James Gray is the auteur filmmaker behind works such as THE YARDS (2000), WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), TWO LOVERS (2008) and the recent THE IMMIGRANT (2013). His films are delicately paced thrillers or dramas interested in human behaviour and the role fate plays in our lives. Beloved by French critics and someone who can count Martin Scorsese as an admirer, Gray's films elicit interesting reactions from critics. I spoke to James about his upbringing, his films and how personal THE IMMIGRANT is to him.   

What kinds of movies influenced you the most growing up?
I saw a ton of movies growing up and got a great cinematic education. The network of revival houses which were available in New York back in the late '70s and '80s were pretty astonishing. By the time I went to college I was in the very fortunate position of having seen way more films than practically everyone in my class. For example, you could go to Times Square at the Hollywood Twin and see RIO BRAVO (1959) or THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940). You could go to the Thala and see AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972)and FITZCARRALDO (1982) on a double bill. I can say that APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) was a very important film for me because I was ten or eleven at that time, and I had never seen anything like it. I had only seen the likes of STAR WARS (1977), JAWS (1975), ROCKY (1976) and the KING KONG (1976) remake. The next year, RAGING BULL (1980) came out and that was my introduction to what I call 'cinephelia'. Thanks to the mini-series 'Shogun' (1980) that my father loved, the household got a VCR, and I used that as an excuse to record movies off of Channel 13 public television. We rented movies from the Photomat chain, and the first movie we ever rented was THE GODFATHER (1972). I also remember renting A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). My introduction to film was really early '70s American cinema but through that I discovered who those filmmakers stole from. For example, you could see the influence of Visconti in Francis Ford Coppola's work, so I discovered THE LEOPARD (1963), ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) and SENSO (1954). Coppola also had an obsession with Kurosawa, so I saw THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and all the other Kurosawa films. One reason I love RAGING BULL is that it introduced me to the Robert Wise movie THE SET-UP (1949). These films were my film school before film school. I remember that these films were very formative for me as a teenager, and also Fellini's films, particularly from VARIETY LIGHTS (1950) to 8 1/2 (1963). It was a new world for me, and all of this gets in the blender of the brain.

Were you thinking of LA STRADA (1954) when you were making THE IMMIGRANT?
THE IMMIGRANT is a complete rip-off of LA STRADA until the last third, where my movie isn't as dark. Even though I adore LA STRADA, the idea that I wanted to pursue was a little different - that there is the possibility of redemption and no-one's life is meaningless, beneath contempt or unworthy of our examination. I personally don't mind ripping off anybody. Everybody does it. Fellini ripped off Chaplin. Look at what Giulietta Masina is doing in NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. (1957). It's so Chaplin-esque. This whole idea of the perfect, bittersweet, beautiful ending was something Chaplin mastered and it became Fellini's mantra.

The ending is more hopeful than I anticipated, especially compared to most of your previous films.
Ric Menello, the co-writer, and I talked about the ending at great length. We tried to achieve both the bitter and the sweet, and we didn't want to bludgeon the audience with a miserable, dark ending. On the other hand, we didn't want an ending where she won the Lottery and it's all been a bad dream. Menello kept saying ''We're doing Shakespeare'' and he directed me towards some of the Shakespearian histories, which he knew chapter and verse. I had read 'Henry IV, Part 1' and 'Part 2' in college but I didn't really remember them because it had been twenty years. In the plays, Prince Hal is the King and you're happy for him, but he still tells his buddy Falstaff ''I know thee not, old man'' and casts him off. It's bittersweet. Here Marion's character, Ewa, gets her sister back but she will forever be haunted by her experiences. Similarly, Joaquin's character, Bruno, is a survivor and will probably be okay, but he's in love with Ewa. He'll always miss her. The idea of the final shot of the movie is an extension of this. It's not presenting anything vague, because you know where they are both going, but it's somewhat ambiguous.

How did you achieve that final shot technically?
It was in the script from the very beginning. It's all visual effects. Looking out of that window, you would have seen a bridge, so it's green screen and a plate we shot of the boat. The reflection in the glass was shot at an entirely different location. Visual effects basically married the image.

