On ‘Sopranos’ closure, Chase resists the mob

Martin Miller is a Times staff writer.

This is about David Chase and “The Sopranos,” so let’s begin with the end.

“You know what?” said Chase, creator of the show regarded by many critics as one of the finest ever in television and headed to stores this week as a mammoth DVD box set. “Every time I say anything about the ending, I just make things worse.”

Few farewells in the medium’s history were as anticipated or caused as much howling and froth as the HBO show’s last 10 seconds, which still somehow haven’t faded to black. A good chunk of its audience still isn’t over the June 2007 broadcast, and probably never will be. And those on either side of the finale rift -- it was genius or a middle finger -- haven’t tired in batting around its masterful ambiguity like some drunk at the Bada Bing.

Shortly after the finale aired, it was hard not to think the 63-year-old veteran of television’s “The Rockford Files” and “Northern Exposure” had checked into a witness protection program. He left for Europe, and he gave only one print interview, to New Jersey’s Star-Ledger.


In the following months, he steadfastly refused to explain or justify his show’s conclusion -- a fictional destination he apparently had in mind for a few years. However, several days after an interview with The Times, Chase called back for another word on a couple of topics, including the end.

“You asked if I wanted to comment about the ending and I said, ‘I don’t want to make things worse,’ ” said Chase, speaking from his second home in France. “But then I thought, ‘Well, worse for who?’ It’s not worse for me. There are just people who want this closure and I don’t have that.”

And despite persistent rumors on the Web, Chase said he has no plans for a feature film about “The Sopranos.” “There is nothing lined up,” said Chase, who always wanted to break into movies but has worked almost exclusively in television.

But an absence of upcoming “Sopranos” stories on the small or big screen hardly constitutes an end in the digital age. For years, individual-season DVD sets of the show have rocketed to the top of the sales charts, and there’s little reason to believe -- despite its heavy price tag at $399.99 -- that “The Sopranos: The Complete Series” will be much different. The 33-disc set contains all six seasons on remastered discs with an additional 3.5 hours of bonus materials and music CDs. “We did a fair amount of work on it,” said Chase. “It’s very good, actually, but I may be too close to it to say.”

It’s packaged like some hefty, holy book. Housed in a black linen box, it is further protected with a black cloth and weighs in at 10 pounds.

About that ending

The set contains the customary “lost scenes” and commentaries by the show’s stars and creative team, plus a two-part Alec Baldwin interview with Chase and a lively round-table dinner discussion with the cast and crew about the show and its legacy. (And no -- spoiler alert -- they don’t explain the ending in which Tony, seated with his wife and son at a diner, looks up at his daughter’s presumed arrival only to have the screen go abruptly to black.)

Not surprisingly, one of the first topics discussed was the ending. Naturally, everyone loved it, but Chase was taken aback by the visceral reaction it provoked from the audience. (And no, nobody interprets the ending.)

Although he wasn’t featured in that particular dinner discussion, former “Sopranos” writer and executive producer Matt Weiner -- who recently won a raft of Emmys for his AMC show “Mad Men” -- provided his own insight.

“To me, the ending is very David, it’s very rock ‘n’ roll,” said Weiner.

“It’s literally smashing your guitar on the stage and walking off. It’s like, ‘Hey, the hell with you, we’re going home, David Chase is going home.’ ”

Heading into the show’s fifth season, Chase hired Weiner after reading a writing sample: the pilot script for “Mad Men,” an ensemble dramatic series built around a Madison Avenue ad executive with an identity crisis. (Chase unsuccessfully lobbied HBO to put it on the air.) It’s a debt Weiner, who remains friends with Chase, has not forgotten.

“I’m not a modest person,” said Weiner. “But I’m fully aware both in a show business sense and a creative sense that my show would not exist if I had not met him. . . . No one would have ever talked to me if I had not been on ‘The Sopranos.’ ”

So, if Weiner’s observation about the finale is correct, is Chase done with television? Maybe, maybe not.

“I would never close the door on anything,” Chase said. “People have said that I said I hate television. I never did say that. What I said was that I hated a lot of stuff that was on television. It’s nothing about the medium itself. It’s a medium, and it can be great and sort of wasted. And I thought a lot of it was wasted; from a personal standpoint, I found a lot of it boring.

“It’s just that it takes so much work,” he continued. “I’ve done it for a long time, and I’m not anxious to jump back into that arena.”

For now, he has a deal at Paramount and is working on writing and directing his own project. Nothing is in production yet, but he’s got three stories in mind -- one about rock ‘n’ roll, another about the movies and a third about acting.

“I’ve said this a million times,” he said. “But I’ve always wanted to do movies.”

That’s what he strove for with “The Sopranos” -- cinema-quality storytelling. The genesis of each season would entail Chase “going away” alone to develop story arcs -- then returning to the writers room to hash out each episode.

“We’d throw out a lot of what I did, actually,” said Chase. “But each week we would ask ourselves, ‘What’s the movie we’re trying to make this week?’ Because that’s what we were trying to do -- make 13 small features every season, and that’s why for me from the very beginning the continuing story aspects were less of an interest to me than the stand-alone episodes.”

Like most writing rooms, the one for “The Sopranos” could be torturous. Chase could be stern and impatient with writers who didn’t completely “get” the ethos of Tony Soprano. There was a core creative group for much of the series -- Terence Winter, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess perhaps most notable among them -- but there were many writers who came and went.

“I wasn’t running a writing school for professional writers,” said Chase. Still, the room was not always business, and could be highly social. “I miss the writers room,” said Chase. “So much of it was aimless chatter. It was funny and self-revealing, a kind of group therapy, but very often the ideas would come out of that.”

‘Like Beatlemania’

Whatever the formula, it made HBO -- and it drew more than a few comparisons to Shakespeare and Dickens.

“It was like Beatlemania,” said Chase, who on the same day HBO greenlighted “The Sopranos” was also offered to be the show runner on the Fox sci-fi crime program “Millennium.” “I’d never really been in a position like that; I couldn’t believe it.”

Even with a little distance now, he isn’t sure why the show hit a cultural bull’s-eye.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But here’s my guess, my official guess -- I think there were two reasons. James Gandolfini was so compelling to watch. And also it’s because the audience really didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

Like, for instance, after the finale’s last 10 seconds.