Long day's journey into movie 'Night'

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"Night" news: It's typically sequels that reteam directors with actors, but from time to time originals also manage to reunite people who enjoyed working together previously.

A case in point is Sony and 2929 Prods'. crime drama "We Own the Night," opening wide Friday, which reteams writer-director James Gray with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. Produced by Nick Wechsler and Marc Butan and by Wahlberg and Phoenix, "Night" was executive produced by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban and by Anthony Katagas. The film, which was an official selection last May at the Cannes Film Festival, also stars Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall.

Previously, Gray, Phoenix and Wahlberg worked together on the 2000 crime drama "The Yards," for which Gray was a Golden Palm nominee at Cannes. At that time neither Phoenix nor Wahlberg were the big stars they are today. Since then Phoenix won the best actor Golden Globe for "Walk the Line" and was Oscar nominated for "Line" and "Gladiator" while Wahlberg was Oscar and Globe nominated for "The Departed."

"Night" also reunites Gray with producer Nick Wechsler, who produced "Yards" as well as Gray's 1995 crime drama "Little Odessa," which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Also on Gray's "Night" team are production designer Ford Wheeler and costume designer Michael Clancy, both of whom worked with him on "Yards" and "Odessa."

For some insights into the making of "Night," I caught up recently with Gray, who explained the unusual way in which he got the idea to do the New York-set crime drama. "I had seen a photograph on the front (page) of the New York Times about six years ago," he explained. "It was a bunch of grown men hugging and crying. A very arresting photograph. I was like, 'What is this?' I started to read the caption and then (turned to) 'page A36 for more details' and I found out that it was the death of a police officer in the line of duty. I realized that you see a lot of cop movies, but they tend to be about the procedural -- you know, what happens to catch the killer or whatever -- or they tend to be about crooked cops.

"There have been many brilliant films made in both traditions, but I decided that I would try to do something that made a very emotional kind of almost a family drama out of the cop movie. In a way, it's like the opposite of the procedural in that the procedural is there but doesn't really matter. So that photograph was the inspiration really for what I tried to do, which was a very different kind of police film."

That was way back in the summer of 2000. "I started doing research first," he told me. "I went around with what they call 'ride-alongs' when you hang out with police officers. That was pretty amazing because you then get all these details that you wouldn't necessarily have otherwise. It was also very scary. You don't quite realize it, but it's like a life and death scenario virtually every day in the middle of all this banality. So you're with the cops and they're basically saying to you, 'Wanna get a sandwich?' and then they turn to you and go, 'Watch out. Put your vest on. We could get shot in here.' There's such a great contrast in their lives.

"I did that for months. I hung out from January or February of 2001 through probably August or September of 2001 -- right before 9/11. So I was hanging out with them and I wanted to try and get the details right. That was a fantastic experience. And then I started writing the script in earnest probably around early 2002."

How does he work when he's writing? "What I do is I have stacks of index cards and huge bulletin boards all around the house, which no doubt have driven my wife absolutely crazy," Gray said. "I make notes. I try to create scenes and I tack them on the wall. The minute I have even a notion I put it on the wall. I like to see the idea. You know, I had a great teacher once and he said, 'The essence of creativity is making connections,' which I always thought was an amazing quote because it really is what the writing process for me is about -- seeing all these ideas that I have and trying to understand if there's a connective thread with all of them.

"It's weird the way you find the story start to emerge that way. So I write on note cards and then after I've got about 60 or 70 that get more and more detailed I begin the outline. The outline is usually very detailed -- about 30 to 40 pages. Only when I've got those two things in hand do I start actually writing the script. The outline is very important for a story."

As for how he does his writing once he's past the outlining, Gray replied, "It's funny you ask that because I used to write with this old Smith-Corona typewriter that I had from 1959. And I loved it because it had a great feel to it. You would type and you would hear that snap of the key against the paper. It was so great because you could see what you wrote as soon as you wrote it. People say to me, 'Oh, yeah, but you can't revise it as easily.' Yeah, but the revising comes later. The actual writing process (is such that) it's amazing to see the thing as soon as you've typed it. With the computer there's a distance to it. You type on the screen and then you have to go print it up.

