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Armageddon Time Interview — James Gray and Darius Khondji
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James Gray & Cinematographer Darius Khondji

What's the collaborative process behind “The Immigrant,” “Armageddon Time,” and “The Lost City of Z”? “No conversation. Just sharing paintings.”

Director James Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji

James Gray and Darius Khondji

courtesy of James Gray; John Phillips / Getty Images

In “The Lost City of Z,”, British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) spends decades searching for the fabled Amazonian “city of gold.” When the film reaches its crescendo, he and his son Jack (Tom Holland) are carried away by an indigenous tribe, presumably to their deaths. However, director James Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji don’t present this climax as tragic. Rather, it’s an ethereal scene in which the father-son duo seems to float on air, becoming one with the great mystery. “I remember saying to Darius, the movie should be like a two and a half hour long dream sequence,” Gray recently told IndieWire.

Gray and Khondji have collaborated on three films to date — “The Immigrant” in 2013, “The Lost City of Z” in 2016, and “Armageddon Time” this year — but they don’t just shoot movies together. They dream together, often without words, in order to lure the past into the present. “I didn’t want to talk to him. I wanted to share images,” Gray said of the duo’s collaborative process. “No conversation. Just sharing paintings.”

Rather than arriving at this process gradually, fine art was a key reference point from the moment they began to prep “The Immigrant.” While Gray ascribes great emotional weight to their partnership, his recollections of its genesis are amusing — in part, because he does a spot-on impression of Khondji. “I came up in the elevator, which was one of those lofts where the elevator opens into the apartment, and he was playing music. I don’t think he knew I was in the apartment,” Gray recalled. “And then I wandered into the other side of the loft, and he was just sitting there staring at a Delacroix painting postcard that he had, literally just staring at it.”

At this point in the anecdote, Gray affected Khondji’s French accent and thoughtful drawl — “‘Oh, James, hello, hello!’” — and remembered asking the cinematographer what he was looking at: “He said ‘Delacroix! Delacroix!’ Because he has a fantastic sense and eye for color. And composition of course, but color and, and light. And I think with him, the language always has to be as visual as you can get it. So, painting is really the direct way to his heart, I found. And it was really that way from the beginning.”

(L to R) Director of photography Darius Khondji and director James Gray on the set of ARMAGEDDON TIME, released by Focus Features. Credit: Courtesy of Anne Joyce / Focus Features

Behind the scenes of “Armageddon Time”

Anne Joyce / Focus Features

Before each film they work on, Gray and Khondji visit museums in whatever city they happen to find themselves; London’s National Gallery, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and so on. Their common touchstones include 17th century portraits by Caravaggio and Rembrandt, the 19th century opera of Giacomo Puccini, late 20th century Polaroids by Carlo Mollino and, perhaps most vitally, films shot by Gordon Willis, who Khondji calls less of a direct blueprint and more of a guiding spirit. “He’s like a friend you bring with you,” Khondji said.

A layperson might categorize Willis and the aforementioned artists as the duo’s “influences,” but they don’t quite see it that way. “We try to summon other works of art, and not try to verbalize it so much when we discuss it,” Gray said. Willis’ work on “The Godfather Part II,” in which he enveloped warm tones with striking darkness, springs to mind first and foremost. Shades of this palette can be found in Gray and Khondji’s collaborations too: “Part of what Darius and I love to talk about is what part of the set not to light,” Gray said.

“The Godfather Part II” sits close to Gray’s heart — and his stomach. In a 2019 profile, Gray’s wife Ali explained that he often rates family meals in relation to Francis Ford Coppola filmography. An “Apocalypse Now” is an acquired taste. A “Jack” is one they don’t talk about. The highest rating on this scale? A “Godfather II.” Coppola’s films are often family affairs, whether they’re about blood relations or their productions felt like family gatherings. That sense of the familial is something with which avowed Coppola admirer Gray imbues many of his stories — particularly, “The Immigrant” and “Armageddon Time.” The former was sketched from the memories and journal entries of Gray’s grandmother, who immigrated to the United States in 1923. The latter is even more personal to Gray, who based much of it on his own childhood upbringing in Queens in the early 1980s. Both are part of a 20th century continuum, in which Gray placed his trust in Khondji to bring his and his family’s memories to life. “It’s like an act of faith,” Gray said, about granting Khondji the permission (and space) to work in this deeply personal realm. He joins the family at the table, as Willis did for Coppola.

“Armageddon Time,” which began its theatrical rollout on October 28th, follows 12-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repetta) on a difficult coming-of-age journey influenced by his strict, tough-love parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong); his kind Ukrainian immigrant grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins); and a society on the precipice of social and economic change. It is, in some ways, a memory preserved in amber, with the gas lighting of New York City’s streets and households filling each space with the golden-brown hue the duo’s work has become known for.

