‘Little Odessa’ director fulfills fantasy of every film student soon after graduation, James Gray got an agent, sold his script, and directed it with an “A” list of stars. “The iconic Franco-German channel Arte has released a nearly hour-long special that takes a look at Gray’s directorial debut ‘Little Odessa’ with some interviews with the filmmaker himself, Tim Roth and Vanessa Redgrave, among others. For fans of the Brighton Beach-set film, it’s illuminating walk down memory lane and for new arrivals, it’s a great primer for the Silver Lion-winning film. Though the special has some unsubtitled French narration, the interviews are all in English.” —Cain Rodriguez, The Playlist
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. —Exposure: James Gray
‘Little Odessa’ is about doom.
It’s a movie made by a 23-year-old suffering from terrible depression. I was going through a very difficult time and my mother had died a few years before that and my father gone through terrible legal troubles and I was a devastated person and that was the film I made. It was certainly close emotionally to where I was. I’m trying to move past that now. I’d love to. I clearly have no talent with humor because I thought so much of ‘Two Lovers’ was funny and so much of this movie was funny, and people say there are no jokes.
Your film had a divisive reaction as usual.
I don’t mind that. If you please everyone you’re doing something wrong. It means you’re not under their skin, you’re not provocative. Although there must have been a great film that everybody loved. Godard would say it’s by accident. When a great movie’s a success, it’s an accident. It’s hard to think of one. My friend said “what about The Godfather” and I said to him “google Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic, The Godfather.” Kauffmann said it was incompetent and that Brando is a moron, that the great performance of Jean Gabin in The Sicilian Clan blows away Brando. All this stuff.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ sent everyone running.
2001 was beyond divisive. The story John Boorman told me was that Kubrick had called John and asked him if he had seen 2001 and John said “Yes, it’s a masterpiece” and Kubrick said “would you please give me a quote for the poster cause I don’t have enough critics’ good words to put on.” 2001! It might be the greatest movie ever made that was an absolute failure in the eyes of the director. That doesn’t mean I know what Kubrick thought of the film, but he was clearly going for some sort Homeric epic hero story. The movie’s called ‘A Space ODYSSEY,’ he’s got the main character named Bowman, he fights a Cyclops, a one-eyed computer, he’s going for the mythic hero to the point where there’s even a rebirth at the end with the Starchild, it’s a total attempt at this mythic, Campbellian sweep, but you don’t know anything about Keir Dullea, so the movie doesn’t operate at all on that level, it operates brilliantly as a kind of Myth of the Gods movie. It doesn’t work at all as a Campbellian model. The movie’s fantastic, still, because what he did was he was able to capture the genius of the computer’s dilemma and the genius of this idea of the monolith, which I think came from minimalist 60s art, maybe something by like Donald Judd. —Love & Sincerity: A Conversation with James Gray
Jordan Mintzer’s James Gray; Conversations with James Gray is beyond highly recommended. “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.”
Recommended Listening: Little Odessa (1994) — Pioneer Special Edition audio commentary (AC3) with director James Gray and actor Tim Roth. The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers.
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