Coming in April 2020 to Three Rooms Press is RAY BY RAY: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray, a searing memoir by the renowned director’s daughter Nicca Ray. 3RP lead editor Mary Rose Manspeaker interviewed her to discuss Hollywood, artistic process and identity, her connection to her father, and their connection to the larger world. For the culmination of all of these thoughts, you can request a review copy of RAY BY RAY through Edelweiss+ or pre-order today via Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or IndieBound.
MRM: Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed working with RAY BY RAY. Having spent so much time with it over the last few months, I’ve seen how much has gone into your work on the book. Did you begin with the idea of using the interviews and research to write something? If not, when did that idea really take shape?
NR: Thank you, Mary. I so appreciate your contribution. You and Peter Carlaftes (3RP Co-Director) have brought out the best of what it is I want to say.
The impetus for the book came about when I was still an undergraduate at the New School University. It was the second to my last semester and I was walking down the main building’s hallway when I realized I was like so many other children who grew up without knowing their fathers but unlike the many I had a father who left behind a legacy. I was lucky because I could find out what kind of a person mine was and in what ways I was like him.
I went to my school advisor and asked if I could start the project as an independent study. She sent me to Robert Polito, who was then the founding Director of the Creative Writing Program. On the day of our first scheduled meeting I brought a bag full of the journals I’d been keeping since I was fifteen and the biography, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz. I sat down on the floor of his office, laid out all of my books, and asked, “Where do I begin?” He said, “Start by writing the stories.” And so, I started writing vignettes about my childhood.
There were pivotal moments in my young life where I needed my father to save me and built fantasies of him around this need. Believing in my fantasy of him kept me from growing up so pinpointing his whereabouts blew up these falsehoods. I wasn’t completely conscious of this being my motivation at the start. I had a detective’s drive to find out the truth. I didn’t know where it was going to lead.
MRM: You have pursued storytelling through several different mediums. I know you have acted and directed and have written poetry (I believe you might have a collection in the works?). Do you find your process and the way you approach each of these pursuits differs? Are there similarities?
NR: Yes, I do have a poetry collection, Backseat Baby, in the works, to be published by the musician/writer, Chris Desjardins’ (Flesh Eaters, The Divine Horseman) imprint, Poison Fang Books, in summer or fall 2020.
Nina Foch, who was my first and main acting teacher, emphasized that the doing would lead to the emotion. In breaking down the character, line by line, I would discover their intention, and then when playing the scene, the emotion would come. Years after I stopped studying, and when I was in a much more stable place in my life, I played Sara in Douglas Buck’s short film, Cutting Moments. I learned the lines, by rote, and then once I had them down, I opened myself up to the emotional life of the character. I let my imagination go within the bounds of the script.
Directing the music video and short film was all encompassing. For the short film I wrote the script, story-boarded it, designed the shot list and lighting scheme, conveyed what I wanted to the cameraman and then directed the actors. I had to be focused in a whole different way than I did acting in a film. My emotional life wasn’t calling the shots. I shot the music video before the short film and that was really a good way to get my film-making hands wet. With the music video, I had the band, Emma Peel, and their song, “Hormone Ha Ha,” to ground me. The lyrics for “Hormone Ha Ha” determined the video’s storyline and shot sequences. I used the same approach in coming up with how I wanted each film to look as I did with embodying the character’s world in Cutting Moments. With the music video I listened to the song and let the song be my imagination’s guide.
Poetry, for me, is completely emotionally driven. There’s no emotional terrain too scary for me, anymore. A poem is the verbal response to a visual. Words are sound and meaning. I could be writing about a memory or a fantasy or a dream or I can be ambiguous. There is no law. For me, there is less of a thinking process when I’m writing a poem than when I’m using any other medium. I don’t have to juggle all of these other variables.
