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Interview: James Gray Talks Working With Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix & The Central Crisis Of American Cinema

Interview: James Gray Talks Working With Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix & The Central Crisis Of American Cinema

A definite high point of our Marrakech International Film Festival was not only getting the chance to talk with director James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own The Night,” “Little Odessa,” “The Yards”) about his upcoming directorial and writing projects (see our previous coverage here and here), but also having the time to let the conversation spin off, through some of his past experiences, and into a more general discussion about the state of contemporary U.S. cinema. Gray’s perspective as a commentator is of course informed by the kind of filmmaker he is: in his assessment of U.S. cinema being in a state of deep crisis, it is hard not to see a man arguing forcefully for his own livelihood.

But what saves his reasoning from coming off as self-serving is that Gray is truly knowledgeable about the subject, quite beyond his own experience. That and the fact that when it comes to lamenting the squeeze on what he calls “the middle” — the mid-budget, intelligent, adult-aimed dramas that are his stock in trade, and that form the backbone of his strongest influence, the U.S. filmmaking culture of the 1970s — it’s hard to disagree. Below, Gray’s reflections on the aforementioned subjects, a brief discussion of his other filmic preoccupations, and some further background to his forthcoming drama “Lowlife” starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner.

How did the idea for “Lowlife” germinate?
My brother and I found some old slide photos my father had taken from the mid-to-late 1970s. A few of them were photographs from a trip to Ellis Island. It has become a kind of museum now, but my father took us in 1976 right after it had reopened after closing decades before and the place was untouched to the point that there were half-filled out immigration forms on the floor. It was almost like ghosts had been there.  And we took my grandfather who came to Ellis Island in 1923, and the second he walked into the building he burst into tears. 

So then I started reading about it and I read a story that was extremely interesting to me about women who came in either solo or their families had been split up, and how they would get into New York and sometimes they had to resort to very sad ends to get there, and I’d never seen it done in a movie. 40% of the United States have relatives that came in through there and yet it’s only been in a handful of films — the opening scene from “The Godfather II,” and the end of Kazan’s “America, America” and that’s it. 

In “Lowlife” you work with Marion Cotillard for the first time. Tell us how that came about.
I had no idea who…Marion Cotillard was. When I was in Paris for “Two Lovers,” a publicist told me, “A guy named Guillaume Canet wants to have lunch with you.” So we met and had lunch, I found him incredibly funny — I didn’t know anything he had done at that stage, but we sort of bonded because a rat ran across the floor of the restaurant. And then he said, “Come meet my girlfriend” and I met this woman who looked like a silent film actress like Pola Negri or something. And I said, “Who’s your girlfriend?” and he said [French accent] ”You don’t know my girlfriend? She won an Oscar, are you stupide?” 

And my wife and I became very friendly with them. One night at dinner we went to a restaurant and I told her I didn’t like some actor that she thought was great and she threw a piece of bread at my head, and I thought, “Well, you’re interesting.” So I wrote the movie [“Lowlife”] for her, having never seen her in a movie. Because she has this face, you know? She doesn’t even have to say anything, and that’s rare. 

And of course in “Lowlife” you reteam for the fourth time with Joaquin Phoenix. How did you feel about antics during the “Two Lovers” press tour? 
I was really angry with him, let’s be honest here. But you know, totally brilliant actors who will agree to do your film are not people who grow on trees. I was upset with him. I mean, I think he and Casey [Affleck] did something very silly, but, whatever — it’s not for me to judge, who cares what I think? My argument was that it came on the back of the publicity tour for the film that I had made with him, which actually was fairly well received in the United States, but there was no discussion of the film. In fact the [David] Letterman appearance where he went nuts was to publicize “Two Lovers” — he apologized to me for that and ultimately I decided that I couldn’t really care about it, because he’s a wonderful actor so in a way you forget it.

Do you feel the break has made Phoenix a stronger actor? 
That’s hard to say. I’ve always found him to be a brilliant actor. I know him so well… No, I don’t see him being stronger. I think he thinks he’s stronger. I don’t think that’s the case, he thinks he’s a better actor. My own view is that there was a quantum leap in his skill set between the first film I did with him “The Yards” to the second which was “We Own The Night.” Since then I have seen a consistent commitment to the work which is really impressive.

Your first film, “Little Odessa,” got you quite some notice internationally. What effect did its success have on you?
I was very spoiled. I didn’t know what to expect. I took it to Venice, the film festival and it was a ridiculous experience because the theater was half full, and at the end of the movie there was like one clap and I thought, “Well, this is a disaster.” I got on a plane back to New York and I got off the plane and they had a sign: “Call so-and-so in Venice.” 

