James Gray is a director that has remained somewhat under the radar on the American cinematic front for the past decade-and-a-half, making films that draw considerable talent and have illustrious competition slots at Cannes that never quite manage to garner the same level of attention or acclaim stateside.
His latest film "The Immigrant" tackles the myth of the American dream, focusing on Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arriving to Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister Magda, only to have them separated as Magda is placed in the infirmary. With no money or place to stay and facing the threat of deportation, a mysterious man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to her aid, providing her with a roof over her head and a job at the burlesque theater he runs. As Ewa struggles to survive and maintain faith despite the hardship of her situation, the motivations behind Bruno's kindness begin to shift and evolve. Taking inspiration from the New Hollywood era of filmic history, "The Immigrant" is an impressively ambitious and mature piece of work, tackling themes like redemption and forgiveness with the kind of straightforwardness that highlights Gray's sincerity as a filmmaker as well as his lack of accessibility given the current national film scene.
Following the press screening of "The Immigrant" at the New York Film Festival this morning, Gray and Phoenix were on hand for a press conference moderated by Dennis Lim, where Gray discussed his inspiration for the film, working with Marion Cotillard and how he had almost landed a part in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic." Although Phoenix was present, he remained amusingly and bizarrely tightlipped throughout the proceedings, perhaps suggesting another era of performance art in the actor's career.
Below is a roundup of the highlights from the talk.
Gray on making his first film to feature a female protagonist:
"I had seen, I think in 2008 or 2009, a performance of the opera 'Il Trittico' by Puccini in L.A. It's a triptych, with two tragedies directed by William Friedkin and the comedy was directed by Woody Allen. The middle part is 'Suor Angelica,' and it was told from the female perspective, and I spent a good part of the sixty minutes of the opera weeping. So I thought there was something extremely beautiful about exploring melodrama through a female protagonist's perspective, because all of a sudden I would be free from the constraints of what I call macho posturing, male behavior, and all that stuff, and just get straight to the emotional part of it. And I don't mean, 'women are more emotional,' that's not what I mean, what I mean is culturally we say 'masculine' and 'feminine' are there are traits we attribute to those qualities. And I just thought I would cut off the trappings of male behavior and do something very operatic. Not melodramatic, but a melodrama. So that was the inspiration for this, and I found it quite rewarding and liberating."
Gray on using his own family background to inform the portrayal of the immigrant experience:
"My grandparents came through Ellis Island in 1923, and their entire history was quite well-documented, we've got all the paperwork and so forth... What was really an interesting thing for me, is that it was not like the typical immigration story. When I saw movies about the American dream, it was always 'I came to America, and it was fantastic and I loved it.' The truth is, my grandparents spoke very little English until the day they died, they never really assimilated, and there was a tremendous melancholy, especially to my grandfather, who always talked about missing the old country. Which I never understood. I mean my grandmother's parents were beheaded by Katza, so I never understood what he was missing really. But I found it interesting that he still had this pull to this place, which meant that the immigrant experience was a bit more complicated than, 'America's great.'"
Gray on the visual aesthetic of the film:
"Well, the photography of the film was based on two things, really. The first was these things called autochromes, which are these fake-colored photos that are hand-dyed on glass to make them look colored. And then it's also based on... Everyone says, 'Oh, it's Vilmos Zsigmond and Gordon Willis and all that,' but the truth is it just came from the huge amount of soot and coal, all that stuff that burned in the air, basically cut the light and always created a kind of yellow-ish thing as opposed to a bright blue sky, a huge amount of pollution. Another thing is when you light things by gaslight they take on a kind of yellow-ocre hue. You could light it a different way with fluorescents, but it would be a-historical."