James Gray is a director who thrives on risk taking. Audacious, inventive and authentic, his films explore the underbelly of society, from his debut feature Little Odessa, to The Yards, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. Now the director re-teams his Yards actors in We Own the Night, a thriller set in 1988 New York.
Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) has turned his back on the family business. The popular manager of El Caribe, the legendary Russian-owned night-club in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, he has changed his last name and concealed his connection to a long line of distinguished New York cops.
For Bobby, every night is a party, as he greets friends and customers or dances with his beautiful Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amanda (Eva Mendes), in a haze of cigarette smoke and disco music, much to the disdain of his brother, the newly anointed police captain determined to crush Russian mobsters with a little help from his Chief of Police father [Robert Duvall]. Gray talked exclusively to Paul Fischer about movies and Hollywood.
Question: When you decide to make a genre movie, which I guess this is for all intents and purposes a cop movie, do you go back and look at what’s been done in the past and then try to ignore that to make this particular genre?
Gray: That’s a great question. I’m going to try and answer it as complete a way as I can. I have a contrarian side to me, which always wants to do the opposite of what seems to be in vogue. In that way I guess you would say I try to do things that haven’t been done in the genre, but I also have great respect for certain pictures made within the genre that I love. And what you’re trying to do in a way also is to make films that you would love to have gone to see, so let me answer you this way. All of this filters through you unconsciously when you make a film, but really what is important in the end, when you contemplate its construction, its content, its form, all these issues, is how do I connect with it personally, do I connect with it emotionally, will it move people? And all the other considerations you talk about – adherence to the rules of genre or subversion of those rules, in a way ultimately fall by the wayside and what you hope is that when you make it as personal – not autobiographical, not the same thing, but when the themes to it are personal to you, that hopefully it speaks in a fresh or specific or interesting way.
Question: Personal or intimate?
Gray: Personal. Intimate too of course. Intimacy matters. It’s a good – not to sound too sententious but the best quote I’ve ever read about art, painting or anything was, somebody asked Edward Hopper ‘What are you trying to do?’ and Edward Hopper said ‘My aim in paining is just this – my most intimate impressions of nature’. ‘The most exact transcription possible…’ he said ‘…of my most intimate impressions of nature’ which is amazing. Because people were asking him in the context of ‘Your paintings seem to be about loneliness’ and he said ‘I don’t think about that at all. It’s my most intimate impressions’. So when you say intimate in that sense, yes. What concerns me? Well, when I wrote this I thought ‘I want to make a story where a person is both good in the eyes of society at the end and yet in intimate or personal ways, in this case, yes synonymous, he has been ruined, that he is not the person any more that he was when the film began and his life has changed really, for him, for the worse. That he dreamt of X and wound up with Y. And to me that was a very emotional story and it was a story which would enable me to tell a movie on two planes. The A story which in essence was about the dramatic elements of plot. Character A has to do this, this and this to get the bad guy. But really it wasn’t concerned with bad guys and good guys. It really was about him and his struggle for identity and then in the end he finds his identify with a group that he never wanted to be part of. And even he is not necessarily conscious totally of his decision. He doesn’t look all glum when he first sees his brother at the end and he says ‘Hey you’re looking good’. And he says ‘No, maybe one day I’ll be a captain just like you’ or whatever. He’s become the valedictorian and he’s about to give his speech in front of this whole auditorium and then he thinks he says Eva Mendez and it turns out not to be her, and what I meant by that was a whole rush of memory in a weird brief moment came back to him. About the life that he left behind and how he was forced to become the person he didn’t want to be. To me, trying to reinvent the genre will inevitably lead to a kind of a self-consciousness, so the way we approach genre is simply to use it as a weapon, as a way to make a certain Trojan horse. The story is the genre and inside the story is what you want to say on a personal level, so I don’t really think of that stuff consciously while writing a script or making the film. I just try to stay as honest as I can in the story, if that makes sense.
Question: Was it a challenge to do that in the case of We own the Night?
Gray: It was a huge challenge because there have bee so many cop movies and so many cop movies with car chases and so forth. And I said to myself, ‘OK, I don’t want to do a cop movie which is a procedural. I don’t want to do a movie about crooked cops. Those have been done a zillion times and sometimes brilliantly well. What I’m interested in doing is a cop you meet where in actuality, the aspects of daily cop life have almost nothing to do with the drama that unfolds. And I used it only as the way into the story. I was trying to do something almost, and I don’t mean I think it’s as good but I was trying to do something almost a certain Shakespearian or classical shape to it, you know. You know, the prodigal son, Prince Hal, you know from Henry IV. That was really the idea behind it.
Question: You spent a lot of time trying to get this made, and I’m just wondering why do you think Hollywood is afraid of taking risks?
Gray: The studios are run in the main by extremely intelligent people, and may I say it’s very strange the studios are run by mostly very intelligent people with excellent taste. So you would say ‘Well why would a movie like this slip by them?
Gray: Well, the reason is simple. Everybody is beholding to the man. Everybody’s beholding to the corporation. The corporation is everything. And these companies are owned by multinationals and they look at their stock prices and let’s be honest. The American movie going population has not been told what to expect or want or demand top quality story telling. They are inculcated to demand sensory pleasures and certain broad strokes of drama, so the people that run the studios are more or less in the position of trying to satisfy a population that has been educated in a way by their own foibles. So it’s a kind of chicken and egg scenario and a very difficult and disturbing one at which the population at large demands junk, the studios give the junk and so they are then taught to love junk and the they want more junk.
