UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF. – James Foley spilled the thought offhandedly. “It’s this funny kind of thing,” he said. “What do you pay attention to? And what do you ignore?” He was sitting in a spartan, windowless editing room on the Universal Studios lot last year. On a set of screens behind him was an image of stubbled, sharp-jawed man in a crisp white shirt and a young, lingerie-clad woman with porcelain skin and a Mona Lisa smile.
Foley, a director whose work is lodged in the zeitgeist of the ’80s (Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” video) and ’90s (David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”), was finishing work on a pair of movies that would go on to be smashingly successful and widely smeared: “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” the second and third installments in the erotica-romance “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy.
But Foley isn’t talking movies. His muse about attention – what gets it, and what doesn’t – is focused on Buffalo.
“Anytime anything comes up in the media that has to do with Buffalo, I pay attention to it,” said Foley, citing the city’s economic growth and noting “it’s not all just rusting factories” anymore. “If it’s a story about something happening in Indianapolis. I don’t care. But Buffalo, I do care.”
Buffalo is where his life path steered to Hollywood. Foley, who grew up in a “heavily Catholic” family (two of his uncles were priests) in Staten Island and Brooklyn, came to the University at Buffalo in 1971 as a sophomore transfer from SUNY New Paltz. He planned to become a psychiatrist and figured UB, which he called “the Harvard of the New York system,” would best position him to land in medical school.
That, and the aesthetics appealed.
“They had these great manuals, very slick, with pictures and everything,” said Foley. He speaks in a low, growly monotone that livens when a subject stokes his excitement. “I remember the Buffalo manual was very seductive.”
Foley was a cinematic thinker even before he became a filmmaker. At UB, he used to slip down from the then-new suburban campus in Amherst, where he was based, to the city campus. “The whole collegiate fantasy, of the old campus, it was just was kind of Hollywood set piece for what a college experience would be,” said Foley, who would walk around, absorbing the atmosphere, trying to “feel like I’m connected somehow to these Ivy-covered buildings.”
Foley became involved in the UB’s film-screening program, where the offerings ranged from avante-garde Jonas Mekas works to the latest Hollywood hits. As he fell in love with cinema, he drifted from medical school. “When I think back about UB, I think about going to the movies, more than anything else in my academic experience,” he said. “I was there to be pre-med, but I was getting seduced by this sideline thing.”
After graduating in 1974, Foley returned home to New York City and took a six-week filmmaking course at New York University. His culminating project was a one-minute, black-and-white film, which he screened for an audience of about 20 students.
“At a certain moment, they all reacted the same way – a way I intended them to react,” Foley said. “And when that happened, that stimulated something in me I had never felt before, and it was pleasurable.”
In that moment, Foley learned that a filmmaker can tap into people’s sensibilities and emotions to captivate and guide them to a new place.
“That was the moment when I left psychiatry behind,” said Foley, who enrolled in film school at the University of Southern California and has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1977. “Well, I left being a psychiatrist behind. I didn’t leave being a patient behind.”
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Hollywood operates on popularity economics: If your work is hot, you’ll get hired for more. If it’s not, you’re forgotten. For the better part of three decades, that system worked in Foley’s favor. He debuted as a feature director in 1984 with “Reckless,” starring Daryl Hannah and Aidan Quinn, then spent a few years in the early heyday of MTV directing music videos and a movie for Madonna ("Who's That Girl").
Foley directed Christopher Walken and Sean Penn in “At Close Range,” and was Penn’s best man in the actor’s 1985 wedding to Madonna. The nuptials took place on a Malibu beach, with helicopters whirring overhead, and People magazine making note of Foley’s “two weeks of whiskers and a dark-green linen suit.”
Even a partial roll call of A-list stars whom Foley has directed is impressive: Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg in “Fear” (1996), Gene Hackman, Chris O’Donnell and Faye Dunaway in “The Chamber” (1996), Halle Berry and Bruce Willis in “Perfect Stranger” (2007). His landmark work was 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the film adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play about a group of struggling salesmen. Foley’s cast included Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris.
Despite his high-profile work, Foley has mostly been a low-profile, quiet, behind-the-scenes guy. When he grants an interview, he’s thoughtful and congenial, introspective and expansive. But he doesn’t grant them often and, to that point, declined follow-up interviews with The Buffalo News after this initial meeting last year.
