Past is present, and nailing those specifics turns James Gray’s heartfelt 1980 Queens family drama into something universal. Gray’s fifth Cannes entry and best film to date, “Armageddon Time” is carried by Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Sir Anthony Hopkins as the parents and grandfather, respectively, of sixth-grade rebel Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, “The Devil All the Time”) as the younger filmmaker.
At a sunset dinner in Antibes ahead of the Thursday night premiere, Focus chairman Peter Kujawski told the “Armageddon Time” team, “This is the last night the movie is yours.” The movie played like gangbusters at the Palais and is generating upbeat reviews. Filmgoers beyond Cannes could embrace this likely Focus fall release (it’s a natural for the New York Film Festival), which like most Universal movies these days, from “The Northman” to “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” will hit PVOD three weeks after theaters, followed by Peacock. With the right handling, it could be Gray’s best-received movie so far.
Gray feverishly edited in 18-hour days for two months after the film was accepted into the Competition. He flew into Cannes with a DCP and still has to complete the sound mix and some visual effects. “I’ve had no time to ruminate,” he told IndieWire. “It’s a calculated risk to expose your film at this festival because it’s a bubble here. It’s a strange environment to show films. I’ve been on the jury. You watch 20 movies in 10 days.” (He served on Isabelle Huppert’s 2009 jury, which awarded the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.”)
“Armageddon Time” recalls the films that launched Gray’s career, all set in the New York area: “Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” and “Two Lovers.” After that, Gray moved into grander-scale period films “The Immigrant” and “The Lost City of Z,” as well as sci-fi epic “Ad Astra,” starring Brad Pitt. This restrained, precise movie doesn’t tell the audience what to think but instead asks moviegoers to lean in. “I tried to be as straightforward and direct with the story as I could,” said Gray. “And then whatever people want to take from it, they can take from it.”
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A reaction to the rigors of shooting those bigger films inspired Gray to return to his roots a few years ago, as well as taking his three children to visit his childhood home in Flushing, Queens, nine miles from the center of the city. “The gestation of the story is pretty old. It was pre-George Floyd,” he said, “and a whole other series of events that weirdly made it seem more timely than I intended.”
Gray wrote the outline for the script alone in his Paris apartment in 2019 while directing the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” “I had a difficult time making the last two pictures,” he said. “One was in the jungle, and one was on stages with Brad Pitt on wires in a capsule. It was physically and logistically difficult. And I wanted to rediscover my love of actually making films. I had wanted to do something about my family and about that episode of my life. It was my way to rediscover a kind of passion for the type of movies that I like.”
Gray sees 1980 as “an underrated breaking point for the country,” he said, with the loss of Mohammad Ali to Larry Holmes, the death of John Lennon, and the rise of Ronald Reagan. “When he became president, it was the final nail in the coffin of the late ’60s, early ’70s. My parents are always talking about nuclear war. And I had my friend who was living in my clubhouse, an insane circumstance. So you try to take what’s wrong with the world or something and turn it into a movie.”
Due to the pandemic, Gray went through a casting tumble. Originally, Oscar Isaac was playing his father and Robert De Niro was going to play Gray’s paternal grandfather, who “was much more working-class and tougher,” said Gray. This turned out to be a felicitous change, as he reworked the script to accommodate Anthony Hopkins as his mother’s more urbane father, who came to America through Britain. “He was wearing my grandfather’s clothes and his hat. He really supported me. I decided I should focus on that relationship more. And also my mother was devastated by his death. I wanted to embrace a warmer idea for the film.
“My father’s side was different. They came over in 1923 through Ellis Island from Russia; he was much more blue-collar. He was a plumber who spoke broken English. That was a more bruising, violent movie with my father. I didn’t think of Jeremy Strong originally, but he’s literally talking, acting, looking exactly like my father.”
