INTERVIEW: James Gray's American Opera, "The Yards"
by Jason Anderson
(indieWIRE/ 10.18.00) -- Despite some gossip over Miramax's apparent reluctance to let it out of the can, along with its disappointing reception at Cannes, James Gray's "The Yards" has finally arrived looking and feeling like a major new work. This attempt to bridge popular and art cinema is quite unlike any other American movie in recent memory. While it boasts stars like Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, it's impossible to tell if it'll find an audience when it's released in the U.S. this Friday. Even Gray -- a young New York director whose debut was the compellingly grim 1995 crime film "Little Odessa" -- seems perplexed at its commercial prospects when indieWIRE spoke to him at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its North American premiere. Nevertheless, as an artistic statement, "The Yards" is coherent, complete and unique.
Wahlberg plays Leo, a car thief freshly sprung from jail, who hooks up again with Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), his best friend and the fiance of Leo's cousin Erica (Theron). Willie has been working in a shady capacity for her stepfather Frank (James Caan), whose company builds and repairs subway trains in New York. While Leo is introduced to the various ways the wheels are greased and contracts are secured, one day, he and Willie are implicated in a pair of violent crimes at the subway yards, and the whole corrupt system threatens to crumble around them.
The film boasts strong, unexpectedly subtle performances by its young stars as well as great turns by Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Steve Lawrence and a regal Faye Dunaway. Written by Gray and Matt Reeves, "The Yards" recalls Sidney Lumet's classic urban epics ("Serpico," "Prince of the City," even "Dog Day Afternoon"), but its languid pace, powerful Howard Shore score and rich cinematography give it the feel of an old-school European art movie -- or even an opera. As it turns out, that was the intention of the opera buff director.
indieWIRE: Music is so important in "The Yards." Are you pleased with how Howard Shore's score turned out?
James Gray: I adore Howard's music in the movie. I think it's incredible. It's one of those things where we were both really happy with when the movie was done. Some people have just loved it and some people have just said it's the worst score of his career. And a lot of the music is not his -- a lot of the music is by Gustav Holst. There's a piece of music from The Planets, which is played many times, almost as the theme to the movie. So I read with great amusement when people don't like it and call it Howard's worst music of his career and they usually cite the Holst. I think, "Oh my God, you've just criticized Gustav Holst's music as sucking! I guess that means I didn't use it right."
iW: Was it your intention to make an operatic film?
Gray: That was exactly the ambition. I had been very fixated on a book by Emile Zola called "La Bete Humaine" and a Renoir film by the same title, and also a Luchino Visconti movie called "Rocco and His Brothers." I'd been very obsessed with what they call the 'verismo' tradition in opera -- Puccini's "La Boheme" was the benchmark for that, but there were a number of operas written in the early 20th century that were not about kings and queens but were rather about working-class types. And I had been addicted, frankly, to Puccini and Mascagni and I had wanted to do something in the opera 'verismo' tradition. And it's interesting because when you are doing something like that, you're skating a fine line between melodrama and opera and it's really a battle.
iW: Obviously you can get very close to creating something bombastic.
Gray: It's a chance you have to take. There are times in "Rocco and His Brothers" -- which I love more than anything -- when Visconti does actually go over the top. It is SO much opera that the audience is almost laughing. In a way, it's one of the things that I tried to do -- to distinguish the film from the bumper crop of not only popular culture film but also art cinema. Because there's been a strange sort of ghettoizing of art cinema. And popular cinema has obviously gone so far in the direction of nitwittedness that my ambition with "The Yards" was to make a movie that straddled both. Maybe it straddles neither, but it was nonetheless my intention: to make something operatic in that it was heavily emotional, but not sentimental. In fact, I played Puccini and Mascagni and all these people on the set for the actors as a way to inspire the performances. Whenever there's a scene with no dialogue, which there are several in the movie, you can rest assured that during the day on the set I was playing something from Tosca or Verdi's "Preludio" to "La Traviata." The actors' performances get totally inspired by that and the tone of the movie then gets informed by the music that was played on the set. So I started playing music in rehearsal even for dialogue scenes.
iW: Was this the first time you'd used music with actors?
Gray: I had done a little bit of that on "Little Odessa." I think I read about von Stroheim doing that, or someone else from the silent era. It became a very time-honoured tradition in silent films for the director to play music on set for the actors and inspire the performances. Then I read that Stanley Kubrick had done it a lot. I thought, "What a great idea." It's a totally pretentious thing to say, but there's a great quote by Stanislavsky about this: "Music is the most direct route to the human heart." It's really true. You can say with music what you could never say verbally to an actor.
iW: I know that I found "The Yards" quite powerful, but it may not be the sort of film that does well during festivals. The emotions here are very outsized and complex in that operatic style. But when critics are seeing so many movies, they get desensitized.
Gray: I think to be a movie critic is troubling from one major respect. If you are forced to watch ten movies a week, it's really only something you can do for a few years. After a while it's a bit too much.
iW: You start to feel like there's a thick leather hide covering your heart.
Gray: I know. "The Yards" played at Cannes in competition and it was the last movie. I resisted that very much, but Gilles Jacob said, "It's literally the most prestigious spot, blah, blah, we love this movie, it's great." And I was like, "You know what, everyone will have seen a zillion movies by then, and this'll be the fifth movie they have to watch that day." I thought that would be death. I don't envy the job of people who have to watch five movies a day -- that's insane. When I was in college and had to watch three movies a day, I wanted to kill myself.
[Jason Anderson is a movie critic at Toronto's eye Weekly and DVD columnist at Shift magazine.]