While the 1960s is a decade synonymous with war, political unrest, the civil rights movement and assassinations, many of the decade’s youth remember the new emerging rock-n-roll music genre that pushed them to pursue their own dreams. The new drama ‘Not Fade Away,’ the feature film writing and directorial debut of ‘The Sopranos’ creator David Chase that’s opening in select theaters on Friday, is the powerful coming-of-age story of teens trying to realize their dreams during the musical revolution. They also invented a new form of art and perception of life along the way.
‘Not Fade Away’ follows aspiring teenager Douglas (John Magaro), who drops out of college after his first semester to form a band with his friends Gene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill). The band plays covers of Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. After Gene, the lead vocalist, has to skip a gig after swallowing a lit joint, Douglas steps in, proving to be the better singer. Douglas’ singing finally captures the attention of his high school crush, Grace (Bella Heathcote).
While Douglas feels at home with the band, he develops an uneasy relationship with his blue-collar Italian-American family. His depressed mother, Antionette (Molly Price), shakes her head in disgust at her son, while his father, Pat (James Gandolfini), is always quick to start a fight with his son over his views. But the family pulls together when Pat is diagnosed with cancer. Pat begins to view his son’s steps toward self-discovery, and the regrets of his own life, which brings him closer to Douglas.
Chase, along with ‘Not Fade Away’ cast members John Magaro, James Gandolfini, Jack Huston and Bella Heathcote, executive producer and music supervisor Steven Van Zandt and producer Mark Johnson, all attended a press conference in New York City recently to discuss making the film. Among other things, they spoke about the evolution of the film and how Chase came up with the idea for the story; how the actors connected with their characters and devoted themselves to learning how to play the music featured in the movie; and how the power of rock and roll has changed society and the relationships between parents and kids.
Question (Q): David Chase, there’s been a lot of talk in journalism and film criticism and cultural criticism positing the idea that television really is where the creative action and excitement is these days, more than motion pictures. Some writers have specifically said, what’s David Chase doing making a feature film? So how did the evolution of this particular story as a feature film start?
David Chase (DC): Well, I always wanted to be in feature films. I never, and 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 unsatisfied. But making a movie is always what I wanted to do was.
I just really loved that music from era, and when I was doing ‘The Sopranos,’ I liked putting music together with the film. That was my favorite part of it. I thought this would be a way to extend that pleasure, and I guess I also thought you can get that past and get a movie with a score with rock and roll.
Q: Mark Johnson, as David Chase was writing the motion picture, at some point, he was looking at a scene and saying, “Well, this is going to cost X amount.” As co-producer, to a certain extent, you helped shoulder that burden. Can you address that a little bit?
Mark Johnson (MJ): 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 and about what we were doing were infallible.
In terms of what things cost, you’re constantly going through that. You
re saying, “Do we need this scene, do we, you know, what is this going 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.
DC: No, he did. He most certainly did.
Q: Can you give an example?
DC: Well, how not to curse all the time and get all freaked out and scream at people. (laughs)
Q: How long ago did you begin working on this with David?
MJ: What was it, about three years ago?
DC: I guess so.
MJ: David and I first met in Los Angeles about this about a year before we started shooting. It was a great privilege for me to see the process, because 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. We would talk about things and I’d like to think that I had some good ideas.
DC: You did.
MJ: He would 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.” Every now and then when you’re going through a development process, you know, 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.
Q: James Gandolfini, you’re playing the father of John Magaro’s character. You’re expressing a lot of frustration and a lot of disapproval. You potentially lived the story that John’s character is going through. How did you put yourself in a position of overseeing this character’s changing, and being confused and frustrated by him, when in fact it was probably very different for you?
James Gandolfini (JG): Yeah. I just basically based this on David’s writing, of course, and a lot on my father. We didn’t have this kind of relationship necessarily, but there were a lot of similarities. 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.
Q: John Magaro, can you to 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?
John Magaro: You know, I get that question a lot, but it’s a fair question. I listened to a lot of sixties 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. I mean David even tells the story about how some of the kids who would come in for this were saying Yager.
DC: Yager and Richards.
JM: Yager and Richards instead of Jagger. So I guess my generation is horribly unaware of sixties music. 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 mean 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.
Q: One of the most interesting achievements of the British invasion as that it was essentially, depending on how you look at it, and this was not a conscious effort on the part of the musicians, but the British essentially sold the Americans back their own culture. Bella Heathcote and Jack Huston, you’re both from across the pond and playing American kids, so if you’d respectively comment on whatever mix of emotion and cultural research went into the portrayals you put in here.
Jack Huston (JH): I think Bella’s a little further across the pond. (laughs) I mean, she’s Australian. It’s a long way over.
Bella Heathcote (BH): The accent was a huge fear of mine. 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. It all seemed the same to me, regardless of era or place.
JH: I think when I was growing up, it’s true that music was very much my parents’ music. But it was my music. ‘Not Fade Away’ is a Buddy Holly song that’s my first memory to that kind of stuff. The Stones, The Beatles, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, that kind of stuff is very much what I grew up to.
So at the same time everyone thinks music when we were youthful is the present, but what we were listening to at that time, it wasn’t. For us it was very much this music, too. 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.
It was nice being English and being cast in the movie, because I remember initially David was just seeing musicians. Then he was looking at actors from New York, New Jersey and the rest of America, and then lucky I managed to squeeze in there at some point. So that was good.
Q: To move from the cultural to the emotional, can each of the actors talk about how David’s approach and the writing and the directing influenced their approach, in terms of their portrayals of the characters?
BH: Well, 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 people-he writes characters like people. I feel like all the characters, even the roles small or large, are three dimensional people. I just played it like that.
