6 Filmmaking Tips from James Gray

By  · Published on July 23rd, 2014

Wild Bunch

James Gray seems like an anachronism. Between visually noisy blockbusters and indies that display a greater interest in bending narrative conventions rather than mastering them, his adherence to a more classical form of storytelling feels out-of-touch with contemporary filmmaking practice. His evident influences and forerunners include Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini and Francis Ford Coppola, and his cinematic relationship to New York City feels indebted to Sidney Lumet yet remains unmistakably his own. Gray doesn’t use other filmmakers’ work as a Tarantino-esque palette for diversion, despite his shared affinity for crime drama, that signature ’90s indie genre staple (Gray’s first feature was a 1994 gangster film starring Tim Roth ‐ that’d be Little Odessa, not Pulp Fiction).

Gray’s narratives are classical and familiar, but they’re never derivative or postmodern. The filmmaker instead uses cinema’s history as a tool to master storytelling, character development, mood and setting as a form of practice, and he realizes his personality as a filmmaker through the life he knows outside of filmmaking, principally as the Brighton Beach-raised grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. If his standalone work feels anachronistic, that’s exactly why his work is essential and urgent ‐ a reminder of what filmmaking can be beyond formal gimmickry and narrative subversion. He is the rare example of a filmmaker whose primary referent is not cinema itself.

And with his latest, The Immigrant (now available on Netflix Instant), Gray has quietly released what might turn out to be the best film this year. It’s a small step for a filmmaker whose unassuming but magnificent work has had a difficult time finding a following. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who made that one Joaquin Phoenix movie you’ve been meaning to see but haven’t gotten around to yet.

Make Films as if it Weren’t Easy

Gray’s films feel as if they’ve come from another era. The Immigrant is his only true period piece to date (We Own the Night takes place in the late 1980s), but none of his work feels produced in the millennial context in which it was. Part of this has to do with the content of his films ‐ his focus on close-knit, ethnically tied families in Brooklyn shows a valued adherence to the past. But his technique feels like it came from a world in which MTV never existed. Watching The Yards patiently move from MTA stations to district courts makes it clear how comfortable he would have felt amongst Bob Rafelson, Peter Yates and Sidney Lumet during the 1970s (except unlike most lauded ’70s directors, Gray makes films that actually give a shit about women).

The impassioned rant from this interview with Jeff Goldsmith reveals a great deal about what makes Gray’s films so unique despite their classicism, and it speaks directly to the dearth of regard for craft in current screenwriting practice. The democratization of filmmaking technology, Gray contends, has resulted in a complete lack of discipline for the substantial rigor and competence owed to narrative filmmaking. So he makes films in a difficult fashion even though films have never been easier to make. The Immigrant was even shot (brilliantly) on 35mm film stock, perhaps contributing to the fact that his films are notoriously hard to finance.

But amongst the many points in Gray’s diatribe, his observation about the price the audience is paying for the lack of craftsmanship is perhaps his most astute:

“You cannot inculcate the audience, demand nothing of them, and be shocked when they don’t go see something that’s interesting.”

Simple Stories Can Be the Most Complex Stories

“I mean, the fundamental question is, what is your ambition for the movie? There are any number of ambitions for a movie, one of which is to make the most money possible. I’m not saying I don’t want to make as much money as possible ‐ that would be fantastic ‐ but if that’s your only ambition, it tends to make you rather cynical and actually exploitive of public taste. If your ambition is to be okay financially but to also tell something personal that matters down the road, the only thing you have to look at is history ‐ what has worked in the past? And the answer is, the impact of a complex story told with a dense subtext.

“Now, complex story doesn’t mean complicated story ‐ the difference is very important. Complicated stories tend to be kind of bad ‐ it’s tough to track who’s doing what to whom. There are some exceptions, like Chinatown, but what you really want is a simple story, so you can get past the surface narrative and into the subtext below. That’s why fables have such power. Fables are very simple stories, but they’re not really only about the text of the story.”

