James Gray has achieved a small measure of success in the American film industry, and yet he remains elusive. He’s critically lauded, but he’s not a figure centrally discussed in the context of the independent or studio-film landscapes. He works with big stars like Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Gwyneth Paltrow, but years pass before he’s able to get projects off the ground. He’s a darling of the Cannes Film Festival, but is a niche flavor in the already niche world of cinephilia. He’s often labeled a “classicist,” but he has more in common with the post-classical mode of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. So, what the hell is James Gray, anyway?
That’s the question Paris-based Hollywood Reporter critic and Gray enthusiast Jordan Mintzer attempts to answer in his new book, James Gray. Comprised of interviews with Gray and his collaborators, along with storyboards, annotated script pages, production stills, and frame grabs, Mintzer’s volume is the first full-length study of Gray in any language. It is, unfortunately, only being published in France. But fear not: Synecdoche has released a bilingual edition that can be purchased on their website for a cool $65 USD.
What emerges most saliently from Mintzer’s interviews is Gray’s commitment to the idea of problem solution in creating his style. Gray is no proverbial Hitchcock, dreaming an ironclad vision of his films that then must be laid out to the letter. (“I don’t believe in vision. I think vision is overrated,” says Gray.) Instead, Gray’s style remains fluid and open to the necessary conditions of the production itself. A famous example concerns Little Odessa being set in the wintertime. “…It was written for the summer, with all the laundry lines during the final shootout,” Gray says. “But you have to make the movie when you get the money, so I made it then…I realized that the snow looked amazing, that it was something you couldn’t really reproduce. So I decided we should go shoot outside whenever it was snowing.” Anyone who’s seen Little Odessa knows that the deep melancholy of its characters’ struggles finds a rather apt metaphor in the falling, whipping snow that fills many gorgeous widescreen compositions.