You know, I said what I said before about whether they’re Australian or American. It’s just the way they react in situations seems so realistic to me and I feel like you love all of them, with all their flaws, it just makes them more human.
JH: I agree. (laughs) I have a wicked sense of humor. You would know if you’re doing something right on set if you’d hear David’s laugh behind the camera, which was really good.
Q: 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 a little bit about just how this resonated for you, this story, and what made you want to be part of it aside from prior professional association?
Steven Van Zandt (SVZ): We talked about it early on actually, a long time ago. The last couple of seasons of ‘Sopranos’ we talked about this thing and the inevitable sort of conversation about what we were going to do next. David said well I think I’m getting out of this TV racket and moving on to films.
He starts talking about this film. Obviously, he was very passionate about the subject matter 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. From his use of music in ‘The Sopranos,’ he was obviously a very musical guy. So it was obvious that he was going to head in this direction and I said whatever I can do to help. So we had a lot of conversations, and we’re both kind of detailed oriented, so in the end I think this thing is quite accurate in its details.
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 sixties 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 and traumatic that was. Jimmy does just a fantastic job of it.
Of course, David writes it so well. That’s very, very, very accurate, the way we embarrassed our parents. I feel very bad for what we put them through, as Jimmy mentioned. So, you know, you had that aspect of it and David’s very unique view of the sixties. I don’t know anybody else who would write a sixties movie, and just all of the cataclysmic events that happened in the sixties. It’s very, very accurate.
I was there and the civil rights movement was 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. I think it catches in the film. Nobody does that better than David.
Q: David Chase, everybody else here kind of alluded that doing the film made them realize something about themselves, their lives. So for you, what did you learn about yourself making this film?
DC: I really can’t say that this film exercised anything for me or any work that I’ve ever done, or it ever helped me work something out inside. I’ve heard people talk about how that happens, but it’s never happened to me.
I saw just the other day that all along, that this was partly a way to acknowledge the fact that my father had some inkling more than my mother of who I was. They were both really on the same page. But he had something in him that understood my ambition or what I felt I needed.
Q: The actors, can you talk about the paces that you put these guys through in your musical boot camp? Was anybody on the panel ever in a band when you were kids growing up, or did you want to start a band?
SVZ: I begged David to please hire musicians that could act, and of course he didn’t. I know he tried. But the main ones, David’s a genius at casting. He’s really good at it. But the one thing you can’t really cast is work ethic. This is when the instinct really comes in. Forget about experience. This now becomes pure instinct and I think David has that instinct.
These guys had to learn in three months how to play what took me three years. (laughs) They practiced five, six hours a day, every day in my studio, seven days a week for three or four months. Learning how to play guitars is one thing, but drumming is another. We could have faked it, but we didn’t have to. You can see the camera pulling back and John Magaro is playing the drums. That’s really him playing, and it’s amazing.
Then we really got lucky-my biggest concern of all was the singing. I always have trouble with actors singing or pretending they’re singing. I never quite buy it, you know. 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. So we got very, very lucky. They both are actually singing. By the time the cameras roll, they were a real band. They could play; they could do a set right now.
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.
Q: Why were the Rolling Stones songs that were featured in the movie from the early days when they were a cover band? Was it because of budget reasons? Were the Mike Jagger and Keith Richards compositions not available?
DC: Well, not exactly. I mean we have ‘Tell Me,’ which is a big song in this, and 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.’ There were a couple of other songs that were left out of it, but it had nothing to do with money or availability. It had to do with what was right for the script.
Q: One of the most memorable scenes in the film obviously is when, you know, the characters discover the Rolling Stones and the impact that their 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?
JG: Well, I’m probably the only one old enough (laughs) to answer that question. I was watching that show that’s in the movie, ‘The Hollywood Palace Show.’ I saw that when it happened. I saw my past and future in front of me, with Dean Martin making fun of the Rolling Stones. 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. They just made it seem more accessible. They were the first sort of punk band. 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 not only influenced the street, they also had a street thing about them that was anti-show business. The most important thing for me was I’d never seen anybody in my life sing a song on TV and didn’t smile. 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. (laughs)
Q: David, you mentioned earlier about wanting to marry music and image. That’s always been an interest of yours, and it’s an idea that’s mentioned in the movie by John’s character. How did hat extend into the editing room, and how many different kinds of songs you applied to your various scenes?
DC: It was all called out in the script. We wrote it because we had to clear it. We obviously had to clear the ones that they were going to learn. It was unlike when I was on ‘The Sopranos,’ when we we had to clear everything in advance. Everything was going to be incidental.
So I made up a list of songs and 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, we must have auditioned 200 songs for that spot. It started out with ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ and wound up with the Sex Pistols song.
Q: So the movie, as you’re discussing here, is not so much about the commerciality or making music or getting a job or building a career, but about the transformative power of rock and roll and how it’s changed society and the relationships between parents and kids. Can you talk about why it was important for you to make that statement and have that throughout the film?
DC: Well, at least when I was growing up as a kid, I lived in New Jersey, and 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.” You talk and chew gum on the field trip. You see Michelangelo and Picasso and you read literature, you go to school.
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. Then something happened to pop music, in which it became art under the hand of The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan and some other people. Once the subject matter of rock and roll changed from cars and poppy love songs and be true to your school, once that changed to songs about really true love and the blues and death and mortality, this light bulb went off in my head. 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.
SVZ: 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, there’s 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. (laughs)
I think that is also expressed in this. So it’s a wonderful sort of a ying yang-a completing the picture of what art in general is, which starts off as sort of an instinct and a passionate sort of attraction. But it requires a lot of work to perfect the craft. I think it’s really wonderfully expressed and a nice balance.
Written by: Karen Benardello