Interview with James Foley, December 1995


Known for the searing intensity of his films, James Foley focuses on the extraordinary power of a simple, poignant tale about the bonds between a boy and his grandfather in "Two Bits." He previously directed "Two Bits" stars Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin in the acclaimed screen version of David Mamet’s "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Foley, a native New Yorker, originally planned to attend medical school but after taking some film classes, made the switch. He later attended USC’s prestigious school of cinema, where he came to the attention of the Hollywood filmmaking community with two short films: "Silent Night" and "November." At the recommendation of director Hal Ashby, he was signed by producers Scott Rudin and Edgar Scherick to direct "Reckless" starring Darryl Hannah and Aidan Quinn.

He went on to direct the highly praised "At Close Range," starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, based on a riveting true criminal case. Foley’s third film "Who’s That Girl" was a modern screwball comedy starring Madonna and Griffin Dunne. Foley continued his relationship with Madonna by directing two of her popular music videos, "Live to Tell" (the theme song from "At Close Range") and the award-winning "Papa Don’t Preach."

Foley also directed and co-wrote the screenplay for the heralded film noir thriller "After Dark, My Sweet," based on a Jim Thompson novel and starring Jason Patric and Rachel Ward.

Foley most recently directed "Fear," which will be released by Universal this winter and is currently writing the script and preparing to direct "The Chamber," based on John Grisham’s novel and starring Gene Hackman and Chris O’Donnell.

Foley’s current film, "Two Bits" emerged from the intimate memories of acclaimed "Golden Era" screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who is himself a native of South Philly. Stefano is best known for his classic screenplays for Hitchcock’s "Psycho" and "The Black Orchid" and was also the co-producer and author of the popular 1963-64 cult TV series "The Outer Limits."

Stefano’s poignant screenplay came to the attention of five-time Academy Award winning producer, Arthur Cohn, who was immediately struck by the emotional power of its deceptively simple story. For Cohn, the script echoed his belief that "the most important thing is not achievement: it is that you never give up the hoping or the wanting. It is essential to never say ‘This is impossible.’ We are driven by dreams. Whether or not a dream is possible is irrelevant."

Cohn is known for producing the seemingly "impossible" to produce. He has brought such daring documentaries as Barbara Kopple’s "American Dream" and such highly original foreign features as "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and "Black and White In Colour" to the screen. His love of "Two Bits" led him to develop the project as his first American feature production and Cohn shepherded the project for years, taking his time to find the director who could bring this type of heart-centered cinema to the American screen with style.

His search ultimately collided with the passionate interest of director James Foley, who, finding himself in tears by the final pages of the script, knew immediately that he wanted to bring "Two Bits" to the screen. Despite Foley’s reputation for the dark and intense, Cohn was convinced that the director had an innate understanding of both the script’s "simple, human story" and "potential to be very entertaining and memorable."

Foley had just finished directing the highly acclaimed "Glengarry Glen Ross," based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about relations between a conniving group of con-men, and felt a need to delve into the opposite side of human relations—relations in which human hearts actually connect.

"After exploring the most vicious, dark side of how men deal with each other, I was really drawn to this story of how two men, a boy and his grandfather, make a really meaningful impact on each other’s lives," explains Foley. "Eventually, I came to see ‘Two Bits’ as a companion piece to ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ not in any dramatic sense but in the sense that they each look at opposite sides of human nature, opposite kinds of motivation—the two sides of the coin, really. Both are about being a man—but in ‘Two Bits,’ what the kid learns from his grandfather prevents him from becoming the kind of men you find in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’"

Foley wanted to pay tribute to the hidden power of the father-son relationship, one that often escapes notice in the movies. "The men I know who are the least neurotic now are those who had the best relationships with their fathers as kids," he observes. "That’s what this movie was really about for me—the gift Al Pacino’s character passes on to the next generation."

