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by Nigel M Smith
May 29, 2013 10:23 AM
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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

James Gray and Marion Cotillard Festival de Cannes
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.

The 1920s set drama stars Cotillard as Ewa, a Polish woman with a mysterious past who immigrates to New York in the hope of a better life for her and her sister. When her sibling is detained by authorities and confined after she shows signs of illness, Ewa meets a seedy show runner (Gray frequent collaborator Joaquin Phoenix), who takes her in and forces her into prostitution. With the money earned, Ewa hopes to free her sister and be reunited.

READ MORE: Marion Cotillard On Learning Polish to Play 'The Immigrant' for James Gray (Who Reveals He Was Unfamiliar With the Actress)

I sat down with a chatty Gray the day following the film's premiere in Cannes to discuss the mixed reaction to the drama, what inspired him to write it with his "Two Lovers" collaborator Ric Menello, and whether he would ever consider taking a break from his emotionally bruising films to make a comedy.

Out of everything I've seen here, "The Immigrant" moved me the most.

The movies should be the most emotional medium. People normally take advantage of that. Story has big power sometimes, and if it works on you, that’s what you hope. But some people don’t have that reaction to it. I continually marvel at people who can make films that reach five hundred million people. How do you do that? Everybody’s different — I don’t know how that works.

Do you see this as your most emotional work?

I don’t know, I mean I hope so. I know this sounds phony but I don’t start out on a project going, "I’m going to make an emotional work," you know what I mean? You try to tell the story directly and honestly and with passion...

[A server interrupts to make sure we're OK and leaves].

I love France, I love the French, I’m ready to go home. Three days it took me to get my underwear back from the laundry. Also the worst concierge service in all of human history. I had tickets for all these guests of mine, and they said "Oh, we’ll slip it under your door," and like seven hours later they lose the…anyway, I’m sorry.

No, no. Getting a glass of water at this hotel takes half an hour.

Yeah, it’s like scaling K2.

Anyways, yes, I tried to commit to the story entirely. I had seen an opera in Los Angeles, "Il trittico" by Puccini, which is three operettas. Two are tragedies and one is a comedy: "Il tabarro," "Suor Angelica," and "Gianni Schicchi." The two tragedies were directed by William Friedkin and the comedy was Woody Allen. And it was an amazing, amazing evening. And the second one, "Suor Angelica," the tragedy, was so beautifully directed by Friedken and had such emotional commitment to the main character, who is a woman, and it was almost like a key that unlocked a door for me. All of a sudden, I was freed from guns and machismo, it was like that went away and all of a sudden all you had to focus on was the emotion of the moment, and so I thought I really want to make a film that’s like that. So I guess in a way I was trying to do that. But you know, that may be a problem for some people ’cause some people might feel like, it’s forcing that emotion on you, but I mean, what are you going to do? You have to try to do that, right?

It all flowed naturally for me. I didn't feel I was being manipulated.


What I’m talking about was really an issue of tone. As a director, if you assemble the actors you love, and if you’re shooting in a place you like, and you have a great cinematographer, and all that stuff, and I did, essentially the director is the one person on the set who would not have to do anything. Now, it may not be a particularly good movie, but the film could function without the director saying anything. Now what a director really does is set the emotional temperature and the mood and the level, amount, or lack of, distance between the action and the character, and the character and the audience. The emotional temperature is created by the proximity of the camera to the actor, the pace of the scene, and how the actor plays the scene. All of this goes into the presentation of emotion. It’s hard to explain because it’s a process that you must think of consciously in order to affect an unconscious response in the audience. So it’s one of the harder things about making films, but it’s about how you direct the actors and how the scene plays that affects the emotion. Does that make any sense?

That makes perfect sense. What was the emotional temperature like on the set of this film...

[Another server interrupts to see if his egg white omelet is to his liking. He says yes; she leaves.]

She looked perplexed by the egg whites.

I ordered an egg white omelet, which was basically like ordering fried chocolate-covered grasshoppers, or something. But yes, it was a very very happy set, and a lot of joking around. In fact Joaquin [Phoenix] and Jeremy [Renner], who get along very very well, who are terrible troublemakers, and if you to frame by frame certain scenes in the movies, I have to cut right to the edge of where Marion would be laughing at something. You can see that. So it’s totally different from what the movie is.

Is it always that way on your sets?

Well I feel like people do the best work with you under two circumstances, two extremes, everybody thinks they’re going to get fired immediately, and they’re on their toes and they do great work for you, and that is a fact. Or, everyone’s having an amazing time; they do their best work with you. So, if that’s true, and I think it is, then why wouldn’t you want to just have a great time? Occasionally it can get out of hand, and the actors become like children and start screwing up takes by laughing and stuff, but that’s what you live with in order to experience a kind of freedom to experiment around.

Have you ever wanted to direct a comedy yourself?

I would love to.

Your films are quite heavy, for the most part.

I would love to. I think its incumbent upon me to try because laughter is a huge part of life and life doesn’t just suck, so in order to broaden my scope, I need to do it. I’m lacking a little bit of guts, and some of my friends are really great at it. I went to see "Star Trek Into Darkness," and J.J. Abrams, who’s a friend of mine, made this film and I went to see it at the premiere. Believe it or not, I was really blown away by the comic timing of it. I was like, "You have a talent for comedy." I don’t understand anyone who has that kind of talent. And it was perfectly timed, and the audience is laughing, and I’m just like, "I can’t do that. I have no skill for that at all."

