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CANNES 2013: An Interview with James Gray

Cannes 2013: An Interview with James Gray

The great emotional impact of James Gray’s formidable new
melodrama The Immigrant is gradual.
In the film’s epic opening moments, polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cottilard)
arrives at Ellis Island in 1921. The weight of her character’s
decisions and compromises, which involve trusting a shady theater operator named
Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) with her well being, is not immediately felt. But like
all of James Gray’s tormented lead characters, the more time you spend with
them, the more complex their experiences become. Through Ewa’s glazed eyes, the
film examines how survival and adaptation often trumps common sense and safety.
In this sense, Gray has crafted a masterpiece of pragmatic will that only gains
resonance with each shadowy frame. A day after The Immigrant premiered at Cannes 2013 to a rousing mix of praise
and criticism, Press Play sat down with Gray at the Carlton Hotel on the
Croisette to discuss 1930s melodramas, gender representation on screen, family
dynamics, and Fellini’s La Strada.

Press Play: Your
films often deal with the illusion of the American dream. How do you think The Immigrant is different from your
previous work in this regard?

James Gray: Ewa
is a survivor. I think she’s going to make it. I don’t think she’s going to
live a perfect life or be able to forget what has happened to her, but I think
she’s going to make it somehow. I don’t know if my other characters will make
it. In a perverse way Ewa is heroic, and I don’t mean heroic like a superhero.
What I mean is heroic in a mythic sense because she accomplishes something in
her pursuit to create a new life for herself and her sister. I think despite
everything she goes through, she is going to endure and pull through. So maybe
that’s how her experience, and the film as a whole, are different.

PP: The Immigrant is told from the
perspective of a woman, while your previous films have all been told from the
perspective of men. Why was this film so important to tell from a woman’s
perspective, especially considering the period piece setting?

JG: In Los
Angeles, of all places I had seen a production of Il trittico, which is three operettas by Puccini, two of which are
tragic—“Il tabarro” and “Suor Angelica,” and the third is a comedy, “Gianni
Schicchi.” Woody Allen directed the comedy, and William Friedkin directed the
tragedies. The second one Friedkin did, “Sour Angelica,” is one of the most
beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. There was a real breakthrough moment for
me during this segment because I saw something completely, nakedly emotional
which didn’t require any of the trappings of machismo. Nobody had to hold a gun,
and nobody had to run around acting tough. It was entirely about a woman’s
experience. This experience showed me that I was able to drop all of the
trappings of male behavior and make something that follows the emotion of the
moment. As for the period, that was me trying to tap in directly to parts of my
own family history, why my family exists the way it does emotionally. Both the
gender of the character and this desire to mine my own history were married
to create the story.

PP: The gender
issue is brought up quite often in the film. Ewa is a single woman who has her
family ripped apart in the opening moments, and it leaves her with this
decision to make. Does she move forward or backward? If the film were told from
a man’s perspective, it would have an entirely different focus.

JG: I was on the
jury in Marrakech in December, and we had to give a Best Actress award. I
couldn’t find an actress in the main character role to choose from. My own
position as a juror was that, as a group, we should make a comment and not give the
award at all because no film had a great female performance at its center. I
find that situation interesting, because women make up the majority on this
planet.  What, 52 or 53 percent of the
population? And yet, for some reason, men control the news and drama. But with my films I’ve always tried to make a comment on
the patriarchy, to say this is the way things are. I guess The Immigrant was my only way to break through that. It’s weird,
because American films in the 1930s and 40s, particularly melodramas, were made
for woman. From Bette Davis to Joan Crawford to Barbara Stanwyck to Katherine
Hepburn, and for some reason we’ve taken a step backward in this sense. Think
about this. Take Lawrence Kasdan’s Body
and Billy Wilder’s Double
. The latter’s presentation of the woman is in some ways
distinctly more progressive than the former. In Body Heat, the femme fatale turns out to be the center of all evil,
and in Double Indemnity Neff turns
out to be equally as guilty, if not more so, for everything that occurs. One was
made in the 40s, and one was made in the 80s. If you came down from Venus and
looked at both movies politically, you might think Double Indemnity was made more recently.

[At this point Mr. Gray spots director Jim Jarmusch
walking through the restaurant and stops the interview to say hello. The two
exchange friendly words of support, and before leaving, Gray kindly introduces
Jarmusch to this wonderfully bemused interviewer.]

JG: Sorry. It’s
been months since I’ve seen Jim and I love him to death. He’s a very important
person to me.

PP: That’s a
whole other interview we could do.

JG: Yeah.

PP: You were
talking about female centered films from the 30s and 40s, and I think The Immigrant does attempt to get back
to that focus.

