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This ‘Night’ has its day

NOT so long ago, it looked like James Gray’s career as a film director might be over. His 2000 movie, “The Yards,” a drama with a cast of budding young talent -- Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron -- had just bombed at the box office, making less than $900,000 in its U.S. release. To make matters worse, Gray had been so upset about the way Miramax had handled its release that he got into a very public spitting match with the studio’s then chief, Harvey Weinstein -- generally not considered an advisable path for a young filmmaker.

What a difference seven years makes. Gray has finally emerged with a new film that could earn both critical plaudits and win the 38-year-old director a larger audience. Called “We Own the Night,” the movie is a gripping drama set in the 1980s at the height of a bloody war between New York police and Russian mobsters who have targeted the officers and their families. The film stars Phoenix and Wahlberg as brothers in conflict.

Financed by 2929 Productions, the Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner-owned company that bankrolled “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “We Own the Night” premieres at the Cannes Film Festival next week. But the real excitement will unfold today when the film has its first screening for studio acquisition executives. With more buyers in the market than ever before, it could inspire a hotly contested bidding war between established players -- notably Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage -- and deep-pocketed newcomers such as Overture, run by former MGM chief Chris McGurk, and Summit, now run by Patrick Wachsberger and former Paramount executive Rob Friedman.

Having had an early peek at the movie, I can see what all the excitement is about. Gray’s earlier films, including his 1995 debut, “Little Odessa,” were intense dramas, reminiscent of ‘50s films by Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan. (Variety dismissed “The Yards” as an “ ‘On the Waterfront’ wannabe.”) Despite stellar performances from such actors as Tim Roth and Phoenix, the pictures were too dark and claustrophobic to connect with mainstream audiences.

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“We Own the Night” is a big breakthrough. It’s a searing family drama as well as a cops-versus-criminals thriller with the same sticky web of loyalty and rivalry seen in Martin Scorsese’s best work. Phoenix is the family black sheep, running a mob-owned nightclub, while Wahlberg has become a cop like their father, played by Robert Duvall.

Although Gray still goes for quiet, underplayed emotion, he also ratchets up the suspense, providing many of the elements of a commercial thriller, most notably a bravura car-chase shootout filmed in the midst of a driving rainstorm.

The idea for the film came from a newspaper photo of policemen crying at a funeral for a fellow officer. “Here were all these grown men weeping and hugging,” Gray said earlier this week. “It really got to me. It had a level of emotion that went way beyond the feeling you get seeing a police procedural picture.”

Obsessive about researching his subject, Gray spent months in early 2001 going on ride-alongs with New York Police Department officers. “It was an amazing experience, especially in the Bronx, which is not exactly post-Giuliani New York. We went on these ‘verticals,’ searching for killers and drug dealers in the housing complexes. You go to the top floor and work your way down in stairwells filled with crack vials, urine and graffiti.”

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The drama was in all the small moments. “The cops would talk on the radio about someone’s gun having jammed in a shootout and then someone would say, ‘Morty, ya gotta go to the same place where we got those good steak sandwiches.’ ”

GRAY started reading Shakespeare when he was working on the script, who turned out to be a bigger influence than even Scorsese. “The basic outlines of the movie are very archetypal, like so many things in Shakespeare. There’s a father -- or a king -- who has two sons, one who was good and one who was bad. But by the end, the bad one becomes his father’s son.”

Gray originally wrote the script for Warner Bros., encouraged by then-production chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who saw in Gray’s script many of the compelling qualities of “Training Day,” which was a big critical hit for the studio. But after Bonaventura was pushed out of the studio in 2002, Gray said the project began to lose momentum. When 2929 offered to finance the film, Warners let the project go.

Warners wasn’t the only studio to let the movie slip out of its hands. When Gray was shooting the film in the spring of 2006, Universal Pictures acquired U.S. distribution rights. Much of Universal’s enthusiasm for the film came from Jon Gordon, who had worked with Gray at Miramax before becoming a production chief at Universal. But months after Universal acquired the film, Gordon was fired. The studio eventually dropped the film, leaving it open for a bidding war at Cannes.

It is no longer astonishing to see studios walk away from strong dramatic material. In fact, Gray’s experience on “We Own the Night” leaves the inescapable conclusion that most studios today have an unofficial quota of serious films they’re willing to finance. Gray supporters say that Warners wanted to spend more time developing the script largely because the studio had too many dramas on its schedule. At Universal, the studio seemed to lose interest, in part because its slate was already full of dramas, including “Children of Men,” “Breach” and “The Good Shepherd” -- all of which were critically lauded and commercial disappointments.

“The studios seem to line up their slates for a particular year, and sometimes they’re just booked up with the dramas they want to make,” says Nick Wechsler, who has produced all three of Gray’s films. “James makes dramas that focus on detail and character development. But most movies made at studios don’t allow you to linger. They keep cutting and cutting to get to the beats -- the payoff -- they know is necessary to keep an audience in their seats.”

2929 production chief Marc Butan says he jumped at a chance to make the film, which has a budget of close to $25 million. “For us, having a movie that had a level of depth and sophistication but could still reach a meat-and-potatoes audience was perfect. James is exactly the kind of guy we want to be in business with.”

Even after the failure of “The Yards,” when many filmmakers would’ve jumped at the chance to do a commercial project to make them bankable again, Gray resisted. He patiently waited until Phoenix emerged from “Walk the Line” as a big-enough star to generate funding for “We Own the Night.”

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“He’s just wired that way,” Gordon says of Gray. “People approached him with all sorts of other projects, but this was the movie he had in his blood. On ‘The Yards,’ when he wanted an extra scene that we couldn’t afford, he took his cinematographer, put Wahlberg on a real subway train and shot the scene on the weekend. When we didn’t have the money in the budget for his cinematographer, James paid for the rest of his salary. He has to live and breathe a movie to get it right.”

Gray admits to being something of a madcap perfectionist. “I’m a crazy person,” he says. “I called Wahlberg every day for five months till he agreed to do this picture. I once made Joaquin do 71 takes for a scene in ‘The Yards.’ On my set, it’s usually the actors who say, ‘James, it’s really time to move on.’ ”

Not surprising then that a man of such obvious talent has made only three films in 13 years.

“I’m very slow, finicky and obsessive,” Gray says. “I thought Joaquin was the only guy who radiated the kind of tortured, messed-up vulnerability this film needed, so I waited for him to be in a hit movie. It’s just hard to make this kind of writer-director film at a studio where they already have a pipeline of properties with recognizable, brand-able elements. It’s asking the system to do something it isn’t equipped to do.”

He sighed. “I’m just not willing to give up on myself. If I’m going to fail, then I want to fail to the limits of my talent.”

“The Big Picture” runs every week in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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