Sadly, Gray’s father died just two months ago, of COVID. It was news to Gray’s children that their tender grandpa used to whack their father with a strap. “My kids watched it and they didn’t know,” said Gray. “I tried to explain to them that it’s a generational thing and it was not considered wrongful. I’ve never even touched one of my children. Hitting my kid, that’s crazy, and I would never do it.”
Strong and Hathaway inhabit Gray’s Jewish parents, even if he had to tone down some of the more outrageous clothing choices from the period. Gray admired “Rachel Getting Married” and signed up Hathaway from the start. “She literally looks, talks, and acts exactly like my mother. She had that ridiculous hair and wore those Sears and Roebuck leisure suits and was trying to make good and join the school board. I always felt that her skill set was not taken full advantage of in many films that she had done. Anne and I talked a lot about Anna Magnani; my mother reminded me of her soulful sort of depression.”
Gray came full circle with a key cameo for Jessica Chastain as Maryanne Trump, who gives a Reagan era pull-yourself-up speech at the fancy prep school Paul eventually attends. (Cate Blanchett stepped in and out briefly.) “That speech is accurate.” (Gray and his older brother each wrote what they remembered and the two versions were the same.)
The delicate balance in the story is the relationship between Paul and his Black friend Johnny, who is mistreated by their teacher and shivers under a blanket in Paul’s playhouse as he tries to evade foster care. “It’s the third rail of American life, class, and race,” said Gray, who rejects any suggestion that Paul emerges as the film’s hero. “I don’t know what my character does that’s heroic. I’d have to have that explained to me, because I see it as a total failure. And in fact, as the film ends, Tony [Hopkins] comes back and says, ‘How do you think you did?’ I failed completely.”
In real life, the two boys planned to lift a school computer, but were caught instead stealing “Star Trek” blueprints at a local Bloomingdale’s. In the film, Gray seeks to portray “layers of privilege,” he said. “There’s the kids at the private school, they’re like white kids with a superpower of privilege. It’s like nothing can touch them. And then there was my family striving to get into that group. And I was trying to do something about how difficult and intractable it is.”
Even the grandfather supports sending Paul to private school after he’s caught smoking weed with Johnny in the public school bathroom. “When the grandfather does that, he’s going to contribute to the inequality because that’s giving up the public school system. He’s saying, ‘We’re no longer putting any hope or faith in that. We’re gonna put you over here.'”
Gray found the two boys after hundreds of Zoom auditions. “There were some kids who were very accomplished, but wrong for the part,” he said. “There were other kids who were not accomplished but interesting. You needed to find a combination of some measure of chops, but also a kind of soul, an intelligence. They both had that.”
Recreating the look and feel of the period, Gray tried to “make it a character in the movie,” he said. “So you try to say, ‘Here are the things in the world.’ You don’t have a close-up, fetishized, period detail. And also it is a little tricky because you can’t make it into a joke, with wide ties and ridiculous suits and so forth. It’s a heightened reality, less ridiculous than it might look.”
Gray drove his departments “a little crazy,” he said, as they tracked down the same plates, chandelier, and shade of carpet that his family used, “this kind of madness. We shot the movie about 90 feet from where I grew up. Where the kid walks into the house, that’s my house.”
Actually they rebuilt the interior in Teaneck, New Jersey. The director switched out Edward Hopper at the now-defunct Whitney for Kandinsky at the still-standing Guggenheim. But they used the real PS 173, and the remains of the New York World’s Fair from 1964.
Gray and his usual cinematographer Darius Khondji came up with a muted palette in part because Gray insisted that he barely light the sets. “My father used to say, ‘Turn off the lights. Don’t make Con Edison rich,'” he said. “My house was always dark. My memory was that the windows were closed, because you didn’t want the heat to escape. You had to save and conserve. And it was the Carter era, where it was the energy crisis.”
Recalling the last line of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” Gray said: “These places and streets that we think are permanent and so important in our lives, they’re just as temporary as anything is. We’re all temporarily here and all the people in the film are ghosts now; all those dinners that I had with my grandparents and great uncle and all that was so important, all those people are gone now. And they’re just memories in my head.”