The Big Ideas Behind “Little Odessa”

Little Odessa was born out of grief for James Gray. At age 18, the New York-born writer/director left home for Los Angeles, enrolling at the University of Southern California. He was determined to make movies, to build a career out west. Then family tragedy struck.

What came out of the tragedy was the script for Little Odessa. The film, now available to stream on Fandor, is a blend of autobiography and fiction. It paints a portrait of a fractured Russian family whose lives are shaken up upon the return of Joshua (Tim Roth), now a contract killer. Gray’s first outing is more than auspicious; it’s brilliant. With Brighton Beach as the backdrop, Gray painfully recreates a family unraveling.

Like much of his work, Little Odessa is heartbreaking, masterful, and unsung. From We Own the Night to Two Lovers to The Immigrant, Gray has had a streak of singular creations that have yet to find a larger audience. When we spoke by phone Gray theorized why that may be, reflected on the joys of making his first film, and how he’s managed to keep moving forward, in spite of it all.

How often do you think about Little Odessa these days?

The truth is almost never. It’s a source of some sadness to me, because the film is not in good shape, and the original negative was lost for a while, then finally relocated. It’s never been transferred properly. There’s no high-def transfer of it and so forth. It’s always been a source of some consternation.

Little Odessa came out in May 1995. You were twenty-three during production. What do you remember about just being out of college, directing a film with Tim Roth and Vanessa Redgrave? 

I felt unbelievably lucky, unbelievably happy, it’s the happiest I’ve ever been making a film because I felt so lucky to be doing it. You know, I would have paid them for the opportunity. Sometimes when you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be a little liberating, you know? I knew only that I wanted to do a film that was in the style of a European 60s art movie with the American obsession around gangsters. Which is a little pretentious, but you know, I was twenty-three when I started it, and twenty-four when I finished it. You have those kinds of ambitions when you’re that age.

Were people at all skeptical of your abilities at that age?

You know, I think people were much more believing in me than I would have expected, and then I would have thought was logical. Sunoco Sakai was a person I remember—she was a Japanese distributor who pulled the script quite literally out of a trashcan after it had gotten bad coverage, and read it and liked it. The people around me didn’t question what it was that I was doing. That’s a tremendous relief to a filmmaker. I look back on it now and I realize just how lucky I was.

Do you feel like that belief hasn’t transferred over from project to project?

What I would say is that with the movies, one of the things that are difficult but also exciting about them is how they’re a different animal every single time out. And the problems and the joys of each movie are totally different. So there are different challenges and different highs and lows on each project I’ve done. That one I just remember being a very free and easy set, which is quite a contrast to the mood of the film, where I was trying to express something. I had too big of an ego about it, you know? I thought when I was shooting it, “well this is just going to be the greatest.” And then I saw the assembly of the film and all that confidence came crashing down.

You said you were trying to express something with the movie. Now that there are 20+ years of distance, what do you think you were trying to express?

I think I was trying to overcome grief around my family unit, which was completely destroyed over the course of a year. And I think I was using the genre to express my grief over that.

What was happening back then?

Well, my father had significant legal troubles, and my mother died of brain cancer, which is depicted in the film. And I went off to college and my brother was left alone. In 1986, you know, dinner time was at 6:00 pm with a mother and a father and a brother. And then in 1987, my brother was alone and I was living out in California and my father was having his troubles and my mother was dead. So that’s part of what’s in the movie.

Did you feel guilt going off to USC for film, away from your family?

How could you not? You know, I didn’t have guilt initially. I felt that that was a natural process and I was looking forward to trying to pursue a dream I had. But then when my mother got sick and we knew she was terminally ill, I had terrible guilt about leaving. I flew back every other weekend. I remember Pan-American. They had this really cheap fare that I would get through the student offices, and I would fly on the redeye. I did try to come back as much as I could, but it was devastating on multiple levels. It’s tough and it’s odd. You know, that all goes into the movie. And you try to make a film that’s as personal as you can, and there’s always going to be people who think you’re terrible and inept and it sucks, so you have to free yourself from the fear of it being considered bad.

How do you manage to not lament the past? Or, more specifically, how have you kept moving forward even in the face of rejection?

The only thing I’ve tried to do is to think about surviving in a difficult context. What you have to do is accept that most people won’t like it immediately. You know, I just read this book on the making of 2001. It’s called A Space Odyssey, actually. And it’s a very entertaining book, and he talks about the premiere of 2001, when Arthur C. Clarke was crying because he was so disappointed in the film and that there were like 245 walkouts, and people are booing and talking back at the screen, “come on, let’s go already!” The movie is considered a disaster. And you realize that’s a monumental work of art made by a towering figure, and if people didn’t get that, then why should you worry about whether they get it or they reject it? You just have to keep pushing, keep pushing, and then sooner or later your voice will emerge because it won’t be able to be denied. You know, you just pursue who you are. There’s only one of you

Have you ever had trouble staying focused on your mission?

Well, I mean, there are moments of doubt. But it’s far more common for me to say, “f**k everybody.” You have to have arrogance. You have to be able to create in a context, which is hostile. People don’t want to listen to you. You have to make them listen.

Watch Now: James Gray’s directorial debut, Little Odessa.

Stick with us for more interviews and video essays on some of the best filmmakers working today. After reading our interview with James Gray, why not check out our video on The Curious Career of David Gordon Green and The Visceral Reality of Richard Linklater. Then bring it home with our interview with Fandor favorite, Penny Lane, where she discusses her latest movie, “The Pain of Others,” also available to stream on Fandor.
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