One thing becomes very apparent when you talk to filmmaker James Gray…the man is willing to talk about pretty much anything. Even when it comes to the distribution of his films (which have sadly resulted in most of them underperforming at the box office), Gray is open and honest. That makes for a great interview, which is just what I had with the man last week in advance of the Blu-Ray/DVD release of The Immigrant, his latest movie. We spent a lot of time on The Immigrant, obviously but I also made sure to touch on Two Lovers as well, a favorite of mine from his filmography. My review of The Immigrant, which stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, can be found here, and be sure to pick the movie up tomorrow to own!
Here are the highlights of my interview with Gray…
What the genesis of The Immigrant was for him
James Gray – Well, the movie was the product of an attempt to make something that almost felt like a fable. Something that had a simplicity and a purity about it, an operatic quality about it. You know who Hokusai was? Hokusai was a great Japanese painter who was really, we’re talking about the 1830’s, and Van Gough felt he owed a lot to him, he had an amazing opinion about the work. He said that basically the best you can do, and he lived until he was very old, is you can capture that at first you want to be famous or successful, but then you feel like you haven’t done anything really good. Then, you move past that to a new realm of understanding and you’re trying to capture the essence of a leaf, and by the time you die you hope you achieve divinity by reducing and finding meaning and beauty in what is seemingly the most meaningless thing. There’s something about that that really sticks with me. You know, in a sense, to get the story simpler. By making the story simpler, it’s more complex. There’s a big difference Joey, between complex and complicated, you know what I mean?
How he responds when someone calls a film of his “old fashioned”
JG – Old fashioned is something that has been applied to my work upon occasion, and it’s always interested me! I don’t know how to take it, because the idea that something is old fashioned can be very gratifying but at the same time can also feel ossified. I think, and I understand what you’re saying, of course, but the idea of a simple story told with elegance and emotion (I had complimented The Immigrant by calling it old fashioned and a simple story told with elegance and emotion, hence his callback to it and the thrust of this response) is the hardest thing to do. If I’m ever able to get close to achieving that, then I would be a really happy person. It’s very easy to distract the audience with cinematic pyrotechnics.
You know, I’ve often said to people that I know or students that I talk to when I go to colleges and stuff, when asked what’s the hardest…to me, what Francis Coppola did with The Godfather is the hardest thing that you can do, because it’s three hours and it’s pure character and narrative. In The Godfather, there’s not really any pyrotechnics. Now, it’s unbelievably made and there’s gorgeousness in it, it’s brilliantly done, but it’s not like the camera is doing 360 degree dolly moves. It survives entirely on the power of its story and its concept, and that is impossible to do.
On coming up with, developing, and using a female protagonist for the first time in a work of his
JG – I mean, to me it’s always like passing a stone, coming up with a character. Coming up with a character that’s interesting and involving is so difficult. You know, the gender comes into play…it has to. You know that the world does not treat women as well as it treats men. The world does not treat black men as well as it treats white men. To say the opposite would be to deny reality I think, to some degree. Society is sexist and racist, it just is. Now, is it better than it was for example, in 1920? Of course it is, but it’s still that way, even today. So, when you work on characters you must take into account, particularly if it’s a woman in 1921, you have to take into account a certain level of punishment that character would take, and how that character would respond to that punishment. It doesn’t mean that the character is only to be punished, because I think in some ways she’s a real, not only a survivor, she’s willing to do things somewhat dark in order to do so. You know, if you look at the film, she’s constantly, for example, the guy says to her “if you look healthy for the board it helps”, and the first thing she does when he leaves is prick her finger and makes her lipstick out of her blood, pinches her cheeks so they look rosey. She’s pulling out a shiv at a moments notice, she’s rude to the other immigrant in the cell. This is a survivor. So, you take that into account as well, but this is all part of the cauldron. It’s all part of the mix, the stew.
What the difference is in working with a new cast member as opposed to someone he’s used in a film before, particularly in terms of if there’s a shorthand that can or can’t be used anymore
JG – That’s an excellent question. I would say that there’s a terror that comes from working with somebody new. You never know what that person is going to bring to the table and sometimes it’s not always good. In the case of Marion Cotillard, there was, let’s be honest here, not a huge amount of risk involved, because she’s more or less a genius and that was known to me and quite obvious to me before I made the film. So, it wasn’t like I was that worried, but there’s always risk! She could have shown up and sounded like Bela Lugosi or something, doing a bad accent, you don’t know. So, I have to try and contemplate and predict her style of acting and how that would play with Joaquin (Phoenix), and that’s always a risk, obviously. So, what do you take into account? Well, you take into account two things. Either the track record of the actor that you’re bringing into the family, or you meet the actor and you talk to him or her and you get a sense of what that person is about, and if that person has a lot of intelligence and sensitivity then usually you can put a lot of faith into that person.
By the way, that’s part of the magic of making a movie! If you made a movie Joey and you knew all of the answers when you walked on the set, it wouldn’t be very interesting. That’s kind of why Hitchcock said filmmaking is boring. The candor from Hitchcock, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, but towards the end, the films were not all that interesting, I think because the medium and its unpredictability had left him behind, you know? He couldn’t shoot on a stage all the time, he didn’t just shoot his storyboards all the time, and once it became unpredictable he couldn’t adapt to that.
