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Interview: Filmmaker Susan Ray Talks About The Life Of Nicholas Ray

Interview: Filmmaker Susan Ray Talks About The Life Of Nicholas Ray

At the recently concluded 2013 TCM
Classic Film Festival
 we got to sit down with filmmaker Susan Ray and discuss the subject of
her 2011 documentary “Don’t Expect Much” (here’s our
review from NYFF ’11
) and late husband, director Nicholas Ray. Nicholas Ray began as an apprentice to famed architect Frank Lloyd
and then decided to move out to Hollywood, and the rest is cinematic history
— as early as 1953, Jean-Luc Godard
wrote, “cinema is Nicholas Ray.” 

The director put his stamp on a number of films, including the landmark noir “In A Lonely Place,” the Joan
-starring camp classic “Johnny
” and “Rebel Without A Cause,”
which ushered in a whole new era of Hollywood (check out our The
Essentials: 5 Great Films By Nicholas Ray
), before the quality projects
began to dry up and he turned to teaching film. Suffice to write, Nicholas
Ray has had a lasting impact on cinema from his own iconic films to his
influence on directors ranging from French New Wave (Godard and Francois Truffaut) to New Hollywood (Martin Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch) and beyond. Susan Ray
discussed with us his career from both personal and professional perspectives, from his
apprenticeship to his professorial years and his lasting legacy.

With such a varied
filmography, do you
think there are common themes that link your husband’s films together?

I’m a long time observer, but I don’t know that that makes
me an authority. That said, I would say he was always looking, more than
working with a preconceived notion of what he wanted to get out onscreen. He
was looking and what he was looking for was truth, emotional truth, emotional
revelation… My zen teacher used to always say, “There’s no wisdom without
emotion,” so he was looking for a kind of wisdom about human nature and how one
human being connects with other human beings or doesn’t connect. 

Studying with Frank
Lloyd Wright [Ray was quoted as having “a love of the horizontal line” and used
interior space as an extension of the characters], working with Elian Kazan so
early in his career [“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”] and then coming to RKO [where
he made his directorial debut “They Live By Night,”] working with Howard Hughes…
Out of those experiences, which one do you think affected his directing style
the most?

If I had to choose one, I would probably choose Wright for a
number of reasons. As I’m learning more about Nick, not as someone I was
involved with but as a subject….what I see are certain threads that go all the way through his life.
One is the creation of a close almost familial group of collaborators, which
certainly a film troupe becomes, but he was looking for that and that was
something Wright created as well at Taliesin. To the day he died, [he] always referred
to Frank Lloyd Wright as Mr. Wright. He was always the master in relation to
Nick as an apprentice, although Nick left him because he didn’t want to be
another Frank Lloyd Wright, but the imprint of Wright on Nick’s thinking was
very, very strong. It brought out certain sort of innate interests that already
existed in Nick and gave him a framework. The horizontal line was certainly
part of it. So was the way Wright spoke about architecture, I can’t remember
the exact quote, but as being the framework for the rest of the arts. Nick
spoke about film as being the cathedral of the arts, so it was the same kind of
metaphor, but he upped it. He upped the ante.

Do you think he had wished to make more
Hollywood films or valued his creative freedom more in the end and his teaching?
He had changed
and Hollywood had changed. He said in so many words that he felt that Hollywood
had the best technology, the best understanding of the techniques and the most
advanced anywhere in the world, but the studio producers wouldn’t let it be
used and so it became too confined for him. I think that he did have an
outsider’s mentality.

Were there any actors your late husband
remembered very fondly?

Sure, there
were certain actors, who were friends as well like [Humphrey] Bogart, [James] Dean certainly, and
Robert Mitchum.

There may be an
unmade script from your husband out there that they’re thinking of getting made, possibly with Oren Moverman directing. What are your thoughts on that?

There is… Oren Moverman is interested in directing it, but
at the moment no one has the rights except for the Ray estate. The rights have
been licensed at various periods, but the license has expired and it’s now

There’s been talk
that it’s a western.
The context is western, but it’s not a western story.

How was Nicholas Ray
as a teacher? [Ray’s final years were spent teaching at Binghamton University,
Lee Strasberg Institute and NYU]

He learned teaching and he was learning as he was making “We Can’t Go Home Again.” I think there
were things he did with his class in making “We Can’t Go Home Again” that he
might not have chosen to repeat. That said, he loved young people and he loved
the process of distilling what he knew in order to pass it on. He felt it was
his responsibility to do that and he loved doing it. He actually said during
the very end of his life that he was never happier than when he was teaching.
He was a really good teacher. He became a really good teacher. It took some
learning about how to temper his expectations and demands of his students. He
demanded a huge amount of himself and worked like a demon, literally, and kind
of expected his students to do the same with “We Can’t Go Home Again.” I think
for a lot of them it was more than they wanted to do. I’m not sure it was more
than they could do, but it was more than they wanted to do. I think he confined
his demands a little more as he moved on with teaching and also as he got

How was that process
of him getting sober and ultimately that period when he knew he didn’t have
much longer left?
He was a man who always kept growing and wanted to keep
growing. He stopped growing just for a very brief period before he got sober
because the drinking had become so pervasive and had really taken over, but
until then, he was always trying to grow and after he got sober, he was always
trying to grow. It was inspiring to watch. Really that’s why I’m doing the work
I’m doing with his work, not because he was my husband or I’m tending a flame
or any of that stuff. It’s because he lived a kind of yes, messy, but in
another sense a very exemplary life and that he didn’t pretend to be other than
what he was. He could get kind of bloated at times, but basically he
was pretty naked about his human-ness and he kept trying to grow.

His personal life
seems to match his work.
I don’t think he saw much difference between them. He would
say over and over again that an artist must expose themselves and of course the
personal is going to be there, but you try to keep the neurosis out. It may
sneak in, but you try to keep it out. You try not to get stuck in it. It was
part of his love and that really is the word for his fellow humans, I think,
that he felt alone, he felt an outsider and he was always trying to find the
way to connect.

Towards the end,
where there ever any moments of bitterness?
No, I didn’t see him as bitter ever. I saw him as at times
pained, maybe at times regretful, I’m not sure, but bitter? No. He had too much
of a sense of responsibility for his own life to be bitter.

Susan Ray introduced her late husband’s directorial debut “They Live By Night” at the TCM Classic
Film Festival, screened on April 27th at the Chinese Multiplex. 

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