Thursday, March 21, 2013

RIC MENELLO TALKS ABOUT JAMES GRAY

Ric Menello died from a heart attack at the age of sixty, leaving behind a fascinating legacy. He is considered an important part in the hip-hop explosion into the mainstream in the '80s, co-writing Run DMC's movie TOUGHER THAN LEATHER (1988) and co-directing promo videos for the Beastie Boys (their groundbreaking hits 'No Sleep Til Brooklyn' and 'Fight for Your Right (to Party)' ). Ric wrote short films (AMERICAN DUMMY, 2002; THE GYNECOLOGISTS, 2003 et al) and feature films (DROP DEAD ROCK, 1996) for Adam Dubin. He was also something of a film historian, sought out by DVD producers for his expert knowledge, and a script consultant on films like THE BIG BOUNCE (2004). Ric contributed to commentaries on the films of Claude Chabrol, and was a huge enthusiast on Japanese culture and cinema. Before his untimely passing, Ric collaborated on four films with acclaimed filmmaker James Gray - THE YARDS (2000), WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), TWO LOVERS (2008) and LOWLIFE (2013). Ric was a very busy man and although he very much wanted to do a telephone interview, he found it difficult to find the time. He did agree to answer questions about his work with Gray via email. This material would've been added to the published interview. Here, as a tribute to Ric, and his treasured working relationship with the brilliant James Gray, are some of the highlights of our correspondence.

JAMES GRAY'S REPUTATION IN THE U.S.
James is in fact worshipped in France as a great director, but I think he gets short thrift in the US because critics these days are idiotic dolts. Look at what they DO like. They compared WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007) to EASTERN PROMISES (2007), and why? Because they both involved Russian gangsters? They also compared WE OWN THE NIGHT to the over-rated, bloated THE DEPARTED (2006) and why? Because both were mobster movies which had undercover guys in it?  The first two GODFATHER movies (1972-4) are James's touchstones, but it does drive him crazy when they say he rips Coppola off. When they compare him to Sidney Lumet, it really drives him crazy because there is really no connection, and he doesn't even like Lumet's films.

LITTLE ODESSA (1994)
To tell the truth LITTLE ODESSA has a great reputation in Europe, but I never cared for it much and James knows it. It isnt bad by any means, but it's very heavy handed and depressing, rather than lyrical and sad.

THE YARDS
James really finds his style here, and I think the films get better and better after that. I visited the set of the film for one day to watch James directing. It was the scene where Mark Wahlberg sneaks into the hospital to kill a policeman and he can't do it.

James wanted to give me some kind of honorary tiny credit for THE YARDS, but they couldnt figure out a credit that wasn't controlled by the WGA. 'Advisor to the Director' was suggested but the WGA wouldn't allow it because I wasn't a WGA member then. So I didn't get a credit. It never bothered me because I only made a few story suggestions, like James Caan building a new wing on the house so every one of his extended family can live with him, and then helped cast it.

I am particularly proud of helping James cast his movies. He always calls or emails me and asks my opinion on casting, especially on the leads, and often even the smallest supporting actors. It was between Nick Nolte and James Caan for the father, and he was torn. I pushed for Caan, and he finally agreed. I also cast a famous Italian actor, Tomas Milian, as the agressive Latino union rep.



WE OWN THE NIGHT
On WE OWN THE NIGHT I did a lot more creative work, helping to rewrite the script and write new dialogue, and sometimes write whole scenes from scratch. By then James had found out the WGA did not control the credits 'Consultant to the Filmmakers' and 'Production Consultant'. We thought the former sounded cooler so that was it, and I was totally happy with having the credit. According to WGA rules you can't be credited for the script unless you wrote a certain amount of the final draft. Since the original writer (James) also worked on the rewrites and I only worked with him, and he wrote the early drafts by himself, I didn't have a prayer of any kind of script credit, so James agreed to give me some sort of credit. I also helped cast WE OWN THE NIGHT and had a big influence, as I did on TWO LOVERS.

We originally wanted to cast James Caan as Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg's father, but it was made clear by the financiers that he was not a big enough name anymore to be cast in the role. We also at one point wanted Anthony Hopkins, but he wasn't available. Gene Hackman wanted too much money. Robert Duvall loved the script and agreed to do it, but he really wanted to play the old Russian club owner and told us as much. He then got tangled up in a a Western TV miniseries (BROKEN TRAIL, 2006) that he was both producing and starring in. It went over schedule, and he took over the editing and dropped out of our movie. We ended up with another big name actor in the role. He was very good at the table reading and had a totally original take on the character, but it didn't work out from day one. James called Duvall and begged him to do the picture. Luckily, the editing on his own project took less time than he thought, so he said if James could postpone his scenes for two weeks to prepare, he'd arrive ready to play the role which he did.

