Interview By David Michael
Writer/director James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards) delivers another gritty crime drama with We Own The Night.
Written in 2002 and coming a full seven years after New York-born director James Gray's last film The Yards, which also starred both Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, We Own The Night is the kind of gritty character drama that has become increasingly rare. Gray isn't the most prolific of directors – since his debut at age 24 with Little Odessa, he's made just three films in thirteen years. While on paper it looks like filmmaking is more of a hobby than a career for Gray, We Own The Night is the work of a seasoned pro.
When Bobby Green (Phoenix) decides not to tow the family line by following in the footsteps of his brother (Walberg) and father (Robert Duvall) as a New York cop, opting instead to run an infamous Russian-owned Brooklyn night club, the family is torn apart. Surrounded by corruption, Green (who changes his name to disguise his family connections) soon becomes trapped in the middle of a bloody conflict between gang bosses and the police. His fate, as it turns out, will be far removed from the destiny that he had originally mapped out for himself. “I'm obsessive and very slow,” admits Gray of why he's dragged his heels with the film's production. “I'd written it for Joaquin Phoenix, and I refused to put somebody else in the movie. Finally, Joaquin became enough of a name and the studio said, 'Okay, go and make the film.'”
While We Own The Night has all the trappings of the genre – gangsters, police, fast-paced action – the core of the film is the family's emotional dynamic, and with it the complex and often conflicting feelings of love, betrayal and loyalty that the action precipitates. “I always bet on the power of story,” declares Gray. “Cinema is the most passionate and emotional artform there is. It's a combination of every great artform. To use it solely for intellectual commentary or to just impress an audience only does a serious disservice to it. I'm always after a story that is equivalent to the Greeks or Shakespeare – something archetypical.”
The director is well aware though that cinema audiences are always pandering for a fresh cinematic experience, but he's adamant about his compromise. “Fresh is bull,” he says forcefully. “The Greeks figured it out thousands of years ago, and it ain't going to change. My view is that I'm in it for the long run; I want to make films that people can watch years from now and still understand. I don't want to focus on gimmickry, either stylistically or story wise.”
Following hot on the heels of Martin Scorcese's Oscar winning The Departed, which also focused on two men on different sides of the law, We Own The Night puts its focus on relationships and emotions rather than guns. Though the films might appear similar on the surface, they're absolutely different in tone and style, and Gray not surprisingly rankles at the comparisons. “It's absolutely annoying,” sighs Gray of the comparison. “We Own The Night was written before The Departed, and the movie was shot before I saw The Departed. I don't think it's anything like it. I love Martin Scorsese; he's a god as a director, but I don't think it has anything to do with The Departed, which is a kind of pop art thing; it doesn't attempt to be serious.”
When asked why his traditional sensibility has so far been centred on the crime genre, Gray refers to Kubrick as his guide (as he does several times during our chat). “I read an interview with Stanley Kubrick where somebody asked him, 'Why do you tell the stories that you tell?' And he responded, 'It's a very good question, but it's a little bit like asking why you married your wife. You can say that you married her because of her pretty body and nice face, but then you don't really know why you didn't marry all the other girls with pretty bodies and nice faces. The real answer is that I don't know exactly.'”