So I went to a payphone, they said, “You have to go back to Venice, you’ve won.” So I got back on a plane, I pick up my award, Monica Vitti is giving me a kiss on the cheek and I’m thinking, “Well this is how it goes. You’re 24 years old, you make a movie and Monica Vitti kisses you.” And then the next movie came and that was the end of that dream.

The accepted wisdom about your films is that they’re better received in Europe than in the U.S. Is that still true? Was it ever?
It’s not really true anymore. I think I’m a very American director, but I probably should have been making movies somewhere around 1976. I never left the mainstream of American movies, the American mainstream left me. Really what I’m doing is an attempt to continue the best work of the people I adore, Francis Coppola and Scorsese and Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick and those amazing directors whose work I grew up with and loved. Because really American film was that! An American commitment to narrative with an interest in the creation of atmosphere that came probably from Japan or Asian cinema, with a commitment to thematic depth that comes from Europe… We lost that.

I think, with respect, it’s a convenient narrative that my films are better reviewed in Europe but actually the reviews for my last film in the U.S. were really good and the film was not a financial success, so I can’t blame that on the critical establishment who treated me, if anything, with kid gloves. [But the French especially] have always supported my work for reasons I can’t explain, and I love them for it. I’m very grateful.

The individual versus society seems to form an integral part of many of your narratives. Is that a conscious starting point for you?
It may seem difficult to believe, but I don’t sit down to write that… it always winds up becoming that. It’s not a conscious thing at the beginning of a creative process.  I start with a mood or an idea that comes from a personal place emotionally and the narrative concepts come much later. 

And you also seem to frequently deal with the American taboo of class divisions? 
Well, my wife thinks I have an obsession with social class. So I guess I have an obsession with social class. It probably stems from feeling like an outcast, you grow up a goofy-looking idiotic kid in a fairly working class neighborhood that’s fairly close to a very rich center of the universe, then I guess you feel like the outsider and that becomes a preoccupation… 

I think true economic class unhappiness comes from when across the street someone has a new Cadillac and you can’t get that. If everybody lives in the same way, there’s something almost narcotizing about it, but the true misery of economic class difference is knowing that you can’t have what somebody else does. 

Maybe that’s bullshit. [But] it was my experience where my neighborhood was very working class, semi-attached row houses on a treeless block and two miles away was an area called Jamaica Estates, where they had very big houses on great big plots of land. I remember my mother would dream of having this decent house and we would get in the car — I think if it now, it’s so sad — she would say, “Let’s look at the houses” and she would take us past these big houses. Why this would be a point of pleasure for us I’ve no idea. 

Do you feel class is something not addressed enough in U.S. film?
[Class is] not discussed in American life very much — there’s a notion that social or economic class divides don’t exist when of course they do. But that wasn’t always true in film — think of John Ford, it’s always all over his films. The idea of “Vertigo” is partly genius because of social class — the idea is he has to make Kim Novak up to the fancier version of Kim Novak in order to rekindle his obsession. So class becomes part of that story. Today, I mean, what social class can you find if someone’s a fucking Spider-Man? What the fuck does that mean?

I’m sensing a degree of dissatisfaction with current mainstream U.S. film from you…
I think it’s in profound trouble in a way that is not reflected by people writing about cinema now. What I find troubling is, I’ll read, for example, conversations between AO Scott and Manohla Dargis [in the New York Times] and I find that they’re extremely erudite, and I love what they say. 

But sometimes I feel like the subtext is them trying to convince themselves and each other that the state of cinema not so bad. And what neither of them has ever really addressed, and I have not read it anywhere else either, is the troubling disappearance of “the middle.” Which is not to say the middlebrow — that exists with flying colors. But there is tremendously interesting cinema being made that is very small, and there are very huge movies which have visually astounding material in them, but you know Truffaut said that great cinema was part truth, part spectacle, so what’s really missing is that. It’s what United Artists would have made in 1978 or something. 

Like “Raging Bull” could not be a low-budget movie, it just couldn’t, there’s a certain scale that’s involved in making it, and no one would make “Raging Bull” today. The last example of the industry doing this middle movie that I’m talking about, to me would be Michael Mann’s film “The Insider” which I really like. That has scale and also a bit of truth it. What I don’t see as part of the discourse is a discussion on the economic forces that have forced out the middle. There is some discussion, some awareness, but not enough, because to me that is the central crisis of American movies: the disappearing middle of the mainstream.

So where has the audience for these films gone?
They’ve migrated to television. So there’s superb television, but it’s not for me because first of all, the two-or-three hour format is just perfect, because it replicates best our birth-life-death cycle. “The Sopranos” was genius television but it went on forever, and it never seemed to culminate in anything, and then everyone was pissed off at the ending but that’s exactly why TV cannot substitute for a great movie because the swell of the architecture of a movie is part of what makes it the most beautiful visual art form. 

