AN EMPIRE OF ONE

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My Film School Days with James Gray

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James Gray

What does it take to make it in Hollywood? You might answer right away with “talent.” Yes, but there was an abundance of talent at my film school. Talent was not enough. So what was enough?

I went to USC film school with someone who did make it in Hollywood: James Gray, the guy who directed Little Odessa, etc. Gray has managed to do in Hollywood what  most of us wanted to do: write and direct films (with realistic budgets) that he wants to write and direct. How did he do it? What set his films apart from the rest of us? I don’t know that I know the answer, but here are some observations that may provide at least a partial answer.

1. I saw Gray’s 310 which, I think, was called Territorio. At that time, a 310 at USC was an 8 minutes long film or video without synchronized dialogue. Gray’s film was about a homeless guy fighting other homeless guys for territory. (Homelessness seemed to be the subject of every other student film at the time.) Although I know of at least one person who saw it and was impressed, and the fact that it got Gray a 480 directing gig means that more than one person was taken by it, the film did not make much of an impression on me. However, there was one memorable scene. That would be the one in which the main character jerks off. Seriously.

Advanced level productions, graduate and undergraduate, at USC Film School, Spring 1991

2. I was in the 480 class in which Gray directed Cowboys and Angels (written by John Albert), a 12 minute film with sync dialogue, although I crewed on another film in the class, Joel Was Here. Once again, the film did not make much of an impression on me. It was more or less the Jodie Foster storyline of Taxi Driver, about a guy hired to track down a runaway teenage girl. The original grade Gray was given for the film was an “F” because he broke a class rule by setting a scene in a club which included a very visible topless dancer. But Gray appealed the grade, got an “A,” and the film was a hit at First Look, the USC student film screening. Lesson? It pays to break the rules, especially when it comes to nudity. Also, it doesn’t hurt to imitate Scorsese (or whoever is hot at the time).

3. Gray also broke at least one other rule on his film. Each 480 was supposed to have two crew members who did everything on the film that involved sound, from boom operator to sound design to final sound mix. The director is not supposed to intervene except to offer ideas and provide a general idea of what he wants. He is not supposed to literally do the sound design himself. However, during the shoot one of the sound guys, Bryon, was seriously injured in an auto accident. (He did not return to school for at least a year.) This allowed Gray and the film editor to take over the sound design. Todd, the official sound guy, did not really do the sound on that film. (I wish I had had this arrangement on my 480, Shadows on the Wall.)

4. I remember talking to Gray only once, when he visited the set of the film I crewed on that semester, Joel Was Here. Godfather III had been recently released, and most critics had trashed it. Going against the prevailing opinion, Gray told me he had been moved to tears by the ending of Coppola’s film and did not understand how anyone could not be similarly affected. I had been unfortunate enough to have seen the film when it opened, Christmas Day, but declined to express my opinion. I’m not entirely sure how this conversation arose, but I’m pretty sure that Gray, seeing me fiddling with my sound boom with little else to do while  the DP set up the next shot, just started talking to me about the film out of the blue.

5. I was visiting the roommate of Shane, the DP on Gray’s film, when Shane played for the first time a message Gray had left on her answering machine. The message was pure verbal abuse, no-holds barred swearing of a kind that I had not heard before, and, luckily, have not heard since. According to Shane, this was typical of Gray. Nevertheless, later, when I asked her if she would work with Gray again, she said, despite the abuse, she would because he knew what he wanted. This was a funny thing to say because the final version of the film was very different from the script because the film changed a lot during the editing process. Not exactly the sign of someone who knows what they want, but typical of how most of us actually work. Gray is the only one I knew who acted the role of an asshole on his film. Given that he’s the only one I know from school who has not only made four feature films with major stars, but written them as well, it makes me wonder if that kind of behavior is the secret of what it takes to make it. Yes, it definitely makes me wonder.

This is for James:

Last word? Here’s Del Toro:

Guillermo Del Toro

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Written by David Kilmer

January 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm

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