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James Gray Goes the Distance

James Gray Goes the Distance

Articles - Directing

James Gray and Victor Arnold

Director James Gray with Victor Arnold on
the set of The Yards.

31-year-old director James Gray rose
to indie success when his first feature film, Little Odessa,
attained critical success. Though it’s been a while since
audiences have heard from him, he hasn’t stopped working.
HIs latest film, The Yards, features a powerhouse cast
of veterans (James Caan, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn) and in-demand
young Hollywood names (Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize
Theron) alike. The Yards is rock-solid work, made with
intelligence by someone who clearly cares about movies. Here,
James Gray talks with MovieMaker about directing such a
varied cast of actors, and what it takes to stick to your original
vision-even when you’re dealing with a Weinstein.

Jeremy Arnold (MM): The
opening images of
The Yards show a very specific image
of New York and really set a tone for the film. What do you think
the director’s responsibility is in creating his or her opening
scene?

James Gray (JG): The
movie that got me into making movies was Apocalypse Now.
In an act of sheer parental insanity, my father took me to see
it at the Ziegfeld Theater when I was 10. The opening shot of
that movie is the fade in on those palm trees. I don’t think
I had ever seen anything like it-it was like a thunderbolt
to me. I began to think about the way that an opening shot means
everything about the movie: Bonnie and Clyde opens with
the lips; Apocalypse Now is abstracted palm trees, with
the helicopter blades and an electronic sound mix; Raging Bull is this slow motion shot of him boxing with very abstract fog
and black ropes. I think it’s important for an opening scene
not to just create a mood, but to somehow serve as the visual
objective correlative to the thematic elements you want to convey.

MM: Were you happy
with the opening of
The Yards?

JG: I wanted to open
without any credits at all-so you would just see those stars
and think it looks like space. But the new Miramax logo has the
city with speckled lights. When I had it without credits, it looked
like that shot was just a continuation of the Miramax logo. But
they fucking put that “Miramax Presents” and “The
Yards” in between, so that you could tell it was a new shot.

MM: There are a lot
of long takes in the film, specifically, the hospital scene where
Mark Wahlberg’s character walks slowly down the hall and
into the cop’s room.

JG: That’s my favorite
scene. It’s the slowest scene in the world! There’s
one shot that’s a really slow zoom, which lasts for like
50 seconds! Can you imagine 30 takes of that? [laughs]

MM: How do you construct
a sequence like that-the writing, the storyboarding, etc.?

The Yards

Charlize Theron with Joaquin Phoenix in
James Gray’s The Yards.

JG: The storyboards
turned out to be useless because once I got to the location, it
was completely different than what I had imagined. So I stole
a lot from a scene in The Conformist, where Jean-Louis
Trintignant is being chased through the sheets by the chauffeur.
For some reason that stuck in my head and I thought, “Well,
OK, Wahlberg silhouetted against these sheets. I’ll have
an almost mythic quality to the sequence.” I remember thinking
the audience would be able to maintain interest even if it’s
the slowest scene of all time. I purposefully directed it with
such a slow pace.

MM: Is that
why it’s your favorite scene?

JG: I love the way it
looks-that putrid, fluorescent green. I love the way Wahlberg
puts on that mask, which was his idea, because it makes him look
so creepy and weird. I love that shot of his eye. I don’t
know. There are times where you come to the set and the scene
doesn’t work at all, and you have to fight like crazy. On
other days you come onto the set and you say, “Oh, I know
how to shoot this.” Maybe it’s crap ultimately, but
it all seems to come together for you. This was one of those times.

MM: Do you ever compromise
as a director?

JG: I’m not very
good at it. I remember William Friedkin saying once, “It
doesn’t say on the marquee that it came in on time and on
schedule.” The movie is the movie, and if it means spending
a little more time to get something right, you have to do that.
It’s that simple. There are, of course, times where you have
to compromise to some degree, you have to rethink. Sometimes,
the brutality of the schedule will force you to do things that
are actually interesting-to come up with a way that’s
better than what you had imagined. But usually you have to stick
to your guns.

MM: What is it that
you look for in actors on the set?

JG: You want them to
surprise you.

MM: What is it that
you don’t want to see from actors on the set?

JG: Laziness. When an
actor is not committed to a part. When they come to the set, don’t
know their lines, and think they can just “get by;”
that it’s an easy scene. They should never feel that way.
If they’re willing to put themselves on screen, they should
be willing to absorb themselves completely in the part.

MM: When you say you
want an actor to “surprise you,” does that mean you
encourage improvisation?

JG: No, I don’t
like improvisation, as a general rule. I find that it often stands
in for an actor not knowing his lines. But having said that, there is a scene in The Yards which was completely improvised-and
I love it.

MM: The Yards features
performances by Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn and James Caan. What
did you find out about directing a cast of Hollywood veterans?

JG: They need emotional
modulation. With actors that are that good, you’re in a zone
where basically all you do is elaborate forms of “do more”
or “do less.” Like with Faye Dunaway it’s always
“do less.” I would always say to her, “Faye, you
have enough talent and you are fucking Faye Dunaway! You don’t
need to act. Just be in the scene.” I drove her crazy. After
a while she thought I was incompetent. Maybe she’s right!
[laughs]

MM: After agreeing
to make the movie, how much control did Miramax leave you with?

JG: They insisted on
script changes-none of which I really made after a lot of
arguments. Then they said, “Well, if you get these actors
we’ll make it,” and they gave me an impossible list
of actors to try and get. I wound up getting them, to their shock.

MM: Did you have to
deal with the Weinsteins personally?

JG: I dealt with Harvey
a lot, and I actually have a lot of admiration for him because
while he’s brutal, he’s not a dumb guy. He’s very
smart and he has reasons for what he believes, and if he senses
that you have passion about what it is you want to do, he’ll
let you do it.

MM: Brutal? In what
way?

JG: Well, he’s brutal
about money and shooting schedules. The shooting schedule for
this movie was 50 days, which sounds like a lot, but it wasn’t.
The movie has 181 scenes and it’s very ambitious with some
huge crowd scenes, and I never really had much time to play. On
the edit, you really have to justify what you’re doing. They
want to make sure that their money is well-spent, which you can
understand. I don’t begrudge Harvey any of his yelling and
screaming because I think, in the end, he’s the only one
out there in the American system that has guts. The Yards is
a pretty goddamn unremittingly bleak movie-it takes guts
to do that.

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