Director James Gray on His Stunning Period Drama, ‘The Immigrant’

Re-run from Spring 2014

“Even with characters as horrendous as Joaquin’s are, what I’m always trying to do, is to put as much love and humanity as I can into this person, so we can at least understand them,” said James Gray when we spoke on the phone last week before his talk at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. For the director, whose first film since 2008 has its theatrical premiere this Friday, whether he’s telling us a desolate story of lost hope amidst the buildings of present day Brighton Beach or giving us an emotionally devastating period film through the streets of 1920s lower Manhattan, he employs his passion and skill for storytelling to craft potent dramas.

Culled from a massive wealth of artistic influences and knowledge, his deeply personal urban tales—from Little Odessa to Two Lovers—capture the duality between happiness and sacrifice, framed through the lens of complex familial drama. With his new feature, The Immigrant, we’re given a film that plays out like a prologue to his entire oeuvre, built upon his own family’s historical past to bring to life a story about the lengths we go for love and survival, the madness of desire, and forgiveness as a means of salvation.

Following Ewa, a Polish immigrant played by a compelling Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant picks up as she arrives with her sister Magda on Ellis Island in 1921, full of hope, only to become separated when Magda is quarantined for tuberculosis. But after being threatened with deportation when her relatives are nowhere to be found, Ewa begs her way into the custody of a charmingly manipulative and volatile man named Bruno (played with frightening force by Joaquin Phoenix) who poses as a worker for the Travelers Aid Society. Offering her a place to stay in exchange for work, Bruno slowly submerges Ewa into his sordid theatrical world of sex shows and love at price as she sacrifices herself and betrays her religious devotion to do what she must to survive and help her sickly sister.

Shot with a stunningly precise and tactile gaslight glow that harkens back more to the Ashcan School of painters, Gray’s film has a painful allure to each moment, constantly flickering with operatic emotion. And last week, I spoke with Gray to further explore the art of storytelling, his disdain for simply satisfying public taste, and the ever-evolving work of Joaquin Phoenix.

Although your work has had dynamic female characters, this is your first film to feature a woman as the protagonist and put the men in the periphery. How did this story come about for you, and why did you see this as the right narrative to tell through a woman’s perspective?

It’s always difficult to put your finger on exactly why you might want to tell one story or the other. So much making personal films comes from, at least for me, an emotional place. In other words, what ideas, emotions, mood, spirit do I want to convey? It very rarely has to do with the facts of the story first. And in the this case, I was really obsessed with the idea of a woman protagonist because I wanted to do something where I wouldn’t have to rely on any gun play or macho male posturing or male behavior. I could just tell something that was emotional without all that machinery behind it.

For cultural reasons—I’m not saying [puts on an accent], “women are softer”—we assign different qualities to men versus women, and if it’s a female protagonist you don’t have to worry about that stuff and that baggage that goes along with male behavior. On occasion I’m on the jury at festivals, and I really quite like doing that because it keeps me in touch with world cinema, but when I was on the jury at Cannes and in Marrakech and Rome, I saw across the board that there are there were no women that are the stars of any of the films, they’re all about men. So I thought, well, there’s something wrong there.

Anyhow, the actual facts of the story then came into play because I had had an uncle who died and he had a whole host of paperwork on the family and how the family came in through Ellis Island. I learned all about the family and things I didn’t realize that had happened. I started to ask my dad what happened and he started to fill in huge gaps in the family history, and  it was incredibly interesting. It would make for great drama even if it was horrible. My grandmother’s parents were beheaded by Cossacks, for example, and my father told me that she woke up once a week for the rest of her life screaming. So I immediately combined that desire for a female protagonist into the research I had done on Ellis Island, and slowly but surely from desperate sources the story began to take shape.

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Your films have all have a very classical touch and are tied to an older tradition of storytelling. Can you talk a little bit about your connection and commitment to this kind of narrative?

Many people have told me my films are classical, and I always like to hear that—but by the same token, I never think whether they’re classical or un-classical. I just adore the power of story and I believe in it. If you were to look at the narrative arc over the years and over the centuries about what lasts, you would be really hard-pressed to come up with this broken or post-modern narrative. People did write in post-Virgilian Rome, they wrote self-reflective poetry, but nobody reads it except for graduate students in the classics.

What does last is this commitment to story and narrative. My children, when they go to bed at night, they scream for me to tell them a story—it’s the greatest thing in the world for them to hear it. We’ve lost something from moving away from that, which is not to say that every movie has to be a story, there are certainly great works of art that are made outside that tradition, but what is also true, is that the idea of a well-told story is a dead art, especially in American cinema.