Life does suck for Marion's character in this film. What inspired you to tell Ewa's [Cotillard's character] story in "The Immigrant"?

Understanding something about ourselves. This is not a popular idea for commercial purposes or for studios or anything, but I feel that the film has to be personal in some way, which doesn’t mean autobiographical, it’s not the same thing. Autobiographical is the facts of your life; personal means what you care about, what matters to you emotionally, what you’re trying to communicate. And I guess it was a process where I was trying to understand why my family is that way that it is, why our interactions are the way that they are, and in doing so, explore a bit of the background of what it meant to come to the United States from another country...

[A man interrupts the interview to invite Gray to his movie screening — boasting that it was also about immigration. He leaves after pitching his film to a perturbed Gray.]

So sorry.

Why are you sorry?

It’s like totally shameless — I’m I the middle of doing something and he comes up and starts inviting me to screenings. I’m so sorry; I lost my train of thought.

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17 Comments

  • Michelle | August 23, 2013 6:44 PMReply

    This man has no talent and a big ego. His movies are rubbish. If only they were just slow... No, they are incredibly dull, emotionless, pointless, fake and almost the same. I have nothing against slow movies if they have cinematic values like atmosphere, style, good screenplay etc. Movies of James Grey are barren, I don't feel that he put his soul and wants the audience to relate to them. Sorry, but cinema is not for him. There're a lot of other opportunities for men of his age.

  • Joe Leydon | May 31, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    I love -- love! -- this line: "Because movies are not barium enemas, you’re not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible." Seriously: Will be quoting that.

  • Silvana | May 30, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    The Immigrant is the best film of James Gray and I really wait for Oscar nom to him, and Cotillard must win best Actress category, she is magnificent.

  • Paul D. Brazill | May 30, 2013 4:52 AMReply

    'Also the worst concierge service in all of human history. ' That man knows suffering. And that egg white omelet! Poor man. No wonder he identifies with Cotillard's character so well.

    This looks to be another one of those dreary middlebrow films that are both portentous and lightweight. An achievement of sorts.

  • Tania | May 29, 2013 10:25 PMReply

    I hope Cotillard be nominated to Oscar 'cause she worths it!

  • Gross | May 29, 2013 8:43 PMReply

    What a jerk. I've not seen one of his movies, nor do I want to. He probably would think of me one of the unwashed masses for saying that.

  • Jenna | May 29, 2013 9:54 PM

    That's just stupid because he is genius! He is a little arrogant so what? He is not a bad person & that's not a reason to snub his movies (which are all masterpieces).

  • LeonRaymond | May 29, 2013 8:26 PMReply

    Hey, hey come on all he had to do was put a cape and tights on some of the characters and have women fainting and then rescued and all those critics would have got it and got the type of film they only want to see!

  • Liam | May 29, 2013 3:24 PMReply

    Well said Gray! It's your movie, a piece of you. Some critics were really harsh with you, they don't get you! I think that you have every right to defend your work !

  • Wer | May 29, 2013 3:20 PMReply

    Who said anything about The Immigrant being too "slow"? I think that's a distortion of the record. Most negative commentary I've seen (and my own thoughts) highlights a fundamental uninterestingness about the narrative, only slack dramatic impulses on display.

  • Shelly Isaacs | May 29, 2013 3:10 PMReply

    I applaud and support James Gray on his comments about people's problem with "the slowness of film." As a programmer and lecturer of foreign language film programs, I also have to deal with this kind of comment. Either people get it or they don't, and all Mr Gray and the rest of us can do is be thankful for the ones who do.

  • charles | May 29, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    The Marion Cotillard's performance in The Immigrant is superb!

  • Milla | May 29, 2013 1:09 PMReply

    I got to say I like his honesty, he might look arrogant but what he says is clearly true, the way some "critics" review some movies is abject, sometimes they know nothing about what they are talking about. Claiming that a movie is "too slow" or "too linear" is just stupid, critics should try harder to understand what the director was trying to do and maybe they would see the movie from another angle.
    Some critics let their own feeling get in the way of what is supposed to be their job.

  • Allan | May 29, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    His treatment of fans and the wait staff...

  • Joe | May 29, 2013 10:51 AMReply

    I feel so sorry for him having to deal with such awful service at one of the finest hotels in the world! Laundry took SO long! I love that when they had nothing on the menu of this classy French place, Mr Gray ordered off the menu. The French know nothing of food, so sometimes you have to be patient with them. Maybe if he had told them he was friends with JJ Abrhams, he could have got the egg whites he wanted without all the attitude.

  • Tom | May 29, 2013 9:49 PM

    Someone should take away your fucking communication devices, you foolish ignorant! James Gray is one of the finest american director alive, along with Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, The Coen's brothers & Francis Ford Coppola.

  • parsyeb | May 29, 2013 2:28 PM

    Hey Joe, give him a break. He's an emotional temperature-setter. He gets that camera close to the actor and tells Phoenix to curl his lip. I mean, Two Lovers? What mise-en-scene, what acting, how do you get that character where he's kinda crazy but kinda loveable but kinda nuts but he's a cinephile?

    Seriously, somebody needs to take away this guy's camera.