Over the course of four films, director James Gray has crafted four distinct New York City stories. They are films that often find very masculine yet vulnerable protagonists struggling with difficult emotional and moral terrain, in tales that enrich and transcend the genres parameter they are seemingly structured within. And Gray’s next film, the recently wrapped “Low Life,” promises to find the writer/director exploring some new ground. His first period movie, the picture stars regular collaborator Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard, in the story of a woman immigrating from Poland whose sister gets caught in the confines of Ellis Island. She is then forced to dabble in burlesque and vaudeville for money once she lands, but a magician comes along who hopes to save her and reunite her with her sister.
We chatted last week with James Gray as “We Own The Night” prepares to screen at BAMcinematek later today (followed by a Q&A with the director), and asked him about his next effort, and not only is he feeling very confident about the project, we may see it much, much sooner than we had anticipated.
To one degree or another, Gray’s films have always touched upon the immigrant experience, particularly as it pertains to his own Russian Jewish heritage. And as he told us, this new film puts those themes he’s circled around under the microscope, also allowing him to confront his own family history at the same time. “One of the central struggles that people have — really throughout history — is the struggle to try and fit into a larger system. Even if it’s an inner city youth somewhere that joins a gang, or some middle aged wealthy white executive working somewhere in the south that needs to fit into his country club, everyone is always joining something to try and fit in. And in drama you’re looking always for almost an extreme version [of that theme],” he explained. “And I remember very well, my grandparents who spoke almost no English, who spent a lot of their time really wishing they were back in Russia, which I never understood. But they clearly had trouble fitting in, and I found that very powerful and very sad and it’s a very emotional idea to me, and I know how lonely they were in many respects. And I suppose I’m trying to come to grips with that.”
But perhaps most excitingly, especially for Gray himself, is that this time around he has made a point to try and avoid using other films as an emotional or aesthetic inspiration — he’s essentially heading into the editing process (which begins this week) cold. “I tried on this movie in particular, to be as uninspired by movies as possible. I want it to be it’s own thing. So I don’t know what the inspiration is…I tried very hard to not to steal from anything — I’m sure I did, by the way, I’m not saying I made anything brand new — not consciously, is what I mean.”
However, even as he begins to shape the film, Gray is feeling very confident about what he has to work with. And moreover, we might be seeing the results as early as this fall. “It will be done in 15 weeks from now. So I think the goal — to the degree that I have goals like this, because I don’t make goals for film festivals — I think that the goal would probably be to try to make Venice and Toronto. Maybe not Venice because that’s really quick…but I think the goal would probably be to make Toronto,” he said, adding: “I think it’s going to be my best work. What I shot was not just my best work, but the actors doing their best and I’m very excited about it for that reason. I’m extremely excited, like I said it’s the best thing I’ve done.”
We certainly cannot wait. The film is currently without distribution, but should it land on the festival circuit this fall, you can bet it will be one that will drawing all kinds of attention, and we’re eager to see what Gray has put together this time around.