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Screenwriter-director James Gray burst onto the American indie scene at the age of 25 with his feature film debut, “Little Odessa.” Despite earning lavish praise for the Brooklyn-set crime drama, Gray eschewed the call to churn out high-concept scripts for other directors or secure a first-look studio deal. Instead, the USC film school graduate spent six years writing and developing his follow-up project, “The Yards,” which boasted a cast of eventual A-list stars including Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix. After taking the film to Cannes in 2000, where it played In Competition, Gray began developing his third and latest film, “We Own the Night.” The ’80s-set NYPD police drama, which reteams the director with Phoenix and Wahlberg, once again finds Gray In Competition on the Croisette. The New York native speaks about the autobiographical nature of his films, the anxiety that accompanies the release of a movie and why Hollywood blockbusters have lost their humanity.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve said you stole a lot from your personal history for this film as well as your other two films, “Little Odessa” and “The Yards.” How so?
James Gray: It’s all in the family dynamics — the father and two sons, an older brother and a younger brother. I have an older bro-ther and I get along with him very well. My mother died of brain cancer not too long before (“Little Odessa”) was made, and I was grieving. The Vanessa Redgrave character dying of brain cancer was very much based on that, and I was a screw-up as a young man. My relationship with my brother was the basis of the two brothers’ relationship, and this movie is the same story. It’s weird because you end up making the same movie over and over again (pause) if you’re lucky.
THR: Why is it important to tell the same story over and over again as a filmmaker?
Gray: If you’re doing that, then you’re making very personal films in a very impersonal medium. And I think it’s the highest calling. To me, (Martin) Scorsese’s best work is when he draws on his own personal concerns. If you watch “Raging Bull,” you know it’s so deeply felt and a world that he knows.
THR: This is your second Festival de Cannes. How does it feel to have your work validated once again by the French?
Gray: It’s very scary. I don’t actually like this period very much. I like making a movie. Once it is shot, I like editing it and doing the sound mix. But this period right now is very nerve-racking because it’s like if you took your kid and showed him to the world and everyone said, “That kid is pretty damn ugly.” The French are wonderful, and they’ve been very supportive of my work. But that can go sour so quickly if they don’t like it. But it’s the bill you have to pay in order to live a wonderful, creative existence.
THR: You’ve made three films in 12 years. Why do you take so much time between projects?
Gray: You want it to be deeply felt. I would rather make more films, I wish I could. In this case, I had written the script for Joaquin Phoenix, but the only time he was considered viable enough was after “Walk the Line.”
THR: And I would imagine that you are putting concerns of quality ahead of career or financial concerns. Is that correct?
Gray: I’m not an old guy yet. It could be very likely that I don’t have the talent to become a lasting, interesting filmmaker. But I’m not going to give up. I’d like to fail to the limits of my talent. If I just sat here and was phoning it in, I would hate myself for the rest of my life.
THR: How do you view your relationship with Hollywood?
Gray: You know, I don’t consider myself out of the mainstream at all. It’s weird because when I was growing up, I was going exclusively to American studio films. But there’s a difference between satisfying and exploiting public taste. It’s really sad what has happened to American films. I think the American film industry is going to pay big time. If you look at “Jaws,” which a lot of people criticize as the beginning of the era of the blockbuster, you see that it has a tremendous grasp of action and story but also a wonderful sense of character. The movie has great humanity to it, and you do not see that now.
THR: Is it a result of shortened running times?
Gray: No, because movies are getting longer and longer. I just think it’s not a cherished quality anymore because it’s not something that shows up on a balance sheet. I worry that Hollywood is becoming like Detroit in the ’70s. It’s starting to get more of its revenue from overseas. It doesn’t matter what the quality of the project is, so long as we hype it enough. I don’t know if sooner or later people who go to these big movies are going to say, “I don’t think this is very good.” I think the popularity of “The Sopranos” tells you something. “The Sopranos” is kind of like the TV equivalent of a movie (the studios) would have made in the ’70s. It’s very frank and interesting and dark, and people love it. But Hollywood doesn’t make movies for (sophisticated audiences), so they are just out of the habit of going. I would love to make a big, big movie that makes a ton of money, and I hope I will. I think there’s a way to do it which doesn’t require making something God awful. Great movies are part truth and part spectacle at the same time. That’s why when Hollywood movies work, they are amazing. In fact, it’s better than anyone else’s stuff. What’s better than “The Godfather”?
THR: Again, it’s from the ’70s.
Gray: That’s true. But I think times are changing. There was a time when 12-year-old boys went to the movies. But now 12-year-old boys are going less because of video games and other competition for their entertainment dollar. I think you will see a little bit of a comeback (of the smart studio film). Baby boomers are aging, and they are not going to have anything to watch. They have disposable income, they have time, and the kids have left the house. There has to be product to satisfy them. So maybe we’ll see some interesting stuff in the future. Every now and then, I get very encouraged.
Nationality: American; born: April 14, 1969
Selected filmography: “Little Odessa” (1994), “The Yards” (2000) and “We Own the Night” (2007)
Notable awards: Won the critics award at the Deauville Film Festival and the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for “Little Odessa”; nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards (best first feature and best first screenplay) for “Little Odessa”; Festival de Cannes Palme d’Or nominee for “The Yards”
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