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Relying On His Own Tastes: Director James Gray on “Two Lovers”

Relying On His Own Tastes: Director James Gray on "Two Lovers"

Set in the insular world of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, “Two Lovers” is a romantic drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard, a charismatic but troubled young man who moves back into his childhood home following a recent heartbreak. While recovering under the watchful eye of his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov), Leonard meets two women in quick succession: Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a mysterious and beautiful neighbor who is exotic and out-of-place in Leonard’s staid world, and Sandra, the lovely and caring daughter of a businessman who is buying out his family’s dry-cleaning business. Leonard becomes deeply infatuated by Michelle, who seems poised to fall for him, but is having a self-destructive affair with a married man. At the same time, mounting pressure from his family pushes him towards committing to Sandra. Leonard is forced to make an impossible decision – between the impetuousness of desire and the comfort of love – or risk falling back into the darkness that nearly killed him. Magnolia Pictures opens “Two Lovers” opens in limited release today.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking?

When I was quite young, I dreamed of being a painter. Then I saw two films that changed the way I viewed movies: “Apocalypse Now” and “Raging Bull.” Before that, it had been all “Superman” and “Rocky,” and seeing these new pictures was a shot to the solar plexus. I began to see cinema as the perfect combination of so many wonderful art forms—painting, photography, music, dance, theater. I don’t know how my interests have evolved. I certainly don’t think I’ve learned much of anything over the years, but I do know that it’s important to live life and to become knowledgeable about things other than cinema. When I was younger, I felt it essential to see every movie ever made. Now I feel as though I’ve got to read every book, see every art show, watch every play and opera and concert and so on. It does not end, and of course there is truth in the old cliché that the more one knows, the more one realizes one knows nothing at all.

Are there other aspects of the film industry that you would still like to explore?

Not really. I have no interest whatsoever in pursuing acting or becoming a mogul. I love writing and directing; I see those two jobs as the most critical in the making of a film. This is not to denigrate the collaborative process—I love the contributions that a fine editor, or a director of photography, or production designer, might make. To me, the director should try to serve as a kind of conductor of an orchestra. He should attempt to inspire the best from his talented players. A film is like a wild horse that will always get away from you—the key is to make it look beautiful as it gallops in another direction.

Please discuss how the idea for “Two Lovers” came about.

The idea for “Two Lovers” came from a few different places. I’d been to a genetic counselor after my wife became pregnant with our first child, and she told me a story about a Jewish couple who’d been devastated by their test results. The counselor had to tell them that since they both carried the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, any of their children might die soon after birth. This news meant the end of the relationship, and that fascinated me. At about the same time, I’d reread “White Nights,” by Dostoyevsky, and it struck me as ripe for re-examination. It was a story with fascinating ontological elements, and one perfectly suited to serve as the basis for a film about desire. Moreover, Gwyneth Paltrow had once challenged me to write a movie without guns, so I think in some small way this film is my rejoinder to her.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, goals for the project, and challenges you faced?

What shaped “Two Lovers” was simply a desire to make a picture with authentic emotion as its raison d’etre. The goal was to make something moving and austere and simple, emotional but never sentimental. I made the crew watch “Vertigo” and lots of Fellini from the 1950’s. We stuck primarily to foreign cinema, because most American films have treated love as fodder for comedy. This made us realize quickly that we’d have to rely a great deal on our own tastes. Stealing from other films simply would not work.

It was the easiest time I’ve ever had putting together a film. I went into it right after I finished “We Own the Night.” All the actors I pursued for “Two Lovers” said yes very quickly after reading the script, and the budget was small, so there was little monetary risk for financiers. Distribution, on the other hand, was a little more difficult. These are tough times for everyone, but they are especially tough for the studios’ specialty divisions. A couple have been downsized, and most others disbanded completely. As a result, 2929—the company that put up most of the money—decided to release the film through its own label, Magnolia.

I had written the film for both Joaquin and Gwyneth. I can honestly say that if they hadn’t wanted to do it, I’m not sure I would have made the film at all. I’d known both for many years, and I just felt it would be beautiful to see them together. I thought it would be interesting to see them play against type, and for both to strip away any distance or irony from their characterizations. I’m biased, but I think they succeeded.

Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

I was always influenced by other movies, and by paintings and music. A bit, also, by theater and books. Cassavetes and Scorsese and Fellini and Coppola and Kubrick and other wonderful artists often spoke of the need to make personal movies, and I’ve tried to do exactly that. I’ve loved painting for years—so many wonderful artists it’s impossible to recount! I could start with the cave paintings of Lascaux, work my way through Goya and Rembrandt and Matisse and Hopper up to Pollock and Rothko and many many others. Opera is a big love for me; Verdi and Wagner and Puccini and Donizetti and Mozart. Beyond that, well, there are so many things that go into making you who you are that it’s impossible to boil it down. Even if you had the time, you couldn’t choose—many of one’s influences are entirely unconscious. I know I like things that have a certain structure to them, but at the same time aren’t afraid to try to get under your skin. I like sincerity and and I like soul.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

I would love to do a war film. My next project does have a sequence that takes place during World War I, so perhaps I’ll get a chance to scratch that itch. It’s called “The Lost City of Z,” and it’s about a man named Percy Fawcett. Brad Pitt is attached to star. Fawcett was a real person, the man upon whom Indiana Jones is based. Sent in 1905 to mediate border disputes in the unmapped regions of the Amazon, Fawcett instead became obsessed with finding lost civilizations in the jungle. He eventually went mad. It’s a great story, exciting and unique.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

To me, independent cinema is and has always been only about telling personal stories. Now, this is not the same thing as autobiographical; I have seen autobiographical pictures that delve not at all into personal territory. To me, independent cinema means trying to introduce a little truth into the spectacle of movies. I have never divided independent moviemaking from studio filmmaking, because who knows what company is truly “independent”? After all, we all have to take our orders from the money people! Independent is a state of mind, that’s all.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

I would advise filmmakers to learn their craft as well as possible. That means doing it often before doing it well. Tell personal stories, and try to tell them with emotion and elegance. Focus on excellence, and please please please don’t get corrupted by money.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

I am proud of certain scenes in my films, but I never ever feel happy about the entire work. I see my mistakes, I see the gap between what I’d wanted and what I wound up getting. I am continually letting myself down, but I do get up and try again. I suppose THAT is what I am most proud of—I’m still here, still fighting, still trying to make the best films I can.

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