Ironically, Foley ended up casting "Glengarry Glen Ross" star Al Pacino in the pivotal role of Gennaro’s grandfather. "It wasn’t intentional at the time," says Foley, who had expected to make a small, independent film with lesser know actors rather than an Oscar winner such as Pacino. "I just thought he’d make a great, wisemouth old grandfather and asked him if he was interested. Looking back, I think the fact that Al was equally wonderful in these two completely inverse roles—the hot-shot shark and the loving grandpa—is a tribute to what a truly great actor he is."

Opposite one of America’s greatest cinematic presences, Foley then cast a young man who had never acted before in his life as Gennaro.

"We needed to have that naturalistic quality—a kid who just automatically gave off that urban, wise- cracking personality, yet with the emotional sensitivity of being twelve. We had open casting calls all over the country and then in Chicago we came across Jerry Barone. He just had exactly what we were looking for."

Despite his lack of experience, Jerry Barone seemed to have a natural tongue for the film’s street-wise dialogue—dialogue that Foley felt imbued the poignant script with an intriguingly honest and raw rough edge.

Barone, a thirteen year-old who came to the audition at the urging of a school teacher, ended up moving to Philadelphia with his mother and two young sisters for the weeks of shooting while his father continued in his construction job at home. Despite the total turn-around of his life, Foley found Barone a most amenable actor.

"There are obvious things you have to pay attention to with someone that’s never acted before but it was just never a problem," says Foley. "The most important quality he had was that he wasn’t intimidated by Al or by the movie-making process. He just took the whole thing on."

With Pacino already on board, casting was completed with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio—a native Chicagoan like Barone—as Luisa, the widow who is divided between raising a precocious young son and worrying about a father who rarely asks for more than a glass of water and morsel of conversation. Foley later brought in Alec Baldwin to do the bittersweet narration in Gennaro’s grown-up voice.

"Alec just has the most incredible voice which I think allows people to see beyond Gennaro as a little kid," explains Foley.

I had a chance to talk with James Foley one Friday morning at the Seven Gables theater as we sat on the cushioned bench by the opaque windows. Directly across from the bench, on the far wall, are gigantic mounted movie posters for the films A Room With A View and My Life as A Dog. I mentioned that I have a one-sheet very similar to the one for My Life as A Dog, of the infamous hug, but from a different angle and with not as much glare. Mr. Foley was in awe of these posters as we began our conversation and began commenting on them because he said that of all the movies he’s directed none of them have a decent poster that he likes to look at.

ML: I saw "Glengarry Glen Ross" again a couple of nights ago, which is really fascinating to see in light of your new film "Two Bits." The Circle of Critics was talking about "Glengarry" last night and we were all commenting about just how much of a male film it is, and I was curious to find out if you have ever met any females who are able to totally relate to it?

JF: Not too many, no! (laughs) It’s funny about that, because, oddly enough, you don’t get into many discussions about your own movies in that kind of way. But, when it was out in LA I remember being in a Chinese restaurant and this big group of people, twelve of them, a cast of friends, were all sitting there having the MOST vicious argument, totally divided, male and female, they had just come from Glengarry, and the females HATED it, and the males loved it, and it was just such a vicious fight, and it was so great to hear because you don’t get to hear stuff like that, and they had no idea that the director of the film was listening to them (laughs). The females all thought that it was just stupid junk.

And the only other thing I can relate to that is of seeing on CNN when it came out that this women in Connecticut coming out of the theater and demanding her money back after only twenty minutes into the film because she thought that it was a disgusting movie. And I remember being stunned by that because, "It’s ‘disgusting’ in what way?," you know? Because what you see on screen is not disgusting, it’s not blood or anything like that, and they focus on the profanity of it. But I began to realize that it wasn’t the profanity per se, it was a feeling, it was like (how I relate to it in my macho, male type of way) that it’s like war. There was this interesting thing I was reading about the Falklands War and how Thatcher’s government deliberately just decided that there wasn’t going to be any footage shown because they really believed, and I think they’re right, that because of the techniques of broadcasting instant footage back that if the domestic British population saw what the war really was, they would pull their support of it, because people only support war when they don’t actually see the blood and guts—

ML:--only when it’s in the abstract—

JF: --only when it’s in the abstract, and so I think that something like Glengarry was perhaps for people not involved in that. That it was shocking or ugly and brutal to see that that really goes on. It’s like the same way that I’m fascinated what goes on with women when there are no men around, because that’s a whole secret world that I know nothing about and would love to see a movie about it. And I bet you that I’d be shocked and maybe a little bit intimidated. I think that it’s like seeing inside a locker room, which, of course to me is certainly normal. I didn’t even think about it until it was over that there weren’t any women around. It was just me and a bunch of guys on the set, and it all seems normal to everybody when you make it, and then all of a sudden people look at it and say "What?"

