April 27, 2003|Discovered at a student party by director Hal Ashby, one of the more tragic figures of the American New Wave of the '70s, James Foley is at his best when detailing the brash social textures of the United States and the intricacies of male relationships (and, by extension, male relationships arrayed around dangerous women) in his canny shrines to the film noir genre. His new film Confidence returns Foley to the mean streets of his Glengarry Glen Ross in a caper film that defies the odds by not only being an entertaining and cohesive heist flick (after the high-profile flops that were David Mamet's Heist and Frank Oz's The Score), but also by finding a role for the aggressively unlikable Ed Burns that actually suits him. Foley's best film, however, remains the brilliant After Dark, My Sweet--the only film, curiously, that he's ever written, and the only screen adaptation of Jim Thompson that rings with the lewd authenticity of a Thompson novel.
I met Mr. Foley at a press suite in Denver's Thirties-retro Hotel Monaco, sitting across a round table with a fish bowl situated in the exact middle. Intense and wired, Foley spent most of our interview clenching and unclenching his jaw (the little muscle in his cheek twitching like a teletypist's finger), something that causes his speech to be clipped and measured. At one point, he jumped up to demonstrate how he devised a tracking shot for Glengarry Glen Ross; at another, he laid his head on the table in what seemed an expression of genuine remorse at not having done more writing in his career. It's immediately clear why the director has inspired so much loyalty from his actors: the man's a ball of passion dedicated to creation and the process of active collaboration. Foley is a born leader, in other words, if a vulnerable one who's fervently cynical about Hollywood. It's a disarming combination, to say the least.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How did you meet Hal Ashby?
JAMES FOLEY: I was very lucky and in the perverse calculus of Hollywood I was in the last year of film school and shared a house with a guy. There was a woman who was pursuing my friend so we had this film school party, which consisted of people projecting their student films onto a white wall--and getting stoned, and this girl came. Hal Ashby was pursuing her--so she was pursuing my friend and Hal was pursuing her--and Hal called her up and asked to come to this party full of film students. Just as he walked through the door, my film was showing on the wall. I'll never know whether he was being polite or anything, but he told me he liked it and stuff and he was going to form a company that was going to produce other people's movies and what did I want to do? I could write something and direct it. Of course I thought I was dreaming. But I did write something, but by the time I wrote it he released two movies--he'd made two movies at the same time and released them almost simultaneously, one was called Hamster of Happiness--the working title for Second-Hand Hearts--and the other was called something else I forget (Jon Voight's Lookin' To Get Out -Ed.). And they both bombed terribly so suddenly he lost his deal to produce people's movies. But at that time, because Hal Ashby had hired me, I became known to other people in Hollywood and got kind of viable in that weird calculus of Hollywood just because someone else, respected, thought I was viable.
So that's how you got Reckless.
Right--I thought, "I've been out of film school for a whole year, I've gotta get a job," so I directed Reckless and the rest is history.
Looking at Reckless and your next film At Close Range, you elicit what are arguably career performances as a very young director--how?
It's interesting to look back because I think about it often. There was a Sean Penn retrospective and At Close Range was there and Sean asked me to come and I watched the movie. I hadn't seen it in a long time and I was kind of amazed myself--not at my own brilliance (laughs), but how did that happen. I remember being absolutely fearless because I was too young to know any better. I had no idea, I had never tasted failure--or pressure from the studio. You know, that film got made because Sean was very hot, Sean wanted me to direct it, and because he and I were so simpatico, we could do whatever we wanted because we held the power. I never appreciated that at the time, how important that was, so we literally did whatever we wanted and tried crazy things and didn't care what other people thought--we didn't have to care what other people thought. It just seemed like the performances seemed like a natural extension of a conversation that Sean and I had going, we'd become good friends a couple of years before that, and I just took that nurturing and freedom really for granted.
Given your close relationship with Penn, how did you change your approach with Walken?
Walken came into the situation and instinctually or luckily, I reacted to him in the right way. There was never a film class about directing actors, so I would just act like an audience member and say that I didn't like this or didn't like that and I learned right away that some actors you talk to and explain things, and others you say as little as possible and Walken was one who you said as little as possible. I have to say that I really just fell into it without thinking about it--so much of my early stuff I did without thinking about it, it was more "what looks cool" and "what's a good moment." We had no idea if it was going to be pleasing to an audience or whether it was going to be commercial or if the ending was too downbeat--we didn't care.
