obviously had to clear the ones that they were going to re-learn and then we had to clear. Unlike when I was in “The Sopranos,” we had to clear everything in advance. Everything that was going to be incidental.
So we had a list I made up a list of songs and I put them in the script and Steven and I talked about them. We have similar taste and usually we were in agreement. But then during the post-production I changed it and the last song, the Sex Pistols song, I guess we must have auditioned 200 songs for that spot. And it started out with “River Deep, Mountain High” and wound up with the Sex Pistols song.
And in terms of that last image in the movie — not to spoil it for everyone obviously, but why did you decide that as the final shot of the movie? When did that image occur to you in the writing of that?
Chase: When I came to the end of the script. I don’t know how to answer that. You really don’t know where these things come from. What she says is a thought that I had one time at a Stones concert and it was my way of saying how powerful and how beautiful that music really is.
Can you talk about why it was important for you to make that statement making music isn’t about having a huge career but it’s a form of self-expression?
Chase: Well, at least when I was growing up as a kid I lived in Jersey, they take you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you look at Jose De La Barra and all these paintings and you go, “Oh, that’s really amazing.” And you talk and chew gum and try to dump on the field trip. And you see you see Michelangelo and Picasso and you read literature, you go to school and all that. For some reason, it never connected with me that I could have anything to do with that.
I had some innate inchoate yearning for that, but I never really saw where I would fit in. That’s called art. And then something happened to pop music which is it became art under the hand of the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan and some other people. And once the subject matter of rock and roll changed from cars and puppy-love songs and be true to your school, once that changed to songs about really true love and the blues and death and mortality and this light bulb went off in my head and I went, “Oh, that’s what they’re doing. That’s art. It deals with the big subjects and maybe I could do that. Maybe if I joined a band, I could do that. I could be an artist.”
Van Zandt: Well, I think what’s great about the film, it does contain both sides of that story and it’s more than about music. It has to do with the idealistic initial urge to be drawn to art and all of the ideals that go with that and instinct. But then that wonderful scene when the guys are being told that this is actually a craft as well. In fact, more of a craft and if you get lucky maybe it’s an art.
I think that is also expressed in this [movie]. So it’s a wonderful sort of a yin yang, a completing the picture of what art in general is which is, yeah, it starts off as a sort of an instinct of passionate sort of attraction, but requires a lot of work to perfect the craft. I think it’s really wonderfully expressed and a nice balance.
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