"Anyway, I had been writing on this (typewriter) for a while and I said, 'Well, this is the best way to work' and then it broke. This was after my second film ('Yards'). I said, 'Well, I've got to get this fixed.' I took it to a guy to get it fixed and he said, 'Smith-Corona is out of business. We can't really find you the part. We can maybe get you another typewriter, but it's a hassle and it will be very expensive and blah, blah, blah.' And sad tale to tell, I bought a computer. And I have to say, I don't like it very much. I wind up now writing in longhand on pads and then typing it into the computer. I do the revisions on the computer, but I write in longhand on pads.

"I use Final Draft because the script format is bizarre. That's another thing that distracts me. The script format is a very un-writerly format because it's almost like a blueprint for a house. It's all about structure. So you've got these weird margins and weird rules about 'Continued's' and all this stuff. I like to write dialogue almost like a play. Then I can sort of see the scene better. It's a very idiosyncratic thing, I know, but I like to see the words on the page first. It's very important to me. And then I let Final Draft format the whole thing."

When he's writing, Gray doesn't stop and start the way many writers do to make revisions as their going along. "I don't understand at all how people will start and stop," he observed. "If I did that, I would have to kill myself because (it would take so long to finish). You know, when you've written a letter that you've neglected to mail and you read it two weeks later and you're like, 'My God, how could I have written that? That's the worst thing I've ever read.' That's what happens to me. So if I were to do that, I would never get through it.

"What I try to do is plow through that draft of the script. Just finish it. Just get it out. It doesn't matter how bad it is. And then you have something to work with. Then you have an idea of the shape and the destination of it. By the way, I have done what you have just described -- where I've sort of stopped and went back. It took me like four years to write the thing. And I got depressed. That's a brutal experience. You can't really do that. Some people do (but) I don't understand how."

About 13 months after Gray started writing in January 2002, he said, "I had a (final) draft I was happy with. My first draft was about five months (in writing and was finished) around mid-2002."

While writing, of course, he knew he was going to direct the film. I always like to ask writer-directors if they write differently knowing they'll be directing themselves and typically they say they do not. Gray, however, replied, "Yes. I've written movies for studios where I'm not directing and I tend to leave them much more open in the description, much more sparse. The scripts that I'm directing I write very, very specifically, sometimes even specifying camera movements and elements of production design that are very important. Frankly (the idea is) to remind myself when I do it. And I find that when you direct a film it's much less conversation with the 'keys' -- with the production designer and cinematographer and costumer -- because they'll have it in the script already.

"What I realized when I was making my first film was how much you have to explain. So, for example, if the script were sparse in terms of the descriptions you would get to the set and say, 'Well, where's that thing I pictured' and then you'd realize, 'Well, I never mentioned it so why would they put it there?' So now I write as much as I can and it drives the reader crazy, but the script is not for them. I'm going to make the thing. So now the costumers and the production designer are going to have all the information they need. That's a much better way to work, frankly."

In Hollywood today, he added, "the script is as much a sales tool as a piece of screenwriting. But not in my case -- or, at least, it doesn't always have to be. So I kind of write it the way that I would want to have a script there where I can direct it. It sometimes causes me problems because when the thing gets sent around it's a very dense read. You know, you pay for (doing it that way) up front, but it's much better when you're making the film."

How did he get the picture financed? "It (took) a very circuitous route," he pointed out. "It was at Warner Bros. Lorenzo di Bonaventura (then head of production for WB) had hired me to do it. Then he left Warner Bros. and the picture was a little bit in limbo, but it was something I really wanted to make. Jeff Robinov, the head of (production at) Warner Bros. was very, very gracious actually, which is quite unusual. But he was very gracious about letting me have the script back. That is very unusual because usually they don't want to let it go (because) God forbid it goes and gets made somewhere else (and becomes a big hit). All kinds of craziness can ensue, but they let me make it.

