David Chase Talks About 'The Sopranos' and "Failing Upward"

The director spoke at the Digital Biscuit conference in Dublin.

David Chase, the multi-Emmy-winning writer and creator of The Sopranos, told a conference in Dublin Friday about his early career, including his original goal of becoming a filmmaker, his early jobs in soft porn and the work in an American writers room.

"It's a very painful and scary process of waiting for something to pop," he said about the U.S. writing process.

Speaking at the Digital Biscuit film and technology forum, he said, "I wanted to be a filmmaker," when asked about his move from New York to the West Coast early in his career.

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"I guess I thought that was not attainable," Chase explained, as to why he ended up not focusing on directing but writing. At Stanford's film school, Chase said he was one of a few students interested in fictional films rather than documentaries, a big focus of the school.

His teacher sent Chase's screenplay to a TV producer, he recalled. After trying to get film work with a friend who got discouraged and left, Chase said he ended up crewing in "soft-core pornography." The film was set in Germany and included tanks, he recalled.

Then he finally got a job as an assistant editor, rewinding and cleaning film. And eventually, Universal Studios gave him a job on an episode of a TV show. "They didn't like it," he said. "Nobody told me about any time-frame issues." The hourlong legal show script took him three months to write, and it was changed, Chase said.

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With the Universal job, he said, he was "forced" to join the writers' guild. He quipped that he originally thought they'd work to get him jobs, like a plumbers' union. He had to picket one day and was upset "because they hadn't gotten me a job," he recalled.

The story editor of a show then brought him onboard followed by work on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. "I never stopped working" from there, Chase said.

"I really enjoyed" working on The Rockford Files, Chase revealed. At that time, Chase said he felt good about his writing but didn't know where it stood in the industry since he wasn't watching TV himself.

"I lost my desire to do my own stuff" because he loved the family atmosphere on the show, lauding James Garner and his colleagues. But he said he ended up leaving the show and looking for new opportunities.

The first original series he created was Almost Grown on CBS, which he said was short-lived. "I [then] had development deal after development deal." He added: "I was failing upward."

Asked about how the success of The Sopranos came about, he said he was known as an A-list showrunner after his work on Northern Exposure but said he doesn't really like the term "showrunner."

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The Sopranos had been a movie idea, and HBO started feeling "the sitcom was coming to an end," so it was looking for drama, Chase said. "We believe that you have in you a groundbreaking TV series," he recalled, saying that he didn't understand, as he had "nothing but contempt" for the medium of TV to begin with.

But the show ended up being produced, and Chase said HBO made a "brave choice." He said the show didn't test well outside the New York area, but HBO went ahead with it anyway.

He had an extended debate with HBO about the title of the show though. "They wanted us to call it Family Man, and I was nauseated by that," he explained. Then The Family Guy came out, and that was the end of it."

Chase was also asked how much he spoke out earlier in his career. "I wasn't a kamikaze pilot," he replied. "But there is so much nauseating stupidity out there."

Chase's appearance brought to an end the third annual Digital Biscuit event, which also featured such speakers as Michel Gondry and The Black List founder Franklin Leonard. He drew such a big crowd that event organizers filled the main room and an over-flow room.

Last year, speakers included Borgen producer Camilla Hammerich.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai