As we recently noted, filmmaker James Gray has only made five films in 20 years. That’s a positively low number, but Gray has had many hardships that distracted from his body of work. His debut “Little Odessa” won a major prize in 1994 at the Venice Film Festival and that jumpstarted his career, but obstacles both minor and major threatened to derail that momentum. For “The Yards,” he ran into the might of Harvey Weinstein and a compromised ending saw him booed at Cannes (Miramax subsequently dumped the film into a few theaters with barely a regular release). This beating was difficult and it took Gray seven years to follow it up with “We Own The Night,” which performed well at the box-office, but was marketed like a fairly generic cop movie and not the rich father and sons policier that it is. The romantic drama “Two Lovers” was also a success, but its narrative was hijacked by Joaquin Phoenix’s “rap career” stunt that culminated with the hoax documentary “I’m Still Here.”
Gray's career took a long time to coalesce because of the infrequency of his films, and because so few people saw them at the time, but a body of work began to emerge over the years that demonstrated the artistry of a thoughtful and measured auteur deeply fascinated by unironic authenticity, emotional vulnerability and the complexities of human interaction. Gray’s films, while adored in France, are unknown to many in the U.S. because of their compromised releases, despite terrific casts. “The Yards” alone stars Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway–a troupe that nowadays would make any casting agent scream with joy. And as elusive as Joaquin Phoenix is, it’s a testament to Gray’s films that he’s starred in four of his films in a row.
Gray’s latest film also stars Phoenix and includes the boast-worthy cast of Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner. While Gray’s pictures to date are mostly family-driven crime films taking place in modern day New York, his fifth feature, “The Immigrant,” is ostensibly the most different from his body of work while remaining true to many of the themes Gray has tracked in the past. Set in 1920s New York, “The Immigrant” follows a Polish émigré (Cotillard), the manipulative pimp she falls in with (Phoenix) and the magician she meets who could be her one hope (Renner). But Gray has been slowly losing his genre trappings. “The Immigrant” is not a crime tale, nor one about the way family can be our greatest source of happiness and pain. But, like his other movies, “The Immigrant” is about the need to fit in, while chronicling ideas of codependency and the idea that no one, no matter how low, is not beyond redemption. It’s a beautiful, slow-burn movie that unfolds with a rather bold, but subtle surprise in its last act (read our review from Cannes here).
Filmmaker James Gray is a charming raconteur and he’ll talk your ear off if you let him (or if you force him). Over the last six months, I had the opportunity to talk to Gray twice, once for what was a marathon phone session. So, in the interest of trying to condense our sprawling conversations that covered much of his career, this interview will act as part one and part two will run later this week. Update: You can find that second interview here.
I rewatched “Little Odessa” recently and it’s funny how “The Immigrant” could be seen as a kind of prequel to it—even though Marion’s character is Polish and the family in ‘Odessa’ is Russian. Aside from autobiographical elements you use for both, they both have a personal and intimate touch.
It's hard for me to talk about “Little Odessa” in candor because it's been a long time since I made the movie and I haven't watched it since. But [all] I can say is that I came of age in a certain period where films were supposed to be personal. I actually have a lot of optimism that people still do that and actually want to do that.
This situation's gotten considerably better over the last 20 years. John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese really opened the door in that way for Americans to make personal films. So the idea was to try and mine your own life for as much as you possibly could for material. The closer you can get to being personal the better the work is or the more interesting the work is. Francis Ford Coppola once said, “You should always make personal films because there's only one of you and the more personal you get the more original you get.” So I've just tried to find that in the same way. I don't know...with regards to similarities between the new film and that one, I mean, what can I say? I'm the same person I guess.
Sure, what I'm specifically getting at is how the characters in "Little Odessa" and “The Immigrant are influenced by your grandfather and stories from your ancestry.
Yeah it is. Well you can’t shake that. Those stories made such an impression on me as a kid. My grandparents, they came through Ellis Island in 1923 and you know I'd heard all the stories. They didn't speak English very well even to the day they died but their mood was so clear.
You know the conventional wisdom is that people come to the United States and immigration is so great and they say America, what a great Country. And a lot of that is true. Obviously a huge part of that is true. Life is way better than it was for them in old Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but for example my grandfather would sit around and talk about how melancholy he was that he missed the old Country which I always thought was crazy because you know his parents had gotten their heads chopped off by the Czarist troops. But I guess part of you stays where you're from and they couldn't forget that melancholy and I think that's in large measure what I've been trying to impart in the film. This didn’t start out as a conscious thing you know?
Maybe that melancholy is the throughline of the tragic nature of a lot of your characters.
Yeah. I know I wish I could leave it behind in some respects. That's not all that life is.
True, but the work is emotional and geared towards adults. That’s sorely lacking these days and I wish we had more of it.
I don't know if you should say that. If everybody made these movies you'd want the other kind. You know, it's hard to run away from who you are and when your taste is formed is a very important thing. I’ve discussed this many times but it's all attributable to the death of United Artists, which I think was a really big change in movies. But you know since I last talked to the Playlist about this subject there's been I think a real change, I think there's a lot of interesting films being made. Certainly around the world there always was but even in the United States now I see Warner Brothers for example making like Spike Jonze new movie “Her”...certainly there is some interesting stuff. I do see from at least some studios some really great things happening so I have a lot of optimism which wasn't the case even a year ago.
Well, it can be easy to get cynical in the summer glut, but the fall certainly brings back a lot of great films.
Yeah that's really true. What we do, at least I certainly make this mistake myself, which is that you know when you look back on 1974 for example and you see that there's “The Godfather Part II” and “The Conversation,” “Chinatown” and “A Woman Under The Influence,” so many of these amazing films, but there were probably many, many, many terrible films released that year too. We just don't remember them. So in a sense I have a distorted view of history that I sell.
Your films often play around with many of the same personal themes—social class, the family as a source of great pain, tragedy, your Russian Jewish heritage, films set in New York—and so far you’ve successfully made them distinct.
You hope that what happens is they're different because you change. Everybody changes as they get older, it's an unavoidable, and I think actually beautiful, fact of life. You want the films in the best case scenario to be from the same point of view but different which is one of the most bizarre and seemingly contradictory things. But you want to grow.
Now of course the big problem is as a filmmaker, or in any artistic endeavor if I may use that dirty word, the truth is that you are always changing and that means you're always growing. There are times when you take a step back and sometimes you have to take one step back to take a couple of steps forward. There’s no director in cinema history whose films just got better and better until their best film and then they stopped, you know? It doesn't really work like that.
You know, even in the case of someone like Kurosawa—I think “Ran” is one of the great films of the last 25, 30 years but you know he made “Dreams” after that and “Madadayo” which has terrific stuff. “Rhapsody in August” is another, but they're not on the same level as “Ran.” So what you just have to do is know that you're going to change. You can't think about, “okay is this going to be different?” but you also don't want to repeat yourself. I try to forget about the rest of the work, and in my own case I just try to think about what it is I have to reveal about myself. I know this sounds incredibly self-centered but there's no really no way around it. It's a self centered-profession, if this kind of film you want to make is a personal kind of film.