Responding to when someone says that his movies all feel like they come from the same filmmaker
JG – Thank you. Well, what you’re trying to do when you make these things is reveal a part of yourself, and preferably may I say a part of yourself that you’re not comfortable with. You’re trying to reveal what makes you vulnerable, because that’s where the interesting part of you lies. Now, you’re not always aware of it, so it’s real work, since what you’re trying to express is an aspect of your unconscious, and if you could do that it wouldn’t be your unconscious anymore. But, the whole idea of Two Lovers, for example, was to express the dynamic of bipolar behavior and depression, and how the nature of desire, that all desire is based on a certain fetish and we may not know all of the person. So, for example Vinessa Shaw in that film, doesn’t see what we see. We see someone in his private apartment who’s very desperate and in bad shape. She sees a person who dances with his mother in a beautiful way and looks like Joaquin Phoenix, he’s a handsome guy! So, she has one idea of him that she desires, but we have another idea of him. The same is true of him and Gwyneth.
So, I was trying to express that there, and then in In The Immigrant, the whole idea was a codependent relationship. Almost the most screwed up version of a married couple that you could possibly imagine. They’re like the most screwed up version of a married couple of all time, but they also have an uneasy truce. There’s a certain kind of banality that seems to set in with their relationship, of course until Jeremy Renner decides to blow the whole thing up. In a certain sense, the whole thing with The Immigrant was me trying to express, within a certain period context of course, which finds its roots with my grandparents and their story, my own feelings about relationships between people and feelings of, dare I say it, love. Now, that doesn’t mean that Marion and Joaquin love each other and that doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing pimps and prostitution, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is true drama, true circumstance, which is what true drama is, that a greater truth can be attained. We find people in extreme circumstances for which we’re forced to extend our sympathies, and in forcing ourselves to extend our sympathies, we found a greater truth about what it is that we experience in our own lives. That’s the point, it seems to me, of a creative endeavor.
How he feels about his films sometimes underperforming with audiences/the box office and if he feels the temptation of the blockbuster or making a Marvel movie
JG – Right. Yeah, I have a couple of friends who’ve done that and here’s my answer. I’ve had, you know, particularly bad luck…I’m an extremely lucky person in almost all respects, my wife and children are astonishingly great and I’m a very lucky guy. I get to make movies! That’s one of the greatest gifts that I could possibly imagine, so I want to say in the greater context I’m insanely lucky. In the limited view of film releasing, I’ve been extremely unlucky, domestically anyway. The distribution of my films, with the exception of one, a movie I did called We Own The Night, has been almost uniformly poor. That is totally out of my hands, it’s not like you choose the distributors in a lot of case. Particularly with my last two films, the distributors of the films, I didn’t have any say over that. That’s out of your hands, so what you can control is the film. Once you’ve got the film, you have to ask yourself if there’s a way that you can express yourself and care about the movie. If I don’t care about the movie, then why should you care?
Of course I’ve had the temptation to make a big Marvel movie, I’d love to make a movie on that kind of a tapestry, but when you do that, and when you make a movie that everybody sees, it’s usually made with the idea of pleasing everyone, and you can’t please everyone, because when you try to please everyone you really wind up pleasing no one. So, if you look at the landscape, it’s not just me, by the way. If you look at the landscape of these movies, there’s a certain instant disposability about all of them. We seem to have disavowed the notion of subtext. The films that haunt us through the years, the decades, are the ones that have a certain subtext, so the story is one thing, but there’s this creeping sense of what the real meaning of the film is, it haunts us. When you see these big movies, they’re so big, they can’t take any risks. They can’t have a subtext, they can’t have any underlying layers of meaning. Now, one friend of mine in particular has made a wonderful attempt at actually infusing the work with that kind of subtext, but in most cases the field is so aligned against you. So, my own feeling is that I would love to do it, and maybe someday I will, someday I’ll be fortunate enough to be in that position, but so far I haven’t the vehicle, the story with which I can still maintain my caring for the film where it has a vivid and dramatic subtext, and be able to execute it on field so vast that a multinational corporation would be happy to participate.
I have huge admiration by the way, huge admiration for the filmmakers who can do that. I mean, it’s very difficult not to have admiration for that…if you look at something like E.T. from 1982, okay? So, Steven Spielberg goes off, he makes E.T., he really makes it a movie about divorce, about a child’s loneliness, but he uses the extraterrestrial as a metaphor, and it’s brilliant. He does it brilliantly and the movie makes $400 billion! Steven Spielberg has that ability to take what is personal to him and make it accessible. Some of that is timing, some of that is luck, but most of that is talent. The same thing, you know, Christopher Nolan has done amazing things, particularly with The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s character, in making that mean something to him. So, if I found that opportunity, I would take it in a second. I haven’t had that opportunity, no one has offered it to me and I haven’t pursued it, of course, because I haven’t had the imagination and the wherewithal to achieve that yet. I hope I will!
On if the long developing project The Lost City of Z is finally next for him
JG – Yeah, that’s going into preproduction in a matter of four weeks or five weeks now, before I have to go off and do that. I’m very excited, it’s hopefully the movie that, you know, bridges the step between the films I’ve made which are very personal and small, and what will be a different chapter in my life, because it’s a much bigger film.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!