What were your intentions with the Joaquin Phoenix/ Marion Cotillard relationship in THE IMMIGRANT?
I said to Ric when we started out ''What's interesting to me is if we could examine a co-dependent relationship but in a period setting.'' Co-dependency is a modern psychological idea which actually comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, but it doesn't mean that it didn't exist until the post-War period. Menello particularly got on to the idea that this co-dependency would be bad for the both of them. They are locked in this awful embrace which involves Marion's humiliation but also her salvation. And Joaquin's salavation too.                   

By the end of the film I felt that Marion's character was not as innocent as we thought, and Joaquin's wasn't as evil. 
I'm so happy that you got that. That was very much the intention of it. I mean, she said she was raped on the boat, but maybe she even traded sexual favours. We don't know. She has a very steely idea of what she needs to do, and possibly given the right certain circumstances, maybe you or I would have done what Joaquin did and exploited her for his gain. We really don't know what we're capable of. He's doing everything he can to survive. He clearly feels terrible about it. The truth in the end is that he DID get her what she needed.

How do you feel about the critical response to the movie?
It's been very strange in some places. I didn't expect such a wonderfully divisive reaction to the movie. It's actually been very positive in the United States, especially at the New York Film Festival. Other places, like England, hated the film. You never know when you make a film what the reaction is going to be. I expected people to either love it because it was a rip-off of LA STRADA, or hate it because it was hokum, but people seem to love or hate it for completely unpredictable reasons. The only thing that you can ask is that people try to see what you attempted to do. If they can see that shard and understand what was attempted, then I'm happy. What I was trying to depict here were lives that go on in a fashion we are not even sure about. As a filmmaker all you can do is to try to be as true to yourself as possible, and let the chips fall where they may. If there's any filmmaker to look up to in that respect it's Stanley Kubrick. I remember the reviews for BARRY LYNDON (1975), and they were terrible. When I was a kid I would go to the library and look up old movie reviews, and I found that critics got it right a lot, but they also got it wrong a lot too.

Given Ric Menello's passing, looking back at the film must be bittersweet in itself.
The movie haunts me. I had an incredibly good time making it. I loved the actors. The movie is very personal to me. And it was the last film I was lucky enough to do with Ric. That was a great part of the experience. Now that he's gone, and the movie is over, I have to let go of it, and it's not that easy for me to do. I loved him profoundly and spoke to him for hours every day. There's really nobody I miss more. I think about him constantly, almost like I want to reach for the phone and call him, but I can't. I just keep hearing all the times I told him to go to the doctor in my head. He would tell me ''I have problems with my chest.'' I'd say ''You have to go to a doctor. I'll have a car pick you up. Don't worry about the money.'' But he would never go.   

How do you think filming at the real Ellis Island informs the film?
It was an amazing experience. I was the happiest I have ever been on a film set. You have to realise that my whole family came through there in 1923. We couldn't shoot there in the day because it's a museum so we had to shoot everything at night, blasting all the light through the famous beaux-arts windows. It wasn't as easy as it sounds because the Great Hall is on the second and third floors and we had to get cranes up there and put them on barges. We had to get eight hundred extras in period garb from Lower Manhattan and ship them to the Island. It was nuts. We there at 2am shooting this stuff. I have to say, standing there, where assuredly my grandparents had stood within ten or fifteen feet of me way back when, I couldn't help but get a chill down my spine. It definitely informed the actors' performances knowing that they are in that space. The Caruso concert was a real event that was used as entertainment for the immigrants. Ric said ''We have to put the Caruso concert in the movie.'' I was so happy we managed to do it. We got this guy (Joseph Calleja) who is considered the new Caruso to come from Malta to sing this Puccini. He sang it live with the orchestra playing, in the Great Hall. Can you imagine that? Francis Ford Coppola on THE GODFATHER, PART II (1974)and Elia Kazan on AMERICA, AMERICA (1963) weren't lucky enough to go to the real Ellis Island because back then it was completely dilapidated. We were the first movie to shoot Ellis Island for the real thing. It was the thrill of a lifetime really.

