James Gray
by Rob Blackwelder/SPLICED
WHO: James Gray
WHAT: Co-writer/director
WHEN: October 11, 2000
WHERE: Prescott Hotel, SF, CA
HOW (you might know him):
Wrote & directed "Little Odessa" (1995).

"The Yards"
Trapped in a hotel room while his team takes the playoffs, director James Gray soldiers through an interview about his new film

By Rob Blackwelder

It's the bottom of the 8th in game two of the American League championship. The game, between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees, is tied at 1-1 when out of nowhere New York is about to shake things up with six runs in a half-hour.

Meanwhile, movie director James Gray, a mad-dog Yankees fan, is stuck in a San Francisco hotel room being interviewed about his new film, "The Yards." It's a vividly gritty, character-driven urban morality tale, influenced by similar dramas of the 1970s, about a parolee (Mark Wahlberg) trying to put his life back together when he becomes entangled in a corruption scandal involving his best friend (Joaquin Phoenix) and his crooked uncle's (James Caan) subway contracting business.

"The sacrifice -- the personal sacrifice -- I have made to be here today..." Gray says, only half kidding. He's a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, the kind who barely cracks a smile when he makes such jokes, and to keep up with his team he has a SkyTel pager (the kind that beeps you with headlines, etc.) out on the table beside him. It's set to vibrate whenever there's an update from the game, and as a rout goes down in the Big Apple, the poor guy keeps getting stuck mid sentence -- glancing sideways at the pager, trying to decide whether to finish his sentence or dive for the latest stats.

But distracted as he may be, it doesn't effect his intense passion as the young director with a shock of reddish-brown hair, long sideburns and hip-to-be-square horn-rimmed glasses talks about his film. He barely blinks when he's concentrating on a question. He often leans in close to make a point and he's perfectly comfortable with scrapping one train of thought to approach an answer from a different angle if he thinks it will make his point more powerful.

As I enter the room, he's just been beeped that the Yankees have tied the game at one apiece, so to make conversation, I say:

Q: Yankees fan, huh?

A: Unfortunately.

Q: Why unfortunately?

A: It's a heart disease. They kill me.

Q: Are you a New York native? I didn't read the press kit.

A: It's all wrong and full of s**t anyway. [Smiles, but just barely] They say, "Can we have your input here?" I read it, I'm like, that's the worst thing I've ever read in my life. It's horrible.

Q: Who is this guy?

A: Yep. It's ridiculous. Anyway, I'm born and bred in New York. I grew up in Queens, which is right near where the picture takes place. I based the movie, really, on people that I knew, and my father worked at a company which supplied subways in New York. That's where the movie came from. It was sort of an amalgamation of real elements with my obsession with Verismo opera. The style of the film was imposed by the...

Q: What kind of opera?

A: Verismo. V-E-R-I-S-M-O...

Q: Thanks for spelling that! [Writing it down]

A: ...which is sort of a tradition of elevating working class struggles to art form...[The pager begins to vibrate excitedly] Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Seattle 1, New York 2! Bottom of the 8th! This is going to make me sound like an idiot (in the interview)!

Q: No, no, no. Seriously, this makes for a fun read. It's an angle for the story. It's not all movie talk. You're only human, man.

A: Can I tell you something?

Q: Tell me something.

A: The sacrifice -- the personal sacrifice -- I have made to be here today...

Q: ...and not at the game? I can just see you arguing with the studio: Why can't you release the movie a week later?

A: No! That might be worse! World Series! Oh, shhhh! Shhh! [Closes his eyes] No jinx! No jinx! I have been to the World Series the last several years. I've been a Yankees fan for a long time. When I was a kid in the mid-'70s, the Yankees were really great. They had Reggie Jackson in '77. I was 8 years old at the time. He hit three home runs to win the World Series in game six against the Dodgers, and I was just hooked. Baseball is the greatest thing in the world.

Q: Better than making movies?

A: [Squints intensely, long pause]

Q: If you could play ball...?

A: Pshhh! Oh, yeah! No contest. But I have no athletic skills whatsoever. I'm just literally incompetent. But do I like it more than movies? Not really. I like it as much maybe. [The SkyTel buzzes across the table again] Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Yanks scored another run! [Rubs his hands together] Seattle's in trouble. Seattle's in trouble! Anyway, I'm sorry! [Laughs] What were we talking about?

Q: I think you have a movie coming out or something.

A: Verismo opera! That was it. I'm just really obsessed with Puccini. I had been listening to a lot of it, and I really just wanted to make something brooding and operatic. Not operatic in the sense of being melodramatic, over the top or ridiculous, but operatic in a world view sense, in which the characters are submerged beneath a kind of world view. The world of the movie seems bigger than the characters' plights.

Q: That they are these small spokes in a huge wheel.

A: That's right. Which is also a tenet of classical tragedy, in that the characters have a limited ability to alter their own fates. Destiny and what the culture at large do to these people is, in a way, much more potent than the ability of the people's ability to affect change in their own lives.

Q: I see how that applies to the film. As a parolee, Mark Wahlberg's character's options are limited and he makes a bad choice, tries to take a shortcut to good money because he's lost a lot of time and he wants to care for his sickly mother.

A: That's what I was trying to do. A lot of times with opera, they're very simple, very archetypal stories. So I chose an archetypal framework -- guy comes home from jail, wants to go straight. And on that, you impose your kind of world view.

