While Joaquin Phoenix is known as a mercurial actor and person, James Gray has worked with him four times now. But the filmmaker said it wasn’t an intentional Scorsese/De Niro or Kurosawa/Mifune type of consistent collaboration. “What happens is you gravitate towards actors who feel the same way that you do about the world, about art, if I can use that dirty word, about human behavior and I realized very quickly on the first film I made with him ['The Yards'] is that he has a tremendous emotional awareness, intelligence and sensitivity,” Gray said. “My relationship now is we talk a lot, we argue a lot like brothers in a way, but its very, very enlightening. He lives for process, he lives for the moment when you can discuss the scene and break down the character that to him is everything.”
“For me that’s very rewarding,” Gray continues, “Because you’re trying to create a character of many levels, and in this case he’s playing a very terrible person, a predator, a manipulator, a constant liar who only really reveals himself in the end. And I remember he would call me up every night and say, [adopts incredibly mumbly, borderline incoherent JP voice] ‘James, James, why are you making me do this? Look at that scene I did with Marion, I had to put that little boy in front of her...James what are you doing?’ And he was very upset with me. He called it the revenge of [the fake quasi Joaquin Phoenix documentary] ‘I’m Still Here,’ because I made him such a horrendous person.”
Jeremy Renner loves James Gray, but not all his films.
“I’ve seen all of his movies, some I like better than the others, but I love James,” he laughed. “How did we come together?” Renner asked and launched into a story about meeting him at the actor's house. Gray countered later with, “Some of your performances I really liked,” Gray said. “I don’t expect you to like all of them!” Renner laughed. “Eh, some of them I liked,” the director shrugged.
Set in the same time period as the flashbacks in “The Godfather Part II,” Gray and DP Darius Khondji (David Fincher's “Seven,” "Panic Room," Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights" among others) knew the film would inevitably draw comparisons. The filmmaker said while they did watch the Francis Ford Coppola epic, and movies like “La Strada,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Heaven’s Gate,” they started to look elsewhere for inspiration, like photographs and artwork.
“If you show a street in 1921 in the Lower East Side, there’s no way to do it accurately and not have someone go, ‘I see Godfather II!’ Because Francis just did it completely accurately," he explained. "There’s only one way to do it, he did it right. So I realized that that was coming a mile away that I had stolen from this movie or that movie, so what Darius and I ended up doing was going completely away from movies and started looking at autochrome photography [and art].”
Gray then rattled off tons of visual references, Carlo Mollino’s polaroids, the Ashcan painters Rockwell Kent, Guy Pène du Bois, John Sloane, George Bellows, Robert Henri, Reginald Marsh, Everett Shinn, William Glackens and more. Also a big influence to Gray was opera. “I thought about making something that felt like you filmed an opera with grand emotions,” he said. “Not played in hysteria all the time, not like, [starts to sing in high pitched shrieking voice] ‘Everbody’s like thiiiiiis!’ though there is a little bit of that, but really about the sincerity of the emotions.”
“One of the best quotes I ever heard about movies was from Stanley Kubrick,” Gray continued. “He said, ‘I wish movies would be more daring and more sincere,’ and I loved that and I wanted to make something that it would be so sincere that it would be kind of daring. That it was not ironic or distanced or an experiment in any way. That it was simply looking backwards to go forward. So backwards that it would hopefully feel modern, like an opera put on film.”
“The Immigrant” doesn’t have a U.S. release date yet, but The Weinstein Company will release the film sometime later this year, presumably/hopefully in the fall. Check out a new clip below.