You didn't have any problems with your ending?
The only time we had a problem was with a financier who after we had finished--and who has since gone bankrupt--asked us to change the ending. If you remember the ending, Sean has the gun to Chris Walken's head and pulls back and says, "No, no, I'm not you"--and that's the whole point of the friggin' movie, but there was this pressure of "reshoot the ending and have Sean pull the trigger." Kill Walken! That's what came out of the test screening--the audience wanted Sean to have revenge, but luckily I was connected to Sean and Sean said, "I ain't shootin' that," and that was the end of it. So that's what I learned in retrospect about why that movie was as good as it was.
Did your friendship with Penn lead you to your next film, Who's That Girl? [starring Penn's then-wife Madonna]?
Mmm, exactly. Friendships have their good side and their bad side.
You mentioned that to a point, you hadn't experienced failure--what was it like to experience it for the first time with the full force of popular and critical opinion?
It was a major life experience. Now that the years have passed, the pain has gone away, replaced by a kind of pride in learning something early that has maybe sustained me for this long. I really believe, I'm interested in studying the history of directors, and why they make a few good films and then fall off the map--you look to the credits of episodic TV and there they are, and I think that it has so much to do with how you respond to failure. To experience that first failure of your movie is so shocking. For me, my whole life had been moving forward: 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, college, grad school, film--and that first failure, suddenly you have a public humiliation. THE NEW YORK TIMES is saying that you're no good, everyone's saying you're no good, VARIETY's saying that it's a bomb, the studio doesn't like you anymore, nobody knows you, and you get thrown back and it's painful as hell. I feel like I was very lucky in that the next thing I did was very low budget, but it was something I really believed in.
After Dark, My Sweet.
Exactly. In the beginning I didn't know what it was that I did--what I did in film best--and after Who's That Girl? I looked back and tried to understand what is it that I responded to and make the decision to do only what I responded to viscerally. Luckily After Dark got some good critical attention and, luckily again, Al Pacino had seen At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet and really wanted to do something with me and came to me with Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Once that happened, I'd become established again--gotten the approval again of people who mattered more than me at that point. Most important in that calculus of Hollywood is that I could work with stars. It's one of the most cynical things about the studios, you know, that they don't really care about anything so much as you being able to work under budget and keep the "talent" happy.
One scene I wanted to mention from Glengarry Glen Ross: Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino's dialogue where you pull back and freeze on a handshake. Most of the film is evocative, sometimes literally, of Edward Hopper--but this scene seems to capture the spirit of Hopper's isolationism.
It's very good for me to hear back that stuff because it stimulates my understanding of what works. I immediately remember because I love that shot, too, and I remember that it came from the challenge of, from day to day, shooting on the same set. You get restless (as if to illustrate, Mr. Foley gets up and paces back and forth, using his hands to frame like a camera) and you're always looking around and it's not intellectual, but you say, "Okay, what can we do that's different? Okay, why don't we put the camera on a track and pull back" and you just feel the scene--you feel--no one's asking why, you just look through the lens and you know what feels right and you do it. I try so hard to listen to that voice--to cut off the brain and work through the viscera. I like that you mention this scene--I'm proudest of it in that film.
Your next film is Two Bits, your first collaboration with Carter Burwell. My editor thinks, and I'd agree, that Burwell's work with you is perhaps the most fruitful other than his work, of course, with the Coens--and that his work on Fear may be his best.
I totally--I totally agree. The guy who was the producer of Fear mentioned not long ago that somehow it all just got right. (Mr. Foley drums on the table.) That tribal beat, I love those drums and things in the beginning. On Two Bits, and here's another example of the chaos of Hollywood, Two Bits was my nightmare experience with Miramax. It wasn't financed by Miramax, the film was financed by Germans, the deal was finish the film and hand it over to Miramax to distribute it--well, the first thing that happened was Harvey Weinstein says is okay we're gonna recut it, we're gonna change it. I'm starting to shoot Fear and this whole battle goes on forever. I'm trying to resist all of these ideas, and the main thing I regret is that I don't like Alec Baldwin's voiceover--I love Alec, but looking back that was a Weinstein-produced thing and one day I'm going to fix it--but Maurice Jarre had already done a score for the picture, so Harvey wants to re-edit the thing with a new score. Enter Carter--he was sort of forced on me, but once I listened to his work I had to admit that maybe it was better and once I worked with him I really liked him.
