Over the course of twenty years, filmmaker James Gray has only made five movies. For comparison, if you subtract Terrence Malick’s twenty-year absence from cinema, you roughly get six of his movies in a span of about twenty-one years. However, Gray didn’t go AWOL in France for two decades; he just obsessed over the same project for years and years.
The span between debut "Little Odessa" (1994) and his sophomore film "The Yards" (2000) was six years, and another seven years passed until "We Own The Night" (2007). “It’s because I’m an insane person,” Gray said in a recent interview with The Playlist. “For all my weaknesses, I never give up on getting a movie made.” Early versions of “The Yards” had Robert De Niro and Sean Penn attached (Mark Wahlberg, James Caan and Joaquin Phoenix would eventually star) and Brad Pitt danced around the lead in “We Own The Night” for several years too.
“ ‘We Own The Night’ fell through about forty different times, and [almost] got shelved. That’s why it took me six years to make,” Gray explained. In fact, Pitt’s flirtation with James Gray’s films is almost perverse. He was attached to three projects over the years including the upcoming “The Lost City Of Z” and “The Gray Man.”
“Brad contemplated doing [‘We Own The Night’] for a while,” Gray said. “I've long sort of danced around things that he was going to do, and he was dancing around things that I was going to do but it's never come to pass for one reason or another. Then yeah, when he decided not to do [‘We Own The Night’] and it sort of went on and was about to shelved at one point. But I was very pleased to have made it the way that I finally did.”
Pitt recently detached himself from the assassin film “The Gray Man” and the filmmaker said the movie has been put to bed for good, or as he likes to say “put on mothballs. Yeah, that one’s not going to happen.”
What is going to happen and will be next following Gray’s upcoming period drama, “The Immigrant” starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, is his long-gestating adaptation of the book “The Lost City of Z” (ironically, a project that Brad Pitt’s Plan B brought to him several years ago).
“’The Lost City of Z’ looks like it will happen,” Gray said with his casual cautiousness. “That's got Benedict Cumberbatch [in the lead] who's perfectly cast. I've raised the money for that, and I may go do that in January.” (Though last night at BAMcinematek, during a Q&A which yours truly moderated, Gray said September). Co-starring Robert Pattinson, who Gray confirmed is still attached and recently also said the film would likely shoot in Jan, “The Lost City Of Z” is set in 1925 and centers on a legendary British explorer who ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a fabled civilization and never again returned.
Gray said the shooting locations will likely be the U.K., and for the jungle sequences, Colombia. What kind of movie should we expect? Last we spoke Gray teased the movie as “epic and hallucinogenic.”
“People have asked me about ‘Apocalypse Now’ and those kinds of movies,” he admitted about reference points for the movie. “Of course those are all great and they’re a huge inspiration and so is [David] Lean. But I’m really trying, the older I get to forget the kind of approach which I've had. On the last two movies I've watched far fewer movies beforehand and I'm trying to come at the pieces as organically as I can and not think of other movies. Now of course unconsciously that shit's always going to come out, I'm always going to rip off something.”
Gray also has a sci-fi project in the works, but it’s not quite as ready as some have suggested. Using the working title of “Ad Astra” (Latin for “To The Stars”), which he insists will change, Gray explained that he’s only done one draft, though he is getting closer to a state of completion. “Ad Astra” was co-storied with Ethan Gross, a writer on J. J. Abrams’ “Fringe” who also co-conceived the foundation of the first screenplay Gray ever wrote: “Mecca," a movie set during the '70s disco boom and loosely based on Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart and his relationship with making a star out of Donna Summers in the U.S.
“It’s the first thing I ever wrote; I was 21 years old,” Gray said with a kind of horror that someone had actually remembered its existence. “Universal optioned it actually, way back in 1991, for Rob Weiss to direct, the guy who did ‘Amongst Friends.’ They couldn’t get it made there and ultimately, it just got put on mothballs.” Don’t expect that one to ever come back. “I haven’t read it in twenty years,” he said. “I’m sure it’s frightening.”
Gray had also worked on a film about legendary jazz legend Miles Davis at one point. “I had been very interested in it, but it’s such a complicated undertaking, and the truth of the matter is that I felt uncomfortable being a white Jewish guy making a movie about a person who had to deal with the brutal effects of bigotry,” he told Film Comment recently. “I also thought the script was never quite there. In a way I couldn’t solve it, because in one way or another all good biopics are love stories and I couldn’t find the love there.” Before I could barely ask, he reassured me that one would never happen either.
But projects are in the works (including “White Devil” and a Steve McQueen biopic), so fingers crossed that we don't have to wait too long for more from Gray. Much more from this interview and “The Immigrant” closer to its release on May 16th.