Gray’s films feel incredibly familiar. Indeed, they are made up of stories we’ve seen numerous times before: a family torn over one member’s pursuit of an illegitimate life, a reformed criminal tries to make good but falls back into the traps of the underground, an immigrant experiences harsh exploitation upon arriving in America. Two Lovers was inspired by a Dostoyefsky short story that had already been made into numerous films, including Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche.

But don’t mistake the familiar for the derivative. Gray’s love of master narratives (or even fables) provides the platform by which to explore complex stories in which there are no heroes or villains, but rather intricate and flawed people looking to find their way in a difficult world.

The Ending is Everything

It Doesn’t Have to Be Autobiographical to Be Personal

“[The Immigrant] is very personal and has a lot of links to my own family, but it’s not autobiographical at all. Personal means issues and emotions that are close to you, that you can understand deeply and know how to express, as opposed to autobiographical, which refers to facts of your life.”

“Write what you know” is an oft-repeated screenwriting adage, but it need not be interpreted in the most literal capacity possible. The facts of one’s life might make for only a few movies (and indeed, The Immigrant feels like Gray’s necessary break from Eastern European families in Brighton Beach), but write what you know emotionally, thematically, in terms of what other characters reveal about your experiences within the complex realities of your life.

Embrace Then Let Go of Filmmaking as an Egotistical Enterprise

This advice goes readily with the previous tip. Authorial filmmaking is indeed an egotistical practice, at least initially. (The alternative is to make movies for other people, which makes one more of a business person than a filmmaker, and it’s difficult to explore anything approaching honesty and truth within such a mentality.) But at some point in the process of personal filmmaking, the ego has to be given up in favor of the film itself. Ideally, personal filmmaking isn’t part of an egotistical cycle in which one simply makes oneself known through movies but is instead revelatory in a way that allows them to change or grow or challenge themselves through a process of getting to know an experience or a character outside oneself in the filmmaking process.

Don’t Anticipate How People Will React

Have no expectations. The first time, with The Yards, I certainly didn’t think I would win the Palme d’Or, but I certainly didn’t think I would be booed. The response was very mixed, and I was so profoundly disappointed. So now I just hope some people enjoy the film, and I’m going to enjoy the fact that I’m there.”

Reactions to Gray’s work have been nothing if not unpredictable. Fitting in neither the box of a mainstream commercial filmmaker or an envelope-pushing indie auteur, his films have not found a place in his home country. He has no existing niche. His highest grossing film by a mile is 2007’s We Own the Night, yet even that film got lost and forgotten amidst the cacophony of an astounding number of critically lauded works. His work has been more consistently beloved in France, but often in interviews he qualifies the praise France has given him as anything but uniform. Between five films over 20 years, he knows how hard it is to gather the necessary resources to make a film and that completing a film on one’s own terms is no determinant of its fate thereafter.

The point is, rather than chase dollars or expect awards, Gray has settled into a healthier mentality: be happy with the work you’ve done, and enjoy the fact that others will get the chance to see it. You have no idea what they’ll think.

Final Thoughts

In his fantastic assessment of Gray’s career, Bilge Ebiri refers to the filmmaker as “American cinema’s secret jewel.” Gray is indeed a master hiding in plain sight, obscured by a movie culture enthralled by stylistic excess, an industry of buzz and a false importance placed on critical consensus. His films reside in a glorious middle ground between mainstream and independent, familiar and creative, old school and contemporary. Rather than placing him in the inherently contradictory category of the “underrated,” his work speaks volumes to the limitations of a bifurcated filmmaking economy that finds little room for adults interested in assured, intricate storytelling.

Ebiri ends his piece by referring to Gray as “free” despite the considerable difficulties a filmmaker of his caliber has experienced during this era of supposed filmmaking ease. And that is an important lesson Gray’s career provides: in crafting familiar stories, Gray’s career attests to the possibility that filmmakers can find a way to hold onto a tradition of craftsmanship in a context that desires anything but. Sometimes the most straightforward approach can prove to be the most radical.