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'The Immigrant' Director James Gray Tells His Cannes Critics To 'Go F*** Themselves' and Explains His Deeply Personal Connection to the Film

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire May 29, 2013 at 10:23AM

Labeled "the most divisive film in Cannes competition" by Indiewire's Eric Kohn, James Gray's Marion Cotillard-starring period drama "The Immigrant" was among one of the most anticipated and ultimately debated films to play at the recently wrapped festival. Beloved by many for what Kohn described as its "classical virtues" and derided by some who found the pacing too deliberate and the protagonist too opaque, "The Immigrant" is sure to be topic of further discussion when The Weinstein Company opens it later this year.
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Marion Cotillard, Immigrant

You were talking about the genesis of the project, the personal connection, the family connection.

My grandparents, they spoke no English really, even to the day that they died, and there was this kind of weird, emotionally repressed environment which was so… [pauses] fraught. I would go to my grandparents’ house, they would be listening to like [imitates the music] the Victrola, my grandmother would be buying potatoes in fifty pound sacks and I remember [my grandfather] kept a crappy and barely function Ford truck in his garage, and when my father asked him, "Dad, why are you still keeping that truck here? It doesn’t really work." He said, "Because you never know when they’ll come for you." And I saw the evidence of a certain kind of fear, xenophobia, melancholy, that has been bequeathed to my father, which ultimately of course means it’s inside of me. And so I suppose it was my way of examining some of the wrenching dislocation of coming to a new place. And you know, it’s interesting because my grandfather, as little English as he spoke, he always spoke of Russia, or I should say The Ukraine, really, with great reverence and love, and that’s insane, because my grandmother’s parents were murdered in front of her face.

READ MORE: 'The Immigrant' Director James Gray Says He Is 'Unabashedly Pro Immigration' at Cannes

Just like her character in the film.

Yes, by the way, my grandparents are the photograph in the locket, along with Ewa’s sister. And I just couldn't understand what they missed about it, you know, the town was almost leveled by the czarist troops, and then it was totally destroyed by the Nazis, and yet people have a connection to their home that they can’t lose, so I want to explore that thing, the dislocation. And I’m not saying the American dream isn’t true, because in some ways it is. I’m here, in Cannes, having made a film when my grandfather was a plumber in Brooklyn in the 1930s after coming here through Ellis Island, so obviously there’s some measure of social mobility that does matter. But by the same token, it’s an ongoing process, it’s not like you snap your fingers and all of a sudden you’re a hit and nothing else matters, the way it works is that things change and your life evolves, and I suppose I wanted to examine the process, in a way, of the American dream. Does that make sense?

Yeah, that makes great sense. I had no idea about the personal connection; that wasn’t brought up yesterday in the press conference.

Nobody asked.

Yeah, nobody asked. With that said, are your parents still with us?

My father is, my mother died twenty years ago, my father is still around and quite compos mentis and lives on 74th street and 2nd avenue.

Phoenix, Cotillard, Low Life, The Immigrant,

Did he see the film?

He has not. I’m gonna to show it to him as soon as I can. I finished it not long before we came here. I fished shooting it a while ago but it had 140 visual effects shots, some of which were extremely complex…

All of which are not noticeable.

That’s the reason that it took so long, 'cause you had to keep doing multiple versions. And I wanted to make sure that you couldn’t see the visual effects. Suspension of disbelief is critical. When did you see the film?

I just saw it yesterday morning, at 8:30.

Oh God, that’s too early. What was it like? Was it a good response, do you think?

Yeah, let’s talk about the response briefly.

I don’t know what the response was.

I mean the response that you witnessed, last night.

Last night? Well it was great.

The film, from what I’ve noticed, has divided people in a surprising way. I responded to it so emotionally. Other people didn’t respond to it that way and saw the pacing as a little deliberate, from what I've gauged. Can you speak a bit to that and the tendency in films these days to move at a certain clip?

Well my movie is an hour and forty-eight minutes and lets scenes play, and I don't say this generally because I know it's not politically incorrect, but if the problem people have with the film is the pace, fuck ‘em, because we’re in Cannes, and this is not the place to be watching "Transformers 3," and they can go fuck themselves. It’s not that much work, and they should be ashamed of themselves. I didn’t know that.

I have no problem with hearing criticism, I have no problem with hearing people have a problem with the film, one way or another, but if the problem is like, "Oh, it was slow," they can go fuck themselves. Because movies are not barium enemas, you’re not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible. This is a place where films are supposed to be a certain thing where they take their time and you should think about them. It’s supposed to be a place where cinema is something for thought, not fast food. If that’s what they want they should stay home. Plenty of movies for them in the multiplex, is what I would say.

The Immigrant

When I was discussing this with someone who loved the film as much as I did, they said, “Well if it wasn’t in English, maybe the pacing wouldn't even be brought up."

Yeah, well of course that’s true. What happens is different cultures demand different things of you. I’m embarrassed for those people; I think that’s an embarrassing response. They should turn on a neon sign on that says "I’m a moron."

I’m sure they’ll say I’m arrogant for that, but I’m not, because the truth is that I was on the jury in 2009 and you come for this kind of experience, and if you’re looking for action sequences, like I said, there is tons for you. The world is filled with that stuff. Ugh, it gets me enraged. Almost nothing will. I can take any criticism: "I didn’t understand that character," "This was too sad," whatever, whatever. That drives me nuts. It drives me nuts. Whatever.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you --

No, you didn’t, I like to get into it. It makes me passionate.

This article is related to: James Gray, Interviews, Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant, Cannes Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Drama