Do you see THE IMMIGRANT as kind of the end of a cycle? The film could be telling the origin stories of characters from your other films, beginning with LITTLE ODESSA (1994).     
I hadn't thought of it like that, but I guess you're right. It was not part of my conscious design. Certainly Ric and I never discussed that when we were writing it. But I can see it now. It's a very personal movie like I said. My grandparents are in one of the photographs in the locket that Ewa is holding. One of the stores is called Hurwitz's, which was my mother's maiden name. There's a lot of that stuff in the film. The whole idea of not knowing how to eat a banana comes from my grandmother, who didn't know when she came to America and just bit into one when she was given one. We had a deleted bit where Ewa studies the spaghetti and says ''I'm not eating that. It's bloody worms.'' This is what my grandparents initially thought spaghetti was.

Was it a cathartic or educational experience making a film that could be about your ancestors?
My grandparents were actually remote to me because they didn't speak any English, even to the day they died. They spoke Russian, and in the house, Yiddish. They didn't integrate into American life and maintained their outsider position. To be honest, I never really liked them. They would come over and tell me stories about a country of which I understood about twenty per cent. I was never interested in talking to them, which of course now I realise was a very ignorant and heartbreaking position to take. Imagine the stories they could have told me. Making the film absolutely put me in their position. I suddenly realised that they came to this country all alone, they couldn't speak the language and they lived in a place about 250 square feet that probably had rats and typhus. They were alienated, and the area in which they lived had all kinds of characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

What kind of childhood did you have?
I lived in a crummy, semi-detached row house in Queens, in the Flushing area, with my mother, father and brother, whom I still talk to every day. It was not too far from where the Mets play baseball. It's still in New York City but you can see the skyscrapers from a distance, so there's a kind of melancholy and pathos. I had a pretty miserable, complaining and neurotic childhood.

Your films are often set in small, cramped rooms. Is this a direct influence of your childhood?
It's all wound up in the films unconsciously now I think of it. My experiences were as a pale-skinned child in a cramped, claustrophobic set of quarters, and also movie theatres, small houses and hallways. I wish my parents had taken me horseback riding or sailing but it didn't happen.
Was WE OWN THE NIGHT more of a challenge being a more epic film?
Truthfully, I felt it was considerably easier because I wasn't brutalised by a rapid shooting schedule. THE IMMIGRANT, for example, was 32 days and TWO LOVERS was 29 days, whereas we had 48 days on WE OWN THE NIGHT. It felt like we had a year, and it was great because we could explore a little bit.

The car chase in that film was extraordinary and not something one would expect from you.
There was an executive at Warner Brothers called Lorenzo Di Bonaventura who said to me ''We want you to do a cop movie for us but you have to have a car chase.'' It's very difficult to do an original car chase. I was driving on the 101 freeway in LA during a rainstorm and I almost got into a terrible accident. It was very dark and the windshield was covered with water. I thought ''There has never been a car chase that has involved weather as a major ingredient.'' It felt consistent with my intention to make a film that was about both the environment and fate playing a big role in our lives, and how our actions only reflect our inability to change our situations at hand. That's a very Greek, epic idea, and operatic. 

What do you love so much about opera?
My first ever opera as an adult was The Merry Widow at The Met, when I was 23 or 24. I remember thinking ''This is an incredible experience.'' As overblown and as melodramatic as it was, it felt like it was going for a greater truth, an emotional truth. It didn't try to adhere to the reality of a given situation. It was so beautiful, and it moved me very much. I have a subscription to LA Opera and I go as much as I can. If I don't see a particular production, I get pretty miserable.  

What usually hooks you to a project?
It's always starts with the character. What does the person want? What is the situation that the person has found him or herself in? It never stems from the look of the film, or a technical challenge, the style, or whether I have repeated myself.

