The director talks about how his "cut" is finally coming to DVD, tapping into "the darker elements of your nature" and his next movie starring someone named Joaquin Phoenix

Movie PictureThere are moments when you do this kind of “press” work that you realize how lucky you are. I had this happen to me when I recently interviewed James Gray about the DVD release of his sensational film, The Yards.

The Yards is a drama set in the vast New York City subway yards. After serving time in prison for taking the fall for a group of his friends, Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) just wants to get his life back on track. So, Leo returns to the one place he thinks will be safe -- home. There, he takes a new job with his highly connected and influential Uncle Frank (James Caan), and is reunited with his longtime friend, Willie Guitierrez (Joaquin Phoenix) and Willie's girlfriend Erica (Charlize Theron). But in the yards, where his uncle now pulls the strings, safe is not how they do business. Unwittingly, he's drawn into a world of sabotage, high stakes pay-offs and even murder, when he discovers secrets that make him the target of the most ruthless family in the city ... his own. Now, in the name of justice he'll have to do everything in his power to take them down.

This is a movie that stands out because of how genuinely well realized it is. The pace is deliberate, the dialogue real and the action not stagey in the way most films stage their action today. With only this film and Little Odessa to his credit, James Gray truly epitomizes that rare artist who says so much by saying so little.

Can you tell us about this film’s history? From the post production problems to how your Director’s Cut is finally seeing the light of day now?

James Gray: Well, what happened was the picture was made in, I guess, ‘98 and ‘99. It sort of overlapped. And once we finished the picture I got into a brouhaha with the studio. The movie’s testing numbers with an audience in a mall hadn’t been great, so they argued with me on what the best recourse would be for the picture. And we didn’t agree. Essentially, I didn’t have final cut on the picture and even if I had there would have been ways to get around it. And the studio put a different ending on the picture, and it was a level of compromise, basically, between the studio and me. So what you saw in the theater was never what I had intended.

And it’s really a painful experience, Evan, because what will happen is you’ll finish the movie and you’ll put it out there, and critics will respond and the movie actually did get some good reviews but still there was criticism of the ending which was never my idea to begin with. And it’s very painful because if you want to be told, “You suck,” you want to be told you such for things you actually suck for. You don’t want people to say that you suck for the artistic transgressions of others.

So, the picture came and went very quickly. I like to say it opened and closed so fast it created a suction. It was not very well publicized. I mean, the picture was put out there with probably around $500,000 dollars worth of prints and advertising. Just to give you some kind of barometer, something like King Kong will spend $40 million dollars on prints and advertising. So the movie’s box office failure was a fait accmpli, yeah know?

The good news is that with movies they live a long time. So what happened was, after the initial release of the picture, a couple of people who had been admirers of the film, had called me and said, “You really should put out a Director’s Cut.” And at the time, Harvey Weinstein was running Miramax and I think that he ultimately saw that there was a lot of passion for the movie from some quarters. Like Steven Soderbergh was a big supporter, and Peter Biskind was a big supporter. And a couple of other critics were big supporters of the movie.

So having heard all of this, and I think Claude Chabrol the famous French new wave filmmaker, one of the greats, had said that he thought this was “the best American film of the last decade.” I think with that they kind of said, “Maybe we should put the movie out in it’s original form?” And I give a lot of credit to Harvey for actually doing that. I mean, Harvey’s not even running Miramax anymore but he did agree to do this. So this coupled with the fact that the original transfer of the movie was never really ideal, they let me go back and retransfer the movie, and put together the original cut of the movie that I wanted.

And the cut is not that different. It’s probably one of the few Director’s Cuts that’s actually shorter than the theatrical release. But, it has the correct ending and it also has a couple of other things that I had originally wanted done to it. And it also lacks a scene in the early going that Harvey had wanted me to put in the movie. So all in all, I was very happy to be able to do it.

I thought that was interesting too, because on the Director’s Commentary, you mentioned that this version is actually shorter than the one that got released in the theaters.

James Gray: That’s right.

Usually with a Director’s Cut you think it’s going to be so much longer, but...

James Gray: We were very, very conscious of that, Evan. We didn’t want to do a movie redo where it was a whole kind of massively indulgent, Director decides to masturbate with his film being two hours and forty minutes. I didn’t want that. The picture was constructed a certain way. I’m very happy now with how it plays. It really was not a problem of pace or content. It was an argument over content, insofar as the movie was really a very singular, very dark, really kind of hermetic picture. And I think the studio just became very scared and wanted a different ending. So really, it’s without that ending that they tacked on and it’s without a couple of other things that they wanted to add, to make it into something that it wasn’t. You kind of can’t force these things to be not true to themselves, you know what I mean? You have to let them be what they are.

Definitely.

James Gray: So that’s what this cut does. I think if you see the picture now in it’s current state, like it or hate it, it’s at least what it’s meant to be. You know?

You bring up the idea of dark tones, I also saw Little Odessa in the theater, and that movie was a bit darker in tone than other movies out at the time. Is there something in you that draws you to that kind of material?

