How a painful chapter from his own youth revived James Gray’s passion for filmmaking and led to his first feature, “A House for Mr. Lazar”
On a winter night in 1983, in a basement bedroom in a house on Capitol Hill, James Gray sat in a chair and held the phone to his ear. The voice on the other end of the line was an actor—a man, that is—who was about to direct him in a movie, a small-budget thriller he had been pitching to studios for years. It wasn’t that he was looking for a movie to direct—at least he wasn’t completely sure it was something he wanted to direct. “I remember thinking, ‘This might be the only chance’—I was in my early 20s, not yet a director—‘I’ve been pitching these projects to the studio people for years, to show them that I was, well, capable of making a movie. This might be my chance,’” Gray remembers. But what was his chance, and how, exactly, did he come to know such a man?
“A House for Mr. Lazar” is what became his first feature, his first in a film series that would continue for more than a decade. It was also the first he ever directed himself—which, at 25, would be the case with all but a few of his feature films.
Gray recalls the telephone call with a certain impatience, though he says that he isn’t sure now whether that’s what it was, or if he was just thinking about a role he might have been called upon to play—and had been trained to play, in the process.
It was 1984, and the actor had recently signed on to play a role in a film about the first U.S. president, Teddy White, called “Washington.” (Gray was paid a modest $1,000; White would make money off