RAY BY RAY shares the history of a man who is considered one of the most important film directors of the 20th Century. In sharing his epic story, we get a first-row seat to the unveiling of what makes a man whose achieved the ultimate dream of becoming one of Hollywood’s Golden (bad) Boys lose everything. We come away with a better understanding of what it means to be human and hopefully be less judgmental of its complexities. It’s also a story about a family who gets lost in the shuffle of his destruction and a daughter who succumbs to her own yet fights for her survival and lives to reconcile what it means to be the namesake of a man like Nicholas Ray. Why is this an important read? It’s transformative.
MRM: Why is this book important to not just you and me, but to anyone who might pick it up? Can you talk a little about the importance of keeping Nicholas Ray in the collective consciousness?
NR: RAY BY RAY shares the history of a man who is considered one of the most important film directors of the 20th Century. In sharing his epic story, we get a first-row seat to the unveiling of what makes a man whose achieved the ultimate dream of becoming one of Hollywood’s Golden (bad) Boys lose everything. We come away with a better understanding of what it means to be human and hopefully be less judgmental of its complexities. It’s also a story about a family who gets lost in the shuffle of his destruction and a daughter who succumbs to her own yet fights for her survival and lives to reconcile what it means to be the namesake of a man like Nicholas Ray. Why is this an important read? It’s transformative.
Nicholas Ray and his films should never be forgotten because the risks and sacrifices he made brought us movies that stand the test of time. And they do that because they reveal mankind’s deepest struggles. They are films about the human condition.
Another reason he should not be forgotten is that he, along with Elia Kazan, and a number of New York theater transplants, changed the way Hollywood made movies, and transformed acting in film.
Lastly, he should not be forgotten, because he was a visual genius who at his best, refused to compromise his vision.
MRM: Of course, there are the most famous of Nicholas Ray’s films like Rebel and In a Lonely Place. But can you give a brief intro of your favorites of your father’s films and why?
NR: My favorite of favorites is The Lusty Men because it’s such an intimate portrayal of man’s search for self and home. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff McCloud, a has been rodeo star trying to redefine himself and find his place in the world. Nick called it a film about a man in search of home. I love this movie because when I saw it for the first time, at nineteen, I was at a crossroads in my life. I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. Watching the movie, I felt like my father was speaking to me and it gave me something to identify with and I found a momentary peace.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw The Savage Innocents as part of a film retrospective given by The Museum of Modern Art. I was in my forties by this time and had seen several of Nick’s movies by then. This one was unlike any of his others. It didn’t feel Hollywood at all. It is about man versus nature and man versus man. It’s simply filmed and acted, and really, a poem of a film. After I saw it, I thought about how Nick had once wanted to be a poet and he was able to be in the making The Savage Innocents.
Bigger than Life: Well…gosh, it’s all about a father’s drug-induced mania and attacks on his son. Not to mention the melodramatic use of color.
On Dangerous Ground. I was sent a videotape of On Dangerous Ground and didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t heard much about the movie. I think it deserves more attention than it gets. Robert Ryan is masterful as Jim, a tightly wound city cop with a hair trigger temper. Nick’s use of camera and lighting heightens Ryan’s brutality and in scenes where Ryan is alone, the camera amplifies his own solitary confinement and in turn makes Ryan even more volatile. Jeanine Basinger, the film scholar, said Nick was a master at wedding form and content, and this film is a prime example of that.
MRM: I’m curious about your thoughts on the confluence of artist and personal life. Does knowledge of a director’s personal life alter the viewing of their film? Specifically, what can RAY BY RAY do to supplement your father’s oeuvre and appreciation of his work?
NR: I believe an artist has no choice but to reveal themselves through their work. They need to. Knowing about the director’s personal life gives the work a context and adds a depth to our understanding of the choices he makes.
Nick once asked the members of a San Francisco theater, “Is it the art in your life or your life in art?” The answer was a very important determination of what kind of an artist you were. With Nick there was no separation between himself and his art. Therefore, in Nick’s case, I believe that his personal life sheds light on his movies, and his movies shed light on his personal life. There were things he wouldn’t discuss in his life that he could put into a film. He could then have that discussion between the movie screen (himself) and audience. His best films are his personal films and it was when he signed on to do those big epic films, King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, that he came to his ultimate ruin. Say if he had continued making poetic films like The Savage Innocents, he may have continued making movies that found their way into theaters during the 1960s and early 1970s.
