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Here Are Seven Directing Lessons From 'The Immigrant' Filmmaker James Gray

By Eric Hynes | Indiewire December 6, 2013 at 10:17AM

James Gray began his Marrakech Film Festival Master Class with a self-deprecatory warning to everyone in attendance at the Salles des Ambassadeurs at the Palais de Congress, including moderator Scott Foundas. "I don't think I have anything to say," he claimed, before embarking on an earnest, entertaining, and ebullient 110-minute disquisition on everything from his own films to 'Raging Bull,' and from the importance of making films personal to taking it personally when peers don't like your films. Though his films shade, by his own admission, toward dark themes and hard truths, in person Gray is voluble and loquacious, playing both the cut up (he offered impressions of Joaquin Phoenix, Francis Ford Coppola, and Al Pacino, among others), and the outer borough sod ("my whole life was fairly miserable" he said of growing up in Queens). The following are excerpts from the session.
"Where the direction of the light comes from is everything when you're lighting the scene."

5) Lighting is emotion.

Lighting affects how we feel about performance to a huge degree. In "Raging Bull," Jake LaMotta gets put in prison, and he starts punching the wall, and it's an incredible moment. Almost in completely darkness. If you'd lit the scene brightly, you might have very different emotional reaction to it. All of cinema, when you break it down—and this holds for Bresson or anyone else who might not seem so pedestrian as to be narrative—all of great cinema to me always has worked where the form and content are married completely. Where the lighting is always endorsing the story. All of the stories that matter are the ones in which the subtext gives the meaning. And the subtext should dictate how the visual strategy is approached in every scene. How the actor is lit determines your emotional reaction to his or her performance. Whether we put him in darkness or brightness, whether we light him from above or below or head on, all of these things have different emotional reactions. Where the direction of the light comes from is everything when you're lighting the scene.

6) Don't worry about awards (though you will worry about awards). 

I feel bad when I don't win an award. But I feel worse that I care that I didn't win the award. It's so dumb. It is such a bad tendency of people. The whole idea of creating "the best" is sick. I can't stand the Oscars. My wife watches it, and asks why I don't like it, and I say, "How come you don't like looking in the windows of an incredible party that you're not invited to?" The idea is nauseating enough, but if you want to give awards, fine. Have a show and say that tonight you want to give it to Fred Smith's "Go Take a Flying Leap in the Ocean" and give him an award. But that's not what they do. They have the five nominees. Because it's not enough that you should win—it's more important that you win and others fail. They love losers. Why do we create this for ourselves? It's totally sick because I start to care about it. I go to Cannes and people say [in French accent] "So, will this year by the year that you win the Palme d'Or?" And how am I supposed to answer that? "Yes, this is the year that I will win the Palme d'Or." Then guess what, I didn't win anything.

"I think American cinema is in a very difficult situation."

But this year actually really stung me. Not that I didn't win, but I was hoping that Marion Cotillard would be recognized in some way, because I think her work was really genius. And it stung me a little bit also because the head of the jury is someone whom I respect a great deal, and to know that, I guess, he didn't like the film that much, hurt me. But that's my ego. That's just someone you respect and wish liked your movie. To a certain degree you know that the whole thing is a farce, and I hate myself for caring because I know it's a farce. But it's impossible not to care. Impossible not to feel disappointed. Now I could sit here and say that I don't care about awards—to go is the honor. And that's a lie. You want your fellow filmmakers who judge you to say you've done good work.

7) The future looks both dark and bright for American filmmakers, depending on the types of films you want to make. 

For me personally, I view things very grimly. I think that the economics are disastrous. This whole idea of having to make a billion dollars for the parent company's stock price, it's almost impossible to tell a personal story with those kinds of financial stakes. It's like a straightjacket. So I have a very grim longterm feeling about what I like. Personal films, dark films. But that doesn't mean the medium is dead. It means the medium's going through a transition where it changes into something else entirely. And I think it's going to be a kind of combination cinema and amusement park ride—there's something coalescing that is beyond what I can imagine, that I think will be great for viewers. Movies are headed in a more sensate direction. Less about the verbal and more about the visual. Audiences these days have incredible visual literacy. They are so ahead of me visually it is ridiculous. But my own view is that narratively they are maybe in a more primitive place than they were thirty years ago. How they view and process stories. Good guys and bad buys—they need them more than ever. For the viewers of tomorrow that embrace that kind of sensory cinema, the future is very bright. For people who enjoy another kind of cinema, a more intimate cinema, I think American cinema is in a very difficult situation.

This article is related to: Marrakech Film Festival, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Festivals, Interviews, James Gray, The Immigrant, Filmmaker Toolkit: Acting, Filmmaker Toolkit, Cannes Film Festival, Marion Cotillard

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