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Interview: James Gray Talks ‘The Immigrant,’ Diving Into TV With ‘Red Road,’ And His Own Favorite Films

Interview: James Gray Talks 'The Immigrant,' Diving Into TV With 'Red Road,' And His Own Favorite Films

Director James Gray is something of a cinematic chameleon. While his films to date could be broadly categorized as crime dramas (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own The Night“) or romances (“Two Lovers“), those descriptors are often merely the cloak that hides deeply layered and complex character studies between fathers and sons, men and women, those chasing ambition, or trying to outrun fate. And while the beautifully produced “The Immigrant,” on Blu-ray this week, is on its face a period drama, it’s also so much more.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner, the film tells the story of Ewa, a Polish immigrant who crosses over to America in the early 1900s, only to discover her path to the American Dream thwarted by a charming, but deceptive, young man who forces her into prostitution. But hope lingers for Ewa, thanks to the attention of a magician who is eager to whisk her away.

I recently got on the phone with James Gray to talk about “The Immigrant” as it arrives on home video two years after it debuted at Cannes, his experience jumping to television to work on “Red Road” and much, much more.

READ MORE: Review: James Gray’s ‘The Immigrant’ Starring Joaquin Phoenix & Marion Cotillard Is Restrained, Thoughtful Filmmaking

It has been two years since “The Immigrant” premiered at Cannes, have you watched it since? Is it weird to talk about it now? What are your thoughts and reflections on it?
Of course it’s a little odd to be talking about this with such a kind of a lead time or, not lead time, but I should say a delay. I don’t even know how you would put it. But I am thrilled that it’s coming out, and I think that that’s great, and I have to say I’m deeply grateful for the support. From everybody, from a lot of people. It’s very gratifying.

Gratifying in the sense of critical reception?
Well yeah, there’s been that and there’s been a lot of people who have been really, really terrific to me. Really nice and really supportive and that’s been great. I mean, it’s weird because when you make a movie you never know what’s going to happen and you face a series of circumstances that are completely out of your control once the film is made, and here we are two years later and I’m still here talking about the movie.

I want to focus in a bit on the performances because they were fantastic. Particularly with working with Joaquin Phoenix. Compared to some of his other more recent roles, like in “The Master” or “Inherent Vice” where the characters he’s playing are more colorful, you guys go in the opposite direction where he ends to play really insular characters. Is that a calculated decision? 
Well, I certainly don’t talk with Joaquin about the other performances he’s given. That’s never a part of our calculation about what a character is, what he’s done with Paul [Thomas Anderson]. But, I think it reflects obviously more my taste than anything else. It’s a reflection of what it is that I find interesting in a characterization, which is the conveying of an internal struggle in a very vivid and subtle way. That doesn’t mean by the way that kind of an explosive, external performance can’t be fantastic. Of course it can. It’s a different language, and of course it can be great, but you know what it is that I like about him is that there’s so much going on behind his eyes that you don’t really have….in my view, he doesn’t have to do all that heavy lifting in order to convey meaning.

Placing him opposite Marion Cotillard, what was that like? Did you get the chemistry you were expecting? Did they surprise you?
They were amazing together. She thought he was brilliant and he really liked her. He called her the cyborg. He was amazed by how she would never seem to make a mistake and knew all of her lines in Polish.

She was not really letting him in, because that’s what the movie and the character demanded. And I think he knew that, he knew that that was what was going on. And it formed a very, very interesting dynamic on set. A very combustible one at times, which I loved. I love what Joaquin brings to it because he’s so anguished in the film. It’s a unique character I think, but of course I also love what she’s doing, which is a very operatic conception. It’s almost like one of those 1920, 1915 Lillian Gish kind of things, which has been commented on quite a lot. But that is what we were going for, a kind of Falconetti conception. Where the face would have such meaning and would tell you so much.

You did an episode of “Red Road.” What was your experience like doing television?
Well, I think it’s, you know, my weakest effort as a filmmaker by far. I don’t blame myself for that. That show is sort of a symbol to me of the creep of compromise that happens over and over and over. Until it adds up to a mountain of one thousand cuts which leads to the death of it. 

The person who wrote it, Aaron Guzikowski, is an amazingly talented guy. And he wrote a terrific script for the pilot and I signed on. And it was originally the Ford Motor company versus the Ramapough. Then you couldn’t use the term Ramapough; then it was [set in] New York and you find out you have to shoot in Atlanta where there are no mountains, and then you find out that you have to get rid of the references to the Ford Motor company and then you have to get rid of the Ramapough, and then you find you’re making a show about the Schlamapo fighting some non-descript company, and the depth of the show disappears. And then I don’t have control creatively or budgetary. The show was massively under budget, and I was under tremendous pressure to complete it in a way that I felt was inadequate.

I’m very friendly with David Fincher, and he advocates very seriously for TV because he’s been in a circumstance quite different from [mine] which has been very rewarding. My own experience was not that. And I haven’t seen the show since I did it, but it’s not something I’m proud of for exactly those reasons. It’s not mine….in a sense that was a lesson learned, you know? Because if I were creating the show it would be quite a different thing. But I wasn’t, I’m not, and alas that’s what I faced.

