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.
Even the storyboards that fill the book’s pages find little application for Gray once the cameras start rolling. “I initially storyboarded my films very elaborately, but I don’t do that anymore,” he says. “It’s a waste of time to do all that work before shooting…I like mistakes…Sometimes a mistake is beautiful. It leads you in a direction that you never had anticipated, and it’s better than what you had in mind.” For Gray, filmmaking is an act of discovery whose returns are of significantly higher yield than a process of meticulous preparation and control.
A layer of this process is demonstrated in the production of Two Lovers. Gray states the budget was a low $9 million, despite attached stars Phoenix, Paltrow, and Isabella Rossellini. Gray mentions that he “used a lot of masters; there was only so much to cut together.” Part of the innovation of that film—and what makes it possibly Gray’s most visually accomplished work—is the use of hypersituated objects, internal framing, and figural occlusion to generate exciting and narratively complex compositions throughout the playing of a scene. Faced with minimal funds, Gray found a method of keeping his interest in the suppression and elision of clear narrative information intact.
Gray’s commitment to a certain culture of taste points toward the reasons his movies may feel out of fashion in the 21st century. Constant reference is made to cinematic influences like Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Coppola, and Scorsese—certainly nothing surprising. But Gray’s commitment to “emotional intensity,” as much a struggle of family, psychology, and class as it is about action, sets him apart. Gray describes playing Puccini and Mascagni on the set of The Yards, and compares We Own the Night to Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Gray states that the Italian mode of verismo narrative, a popular opera and literary genre committed to the “realism” of the lower classes in the late 19th century, is perhaps his greatest influence. It’s no wonder that even a commitment to the crime genre in three of his four features doesn’t immediately resonate with audiences or critics. If Gray isn’t exactly a classicist, he’s certainly an old soul.
If Mintzer’s book has a glaring weakness, it’s the absence of Phoenix. Mintzer interviews Gray’s producers, co-writers, cinematographers, editors, composers, sound editors, and production designers, along with Tim Roth, Wahlberg, James Caan, Eva Mendes, Moni Moshonov, Paltrow, and Vinessa Shaw, but it’s Phoenix whose voice is perhaps most essential in completing an understanding of Gray as a collaborative filmmaker. Phoenix has starred in three of Gray’s four features, and is as much a foil for Gray as Robert De Niro was for Scorsese. One can imagine how illuminating and entertaining Phoenix’s perspective on his and Gray’s working relationship would have been. (According to Mintzer, Phoenix was unavailable to be interviewed at the time the book was being prepared.) Despite this omission, this collection of interviews is crucial toward understanding Gray as one of America’s most important and oft-unheralded cinematic voices. If your jaw hit the floor during the car chase in We Own the Night, or if you marveled at the compositions of the rooftop scenes in Two Lovers, or if your heart was stirred by the troubling and ambiguous conclusions to all four of Gray’s features, this book is for you.
Jordan Mintzer’s James Gray can be purchased here.