JG: Those films are mostly melodramas, which is a beautiful
genre, but sometimes they get melodramatic. Melodrama and melodramatic are not
the same thing, and often people make the mistake of confusing the two.
Melodrama is one of the most stunning art forms. These are stories where the
emotions are big and the situations are big, and the artists believe in the
situation dramatically. There’s no irony or distance. If there is a sense of
distance, the story becomes melodramatic. Being in the moment is a risky place
for a creative person to be. Because believing in the emotional moment is very
out of fashion. But there’s no art without risk.

PP: There’s a level of pragmatism
in Eva’s decisions that make her unique as a character, strong, realistic, and
vulnerable. What was it about her sense of pragmatism that interested you most?

JG: Not long
before I made the film I read Primo Levi’s book Survival in Auschwitz, which talks about the perverse idea that even
in this horrible place, there were moments of joy. To me this is so
inconceivable. I mean, what joy is going on there? I don’t understand. But the
idea is that even under the most horrendous of circumstances, survival is the
single most powerful idea. I wanted to compose a character who would be, in a
quiet way, very steely, very driven by survival, and by adaptability. She would
adapt to any circumstance, no matter how awful.

PP: It’s even
more interesting when you consider Jeremy Renner’s character Orlando, the
charming magician, and how he complicates Ewa’s pragmatism.

JG: It’s very
hard for Ewa to believe him. Orlando has a history as a gambler, a drunk, and
a womanizer. The whole idea isn’t to create characters that have no flaws. If I
had made Renner’s character a white knight in response to Bruno, there would be
no choice, conflict, or struggle. There would be nothing interesting about this
dynamic. When approaching this situation, I thought of the conception of the
Holy Fool, the idea that a person can show us the way, but it doesn’t mean that
person is perfect.

PP: Kind of like La Strada?

JG: Exactly like La Strada! The movie is a rip-off of La Strada. Well, not the last third. But if you think of La Strada, you have Zampano (Joaquin Phoenix’s character), you have
Gelsomina (Marion Cotillard’s character), and you have The Holy Fool (Jeremy
Renner’s character). The Immigrant is
directed in a very different way because La
is essentially a fable and a road movie, so there are differences.
But I was certainly affected by Fellini’s film. I just decided to approach it
in a more realistic way. Today, if you made a fable like that it might be seen
as quite quaint. Also, you don’t want to merely repeat Fellini anyway. You want
to do your own thing. Interestingly though, at the end of La Strada there’s no real redemption. It’s actually a lot darker
than my film. Zampano realizes too late that he loves her. There’s no real
redemption. Here, I had wanted to present a situation where the characters’
relationships and confessions are paramount. In some ways, there is hope for
both Ewa and Bruno.

PP: In terms of
performance, how did you approach the character of Bruno with Joaquin Phoenix?

JG: We had
engineered that whole thing really almost in reverse. We had started thinking
about the climax, which in a way sums up the entire character, the
self-destructive qualities of the character. I always felt that the self-hate
of Bruno would govern all of the behavior that came before in the film—the
lying, the manipulating, and the fact that he is essentially a predator. It’s all an act to intimidate Ewa into being on stage. But it was a strange
trajectory in terms of working on the character backwards, from the end to the

PP: Why do family
dynamics interest you so much?

JG: It’s the
basis of who we are. So much of who we are as people comes from the dynamics of
the family. But absence of family also is who you are. If I want to understand
who a person is, I start there.

PP: This film is unique in that Ewa is by herself and Bruno
provides this false sense of extended family. But it’s all a façade.

JG: He does it on purpose and that’s how he survives. Bruno
even says it in the film, “The things you do to survive.” One of the great
traumas for me is what I call the “4am scaries”, the realization that we are
alone in the world. I remember as a little kid I would always feel comfortable
if the light in the crack of my parent’s door was on at night. When it went off
that meant they were asleep. Then that terror and the fear of being by myself
started to creep in. I think this feeling is more important than we care to
admit.  Being in a gang, being in a club,
a group, all of this is an attempt to try and shatter that fear, and Bruno
creates this kind of pseudo-family in order to survive emotionally and
financially. He might not admit that as a character, but it’s his way.

PP: I have to ask you this because it’s been on my mind
every since your first film. Happy occasions in your films are never really
happy. Dinner parties in We Own the Night,
the family gatherings in Two Lovers,
the welcome home party in The Yards,
they all hide the repressed emotional state of the characters and their
relation to family.

JG: [Laughs] I never thought of it that way but you’re completely
right. There are some things you aren’t conscious of in life, and that is one of
them. I think it says terrible things about my own past, meanwhile I have
family gatherings that are great. I have a fantastic wife and great kids, so I
don’t know what I’m working out there, but it’s not necessarily conscious. I
guess it’s dramatic tension, multiple levels of a scene. A scene should always
operate based on what the subject is that’s right beneath it. The subtext is

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

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