‘Armageddon Time’ or: How James Gray Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Digital

Toolkit Ep. 175: Writer-director James Gray talks to IndieWire about his most personal film to date and the "act of snobbery" that once had him committed to celluloid.
Jeremy Strong Anne Hathaway
'Armageddon Time'
Courtesy of Focus Features

Director James Gray went to the Amazon for “The Lost City of Z” and outer space for “Ad Astra,” but with his new film “Armageddon Time,” he returns to the kind of intimate, precise character study with which he made his name. “I wanted to cleanse the palate in a way from what had been very difficult experiences,” Gray told IndieWire. “It was an attempt to rediscover why it is I love movies and what it is I was trying to do to begin with.”

“Armageddon Time” tells the story of a young boy who is around the same age in 1980 that the 53-year-old Gray was, and whose life and family are virtually identical to that of the filmmaker. Getting as close as he could to reality without using dramatic license or resorting to false sentiment was of paramount importance: “I tried not to use my imagination at all,” Gray said. “I tried to not use research at all. My only research was my brother. I would call him up and say, ‘Ed, what happened when we had this or that?’ He was very helpful to us on small things like the plates in the house. But that was it. The rest is based on recollection, as best I could put it together. I am cursed or blessed with a very good memory, which is maybe slipping a little now, but I had a pretty clear recollection of what the hell that period was and what it was that I went through.”

Listen to the entire discussion below or read on for excerpts from the conversation. To hear this and more conversations with your favorite TV and film creators, subscribe to the Toolkit podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.

Although Gray is an extremely well-rounded and erudite cinephile, he didn’t look to many films from the past as reference points for “Armageddon Time” — though he did watch Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord.” In general he wanted to resist the typical conventions of coming-of-age movies as much as possible. “I don’t love the idea of a loss of innocence because I think that that’s based on a somewhat bourgeois reading of history,” Gray said. “It presumes that children are innocent, which they are not. And it presumes that there was a moment of beauty and purity, which there is not. So I did want to make a film about loss, but not about loss of innocence… not really as a coming-of-age film either, because that means there’s a heroic journey that the main character takes.”

“For me, it wasn’t about a heroic journey for that kid. In fact, if anything, it was about his moral failings where he actually falls short. I’m not interested in nostalgia. History is complicated and there are multiple threads and I didn’t wanna point fingers. It’s, not like the oppressor and the oppressed. The good guy and the bad guy. It’s, you can be the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time. And so all those things factor into an idea of hopefully some complexity and texture and what that movie is. I tried to kind of reach out for my own worst qualities, my vulnerabilities, and be honest about where it is I fell short.”

In terms of the visual style, Gray again relied on his own memory for the imagery, with some help from master painters he looked at with cinematographer Darius Khondji. “He became very attracted to what he called an earthy realism,” Gray said. “I remember looking at a couple of paintings by Vermeer that he really loved — not the typical ones, [but those with] a slightly underexposed, out-of-the-key-light look, because I kept telling him that my father would remind us constantly of the energy crisis. ‘Turn off the lights, don’t keep the lights on.’ My house was very dark, so we looked at a lot of paintings where light sources were either indirect or diminished and he really gravitated to those. Then of course we looked at some 1980 movies for what the film stock looked like.”

Gray intended to shoot on film as he always had before, but found that film stocks had changed so much in 40 years that it was impossible to get the 1980 look he wanted using celluloid. Instead he shot digitally on an Alexa 65 with older lenses, then scanned the image to film and back to digital again, giving him and Khondji the ability to replicate the look of the old Kodak stocks they wanted to emulate. Gray admitted that the experience changed the way he thought about digital capture. “I was against digital, the truth is that I was quite wrong because digital has been democratizing in a kind of great way,” he said. “Film is very expensive, and not everybody has Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong and Tony Hopkins and Jessica Chastain, so they don’t have the budget. And it looks very good, the Alexa. So it was an act of snobbery, and I’ve become increasingly upset with myself for advocating for 35 the way that I did.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher.

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