We had such different reactions, I mean we screened it in New York and people laughed all the way through, in a good black-comic sort of way, which is what I intended. And I screened it in Paris, where it had great reviews and was very respected, but was met with stone silence, like it was a respectable, serious movie, not a chuckle to be had. (laughs) So, it is so much just someone’s point of view. But I think the New York, urban thing, the rough and tumble of that is SO FAMILIAR. I mean, you go into a grocery store there and people ARE saying: "Fuck you, I want it!" So, it’s all one’s perspective, I guess.

ML: I think one of the most interesting things is that you had Alec Baldwin, who is Blake in Glengarry, do the narration for Two Bits, almost as if he had to ‘atone’ for his heartless performance in Glengarry.

JF: Yeah, I liked that, too. I love Alec Baldwin. He was the very first person I thought of because I really wanted a sense of the kid feeling like he’d grown into a man, and he had successfully grown into a man, and Alec’s voice is (it’s funny that you should say a flipside of Glengarry), a reassuring thing, that it HAD worked for the kid, what the kid got from the grandfather worked and he turned into this man.

ML: Do you like the work of Edward Hopper?

JF: Yes, I do, very much.

ML: Because that was one of the things that I really picked up on when I was watching Two Bits. There were a few key scenes where it was lit and photographed almost exactly like an Edward Hopper painting.

JF: What’s funny about that is that I didn’t access Edward Hopper at all for Two Bits, but I did for Glengarry (laughs), the most obvious being the diner scene with Ed Harris and Alan Arkin. But I believe that...I think it’s really bogus because I know some people who do it. I mean, I think it’s fine for, like, music videos where they had that lawsuit, The Age of Innocence did a video where Robert Frank’s photographs sued successfully because the images weren’t created exactly, because they used copyrighted images of his. That’s certainly bogus. And I know that there are some film directors who go and just literally recreate frames for scenes. But I do think, though, that there certainly is an influence in terms of...I admire Edward Hopper and I GET Edward Hopper, his art communicates to me, and so therefore his visual forms are going to communicate to me, so there will be an overlap and also an influence, because obviously I bow down to Edward Hopper (laughs) for what has inspired is his visual organization to communicate that thing which you felt from it and that happens unconsciously, and I like that aspect of it, but I’ve also tried to avoid even having shots—I don’t have any shot lists or storyboards or anything like that—I like it happening spontaneously, in the moment, to look at a scene and then look through the camera and just SEE SOMETHING in the scene that happens with the actors, and then recognize "Ooh, THAT’S interesting." And so, it’s like going to a party and you see something and then you go and tell somebody else what was interesting ABOUT that party and it’s your own point of view about it, so you want to go show them what I think is interesting. But I’m able to do that more now than at the beginning (of my career) because you have to have an editorial chessboard in your head to make it all go together and you can only get that from doing it a lot of times. I talked to the crew at the end of the shoot for the last movie I did called Fear, up in Canada, and you know how at the end of the project everyone gets drunk and stoned and they were saying "We thought that you didn’t know WHAT the hell you were doing at the beginning of the movie because you’d come in and you had no idea what the shots were, no idea what was going on." And it’s true that someone would come in and say "What’s the first shot?" and I’d say "I don’t know. I haven’t seen the actors yet. How would I know what the first shot is?" But, to be spontaneous like that and to also be organized is a big challenge, I think, in making movies.

ML: What’s it like working with Al Pacino?

JF: (emphatically, like a baseball announcer) ALLLLL Pacino! It’s great in a sense that...I’m of the school that it’s really hard to make movies, it’s a lot of work, it’s a pain in the ass, actually, a real pain in the ass. But with the amount of effort that goes into it, if it is cost-efficient, meaning you’re going to get something out of it, get bang for your buck, meaning that a) you have to have a great actor and b) that the actor can’t be neurotic so that the energy that’s needed to make a movie is not to pacify their neurosis, but to get at what the truth of the moment is: that’s Al. You know, where it’s very involved, it’s very intense, but it’s all cost- efficient, it’s all like ABOUT that which is important. And he pushes, and he’s in sync with me about what matters most, and realizing that you have to push for it, it just doesn’t happen automatically, you have to push against this big machine sometimes, of time and pressure. And so he’s a great conspirator with me because he’ll just go and do the thing and couldn’t care less what anybody else is doing, and the studios aren’t going to come and yell at me. I mean, what are they going to say? So, that’s a good kind of focus, is this intense involvement.

I just can’t stand working—and I haven’t, but I hear of it—with actors where there’s this intense involvement and a lot of it is just massaging extracurricular neurotic things that have nothing whatever to do with the movie, and that I can’t do. I just don’t want to do that. I don’t think I’d be able to do that because I only want to put in energy for what I’m going to get something out. There’s very few actors who will work with that much energy.

ML: Two Bits was written by Joseph Stefano, who grew up in South Philly. Is the whole story true, or is it based on a few incidents that happened to him?

JF: I believe, from talking to him, in fact, that it is all true. He officially denies it and says that it’s anecdotal, and I’m sure that there’s "stuff" that he changed, but once in a while he’d "slip" a little bit and make some reference to the event beyond the script. It was like: "Well, if it’s not true, then how can you know what happened the next day?" (laughs) But, for me it didn’t matter one way or another, it was like At Close Range: It was true, based on true stuff, but I don’t know how much I care about something like that. Unless it’s a public event, like JFK, then that ought to be true as opposed to a certain movie that’s not. Because it’s a point of reference and there’s history, it’s public, there’s history at stake. But, with Two Bits there’s not really history at stake.

ML: I was just wondering about scenes like the funeral/wedding mix up. I mean, it’s odd because as I was watching that scene I was aware that mistakes like that could have happened, and probably did happen on a regular basis fifty years ago, as opposed to now. Something like that would never happen now, even if you tried you would not be able to do that now. And so having a situation like that really pegs the film as a slice of history with a capital H, just because that doesn’t have anything to do with modern times at all.

JF: Yeah, you’re right, because I never thought about that, but I agree with you that it couldn’t happen now. But I’ve gotta believe that it’s, like all good art, it’s something that happened and it’s an evocative event from the kids point of view, the carnival of life and death clashing. But what I always liked about it is the whole movie is from the kids point of view and there’s such—he’s not conscious, it’s not like he’s analyzing what’s going on, he’s just observing it, and it’s to be analyzed later by Alec Baldwin as an adult. And it’s that aspect of it that I really liked, is that we’re in the kid’s head in his world and these things are happening a bit distant, like even the woman committing suicide and all that stuff. It’s all like an adult world. It’s something that he has some access to, but is not of. And that was very important to me, that he’s of a world and he’s quite singular, he’s not even of the world of his friend, he’s of the world that is solitary, and that’s why my favorite moment is when he’s sitting by himself looking at the lights of the movie house. The difference between the world he’s living in and the world that movies make.

ML: One of the films I was thinking of while I was watching Two Bits was King of the Hill—

JF: --you know, which I never saw.

ML: Oh, really?

JF: Yeah, but I heard a review or two by those PIGS Siskel and Ebert: (snidely) "King of the Hill was better!" Well, what does that mean? My guess is that it’s about the Depression, that it’s about a kid in the Depression, right?

ML: It has the same time period, however, what’s more important is that it’s all this stuff which happens to a kid who is in all these situations where he hasn’t really got a clue what’s going on, so he has to figure out some sort of organization for himself, for all these causes and all these effects, and it’s really similar to the little boy in Two Bits. Whether or not one is better or not is moot since—

JF: It’s moot in any situation. I hate it when people do that, critics do that, because it may be true, but what point does it have to the thing that you’re talking about? To me all they have in common is social context, but to me the social context was not important to me in Two Bits. I mean, Two Bits is of that time period and it’s important that it has to be contextualized in that way, but, it’s not specific to that time period in my mind. I couldn’t care less. I wasn’t alive during that time period, and the feeling that I have of this internal subjective dream of a kid has nothing to do with the Depression. So, I never intended it to be. But, no, that’s fair criticism if someone didn’t get that, but it seems as if whatever negative stuff there’s been is that lack of being dirty and gritty from the Depression. And so it’s my job to get people to see what I intend. That, by the way, is one of the most gratifying things you can say about reviews: What is a good review? A good review is gratifying when it gets subtext that you intended, gets the point, that is not clear, is not obvious from the story, but is from the intent of the director. I love those reviews. It’s like secret stuff that I’ve never even said out loud to anybody and then somebody gets it and it’s like invisible ink.

ML: Have you seen The Long Day Closes?

JF: Yes. I love that movie.

ML: I was really deeply affected by that movie. I have my own copy of it now and I was also thinking of that when I saw Two Bits.

JF: Oh, that’s a great reference for me. Because that is exactly what I was talking about of a subjective thing about a kid. God, I love that movie. It was so successful about just getting inside of the head in a way that’s very charged, that’s very sexy, in the best sense of that word. Very sensual to see the sights and sounds and feelings of somebody. Terence, Terence, what’s his name?

ML: Terence Davies.

JF: He didn’t die or anything, did he?

ML: No, not that I’m aware of. That was made in 1992. I think he just takes a long time between projects because the film before that, Distant Voices, Still Lives, the first one of that series, came out in 1988. Although he seems to know exactly what he wants and takes his time.

JF: I love his stuff.

ML: I think that it is as close to a visual poem as any film I’ve seen in a long time.

JF: (nods) Yeah.

ML: Especially that last scene, with just the clouds going over, it’s just so incredibly meditative—

JF: --yeah—

ML: Which you just don’t get in many films anymore.

JF: It’s very organized and it’s really so well-executed in it’s consistency of it’s world. The rules of the organization of the whole film, my God, is brilliant. Was he a painter or something before that?

ML: I don’t really know that much about him. So, Fear is the film that you’re going to be releasing—

JF: --in April.

ML: Oh, really? That’s a long way away.

JF: Yeah, it’s a psychosexual thriller set in Seattle but filmed mainly in Vancouver and is as far away from Two Bits as you can get. But I really loved doing it. I just love being able to—not on purpose, but—just be someplace else, where everything becomes different. But what I like about it is that I don’t do anything different, you know, like you’re sitting on the set and you’re doing Two Bits and there’s the scene and you don’t have a shot list and you go to the camera and you do it and then, bam, it’s done. Then you go and you do Fear which is a very intimate, violent (in the good sense of the word), it’s very modern, and is very driving and (snarls and snaps like a vicious dog that has just successfully defended it’s territory). But you don’t think about it, you just go to the set, here’s the scene, you do it and then you go and you edit it, and it turns out and people say that it’s so different. Well, it is different because it’s a different story, but not to me because I’m sitting here yapping to you now, tonight I’m going to be in my house in LA, staring at CNN for a while and not speaking. I’ll be the same person, it won’t be any different to me. But it just always surprises me that people see Two Bits and say "Whoa, it’s warm!" As if, what, people see these movies and think that that’s who you are? You are like the people in At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross or something? I’m not really all that social in Hollywood so when people meet me they say "Golly, you’re not like I expected. You have a sense of humor" (rolls his eyes and laughs) Why would I not? It’s because there’s this extrapolation imagining that the world of the movies is the entire world of the filmmaker. It’s just nuts.

ML: You really come up against that a lot with people identifying you with what you’ve done?

