Writer-director James Gray made his mark on the independent film world with a number of acclaimed dramas that explored his interest in human behavior; in particular, loyalty among families, tribes and lovers. Gray was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his first feature, "Little Odessa" (1994), and from that film's gritty setting in Brooklyn's Russian Mafia underworld, he went into the seedy New York club scene for "We Own The Night" (2007), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. When Gray boldly moved away from crime dramas towards romance with "Two Lovers" (2009), more accolades were forthcoming, proving that the filmmaker was skilled enough to create absorbing, emotionally complex characters that were not necessarily packing heat.
Gray was born in New York City in 1969 and raised in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a painter, but that all changed when he saw "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and "Raging Bull" (1980), and was inspired by how filmmaking could combine multiple forms of art into one work. He became a movie junkie, often skipping school to visit art houses in a quest to learn all he could about American and European film history. Despite his less-than-stellar attendance record, Gray maintained his academics enough to get accepted into the prestigious University of Southern California Film School, where he delved deeper into film theory. He graduated with a BFA in Film in 1991. That year, his short film, "Cowboys and Angels," showcased a promising filmmaker and helped him secure an agent and his first bit of industry attention.
He made his feature film debut with the 1994 indie "Little Odessa," about an icy hit man (Tim Roth) for the Russian Mafia who returns to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn for a quick kill and finds himself getting drawn back into family relationships, including with his ailing mother (Vanessa Redgrave), estranged father (Maximillian Schell), and the younger brother (Edward Furlong) who idolizes him. An impressive first film that achieved a solemn, thoughtful tone and offered excellent performances, "Little Odessa" won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, the Critics Award at the Deauville Film Festival, and Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.
In 1998, Gray began shooting his follow-up, "The Yards" (2000), based on a screenplay he wrote about the politics and corruption involved in the New York City transit system. When Gray was growing up, his father was an electronic parts manufacturer who was a supplier to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and his stories of the shady deal-making and violence involved inspired Gray's storyline. Set in a subway train yard in Queens, "The Yards" made its debut at Cannes in 2000 and starred Mark Wahlberg as an ex-con looking for honest work who joins his uncle (James Caan) in what turns out to be the dangerous and dishonest business. The film only received limited release, but it cemented Gray's gelling reputation as a visual, detail-oriented director who elicited top-notch performances from his cast, which in this case included Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and Ellen Burstyn.
Seedy New York underworlds and the pitfalls of family businesses continued to provide inspiration for writer-director Gray, who next hit theaters in 2007 with "We Own The Night." Gray paired two of his favorite actors, Wahlberg and Phoenix, to play brothers on opposite sides of the law who agree to join forces to avenge the death of their father (Robert Duvall). The crime drama was one of the most commercially popular films on Gray's resume, but for his next project he made a decision to put aside the guns and murder that usually factored into his plots and make a film about love and desire. The creative leap re-invigorated his critical standing, and Gray earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Director for "Two Lovers" (2009), which starred Joaquin Phoenix as an unstable man drawn to two very different women - Gwyneth Paltrow as a lawyer who carries on an affair with her married boss, and Vinessa Shaw as a more stable option whose father will bring him into their family business if the pair marries.
Critics applauded "Two Lovers," though unfortunately the film's promotional efforts were overshadowed by bizarre appearances by Phoenix, including a severely bearded, bloated and dazed guest spot in David Letterman's interview chair. While the appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ) was a hot YouTube selection, the odd antics failed to do justice to the film. When Phoenix went on to announce his retirement from acting to pursue a rap career, "Two Lovers" became his swan song, and an impressive achievement to go out on. Gray also made a marked change at the time, opting to finally leaving his Brooklyn-set stories behind in favor of South America. He scripted "The Lost City of Z" (2010), based on the actual story of an early 20th century explorer who was obsessed with finding unknown civilizations in the Amazon jungle before eventually going mad. Gray's biggest budget outing to date partnered him with co-producer Brad Pitt, who also starred.
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Debut short film, "Cowboys and Angels"
Made his film debut, "Little Odessa," about a hit man confronted by his younger brother upon returning to his hometown
Directed second film, "The Yards"
Directed Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg in "We Own the Night"
Re-teamed with Joaquin Phoenix for "Two Lovers"; earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Director
Nominated for the 2009 Independent Spirit Award for Best Director ("Two Lovers")