One or Two Things I Know About James Gray

Helmer Conducts Masterclass at Marrakech

One or Two Things I Know

James Gray will deliver a directing masterclass Monday at the Marrakech Film Festival – after “The Immigrant” screened Sunday to a packed audience. The masterclass’ moderator, Scott Foundas, Variety’s chief film critic, reflects on his evolving relationship with the filmmaker and confesses one or two things he knows about James Gray


When I first met James Gray in the winter of 2009 to profile him for the L.A. Weekly, it was not without a certain amount of trepidation. For while I was enormously impressed with Gray’s moody Joaquin Phoenix-Gwyneth Paltrow romantic drama “Two Lovers,” then about to be released in the U.S., I had been fairly hard on his previous film, the 1980s-set New York crime story “We Own the Night,” writing that it was a “turgid and overwrought cop thriller” and noting with some incomprehension the vaunted critical stature to which Gray had been elevated in France (where, in a very rare hat trick, three of his first four features played in competition at Cannes). In an interview with The New York Times around that same moment, Gray mentioned that one American writer had even accused him of having become a “Gallic fetish object.” As it happens, that writer was also me.

Well, it certainly wasn’t the first time the French have proved to be ahead of us where the appreciation of an unfairly maligned auteur is concerned. Prompted by my admiration for “Two Lovers,” I revisited Gray’s first two features, “Little Odessa” (1994) and “The Yards” (2000), both of which failed to make much of a splash critically or commercially in America, and found them each more powerful and affecting than I’d remembered. “The Yards” in particular, in its original director’s cut, minus its Miramax-imposed positivist ending, now seems one of the great neglected movies of its decade (it grossed all of $900,000 during its blink-and-miss-it theatrical run) — and an altogether fascinating attempt to do a sober, classical American tragedy in an indie film landscape that had become cluttered with the wreckage of so many “Pulp Fiction” also-rans.

In our 2009 meeting and other subsequent encounters (including a visit I paid to the last night of shooting on his latest film, “The Immigrant”), I have found Gray to be among the most thoughtful and engaging filmmakers of his generation, wholly unguarded on the subject of his own work (where he is often his own harshest critic) and able to draw upon a voluminous knowledge of film history, as well as an only marginally less impressive catalogue of literary references. He likes to talk at length about specific scenes from movies, to break them down into their component parts, to see what makes them tick (“Apocalypse Now,” “Rocco and His Brothers” and “Vertigo” are among his favorite subjects). And this is something done not just for sport, but a window on to how Gray thinks out scenes and narrative strategies in his own work.

Some other things I’ve learned about Gray:

*Though you wouldn’t necessarily know this from his movies, he’s a very funny guy. Just ask anyone who’s met him.

*Cooks large family-style Sunday dinners for friends and other invited guests. The house special: a mean spaghetti Bolognese.

*He detests watching the Oscars, because he hates to see the four non-winning nominees forced to manufacture plastic smiles for the hovering cameras.

*Used to ditch high school in Queens to take in double features at Manhattan’s then-thriving revival movie houses.

*Weeps uncontrollably at the scene from “My Darling Clementine” where Henry Fonda takes Cathy Downs to the dance at the construction site of Tombstone’s first church.