As we recently noted, filmmaker James Gray has only made five films in 20 years. That’s a positively low number, but Gray has had many hardships that distracted from his body of work. His debut “Little Odessa” won a major prize in 1994 at the Venice Film Festival and that jumpstarted his career, but obstacles both minor and major threatened to derail that momentum. For “The Yards,” he ran into the might of Harvey Weinstein and a compromised ending saw him booed at Cannes (Miramax subsequently dumped the film into a few theaters with barely a regular release). This beating was difficult and it took Gray seven years to follow it up with “We Own The Night,” which performed well at the box-office, but was marketed like a fairly generic cop movie and not the rich father and sons policier that it is. The romantic drama “Two Lovers” was also a success, but its narrative was hijacked by Joaquin Phoenix’s “rap career” stunt that culminated with the hoax documentary “I’m Still Here.”
Gray’s career took a long time to coalesce because of the infrequency of his films, and because so few people saw them at the time, but a body of work began to emerge over the years that demonstrated the artistry of a thoughtful and measured auteur deeply fascinated by unironic authenticity, emotional vulnerability and the complexities of human interaction. Gray’s films, while adored in France, are unknown to many in the U.S. because of their compromised releases, despite terrific casts. “The Yards” alone stars Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway–a troupe that nowadays would make any casting agent scream with joy. And as elusive as Joaquin Phoenix is, it’s a testament to Gray’s films that he’s starred in four of his films in a row.
Gray’s latest film also stars Phoenix and includes the boast-worthy cast of Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner. While Gray’s pictures to date are mostly family-driven crime films taking place in modern day New York, his fifth feature, “The Immigrant,” is ostensibly the most different from his body of work while remaining true to many of the themes Gray has tracked in the past. Set in 1920s New York, “The Immigrant” follows a Polish émigré (Cotillard), the manipulative pimp she falls in with (Phoenix) and the magician she meets who could be her one hope (Renner). But Gray has been slowly losing his genre trappings. “The Immigrant” is not a crime tale, nor one about the way family can be our greatest source of happiness and pain. But, like his other movies, “The Immigrant” is about the need to fit in, while chronicling ideas of codependency and the idea that no one, no matter how low, is not beyond redemption. It’s a beautiful, slow-burn movie that unfolds with a rather bold, but subtle surprise in its last act (read our review from Cannes here).
Filmmaker James Gray is a charming raconteur and he’ll talk your ear off if you let him (or if you force him). Over the last six months, I had the opportunity to talk to Gray twice, once for what was a marathon phone session. So, in the interest of trying to condense our sprawling conversations that covered much of his career, this interview will act as part one and part two will run later this week. Update: You can find that second interview here.
I rewatched “Little Odessa” recently and it’s funny how “The Immigrant” could be seen as a kind of prequel to it—even though Marion’s character is Polish and the family in ‘Odessa’ is Russian. Aside from autobiographical elements you use for both, they both have a personal and intimate touch.
It’s hard for me to talk about “Little Odessa” in candor because it’s been a long time since I made the movie and I haven’t watched it since. But [all] I can say is that I came of age in a certain period where films were supposed to be personal. I actually have a lot of optimism that people still do that and actually want to do that.
This situation’s gotten considerably better over the last 20 years. John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese really opened the door in that way for Americans to make personal films. So the idea was to try and mine your own life for as much as you possibly could for material. The closer you can get to being personal the better the work is or the more interesting the work is. Francis Ford Coppola once said, “You should always make personal films because there’s only one of you and the more personal you get the more original you get.” So I’ve just tried to find that in the same way. I don’t know…with regards to similarities between the new film and that one, I mean, what can I say? I’m the same person I guess.
Sure, what I’m specifically getting at is how the characters in “Little Odessa” and “The Immigrant are influenced by your grandfather and stories from your ancestry.
Yeah it is. Well you can’t shake that. Those stories made such an impression on me as a kid. My grandparents, they came through Ellis Island in 1923 and you know I’d heard all the stories. They didn’t speak English very well even to the day they died but their mood was so clear.
You know the conventional wisdom is that people come to the United States and immigration is so great and they say America, what a great Country. And a lot of that is true. Obviously a huge part of that is true. Life is way better than it was for them in old Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but for example my grandfather would sit around and talk about how melancholy he was that he missed the old Country which I always thought was crazy because you know his parents had gotten their heads chopped off by the Czarist troops. But I guess part of you stays where you’re from and they couldn’t forget that melancholy and I think that’s in large measure what I’ve been trying to impart in the film. This didn’t start out as a conscious thing you know?
Maybe that melancholy is the throughline of the tragic nature of a lot of your characters.
Yeah. I know I wish I could leave it behind in some respects. That’s not all that life is.