"I sent it to 2929, which is the Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner company, and they're the ones that are trying to fill that very important sort of middle-sized movie niche. Small movies can get made now in the system and huge movies obviously can get made in the system. Every day they get made. The movies that don't get made are the ones that cost $20 million or $30 million. That's really hard. And the reason is because they're part truth and part spectacle. They're not blockbusters, but they're not so small that the risk is negligible. So I went to them and they wanted to make it."

But that wasn't the end of the struggle for Gray: "Then I had a long, long fight to put the thing together to get the cast that I wanted. I was obsessed about making it with Joaquin and with Mark. Joaquin, frankly, was not a big enough name to get the movie off the ground until after 'Walk the Line,' in which case the picture then was happily green-lighted. I love them (both and) they're great. I think they're both among the best young actors in the country and for very different reasons each. It's very refreshing to work with fantastic young actors like that. And the great thing is how different they are. It doesn't get boring. It's funny because they're very good friends, but they work so differently.

"Mark is a very deceptively well-trained actor. I say 'deceptively' because, you know, people say, 'Oh, Mark Wahlberg's the Calvin Klein (underwear ads) guy and rap (music) guy.' But he has a lot of craft and he really works at it. He will give you one, two, three, four takes that are really terrific and then you'll move on. And Joaquin is much more interested in experimentation. So you'll have to throw him different sort of motivations. And he wants you to you talk about the motivations with him whereas Mark invents them for himself. They're both great, but very different. It's sort of like the difference between working in a way with British actors and American actors. You'll find that they have a different way of working."

How do they differ? "They like to say that British actors work from the outside in and American actors work from the inside out," he explained. "So British actors like to understand the skin of the character, the costumes, the environment around them, and then they create the character inside from what they see and what they can feel. American actors tend to be method oriented -- you know, that 'dirty' word. But I think method actors are the best. They work from the inside out. They use sense memory or they use an experience. They use a kind of emotional element to get at where they need to be and then they justify their clothing and the outside environment around them from where they've come originally. That's really the difference, I think."

While 2929 Prods. agreed to make "Night," he added, "the tough part was being able to make the film with the cast. Mark was bankable. They loved Mark. Everyone respected Joaquin a lot as an actor, but I don't think they realized frankly that people really liked him as much as they did. He'd had a number of successes in a row -- I mean, 'Ladder 49' and 'The Village' and 'Signs' and then 'Walk the Line' made a huge amount of money. So finally they were like, 'OK. We get it.'

"We had a very short prep on the movie, which we started in February and we shot (in New York) in April and May of 2006 and a little bit of June. The cut of the movie was more or less finished in late fall of 2006."

As for how he likes to work while directing, Gray told me, "In this case, I storyboarded several sequences because I had to. My preference is to do what they call shot listing. The problem with storyboards is (that filmmaking has changed). You know, in Hitchcock's time he was able to do it because they built so much of the movie. There was very little location shooting back then. There was so much built on a soundstage that he could essentially draw storyboards from what the sets were. Today, there's so much in this movie that was location (filming) that doing storyboards is a little bit useless because then when you get to the location you kind of can't do what you did from the storyboards. The location changes everything. So I do shot listing where I try to picture the scene in my mind's eye as best I can and then I write the lens choices, the focal lengths and just try to do a basic grand design for each scene.

"And then when I get to the set you kind of have to do what I call a sort of elegant form of compromise between where the actors want to move and should move and where the camera should go. It's a very strange compromise. You can't really force the actors to go where the camera wants to go or else it feels very stiff. And you can't do the other thing, which is to basically just let the actors dictate everything because then you've got something that's really uncinematic, I would imagine. So you have to do a compromise. In terms of rehearsals, I do do rehearsals, but they turn out to be more discussion periods where you sit and talk about motive and talk about the ideas behind the scenes and what's behind the story. So I do do that and it's usually for a two-week period before shooting begins."