The writer, David Thomson, once compared the new generation of filmmakers to the filmmakers of Nick’s generation, saying that directors of my father’s generation had life experiences before they ever made their first film. RAY BY RAY adds to Nick’s oeuvre because it looks to his personal life for answers to why his career had the trajectory it did. This isn’t an analytical study, or a film-historians take on a legendary director. This is a highly personalized look at a highly personal director.
MRM: Finally, music moves through your memoir and connects the people and memories in it. Do you listen to music while writing? If you were to make a mixtape to go with RAY BY RAY, what would be on it?
NR: I absolutely love this question! I don’t listen to music while I’m writing. There are too many voices in my head I need to pay attention to and lyrics distract me. However, I can sometimes listen to music in different languages, or, to opera, when I’m writing because the lyrics take on an instrumental quality that doesn’t conflict with the noise in my head. Mostly, though, I can’t listen while I’m working. I do, however, play songs before I start writing. They help me capture the mood, time, and place of the period I’m talking about.
“Wild Horses” The Rolling Stones
“Sister Morphine” The Rolling Stones/Marianne Faithful
“Cocksucker Blues” The Rolling Stones
“Midnight Rambler” The Rolling Stones
“Round Midnight” Hazel Scott
“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” Billie Holiday
“Gloomy Sunday” Billie Holiday
“Baby Won’t You Come Home” Bessie Smith
“Shattered” The Rolling Stones
“Backdoor Man” The Doors
“I’m Going Home” Ten Years After
“On The Way Home” Buffalo Springfield
“Wild World” Cat Stevens
“Ohio” Neil Young
“Hey Hey My My” Neil Young
“The Needle and the Damage Done” Neil Young
“When the Levee Breaks” Led Zeppelin
“Since I’ve Been Loving You” Led Zeppelin
“Ten Years Gone” Led Zeppelin
“Gallows Pole” Led Zeppelin
“The Midnight Special” Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Run Through the Jungle” Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Feelin’ Blue” Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Midnight Rider” The Allman Brothers Band
“Ramblin Man” The Allman Brothers Band
“Pretty Eyed Baby” Roy Eldridge
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” The Beatles
“Don’t Let Me Down” The Beatles
“I Lie Around” Paul McCartney and the Wings
“Starman” David Bowie
“Life on Mars” David Bowie
“Looking for a Kiss” New York Dolls
“Trash” New York Dolls
“Pills” New York Dolls
“Time of the Season” The Zombies
“Blank Generation” Richard Hell
“I Just Wanna Have Something to Do” The Ramones
“Blitzkrieg Bop” The Ramones
“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” The Ramones
“I Just Want Some Skank” Circle Jerks
“Wild in the Streets” Circle Jerks
“Tied and Twist” Lydia Lunch
“She’s Lost Control” Joy Division
“Back in Flesh” Wall of Voodoo
“Memories” Public Image Ltd.
“My War” Black Flag
“Nervous Breakdown” Black Flag
“Search” The Minutemen
“Sex Bomb Baby…Kill” Flipper
“Kids in the Black Hole” The Adolescents
“Survive” The Bags
“She’s Like Heroin to Me” Gun Club
“Forming” The Germs
“Werewolf” Cat Power
“Trouble” Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions
“Queenie” Ethyl Meatplow
“You Doo Right” The Geraldine Fibbers
“Pretty on the Inside” Hole
“Doll Parts” Hole
“Fast and Frightening” L7
“Stuck Here Again” L7
“Allergic to Myself” Cows
“I’m So Bad (Baby I Don’t Care)” Motorhead
“Ace of Spades” Motorhead
“In the Pines” Leadbelly
“In the Pines” Kurt Cobain
“My Life to Live” The Flesh Eaters
“Heroes” David Bowie