One of the most revealing interviews Foley has given was with Brian Koppelman, executive producer of the Showtime series “Billions.” Koppelman, who hired Foley to direct two episodes of “Billions” in 2016, also had him as a podcast guest on “The Moment with Brian Koppelman.” In that episode, Koppelman lauded Foley’s work in the ’80s and early ’90s, and alluded to the director’s struggles, without specifying what they were. “... People would talk about you as this great director, but they would sometimes say, like, ‘Oh, he has demons,’ ” Koppelman said.
“Yeah,” Foley agreed. “Of course.”
“You were kind of in movie jail for a while,” Koppelman said.
Foley again agreed. There are years-long gaps on his resume, the longest of which came after “Perfect Stranger,” from 2007 until 2012.
“For various reasons, it was not the best experience I’ve had," Foley said about "Perfect Stranger." "I realized that I kind of withdrew after that moment.”
“I don’t see somebody who’s just keeping the demons at bay by a thread," Koppelman said to Foley. "What changed for you?”
“Uhhh, 25 years of Freudian analysis?” Foley said. At age 28, Foley began Freudian therapy, which he describes as laying on a couch, sharing thoughts with an analyst who listens but doesn’t talk. The process is designed to shed a person’s neuroses and reach what Foley describes as the “unencumbered self.”
“Every decision I make as a director is going to be based on a certain bias,” Foley told Koppelman, “and I want that bias to be neurotic-free as much as possible, and to be as truthful as possible.”
* * *
As one of the early directors of the Neflix series "House of Cards," Foley began to refresh his career, directing 12 episodes between 2013 and 2015. When “House of Cards” was first being filmed, the concept of storytelling for streaming – and not for broadcast, or theaters – evoked doubt. “We’d make jokes about ‘no one is going to see this’ while we were shooting,” he said. “Then, when it came out, it had that kind of impact, it was shocking,” he said.
“House of Cards” transformed the television market – and Foley’s career.
“I feel as if my experience has been – and I’m not complaining – as if nobody knew who I was before ‘House of Cards,’ ” Foley said. “I was a brand-new person in ‘House of Cards.’ Which is good because you have no baggage. You’re just a ‘House of Cards’ director.”
Hollywood’s popularity barometer was working in Foley’s favor again. Based on his “House of Cards” success, he directed “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” which shot back-to-back in Vancouver in 2016.
The “Fifty Shades” story follows the relationship between a young billionaire, Christian Grey, who has a secret sexual side life as a practitioner of BDMS (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission), and Anastasia Steele, a graduating college senior who aspires to become a literary editor. Over the course of the series, the power dynamic in that relationship shifts toward Anastasia, and much of the story plays out sexually.
“The biggest issue in directing a ‘Fifty Shades’ movie is the sex,” said Foley, who consulted with a BDSM expert for accuracy, and storyboarded the sex scenes to minimize the number of takes actors Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson were asked to do. “Its renown is from sexual encounters. I was very much down with that. It was very much part of why I responded to the books: These people’s relationship was very volatile and very extreme, which I think is just mimicking other people’s relationships, which are maybe slightly less dramatic, but have the same dynamics going on.”
Foley is realistic about what the “Fifty Shades” movies are — and aren’t. Actor Eric Johnson, who played Steele’s evil-intentioned boss in the second and third movies, recalled how Foley put it in perspective for him: “We’re making pop music,” Johnson said in a telephone interview last month from Ireland, where he was filming the History Channel’s “Vikings.” “That was the thing that Jamie said to me early on: ‘We’re making pop music.’ It’s got to be fun. It shouldn’t take itself completely seriously at all times. It’s really got to have that feel. It’s got to be big and sexy and shiny, at at times (feel) a little ridiculous…
“To try and make it anything else is a mistake. It’s like a catchy tune you hear in the car. It might not win album of the year, but you can’t get it out of your head and you really enjoyed it while you’re listening to it.”
Foley echoed those thoughts in his office at Universal. “The movie is not going to win Oscars,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to win Razzies,” referring to the Hollywood spoof award, which pokes fun at the industry’s gilded awards season. “That’s my goal – to not win a Razzie!”
Well … “Fifty Shades Darker” was nominated for several “Razzies" including one for Foley as worst director. But when “Fifty Shades Freed” was released in February, it grossed more than $100 million worldwide in its first weekend, and pushed the trilogy past $1 billion at the box office.
People were buying tickets. People were paying attention.
Razz at that.