JF: Oh, yeah. Dark dark dark and serious. Dark, serious. Enough people know me obviously, but I think it’s a combination of that and also that it’s independent but it’s not mainstream stuff. I’m not famous. I’m not involved at all, not because I’m a snob, but because I wouldn’t know what to say or do, I’m not involved with all that stuff all those constant fund-raisers and dinners for this and honoring Marty Scorsese. I don’t see any fun in putting on a tuxedo and honoring Marty Scorsese. I don’t have a public personality, like this premiere of Two Bits, it’s been the first time in years I’ve had to go someplace and it was in Hollywood and you can’t escape it, you’re there and so they know who you are and...image is HELL. I can’t deal with that, with a roomful of people and they’re saying stuff to you and you’re in the middle of a conversation and someone will drive you nuts. Say I’m talking with you and someone comes up to me and goes "SO..." and you turn to them and have to say "Excuse me, but I’m talking to somebody." People are oblivious to that. I can’t do that, I can’t be the politician, so, therefore I’m odd. I like being odd now.

ML: I would assume that that takes up so much time and energy that if you weren’t in that whole schmoozing thing that you’d have a lot more time to do film.

JF: (laughs) Yeah, really. It’s a whole world, a whole circuit. Now, I do dip in once in a while by definition, I’ll have friends in something and sometimes I’ll dip into that. But the thing that’s surprising to me is that it’s a whole community in Hollywood. They all know each other and I’m not a part of it. I didn’t do that on purpose, but I stopped getting invited, less and less, to things because I would just never go, so people would just stop talking to me. But also it’s just endless charity events or honoring this person or honoring that person and dressing up in tuxedos and going there. I just can’t stand it.

ML: I always wondered if there would be that much difference between the LA crowd and the New York crowd.

JF: There is a distinction, you see, I’m from New York, I grew up in New York and I spent a lot of time in New York and I’m here to say, on the record, that the film community in New York is so much more bullshitty Hollywood because it’s anti-Hollywood, but it’s so anti-Hollywood that it ends up being more Hollywood than Hollywood. I mean, people hang on to the saliva that drips from Jim Jarmusch’s lips. It’s pathetic. And if you’re from Hollywood you’re treated like such an outsider. When I go to New York and I’m on a shoot people will look at me and act as if I’m a Californian and I’m always, "Excuse me, I’m from Brooklyn, okay?" I just live in California because the weather’s better. (smiles) (Picks up and flips through the Nov/Dec 95 issue of Movie Maker magazine) What’s this?

ML: MovieMaker magazine. It was started here in town a couple of years ago.

JF: (Finds an article about the soon to be released film Rhythm Thief) Rhythm Thief, what’s that?

ML: It’s an independent film that was made for eleven thousand dollars in eleven days and it won an award at Sundance.

JF: Eleven thousand dollars in eleven days, well there’s a catchy little slogan that’ll win you an award at Sundance. And Two Bits was made for two bits, right? That’s another thing that bugs me. I’m sick of people and their credit card movies. (sounding like Jerry Lewis arguing with himself) "I made this movie for Six Dollars and Twenty Five Cents!" "Oh, Yeah? We made this movie for a Dollar twenty five! It’s BETTER!"

ML: Speaking of the title for Two Bits, I was always curious where the phrase Two Bits came from exactly.

JF: Two Bits...

ML: It’s only a quarter, right?

JF: Yes.

ML: So that means two coins, right?

JF: No, it means...HA HA, that’s a good one! No, it means...a quarter is, uh...boy, I HAD this, I just lost this now. It has to do with it’ costs two bits, a dollar is four bits, but a quarter is nothing.

ML: It goes ‘two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar.’

JF: (sings to himself) Shave and a haircut, two bits. It has a reference to something that no longer exists. The transition of the money, it was two bits of four. Four bits being a whole, but I don’t know what that was. Yeah, because there was actually some kind of coin in the Nineteenth century that was made of wood that you could rip up into two pieces and two bits of it was worth twenty-five cents.

ML: Really?

JF: And two bits derives from that. Now that’s either true...or kind of a cool thing that I made up.