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James Gray – ‘I’m Very Bad at Directing Actors’

Helmer explained his working methods in masterclass at Marrakech

MARRAKECH, Morocco — James Gray had the audience in the palm of his hand during a two-hour masterclass conducted at the 13th Marrakech film festival that ended with the audience demanding an encore. “I just travelled 6000 miles on three different flights to get here,” quipped the American independent helmer. “I don’t mind answering a few more questions.”

While insisting that the word “master” should be reserved to directors such as the late Kurosawa or “Maestro Scorsese,” Gray provided an entertaining insight into his own working methods, filled with anecdotal episodes and responded to wide-ranging questions including the last chestnut: “What’s the future of American cinema?”

In a roundtable held prior to the masterclass, Marion Cotillard, who starred in Gray’s most recent pic, “The Immigrant,” praised his talent in directing actors, but Gray countered this idea.

“I’m very bad at directing actors,” Gray said to the audience’s amusement. “A few years back I was working with the queen of method acting, Ellen Burstyn, and I asked her advice. She told me to ask Paul Mazursky, but Paul told me ‘I don’t know how to talk to actors, I just let them do what they do.’ So I followed suit, I let actors do what they do.”

Gray nonetheless recollected how he helped Mark Wahlberg hit the right emotional note in “The Yards,” when he was about to kill a police officer. “I told him about my feeling of utter terror when I was 12 years old and stole a Playboy magazine from the local candy store. Mark replied, ‘I did that too’ – and that gave him the inspiration he needed.”

Moderator Scott Foundas, Variety’s Chief Film Critic, confronted Gray with Dennis Lim’s description of Gray as the “anti-Tarantino” and asked him to talk about post-modern irony in many contemporary American independent films.

Gray praised Tarantino, stating that “he really grips the audience and loves the genres he works with,” but he recognized that he’s pursuing the opposite tack in his own work, that revolves around “small, intimate films in which I’m trying to uncover hidden aspects of my own identity.”

Gray nonetheless recognized that all art is essentially referential and constantly draws on previous works.

For example, he suggested that the battle with the one-eyed computer, Hal, in Kubrick’s “2001- Space Odyssey” is essentially a Homeric tale of the battle with the Cyclops, and also stated that Nino Rota’s “Godfather” score was inspired by Puccini.

In his own work, Gray explained that the fight scene in “The Yards” was inspired by the brawl in Visconti’s “Rocco and his Brothers.” “I ripped off Delon. I wanted to recreate that scene even better,” suggested Gray.

Many of the key inspirations cited by Gray were European filmmakers — from Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” through to the works of Visconti, Fellini, Truffaut and the pre-1968 Godard.

Working in this cinematic vein has won him many supporters in Europe, in particular France, but Gray confessed that he dreads going to Cannes. “Screening my films at Cannes feels like going to a funeral. As if someone has just been diagnosed cancer. It’s like death.”

He also stated that he can’t stand the Oscars. “It’s like watching this huge, incredible party you haven’t been invited to,” he said.

By contrast he says that he loved serving on the jury at the Marrakech film festival in 2012. “Being on the jury is great” he said. “You’re treated like a king and you get the chance to act like Emperor Nero — giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to each film.”

Asked to provide advice to Moroccan filmmakers, Gray’s main suggestions were that directors should be true to themselves, explore their own inner depths and demons and find pleasure in making the film.

“The more personal you can get, the more universal your film will be,” Gray claimed. “Because if my emotions matter, everyone’s emotions matter.”

In relation to his own films, Gray explained how he mines his own experiences. For example, he said that “The Yards” was inspired by his father, who he described  as someone who “was unable to function in a world that wasn’t corrupt — a very dark concept.”

Gray also talked about his career hiatus after the box-office failure of “The Yards,” in which he spent several years in “movie jail” without being able to make a film.

He stated that his two favorite and most personal films were “Two Lovers” and this year’s Cannes-player “The Immigrant,” which is also screening out of competition at Marrakech.

“’The Immigrant’ is my most personal and autobiographical film to date,” he explained. “It’s 80% based on the recollections from my grandparents, who came to the United States in 1923.”

“I always look for actors who can convey multiple layers and complexity of emotion,” Gray explained when asked about casting. “I like to do the opposite of typecasting, the best evil character is someone who could easily be your best friend.”

Gray reserved special praise for his acting alter-ego, Joaquin Phoenix: “Only the finest actors can convey the key emotional moments in a film, like Al Pacino in ‘The Godfather’ when he’s about to kill Solozzo in the restaurant, or someone like Montgomery Clift. I see that rare quality in Joaquin.”

Gray nonetheless admitted that it’s increasingly difficult to find financing for the type of films he wants to direct: “Studios these days are looking for films that will cost $200 million to make and will generate $1 billion worldwide, for the sake of their parent company’s bottom line. I can’t compete with that.”

He also stated that being a director can be tough financially: “The age of handsome salaries for directors, except for people like Christopher Nolan, is over. I’ve made embarrassingly little money from making movies and I still live in a 2-bedroom apartment.”

Gray nonetheless stated that directors like Cameron and Spielberg connect personally with their films and praised directors such as Scorsese and the Coen brothers who have stuck to their cinematic vision and the audience has come to them.

In response to the closing question on the future of American cinema, Gray suggested that a fundamental shift is occurring in the film business: “Viewers are increasingly visually literate and films are more and more spectacle- and sensation-driven – but in narrative terms we’re far more primitive than we were 30 years ago. We’re going through a transition period – I think the future will be based on a hybrid conjunction of cinema and amusement park rides, coalescing beyond anything I can imagine.”

The Marrakech film festival runs until December 7.

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