James Gray's commentary track for his film The Yards.
On the film's opening shot and his approach to introducing a story:
I'm a big fan of slow build-ups to a movie, and I find that the most treasured moments in films are when you have this black screen and the film hasn't begun yet means the possibilities are limitless to whether or not you'll like the film. It's one of the more magical moments for me about going to the movies, so i've always tried to build in a kind of overture to a movie; I always put in more black screen than perhaps you should, very slow opening credits slow credits, of course this is an indication to the fact that I like slow movies. This opening shot was not scripted, we put the camera on the front of the train and we were going through the tunnel and I started rolling a bit early and when I saw the shot in the dailies I thought wow that's kind of a wonderful opening shot, it seemed to suggest something cosmic. It also seemed to emphasise something I wanted to emphasise throughout the whole picture, which is a world view that was bigger than the characters, that the characters occupied a world that could control their fates.
On shooting Leo's homecoming party:
This opening party scene is interesting because it's a difficult thing to direct a scene, which is, people having a party but at the same time they're celebrating something rather tragic which is a guy coming home from jail so you have to walk a tightrope here. I had wanted this party scene, which is really more or less stolen from a film I really love called 'Rocco And His Brothers' directed by Luchino Visconti, an Italian movie, it's really great. I had wanted this party scene to emphasise all the aesthetic tenants that were about to unfold in the film as well as introduce you to all the characters and the world of the film. This was all meant to be very slow but a kind of tender introduction to all of the characters in the film, except for James Caan, who I always thought we had to leave him out, he's too important to introduce him right now, we have to save him, we have to create some narrative anticipation for him.
On the look of the film:
If you notice the photography as well, a series of browns, buttery yellows, yellow oaks, very much from the painters that I love; Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, but also Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour, and a number of Renaissance-era painters. What we also did was we under-exposed the film quite a bit in order to give it a painterly look, that the blacks would never be truly black, truly snappy, also a tenant from painting, the first thing they tell you in painting is that you never use black paint directly out of the tube, that what you would is mix it with brown or a little bit of white to make it dark grey. This is because black doesn't actually exist in life, black is the absence of all light so the surfaces of the film were always meant to be very painterly, that the film would be almost elegant, that you would never move the camera unless you had to, that there would be a series of painterly stills that passed before your eyes. I wanted this to be unlike the style of most films today which seem preoccupied with snazzy-ness and fast camera movement. All of this was meant to extenuate a classical style of filmmaking.
On the ambitions of the film:
It's difficult to say this because politics are so clearly left out of American films, almost all the time. But one of the major ambitions of the film, I'm not sure if it's realised, but one of the major ambitions of the film was to give it an almost social realist slant, something that [Elia] Kazan may have done in the 50s. The idea that this person [Leo/Mark Whalberg] from working class means, from prison, would try to incorporate himself into the market economy and the tragedy that would unfold by his attempt to do so.
On his approach to storytelling:
It's one of the great challenges when you're making films in the year 2000 that since cinema is an art form that has now existed for 70 years in the sound-era, longer than that in silent, you are dealing really with the same story over and over again, or the same four stories, whatever way you want to characterize it. My friend likes to say they are only two stories; the stranger comes to town, the stranger leaves town. But the point is that you're always in a struggle to avoid cliché, however, it's very relevant to embrace archetype. If you look at a movie as a thrill-ride, people go to movies for different reasons, that doesn't mean the reason is worse or better, but some people go to movies for the thrill of the 'who-done-it' so the dramatic tension for them is the unfolding of events and the wanting to know what happens next, the whole joy of the event is the unpredictability of the story. I must say that this is not important to me which is probably obvious to the viewers of the film. I almost prefer the film to be inevitable, that the unfolding events in the film prove to be something that you could have predicted to happen, and in fact this view of cinema is born out of the entire history of storytelling because it enables you to get out of the way of the surprise. So, what do I mean? If you look at a story like 'Macbeth' for example, the witches more or less tell you in the beginning what will happen so that the pleasure of the experience becomes not what will happen but why it has happened. This never ceases to be interesting, one hopes, it never ceases to be about the lives within it. This really is the higher calling, for me, for any creative work.
On the approach to scoring the film:
The score emphasises a strategy which Howard Shore and I employed, which was to score it like a European film. The difference between European and American cinema is that, for example, a score like Jaws, which is brilliant, is very much scoring the moment. When a beat of action changes in the film the music underscores that change. Whereas European films tend to score the mood and overall atmosphere rather than each individual moment. We decided to employ that style because I felt it emphasised the contemplative and melancholy nature of the movie. I didn't feel the nature of the film was contour American, for better or for worse.
On the fight between Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix:
We so did not want this thing out of an action film, we didn't want it to seem stunt coordinated. It was much more important for us to emphasise the street violence element of it, the nastiness, the messiness of the fight. I had wanted to put on film the type of fight you see on the streets; there was a pub where I lived and there were fights all the time, they were more like wrestling. I got two takes and they [Wahlberg and Phoenix] beat each other so badly that I couldn't get any more. The fight is rather unconventional, the camera pulls back instead of cutting in. This is of course an attempt by me to imply that the world around them is bigger than they are, that these people are small inhabitants of a world that imposes its will on their lives. This violence between Mark and Joaquin had always been brewing, that this messiness and brutality could come out in a horrible way.
On the importance of setting the mood:
I like mood creation, perhaps really to my detriment. I feel that movies can express more than anything else is a sense of emotion and a sense of mood creation. You remember the story-lines of films I guess but more than story-lines you remember moods; If you think about something like 'Rosemary's Baby' it's not really about the story, Polanski does such a great job in putting the camera exactly where he should and of creating the mood that the story is really of secondary importance. In fact if you asked people to walk you through the beats of 'Raging Bull', story-wise, I'm betting you they couldn't. What they remember is the vivid black and white, the fight scenes with the spurting blood, or the terrible domestic violence that goes on in that household. You remember the vitality of the image and the creation of mood, so I really try to learn from that and to absorb the importance of mood.
On the difference between pace and interest:
I think that pace and what is boring are often confused; for me, the pace of a movie, if it's slow or fast, has nothing to do with whether a movie is boring. I have seen movies that have been paced like lightning that I'd really rather have a colonoscopy than watch. Then there are films that are really slow with a really meditative quality that are riveting. I just mentioned 'Rosemary's Baby', that's a slow movie but it's never less than riveting. So I don't think pace and what is considered boring or not boring have anything to do with one another.
On The Yards being a tragedy:
Some people said to me,“does the Charlize Theron character have to be threatened and eventually die?" My answer is yes because if she doesn't then what is the story? They say,“isn't that a cliché, letting the innocent person die?" Well yes, but it's not a cliché it's an archetype, it's what happens in classic tragedy. It wouldn't be very tragic if the 'bad guy' died, it wouldn't be tragic if nobody died, it wouldn’t be very interesting either. Really I think it's important when you want to make a film that speaks of a cultural ill that there is a price to be paid for peoples' cupidity and stupidity.