True, but the work is emotional and geared towards adults. That’s sorely lacking these days and I wish we had more of it.
I don’t know if you should say that. If everybody made these movies you’d want the other kind. You know, it’s hard to run away from who you are and when your taste is formed is a very important thing. I’ve discussed this many times but it’s all attributable to the death of United Artists, which I think was a really big change in movies. But you know since I last talked to the Playlist about this subject there’s been I think a real change, I think there’s a lot of interesting films being made. Certainly around the world there always was but even in the United States now I see Warner Brothers for example making like Spike Jonze new movie “Her”…certainly there is some interesting stuff. I do see from at least some studios some really great things happening so I have a lot of optimism which wasn’t the case even a year ago.
Well, it can be easy to get cynical in the summer glut, but the fall certainly brings back a lot of great films.
Yeah that’s really true. What we do, at least I certainly make this mistake myself, which is that you know when you look back on 1974 for example and you see that there’s “The Godfather Part II” and “The Conversation,” “Chinatown” and “A Woman Under The Influence,” so many of these amazing films, but there were probably many, many, many terrible films released that year too. We just don’t remember them. So in a sense I have a distorted view of history that I sell.
Your films often play around with many of the same personal themes—social class, the family as a source of great pain, tragedy, your Russian Jewish heritage, films set in New York—and so far you’ve successfully made them distinct.
You hope that what happens is they’re different because you change. Everybody changes as they get older, it’s an unavoidable, and I think actually beautiful, fact of life. You want the films in the best case scenario to be from the same point of view but different which is one of the most bizarre and seemingly contradictory things. But you want to grow.
Now of course the big problem is as a filmmaker, or in any artistic endeavor if I may use that dirty word, the truth is that you are always changing and that means you’re always growing. There are times when you take a step back and sometimes you have to take one step back to take a couple of steps forward. There’s no director in cinema history whose films just got better and better until their best film and then they stopped, you know? It doesn’t really work like that.
You know, even in the case of someone like Kurosawa—I think “Ran” is one of the great films of the last 25, 30 years but you know he made “Dreams” after that and “Madadayo” which has terrific stuff. “Rhapsody in August” is another, but they’re not on the same level as “Ran.” So what you just have to do is know that you’re going to change. You can’t think about, “okay is this going to be different?” but you also don’t want to repeat yourself. I try to forget about the rest of the work, and in my own case I just try to think about what it is I have to reveal about myself. I know this sounds incredibly self-centered but there’s no really no way around it. It’s a self centered-profession, if this kind of film you want to make is a personal kind of film.
This film is your first true period piece and your first to feature a female lead. That’s pretty different from your past work.
Well, that’s true. I had seen the origin of the female lead thing was very clear to me. I had seen an opera presentation in Los Angeles which was of Puccini’s “Il Trittico” which is three operettas. There’s two tragedies and a comedy. The two tragedies were directed by William Friedkin and the comedy was “Gianni Schicchi” directed by Woody Allen. So I’m watching these operas and the Friedkin ones I just thought were just great. The second one, which was called “Suor Angelica,” was about a woman, a nun, and she was the main character and the thing was so emotional I was in tears.
My wife and I were just in tears over the whole thing and I saw it being very beautiful and it sort of hit me, freed from the macho trappings, freed from the need to be aggressively male, we could address the most emotional sides of us. I mean in a clichéd way. I mean female in terms of cultural qualities and differences. I was freed from what I thought was sort of a macho standpoint to explore the more feminine side of me, the more emotional qualities that I could. I wanted to push it more and more operatic and make it more of an operatic melodrama and that was something that I thought was really worth exploring where I could leave male behavior behind.
Which is also a big change for you.
Yes, well I think it is but you know women are most of the world, right? What is it 52 or 53% of the world is women? So it’s embarrassing how few movies have women in the center. You know Hollywood pictures used to do it very well. Barbara Stanwyck would be the star of the movie or Katherine Hepburn. They made these female-centric melodramas which oftentimes ended rather conveniently but oftentimes were excellent. You know Bette Davis, and that’s a tradition that’s been more or less abandoned so in part I wanted to bring that back a little bit but with [more] frankness in terms of the ending. Or in terms of how the story progresses.
There’s excellent use of silences in the movie too.
I don’t understand why movies don’t utilize that more. The difference between stage and cinema, obviously, is the intimacy of cinema is so powerful, it’s so unique to the medium. If I give you the best seat in the theater, 15 feet from the actor, I mean it’s still pretty far. The camera can be 8 inches from the actor. You can be so intimate and one of the great things about movies is the actor’s face can tell you so much. The close-up is the best weapon that we have…but it’s a weapon that needs to be used sparingly.
Tell me about the shooting period. That must have been difficult.
