We Own the Night–James Gray

Cannes Film Fest 2007

Personalizing an American Crime Drama

“We Own the Night,” an emotional crime drama about a man who has chosen to hide his past only to discover that he has to confront an inevitable future, takes its title from the motto of the 1980s-era NYPD street crimes unit. Written and directed by James Gray (“The Yards,” “Little Odessa”), the film was produced by Nick Wechsler, Marc Butan, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, and executive produced by Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban and Anthony Katagas.

Genre Film

This is a film that is clearly rooted in a specific and familiar genre — the police movie, explains Gray. But normally the police movie focuses on procedure — finding the bad guy. I wanted to do something much more focused on character and emotion. The genre itself is essentially a point of departure to tell a story about a man caught by his destiny, his inevitable fate, and the complex and internally conflicted emotions that love, loss, and betrayal yield.

A mans ability to change his own fate is much more limited than we would like to believe, says Gray. Other factors play a big role in life, like the flow of history, culture, external events, instinct and love. This is what I wanted explore.

Inspiration for the Film

The idea for the film came from a New York Times photograph of a police funeral. In the photo, all of these grown men were hugging, in tears after one of their fellow officers had been killed in the line of duty, recalls Gray. And the image had such tremendous emotion.

In fact, 1988 was the height of New York Citys crack epidemic, the homicide rate was soaring, and the overall crime rate was 73 percent above the national average. At the same time, disco flourished as George Michael, Gloria Estefan and Taylor Dane rode the music charts. Nightclub life was thriving, particularly in the bustling Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach.

It was that intensity that Gray wanted to capture. I was anxious to make something not just thrilling, but explosive, dramatic. And frankly, filled with action.
But at the same time, this is a very personal movie, continues Gray. That doesnt mean autobiographical. As I was writing the screenplay, I used elements that came from local news stories as well as things I learned by going on police ride-alongs. I found many stories about people who, because of their circumstances, hid their family connections to police. Everything you see in the film came from real events but I also used my relationships with my father and brother. So I did steal a lot from my background as well.

Nor does Gray shy away from looking to other films to inform his stories and influence his filmmaking style. Besides research and my own personal experiences, I found tremendous inspiration in the work of certain filmmakers from the 50s, 60s and 70s. In The Yards, I looked to Italian Neorealism of the 1950s. In “We Own the Night,” I wanted to make a film that was more visceral, more atmospheric and more focused on this idea of the flow of history as an unstoppable force. I think many of us right now in these grim times feel as if we are caught by forces of history we are unable to control. And 1988 New York is a perfect metaphor for now a time and place when things were seemingly out of control.

Cinematic influences

Gray's cinematic influences include the American films of the 70s that dealt with history, class and politics. Obviously I owe a debt especially to The Godfather, Chinatown and The French Connection, notes Gray. However, I also looked at certain European films of the 60s, particularly Visconti, and at Japanese films of the 50s, which were also focused on how history and fate affect destiny. And so of course I subjected my entire crew to late night screenings of all of these movies.

Producer Nick Wechsler, who worked with Gray on his two previous films, Little Odessa and The Yards observes, James developed such a strong rapport with these two actors. He was thinking of them throughout his research and writing processit was almost like a shortcut to making a successful movie.

Mark Wahlberg and Joanquin Phoenix

Says Gray, Mark has tremendous sensitivity, a real emotional truth about him. He has a kind of blue-collar earnestness that would remind you of John Garfield from late 40s movies.

Joaquin is wonderful in a very different way, he continues. He reminds me of Montgomery Clift or Al Pacino, someone who has got tons of internal conflict and is about to explode any second.

Robert Duvall

Gray wrote the part of Bobby and Josephs father, the decorated deputy chief Burt Grusinsky, specifically for Robert Duvall. The six-time Oscar nominee won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1984 for his role in Tender Mercies and has been the recipient of four Golden Globes. Joaquin calls Duvall the Jedi master, says Gray. You can throw Duvall any curveball and hell come right back at you in character and hell do something amazing. The level of the craft is ridiculous.

According to Gray, Duvall is so comfortable and creative with improvisation that he raised the game of everyone around him. Although the two younger actors had obvious reverence for Duvall, Gray observed that, Duvall cant stand that respect or distance. He likes to feel like hes in the trenches with them. But Joaquin would do everything he could do to really get Duvalls character angry with him. He even wore an earring strictly so that Duvall would look at him and think you little wimp.
On the other side, Gray continues, Mark Wahlberg was telling me Dont bother Duvall, Jim. Hes a great actor. And their dynamic mirrored the respectful dynamic of Burt and Joseph in the film.

Eva Mendes

The last piece of major casting would be Bobbys girlfriend, Amada. Gray was watching TV in a New York hotel room when he saw an interview with actress Eva Mendes, who had earned critical attention for her roles in Training Day and Hitch. She had a look of sophisticated bemusement in the interview, admits Gray. And I thought Id like to meet her and see what shes about.

What he found in Mendes was sensitivity and self-awareness, both ideal qualities for the role of Bobbys loyal girlfriend who is unprepared for the deep sacrifices she will have to make in order to maintain their relationship.

Because I knew Joaquin and Mark I knew what they were capable of and Bobby Duvall is a legend, explains Gray. But Eva pleased and surprised me most – and has a tremendous reservoir of emotion inside. Its a great thing to see.

Every Movie is like a Wild Horse

The challenge for a director who shoots his own script is maintaining control while also adapting to surprises along the way. As Gray explains it, Every movie is like a wild horse thats going to get away from you, because its a collaborative medium and the actors may take the scene in another direction. So a director has to be the ultimate filter embracing the things that expand your original ideas, but at the same time, eliminating things that destroy or harm what you originally had in mind.

Visual Look

Cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay had impressed Gray with the work he did on the indie film Rodger Dodger, which the director had seen when he was participating in a Sundance lab in Utah. He wanted to meet Baca-Asay because his photography was fantastic in a very un-showy, very immediate way.

When the two of them met and began to talk, Baca-Asay recommended that they look at the artwork of Vincent Desiderio, an American contemporary realist. He made me go out and buy this artists book, Gray recalls, and of course there were fabulous and macabre paintings but there was this beautiful lighting to them. I thought, this guy is really interesting.

Capturing both the authentic texture and iconic imagery of New York in the late 1980s was the task assigned to production designer Ford Wheeler, who had been the set decorator on Grays two previous films.
Production design is an ability to understand character and interpret in terms of material possessions and environment, suggests Gray. Ford had been with me from the first two movies and he really knew my taste. Previously the set decorator on such director-driven films as Flirting With Disaster, Any Given Sunday and Birth, Wheeler was pleased to re-team with someone who has strong artistic tastes.

Visconti's Impact

Research for Gray and his team also included screenings of significant films, particularly those by Luchino Visconti. Visconti made two films, Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, which are two of my favorite films of all time, explains Gray. His films have such humanity in them. And thats the thing I was anxious to do to make a film without irony, without distancing you from the characters or making fun of them or being condescending. I wanted to make something sincere.

Location Shooting

Shooting in New York City was a priority for Gray and fortunately, the producers backed him up. New York just gives the movie the authenticity and realism it needs, says producer Butan. Down to the faces of the crowd, the extras, the looks of the buildingsit needed to be real and gritty and differentiate itself from a lot of other films or television shows. The supporting actors and extras in our movie are real-deal New York.

The locations department found three different sites that would make up the exterior and interior of the (fictitious) El Caribe club. The dramatic exterior was Reverend Ikes Christ United Palace Cathedral in Upper Manhattans Washington Heights section (formerly the Loews 175 St movie theater); the bar of the club was filmed in the 1920s-era Loews theater in the Bronx; and El Caribes enormous dance floor belongs to that of the iconic Webster Hall in Lower Manhattan.

During the ten-week shoot, the cast and crew shot in the boroughs of the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, often in the seediest neighborhoodsto capture the feel and texture of pre-Guiliani New York.