Would you agree that your films seem to draw from the same pool but from different angles and with different results?
Yes, the intent has always been to try and craft a filmography where the same story is being told in some ways over and over again, but that they change and become slightly different as I change as a person. By the time I make my tenth film, hopefully it'll be completely different from my first film. Making films is really a process of discovery about yourself because it's a very selfish, narcissistic endeavour. You really have to deceive yourself into thinking that you're so important that you deserve all the resources you get. One has to be crazy really to dedicate the time and energy and deep personal care necessary to make a movie.

Were you daunted at working with such established actors as Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave on your first film LITTLE ODESSA?
I was nervous with them initially but when I realised that we had common ground, which was the characters and the thematic and emotional ideas, it kind of went away. I'd be lying to you if I didn't admit to being daunted. I was 23 when that film started, and I didn't know what the hell I was doing, which is abundantly clear to anyone who has to sit through the movie. I haven't seen it in full in about twenty years. I saw the first five minutes in 2010 and I hated it so much I had to leave. It just felt like such a young man's movie.  

It took six years for for your next film THE YARDS  to get made and released. What do you feel you have learned from your various struggles?
It was a big struggle to get THE YARDS finished. It's been a real struggle to try and maintain my integrity as a filmmaker. The film industry is not structured for that, it's a business that is only interested in making as much money as possible. I've learned that you have to live moment to moment and find the joy in the making of the film. You can't control anything at the end, or who will love or hate it or what your fights will be. You realise that nothing else matters, even the appraisal of the film. Knowing that even a film like VERTIGO (1958) suffered ignominy when it originally came out teaches you that you have to have tunnel vision in what you're doing.

You have now made four films with Joaquin Phoenix. Do you pretty much write films with him in mind now?
Ric Menello and I definitely wrote TWO LOVERS and THE IMMIGRANT with him in mind. Joaquin is as close to a genius as I have ever dealt with. He has such an amazing understanding of human emotional lives and behaviour. Joaquin also brings danger to any role he plays, which is as high praise as I can give any actor. He's also just a remarkably generous, beautiful person. I can't say enough good things about him but that's obvious, I've made four films with him and I hope to make more. 
How did you cast Marion Cotillard in THE IMMIGRANT?
I met her one night at dinner with Guillaume Canet, who I worked with on BLOOD TIES (2013). I thought she was amazing. She looked like a silent film actress, like Lillian Gish or someone. I felt the thing to do was to do a period film with her. I was very impressed because we were arguing over a particular actor and she threw a piece of bread at me as if to say ''You're an idiot.'' Marion is very temperate but she has great will. They are two qualities you need for Ewa, her character in THE IMMIGRANT. She's wonderful in the movie. It's interesting that her casting brought with it its own baggage in France. She is such a star in France and a lot of it is because of her work with Dior. There was this idea of 'The Dior girl starts to act.' Over here we just see her as a great actress.
How did you decide on the look of the main characters?
Lewis Hine did a photograph called 'Russian Jewess and Baby', and that's what we based Marion's look on in the movie. I based Jeremy Renner's character on a real life person called Ted Anneman who died in much the same way as Renner's character does in the movie.  
You've spoken about the influence of Greek tragedy and opera on your work, but how much of your own worldview is reflected in your films?
I think they indirectly, good or bad, reflect my worldview. LITTLE ODESSA, for example, was a very bleak film because my mother had just died from cancer and I was finding it very difficult to live in this world. THE IMMIGRANT reflects a lot of darkness but also an understanding that maybe life isn't all terrible, and that at some point you have to stop fighting the current and simply do the best you can. Having children changed my worldview. It's a lot more anxiety, constantly being worried about them, but having children fills you with a very profound love. It has been tremendously rewarding and moving watching them grow up. I hope that it will add a more hopeful ingredient to my films, because all in candour, I think that's a flaw in the work. Not with THE IMMIGRANT though, I feel that's there's a sufficient tenderness and hopefulness at the end.   

I spoke to James on 7th March 2014 by telephone and would like to thank him for his time.

No comments: