Interviews | Subverting the Moment: James Gray on We Own the Night

By Andrew Tracy


As with most critical shorthand, “classical” is a much-abused and little-examined term, an abdication of description but a positive boon for instant classification. It functions handily as both light praise and implicit condescension, the traditional scorn for the “well-made” narrative film incarnated in yet another of its protean modes. While general summations of contemporary sensibilities will always remain just that, it should at least be agreed upon that an unexamined term is not worth using—and to rely on a certain term to imply aesthetic paralysis is to paralyze the perception of what exactly is being viewed on the screen.
So a working definition, then: the classical is the use of certain recognizable outward movements to enable the expression of inward movements—not simply tracing the contours of a pre-existent design, but employing those contours to set quite contradictory or opposing forces in motion. The Coens’ No Country for Old Men will soon be having its praises sung from pillar to post—the band was warming up at Cannes—but its bid for existential weight (courtesy of the source material, this non-reader assumes) has no heft beyond the parameters of its outer shape; its thematics are as functional and utilitarian as the meticulous taskmastery of Josh Brolin’s able Vietnam vet and Javier Bardem’s pageboy-cut Terminator. As per usual, the Coens have placed everything in quotation marks: this is their “terse, stripped-down” film, making its quite impressive construction feel borrowed even without any recognizable antecedents immediately coming to mind.
Compare then James Gray’s first film since The Yards (2000), We Own the Night, which has been unfavourably (classically?) likened to a “’30s MGM film,” and why not—after all, we have one upstanding brother (Mark Wahlberg) sporting his virtue on the side of the law, and one black sheep (Joaquin Phoenix) rubbing shoulders with the underworld; crisis, moral choice, and assumption of “responsibility” follow in due course. The outer contours are all in place, the conclusion is foregone, and the movements that take place along those predetermined lines are tender, touching, shocking, and devastating. Though lacking the almost epic dramatic scope of The Yards, and hampered somewhat by the dictates of recreating a period setting on a limited budget—whereas the club scene in the earlier film possessed a tactile, feral sexuality that bled into the real, Phoenix’s ‘80s disco palace clearly ends at the edges of the set—We Own the Night features some of the best American filmmaking currently on display, a virtuosity tied directly to its understanding of the possibilities offered by classical narrative. The inexorable progression, the “predictability” of Gray’s story is not laziness, but the source of the film’s emotional and thematic weight: how the inner desires, and élan vital, of those accepting the mantle of their preordained role can move against the current of their respective fates.
This is particularly the case with Phoenix’s Bobby Green, the manager of a Russian mafia-owned nightclub who has adopted his mother’s maiden name to conceal his connection with his narc brother Joseph and police chief father Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall). Bobby’s progression back into the family orbit he denies is foretold from the very beginning of the film—“Eventually, you’re either going to be with us or with them,” Duvall warns him—but Phoenix’s beautifully controlled performance indicates just what this return takes from him: a lustful, outsized, overflowing sensualist is reduced to a slow, sad, wounded man, the outer and inner demands of filial duty sapping the life force he once incarnated. The irresistible bonds that return him to his brother and father are profoundly irrational, and ultimately damaging, ones, particularly in how they alienate him from his fiancée Amada (another fine, sympathetic performance by Eva Mendes), who functions not simply as Bobby’s plot-dictated appendage but as his very reason for being. The tenderness, the genuine love and powerful sensuality of their relationship—Gray opens the film with their slow but intensely erotic coupling on a couch—is both the source and expression of Bobby’s joyfully Dionysian innocence. When he later collapses sobbing into his brother’s arms, telling him that he doesn’t want to be alone, Gray tellingly cuts to Amada on the other side of the room, excluded and abandoned, and knowing herself to be so. At film’s end, the return to the sanctified familial fold complete, Bobby and Joseph both silently recognize what the former has lost along the way; and their closing exchange of fraternal love serves not as an affirmation of that love, but as a lament for what has been lost and a rebuke to that which has taken it.
The inevitability of We Own the Night is its means of illumination; it is a formal, structural, creative force. The choices Gray makes within his scenes, the tenor of the actor’s performances, the atmosphere of intimacy and quiet intensity, the shocking violations of that intimacy by sudden and striking violence—these virtues do not exist in spite of the mechanisms of the film’s outer movements, they are occasioned by them. Gray understands intrinsically that narrative is something to respond to, that the dictates of traditional storytelling models allow for choices in how they are to be handled. And this is part of the tension, and the pleasure, of narrative for the viewer: that one’s involvement in the movements of the narrative coexists simultaneously with a consciousness of how those movements are being shaped. We Own the Night holds no surprises apart from those of talented collaborators constantly choosing the movements that will create the most affecting, genuine, and expressive moments. This is hardly the only thing that cinema can or should do, but it’s certainly one of them—and to deride such achievement is to summarily shut the door on one of cinema’s many rich possibilities.

CINEMA SCOPE: When did you start developing the story of We Own the Night?

JAMES GRAY: I had finished The Yards and didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to complete a kind of loose trilogy: one on the gangster side of things, and one about local politics, and then one on the law, on cops. The problem there of course is that there have been a million cop movies. I knew I didn’t want to do something on crooked cops, and I didn’t want to do a procedural, something that focused on the daily grind of investigative work. That’s been done thousands of times, and by some people brilliantly well, so I had to find something to distinguish my approach.

Then I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times in late 2000, a photo of all these grown men who were hugging and crying. It was a police funeral, some guy who had been killed in the line of duty. And I cut it out and put it on my wall. And at the same time I had gone back to Shakespeare, because he understood narrative better than anybody. I had read Henry IV Parts I and II, and I thought, what if I told a Shakespearean story, a classicist story, in the context of the world of the police? That’s something that nobody is doing right now, because there isn’t an obsession with narrative. But I am obsessed with narrative. I wanted to do something stripped down, mythic, with this kind of classic structure.

SCOPE: You’ve just used “classic” in a very specific sense, but that’s also a label that’s frequently attached to your filmmaking—whether in praise or otherwise. Do you think of your work in those terms, however defined?

GRAY: I honestly don’t ever think of how I’m classified, or how I would classify myself. I do what it is that I feel closest to, what matters to me, what moves me, what I would like to see in the movies. It’s not something I give any conscious thought to whatsoever. I don’t ever think about my relationship with the idea of classical Hollywood cinema.

SCOPE: You based The Yards partly on the Queen’s political scandal of the mid-‘80s, but you set that film in the present day. Why did you choose to make We Own the Night a period piece, to situate it so precisely in the New York of 1988?

GRAY: The reason the picture is set in the ‘80s is because the New York of today is no longer recognizable as a locus of danger. It’s filled with Starbucks and Gaps. Well, it is filled with terror, but a different kind of terror—terror from without. The thing about the ‘80s is that it was an incredibly violent period in New York’s history, and so the sense of jeopardy in the story could be heightened. Life and death, that’s what you look for as a storyteller. The setting is crucial insofar as it sets the context for these characters’ actions. If the film was set in the present day it would be difficult to understand why these people are gripped by the idea that New York is falling apart, because it doesn’t seem like it is now—although of course it still kind of is, as there are still some parts that haven’t changed.

SCOPE: The theme of family recurs in all three of your films, which makes sense if you define them as a kind of trilogy. Why is family so central to your work?

GRAY: It’s very important to what it is I’m trying to do. I’m drawn to familial issues because they seem the most basic and elemental of human relationships, and thus the least dated, the most timeless. And similarly, I’ve always thought of the films I’m trying to make as things that can retain their relevance—something completely divorced from what’s in fashion. I’m much more interested in the content than in the form of the film—and I’m certainly not negating form when I say that! What I mean is, there seems to be a belief prevalent today that form is it, form is everything. The idea of “content” is almost hackneyed and pedestrian in the eyes of some. When making a film, form is in your face every day: Where do I put the camera? Do I move it? Where will I cut? How will I cut? How’s the pace? And so on. Content is harder: it’s more cumulative, demands greater contemplation. It demands to be merged with, and emphasized by, the form. That synthesis is really your craft. A sense of story, politics, history, character—that’s what I view as “content.” That’s harder than moving the camera or jump-cutting your way to happiness.

SCOPE: Your films are all unabashedly male stories, but there’s never a sense that the women in the films are simply adornments to the plot, as requisite wives or mothers or girlfriends. What role do the women in your films fulfill? How do you conceive of them when you’re writing?

GRAY: Well, I always like to make the point in my films that the world is a patriarchy, that men have all the social and political and economic power. White men in particular. I would like the films I make to reflect the world the way it is, not the way I’d like it to be. What I’d like the world to be is totally uninteresting. I don’t think that’s the role of art; the role of art is to help us cope. In a way art is the atheist’s best weapon against loneliness. It’s the atheist’s religion. It’s coping with mortality. So if you’re making something that doesn’t resemble the world in which we live, what’s it going to mean to me, what does it matter to me? I don’t recognize it.

SCOPE: Do you think, though, that in reflecting something there’s a danger of perpetuating it? That making male-centric films about male centrality helps create the reality it claims to reflect?

GRAY: I suppose someone could make that argument, but if that’s the case then you wouldn’t be able to create anything at all. You’d have agitprop, not art. And anyway, I don’t think my films are in any way about macho posturing. They’re always attempting to reconcile the more feminine side of men, the more tender and emotional side that’s always pushed under the noise level. Men are not encouraged to say “I love you,” men are not encouraged to be emotional, so in its own way it’s rather subversive to show them expressing those kind of feelings.

SCOPE: Much of the criticism that’s been directed towards your films has targeted precisely this emotional quality. There’s a tendency to write it off as melodrama—another undefined, and frequently misapplied, term.

GRAY: I really think that’s connected to an even larger problem with filmmaking, and film watching, these days. For the average viewer today, for visual literacy you’d have to give them an A+—they know exactly when you’re borrowing something from this, mirroring something in that. But for narrative literacy you’d have to give them a D or an F. And I think that’s because they don’t have to work anymore, they’ve gotten flabby. Hollywood today is not interested in making stories. And neither is the indie art world. Americans are no longer the premiere narrative filmmakers. They don’t do it, they don’t want to do it, it’s not interesting to anybody. It’s seen as quaint. And I think there’s a reluctance to accept a filmmaker, an American filmmaker at least, who has a certain seriousness of purpose—because I make no bones about the fact that I’m trying to do things that have a seriousness of purpose, and that that’s connected to a certain idea of narrative. It’s not a joke, an ironic and distanced joke. Maybe if everybody were making earnest films I’d want to do something ironic and distancing, I don’t know. But for me the coin of the realm is to put as much soul and humanity into the work as I can, and the way to do that is to validate the characters.

SCOPE: Which is of course reliant upon a filmmaker’s skill with his actors, which I’d say is one of your greatest strengths, and a particularly undervalued one. It seems like most contemporary criticism doesn’t really have a language to deal with acting, to appraise it as they appraise the visual quality of the film, or to conceive how it helps create the film.

GRAY: They don’t. And that blind spot where acting is concerned is in a certain sense connected to the blind spot where narrative is concerned, another reason why narrative is so depressed right now. What I love in acting is when you are constantly subverting the moment. The key is playing the moment with utmost sincerity but subverting it, and they’re not contrary. Playing the moment means making it clear, not losing ambiguity, but making it so it’s not vague—and at the same time conveying that clarity by a line, or a gesture, or an expression that is seemingly antithetical to the idea or the feeling that is being expressed.

Subversiveness is crucial to a work of art, but it depends on how you define subversiveness. You can do something that’s subversive on the surface: the ending comes in the middle, everybody wears a funny hat, everybody talks about other movies, whatever. And there have been great movies made in that tradition. Or you can do something that is subversive underneath the surface. Making a pop subversive work where the style is the thing, is not truly subversive in my mind, because everybody’s doing it, and it’s not that hard. It’s not making you confront something that’s atypical, it’s not making you confront something that’s surprising, it’s not making you confront something that’s unsafe. But what if your story itself is saying something that makes you uncomfortable? That’s harder to do, it’s harder to find, and it’s more rewarding when you do.

SCOPE: The emotional atmosphere you create in your films is certainly distinctive from either the forced animation or forced aimlessness that characterizes a lot of American cinema these days, “mainstream” and “indie” both. There’s a hushed, tender, intimate quality to the performances you elicit from your actors, in a way akin to what a director like Jacques Tourneur seemed to be striving for, a subtly stylized kind of naturalism.

GRAY: I think that’s what’s most cinematic, truly. You can yell on the stage, there’s a lot of yelling going on, everybody’s making a fucking point. That’s typically true of most mainstream movies as well, everybody shining up their Oscar clip. To me cinema is best at the most personal, intimate, tender, quiet moments that you can muster. You want to use the weapons at your disposal, and that’s one of them. Plus I feel like that’s what life is, for the most part. Most people are not flamboyant and loud. Most people have their arguments in the car on the way home by themselves after the dispute at hand. Most of life isn’t arguments. Of course there are arguments that have to be had, there are moments that simply explode. Phoenix and Wahlberg get into a fight in The Yards, and they even have a set-to in this movie, though that’s more of a verbal one-upsmanship thing…

SCOPE: It’s telling that when Phoenix lets loose at Wahlberg, there are two other people in the room, like he has an audience who he’s performing for.

GRAY: Absolutely! He’s trying to show him up, really. So of course my films do have these moments of confrontation, sometimes violent confrontation, but what’s interesting to me is always the intimate moments, the moments between the lines, these moments where you’re trying to steal intimacy.

SCOPE: On that note, I’d like to ask you about the opening scene of the film, this very raw, very erotic (if aborted) love scene between Phoenix and Eva Mendes. Why did you choose to open the film this way?

GRAY: That comes from the idea I had for the very end of the film. I knew what I wanted at the end, so I wanted to do the complete opposite at the beginning. So what would the complete opposite be? The complete opposite is that this guy and this woman are passionate—they’re passionate about each other, they’re passionate about their lives and their lives together. Everything in this guy’s life is so sensate, so rich and vibrant and filled with sensory pleasures, and there’s something beautiful about it. The surface story of the film would be this guy who becomes a cop and “redeems” himself. That’s the MGM ‘30s version. The real story of the movie is that this guy has something great—maybe not what his family thought was great, not what mainstream society thought was great, but it was. And they fucking ruined it. And they ruined it for adherence to some banal, moral principle of the father. And I think that is subversive, because in a perverse way, it makes the film into something of a pro-drug movie! That’s not really what I meant to do. But I wanted to start the movie in a way that was like, “oh, it’s debased. Ohhhh, it’s debased.”

SCOPE: Did you write the two lead parts with Wahlberg and Phoenix in mind from the beginning?

GRAY: Absolutely, wrote both parts for both guys. Joaquin was always on board from the beginning, and you can see why: the character has such a wonderful arc for an actor, and it’s fun—challenging, but fun—for an actor to play. Wahlberg has a much more unsung, much less bravura part, and in a way that’s an even braver thing to do as an actor—not that we should rank these things, because nothing’s easy—to be a guy who loses himself completely and becomes a nothing.

In their own very different ways, I think these guys are the best American actors in their age range you can find today. Joaquin has that quality that we value in the great ‘70s actors, in De Niro or Pacino or even Montgomery Clift before them: they’re always in a rage at themselves, in a state of constant turmoil. Somehow they can project that inner life which is about confusion and anger and eternal conflict. And Wahlberg’s got this totally authentic blue-collar earnestness, he can speak to such depths of feeling with such little dialogue. So I’m really forever in their debt that they helped to get this project off the ground by lending their names to it [as producers] and sticking with it over the six years it took to get it made.

SCOPE: The film has at least three bravura set pieces—the bust at the stash house, the car chase in that torrential downpour, and the final pursuit through the reeds—that are not only brilliantly executed, but utterly unlike anything you’ve ever attempted in your previous films. How did you like shooting these sequences?

GRAY: I didn’t like it very much at all. I found it quite unpleasant. They’re very boring to shoot because you have to shoot them one thread at a time. So you plan them meticulously, everything has to be planned out. And you have to keep your eye on the prize, no imagination—in fact imagination is actually a problem. You have to understand how these things are done: you say “OK, shoot the gun when I say action and flip backwards—OK, action! Shit, that didn’t look real, let’s do another take.” So they’re very boring. And then when you see people getting hurt doing these things, it’s horrible. There was a head-on collision because of a mistake in timing during the car chase, and the stunt man in the stash house sequence really hurt himself going out the window and crashing into the fence. And I said to myself, you know, I’m not really interested in doing this ever again, because I don’t think anybody deserves to die while making a film. But having said that, these scenes are the most pleasing to edit and make sound effects for. They’re interesting in a different context, as a post-production experiment.

SCOPE: The stash house bust might be the most nerve-wracking action sequence in the film, but the car chase is certainly the most impressive from a technical standpoint—not only in creating all the rain digitally, but in conveying the incredible intricacy and terror of what’s happening primarily from Phoenix’s perspective in the driver’s seat.

GRAY: I tried to design that sequence so that it was aligned with the thematic idea behind the narrative as a whole. What you should be seeing, in a sense, is that the heavens played a role in what happens to this person: there are uncontrollable elements operating all around him, including the weather, and the whole sequence is determined by his point of view. In a way it’s the opposite of The Yards, which is kind of a God’s-eye view of several different characters. In this sequence I was trying to do something very different, to do a car chase in which the entire perspective of the sequence is specific to Phoenix, filtered through his perception. The same with the reeds sequence, which was actually inspired by the sugar-cane sequence in I Am Cuba (1964).

SCOPE: There seems to be something of an homage to The French Connection (1971) in those two sequences as well: shooting the car chase next to the El tracks, for instance, and that riverfront warehouse where the deal goes down at the end.

GRAY: Actually, the reason we did the car chase by the tracks is because we were trying to find a location that blocked out direct sun, to help with creating the rain effects later. But if people think that’s inspired by The French Connection, I certainly don’t mind. At the end of the film there is a more direct homage, with removing the drugs from the fur coats and the location—but of course those are the kinds of places where these things happen, they’re not going to be meeting in the middle of a city park.

SCOPE: You worked with a new cinematographer on this film, Joaquín Baca-Asay, but there seems to be a very deliberate attempt to recreate the kind of effects Harris Savides achieved in The Yards, especially the rich, golden glow shooting through the night scenes.

GRAY: Well, of course I was deliberately aiming to capture this look, because I like it: what I call the sodium vapour, this orange streetlight glow that produces these rich tones, the almost classical beauty of it. The two films do look very similar, in fact they’d look even more similar if certain film stocks hadn’t been eliminated from usage. The Yards was shot on a great film stock called 5277, which no longer exists, so that’s probably the reason the new film doesn’t look even more like the last one.

SCOPE: As Savides shot Fincher’s Zodiac—beautifully, I thought—on DV, what, as an alleged (or accused) “classicist” is your stance on DV?

GRAY: The thing about movies, of course, is that they’re a technical medium as well as an artistic one, so you can never exclude technology from the debate—it’s absurd to sound apologetic if you say, “Can I ask a technical question?” But—and I hate to say this—I think the question of DV or not-DV is one of the least interesting discussions and debates that there is. I don’t think format is the real problem with movies. The problem with movies is not the delivery device of the medium, not the way they look, not even the way they’re distributed, really. The problem with movies is the movies. The problem with movies is the content. The problem with movies is laziness, narrative laziness. So we can talk about the digital revolution forever, but it will never address what is really ailing the culture, which is that they don’t care about storytelling.

SCOPE: So is DV not even an option for you?

GRAY: I’d use it, but the thing is it’s not there yet. I mean, with Harris, you’re talking about the best cinematographer working today, and even he couldn’t get it exactly right. It was close, and it was great, but it took a lot out of him. It gave him a hell of a lot of trouble and a hell of a lot of heartache and it didn’t save them any money. This whole discussion about film or DV is kind of moot, in a way, because the system will determine it for you—like I said, the stock that The Yards was shot on no longer exists. But it is strange the way things are appraised, because if you said, “This new format came along and it’s got a better contrast ratio than digital and it’s got better resolution than digital,” —well, that’s film. If everybody were shooting digital and film came along, everybody would want to shoot film. So my own view is why shoot with something that’s not as good? I’ll do it when I have to, but until then why bother?