James Foley is best known as the director of Glengarry Glen Ross, a deeply character-driven drama about ruthless salesmen. His newest movie, Confidence, is much lighter, although there are similarities as well. Foley talks about those similarities, about how he works with actors, and about his intuitive style of filmmaking.
Marty Mapes: Was the script called “Confidence” when you read it?
MM: Give me five movies you love, movies you can watch every year.
I've always remembered the end of Deer Hunter as what I felt walking out of the theater, and feeling as if I just didn't want to speak, and I was transported into some place where feelings were enlivened. Even how tragic the whole thing was, it was deeply moving to me.
James Foley: Yeah.
MM: Now for me that sort of sets off some flags, like, “Ah, this is a con game. I have to be on my guard.”
|James Foley listens to his instincts|
MM: What do you look for in a script?
JF: I have no expectations other than reading it, and “do I like it?” I’ve given up thinking about any kind of objective, “well, will anyone go see it?” The only thing I can do to make a movie as best it can be is [to see] if I have a personal reaction to it. And I feel the same way about casting. I want to cast people who I want to film, who I want to see on screen. I have no intellectual reason other than I like it.
I’ve had experience when you’re setting up a shot, and it’s an actor who you chose because you like them, and it’s a really pleasurable experience. As opposed to on one or more occasions I’ve worked with actors who I didn’t make the choice based on that, but more of an objective, somebody-was-hot thing. But I didn’t have that sensual relationship and I remember really becoming conscious of that, looking through the lens, setting up the shot and going “yeah, okay, I think this is right” as opposed to if you’re connected to it, it’s like you find the right lens and “Yeah! That’s it!”
MM: Looking through your filmography, I didn’t find a common thread. Is there such a thing or do you want to be eclectic and try a little bit of everything.
JF: Not to be eclectic for eclectic’s sake, but if I follow this idea of “what do I like?” I guess it’s going to be eclectic. Looking back, I become conscious of connections between a bunch of films. Obviously, males who are alienated and estranged from the mainstream. Groupings of males and the dynamics among them. I never thought about it until it was over, but I think Confidence is kind of an interesting cousin to Glengarry, in that it is a group of guys together in pursuit of money, and what their allegiance is, and their betrayals. Obviously, Confidence is the flip side, a totally different tone, playful. It is about the interdependency and cooperation among the men as a group that makes them successful, as opposed to Glengarry where it’s cannibalistic.
I can imagine criticism of somebody saying something like Glengarry is serious and profound and Confidence is playful and entertaining. When it premiered at Sundance I said “the worst thing I can say about Confidence is that it’s entertaining.” And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
It’s funny because the movie (Confidence) was made in the context of a small art film. I mean Lions Gate, their biggest film is Monster’s Ball. And what happened is that we started screening the film, and to the surprise of everybody, it was a bit more popular than anybody expected .
It’s funny because I usually loathe test screenings. You make a movie like Glengarry, they go out and test screen it and they get a broad demographic of people just to see who bites. And it’s ridiculous in a movie like that, because you’ve got 16-year-old teenagers who are out on a Saturday night to see some blood and guts. Over here’s the Al Pacino movie and they get there, and it’s this fucking play, so people are walking out in droves. It is a disastrous test screening and my most celebrated movie.
But you make a movie like Confidence and all of a sudden you get good scores and people like it and they don’t walk out and all of a sudden it feels kind of good.
MM: I want to ask you about your approach to acting, and whether it was different in Confidence than in your other movies.
|Foley’s technique changes by moment and actor|
My approach is to start from their instincts and then interject myself, molding and shaping various things, and to encourage some things and discourage others. When I rehearse in the morning it’s just me and the actors. I kick everybody else out and I just sit back, say “action,” and say nothing and see what they do. And then I react to it. “I really liked that. Didn’t like this so much. Why don’t you try this? Why don’t you try that?” And that goes on for maybe half an hour and everybody’s happy.
What I always find is that the greatest actors, the biggest actors, once you’ve started from respecting and valuing their instinct, they’re very open to accommodating you. There’s technical issues? The camera can’t fit there? They say “fine, no problem, I’ll make that work.” And it’s easy.
MM: Is there someone in the cast who surprised you with their performance?
JF: I tell you what surprised me is how effortlessly Eddie Burns fell into his role, because it was really the first movie where he was the protagonist who had to carry the film, dominate the frame, and go head to head with Dustin Hoffman. He slid into that very effortlessly.
And we didn’t talk about it very much . It became more — again — intuitive of my encouragement. As a filmmaker and director I have to present all those things about him visually — where I’m putting the camera and even how much attention I’m paying to him. Then he’s getting the feedback of an audience, so to speak, and so he gets stimulated to do it more. Every time he was reacting to the situation, I’d love it, and he would do it again.
I like to avoid trying to intellectualize things as much as I can because sometimes the best direction is “I just think it needs to be a little more (makes face) Mmmmh!” Whatever that means. But somehow if you spend some time with the actor you do have a language like that that’s much more effective than ten paragraphs of explanation.