You've worked twice on television: once on "Twin Peaks" and once on Altman's short-lived "Gun".
I can tell you that the "Twin Peaks" experience was not my happiest hour because, I should have realized this, you go in there and they'd already been doing it for a year or two and whatever it is that I feel is my contribution as a director--casting the actors, finding the locations, talking about costumes and character development--was all done already. You come in and there's really nothing left for you to do but sort of arrange the mise-en-scène of the actors moving around the room and sort of photographing it. I just found it empty. Let me tell you this little story that's emblematic of that experience: it's a scene just with a guy walking through a room carrying a suitcase and for whatever reason I had this feeling that I wanted the suitcase to be blue so I say, y'know, can somebody paint that blue. And there's this silence, I see people whispering to each other, and the whole while I'm thinking, "You can't tell me that in this whole studio there's not a can of blue paint," and there's whispering and finally the line producer comes back and says, "I'm sorry, but David [Lynch] doesn't want any blue in this series." And I say, "Okay, well, let me talk to David," and he says, "You can't do that, he's in Tokyo selling some of his artwork," so I say, "Okay. Fine." "Gun" was different because it was a stand-alone--but when you cut it together there's this little footnote kind of gem--I really like Daniel Stern and Lady Kathy Baker. I hear they're going to make a DVD release of it. I really didn't have any contact with Altman--one nice, short phone call.
You go back in a way to the semi-low budget realm of filmmaking with Confidence.
Right--At Close Range, After Dark, My Sweet--that range, it's really the level that I'm comfortable with. Television operates below that--for me, television is just exposing film and recording dialogue, creatively it's very limited and why most episodic television sucks. I'm very respectful of people able to pull it off.
Though I see a lot of elements of your film in it--the look of it, in particular--Confidence sort of surprised me by being... breezy.
(laughs) Breezy is the word.
Rachel Weisz is wonderful in it--she reminded me a lot of Rachel Ward's amazing performance in After Dark, My Sweet.
I wish Rachel Ward could hear you say that. You know, it's funny, it had crossed my mind unconsciously and I'm still friendly with Rachel Ward. She lives in Sydney and in a recent email she said that she was coming to America and would love to see me if I could tear myself away from "the other Rachel" (laughs).
I really dislike Ed Burns as an actor--and he's perfect for this role.
See, that's what I like so much. I had seen Ed, particularly in The Brothers McMullen, and maybe it's a shared Irish Catholic East Coast sort of thing, but I really pushed for him and it was a bit of a fight, but I really felt--and again, this visceral thing--that he was right. When I met him, had a beer with him, it really cemented it for me. I saw him as this guy--whatever I was imagining in my head--and when I am positive of it that way in my guts, I feel like that's when I can get the best performance and the right performance. To feel confident that I'll deliver Ed Burns as a good actor. I've had the experience where I've worked with a lead actor and I didn't follow my gut, succumbed to other powers--the guy was hot and everybody was gonna say "yes" to the movie, and when you don't follow your gut, the difference in quality of your movie is so radical. The making of it, even, you get this disconnect where you're working from your head and setting up shots as opposed to when you're viscerally connected you look through the lens and you see the actor and you know exactly what lens to use, what face, what hair. I've learned my lesson. If you can't get actors you're in love with, you don't do the friggin' movie.
Are there plans for you to write again?
(Mr. Foley puts his head on the table for a moment, when he speaks again it's in a much softer voice.) No. (sighs) I'm just having to confront how much I hate myself for not writing. That's what I was gonna do--one of the reasons that Eddie [Burns] had an impact on me in McMullen, I think, is that he was writing personally and I have still never done that. I still feel as though that's the mountain to climb for me and that it's just something that I have to find... Whatever the shock treatment might be for me to go and do that because um... You know, it's like this big shift where you get in this mode where you're getting scripts from people and reading them and you're trying to go through a process of finding something that you can relate to--and I have, but I'm never going to be... satisfied... until I write an original thing that, for better or for worse, is mine.