One of the unsung directors working in American independent cinema, James Gray is a storyteller who makes films about people living in parts of a dangerous society often set in the world of crime. Like many other filmmakers working outside of Hollywood, Gray doesn’t make films frequently yet he would make the kind of films Hollywood wouldn’t venture as they feature characters who are from immigrant families or those entering a new world. While he’s about to make a film that would mark a departure from many of his previous films, Gray does remain a filmmaker who prefers to work to the beat of his own drum in an industry that doesn’t value individual ideas.
Born on April 14, 1969, James Gray was born and in New York City to a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants as his father worked as an electronics contractor in the city that would include work with the city’s transit company. Gray spent much of his early life living in the boroughs of Queens in New York City where his background of being Russian and Jewish definitely affected him but it also lead him to discover films as he was enamored by the American films that were happening in the 1970s. In his teens, he would discover the world of other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol, and Francois Truffaut as it would give him ideas of the films he wanted to make.
It was also around this time his father had been caught up in a corruption scandal involving the New York City transit as it would become the basis for a future film he would make. In the late 1980s, Gray attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts where he learned about filmmaking and made a student film entitled Cowboys and Angels. The short got the attention of British film producer Paul Webster who was in Los Angeles looking for young talent as he was impressed with Gray’s passion for film.
Given his fascination towards crime as well as being raised in a community that was diverse, Gray chose to do a film set in a section in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn that is known as Little Odessa which largely featured Russian-Jewish residents and immigrants. The film would revolve around a hitman who returns home for an assignment as he’s been estranged from his family whom he hadn’t seen for years where he learns his mother is dying. The film would play into a man struggling with returning home as he bonds with his younger brother as well as deal with the troubled relationship he has with his father. The film would give Gray a chance to present a unique look into the world of New York City crime and the world of the Russian mob which was becoming more evident following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Through the help of Paul Webster who would produce the film, Tim Roth would play the lead role of Joshua Shapira while the cast would also include Maximillian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave as Joshua’s parents, Edward Furlong as his younger brother Reuben, and Moira Kelly as Joshua’s former girlfriend Alla. Gray would also have the film be shot on actual location in Little Odessa as he got the services of Tom Richmond as his cinematographer and a recurring future collaborator in Dana Sano to provide music for the film and be the music supervisor. Gray would avoid shooting traditional locations in favor of going into locations where many of the people in Little Odessa meet or socialize at. It would add to the sense of authenticity that Gray wanted as well as this emergence of the mob and Mafia in these little areas in New York City.
Though it is a crime drama, Gray wanted to play into Joshua’s desire to make amends with his family despite the fact that his father wants little to do with his son knowing he’s going to cause trouble. Even as Reuben wants to get to know more about his brother and escape the life that his father is living at. It would play into not just this idea of impending loss as it relate to their ailing mother but also the life that Joshua has chosen to live in as it has so much chaos and trouble where he considers leaving it. Unfortunately, he is already part of an organization that he can’t leave as he is forced to cope with his own decisions but also the fact that there can never be a true reconciliation with his own father.
The film made its premiere in September of 1994 at the Venice Film Festival where it won the festival’s second place prize in the Silver Lion along with a Volpi Cup for Vanessa Redgrave as well as receiving the Grand Prix from the Belgian Film Critics Association two years later. The film’s festival success lead to a limited U.S. theatrical release in May of 1995 where it was well-received by critics though it only made more than a million dollars in the American box office. Still, the film’s success with critics and in the festival circuit would help the film be seen by audiences with a love for American independent cinema as it would become an underground hit of sorts.
Following the release of Little Odessa, Gray would develop another project that was much closer to his home as it related to the corruption scandal his father was involved in during the mid-1980s relating to the New York City transit system. Gray wanted to focus on a man trying to go straight and avoid trouble yet finds himself being part of a scheme with his best friend that becomes chaotic. Gray received help from emerging screenwriter Matt Reeves in writing the film as it also play into family secrets as well as some of the fallacies of loyalty. With Paul Webster also taking part as a producer, the film would be given a substantial $24 million budget due to a deal made with Miramax as Gray would receive a major casting line-up for the film. Playing the lead role of Leo Handler was Mark Wahlberg while Joaquin Phoenix was cast as his best friend Willie Gutierrez. Charlize Theron was cast as Leo’s cousin/Willie’s girlfriend Erica while the ensemble would also include Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, and James Caan.