What you have, of course, is very big movies, which I suppose are narrative, but often times the conception of character and situation is so pre-programmed and pre-packaged that it feels kind of hackneyed and stilted. Then there’s the independent cinema, which seems to always be an attempt at some kind of experimentation. So my films are probably in the fairly uncomfortable middle for some people. But I just try to ignore it and push on and make films that I like and hopefully the audience will come along at some point.

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The world of the film is such that the characters are so desperate to simply survive and get by, which allows for an interesting amount of forgiveness you’re willing to grant their behavior.

The whole movie was engineered starting from the end, which was all about this idea that everybody is worth something, that nobody is just worthless garbage, and that everybody is worthy of love and forgiveness in some way. But that doesn’t mean you sit around and say, Adolf Hitler, what a good guy! What it means is that in the world we cannot be above these people. The scariest and worst thing you can say about Adolf Hitler is that he was a monster because then it distances him from us and makes him other, instead of forcing us to examine who we are—we can just say, well we’re not like him forget it.

Even with characters as horrendous as Joaquin’s are, what I’m always trying to do, is to put as much love and humanity as I can into this person so we can at least understand them. We don’t have to like him, of course, but understand what he is, what he’s about. This seems like a very democratic approach. A lot of art today is very ironic and distancing and sometimes flat out rude to the people it’s about, and I’m just anxious to do the opposite of that.

I was especially struck by the scenes in the theatre–these people who have to have such a tough exterior in the daylight are completely stripped of that. Ewa, of course, is frightened and humiliated being on stage, but Bruno is so goofy and just like how you’d imagine he was as a child on the street dancing for money. There’s such a surprising vulnerability there that was really beautiful.

Oh, thank you. Well this was all very intended and Joaquin would be thrilled to hear you say that.

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In an interview you did earlier in the year, you said giving the audience what they want is “cowardice. The whole point is to give the audience what it needs.” Thinking about that in the context of prostitution in the film, it’s something that’s obviously present but not the focal point, as you might often expect. 

Somewhere around 1980 there was a very big key change, not just in cinema but in culture. It has to do with the influence of powerful corporations in our lives. When the movie business, for example, was taken over by very large business conglomerates, this idea of giving the audience what it wants became of paramount importance because the stock price of the company was so reliant on huge blockbusters.

So I would say that the motion pictures went from a tradition of satisfying public taste to a tradition of exploiting public taste, which is a very subtle but important distinction. If you were to even look at something like Gone With the Wind, which is for ticket sales still the biggest movie of all time, he leaves her at the end. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But it’s a satisfying ending, and you understand why it ends the way that it ends, as opposed to something that is simply crafted in a very cynical way for a certain response. So this is a very important thing that we’re fighting against.

Of course I recognize that corporations have provided Americans with incredible opportunity and wealth, but we can’t ignore that every time I hear there’s a Taco Bell timeout when I’m watching a game or something, corporations have really investigated every part of our lives. They’ve changed the movies and what we expect of the characters and of the stories—that’s a very profound thing.

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Ric Menello was your writing partner on Two Lovers and The Immigrant. Can you tell me about your working relationship?

He was incredible. He was like a monumental resource that you could use at any time. One time I was watching this black and white film and I didn’t know what it was, but I recognized an actor so I called up Menello at 2am and he picked up the phone on the first ring. [imitates Menello] “Hello?!” I told him I was watching an old movie with John Hodiak. [imitates Menello] “Put the telephone to the speaker, my brother,” he said. So I put the phone to the speaker and 30 seconds later I hear, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” and I picked up the phone and he said, “The film is called the A Bell for Adano starring John Hodiac, you’re quite right, directed by Henry King. Someone was unhappy about the ending but other than that it’s a fine film”—this kind of thing. I was blown away by that.

He started out as a person I would just read scenes over the phone to and say, what do you think of this? And I’d read him a scene and he’d say, [imitates Menello] “You don’t want to do that, I saw that once in a movie called blah blah blah and you don’t want to do that.” So then I would change it and read it to him again an after—this went on for a few months on Two Lovers. Then I said to myself, what the hell am I doing, this guy is really important and he’s pretty much writing the damn movie with me. So I said, “Menello why don’t you just write the film with me?” I’d been calling him up for three, four, five hours a day and we’d talk story and dialogue, and I would suggest things and he would suggest back, and it became a genuine collaboration for two films.

There’s not a day I don’t miss the guy. Every time I want to talk about some movie or find out about some movie, I’d call him up and I can’t do that anymore.

