With James Gray serving on the jury of the Marrakech International Film Festival this year, we were lucky enough to get some time with a director who has, in just four movies, firmly established himself as one of America’s finest auteur directors. There are a couple of further pieces to come from our talk, so articulate and interesting an interviewee he turned out to be (we left his quotes mostly uncut below), but for now, here’s a small sampler of some news that will interest anyone anticipating his next film, a dramatic period piece set around Ellis Island, even half as eagerly as we are: it seems his next picture “The Nightingale,” starring the impressive cast of Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner, is probably going to be jettisoned as the film’s title in favor of the original “Lowlife.”
“It was originally ‘Lowlife’ and is probably going to be called ‘Lowlife,’ ” Gray said. He further clarifies: “It has nothing to do with the Luc Sante book [of a similar name]. What happened was they had classifications for people coming in through Ellis Island. Believe it or not, ‘moron,’ ‘cretin’ all this stuff, they’re technical terms, which seems ridiculous. And you didn’t want to be classified a ‘lowlife,’ — they also called it ‘liable to become public charge’ — which meant that you were going to be a ward of the state and they would not allow you into the United States. So I called the movie ‘Lowlife’ and Jim Jarmusch who’s a friend of mine said I should read his friend Luc Sante’s book ‘Low Life’ because I was talking about Luc Sante’s book ‘Evidence,’ which is a series of crime photographs.”
“And I remembered it had come out maybe twenty years before and I read it, and it was the wrong time period; it was New York around when Marty Scorsese’s picture takes place, ‘Gangs of New York,’ which was about sixty or seventy years before the film I was writing takes place,” Gray continued. “But it was still very interesting, I used very little of it, and then I spoke to Luc Sante, who’s brilliant, and he said ‘I don’t want you using the title.’ So I said ‘What do you mean? My movie’s not based on your book and you can’t copyright a title; it’s called ‘Lowlife’ — it’s not even two words, it’s one.’ So the legal department said, ‘No you can’t call it ‘Lowlife’ because you communicated with him in an email. So I said ‘Rght, his email to me said ‘I can’t really help you with any of your research and don’t call your movie ‘Lowlife.” That’s hardly a contact with him. And they said, ‘But it is a contact.’ ”
“So then it became ‘The Untitled James Gray Movie,’ which is completely awful because unintentionally for legal reasons you sound like a megalomaniac,” Gray laughed. “The editing room would call up and it was [mimics sing-song phone-answering voice] ‘Untitled James Gray Movie!’ It was like that for a while, and then there’s a speech that an actress gives in which she says that ‘the nightingale sings sweetest when it’s darkest,’ and I thought ‘Well, that’s nice, if I can’t call it ‘Lowlife’ I’ll call it that.’ “
“And then everybody else decided they hated that title, and I said, ‘Screw it, let’s just call it ‘Lowlife’ which it’s supposed to be called’ and that’s where we are right now. I wish I could be more detailed than that,” he adds wryly, “but you now know what I know.”
Whatever its title, the movie is now finished. “I finished it last week, saw the first print and got on a plane the next day to come here.” Gray adds that the film is hopefully heading to The Cannes Film Festival in 2013, “if they’ll have me.”
He goes on to whet our appetites further, saying, “If you like the films that I’ve made, if you do and it’s a big if, then there’s an infinitesimal chance that you won’t like it. Because I’ve screened it for people who both hate and like my films and the response from people who like the films is that it’s my best film.” And that continued confidence is something we’re glad to see, because when we spoke to the director in the spring, he had the same feeling as he was heading into post-production at the time.
We certainly can’t wait, but in the meantime, you can check out a full synopsis and some set pics here, and gain our impressions of the Telluride sneak peek here. And as we mentioned, over the next few days we’ll have more from Gray, including some further stories around the origins of the film and the shooting experience, the director’s other gestating projects, and his thoughts on contemporary U.S. cinema in general.