Little Odessa: James Gray's Big Break

“Little Odessa,” James Gray's highly charged and assured feature directorial debut, immediately placed the 26-year-old helmer on a short list of talent to watch. The movie is a somber family tragedy, set against the brooding of a Mafia– the Russian-Jewish style. Gray's stylishly dark and detached drama concerns the homecoming of a 23-year old hit man (played by Tim Roth) for the Russian mob.

Gray's reaction to his “big break,” was at once arrogant and astonishing, saying: “It's insulting. I don't even know what that means–getting a break–what it says is you got to do whatever you're doing by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. You make a movie because someone likes you. Is that getting a break I don't know.”

Gray doesn't subscribe to that way of thinking, and perhaps his cocky attitude has something to do with his rapid success. Gray: “If I knew then what I know now about how this business works, I would never have done this movie. I went to William Morris and Creative Artists. I was incredibly arrogant. I was like, 'Wanna sign me' Total moron. I thought, I'm gonna be making a movie in six months.'”

Jeremy Zimmer, an ambitious agent at UTA, signed Gray after a classmate of Gray's, an agent trainee with UTA, recommended that he sees his student short, “Cowboys and Angels,” at a USC-sponsored graduate screening. Says Zimmer: “I don't tend to take on student filmmakers. But James' movie had a sense of realism that reminded me of several of my favorite directors from the 1970s.”

After the two hit it off in a meeting, Zimmer decided to take a risk on Gray, the first student filmmaker he'd signed in years. Zimmer recalls: “I respected James's passion–and his attitude. He had a sense of humor about what he was doing. A healthy, defined neurosis, I'll call it. It was an unusual gamble, but I thought it was a worthy one.” Gray's short, which included a controversial nude scene that a professor tried to make Gray cut out, stood out because of its slick look.