By Tom Shales
Saturday, June 9, 2007
What began quietly in the mind of writer David Chase as a movie about "a mob boss in therapy whose mother was his enemy" became instead the most successful series in the history of American cable TV.
Seven seasons stretched over nearly a decade -- a run that ends tomorrow night at 9 when the final one-hour chapter airs -- and "The Sopranos" brought new viewers and new attention to Home Box Office, Time Warner's pioneer premium-cable network.
The intense, richly detailed and shockingly violent vision of one man, the show's continuing story of mob conflict in New Jersey achieved a status usually reserved for literary, cinematic or theatrical milestones -- a "Death of a Salesman," "Streetcar Named Desire" or "The Godfather."
"Sopranos" seems already to have secured the seminal status of cultural landmark. Its complex, darkly textured saga of a crime empire's decline and descent could be seen as an allegory about the fall of the West and the end of America's global supremacy in a new world of cultural, economic and political change. Or it could be seen as just a brilliantly riveting series about life among a dying gangster aristocracy whose chicanery and corruption were small potatoes compared with modern-day corporate crime, international terrorism and political scandals.
An HBO spokesman says research shows that the audience for "Sopranos" includes "the intelligentsia" at one extreme and action fans at the other.
Chase, whose previous writing for television included work on "The Rockford Files," directed only two episodes of "Sopranos" -- the first and the last -- but oversaw all of them, even picking most of the music used. (The opening theme, "Woke Up This Morning," is by a group known in England as Alabama 3 and in the United States as A3, according to the just-published "The Sopranos: The Book," yet another volume about the show.)
Each installment of the series has contained plot developments that the producers took pains to keep hidden, and those efforts have been quadrupled for the big finale. Secrets about what happens to mob boss Tony Soprano, wife Carmela and their children, Meadow and A.J. -- and innumerable other characters -- have been so closely kept that even HBO executives were forbidden from taking videotapes or DVDs of the final chapter home with them; they had to watch it in the office and then return the copy to the producers.
From a car zooming through the French countryside the other day, Chase spoke about the demise of a show that has been his life since its inception in the '90s. "It's all finished, yes," Chase said, "although last week I was having dinner with some French guys who asked, 'When are you done?' And I said, 'I have two more [edits].' Then I realized, no, I'd done them, I was finished, but I couldn't seem to stop.
"I'm not really there yet. It hasn't dawned on me that there's nothing to do."
Asked when he knew in his own mind what the multilayered story's finale ultimo would be, Chase said: "About three years ago. There were not many changes from what I originally envisioned. Creatively, the challenge about 'The Sopranos' was that from the beginning, my goal was always to do a little movie every week. Other people like HBO and [production company] Brillstein-Grey wanted to have continuing story elements. I wasn't interested in that, but then I got interested in that, and then that sort of took over; it was only about continuing story and I had to beat that back.
"So that is a long way of saying: It has all been planned out, we always knew exactly where it was going, but within that framework, we left a lot of room for each episode to have its own character and to invent stories that would fit in with the continuing story -- if that makes any sense."
Chase conceded that it hasn't been easy keeping the contents of the final show secret. In recent weeks, members of Tony Soprano's once-mighty empire have been blown away in the kind of shockingly graphic "whackings" that were one trademark of the show, leading fans to wonder whether Tony will go up in smoke himself.
"Obviously, I'm not going to say," said Chase. No, we didn't think so.
Some 300 people, including the cast and crew, know what happens in the final show, Chase said, and so far none has talked to the mainstream press.
"We've been pretty lucky." But why? "I think it's because they respect the show. Initially we tried to hold back things as long as we could. The scripts that we put out might not have an ending on them, or sometimes we put a false ending. After a while, though, you have to actually shoot the real scene. We tried to delay it only because, you know, people inadvertently leave a script on a subway seat by mistake or something like that.
"We have problems with people who come around while we're shooting and go through the garbage cans looking for script pages and then put that on the Internet. One year, we were told someone on the inside was selling stuff to this gossip columnist, Mitchell Fink, but he got a lot of things wrong."
Chase, who growls to himself when he feels the audience missed the point of an episode or a particular story line, cleared up a few minor points from this season.
In an unforgettable episode that began with Tony "assisting the death" of his own nephew, Christopher (the great Michael Imperioli), Tony later went to Las Vegas and did peyote with a young woman who'd known Christopher intimately (virtually all the married male characters had mistresses and got sex from additional women).
The episode ended with Tony in the desert, still high, beholding the morning sunrise and leaping to his feet to shout: "I get it!" Some viewers, including bloggers, insisted that Tony said, "I did it." Chase says they are wrong.
"It was very upsetting when I realized people thought it was 'I did it,' " he said. "To me it was so clear, you know; he had a transcendent moment. Early on, when he was at the roulette table and saw the ball going around, he said, 'Oh, it's the same principle as the solar system.' "
Chase and his staff have been fastidious about accuracy in the show; thus some viewers were confused a few weeks ago when a character lying in bed was watching Dick Cavett interview the late Katharine Hepburn on his long-defunct talk show.
"They were showing it on Turner Classic Movies," Chase explained. Sure enough, TCM aired a few of the Cavett interviews. They are also available on DVD. "I watch a lot" of TCM, Chase said, but not much other television. Despite what he describes as a satisfying experience with "The Sopranos," Chase also said, now that it's over, "I'm not going to do any more TV." Flatly, no.
He wants to take a year off and then maybe make a feature film. One book he's considering is "The Best Seat in the House," a captivating memoir by Chase's friend Allen Rucker, whom he met at film school. Rucker writes, often hilariously, about becoming paralyzed from the waist down with a rare disease shortly after turning 50.
"It's very moving, not scary," Chase said. "He's a talented man." Rucker authored the first big "Sopranos" book and even "The Sopranos Cookbook," another bestseller spawned from the show.
Chase reserves his highest praise for Edie Falco, who plays Carmela Soprano, and especially for James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, centrifugal center of everything that happened on the show. "He is the most talented actor I've ever worked with and probably will ever work with," Chase said. "There's just nobody like him. This is not just PR at this point; he's incredible."
Gandolfini has been quoted as saying he couldn't play Tony Soprano for one more minute; that he had explored every nook and cranny of the character and that was it. "We never had that exact discussion where he said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore," Chase said. "But both of us have a sense of exhaustion from it. I think we feel the same way; we like it, but it's an awful lot of work."
He began almost arguing with himself again.
"It's been difficult and challenging -- but also really exciting. It still is."
And then: "I'm sorry to see it go, to say goodbye to it." Not that many hours from now, millions of Americans will probably be feeling the same way.