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January 12, 2017

SCA Alumni Stories: James Foley

By Eileen Kwon

Director of two installments of the Fifty Shades saga, James Foley ’79 made his directoral debut with Reckless (1984), starring Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah, and since then has cultivated a versatile career. Foley recently recounted his time as a student at SCA, discussed his experience directing the critically acclaimed House of Cards and the highly anticipated Fifty Shades sequels, and offered his insight into the ingredients needed for a fulfilling career.

What influenced your decision to pursue an education and career in the cinematic arts? In the late 70’s, I fell in love with all things cinema. I lived in New York, so there was every type of film imaginable being screened here or there. I particularly loved the French New Wave, especially Francois Truffaut. After graduating undergrad with a major in pre-med, I took a six-week summer introduction production course at NYU. For the first time not only did I screen something I had shot for a bunch of people, but I also experienced the audience reacting—I was hooked.

Going back to your days as a student, what is your fondest memory of your time at SCA? As I was there during the “horse stable” days, by far my fondest memory is of sitting around after classes, and yappin’ about all things movies. The school was small enough at the time that you really felt as if you knew everyone studying production. There was, and hopefully still is, a real sense of a creative community where the study of the cinematic arts and the journey to start producing work were perfectly integrated.

What professional accomplishments are you most proud of? I would say I am most proud that I got to direct anything at all. Ironically, while in school, I just took it as a given that I would go on to direct and that my career was guaranteed. It’s only now, 36 years after graduating, that I realize how fantastical that concept was, but at the same time, I recognize that my unfounded belief in myself and in the inevitability of my success was a big part of getting in the game.

Could you share about how you got your start after graduating from SCA? What was your experience finding your own creative vision as a filmmaker? Upon graduating it was crystal clear that the most important ingredient for “breaking in” was the social contacts I made at SCA. I was lucky to befriend Josh Donen, an undergraduate student at the time, whose father is Stanley Donen of Singing in the Rain fame. He had grown up surrounded by people in the industry and one contact led to another, principally Hal Ashby whose company signed me to write and direct what was to be my first flick. Unfortunately, that situation fell apart but by that time I had my first quasi-credit. That led to meeting agents, which led to meeting producers and studio executives, which then led to an offer to direct Reckless.

How did you become involved with House of Cards? What was your experience directing House of Cards? I was brought onto House of Cards by that same Josh Donen, who is now partners with David Fincher. I loved the scripts, had total confidence working with those guys and really got to “do my thing” while maintaining the aesthetic that Fincher established in the first two episodes. I wound up directing twelve of episodes and it was one of the most creatively freeing experiences in my career. The show was much more respectful of the director than a lot of television was, particularly, in its early days.

How has your time directing House of Cards translated into your work with the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise? One of the French New Wave directors, perhaps Truffaut, said each film is a reaction to the director’s previous work. After toiling in the darkly ironic world of House of Cards, I was primed to switch gears and delve into something completely different and Fifty Shades of Grey certainly fit the bill. As we shot two sequels back-to-back, including Fifty Shades Freed, it necessitated a long six-month shoot in Vancouver and France. Having experienced the demands of television and doing a bunch of episodes back-to-back over an extended period of time, I found the Fifty Shades shoot a relative breeze. I also felt that my “shooting muscles” were pumped, as in the more you exercise them, the stronger they get and the more confident you feel.

What is your approach to heading the onscreen continuation of a literary franchise as popular as Fifty Shades of Grey? In terms of rendering the text on the big screen, how are you straddling the balance between staying faithful to the original text and taking creative license? With every adaptation you’re certainly compelled to take a lot of creative license. Besides having to wrestle down the story to a hundred and twenty-page script, there’s dialogue that may have worked on the page, but doesn’t flow particularly well on screen. There’s also the dilemma of having to excise some and combine other characters into one. In the case of Fifty Shades, I was aware of the fanaticism of its huge fan base, and paid attention to favorite scenes and themes in so far as they could be integrated organically into the screen version.

What is your advice for current SCA students and other SCA alumni? I have felt for a long time that the one advantage every content creator has is the fact that there’s only one of them. Your unique perspective on the world is your most valuable asset. That being the case, the challenge for the creative is to hone, sharpen and expand one’s view of reality, which has to begin from a more insightful awareness of oneself. You have to differentiate the voices and influences in your head from the sights and sounds coming at you from the external world. To allow them to be unconsciously mixed inhibits seeing the truth. That, along with being a social being and making all the needed contacts in the business, is the secret sauce.