Production began in the spring/summer of 1998 as Gray received the services of the emerging cinematographer Harris Savides who shared Gray’s love for stylized 35mm shots while Gray also received the services of the renowned composer Howard Shore. Though Gray wanted to shoot the film on location on the actual transit stations in New York City, he was denied permission from the MTA New York City Transit in shooting at their locations forcing Gray to go to other locations around Queens, the Bronx, Roosevelt Island, and New Jersey. Still, Gray was able to get what he wanted in creating a film set around this world of corruption in New York City as well as play into the different social classes as Erica’s stepfather runs the transit companies in the city as he becomes concerned about Willie’s activities as it relates to Leo getting into some trouble.
Notably as Leo and Willie get involved in trying to ruin a rival company’s work where Leo knocks a police officer unconscious while Willie would kill a yardmaster with Leo becoming the suspect. Yet, it would play into this sense of guilt and solving problems through violence where Leo is being asked to kill the cop he injured so no questions will be asked but refuses in an act of defiance as well as refusing to go back to jail. Even as he thinks about his own mother who has a heart condition with his cousin being the one to watch over her as it add intrigue to their own relationship that also carries a major secret that would anger Willie.
Plans for the film to be released in 1999 following its completion was met with delays from Miramax as it would cause some troubles between Gray and the Weinstein brothers who own and run Miramax. The film eventually premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival that May to compete for the Palme d’Or where it got a good reception but it would receive a very limited release in the U.S. months later in the fall where it barely made less than $900,000 making the film a major commercial flop against its $24 million budget. Despite being well-received by critics as well as giving Joaquin Phoenix a Best Supporting Actor prize from the National Board of Reviews for the film as well as his work in two other films. The film disappeared quickly though it would become a minor hit through viewings on cable TV.
We Own the Night
Taking a break following the disappointing release of The Yards, Gray would get a major upturn in his personal life where he married Alexandra Dickson in 2005 as they would later gain three kids in the following years. It was around this time that Gray was developing a project that would be his first period film of sorts set in the 1980s where a club owner finds himself in trouble as it relates to the fact that he’s working for the Russian mob who have already targeted his father and brother who are both cops. The project would attract the attention of both Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix who enjoyed working with Gray in The Yards as both agreed to star and produce the film as they would help raise a budget of $21 million that would also include Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall in key supporting roles.
The film would once again be set in Brighton Beach as well as New York City to play into this world of the Russian mob and their emergence into the world of crime in the city. For the lead character of Bobby Green, that is played by Phoenix, he is someone that is more concerned with making money for the nightclub he runs and spend time with his girlfriend rather than be involved with the work that his boss is doing as the operation is being taken over by the man’s nephew. Things would get complicated for Green as it relates to these changes where his brother Captain Joseph Grusinsky, played Mark Wahlberg, is leading a task force to stop this emerging drug trade only to be wounded forcing Green to question his own loyalties. The idea of loyalty which Gray had observed in his previous films would showcase not just fallacies but also men who find themselves in danger.
The film’s production in 2006 would give Gray another collaborator to work with in film editor John Axelrad who would help Gray with much of the material he shot with cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay. Even as Gray would hone his visual style more to play into that world of the New York City nightlife as well as delve into the look of 1970s American films that he grew up on. Notably as he would create a chase scene set in the rain as it help play into the action as well be the catalyst for Bobby to leave the life of crime for good.
The film made its premiere in May of 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival in France to compete for the Palme d’Or where the film received a mixed reaction from critics. Later being released in the U.S. through Columbia Pictures in October of that year, the film still managed to divide critics yet it would be a modest commercial success grossing more than $28 million in the U.S. while garnering a total worldwide gross of $54 million. The film would become a hit in the home video market where it made more than $22 million in DVD sales with $32 million more in DVD rentals giving Gray his first real commercial hit.