And it’s true, right? There’s a kind of beautiful movement to a wonderfully structured film which is not reproduce-able by the best “Breaking Bad” [episode], which, by the way, is great. But it’s not the same thing – that’s a kind of luxuriate, get the food delivered, sit down in front of the TV and for that moment, that hour, you’re in pleasure, and then you go back to your life until the next week. It’s not quite the same [as a movie], not as transformative. 

Is it the fickle audience that is therefore to blame?
No, I think the studios have done a brilliant job of creating the audience it’s now attempting to satisfy. There is a difference between the satisfaction and the exploitation of public tastes. If you give — and I’ve used this analogy many times, but it’s true — if you give somebody a Big Mac every day, and then you give them salmon sushi, their first inclination is not to say that salmon sushi is the most delicious thing they ever ate, their first inclination is to say, “That’s weird and I don’t like it.” And it’s very hard to get them back. 

To you, studios have a responsibility to provide some salmon sushi amongst the Big Macs?
They do… even if [the films] are not huge hits they do. I’m not even talking artistic responsibility, forget that, but if you want to talk like a stockholder to them…and by the way, Warner Brothers did do it, they’ve done “Argo,” they’ve tried to do a couple of these pictures, and Amy Pascal at Columbia has tried to do a couple of them as well, with some very good results. But the thing is that you need [everyone] to do two or three of them a year in order to maintain a broad-based interest in the product.

It’s like when American car companies in the early ’70s stopped making convertibles. They were losing a few dollars making convertibles and so they said, “Let’s not do it.” And all of a sudden other people were making convertibles and American car companies stopped seeming to have a broad-based product line.

Even looking at it purely in capitalistic, corporatist terms, I think if they made two or three of these kinds of pictures every year, then people like my dad and my brother — college-educated people either in their 30s, 40s or 70s, would have a movie to go to. And it would maintain the broad-based relevance of movies. 

So you believe the current culture is eroding the relevance of the movies?
I think the reason movies are no longer relevant is not because they don’t make money, because they make more money than ever. They’re not relevant because the self-appointed cognoscenti have nothing to go watch. So if you look at the numbers they’re doing great, but look at people like, you know… Norman Mailer would not have a movie to see. Norman Mailer, if he were alive, would see a movie from Europe.

But there’s a whole other swirl of issues that is not only about this, it’s not only about economics. It’s all connected to a post-1968 drive toward post-structuralism, the focus on the destruction of narrative… I think telling a story is somehow [becoming] “quaint.” 

Does storytelling feel too unironic for our ironic times?
Yeah, I’m not exactly certain when that began. And it’s not just movies, it’s culture-wide. Look at music, the idea of melody. I would say over the last 30 years melody is not really particularly important. Isn’t that analogous to story [in film]? 

I think that people have done [the destruction of narrative thing]. Derek Jarman made “Blue,” and that’s it. Once he made “Blue” you can’t do anything else. Once Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building for 8 hours what are you going to do? What more can you do? Jackson Pollock “broke the ice.” And by the way I love these people. Jackson Pollock is the greatest, I’m not badmouthing these people, but cinema, for me, the meaning of it is telling a story on film. 

For me, it’s an act of hubris to say that you don’t need story because it means that we would be members of the first group of human beings in the entire history of the human race that didn’t need story. And I’m not so arrogant as to suppose that’s the case.

And how do you feel about non-studio cinema, the kind you have been watching and judging here as part of a Film Festival Jury?
I see a wonderful dedication to the art form and I have been pleased with the overall quality of the movies – I’m not bored. By the way, though, I really wish that people would begin to put cameras on tripods a little more. I don’t know when the handheld camera became such a hackneyed device of the art cinema — I feel like the Dardenne brothers did it brilliantly and everyone’s trying to steal from them now.

But what I think is lacking is an emotional commitment — a fervent commitment to the material, a sincerity. But some people don’t like that, because we’re living in a very ironic, distanced, very “we’re smarter than the characters in the movie” era. And that’s some people’s taste. 

And how would you exemplify your taste in this regard?
My taste, I mean if I had to pick one movie, which I would  never want to do, I keep thinking about “La Strada,” because there’s such a total commitment to those people and the movie never puts itself above any of the people in it. It’s a very Franciscan approach to the drama, and to me that’s very beautiful. 

[Author] George Eliot said “the purpose of art is to extend our sympathies” which I think is very beautiful. Kubrick wished all movies were “more daring and more sincere.” A lot of directors today are focusing on what is daring, but are not really focused on what is sincere.

James Gray’s “Lowlife” stars Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner and the director hopes to debut it at Cannes next year. The picture is scheduled for release stateside in the fall of 2013.

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