Capturing imperfection is just as vital to “Armageddon Time” as capturing the ethereal. It’s the rare drama in which key light sources are visible in nearly every frame — Gray, who recalls the energy crisis of 1979, wanted characters sitting directly beneath practical lights, per his father’s cost-saving advice at the time — and it’s also the rare film whose staging is geared not toward visual clarity, but toward characters constantly casting shadows on one another.

It’s hard not to wonder why two of Western cinema’s most accomplished artisans would opt for this specific kind of realism, which obscures traditional dramatic moments. But the more “Armageddon Time” unfolds, the more this approach is clarified. These are not random, thoughtless shadows cast by objects or unknown passersby. They’re cast by family members who leave indelible marks on one another during vital crossroads in their lives. “They all reflect upon each other,” Gray emphasizes. “The idea of trauma is handed down from generation to generation.” Watch the video below to see how Gray and Khondji executed this technique in “Armageddon Time.”

Like Gray, whose approach was informed by both emotional and economic circumstance, Khondji drew from the Italian Arte Povera movement of the time (meaning “poor art”), a philosophy born an ocean away from Gray, but one that came to the same conclusions about lived experience and how best to portray it. “Sometimes characters in your life cast shadows, you know?” said Khondji. “I didn’t want any sophistication in the light. For me, there was something poor about the lighting in the late ’70s.”

A decade into their creative relationship, Gray and Khondji barely had to debate this decision. Even when they do discuss things verbally, they do so in shorthand; “I relied on Darius to direct me about what moved him, because I kept saying key words to him,” Gray adds. “I kept saying ‘it’s like a ghost story,’ ‘the elusiveness of the characters,’ ‘I don’t really want them to be in their key light,’ ‘I want them to be lit from another space.’” Theirs is the kind of unspoken understanding that would make most married couples envious, and it began soon after they first met, while collaborating on a telecommunications ad in Uruguay. They had long admired each other’s films, and according to Khondji, Gray — who wasn’t used to shooting commercials the way Khondji was — didn’t want the advertising gig to “count” as their first time working together.

Their first “proper” collaboration was on “The Immigrant,” a film that, though it feels enormous in emotional scope, was the result of an intimate production, often to the point of claustrophobia. The duo’s numerous visits to The Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side — carved out from tiny apartments occupied by real migrant families in the 19th and 20th centuries — led them down a path of strict verisimilitude when it came to the kind of narrow space in which Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) would have found herself upon arriving in the United States.

THE IMMIGRANT, Marion Cotillard, 2013. ph: Anne Joyce/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Immigrant”

Weinstein Company / courtesy Everett Collection

When asked about these visits to real tenements, Khondji laughed. “It was very romantic, very poetic in a way, but very small and very dark. My first thought was, where would we put the camera? Because we wanted to shoot anamorphic, and like all great filmmakers, James wanted to respect the size of the space. He’s a very serious filmmaker. He doesn’t do superfluous.”

The eventual solution involved cramped shoots and rubbing shoulders with the remains of real tenement apartments in the Lower East Side — “We were going straight into the wall,” recalled Khondji — but these restrictions weren’t simply an outcome of logistical realism. It was a matter of re-creating the sensations of the time period, and of Gray’s grandmother’s memories, by being truly present. “It was a stylized vision, but the roots were very real,” said Khondji. “This one thing that I don’t like in filmmaking is when you are outside the space, to pretend you are inside. This is a very nasty feeling.” In a way, capturing “realism” in “The Immigrant” required sharing room with the spirits of the original occupants too. “It feels a little bit like you are in a church,” Khondji continued. “You have that feeling of ‘something that created us.’ I mean, it created all of us in a way. We’re all kind of immigrants, you know.”

Gray, though he hails from the United States and has set most of his work here, has consistently made films about people searching for their place in the world. His work with Khondji in particular speaks to this fixation. “The Immigrant” deals with a newcomer to the United States, and what she has to do to survive. “The Lost City of Z” is about an explorer who keeps returning to the Amazon in search of a phantom city, because he doesn’t quite feel whole in Britain. “Armageddon Time,” though it’s about a white teenager in 1980s New York, is equally about how he hides his Jewish identity to fit in, even at the cost of his friendship with his Black classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb). For Khondji, who was born in Iran but grew up in France — an experience he refers to as being “misplaced”— putting words to this sense of outsidership is a difficult task. However presenting it in the form of images affords him the chance to, as he puts it, “pick your moments and recreate them.”

“You pick your darker moments,” he said. “I sometimes go deep in my memory, but I cannot really completely talk about it.”

