Labeled “the most divisive film in Cannes competition” last year 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 festival a year ago this week. 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 this Friday.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.]
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.
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 okay 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.]
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.
You were talking about the genesis of the project, the personal connection, the family connection.
My grandparents, they spoke no English really, even to the day that they died, and there was this kind of weird, emotionally repressed environment which was so… [pauses] fraught. I would go to my grandparents’ house, they would be listening to like [imitates the music] the Victrola, my grandmother would be buying potatoes in fifty pound sacks and I remember [my grandfather] kept a crappy and barely function Ford truck in his garage, and when my father asked him, “Dad, why are you still keeping that truck here? It doesn’t really work.” He said, “Because you never know when they’ll come for you.” And I saw the evidence of a certain kind of fear, xenophobia, melancholy, that has been bequeathed to my father, which ultimately of course means it’s inside of me. And so I suppose it was my way of examining some of the wrenching dislocation of coming to a new place. And you know, it’s interesting because my grandfather, as little English as he spoke, he always spoke of Russia, or I should say The Ukraine, really, with great reverence and love, and that’s insane, because my grandmother’s parents were murdered in front of her face.
Just like her character in the film.
Yes, by the way, my grandparents are the photograph in the locket, along with Ewa’s sister. And I just couldn’t understand what they missed about it, you know, the town was almost leveled by the czarist troops, and then it was totally destroyed by the Nazis, and yet people have a connection to their home that they can’t lose, so I want to explore that thing, the dislocation. And I’m not saying the American dream isn’t true, because in some ways it is. I’m here, in Cannes, having made a film when my grandfather was a plumber in Brooklyn in the 1930s after coming here through Ellis Island, so obviously there’s some measure of social mobility that does matter. But by the same token, it’s an ongoing process, it’s not like you snap your fingers and all of a sudden you’re a hit and nothing else matters, the way it works is that things change and your life evolves, and I suppose I wanted to examine the process, in a way, of the American dream. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that makes great sense. I had no idea about the personal connection; that wasn’t brought up yesterday in the press conference.
Yeah, nobody asked. With that said, are your parents still with us?
My father is, my mother died twenty years ago, my father is still around and quite compos mentis and lives on 74th street and 2nd avenue.
Did he see the film?
He has not. I’m gonna to show it to him as soon as I can. I finished it not long before we came here. I fished shooting it a while ago but it had 140 visual effects shots, some of which were extremely complex…
All of which are not noticeable.
That’s the reason that it took so long, ’cause you had to keep doing multiple versions. And I wanted to make sure that you couldn’t see the visual effects. Suspension of disbelief is critical. When did you see the film?
I just saw it yesterday morning, at 8:30.
Oh God, that’s too early. What was it like? Was it a good response, do you think?
Yeah, let’s talk about the response briefly.
I don’t know what the response was.
I mean the response that you witnessed, last night.
Last night? Well it was great.
The film, from what I’ve noticed, has divided people in a surprising way. I responded to it so emotionally. Other people didn’t respond to it that way and saw the pacing as a little deliberate, from what I’ve gauged. Can you speak a bit to that and the tendency in films these days to move at a certain clip?
Well my movie is an hour and forty-eight minutes and lets scenes play, and I don’t say this generally because I know it’s not politically incorrect, but if the problem people have with the film is the pace, fuck ‘em, because we’re in Cannes, and this is not the place to be watching “Transformers 3,” and they can go fuck themselves. It’s not that much work, and they should be ashamed of themselves. I didn’t know that.
I have no problem with hearing criticism, I have no problem with hearing people have a problem with the film, one way or another, but if the problem is like, “Oh, it was slow,” they can go fuck themselves. Because movies are not barium enemas, you’re not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible. This is a place where films are supposed to be a certain thing where they take their time and you should think about them. It’s supposed to be a place where cinema is something for thought, not fast food. If that’s what they want they should stay home. Plenty of movies for them in the multiplex, is what I would say.
When I was discussing this with someone who loved the film as much as I did, they said, “Well if it wasn’t in English, maybe the pacing wouldn’t even be brought up.”
Yeah, well of course that’s true. What happens is different cultures demand different things of you. I’m embarrassed for those people; I think that’s an embarrassing response. They should turn on a neon sign on that says “I’m a moron.”
I’m sure they’ll say I’m arrogant for that, but I’m not, because the truth is that I was on the jury in 2009 and you come for this kind of experience, and if you’re looking for action sequences, like I said, there is tons for you. The world is filled with that stuff. Ugh, it gets me enraged. Almost nothing will. I can take any criticism: “I didn’t understand that character,” “This was too sad,” whatever, whatever. That drives me nuts. It drives me nuts. Whatever.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you —
No, you didn’t, I like to get into it. It makes me passionate.