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Paula S. Bernstein talks with Little Odessa’s James Gray

Though James Gray gained insight into the Hollywood mindset while studying film production and critical studies at USC, Little Odessa, his first professional effort, is decidedly un-Hollywood. Critics will certainly liken Gray’s first feature to early Scorsese – calling it, perhaps, a Russian-Jewish Mean Streets – but Gray hopes that it will be viewed instead as an early Gray. A contemporary tragedy about a family of Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Little Odessa is clearly a very personal film for the Flushing, Queens native, even though he’s admittedly never been a hit man for the Russian "organizatsya" like the lead in his film. With the assurance of a veteran and the ingenuity of a neophyte, Gray creates in Little Odessa a textured portrait of a turbulent community and of a family caught in the middle of it.

For a 25-year-old who has already directed a feature with a prestigious cast and signed a development deal with Searchlight, the Tom Rothman-helmed specialized division of Twentieth Century Fox, Gray is unbelievably modest. And, contrary to most people’s assumptions, he hasn’t risen to his enviable position through family contacts or money. In fact, he readily admits, "I’m a schmuck from Queens and I don’t know anybody. I’ve been so lucky, it’s almost nauseating. I mean, I was directing Vanessa Redgrave at 24."

Filmmaker recently sat down with Gray to talk about how he got so lucky. Over an overpriced ginger ale at a mediocre midtown hotel, Gray revealed the following:


Filmmaker: When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Gray: I went to a day camp in summer of 1981, [when] I was 12, to learn computing. In the mornings, I learned my assembly language programming and in the afternoons, I took filmmaking and it was a bajillion times more interesting. Two weeks into the day camp, I was spending the entire time working on this masterpiece that I was trying to create – of course, it was rubbish. I based it on a Robert Bloch short story and I cast it with people from the day camp – who were all like 12 – playing policeman. It was wretched, but I spent all my time editing it to make sure it was perfect. Right there was the bug.

Filmmaker: How were you able to direct your first feature film so soon after graduating from USC?

Gray: I had made a short film – sort of my thesis project there. I haven’t seen it in a while. I’m sure it’s a terrible little thing. But it did what it had to do, which is to create a fair degree of interest from agents – one of whom I wound up signing with. Then I met the producer, Paul Webster, through my agent. Three years later, I’m sitting here talking to you in this cheesy hotel on 54th Street. It’s actually not too bad, is it? I’ve been to worse.

Filmmaker: So, you went the easy route?

Gray: It was almost shockingly easy for me. Although one year of my life was truly wretched, which was the year of graduation because I was very hot for a time and then the heat dissipated very quickly. I was sent a number of scripts – all of which I couldn’t stand. I wanted to be just a director; I didn’t want to be a writer. I felt, "I don’t need to write screenplays." So I got sent a bunch of scripts and I couldn’t get through them. I hated everything I read. So, I thought, "Well, I may as well just write something on my own," which is exactly what I wound up doing. And I wound up loving screenwriting and seeing it as the key to making movies. But, it was not easy. The first year out I wrote a script which Universal now owns. But it was such a huge movie, there was no way they were going to let some 23-year-old schmengie like myself direct it. So, my producer said, "Write something smaller and more personal." That’s what I did.

Filmmaker: When did you finish the script?

Gray: It takes me six months to write a piece of original material from beginning to end. I finished the screenplay in November of ’92 and sent it to Tim Roth, my first pick for the role.

Filmmaker: As an unknown entity, how did you attract such a top notch cast?

Gray: Tim Roth read the script and loved it. So he became attached and, once an actor like that becomes attached, there’s a certain prestige that attracts other talent to the project. Edward Furlong read it and really liked it and said, "I want to do it." I think that you can hate the movie – I hope you don’t – but you will not be able to deny that Eddie is terrific. Then Moira Kelly got attached, who was my first choice. Then came the two elder statemen actors, as I call them, Vanessa [Redgrave] and Maximillian [Schell].

Filmmaker: At that point did you see it as an independent film?