You know, I did love it, but it was immensely difficult. I remember reading somewhere where Stanley Kubrick said that making a movie, is like trying to write “War and Peace” on a bumper car at Coney Island. You can kind of multiply that by a hundred for a period movie. I remember you go to set one day and you have five hundred people in period outfits running around with horses and chickens running around on the street and old cars and it’s crazy and you’re like, “What am I doing?” So it does present that kind of logistical challenge but at the same time I found it an incredibly exciting thing to do.
You did use a little CG in this, right?
Well, you have to. I mean the city looks nothing like it. We couldn’t shoot in the Lower East Side for example because the Lower East Side now is gone. A lot of those buildings are still there but you know the ground floor is like a Jimmy Choo shoe store so you can’t just take those over. We shot all that stuff at Ellis Island. The one thing that’s totally CG is when Joaquin Phoenix comes out of jail and meets her on the street. That’s them walking in like a green box because the old tombs police jail is not there anymore. It’s torn down, so that we had to create.
You’ve said that Jeremy Renner looks like the real-life magician in the film that he is based off W. Theodore Annemann. Was that why you cast him?
Well, it didn’t hurt. I cast him because I love him. I think he’s a great actor and I love him as a person. But he also had a Clark Gable thing going on but I thought if he introduced a certain darkness that it would be a great thing because you could play someone who was not entirely trustworthy, but at the same time had a certain charm.
How did you get him on board?
Kathryn Bigelow introduced us at a party believe it or not. Jeremy was a fan of mine at least to hear him tell it and he wanted me to write a movie about Steve McQueen for him before [“The Immigrant”] which I did [more about that movie here]. So I finished it and then I said to him, “You know I’ve got this other movie that I really want you to do.” I’m very selfish. There’s an ulterior motive here so that was how he got on board. The other actors, Marion, Joaquin, I had written the parts for them and they were on board immediately. The third lead was the toughest to cast because he’s not in the movie until halfway through and you’re not sure whether he’s a good guy or not and it’s a very generous thing that Jeremy did for me.
This movie is like reversed engineered; at first you’re not sure if Joaquin is the right actor for this character, but then as the movie unfolds… his true nature comes out.
Right, that was the idea. Joaquin and I talked about this. In a way it’s a real risk, it’s an act of hubris to build a movie for a repeat viewing because in a sense, the idea is for it to be richer and better both on repeated viewing and in retrospect. Joaquin and I always felt that was [the] best way to try and make films but sometimes you know you pay for that upon initial reaction. But it’s what Joaquin and I wanted to try and we felt that was the interesting thing to explore.
I suppose this peculiar approach is in keeping with your films forever shut out of the zeitgeist [laughs].
[Chuckles] The idea is not just to be contrarian for the sake of it, the idea is to be true to yourself and I think that people who chase trends inevitably follow them and that’s not that’s not inherently interesting to me. I’m a big fan of movies and I know the history of movies that try to follow the trend instead of anticipating or ignoring one. Movies that ignore the trends tend to have [a] better shelf life. Now in my case, who knows, but that’s the chance that I’m willing to take. If you’re out of step, hopefully people respond to the work and that it has a shelf life.
I do find it pretty fascinating, in 1994, to see a 23-year-old make a movie [“Little Odessa”] that was almost the anti “Pulp Fiction.” You were out of step—in a good way—from the very beginning.
Well, I didn’t consciously do the exact opposite. You know in the end you can’t hate yourself, you have to embrace who you are and you have to play the hand you’re dealt. But if you’re paying attention to what’s in fashion you’re going to be out of fashion next year and what’s the use of that? Just focus on what it is that you want to do, what it is that you dream about and everything else you can’t worry about.
The film was very personal. Do you look back on your films?
It was very autobiographical. My mother died of brain cancer, I have an older brother and there was a lot in it that was very intimate and I was dealing obviously with some issues. I just tried to make it as personal as I could. Do I look back on my movies? No I don’t. It’s not helpful to me and in many ways it’s quite painful. The only film I don’t look back on with much anguish really would be “Two Lovers,” because that was made without much pain. It was a very smooth running set and I didn’t argue with producers and distributors about the film. But even there I have regrets and certain things I didn’t get right but I guess what I mean is I did the best I could on that film. I didn’t feel that it was interfered with.
Let’s talk about how Ric Menello influenced your work [Gray’s co-writer on “The Immigrant” and “Two Lovers” who was also a sage, bullshit detector and guide; he passed away last year]
You can’t emphasize enough how much you miss a person. He was like an encyclopedia of movies, but he was much more than that. He had a lot of soul and emotional intelligence. He knew basically every movie ever, and I think he understood drama and dramatic structure. In the case of [“The Immigrant”], I called him up and told him the type of movie I want to make, the subject about my grandparents, and then we just started thinking lists of scenes. And we talked through them and tried to structure it tightly in three acts. And he helped with that and the dialogue. We worked like that and he was just an invaluable resource. His death hit me rather hard because I talked to him every single day for four hours a day for years. I was totally stunned when he died, and just really upset.
