New York City-native James Gray studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California and made his first commercial film, Little Odessa, in 1994, when he was just 25 years old. That film (photographed by Tom Richmond) earned the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Since then, Gray has written and directed The Yards (2000, photographed by Harris Savides, ASC), We Own the Night (2007), and the forthcoming Two Lovers (both photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay), all of which were each nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Gray’s cinematic turf is Brooklyn, where Two Lovers is set. But unlike past forays into the borough’s criminal underworld, the romantic drama features Joaquin Phoenix as a downhearted man, driven to connect with a dangerous woman (Gwyneth Paltrow). According to his colleagues, Gray is well versed in cinematic history and often describes his ideas by referring to specific scenes and shots from older movies.  David Heuring caught up with this fiercely independent, regional filmmaker to get at the heart of his fascination with Brooklyn, and his working relationships with creative partners like Baca-Asay and Phoenix.

ICG: How did you originally describe Two Lovers to your collaborators?
James Gray: The goal behind the movie was to treat love as a subject worthy of serious treatment. I don’t mean that the film is dour. There are moments of humor. But I felt that there should be no walls between the character, the actor and the audience. In other words, there should be no irony; you are invited by the movie to be totally empathetic with the people in it. We would never talk down to or be condescending to them. All this went into the thinking.

I read that you made 75 watercolors for [DP] Tom Richmond on Little Odessa. Is that how you like to communicate your intentions? That is true. I used to be much more particular, making paintings and showing specific scenes from movies. But I’ve tried to free myself from that, particularly on this film. I didn’t talk with Joaquin [Baca-Asay] very much. I’d play him a piece of music or I’d play him a scene from a film. Not as something to steal but as something that gives a sense of mood. I might also show him a painting or a photograph, to find in each scene one point of commonality, because the thing that matters most to me is the feel and mood. Almost always, Joaquin gave me something better than what I had in mind. I think it’s an exercise in futility to try and get your vision on the screen, because it’s never going to happen. The only thing that you can do is try to make sure the film looks beautiful, better than you had imagined, as it slips away from you. It’s very hard to do, actually.

As a writer/director, do you focus purely on the story and then translate it to the screen, or do you see the visual aspects of the movie as you’re writing it? It’s changed through the years. When I first started writing, I thought more about the visual; I had to see the film first. But [over time] my writing has become more focused on structure and story. Not that the visuals come second – I am always thinking about what it’s going to look and feel like. But I know the visual aspect is going to change: different locations, different cinematographers, different light, different actors than you pictured … you learn to let go in a way; that you are not as good as your collaborators at their jobs, and that they are there to help you. If you hire the right people, they can give you something better and more beautiful than you’d ever imagined.

What’s your take on the idea that inexpensive video cameras will break down barriers to filmmaking with the result being better movies? That is bullshit for several reasons. Ease of access does not guarantee excellence of result. Making a film, particularly a narrative film, is an art informed by a serious investment of time and energy into perfecting a craft. Excellence in craft is not arrived at easily. You need to work at it for a very long time. John Ford’s first great film was probably his 10th movie. Hitchcock’s was maybe his 10th or 12th. There is a reason for that. You have to involve all these different people to help realize your vision. It becomes a large-scale, collaborative undertaking that involves repeated attempts, and maybe even repeated attempts at the same thing. Let me give you an example. Gordon Willis (ASC) shot a picture called The Landlord, which is quite a good movie. He overexposed many scenes with a narrative purpose. It doesn’t completely work, but it is interesting. Then you see The Godfather, where he overexposed the party scene a bit less, to give it the right feeling. And it’s perfect. It’s a craft, and he worked on it.

Would you consider making a movie with a high-end digital camera? Well, I love film; I love the way it looks. But to me it is not an interesting discussion. From my end, it’s an inane thing to think about because it means that I am focused on precisely the wrong thing. When making a film, I need to be focused on character and story.

Of your four feature films, Mark Wahlberg is cast in two and Joaquin Phoenix in three. The relationships are very different. Joaquin is sort of tempestuous. He works extremely hard and is a very serious actor, as is Mark, but Mark is very precise. Mark knows his entire dialogue and wants to do two or three takes. He wants to give you exactly what you want. Sometimes he even asks for line readings. Joaquin likes exploring. He wants you to capture the happy accident. With Mark it’s about continually crafting, and with Joaquin it’s all about the search for lightning in a bottle. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but they are both great, hard-working actors. What you have to do is find the emotional barometer for both.

Your films all take place in New York City boroughs, usually Brooklyn. That’s no coincidence. I’m very interested in social class and the impact that people’s economic and social standing have on their lives. Brooklyn, and Queens in the case of The Yards, and their relationships to Manhattan, has been important to me. As a kid growing up in Queens, I could look out the window and see the tips of the skyscrapers when the air was clear. Here you were nine miles away from Manhattan, but it was a world away. It’s a geographical shorthand through which one is able to express a certain class longing that forms the basis of a lot of people’s lives and how they act and interact. Humiliation is a most potent motivator.

Baca-Asay said that in Two Lovers you sometimes designed camera movement to communicate a sense of fate or inevitability. Can you elaborate? There are two things that go into that. The first is a little bit more of a God’s-eye view, and I don’t mean the camera’s up high, although there are times when that is the case. But usually what I mean is that there will be long takes and a certain level of visual distance, not emotional distance, which enables the viewer’s eye to roam around the image and find who or what that person wants to look at. In other words, a master held a little bit longer than in most American movies and not cutting to close-ups, and so forth. Secondly, it’s also there to a degree in camera movement, particularly in the slow zoom, as it either moves in or moves out. The slow zoom seems to indicate the unnatural, inexorable move, and that’s always what you’re doing, trying to find the root to someone’s unconscious in a conscious way. There is no natural equivalent of the zoom. It is very cinematic and almost mechanical. So there are times when we use very slow zooms to indicate a kind of inexorability. Also, we sometimes employed a meditative move of the camera in which the entire playing out of the story seems almost predetermined in that the viewer is not directed to look in a specific place, and they are not specifically conscious of it. The camera will be moving so slowly that, after a while, there is a two-shot when it was a wide. This is in contrast to cutting, where the intent is very specific and immediate.

That’s an interesting way of putting it: ‘trying to find the root to someone’s unconscious in a conscious way.’ The search for good filmmaking is the search for what works on the unconscious, and yet is created in a very conscious way. Lens choice, camera placement and what is on the set and who and what is in the frame – all of those are a series of decisions that you make that hopefully will not be conscious in the eye of the audience. You don’t want people to be watching a movie and saying, ‘That’s a 40 mm lens and that actor’s back is turned to us because the director wants us to wonder.’ You want it to be an unconscious, dreamlike experience, achieved by conscious means by the filmmakers. It’s true that sometimes you don’t think of something and then it just happens in the film. But that’s the exception.

By David Heuring /  Photo by Anne Joyce, 2929 Productions