“There’s a weird experience I had with Al (Pacino) once: we left some place and all of a sudden the people on the street were stopping. For a second and a half I got kind of excited like ‘oh, something’s going on. Somebody’s here.’ I was curious. Then I realized, it was fucking Al.”
James Foley might not have a big name in Hollywood, but rest assured, stars always surround him. A look at this director’s Rolodex would lend numbers to names like Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Sean Penn, Madonna and Kevin Spacey. If you listened in on a call, he’d just say “Hey there (insert outrageously famous person’s name) it’s me. What’s up?”
Foley broke into the movie business with 1984’s Reckless. More recently he’s done movies like Fear, The Chamber and the critically acclaimed Glenngarry Glenn Ross. If these movies don’t quite ring a bell, it’s OK. You’re not out of the loop. Foley’s films might garner critical acclaim, and attract big name actors, but as he admits, they’re not terribly popular. He’s an aficionado of the old-school Hollywood film, a fan of stylized cinema.
For example Foley explains that the choice of coloring in his new film Confidence, depended upon a complex and particular process. During the conceptual phase of his films, Foley takes a day to step out to the bookstore to stock up on photography and art books. Back at his place, he quickly thumbs through them, marking the pictures that he feels encapsulate the feel of his current project. Once he’s gone through them for a couple hours he pulls out his favorites and tapes them to the wall.
“Then I invite the cinematographer in and I say, ‘This is our palette.'”
Seated in the back corner of an outrageously underlit bar, I watch as Foley approaches. He’s nonchalant, unassuming in his gaze. In his hands he holds a copy of the New York Times. He sits and immediately begins to tell me about how he grew up with the Times, how if they give him a bad review, his movie must stink..
Hatchet: So has the (New York Times) panned your movies before?
James Foley: Of course. I was savagely panned, but in such an operatic way. I made a movie called Who’s that Girl with a chick named Madonna. I remember at the end of the year my father, who was not in the mode of initiating calls, called me up and said, ‘So, you’re in the Times today.’ It had the 10 worst films of the year, and Who’s the Girl was number one. They said it left a radioactive crater in its wake. My father wanted to make sure I saw, because in some perverse way he thought I’d be happy, because I was in the Times.
H: I’ve read that you don’t look at box office sales, you look at reviews to judge how good your movies are.
JF: It has been, just because I haven’t had box office success. What I am conscious of is that my own survival is only because of critical positivism. It’s interesting that people always trash Hollywood for just pursuing commercial profit. I mean, duh, they’re a corporation. The real surprise is that there are decisions made which are not based on purely the bottom line. If you go back and look at the grosses of my movies, why would I ever be hired again? There are people who personally like a certain film that I’ve made.
H: We watched Glenngarry Glenn Ross in my drama class, and I thought that it was one of the most theatric pieces of film I’d ever seen. Do you feel like there’s something theatric about the performances you elicit?
JF: I probably wouldn’t use that word. I approached it like I’d only do it if I could make something that would be unique in its cinematic incarnation. I really believe in and aspire to make a certain genre, the Hollywood movie. At its best it’s a particular animal where the surface glamour of the screen is integrated into the story. For instance I think The Godfather is incredibly glamorous and true and realistic. There’s a lot of films that use that glamour correctly. So I was interested in making Glenngarry the way it got made, which was with great actors in each part who were totally right for the part, and who also have certain screen glamour. You could make that same movie with the guys who did it on Broadway. But you can be a good actor and not a movie star. It’s an unknown chemistry, but it matters to me.
H: Looking broadly at the movies you’ve made, how do you attach yourself to such big names?
JF: I just happen to be interested in cinema’s ability to convey subtext, subtext that is perceivable within an actor’s eyes and movement. A close-up with the right lens and a great actor can express multiple levels in a way that’s unique to the medium. Commercial movies have different things. Some people are interested in focusing on an asteroid destroying the Earth. I do go and enjoy movies like that, but it’s not what I’m interested in as a filmmaker. My thing happens to be portraying a character in a drama. Those actors who are great actors are attracted to directors whose focus is that. Once you do it then other actors see where your heart is.
H: Dealing with personalities like Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino, guys who are well established and know what they want, do you ever clash?
JF: No, not at all once it’s established that they’re dealing with a director that happens to be on the same wavelength. Most importantly, I’ve learned about a magic moment when you’re doing a bunch of takes. This happened most dramatically with Pacino, because he’s very expressive. You do like four takes and they’re all fine. You could definitely use them. But you feel like there’s something missing. You just say, ‘why don’t we do it again?’ and he wants to do it again. You do take five and suddenly it’s different. It’s like the actor is surfing on a wave. You just watch it and your heart starts beating. And you hold you breath. Will he stay up there until the end of the scene? And he does, and you go ‘Cut!’ And he looks at you and you look at him and you go, ‘Yeah!’ He knows that you recognize what just happened. Once that is established, actors are extremely open. They want to know what you think.
H: In your films, it seems there’s a theme, guys in suits, who are really evil. What are you trying to expose with that? In Confidence the characters are kind of morally ambiguous.
JF: If anything I’m driven by that. It’s not surprising that when I look back, there’s connective tissue. I believe that the truth of human nature is that there is a point of friction between who we are as animals and how that intersects with a moral code. It just fascinates me that there is such a sense of denial In the culture about that, about animalistic impulses. Yes, people think about murder, have a desire to murder. There’s this whole Christian morality that it’s bad to think about murder. We’re animals. To murder is bad. But to think about it is not bad. I like deconstructing some assumed Christian moral code that is full of hypocrisy and denial.