THE LOST CITY OF Z, from left: Robert Pattinson, Charlie Hunnam, 2016. ph: Aidan Monaghan /© Bleecker Street Media /Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Lost City of Z”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Putting images to wordless experiences is a fitting M.O. for a film like “The Lost City of Z” which, while based on the book by David Grann, feels similar to Gray’s other two, more autobiographical films with Khondji, in that it’s a work of memory set in the 20th century. Fawcett’s ill-fated expedition to find “Z” wasn’t so much about the destination (or lack thereof) as it was about his journey, and about the idea of this city, as a dream or a concept, floating in the jungle air.

Gray and Khondji were interviewed separately for this piece, but they may as well have been seated together when it came to recounting their conversations. “I remember saying to Darius that the idea of the lost city has to be in the air,” Gray recalled. He offered another Khondji impression as he recalled the cinematographer saying, ‘In the air, in the air, in the air…’” as he thought about how to translate the concept visually.

Khondji similarly noted: “It’s more a feeling, like the air, the smell of the air in a place where you love, you know?”

The air is all-important in “The Lost City of Z,” for which Gray and Khondji added artificial atmosphere and fog to grant the environment a tangible thickness — a sense of weight and unpredictability. By the end of “The Lost City of Z,” Fawcett and his son may not discover the golden city, but the dreamlike nature of the climax offers an uncanny sense of catharsis, as if they have, instead, found some wordless answer within themselves. In order to construct this emotional enigma — and because of complications while transporting electrical generators to their remote Colombian location — Gray and Khondji resorted to lighting the scene almost entirely by flame.

On the set of "The Lost City of Z"

Behind the scenes of “The Lost City of Z”

Aidan Monaghan

Numerous shots were filmed with flames directly beneath the lens, to create a mirage-like sense of atmosphere and heat refraction that, though it wouldn’t actually be visible in the jungle’s humidity, would enhance the dreamlike sensation. However, the scene’s masterstroke is the way Gray and Khondji painted Hunnam and Holland’s faces — literally. They took their cues from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished 1964 experimental film “L’enfer,” lacing the actors’ makeup with golden dust. “What you’re supposed to have is a slight unconscious feeling that they’ve been touched, and they have been pushed into the realm of their fantasies, and have transcended a kind of base reality,” Gray said. “And by the way, this is a very underrated aspect of cinematography, the connection with makeup, and how the skin responds to the lights you choose and the lenses you choose.”

They would go on to repeat this process during a key scene in “Armageddon Time,” during which Paul, after being punished by his parents, sneaks out to visit a destitute Johnny, who’s been hiding out in Paul’s backyard shed, and has made plans for them to flee New York. “We put gold in their faces because I wanted to say that this scene is almost the friendship at its zenith,” Gray said. “It’s when they worry that they’re not gonna see each other again. But this moment, ironically, is when they’re closest. We wanted the moment to feel very precious.”

When asked about using this technique on “The Lost City of Z,” Khnodji added: “I think that gave you this kind of religious coat on their faces.” In reflecting on these stories of souls connected by light, and beyond words, it’s hard not to be reminded of Gray and Khondji themselves. Religious connotations lie at the root of their creative dynamic, going back to some of the very first sounds and images they shared when working on “The Immigrant.” The film is set in the 1920s, and its brass hues match not only the gas lamps of the time, but the way faded photographs from the era appear to us today. Yet its top-lit look — creating both a sense of spiritual guidance from above, and casting shadows across the sunken eyes of Joaquin Phoenix’s villainous Bruno Weiss — comes from Gray and Khondji’s primary photographic reference for the film, Mollino’s erotic Polaroids, which were taken in the early 1970s. To Khondji, this sense of anachronism didn’t matter nearly as much as what the images themselves — and the act of sharing them — evoked.

“[James] told me not about religion, but he said the feeling, the texture of the film has a religious patina,” Khondji said. “And suddenly by saying this, I knew exactly what he wanted. And it didn’t matter that this picture was from the ’70s, and the music was from 19-something. There was already the premise of time lost. There was already this feeling in the music he was sending me. There was a lot of brown and amber and gold in it, and that’s what he actually loves to surround himself with in most of his films.”

To Gray, these anachronisms are in service of creating what he calls a “simulacrum” of the past. “There’s no way, obviously, to recreate the past completely,” Gray muses. “So then you ask yourself: How do you achieve the feeling of the irretrievable past?”

“If I could do it with words, it wouldn’t have to exist in a movie.”—Siddhant Adlakha

James Gray & Darius Khondji

Credits: "Armageddon Time," "The Lost City of Z," "The Immigrant"

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