James Gray: You know it’s tough to say because, in a sense, I’m not that way in my life. So in a sense it’s like you’re making movies based on the untamed id. You’re not making the movie on what is consciously your life. I don’t sit around and act morose all day. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m a fairly jolly fellow. I’ve got a beautiful wife and a child on the way. I’m a good space in my life, but you make movies about that side of you, I think... well, some people do, I shouldn’t say all of us, I make movies about that side of me that I’m uncomfortable with. I feel like what I’m interested in, I may not achieve it and in fact I probably don’t, but I just want to make something that’s honest. And that confronts the darker elements of your nature. I don’t know? This is what I’m obsessed with. Maybe I’m wrong ultimately, but this is what I like to see.

How did you create a screenplay that felt so real? It just seemed like you captured the business aspect of not only City Employment but the Mafia in it’s businesslike state?

James Gray: First of all thank you, but what I would say is, all you’re really trying to do when you make a picture, well certain people anyway, at least I am I don’t know about others, but all I’m trying to do is make the most exact transcription possible of my most personal and intimate impressions. My father, he worked in that industry, that was his business. He had a business that repaired the subways. And he told me all those stories. The picture, very little of it is made up. You know, I laugh because somebody showed me a little blurb review in one of these books that said, the picture was, “brooding and operatic,” or something, but “not realistic.” I don’t remember exactly the wording but I laugh because I thought, “I haven’t made up anything in the movie. I haven’t made up a single thing.”

I guess it doesn’t really matter because in a way movies are a heightened reality, and there’s a reality to movies just as there is a reality in life. And what sometimes doesn’t seem believable in a movie actually happened and vice versa, but having said that, the movie is based on virtually everything factual. Stuff that my father had told me from his days of working in the business.

With The Yards layered story and virtual cast of icons from the 1970s, did you set out, initially, to make a film that was cut from the same clothe as films from that time?

James Gray: You know, I only did insofar as I love them. It wasn’t like I intended to cast everyone from the Seventies. The Seventies movies to me had an honesty and a straightforwardness and a real gutsiness, that I miss in movies today. They had a political overtone to them. They were intensely personal. They had tremendous attention paid to class and social issues. So yes, I thought consciously about that part of it. What I didn’t think about was necessarily casting a bunch of Seventies actors. That was never a necessary ingredient.

But you know what? Why not? They’re the best. I mean people like Ellen Burstyn, come on? They have such tremendous craft, you know? They really know how to act. And Jimmy Caan, everyone talks about him as Sonny Corleone or Thief, or something like that. The guy is an unbelievably trained actor. He can do anything, you know? He’s a great song and dance man. I mean, I’m not a fan of the movie but if you’ve ever seen For The Boys, the guy knows how to dance! He’s amazing and in a way underutilized. So, I just feel like those actors are the best.

At the time that you made that movie did you have any idea that you would be working with not one, but three actors that would go on and become superstars?

James Gray: No, isn’t that bizarre? It’s like kind of weird because none of them had done anything at the time. I think Charlize had done Two Days In The Valley, which was kind of a small, Pulp Fiction-type movie. Wahlberg had not even finished Boogie Nights. All he had done was The Basketball Diaries. And Joaquin had done just To Die For. And look at what’s happened to Joaquin now?

Exactly.

James Gray: I mean, it’s unbelievable. And deservedly so by the way because he’s completely brilliant in that movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen it? But Joaquin is a brilliant, brilliant actor. So, no, I had no knowledge. The way that the cast came together was simply that I went for the people who wanted to do it. I went for the actors that were most passionate about playing the part in the picture. It’s one thing, you can sort of go after actors until you’re blue in the face, and try and get the people you pictured in the movie. I don’t do that anymore, because you’re never going to get the actors you want. They’re never going to be available, or they’re not gonna want to do it, or you can’t pay them enough, or whatever.

So you should just write the movie based on people you actually know and then just see who wants to play it. Cast the net, you know?

You know, I don’t think you’re gonna have a problem.

James Gray: Well, why do you say that?

Well, listening to way the people were talking about your movie on all the supplemental features, there’s something about the stuff you create that I think makes actors want to work with you.

James Gray: Well, that’s probably true but you know what’s also true, Evan? They want to work with you but they want you to do their thing. Actors, whom I love with a blind partiality, sometimes they want to be soloists in the symphony, not a part of the orchestra. So, yes, actors do want to work with me and I’m very grateful for that, but you never know. I could write parts for them that they don’t want to play and then all of the sudden they don’t want to work with you that much.

Definitely.

James Gray: It’s never easy. Never easy.

What are you currently working on now?

James Gray: I’m working on a picture with Joaquin Phoenix that’s gonna start prep this week. It’s gonna start shooting February 20th. And it’s very much in the similar vein to these two pictures, hopefully better. I like to say that it’s gonna be the last of this kind of crime trilogy and then I’m gonna move on and do some other type of movie. It takes place in the Eighties, in New York and it combines Police and the Russian/Jewish Mafia, and it’s called We Own The Night. I have very high hopes for it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done by far.

The Yards hits DVD rails on December 13th, 2005.

Dont't forget to also check out: Yards [Director's Cut] [Unrated]

Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs