By Bill DesowitzDirector Taylor Hackford is fascinated by the process of artists who define themselves. He scrounged for 15 years to make the Ray Charles story and, with the involvement of Charles himself, finally succeeded with Ray. His casting of Jamie Foxx as the legendary soul-jazz singer and pianist was a stroke of genius. Foxx’s performance has tongues wagging all over Hollywood in the run-up to awards season. Independently produced on a budget of $35 million and distributed by Universal, Ray was shot mostly in Louisiana, aided by a tax credit law passed at the end of 2002 which provided a $3.7 million rebate. Below the Line went one on one with Hackford to find out how he created such a masterpiece with so little…Below the Line: In Ray you chose to depict just the first half of Ray Charles’ life, focusing on the years before he became famous. How did you find the thread to hold it together? Taylor Hackford: To me the important and amazing thing about Ray Charles as a rags-to-riches story is that he did it blind yet with so much in control. Everything is in the attaining, and that’s where the conflict and drama was to be found, not in the last 40 years of his life that everyone knows was success, success, success. I wanted to know where he came from and I wanted to take it up to the point where he kicked heroin in 1965. When I first met Ray Charles back in ’87, he had no cane, no seeing-eye dog, he was completely in control. He didn’t suffer fools; he demanded to be dealt with as an equal. I read his autobiography, but I did my own research by talking with 35 people in his life, and I found my own thread. I asked him, “You were born sighted. And you exhibited a love of music at your earliest moments and gravitated toward it. But if you had not gone blind, would you have become the artist that you had?” He thought about it for a long time and quietly said to me probably not. So that was it. If you’re five years old and you’re religious, and you watch your brother die when you’re struck paralyzed, and you feel guilt and nine months later you go blind, you feel that God is punishing you.BTL: So you had the thread. How did you define the look of the movie, with your production designer Stephen Altman.Hackford: The initial problem was that Ray’s story was an immense road story; he traveled everywhere. Stephen Altman and I sat down and tried to figure out how to do this in one place, considering the little money that we had. I did four days at the end in Los Angeles, but aside from that, I had to make Louisiana work for New York, Seattle, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago. Stephen and I wanted to portray a sense of period and scope, and we knew we couldn’t afford to travel and build these huge sets. So we relied a lot on different stock footage, and had to make it interface with our movie. Stephen would build or have a location that would fit into that stock footage. For instance, Broadway in the early ’50s with a thousand cars on the street and then you cut into our footage in New Orleans, and can approximate that feel. He did a wonderful job of those tie-ins: the Port of Seattle in 1947 and then cut into a residential neighborhood in New Orleans with architecture just like the Pacific Northwest.BTL: With thanks, I’m sure, to Dana Hanby, your location manager.Hackford: Dana was the manager and Jimmy Trotter was the scout, and they not only found those locations but the interiors of those clubs. The great thing about Louisiana—and this film was originally going to be shot in Georgia because of its close tie to the Ray Charles story—is that, unlike, Atlanta, it was unadulterated as an urban period locale.BTL: How did you work with your cinematographer, Pawel Edelman, to further the look?Hackford: I had met Pawel in Poland when I was doing Proof of Life. And for some reason, I’ve worked with five Polish cinematographers in my life. The Polish film school is a great school. Pawel was the recent collaborator with Andrzej Wajda, who is one of my favorite directors. After I’d met him, he had done The Pianist, so I called him. The interesting thing about everybody who worked on this film is that they all had been inspired by Ray Charles. Pawel had to sneak around when he was a kid in Communist Poland to listen to Ray. We made a pact to make the film but we had to wait a year while Pawel made commercials in Europe. But Pawel was a true collaborator. He sat down with Stephen and me and wanted to know what we had done; he looked at all the stock footage that we had. It was a very specific design. He did his homework and then talked to me specifically about what we could do to make this film work. He listened to everything I wanted to do and then suggested how it could be done. It sounds like the way the collaborative process should be done, but often isn’t. The great thing about Pawel is that he had never shot in this country, but his best friend is Janusz Kaminski [ASC], and Janusz made his crew available, and we didn’t have any money. Immediately these guys fell in love with Pawel.BTL: What was the look that you arrived at?Hackford: I had three different stories and three different looks. Number one: the linear story of Ray getting on the bus in Florida and traveling to Seattle and progressing throughout his career. Then we had the flashbacks because I wanted to go beneath the diamond-hard exterior. This was the ghost story. And then we had the dream of his mother—the moments that Ray told me when he talked to her everyday, even after she was dead. I told Pawel these were the three moments that I wanted in the film, and then he said that wouldn’t it be interesting if the flashbacks were heightened and over saturated because these were the moments when Ray could see. What we decided to do was step on our linear story and bleach-bypass it and make it more contrasty, and more easily integrated with our muted stock footage. And then in the third area we turn up and almost solarize the dreams, to show the audience that it was something that was in his head. The interesting thing was the collaboration. Once we decided on this look, Sharen Davis, our costume designer, came in to work on the color palette. The clothes, particularly with black people on a Saturday night at these clubs, were not muted. Ray was an elegant, outlandish dresser and Sharen had to build his wardrobe and she had no money. But somehow she was able to build Jamie’s wardrobe and he looks fantastic. The problem is, when you bleach bypass this footage, you have to almost over-accentuate the colors. So Pawel, Stephen and Sharen really needed to be in each other’s brain to make this work—and they did.BTL: Describe the process of putting it all together.Hackford: My normal editor moved to Australia and I started with a new editor and he had to leave because of a personal tragedy, which was very disruptive. A month into the shoot, we were way behind, and Paul Hirsch was recommended to me. He flew down to New Orleans and we spent a weekend just talking. He cut the original Star Wars and De Palma’s films and he’s very smart. His mother was a dancer and he loves music, and that rang true. I talked to him about the design, about the three looks and then I hired him. And he would call me after he started looking at the footage and said he could feel what I had in mind. But still I wondered who this stranger was who was coming in and taking care of my baby.I watched his assembly all tensed up and within two minutes my whole body relaxed. He did get inside my head, he did understand what I was shooting and it was one of the best first cuts I’d ever seen.
Written by Bill Desowitz