Looking back at production and asked to recall any day when things may have gone colossally wrong, he observed, "I have to tell you I don't think of a day when something doesn't go colossally wrong. I've never ever ever had an experience where I get to the set and the actors do a run-through of the scene and I say, 'Terrific. Let's shoot.' And then we shoot and the scene's good and I go home. I've never (done that). Not in a million years. What always happens is, you're always in a battle against terribleness. And you talk about 'colossally wrong,' there's a car chase in the film and we were shooting a (scene) where the guy drives into on-coming traffic and all of a sudden he virtually had a head-on collision with another car and the camera was destroyed. I went into a panic. My stuntman was OK and the cinematographer who was in the car was OK, but they got out and they were clearly shaken.

"And the cinematographer said, 'I don't think I want to do that shot ever again.' I said, 'It's all right. We've got it.' But it made me realize, I don't know how someone like Michael Bay does those action sequences that are so incredible because I sat there in constant fear that someone would get killed and it's not very pleasant. No movie's worth dying for. I don't know how they all survive those big action scenes, but they do. I decided, 'That's it. I'm not an action guy.' It's so scary to watch two cars have a virtual head-on collision going really fast, by the way -- and the shot is in the movie. I used the shot up until the very last frame before the cars collide. And the shot's great."

The weather also posed some interesting problems, but not in the usual way: "It was too good. Cloud cover in New York can sometimes make for very beautiful images. We had this sequence which was a car chase in the rain and every single day was a gorgeous day of sunlight. I would say to the AD, 'Well, can't we just have like one day (with) cloud cover or just a little bit of rain?' And the AD would say, 'Well, weather.com says it's coming tomorrow or the day after.' It never came. Every day was beautiful and not a cloud in the sky. It's weird because the special effects people got their hands on it and created a rainstorm for me and you watch the film now and it looks like every day was cloudy."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 10, 1990's column: "Monday's court verdict favoring Art Buchwald and Alain Bernheim in their lawsuit over the literary origins of 'Coming to America' is more than a victory for the two plaintiffs. It's also a victory -- unless it's overturned on appeal -- for all writers and producers who are in the business of selling ideas to Hollywood.

"One of the occupational hazards of being a writer has long been that the powerful studios and production companies to whom writers must confide their story ideas in an effort to sell them can take those ideas without paying for them if that's the way the choose to do business.

"Many writers can speak from personal experience about meeting with production executives and pitching them ideas only to told, 'That's interesting, but, unfortunately, we just put something very similar into development.'

"In general, this practice is said to be more prevalent in television, but it can and does happen on the theatrical side, too. A writer who starts out thinking he or she has something unique to sell -- a story idea that is the product of, perhaps, months of hard work -- and then finds that 'something similar' is already in development has no easy recourse ...

"Moreover, there typically is no way of a writer knowing for certain whether a production company really did have a similar idea in development before he or she made the pitch. Of course, the problem would be virtually eliminated if such a production company or studio was immediately willing to share with the writer or producer making the pitch the details of their own development project. Sometimes that is what happens, but much of the time it's not the way things work. The writer typically gets no explanation beyond the statement that the proposed idea has no future here because a similar idea is already being developed.

"It's understandable that after such meetings writers can develop their own doubts about whose idea is really in development. Making life even more complicated is the fact that an idea that may have been pitched for a theatrical motion picture could surface years later as a television project.

"There really is no completely safe way for writers or producers to protect themselves against such situation. Now, however, in the wake of Buchwald and Bernheim winning their high-profile lawsuit, there is a much better chance that production companies and their executives will think twice before deciding they like an idea but don't need to do business with the writer or producer who created it."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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