"Director James Foley, UB Alum, Debuts Hollywood Film Tonight"

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The Spectrum


"Confidence," the new film by director James Foley, portrays how a team of grifters steal $5 million from a bank.

Foley, who graduated from UB with a degree in psychology, never actually stole money in his life. But when he was living as a poor film student in Southern California, he had to cut some legal corners to satisfy his hunger.

"I was living off of food stamps and I stole a can of tuna fish from the supermarket," said Foley. "So that's my criminal life. Maybe I should pay back the supermarket."

Making a film starring Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia probably means Foley won't have too much trouble buying tuna. The director returned to Buffalo on April 1 to premiere the film, appearing a part of the Department of Media Study's "Celebrity Scholar Series." "Confidence" opens nationwide today.

Hoffman's creepy hands

While at UB, Foley taught a workshop to Department of Media Study students, titled "Directing the Actor."

But in Hollywood, Foley still comes up with unusual techniques to enhance dramatic effects.

"There's a scene where Ed Burns brings Rachel Weisz in to see Dustin Hoffman. And Dustin gets all weird and touching Rachel and stuff," said Foley.

But Weisz never knew Hoffman was supposed to be creeping his hand about her chest. According to Foley, a key technique to bring out the best performances is to allow actors enough independence to interpret the script their way. And to feel surprised.

"It would be interesting if Rachel didn't know what was going to happen. So I kept the script, the rewrite, away from her and saying it wasn't ready yet," Foley said.

"Confidence," according to Foley, was made in 10 months, an average time for most Hollywood films. Foley said his easiest directing experience was while working on "Glengarry Glen Ross," his acclaimed 1992 film. Even if it took Al Pacino, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, five to six takes to get his lines right.

"Al just likes to go and play the lines and not participate, disconnect himself to what's going to happen next," Foley said. "So sometimes he just goes off on a wild tangent where he's just crazy and he makes no sense. But what he's doing is, he goes crazy and then goes back to the lines and ... you might get 10 seconds in that moment that are brilliant."

The responsibility for the director, Foley said, is to pick out the precise moments of brilliance while putting the film together.

Public opinion (audiences don't like to hear the F-word)

But filming is only part of the process. Directors also have to negotiate with the movie industry. However, despite presumptions about the heavy hand Hollywood potentially has in the outcome of the movie, Foley maintains that the director has the most power.

Speaking to the audience at the premiere, Foley said that since the director is the only one who actually knows how to make the movie, the ball is usually in his court.

However, other factors can intrude in the process. After films are made, oftentimes they are screened before a test audience. "Confidence" received a positive response. "Glengarry Glen Ross," based of David Mamet's profanity-laden script, did not.

"It was the worst test screening I ever had. Literally, I am not kidding, half the audience walked out in the screening. Because they just included a wide demographic of people who would never go to ... a movie like that," said Foley.

The deleted scene

Although "Confidence" was well received, Foley decided to make his own change to the film. After a scene featuring Burns and Weisz in a romantic encounter, Foley decided to remove the moment that followed.

"What the next scene was that you fade to black and the next morning when they're in bed and Rachel had a very long monologue talking about how she essentially had a boyfriend who raped her and she attacked him with a scalpel," said Foley.

According to Foley, Weisz was exceptional, but the scene disrupted the narrative of the film, especially since no other character in "Confidence" has a back-story.

But speaking on behalf of the romantic moment between Burns and Weisz, for Foley, these instances are the toughest to film, along with fight sequences, such as when Burns tangles with Franky G. in "Confidence."

"Particularly with the love-making, the actors don't like doing it, it's all awkward and horrible, no matter who it is. There's no way around it, it's just not fun," said Foley. "I mean ... it would be easier if they actually did make love. Because you could just film it. But you get into this horrible thing where, like, the woman, of course, is supposed to have an orgasm and you say 'Action!' and (you're like), 'Well, I don't quite believe that.'"

The big break

Before Foley ever had the chance to film actors making love, he was a psychology major at UB. Filmmaking was never an occupation Foley had in mind until after he graduated.

The director began experimenting with short, one-minute movies in a film class he took in New York City over the summer after he left UB. Foley was impressed with the reaction he could arouse from an audience, especially after screening a creepy bit of footage he shot in Washington Square Park, which made it look as if a man was kidnapping a young girl.

"I do remember kind of an exotic thrill of having a group of people respond in unison to something I had done. It was a different way to express yourself that I didn't know had existed," said Foley.

Foley later enrolled in the film program at the University of Southern California. One night he was at a party for film students, a place, Foley says, "which usually consists of people ... getting hung over and drunk, get stoned and (they would) project their films on to a white wall and everybody would go crazy."

Hal Ashby, an acclaimed director in the 1970s who made "Being There," saw the film Foley projected at the party. Impressed by what he saw, Ashby gave Foley the proper connection to direct 1984's "Reckless," his first major feature starring Aidan Quinn and Darryl Hannah.

99.9999 percent failure rate

Foley has since directed numerous Hollywood films, including "Fear," "At Close Range," "The Corruptor," and the one film the director openly says he isn't proud of, the Madonna vehicle, "Who's That Girl?"

The 49-year-old director has established himself to the point where he can make a film with A-list talent like Dustin Hoffman. However, Foley expressed that it is highly improbably to be successful in Hollywood. One of the toughest moments for him is the casting process.

"There's a 99.9999 percent change they won't get the part ... and then you sit there and they walk in the door and within six seconds (you can tell) it ain't going to work. You just try to be as quiet as possible and get rid of him. It's painful because they're really hungry to work."

To be a success in Hollywood, Foley says individual ability, while useful, can only take a person so far.

"You got to have talent, but that's not enough. You then have to have the ability to sell yourself, which is totally separate from the talent of an actor or a director," said Foley.