So it hasn’t scared you off. It’s just made you understand what you require if you’re ever going to go down that road again.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, what I’m going to require basically is very simple — it’s more time and more money, and the ability to control what the heck the thing looks like and sounds like. I mean, music is very important, or lack of music is very important, so right there where, when that’s taken away form you, that’s a very big thing. The cut is of essential importance, and when the cut is taken away from you, that’s a big deal. When there are other directors who step in to shoot a couple of shots that you’re not there for and they don’t fit in or you don’t like the way they look — the whole thing [has] your name is on it, so everyone thinks that you made every creative decision. And that’s an uncomfortable place to be. In other words, if you hate what I’ve done, if you think something I’ve made is awful, I would prefer that you thought it was awful and it was everything that I actually did do.

I presume that with “The Lost City Of Z” coming up, things are a bit more upbeat than they were in “Red Road”?
Well yeah, it’s a very different kettle of fish. I mean, obviously that’s me directing and I have creative control and that’s a very different circumstance.

How is the project coming?
I’m extremely excited. I’m very, very nervous, you know. I’m extremely nervous, but I’m excited.

I’m guessing it’s probably the biggest film you’ve made in terms of scale?
Oh, by far. And it’s you know that is a very, very complicated production and the story is amazing, but it’s a complicated story. And you want to get it right. It’s a very, very scary proposition to go into the jungle and all that. But at the same time it’s terrific. It’s why you make movies.

And this is one you’ve been developing for a while, so I would imagine there’s a level of confidence you have, too…
I have no confidence whatsoever. I’ve been developing it for a while, but I have no confidence whatsoever for many reasons. One of which is that if you’ve made a film before, one realizes how brutally difficult it is, and any confidence I had in myself went out the door the first time I ever saw a rough cut of a movie I made. But you learn very quickly that it isn’t about you.

Your ego is necessary in order to make a film. But the way it works is interesting. Any person who wants to make films to be famous or to have an immortality is kind of barking up the wrong tree because, at least the way I look at it, there is immortality that we should all seek, but it’s not of the variety that the movie business of directing gives you. The immortality that you attempt to achieve is…everybody forgets everybody. I mean, we remember Shakespeare, we remember Homer, we remember in Western Civilization, like, five people. But you know I was talking to a twenty-year-old who thought J. Edgar Hoover was the President before Roosevelt, and I said, “Well, no, that’s Herbert Hoover.” He was a very well educated kid, a terrific kid, and you realize there is no immortality that way, and to seek it is bogus. What you want is to be able to make your own contribution, more positive than negative, hopefully, of course, to this mountain of knowledge that we call progress. And that in some way you have helped move the ball just a little bit in your own way, and contribute in your own way, to making the world a slightly better place when you leave it then when you came. It’s why a great teacher achieves immortality.

So this idea that, you know, you make a film with your own ego, mind, knowledge and place is not where I’m at right now. Where I’m at is to try and do the best I can to make a positive contribution to the way the world will be when I leave. I know that sounds bogus, but it’s a different reason. I was 23 years old when I made my first film and I thought, “I’m going to be the next Kubrick.” But that’s not the way you look at it. First of all, that’s not the case, and second of all, even if, God forbid, I was as great as Kubrick, which is not the case, but let’s say I were, it wouldn’t mean anything anyway.

Looking back on your films, do you feel you’ve made one where you can say, “This is a positive contribution that I’m okay with.”? Or are you still searching for that film?
I’m, of course, still searching. And if I weren’t still searching, I would quit and I would go teach. It’s a complex question you ask because I’m not embarrassed of any of the films I’ve made. I feel that each film that I’ve made is the best that I could do at that time of my life. And I don’t think I’ve ever left anything on the table. The only compromised circumstance I’ve ever been in was the studio cut of “The Yards,” where the ending was different. But the Director’s Cut is out there on DVD, so people can see that and that represents the best I could do at that time in my life, at age 29. “Little Odessa” is the best I could do at age 23. “Two Lovers” and “We Own the Night” were the best I could do at age 34 and 38, respectively. And so on and so forth. So, I don’t have a regret that way. My two favorite films, if that’s what you mean, are “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant.” But that’s a product of things that are probably outside your knowledge, because you’d have to be me in order to know because you don’t know what my ambitions were for the film, and you should be grateful that you’re not me because you’re probably a happier, more well adjusted person. (Laughs) But what I mean is that they’re closest to me because they’re closest to what I originally had in my mind.

That’s about all you can ask for.
Yeah, what else can you ask for? You’ve made the film that you dreamed of making, and of course you want your movie to make four hundred million dollars, and you want every critic to say it’s the greatest film they’ve ever seen, but that never happens to anybody. So the only thing you can do is hope to express yourself with great clarity, and as Edward Hopper the painter once said: “To fulfill your aim which should be the most exact transcription possible of your most intimate impressions of nature.”

“The Immigrant” is now available on Blu-ray.

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