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You’ve worked with Joaquin Phoenix many times now, so what is the collaboration process of bringing something to life with him, having watched him change and grow as an actor as you’ve evolved as a director as well?

I know him very well, but the process has changed significantly since I started with him, and he’s changed as an actor. He more or less used to be lightening in a bottle—he was always fantastic and talented, but he wasn’t necessarily that controlled. But now he’s learned a process that he follows and that’s changed from film to film, and that’s been very rewarding. I’ve watched him grow—although I don’t know if he’d say the same thing about me, to be honest. But what I love about him is that I don’t know him.

Every time that I think I know him he does something explosively inventive, which I don’t expect, and he does that constantly. If I see him go too far astray my job is to reel it back in. You know what Diaghilev said, he said, “Surprise me.” And that’s really the most you can ask from an actor as a director. And Joaquin does that very well, he’ll play a scene exactly the opposite of how you imagine it but somehow it will be organic. He’ll make an interesting choice that you didn’t expect that is just marvelous.

In Two Lovers he’s a bipolar shut in, and in The Immigrant, there he is walking across the stage. It’s a very different kind of thing, but what he does have consistently, which I think is a consistency with all really great actors, is danger and unpredictability. He’s a scary guy at times and that’s a great thing.
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You’ve briefly mentioned the on-set antics between Joaquin and Jeremy Renner. Did their on-set dynamic mirror their characters as well?

Believe it or not they’re good friends, and it was an extremely happy set—in some cases unfortunately. There were times I couldn’t use takes because the actors were laughing before I would call cut, that sort of silliness. There were a lot of practical jokes going on between the two of them. Once you call cut, between cut and action there was a lot of horsing around with those to guys. It may have also been a craft thing because they were playing out their characters with each other and in some cases, being very playfully antagonistic, but not in a much darker form that Orlando and Bruno are.

Anyone who has heard you speak about your work knows  you have a strong love for, not only film, but music, art, literature, etc. So I’m curious about how you go about finding inspiration and the way you immerse yourself creatively.

That’s a very good question. The truth is, the essence of creativity is the ability to make connections between seemingly random or non-associated ideas. So I feel like knowledge is power and it’s very important to read and remain engaged in the world, and it’s very important to know about other art forms. In a certain sense, to be a film director means you have to be a master of many trades, just as surely as the conductor knows many of the instruments in the orchestra. You don’t know what’s ever going to inspire you, so that’s why you have to learn about everything you can.

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Aesthetically,  the film has a very tactile and visceral quality about it; the light of the New York streets, the glowing darkness of the theater. You’ve spoken about putting film in the oven to give it your desired effect, but how did you go about achieving that look?

With great difficulty. The idea of distressing the film stock, it’s pretty much over. The way that you have to approach these things now is more or less a digital conceit, which is to say, once you get into the digital suite, you alter the image electronically—it’s not the photochemical process, which has its own mystery and beauty. The look of the film was an attempt to recreate a period with some measure of visual distance. That is not the same thing as emotional distance, which I think is anathema, but a visual distance which implies the past, at least to me.

So we did a lot of research on the environment, and what kind of clothes people would wear and what kind of lights people would use. Then you try to absorb it the best you can, and often times the film becomes an exaggerated version of everything and all the research that you’e done. In this case, we pumped a lot of crap in the air and we certainly made an attempt to limit the color scheme, because there was no florescent lights back in 1921, there were no plastics. You have to start realizing, when you do a movie like this, that really you’re relying heavily on natural fibers—woods, buttery yellows from the gas lights—and all that sort of thing dictates the color scheme.

Then the film represents the media memory of that period, so we were looking at the Ashcans School of painters, William Glackens and Everett Shinn, who was a big painter for us because he did a lot of burlesque stuff where the light would come from below the stage. We looked at that as a source of inspiration. And John Sloan and his paintings of the slums of New York in the 1920s, that was very, very helpful. When you look, there is photographic evidence of that time period, but it’s of less value than you’d think because they tend to be somewhat clinical those photographs. It was even before photography was considered a serious art form.

Some photos that document the period can sometimes be extremely helpful, like a book by Luc Sante called Evidence that has a whole series of crime scene photos from the 20’s. But we also looked at the more exaggerated, more arty forms of representation. Then of course there were the Autochrome Lumière films that I spoke about, but we tried to draw very little from other movies. We tried to draw little from anything TV or anything that was done before, but of course you wind up having to adhere to some of these tenants, so you wind up looking a little Godfather II here, a little McCabe & Mrs. Miller here—you can’t really avoid it, but hopefully your own voices emerges at some point.

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