The success of We Own the Night gave Grey some clout as he decided to stray from the world of crime to make something smaller that was based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights. Teaming with famed music video filmmaker Richard Menello on the screenplay, the film would be once again set in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn as it would play into a love triangle involving a troubled man, his equally-troubled neighbor, and a young woman whose father is buying the man’s family business. Grey gave the script to Joaquin Phoenix as the film would be their third collaboration as he would play the lead role of Leonard who is reeling from a break-up and a suicide attempt as he’s forced to move back home with his parents.
Retaining many of the same collaborators from his previous film, Gray would get Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw in their respective roles as Leonard’s two different lovers in Michelle and Sandra. The film’s cast would also include small roles from Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, and Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother as production began in 2007 during the winter time as it would be set around the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays. Gray would maintain something very low-key and intimate in the way he approaches Leonard’s relationship as well as the uncertainty into the relationships with the two women he’s with as they would never meet eye to eye. Gray whose films had often been driven by men decided to shift things in his approach to women where Michelle is this woman who is troubled by her substance abuse and being in an affair with a married attorney that is starting to crumble as Leonard is attracted to her flaws.
Sandra meanwhile is a woman who is kind and patient as she provides a sense of protection that Leonard needed as Gray knew that a character like that is needed to play into Leonard’s decision as he is aware that his parents are selling their laundromat business to Sandra’s father who is also looking out for Leonard. Gray would also use the apartment building that both Leonard and Michelle live in to play into the sense of longing as Gray would use the locations as characters in the film. The film premiered in May of 2008 at the Cannes Film Festival once again in competition for the Palme d’Or. The film received rave reviews though it had difficulty finding a distributor until it was finally given a limited release in February of 2009 where it did modestly well making more than $16 million worldwide while being a major hit with critics.
Following a break between projects that included co-writing a script with Guillaume Canet on a remake of the 2008 French film Les liens du sang that would be directed by Canet called Blood Ties and would co-star Canet’s partner in actress Marion Cotillard. Gray would approach Cotillard in taking of a project he had been developing for a long time as he worked with Richard Menello on developing the screenplay that was partially based on stories his grandparents told him on their arrival to America from Russia. Gray wanted both Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix to play the lead roles in the film while he turned to his family in gathering research and stories about wanting to recreate 1920s New York City as well as notes from his grandparents about their arrival to America in 1923 that included dark stories about pimps who would take immigrant women and make them work as prostitutes.
With Phoenix agreeing to play the role of the pimp Bruno and Marion Cotillard as the Polish immigrant Ewa, Gray would also create another character that would be a spark of hope for Ewa in Bruno’s magician cousin Emil as he would be played by Jeremy Renner. Cotillard would spend two months learning how to speak Polish while working on other projects as Gray would turn to casting director Douglas Aibel whom he had worked with since Little Odessa in assembling the ensemble that would also include Angela Sarafyan, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Yelena Solovey in smaller parts. Along with regular collaborators in film editor John Axelrad and music supervisor Dana Sano on board, Gray would get the services of the French-Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji to shoot the film as well as the famed costume designer Patricia Norris to create the period costumes. Shooting began in New York City in late January of 2012 in a near-two month shoot under the working titles Low Life and Nightingale as he also got the service of visual effects supervisors Eran Dinur and Dottie Starling to help create visual recreation of 1921 New York City where the story is set.
It would revolve around a Polish immigrant who agrees to work as a prostitute for this man so she can free her sister who is being quarantined due to having tuberculosis. For Ewa who had been reported for having low morals, she is unable to find shelter until meeting Bruno as it would be troubling until she is taken back to Ellis Island for deportation is where she watches Emil perform magic as she is intrigued by him which would create this complicated love triangle with Bruno who is falling for Ewa despite using her for money. Gray wanted to play into a world where women of questionable morals are ostracized even though Ewa hasn’t done anything wrong. During the post-production period for much of 2012, the film’s U.S. distribution rights was purchased by the Weinstein Company as another battle between Gray and Harvey Weinstein occurred over its ending as Gray was able to finish the film hoping to premiere at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival that September. Instead, the film was delayed as Weinstein wanted it to have the film premiered in Cannes in May of 2013 in the hopes that Gray would change the film’s ending.