That New Yorker piece from last year was interesting. How did you meet him?
You know, I didn’t anticipate that piece would be reprinted as an interview and quoting me verbatim. I wound up really regretting some of the things I talked about because he had a whole life apart from mine and I was a bit glib. The truth of the matter is he had this whole life apart from what we were doing. When he died there was this huge outpouring, affection from all these corners I didn’t know anything about.
I met him through Rick Rubin. And then I would introduce him to all these directors I knew. And before you knew it, he was the resource. Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky loved him too. You could call him at three in the morning and describe the movie you’re watching on TV to him and he would figure out what it was instantly, “Oh, it has this actor, and that actor in it, so obviously it’s…” he would tell you everything about it.
Did he aspire to write his own movies?
He certainly did, and he wrote several scripts, but this was something I learned about after he died. I knew that he had written a couple of scripts but he never gave them to me to read, which I respected. But he totally had this whole other side to him and I was unaware of it. I don’t doubt it one day someone will make them, but he never showed them to me, so I respect that, so I won’t pursue them.
Switching gears, I’m curious why you didn’t work with Harris Savides after “The Yards.” It seemed like both of you were on the same page.
He and I were very close. We did “The Yards” together and I adored him, I thought he was a beautiful person. After we did that film I did not work again for 6 years. When I finally found the money for “We Own The Night” he was doing “Zodiac” and it went a bit long and he simply wasn’t available. He suggested Joaquin Baca-Asay who he thought was very good. When I did “Two Lovers” I thought I would have the chance to work with Harris again, not that I didn’t love Joaquin [Baca-Asay], but he wanted to move onto directing. Harris was going to do it but he needed double knee replacement. So I asked Joaquin to hold off his directing career for a little bit and he shot it. [ed. Baca-Asay is now set to direct an Ol’ Dirty Bastard biopic]. I miss Harris dearly.
Your films all have a similar look despite only having worked with the same DP twice.
Well, for better or for worse, that is the case. I focus on what the film is going to look like. Each of the people I’ve worked with are wonderful artists and I try to accept some of their ideas that I really like. But once you set the framework, they end up having really great ideas within that framework. The films have a similar look because obviously I’ve thrown down with the cinematographer. But that isn’t always a good thing because part of a director’s job is embracing the visions of others as long as they enhance the scope of your original concept.
I think this film looks very different from all of your other films. It’s a lot brighter, it’s not obsessed with darkness like the others.
Well, it’s a different time period but it’s also because I’m trying to do something else. But [“The Immigrant” DP] Darius Khondji is an incredible artist. He brings a lot to the table. As for how the look differs, well, I approached it as a fable instead of a film noir. The other films, for all of their trappings, are really noirs. I guess “Two Lovers” was the first step outside of the noir range, but this I want it to be like a beautiful little jewel. I didn’t want it to be so obsessed with the darkness. We tried to achieve that with the sound and the visuals, with lighting people from below, giving them an angelic appearance. Here’s an interesting sound thing: every time Jeremy Renner’s character appears you hear these Christmas bells subtly buried in the soundtrack.
I assume you shoot this on 35mm film.
Yes, we shot it on Kodak. There’s no substitute for that. People say film is going away but I don’t agree. You hear all this talk about that, but there’s all these people who are playing vinyl records again. Just for archival, the digital process is shit. Have you ever tried to play a floppy disc recently? The film print stores the proper temperature – it’s a totally stable element. It’s unlike the digital process where the technology changes every five years. Companies are stopping making film stock, but it doesn’t mean they’re never going to do it again. I think it’ll make a bit of a comeback. The whole thing is silly because the product has better contrast ratio and better resolution and it’s not pixel but grain more like you eyes see, when it’s reintroduced everyone’s going to say “what’s this thing” and you’re going to say “film” and they’ll want film. Scorsese shot “Hugo” on digital but he thinks with the digital effects and so forth that digital is more useful in that way. But I believe that archivally you have to do film out. You know, we shot a blind taste test with the Red, the Alexa, Fuji, and Kodak, and Darius and I were screening them and the Kodak take was the best. You just can’t beat it.
These interviews are highly condensed versions of our original chat and I omitted much of what he had already said about “The Immigrant” in previous interviews. But if you’re also a big Gray fan or want to know more about “The Immigrant” specifically, I highly recommend reading these two pieces from the New York Film Festival last year because Gray talks about film eloquently and in depth. More from our interviews later in the week.
“The Immigrant” opens in limited release on May 16th.