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NYFF ’13: James Gray on ‘The Immigrant,’ Film Versus Digital, and His Short-Lived Acting Career

NYFF '13: James Gray on 'The Immigrant,' Film Versus Digital, and His Short-Lived Acting Career

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.”

Phoenix on his research for the role:
“Rickets. I became obsessed with rickets, but it didn’t really have a place in the film. I kept trying to get it in there, but it just wouldn’t work. That’s about all the research I did.”

Gray on casting Marion Cotillard as Ewa:
I have three young children, and I kind of stopped going to movies in 2006, I go to see some, but I’m a little bit out of touch, and I didn’t know who Marion Cotillard was. I had become friendly with her boyfriend, and we went out to dinner in Paris and I met her, and she and I started arguing about an actor that she thought was overrated, and she threw a piece of bread at my head and she mentioned that she thought I was a jerk. I thought she had a great face, and not just physically beautiful because she is, but a haunted quality, almost like a silent film actress. I’ve talked about this, but she reminded me of Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film; able to convey depth of emotion without dialogue specifically. So I wrote the movie for her and Joaquin, and if they hadn’t wanted to do the movie I’m not sure I would have made it. Whether she was Polish or French didn’t really affect the decision at all.”

Gray on the decision to make the main character Catholic:
“I made her Catholic because one of the themes of the film I wanted to explore, which was the idea of redemption and forgiveness, which is almost institutionalized in the Catholic church. And the Madonna/whore, all of this stuff is connected to Catholic tradition. Really, it comes to what I wanted the film to be about. I wanted the film to be about this idea that no one is beneath us, everything is of value, which is a very Franciscan idea. So all of this is consistent with making her Catholic. And also, last but certainly not least, it would make her an outsider, even on the Lower East Side, so it would put her totally in that position.”

Gray on the future of the digital and film formats:
“The decision about digital or film is going to be made for us. I think the answer is that film is gonna be gone. Although I think it’ll make a comeback; it’ll be like vinyl records or something. But the movie was shot on 35 mm film. Darius Khondji and I did tests on Alexa, Red, Kodak, and Fuji, and I did them blind, we just screened them and said, ‘Which one is the best?’ And screening them blind wasn’t even close; the Kodak looked incredible. But I think it’s the power of what is new that is in some ways very damaging. Let’s say everybody shot in digital, the whole world, Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan were all shooting digital, and all of a sudden I come out with a new product, and say, ‘There’s this thing, it doesn’t see in pixels it sees in grain, it’s more like your eye sees it. It has better contrast ratio than digital and better representation of color than digital, the blacks are better…’ Everyone would be like, ‘this new thing, film. I gotta change to film.’ Because I can’t understand why everyone wants to migrate to what is, in my mind, objectively worse. It’s not even that cheaper. “

Gray on his own acting experiences:
“I’m the worst actor ever. I had two chances to act in my life; first was Wes Anderson wanted me to be in ‘The Life Aquatic.’ He said, ‘No, it’s gonna be fun. You come, we’ll be in Rome, it’ll be amazing.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean, Wes? How long?’ He said two to three weeks, and I’m thinking, ‘No way two to three weeks.’ I didn’t understand why he wanted to cast me, but I don’t know, he’s a friend, and as a consequence wanted some form of revenge. So I said okay, and then we’re gonna go, and all of a sudden I got the schedule and it was five months in Cinecitta, and I could just see mental illness creeping in… Then the second chance I had was I acted in a film called ‘Love Jones,’ and I had a scene with Lorenz Tate. And if you see ‘Love Jones,’ I’m not in the movie, so that shows how good I was. “

“The Immigrant” screens on October 6 and October 9 as part of the 51st New York Film Festival.

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