In the end, Gray won the battle to keep his vision intact for the film’s premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where the film was competing for the Palme d’Or. Despite its great reception and becoming a festival hit in 2013, the film was given a very limited release a year later only in the U.S. where despite its great critical reception. The film only made nearly $6 million against its $16 million budget though critics would continuously praise as Cotillard won the New York Film Critics Circle prize for Best Actress along with her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’ film Two Days, One Night while Darius Khondji also got a prize from the New York Film Critics Circle for his cinematography.
The Lost City of Z
While taking his break between projects before he was to do The Immigrant and co-writing Blood Ties, Gray was approached by Plan B Entertainment about developing an adaptation of David Grann’s book about Percy Fawcett’s expeditions to the Amazon and his search for a lost city. Gray at first wasn’t on board but after reading Grann’s book and learning about Fawcett’s expeditions to the Amazon and his disappearance in 1925 along with his son Jack. Gray would develop the script for Plan B whose co-founder Brad Pitt had expressed interest in playing Fawcett as well as being producer but scheduling conflicts forced him to drop out of the role though maintaining his part in developing the film with Gray writing it. While Gray was dealing with the release of The Immigrant in 2013, Benedict Cumberbatch expressed interest in playing Fawcett while Robert Pattinson joined the production in the role of Fawcett’s right-hand man Corporal Henry Costin.
Two years later, Cumberbatch would drop out due to scheduling conflicts as Gray decided to be on board full on as director while getting his longtime casting director Douglas Aibel to find another actor. Charlie Hunnam was eventually cast as Fawcett while Sienna Miller joined the production as Fawcett’s wife Nina and Tom Holland in the role of Fawcett’s son Jack. Retaining much of the same crew from his previous film including cinematographer Darius Khondji, sound editor Robert Hein, film editor John Axelrad, visual effects supervisor Eran Dinur, and music composer Christopher Spellman. Production began in August of 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland for many of the scenes set in Britain and Europe for nearly a month before moving to Colombia to shoot scenes set in the Amazon despite warnings from filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola about shooting a film in the jungle. While Gray was aware of what Coppola was talking about, he still shot scenes in Colombia knowing about the risks of shooting in the jungle. Still, he and his crew were prepared for what they were to face.
While the film would be an entirely different project that Gray had done as it would be the first not set in New York City, the film still played into the idea of loyalty but also its fallacies where Fawcett was hired originally to survey land in settling a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. Instead, he and Costin would find artifacts believing it’s from this lost city only to be met with ridicule and indifference which would force Fawcett to embark on another exposition. Yet, he would put himself at risk of not being around his family until the final expedition he would take with his eldest son Jack who is fascinated by this search as Grey knew that the film’s ending couldn’t be conventional. Instead, he aimed for something that is mystical where it played into the idea that Fawcett may have founded something with his son and they chose not to return.
The film premiered in October of 2016 as the closing film of the New York Film Festival where it got a rousing reception where it would be released internationally by StudioCanal while its U.S. release was handled by Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street as the film was released was released in the U.S. and Europe of the spring of 2017. While Gray did trim thirty-seven minutes of the film for its release in China for June of that year, the film was well-received by critics despite not making back its $30 million budget in the box office where it only made $19.3 million. Still, the film was a favorite among critics with film critic organizations giving nominations for Darius Khondji’s cinematography while the London Film Critics’ Circle gave Tom Holland a nomination for Young British/Irish Performer of the Year for his work in the film as well as his work in another 2017 release in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Gray’s next feature film that is set for a 2019 release will mark another major departure from his body of work in a sci-fi film. Teaming up with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment in producing the film with Pitt starring in the leading role, the film that Gray wrote with Ethan Gross would revolve a man who travels through the Solar System to find his father who left Earth to go to Neptune to find signs of life. The film would also star Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland as it is set for a January 2019 release through 20th Century Fox with Gray gaining the services of the Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and music composer Max Richter.
Having made six feature films with another one on the way, James Gray has definitely made a mark in American cinema by fusing elements of 1970s American cinema with European cinematic style to create something that is his own. While a lot of his films haven’t done well commercially often due to distribution and its lack of commercial appeal. Gray has managed to create the kind of films that are engaging as well as with characters that are flawed with backgrounds that are different from the environments they are in. It is why he remains one of the best American filmmakers working today who is willing to tell the kind of stories about the people who want to find something better or be part of something.
© thevoid99 2018