It was a bitch to cast Wahlberg's role. First, Mark was cast but he decided he needed to make more money as he had a lot of people to support. He needed a 'money gig'. But what really made him drop out was his pregnant girlfriend was due any day and he wanted to be with her in LA. We already had Joaquin, who had just opened big with WALK THE LINE (2005), but the financiers still wanted to know who was gonna play the role of the brother. We also had the big name actor who later left the film as the father, so they should have been fine with the cast, no matter who who played the role of the brother. But no, they demanded a star, and they had to okay whomever we cast. We offered the role to everybody, and nobody wanted to play it. They all wanted to play the lead, which was already cast with Joaquin. We offered it to Josh Hartnett, who was hot at the time, but he said no. Then we offered it to Adrien Brody, but he said since he had just done KING KONG (2005), his agent said he was only playing starring roles. Jesus, I cant even remember all the guys we offered it to who turned it down. Eventually Wahlberg came back and said he could do it if he could finish the part in two weeks. The production had to have a private jet ready to fly back to L.A. in case his girlfriend gave birth before the movie finished shooting.

I dont know Joaquin well at all, but he likes me and whenever I see him again he remembers me. I spoke with him on the phone while WE OWN THE NIGHT was being rewritten by James and I, and then again at the first table read of the script. Then he and James sometimes called me on the phone late at night when they were arguing about the script or a scene. I met him at the premiere, so he finally had a face to go with the name. I later talked to him on the phone a couple of times after we finished the script to TWO LOVERS and he agreed to star in it. He always has very good, intelligent notes on his character, so James and I have learned to take them very seriously. Finally I saw him again at the TWO LOVERS premiere, and he hugged me and started asking a lot of questions about my music video directing for the Beastie Boys, and I noticed a camera crew taping it. He kept asking why I didn't direct videos anymore. Then he asked if I had seen TWO LOVERS yet and I said yes. I had done some of the Q&As at some of the early screenings, and I said I thought he was great in the movie. He suddenly said "Don't say that! Don't say that!" and walked away. I later realized this little act of his was for the 'documentary' he was shooting (I'M STILL HERE, 2010). I had to sign a release form afterwards. James later told me it was a joke he was playing on the public so I got to know about it beforehand! Though later I came to believe maybe he took the joke too far even for himself. Now he's back and going full speed ahead.




TWO LOVERS
I worked on TWO LOVERS from the beginning so I got co-writing credit on that one. James won't admit it now, but we wrote the film for Joaquin (who agreed very quickly) and Charlize Theron. James actually suggested Gwyneth Paltrow (whose brother I knew) halfway through the first draft of the script. I said I wasn't usually a big fan, but I thought she'd be perfect, since in some ways she WAS that character, especially since the character ended up even closer to my ex-girlfriend, whom the character was partly based on. So we did the last half of the script with Gwyneth in mind, and then went back to the beginning and rewrote the first half with Gwyneth in mind so it all made sense. These changes actually made the movie better. Also when Charlize was going to be in it, we had two scenes involving Joaquin going to see her father, who was going to be played by James Caan. We cut those two scenes early in the writing process, as we realized the father wasn't necessary anymore.

On TWO LOVERS we both felt the mother was a key role, and at first we talked to two famous German actresses, Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa (who now lives in NYC). We thought either would be good, but James then asked me what I thought of Isabella Rossellini. I don't know why, but he thought I might be against it. I immediately told him she was the one. For me she is the casting coup of the movie. She was so amazing and so much like my mother who died six months before we started shooting.

Vinessa Shaw's role was another real bitch to cast. At one point we wanted Natalie Portman, who also basically IS the character we wanted her to play in many ways. She loved the script but said she'd only do it if she could play Gwyneth's role, which had already been cast, so no dice. Then James tells me to go see 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) and check out the girl who played the dance hall girl, Vinessa Shaw. So I did and I thought she was a very good actress and had the right look - very naturally and quietly beautiful. She looked sort of Jewish (and Italian too). James later told me her real surname or her mother's maiden name was Schwartz. We were picturing the young Claudia Cardinale inVisconti's ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) when we wrote Vinessa's character. Apparently the casting director brought her to James. I havent seen Vinessa in years but we had a nice chat at the premiere. For me the casting coup of the movie is Isabella Rossellini, who was so amazing and so much like my mother who died six months before we started shooting.


