Last week, we ran an excerpt from our Cannes Film Festival interview with director James Gray in which he spoke at length about his upcoming sci-fi project. But of course the reason he was there, and the reason we were talking at all, was to present his new film, “The Immigrant,” which premiered in competition and stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner (you can read our review here).
At the time of our conversation, Gray was not yet fully acquainted with the polarized reaction to his film, though he later responded in an entertainingly forthright manner to those who labelled it “too slow.” For our part, we had another very enjoyable talk with the director, even managing to squeeze in a little discussion of some of the issues facing contemporary U.S. cinema as a kind of a follow-on to the topics that had arisen during our last chat in December, as well a quick update on the status of a few of his gestating projects, aside from the sci-fi film.
There are some mild (thematic rather than narrative) spoilers in our discussion of the closing scenes of “The Immigrant,” just so you know, but that section is clearly marked.
So what’s your initial response to the reaction to “The Immigrant” so far?
I don’t know what the reaction is — I live in a bubble. The reaction at the official screening was great but that’s always …no I shouldn’t say it’s always great, that’s not true, but it was great, so that was nice. But in terms of other reactions I’m in a bubble. You have to tell me…
Well, I think the word so far is “divided.”
That’s great. Everybody agrees on it, it sucks.
*Mildly Spoilery Section Begins*
About the end of the film — it works in such a specific way, in shifting our perspective from Ewa to Bruno. How early on in the writing process did you envisage this shift happening?
At the very beginning. It was always part of the design. It’s an asinine thing to do in one respect — in a way, it’s designed for multiple viewings because of that. But it was always part of the design, that the film would be about her and her point of view, and in the end he is the one who is redeemed, because he has somehow found, as disgusting as he is, the capacity to admit… everything.
And up until then everything’s a lie, everything’s a manipulation to keep himself distant, but at the end he has to admit to his self-loathing: “I set the whole thing up from the beginning and I’m a piece of shit.” It was constructed that way because it was sort of built to last, hopefully. Hopefully for repeated viewings and hopefully for a long time…I’d be curious to see what your reaction is if you ever get to see this film again.
Well, I can say that the recasting of the film, the kind of mentally spooling back and changing the focus of the story worked well for me, even on first viewing. Everything fitted.
I’m so glad to hear you say that. This is the whole challenge of the movie It’s the experiment. I didn’t want to make something that seemed, like the ending would jump out at you or anything, but [I did want] something that was very subversive in that way. That was always part of the design… I’m glad to hear that [it worked for you on that level]. If you can communicate to some people, that’s great.
*Mildly Spoilery Section Ends*
How did you approach balancing the intimacy and immediacy of the story with the potentially distancing element of the period setting?
Oddly it was very helpful to me, because you find that the period setting — the trappings –enable you to live entirely in the world of the film, so it’s less distracting. It’s hard to describe. We shot the apartment on a stage, and that’s where most of the action takes place, and the theater as well, that was built on the same stage. So you live in an incredibly — I mean, I sometimes slept in the studio — you live in the world of the film. So it helped me a lot.
And then in some respects it’s not as good because the actor doesn’t feel the location, but I understand why Stanley Kubrick favored it, because you’re in the world of the film and you can’t leave it… So I felt it was almost like a process of method acting in a way. I didn’t see it as a hindrance at all.
Marion Cotillard has mentioned elsewhere that she felt like she had established a deeper relationship with you than with any of her previous directors…
She did? That’s very nice of her to say.
You’re not worried about getting a punch in the eye from her partner, and your friend, director Guillaume Canet? [whose script for “Blood Ties” Gray has a co-writing credit on]
I probably will!… And I haven’t seen “Blood Ties” yet. I was meant to, but then my daughter’s passport expired and I only arrived in Cannes an hour into his screening…
With Brad Pitt recently leaving your gestating “The Gray Man,” what’s the status on that project now?
There may be another actor who comes on board but Brad Pitt’s exiting certainly has slowed the train a bit. But there might be a way to get that done with someone else.
I would love to, I have people who are willing to make the film, I have the money to make it; I don’t have an actor. Because its very specific — it’s a British man, mid-40s and that’s hard to pair up with the budget that I need. I have people that want to make it, I just have to get the actor. It’s certainly a dream of mine to make the film. I think it’s the best script I’ve written. But the size of it is huge, the scale.
Also when we last spoke, we talked a bit about the “disappearing middle” in U.S. filmmaking terms, and how not enough people were talking about that…
And you know what? I was wrong. In 2009, A.O. Scott wrote an article about exactly what I was talking about, and I was so embarrassed, because I was wrong.
Well, one swallow doesn’t make a summer and I think you were more talking about the lack of a wider discourse around this issue.
… but I was blown away because I was sent a piece which he wrote which was not only correct but prescient and it was about the disappearance of the middle and how Paramount Vantage went away and it was very interesting for me to read all of that. And then there were a bunch of articles right around the same time that we talked from David Thomson, David Denby…
Yes, it felt kind of zeitgeisty all right.
I got a huge number of emails about it.
In fact I was wondering if since then, with people like Soderbergh talking publicly on these same issues, do you find that heartening?
Yes, Steve Soderbergh talked about it at length, I saw that… I don’t know if I would call it heartening. What I would say is that it’s like the first step in maybe some kind of movement, but we’ve so far to go, because it demands a kind of sea change in the economic structure of the movies. And all of the intelligent writing by our best critics, thinkers — and filmmakers in the case of Steven Soderbergh — can’t change the fundamentals. What has to happen is there has to be a kind of a break in how much it costs to market and distribute the film — that’s what has to change. And Soderbergh talks about that at length. And until that changes it’s very difficult to see a way through.
Until that changes you think we’re going to continue to see a kind of brain drain towards TV?
There has been a huge brain drain towards TV — it’s so good now…But you know by the same token I’m not right, because when I was on the jury in Cannes, this was 2009, I saw a lot of really good movies. They may not have been American and they may not have had scale, but they were really good. I mean, Andrea Arnold is a really talented director, she’s great. And the Haneke movie “White Ribbon” that was great, the Audiard I saw, and I saw this beautiful Palestinian film which got no awards, which pisses me off it was called “The Time That Remains” by Elia Suleiman.
So there is a lot going on, and I think that with globalization and more people making films, I think we’re gonna see great cinema happen. So I have a perverse kind of optimism at the same time as I’m pessimistic.
Perhaps Cannes is a good place to find some optimism?
Yes, Cannes is the place where you have to see that kind of film. Something with at least some degree of challenge has to be shown.
“The Immigrant” will be released by The Weinstein Company. A date has not yet been set.