James Foley is a filmmaker who rarely ventures into the light. His films are almost exclusively dark, intense and occasionally harrowing, and swim amongst themes of corruption, betrayal, manipulation and sexual obsession. Though often boasting big time talent (Sean Penn, Al Pacino, Bruce Willis, Halle Berry and Mark Wahlberg are just a few of the names to litter his credits), Foley’s films have been largely and resolutely uncommercial affairs, eschewing conventional characters, happy endings and white picket fences in favour of the tougher stuff that life has to offer.
Born on December 28, 1953 in New York’s Brooklyn, Foley studied film at New York University and USC in Los Angeles. It was while in his final year at film school that Foley scored the break that would set him up for life. He was at a film school house party in the eighties, where all of the students were projecting their work on the house’s bare white walls, when Hal Ashby (the director of such seventies classics as The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Harold And Maude) happened to drop by…allegedly in pursuit of a young woman at the party, according to Foley. “Just as he walked through the door, my film was showing on the wall,” Foley told Film Freak Central. “I’ll never know whether he was just being polite, but he told me that he liked it and that he was going to form a company to produce other people’s movies and asked me what I wanted to do. He said that I could write something and direct it.”
Foley started work on a script, but in the meantime, Ashby released two of his own disastrous failures (Second-Hand Hearts and Lookin’ To Get Out) through the company, which subsequently went broke. Foley, however, had received the revered director’s stamp of approval, and it was enough to kick-start his career. “Because Hal Ashby had hired me,” Foley explains, “I became viable in that weird calculus of Hollywood just because someone else who was respected thought that I was viable.”
This viability got Foley his first directing gig on the low budget 1984 teen drama Reckless. Like a revamped fifties teen potboiler, this exercise in high style and eighties flair stars Aidan Quinn (in his debut performance) as a high school rebel who has a flammable affair with Darryl Hannah’s cheerleader. Though striking and beautifully made, the now completely forgotten film made only a minor impact on its release, but Foley’s next film would prove far more fruitful.
The grim 1986 thriller At Close Range still stands as one of the eighties’ darkest and most intense crime films. With a sparkling but nasty script from Nicholas Kazan to run off, Foley cranks up the tension in this bruising drama about a backwoods crime boss (Christopher Walken) and the dangerous thrall he holds over his impressionable son (Sean Penn). Directed with great noir-style flair by Foley, the film features superb performances from Walken and Penn, with whom Foley would form a tight bond.
That friendship led directly to Foley’s next film, the highly uncharacteristic and absolutely dreadful screwball comedy Who’s That Girl?, which starred Penn’s then-wife Madonna. “Friendships have their good side and their bad side,” Foley has said of the film and how he came to direct it. Who’s That Girl? was a bomb of mammoth proportions, and it pushed Foley to rethink his career. “It was a major life experience. That first failure is so shocking.”
Since then, Foley has kept it dark and menacing, and while consistently failing to set the box office alight, he’s successfully kept the quality level high. He faithfully and skilfully adapted Jim Thompson’s After Dark, My Sweet in 1990, crafting a wonderfully bleak and uncompromising affair. Barely released and wildly underappreciated, this grungy gem is perfectly seamy and rich with sleaze, and boasts masterful performances from two equally underappreciated talents: Jason Patric and Rachel Ward.
Foley corralled a massive cast for his diamond-hard 1992 adaptation of David Mamet’s infamous stage play, Glengarry Glen Ross, and got the best out of all of them. Boasting more bad language than a Sopranos episode, this thorny character piece set behind the scenes of a real estate office provides a showcase for Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Jonathan Pryce, all of whom rise to the occasion with daring and keen intelligence.
Foley shifted gears with the barely seen Al Pacino-starring 1995 family drama Two Bits; delved into the teen thriller genre with 1996’s Fear (in which Reese Witherspoon’s wholesome teen is menaced by Mark Wahlberg’s bad boy psycho after their relationship crumbles); joined the long list of filmmakers to try their hand at adapting mega-selling author John Grisham with 1996’s The Chamber (even Gene Hackman couldn’t save this tepid affair); crafted a strong action flick with 1999’s The Corruptor (in which Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat faces off against Mark Wahlberg); delivered a delicious but now forgotten slice of noir with 2003’s Confidence (starring Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia); and delved into the dangers of online relationships with 2007’s very silly Perfect Stranger, starring Bruce Willis and Halle Berry.
Foley dropped off the cinematic map for several years after the unhappy experience of making Perfect Stranger (“For various reasons, it was not the best experience I’ve had. I kind of withdrew after that moment”) to deal with some undisclosed personal issues before returning to filmmaking via episodic television with instalments of House Of Cards, Hannibal, Wayward Pines and Billions. Foley then made an unexpected trip into the mainstream when he directed 2017’s Fifty Shades Darker and 2018’s Fifty Shades Freed, the much maligned second and third instalments in the dark, steamy and not very good Fifty Shades trilogy. With the films largely dismissed and now almost prematurely forgotten, Foley remains unstained despite his involvement. “The movie is not going to win Oscars,” the director said on the release of Fifty Shades Darker. “But I don’t think it’s going to win Razzies. That’s my goal – to not win a Razzie!”
Famous for his creation of shadowy environments and predilection for flawed and fascinating characters, Foley is a true auteur…and a hugely unsung auteur at that. “I am incredibly ‘hands-on’ about everything,” he says. “You have to know when to apply or relieve pressure. You have to make the actors aware that you’re empathetic. The best actors want to be directed. Once you’re on the same wavelength, you get incredible results.”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.