Writer-director James Gray may not have yet had the massive, mainstream breakout that’s launched his own career into the stratosphere. But he can’t help but feel a bit like a proud father, given the casting in his 2000 movie The Yards of the talented trio of Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron. Set in the rail yards of Queens, NY, the film tells the story of an ex-con (Wahlberg) released into the morass of his uncle’s contracting business, where his best friend (Phoenix) and cousin (Theron) are swirling. Ridley Scott is on record as saying it was in part after watching The Yards that he knew Phoenix had the decadent wherewithal to play Commodus in Gladiator, a performance which of course earned Phoenix the first of his two Oscar nominations.
“I’m incredibly proud of them both,” confirms Gray during a recent interview. “They’re getting their due. In Joaquin’s case, I knew that was coming, because he’s a person of tremendous talent. And Charlize is too, but she’s somebody that it’s happened quicker for.” Equally intriguing is the fact that on the new, director’s cut DVD of The Yards, Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh sits with Gray for an audio commentary track on the movie, something he also did for Catch-22 with Mike Nichols. “Steven called me pretty much out of the blue and told me that he really loved the movie,” recalls Gray. “And I was very grateful to him for that because I respect him, and he’s a terrific guy personally and professionally.”
“I had known him casually before that,” Gray continues, “and he had said, ‘Listen, if there’s anything I can do to support you on your next thing or this too, let me know.’ And so, when the picture came around to being re-transferred — which we really needed to do because the original transfer was not well done — Steven volunteered to go back and do the commentary on it, which was very generous of him. And this just all flowed basically from his affection for the movie.” Studded with other notable and respected performers (Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Faye Dunaway), The Yards is considerably informed by the clannishness of The Godfather movies.
Gray’s touch starkly interweaves personal dilemmas with familial considerations, creating a thicker and more compelling tapestry of drama than most movies of this ilk. Like fellow contemporary Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, the upcoming Running Scared), Gray seemed determined not to shy away from the grittiness and bruised-knuckle brutality of conflict, showing not just violence for violence’s sake but the outwardly rippling ramifications of such action. On the commentary track, Gray candidly relates how Miramax, disappointed with the film’s test screening scores, balked at completion costs, and how this inspired Gray to pump his own money back into the production. “The truth is, when an audience sees a movie, they never come out saying, ‘That was really great for the budget,’” he suggests with a smile. “They don’t really care about that; they only care about whether the picture works or not.”
“Ultimately, I was facing a decision about whether I was going to have an ending shot that worked or not,” he adds. “I didn’t want to be in a position where the movie was less than it could be, so yes, I did spend my own money on it. It was the only option I had. They wouldn’t give me the $36,000 or $50,000 or something like that, to get the shot I needed, so I had to do it myself. But I don’t regret it one bit, because you spend the money on something that’s going to last forever.” Another DVD extra that will last forever is the very fun, half-hour roundtable discussion between Wahlberg, Theron and Caan that graces the movie’s supplemental features. “It was very hard, as you might imagine, to get the three of them in L.A. at the same time,” Gray reveals. “We of course wanted to get Joaquin too, but he was unavailable. So I just had to eventually go ahead and pull the trigger.”
Never fear, however — Gray’s next project is slated to feature Phoenix, reuniting him with Wahlberg, and it will no doubt also include several pulled triggers, both metaphorically and literally. Called We Own the Night, the movie is a 1980-set drama that takes against the backdrop of a conflict between Gotham cops and a Russian-spawned criminal syndicate that has come to target law officers and their families.
“I’m about to start pre-production on it and I’m very excited about it,” says Gray about the final episode of an informal trilogy that began with 1994’s Little Odessa. “It’s probably the last of these movies I’ll make — New York-set, crime-based tales — and then I’ll be on to something else. I think it’s the best I’ve done, and it should be ready for release about a year from now.” Wahlberg and Phoenix will play at-odds siblings in a family with a rich cop heritage; Phoenix is the black sheep of the bunch, who doesn’t exactly endear himself to his brother when he ends up managing a Russian Mob-controlled nightclub. “The parts for both Mark and Joaquin are fantastic, and I just can’t wait to get back behind the camera and start working with them again,” says Gray.