Question: And you don’t make junk.
Gray: I hope I don’t. Some people say I make big junk. I’ve had a lot of bad reviews in my life. They think I make real junk, so junk is in the eye of the beholder I guess you could say.
Question: When you go through the process of being rejected, you have to go completely independently initially. Do you get disillusioned?
Gray: Not at all. It’s easy to get made. I know this sounds like a lie but it’s true, if I made a film that made $500 million and every critic thought it was great, something is wrong. The film is not subversive, it’s not pushing buttons, it’s not stirring the pot of debate. It means it’s comfortable, it’s safe, it went down easy like a little pill that’s sugar coated. And that is a very, very dangerous thing for art. And I can, if I may use that word, I can never ever, ever think ‘That person doesn’t like it. Damn.’ ‘This person rejected me. Damn.’ ‘It’s not a personal decision sonny, it’s strictly business.’ You basically move on and you try to get your thing. You have to put your head down and say ‘I am going to make this film’. Because if you don’t, if you say, ‘That person didn’t like it. Boo hoo hoo. Woe is me’, you start to give up.
Question: Or you prostitute yourself and you agree to make whatever inane changes are suggested to you by the studios.
Gray: True but you know the thing is this. I am 38 years old now, I don’t consider myself old. I consider myself fairly young as a filmmaker still. I’ve been at this since I was 24. I’m about to make my fourth film. I’m very, very fortunate and I am not going to give up on myself yet. If I am judged by the culture at large to have no talent and to make uninteresting films, that I will give up and will try and give the audience what it wants. But I cannot give up my dream to be, as absurd and pompous as it sounds, the next Fellini, or the next Visconte, before I’ve even had a chance to blow it. I want to blow it first. Do you know what I mean?
Question: And how do you intend to do that?
Gray: Keep making the movies I care about for as long as I can until I can’t do it anymore.
Question: Since the irony is that if the studio are the people rejecting you, that means you’re doing something right. .
Gray: Yeah I guess but every once in a while you get lucky and you find a person at the studios that has great sensitivity …
Question: This one was bought by a corporation after it was screened at Cannes.
Gray: That’s true but you know what? They bought it because they loved it. Columbia has been tremendously supportive of the film. They didn’t buy it and say ‘Shit we have to buy it’. Nobody put a gun to their heads. They bought it, they bought it for a record amount. They loved it, they have been unbelievably supportive. Amy Pascall and Geoff Blake have been amazing to me. Because this is not a situation where, and the film got some incredible reviews but it also got some terrible reviews. And they have been tremendously supportive through and through and said ‘We don’t care about that. We believe in the movie.’ And that’s from the studio. And it’s a very subversive movie in a lot of ways and it’s a very sad movie and a dark movie in many ways. And so that’s a great thing to have.
Question: Now your next one is A Love Story.
Gray: That’s right. Very different from anything I’ve done.
Question: And Phoenix in his being typically Phoenix, won’t talk about his character.
Gray: Well I don’t blame him because we’re in the process of creating him.
Question: What kind of character?
Gray: I don’t know how much of a fan you are of literature but he’s very much the Underground Man from Notes in the Underground but a slightly more romanticized version of that, which is from a story called White Knights, which is not the Gregory Hines film. That character is the basis of what we’re starting on, almost the Gregor Samsa or the Metamorphosis figure, someone who discovers love outside of his own cocoon and starts to open himself up and then finds tragic circumstances and essentially becomes kind of rejected by them.
Question: Is Gwyneth[Paltrow] playing a character that is more developed than his character at this point or did she come on board of faith because obviously you haven’t got a finished script?
Gray: No the script is finished. The character that Joaquin puts together for himself is incomplete. Gwyneth, I haven’t had the luxury of working with her before and we have talked at length about it and she is so smart. Whoa. And I’m actually scared of that. I told her, I said ‘Gwynny you’re so goddamn smart. I do not want you to condescend that character at all. I don’t want to see you playing that person. I want to see you’. And she’s so smart that she can do that thing where she plays the other character and she puts it in a box. And I want to take the wall down. Do you know what I mean? So we’ll see.
Question: Are you scared of taking on such a different genre?
Gray: Yes. I don’t even know what the question is. Yep, terrified.
Question: Why, you wrote this too right?
Question: So where did that come from?
Gray: It came from a friend of mine that lived at home with his mother and had a life that could have gone one way and went another. And he’s shut in and that’s about it.
Question: Do you think maybe this movie is going to take a lot more out of you emotionally than anything else you’ve done?
Gray: I don’t know. I hope so.
Question: And you got your finance independently?
Gray: Financed independently. I have complete creative control and final cut. So I can do exactly the picture I want to make and hopefully it will be a thing of beauty and if not, I tried my best.
Question: Does this passion that you have as a filmmaker come from the passion that you obviously have as a film lover?
Gray: I don’t think so. I think making films is more interesting now than watching films. I can’t really watch movies any more. The magic of watching movies was ruined for me about ten years ago. I now watch things I shouldn’t be watching. I break them down – I would be a very bad critic because I actually do what I think is the worst think you can do watching a movie and that is I say ‘OK, the story functions that way, the twist happens there because ….’ and ‘This shot was chosen for this reason’ and ‘on that day they must have had this production problem’. I literally cannot divorce myself. I hear a loop line. I say ‘They had to loop it because of this noise’. I can’t divorce myself from the technique of it. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to come back around and start appreciating films again. It’s been two years since I’ve been to the movies with any kind of regularity because of my children and so maybe I’ll start going again and start loving them again.