BEVERLY HILLS, California — There are movies, there are jobs, and then there are labors of love.
For those unsure of the distinction, think of the “Cannonball Run” or “Ocean’s” flicks. Those are movies made for the celebration of friends, fame and fun. As for jobs, well, those are more along the lines of “Catwoman” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” — paychecks, plain and simple, that were likely as hard for those involved to suffer through as the McJobs the rest of us have endured to pay the rent.
“We Own the Night” is a labor of love. And Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and writer/director James Gray aren’t ashamed to admit it.
“I’d been committed to making this movie with James for eight years,” an earnest Wahlberg said of the brutal crime drama that reunites him and Phoenix with the man behind their 2000 cult flick “The Yards.” “We just had to get the money. … This was a labor of love for everybody involved, and James lived with this piece of material for eight years.”
Refusing to make any other film for nearly a decade, the 38-year-old director cultivated an almost Malick-ian reputation, entrenching himself in the world of the New York City police, who proudly wear emblems sporting the motto that serves as the film’s title. Using real-life details to flavor his fiction, Gray’s script follows the Grusinsky police family, the black-sheep brother (Phoenix) who oversees a sordid New York nightclub and the Mafia connection that make them all question their allegiances.
“Every director has different values,” Phoenix explained of his devotion to the story. “He’s incredibly hard-working. … He had a newborn baby, and he probably averaged four hours of sleep a night because he would be up writing. … It’s nice working with people that are incredibly committed.”
So nice, in fact, that Wahlberg and Phoenix pledged their undying allegiance to Gray during all those years he spent knocking on doors at Warner Brothers and other studios. Once films like “Walk the Line” and “The Italian Job” raised the stars’ visibility several notches above where they’d been when “Yards” earned under $1 million, “Night” time became the right time.
“Basically, my role as a producer was just to try to get the movie made,” Wahlberg said of the producing credit given to both him and Phoenix for the first time in their careers. “I originally set it up with him at Warner Brothers. Lorenzo di Bonaventura was president of production, and he was a good friend of mine. … [After some difficulties] we finally got out of there and approached some different independent financiers, and were finally able to get the funding.”
And it looks like the audience will finally receive the fruits of this labor, in the form of the stars acting just a little bit better, a filmmaker directing just a little bit more passionately and the plot paying off as only eight years of preparation could permit.
“To make a film, you’re dealing with different emotions that you have to conjure up within the same day. You’re very rarely shooting in order, so half the day is spent in a joyful scene … and the next half of the day is supposed to be your father dying,” Phoenix explained. “That can get quite taxing, quite exhausting emotionally, just to have to conjure up those emotions and deal with them. Inevitably, there are times where you come in [to the set] and you feel you have nothing to give. … To have somebody that you trust completely being there helps.”
Factor in Eva Mendes as Phoenix’s sultry girlfriend, and the legendary Robert Duvall as the duo’s fastidious father, and you’ve got four hard-hitting stars in a film that plays like this year’s version of “The Departed.” In the eyes of some, “Night” might even be the superior film.
“Yes and no,” Wahlberg said of whether he sees similarities between the two films. “Certainly, my character is extremely different from the character I played in ‘The Departed.’ I was committed to making this movie, which was one of the reasons why I wasn’t going to do ‘The Departed,’ but we never really were able to lock down the financing. Then, Marty Scorsese calls and you try to say no, and that just doesn’t work.”
Just nine short months ago, Wahlberg was swept up by his first Oscar nomination, and he insists he’ll never forget his dear “Departed” friends. “It was nice just to see how proud my parents were. … Seeing Marty win was great,” he grinned. “I got a lot of nice gifts. Jack Nicholson sent me a beautiful bottle of champagne and a letter congratulating me, as well as Matt Damon.”
Perhaps Gray and his two leading men will be similarly rewarded this time around, but Wahlberg insists that he doesn’t need a little gold statue for validation. “You never know,” he said of award nominations. “I’m extremely proud of the movie, and I think James is going to be one of the great filmmakers out there. Who knows? We’ll see what happens.”
“Any kind of artistic endeavor, anything that’s creative, is about details, because we’re essentially exploring the same themes over and over in film, in books, whatever it may be,” Phoenix said of the joys of working on a labor of love. “[The best films] are about reconnecting with the story in a sense — just being able to make sure that it doesn’t feel like a job.”
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