Shakespeare and Italian melodrama provided the creative inspirations for James Gray's We Own The Night, set in New York in the 1980s. Peter Bowen reports.
The inspiration for James Gray's We Own The Night, a character-driven drama about a man who has hidden his past only to confront an inevitable future, came from three seemingly incongruous sources. The plot, which follows a nightclub manager who has concealed the fact he comes from a long line of cops, emerged from a New York Times story in August 2000.
'I saw this photo of a New York policeman weeping at a funeral,' Gray recalls. 'And I thought, 'You never get police stories with real emotions.''
The plot emerged from another news story in which, as Gray remembers, 'a young man was forced to give information against his family'. And finally the film's spirit came from William Shakespeare. After seeing a production of Measure For Measure, Gray grew obsessed with the Bard, ultimately making the twin dramas of Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two the poetic backbone for his own saga of families and their discontent.
'I wanted to write a cop drama that had emotions,' is how Gray put it to then Warner Bros executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura after the release of his second film, The Yards, in 2000 (his first film, Little Odessa, came out in 1994).
Gray spent the next year working on the project, only to have it put into turnaround when Bonaventura left Warner Bros. 'It sat in mothballs,' laments the director - that is until 2004, when 2929 Entertainment acquired the property.
The project was to be quickly set up, with one big challenge. 'The budget breakdown was too high,' explains Gray. 'The original $28m budgeted by Warner Bros had to come down to $20m.'
After script and planning changes, Gray went into production in March 2006 for a 50-day shoot. Major casting was pretty much set, as Gray had written his film for Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, because 'I had such a great experience working with them on The Yards'.
Gray gratefully acknowledges the debt We Own The Night owes both to the crime-story genre and particular film-makers. 'I love Italian melodrama,' says Gray. 'A film like Visconti's Rocco And His Brothers was a model for me. And elsewhere I just ripped people off - Kurosawa, William Friedkin, Scorsese, and many, many more.'
Columbia Pictures picked up US rights for the film at Cannes for $11.5m, a record domestic deal for a Cannes Competition film.