Soderbergh, Gray on “The Yards” commentary

the yardsIn the director’s commentary on James Gray’s “The Yards,” Gray is joined by Steven Soderbergh who’s there to keep Gray’s obnoxious ego-stroking in check.

Though Gray agrees with his colleague on many points through the commentary, Gray’s director commentary on his follow-up movie, “We Own the Night,” is almost unwatchable for Gray’s “genius” decisions.

  • The sound designer on “The Yards” wanted to “play with (the sounds of) trains” on the audio track for the movie instead of relying on music. During editing, Gray says he removed even more music from the audio track and relied more heavily on environmental sounds like trains.
  • A large portion of the Gray-Soderbergh discussions on the commentary related to directing actors in a scene.  Gray lumps actors into two categories: older and younger. With younger actors like Joaquin Phoenix, he says he and the editor would “use the actor’s line readings from several different takes to build a scene.”  But with James Caan and Ellen Burstyn, “who are both very Method,” he would be able to use a full take from either of them once he decided which expression of character mood he thought fit best (Gray insists on using bogus terms like Method acting when it’s clear there’s no such thing going on).  Soderbergh says he has noticed older actors and actresses are able to deliver “self-contained” takes as well.  Gray comments on Caan & Burstyn again:  “All of the actors would work but in a different way because you would give them (Caan and Burstyn) adjustments and they would take it all the way through the take.”
  • Soderbergh and Gray agree the first take is almost always the best.
  • Gray: “With Burstyn, the most takes I would do was seven with her just because she came to the set enormously well-prepared and she knew all of her lines, and I would just say OK. But with Joaquin, I would do as many as 70 takes.”
    • Soderbergh cuts in, “What? You mean seven zero?”
    • Gray: “Yeah, 70 because he would do something crazy and different every time…”
    • Gray: “Sometimes actors have these mannerisms, like that Mamet movie “House of Games,” the tell. Actors have a tell, too. It might be like licking their lips or saying a line in a particular way. I feel like it is my job to protect them from that. ‘No, don’t do that weird thing,’ I’d say.  After Joaquin’s delivery of a line, he would lift his eyebrow like he was Peter Graves in “Mission Impossible” or something. I said, ‘Joaquin, you’re doing this thing with your eyebrow, and I really don’t like it.’  That was take one. We did 63 takes and on the last one, he did a take without it.
    • Soderbergh: “Ugh.”
  • Soderbergh says he doesn’t like the storyboard. “I try to be as intuitive as possible for camera setups.”
  • Though Soderbergh says he likes to discover a shot on the set, Gray says the pressures of time and money and having to tell the crew where to park the “fucking trucks” has prompted him to storyboard and paint extensively during pre-production.
  • Soderbergh: “You can drop the camera a little below an actor’s eye level and they just look cool.”  Soderbergh and Gray agree the 100mm anamorphic lens is perfect for actor closeups.
  • About 20 minutes into the commentary, Soderbergh engages Gray in a filmmaking Q&A to which Gray has almost always pretentious answers.
  • Gray says “Dr. Strangelove” and “Barry Lyndon” are his favorite Kubrick movies because they’re the ones “most concerned with actors.”
  • Of directing actors, Soderbergh says, “If you want to establish tension between two characters sitting together in a coffee shop, I don’t tell one, ‘Okay, in this scene, you’re feeling this.’  Instead I will give them physical direction like, ‘When you come in, don’t take your coat off’ or ‘Don’t look up at him until he says this line.’ That’s how you can give the actors something to do instead of telling them how to feel.
  • Of the same thing, Gray says, “I told Caan to look into his dinner plate to show disappointment because we were not getting across in the former takes. And Caan just stares ahead and says, ‘Okay, this freaking guy wants me to talk to the plate. Okay. One more to the plate.’ But it worked. I heard this story about Orson Welles where he was trying to get Charlton Heston to show contempt for another character in a scene in “Touch of Evil.” Heston wasn’t getting it, so Welles walks over to Heston and says, ‘He smells.’  With just that direction, Heston began to keep his distance from the other character and treat him with contempt.”
  • Soderbergh points out how confusing it is whether Caan’s character is trying to help Leo (Mark Wahlberg) or merely trying to protect himself.
  • Soderbergh and Gray agree the 1979 original cut of Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is superior to the Redux recut.  Soderbergh: “Who knows what the fuck is going on with that French plantation family.”
  • Soderbergh says he would, if he could, go back and make all of his movies shorter.
  • Soderbergh and Gray agree feature films are unique from other forms because they must submit to a narrative structure where you must decide “what do you reveal, what do you withhold and when. It’s about delivering narrative information at the right time.”
  • Best of the Commentary: Whenever Gray starts to talk about his intended “metaphor” in a scene or what “he was trying to say in a scene,” Soderbergh interrupts him and says, “You should just say I did this because it looks cool.”


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