LOWLIFE

I think 'Roselli' is my best screenplay yet. It's about Jimmy Roselli, the Italian-American singer who was supposed to be the next Frank Sinatra, but who was almost destroyed by his own crazy integrity, his refusal to compromise and his feud with Sinatra and love/hate relationship with the mob. Recently, after thinking TWO LOVERS was his best film, James re-saw THE YARDS and suddenly thought that was his best film. Now he thinks his best film is easily LOWLIFE and I agree. TWO LOVERS got much better reviews than THE YARDS and WE OWN THE NIGHT, so hopefully LOWLIFE will have an improved critical response. This is a controversial one, with some people thinking it is James's best movie yet, while some don't like it as much as they liked TWO LOVERS and are a bit put off by it.

Aside from co-writing it, I really only helped cast the leading roles and several big supporting roles. It all came together so quickly. A lot of the supporting roles were cast during pre-production with NYC actors who weren't well known. Our budget was much tighter because it was a period piece, so James often would just tell me who he had cast when it came to minor roles. He also sought my opinion on the choice of cinematographer (Darius Khondji), as he did on TWO LOVERS (Joaqiin Baca- Asay).

At one point James was considering casting Mark Wahlberg in the lead, but I kept pushing for Joaquin. Originally, when we first discussed the story and tried to cobble together the first outline, the character was more brutal and brutish and at one point was a Jewish Mob enforcer, rather than a pimp. Mark would've been good for the Mob enforcer, but once we made the guy a pimp and did a new outline, there was no question Joaquin would be better for the role and so James agreed.

We needed someone to play the flamboyant magician who works in the vaudeville burlesque house where Joaquin is the emcee and has his girls dance, and where he pimps them out. The two men are cousins and hate each other. At first Matt Damon was interested and though he wasn't perfect, he would've been fine in the role and we would've been able to raise much more money. Plus, I would've gotten paid about 25 percent more! He liked the part and wanted to do it, but was set to star in and direct a new film while ours was shooting (PROMISED LAND, 2012). They worked it out so he'd shoot his scenes on weekends. He would fly to NYC every weekend for two days, then fly back to L.A. His producers on the other film refused to let him do it because the insurance company said all this flying back and forth every weekend was too much of a risk for him. So he dropped out of our picture. Robert Downey Jr. wanted too much money. We liked James Franco for the role, who loves our films and wanted to do it, but after the Oscar presenting debacle, Holywood thought he was an idiot. He is a good actor, but his name meant nothing for our movie after the Oscar mess. We also liked Josh Brolin who was interested, but as soon as we thought of Jeremy Renner, we realized he was it! Also he was hot then as an up and coming big star, and he is still hot now. Even better, he loved James and loved the script. He was happy to do the role, which only took like two weeks or less.

We also considered Charlize Theron for the role of the Polish immigrant who is induced to become a prostitute by Joaquin's pimp, because she could pass for a blonde Polish girl. But we soon turned our attention to Marion Cotillard. In fact, my ex-girlfriend, who inspired Gwyneth Paltrow's character in TWO LOVERS was blonde, and when we discussed LOWLIFE (which was called NIGHTINGALE at the time), I kept telling James there are enough Polish blondes so we should have Marion dye her brown hair blonde to stand out, but he didn't want to do it, so we didn't.

ACTORS/ ACTRESSES
James said all four actresses in his films (Charlize, Eva Mendes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cotillard) were cooperative and easy to work with. I think he would definitely say Marion was the best actress of the group. He has also praised Vanessa Redgrave (LITTLE ODESSA) effusively, as well as Faye Dunaway (THE YARDS) (he said she asked a lot of questions and loves discussing her character for hours on end) and Ellen Burstyn (THE YARDS). James also got along well with Robert Duvall and James Caan (he is very funny and can be very crazy too). Mark, apparently, is usually a teddy bear! He was very cooperative when I saw James directing him. Joaquin works very well with James, and they are close friends. They go back a long way together since he cast him in THE YARDS as Mark's co-star.

I spoke to Ric from August 2012 to January 2013. RIP Ric. Thanks for sparing your time Ric and I'm sorry we never got to chat on the phone or in person.


 Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.
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