Gray: It was always conceived as an independent film. In fact, we never even sent it to studios, because – good or bad– it is an incredibly uncompromising movie. It is very dark, and it’s very difficult to break in with a dark movie – because you’re an untested entity and it’s hard for dark movies to do well. They have to be kind of great. It took a year to get [Little Odessa] financed. Although Maximillian and Vanessa came on after the movie was financed, the three young actors were considered somewhat on their way up, sexy actors or whatever, and so New Line decided along with Live, domestically, to make the picture. So, that’s the big gamble that they took and I’m very grateful to them. When you have a dark movie, it could go one of two ways: it could be boring or [it could be] moving and almost transcendent. But, let’s face it, it’s really hard to make a good movie. It’s like the hardest thing in the world. So, people are very hesitant. If you fail with a comedy, it becomes just a lightweight piece of entertainment. If you fail with a drama, it seems pretentious and nobody wants to see it.

I had never conceived of [Little Odessa] as a studio film. In fact, I had conceived of it as almost a guerrilla-type movie, and when I got some money to make the movie, I decided to go another route with it. You can break into the studio system if you’re a twentysomething person. It’s hard, but you can do it. But, if you do that, you will almost never be able to do it on your own terms. You’ll do it as the director of someone else’s screenplay – or you’ll write and direct something that, by its very nature, you’ll be at the mercy of the studio executives. You won’t have the aesthetic capital. So, my strategy was to make a small, intense, independent film that’s hopefully very well received – and then can call the shots with the studios, if they want to work with [me]. And if they don’t – just keep making movies independently.

Filmmaker: What was your budget?

Gray: We did not have a lot of money to make the movie. Twenty-six days; not a lot of time to make a movie. [The budget] was $2.5 million, but you have less because you have to pay interest costs and things like that. So you really only have maybe $2.3 million. And I knew I was going to have to set aside like $100,000 for music because I wanted to score it with pre-recorded Russian modern classical music, liturgical hymns and things like that. Some filmmakers are liable to say, "Twenty-six days, that’s not so bad, I had 18." But, the movie was also shot in the worst winter in the history of New York – 20 degrees below zero, 15 major snowstorms in the span of two months.

Filmmaker: You had just turned 24 when filming started. Were you concerned that because of your age, you might have difficulty commanding authority?

Gray: It would be that way if it were a big movie that was not necessarily a labor of love. But all the actors and the crew did the movie as a labor of love, thinking "Oh, this could be something good. Maybe it won’t be, but it could be." And when [it’s] done that way, [you get] wonderful work from great people and they will not question your abilities or second-guess you. I never felt as though I was being undermined. Really, it was kind of a nauseating love fest on the set. Was I nervous? Of course. Each time I met with one of the actors, I was nervous for the first ten minutes of conversations. But, what you find is you have a common language, which is the movie, which is acting, which is directing, which is the art form. Immediately, you slip into what is a very comfortable mode of being. I suppose I was naïvely confident. I think that what happens is that it gets harder, not easier as you go along. You get more experience, which means you realize how hard it is because you realize all the traps you can fall into. When you’re 24 and you haven’t directed a movie before, you think "Oh, I can do this. It’s no big deal." So, you go and you do it. And you work totally from instinct. And sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. I think it will be much worse for me the second time around, if I’m lucky enough to get that chance.

Filmmaker: How did you develop your visual style?

Gray: I will answer the question, but it is impossible because what you’re trying to do is describe in words what ultimately is indescribable in words. Because if it were able to be verbalized, then the concept of visual style wouldn’t exist. Right? You’re talking about something you have to consciously design that will work on an unconscious level. I would guess that [my] visual style was an outgrowth of watching tons of movies and picking out what I liked from each. Also, the fact that I was almost fanatical about painting. I wanted to be a painter when I was a kid. [Little Odessa is] a very deliberately paced movie. That was, unfortunately, an intentional choice. In a way, [pacing] is part of your visual style. It depends on how long a shot lingers on the screen that enables your eye to sort of roam around the image. An MTV-cut movie has a very fast pace and that is a certain visual style. So, visual style is not only what is in the frame, it’s also the temporal arrangement of the movie.

Filmmaker: Specifically, what films do you watch for inspiration?

Gray: Polanski and Coppola and Scorsese and Friedkin and Kurosawa and all those great guys. And a movie called King of Marvin Gardens by Bob Rafaelson. I love it. You inevitably steal from movies, but I try to steal from painters, like Edward Hopper, and a photographer, Helen Leavitt. We looked at a lot of her work from the early ’70s. [DP] Tom Richmond and I talked a lot about consistent inconsistency. The outside world would be cold and brutal and cloudy. Inside the apartment, it would be almost like warm, amber tones, nostalgic. We looked at a lot of paintings. I took my cinematographer and production designer to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan and we talked about painters and religious painting as opposed to more modern stuff.


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