Thoughtful and erudite, there are few filmmakers as fascinating to listen to as they talk about film than James Gray. So whenever we get the chance to catch up with him, it's a treat, and we managed to spend some time with the helmer at the Marrakech International Film Festival where he was serving on the jury. We spoke at some length about his upcoming, immigrant period drama "Lowlife," (formerly "The Nightingale" — read all about it here), but we also wondered about some of the movies he's got brewing and what may or may not be next.
Perhaps one of the most ambitious projects linked to Gray in the past few years is "The Lost City of Z," is a seemingly uncharacteristic South America-set film. Based on the book by David Grann, the epic tells the story of English soldier-turned-explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, whose obsession with the Amazon and belief that an ancient civilization resided there, led him on many expeditions where he narrowly escaped death. At one point, Brad Pitt was attached to star with project set up at Paramount, and tentatively slated to shoot after "Moneyball," but it fell apart, and the actor left the project (though there's no bad blood as the pair are still planning the thriller "The Gray Man"). Nevertheless, Gray is still thinking about 'Z.'
"I hope to still make it. I'm trying to get it together again, but the budget that came in was $140 million dollars, because it was so logistically difficult," he explained. "Part of the plan was to get a cruise ship, and have the crew on board and go down the Amazon, shoot during the day, get back on the ship and move further down." That kind of reminds us of something…"I talked to Werner Herzog about 'Fitzcarraldo' and that's not exactly a thing you want to copy," he jokes. "I was looking for a way to do it that wouldn't cause me a nervous breakdown and get everybody typhus."
But while logistics may have defeated this incarnation of the film, Gray is looking for other solutions: "Going down the Amazon, the machinery is just not there to make a movie, you have to bring everything. Maybe the answer is Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, something like that, which maybe has similar terrain, but there is production resource close by."
He also spoke briefly about two writing projects. First up, is Guillaume Canet's "Blood Ties," which shot earlier this year in New York City. It's the French filmmaker's first English language picture, which assembles Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Mila Kunis, James Cann, Marion Cotillard and Zoe Saldana in a remake of the 2008 French thriller "Les Liens Du Sang" (which also starred Canet), telling the story of two brothers, the younger of which (Crudup) is asked by his older convict sibling (Owen), to go back into the underworld to help out his family. This is familiar territory for Gray, and while he has a co-writing credit on the picture, he humbly plays down his involvement.
"What happened was [Canet, who is a friend] needed help with, as he put it, 'the dialogues' — which immediately should have let me know he needed more than a little help with the dialogue — so I helped him translate a lot of the dialogue from French and helped structure the story a little," Gray shared. "And he said 'I'm gonna give you cowriting credit!' And I said 'No, I really didn't do that much, it's your film' and he did it anyway, which was very generous of him…And then apparently the actors have improvised a lot, so I'm not sure they're saying anything I wound up writing."
Meanwhile, Gray is dipping into American cinema history, writing a currently untitled Steve McQueen biopic for his "Lowlife" star, Jeremy Renner who is producing and aiming to star. "I did it more or less as a favor to Jeremy and to honor Steve McQueen. I don’t know what’s happening with it, I suppose it will get made, they quite like it and Jeremy wants to do it," Gray said. "If they want me to do more work on it I’ll help them but right now Jeremy’s so busy… It’s coming but it’s not there yet."
We can't help but wonder whether Gray, with his detailed and meticulous approach, finds it easy to hand over a writing project to another director, as he is doing in this case. He answers immediately: "No, I got into very seriously. I was spending a lot of time with Steve McQueen's ex-wife and sort of started to live the Steve McQueen thing and began to really get involved with the subject. And then I realized I can’t get so attached."
"Lowlife" is aiming for a Cannes Film Festival premiere next spring, and we'll have even more from our interview with Gray soon.