Q: I felt that in the way you created the film's sullied world. In fact, that opening shot looking out the back of a subway train as it emerges from a tunnel into this world of graffiti and the worn-down brick buildings -- it's a great establishing shot.

A: Well, thank you. It was a little bit by accident. But I think the opening shot is the best thing in the movie. I had planned a very elaborate shot to open the movie in which a train comes out of the fog, the fog dissipates, shows you the landscape -- blah, blah, blah. We were shooting the opening scene, Wahlberg on the train, and I just started rolling film inside the tunnel. As we came out, we rolled film for about two minutes of just the tracks, figuring we might be able to use it at some point. I went to (view) dailies, and the dailies literally started with what you see on the screen (at the beginning of the movie), and I was like, Oh my God, what a great shot! That's gotta be the opening shot of the movie!

Q: It's so simple, but it says so much about the mood of the movie.

A: You want the illusion of simplicity (but) the hardest thing to do is a simple story unfolding with a kind of elegance. It's much easier to make a movie with kind of stylistic pyrotechnics because you can hide behind that if there's a gap in the story. But I wanted to make the film in sort of a John Ford simple style.

It is difficult to find universal approbation for a movie like this because, to be honest, we have moved into such a celebrity driven culture and such a hip-oriented culture -- and such a box office oriented culture with movies -- that to make something not about box office, not about being hip, fast-paced, whatever, it's like making the anti-movie. It's the opposite of what people are expecting. Am I sounding ridiculous?

Q: No, I know exactly what you mean -- more than you know. I just came from the press screening of the "Blair Witch" sequel. Now that's a movie about nothing but making another $140 million.

A: Is it bad?

Q: It's not scary, it goes absolutely nowhere and it doesn't make a scrap of sense.

A: That's the problem with the system we live under. Merit is determined by the money. This is fine if you want to buy the best car. You go to the dealer and you buy the best car. It costs you more money, but you know you're getting a better product generally. But it doesn't work for entertainment. A work of art -- and in my case I use the term very loosely -- a work of art cannot be judged...[the pager goes off again and Gray glances toward it, torn between finishing his sentence and looking at the score]. A work of art cannot be judged...What do you think?

Q: Check it.

A: New York 4! Wow! They're really rallying!

Q: ...You cannot judge a work of art...

A: You cannot judge a work of art with any immediacy. You cannot watch a work of art, you can't watch a movie that's really great (and) right after you come out of the movie and say "Great!" or "S**t!" Immediate reactions, in fact, are exactly the opposite of what you need, which is great deliberation, maybe seeing it again. Also, a great work of art is literally outside of time and fashion, and so often it is not appraised correctly upon initial release. If you look at a movie like "It's A Wonderful Life," it bombed. "Citizen Kane" was a bomb. If "Citizen Kane" came out today, Entertainment Weekly would be saying it's a dud. [Buzzing pager again!] Ok, ok, ok! New York five! Still bottom of the 8th!

Q: Everyone in Seattle is crying in their beer right now.

A: Thank God!

Q: OK, let me ask you about the casting process... [pager buzzes again!]. Good god!

A: What's going on here?!? New York seven! Two run home run by Derek Jeter! They're exploding!

Q: It was 1-1 when I got here!

A: And it's the same inning! OK, here's what we're gonna do, you ready?

Q: Tell me what we're gonna do.

A: I'm gonna turn the pager off. It's distracting me.

Q: I guess it doesn't matter since they're kicking ass now.

A: Exactly.

Q: So let's talk about casting. Each of your three leads have had trouble being taken seriously at times. Wahlberg has the Marky Mark thing in his past...

A: Sure.

Q: ...Joaquin Phoenix has the whole "brother of" stigma...

A: Sure, sure.

Q: ...and Charlize Theron, people can't get past her looks to see how good she is.

A: Yes.

Q: So did any of that come into play as you were casting?

A: It did a little bit. But mostly -- see, the style of movies have changed so much since the period when I enjoyed them. OK, say the year is 1973 and I want to make this movie. A) It's easier for me to raise the money. B) If I want to cast it, I can look on the stage, I can go to Lee Strausberg and say "What actors you got for me?"

If I'm trying to make that kind of social realist movie today, how do I cast this movie? I cannot go by actor's "reputations." What I can go by is whether the actor has shown in other movies a level of total commitment, and also a certain emotional awareness -- a depth, a sensitivity. If I can perceive that, I don't care what their reputation is. I'm going to cast them.

You know, Mark Wahlberg and I talked about this, and he took a very big chance with "The Yards" because his performance is so internal. He's an anti-hero in the mythical sense. It's a very risky thing to do because it's totally underplayed. It's not the kind of guy who is the star and gets the girl. It's a much more risky thing. With Joaquin, he's a totally committed actor and he doesn't mind going down into the darkest place. Charlize, too. I mean, Charlize is a very trained actor. I was blown away by her, consistently. So I feel like they are often hostage to movies that don't take advantage of what they can do.

Q: And on the other hand, you must have been thrilled to hear back from people like James Caan, Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn that they wanted to make your movie.

A: It's amazing. It's pretty great. You know, when you're working with an actor, you don't want them to repeat exactly what you wanted. You want the actor to surprise you with a moment you hadn't anticipated that seems completely connected to the character they're playing. This was the kind of thing I got from them.

Q: Well, my time is up. This was fun. Good luck to "The Yards" and the Yankees.

A: Thanks. This was fun. Thank you for understanding... [Shakes my hand and reaches for the SkyTel pager...]

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