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Interview: Director James Gray Talks ‘The Immigrant,’ Working With Marion Cotillard, The Late Harris Savides & Much More

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist May 14, 2014 at 2:22PM

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).
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The Immigrant

This film is your first true period piece and your first to feature a female lead. That’s pretty different from your past work.
Well, that's true. I had seen the origin of the female lead thing was very clear to me. I had seen an opera presentation in Los Angeles which was of Puccini's "Il Trittico" which is three operettas. There's two tragedies and a comedy. The two tragedies were directed by William Friedkin and the comedy was “Gianni Schicchi” directed by Woody Allen. So I'm watching these operas and the Friedkin ones I just thought were just great. The second one, which was called “Suor Angelica,” was about a woman, a nun, and she was the main character and the thing was so emotional I was in tears.

"Stanley Kubrick said that making a movie, is like trying to write 'War and Peace' on a bumper car at Coney Island."

My wife and I were just in tears over the whole thing and I saw it being very beautiful and it sort of hit me, freed from the macho trappings, freed from the need to be aggressively male, we could address the most emotional sides of us. I mean in a clichéd way. I mean female in terms of cultural qualities and differences. I was freed from what I thought was sort of a macho standpoint to explore the more feminine side of me, the more emotional qualities that I could. I wanted to push it more and more operatic and make it more of an operatic melodrama and that was something that I thought was really worth exploring where I could leave male behavior behind.

Which is also a big change for you.
Yes, well I think it is but you know women are most of the world, right? What is it 52 or 53% of the world is women? So it's embarrassing how few movies have women in the center. You know Hollywood pictures used to do it very well. Barbara Stanwyck would be the star of the movie or Katherine Hepburn. They made these female-centric melodramas which oftentimes ended rather conveniently but oftentimes were excellent. You know Bette Davis, and that's a tradition that's been more or less abandoned so in part I wanted to bring that back a little bit but with [more] frankness in terms of the ending. Or in terms of how the story progresses.

There’s excellent use of silences in the movie too.
I don't understand why movies don't utilize that more. The difference between stage and cinema, obviously, is the intimacy of cinema is so powerful, it's so unique to the medium. If I give you the best seat in the theater, 15 feet from the actor, I mean it's still pretty far. The camera can be 8 inches from the actor. You can be so intimate and one of the great things about movies is the actor's face can tell you so much. The close-up is the best weapon that we have...but it's a weapon that needs to be used sparingly.

The Immigrant

Tell me about the shooting period. That must have been difficult.
You know, I did love it, but it was immensely difficult. I remember reading somewhere where Stanley Kubrick said that making a movie, is like trying to write “War and Peace” on a bumper car at Coney Island. You can kind of multiply that by a hundred for a period movie. I remember you go to set one day and you have five hundred people in period outfits running around with horses and chickens running around on the street and old cars and it's crazy and you're like, “What am I doing?" So it does present that kind of logistical challenge but at the same time I found it an incredibly exciting thing to do.

You did use a little CG in this, right?
Well, you have to. I mean the city looks nothing like it. We couldn't shoot in the Lower East Side for example because the Lower East Side now is gone. A lot of those buildings are still there but you know the ground floor is like a Jimmy Choo shoe store so you can't just take those over. We shot all that stuff at Ellis Island. The one thing that's totally CG is when Joaquin Phoenix comes out of jail and meets her on the street. That's them walking in like a green box because the old tombs police jail is not there anymore. It's torn down, so that we had to create.

You’ve said that Jeremy Renner looks like the real-life magician in the film that he is based off W. Theodore Annemann. Was that why you cast him?
Well, it didn't hurt. I cast him because I love him. I think he's a great actor and I love him as a person. But he also had a Clark Gable thing going on but I thought if he introduced a certain darkness that it would be a great thing because you could play someone who was not entirely trustworthy, but at the same time had a certain charm.

How did you get him on board?
Kathryn Bigelow introduced us at a party believe it or not. Jeremy was a fan of mine at least to hear him tell it and he wanted me to write a movie about Steve McQueen for him before [“The Immigrant”] which I did [more about that movie here]. So I finished it and then I said to him, “You know I've got this other movie that I really want you to do.” I'm very selfish. There's an ulterior motive here so that was how he got on board. The other actors, Marion, Joaquin, I had written the parts for them and they were on board immediately. The third lead was the toughest to cast because he's not in the movie until halfway through and you're not sure whether he's a good guy or not and it's a very generous thing that Jeremy did for me.

The Immigrant

This movie is like reversed engineered; at first you’re not sure if Joaquin is the right actor for this character, but then as the movie unfolds… his true nature comes out.
Right, that was the idea. Joaquin and I talked about this. In a way it's a real risk, it's an act of hubris to build a movie for a repeat viewing because in a sense, the idea is for it to be richer and better both on repeated viewing and in retrospect. Joaquin and I always felt that was [the] best way to try and make films but sometimes you know you pay for that upon initial reaction. But it's what Joaquin and I wanted to try and we felt that was the interesting thing to explore.

I suppose this peculiar approach is in keeping with your films forever shut out of the zeitgeist [laughs].
[Chuckles] The idea is not just to be contrarian for the sake of it, the idea is to be true to yourself and I think that people who chase trends inevitably follow them and that's not that's not inherently interesting to me. I'm a big fan of movies and I know the history of movies that try to follow the trend instead of anticipating or ignoring one. Movies that ignore the trends tend to have [a] better shelf life. Now in my case, who knows, but that’s the chance that I'm willing to take. If you're out of step, hopefully people respond to the work and that it has a shelf life.

I do find it pretty fascinating, in 1994, to see a 23-year-old make a movie [“Little Odessa”] that was almost the anti “Pulp Fiction.” You were out of step—in a good way—from the very beginning.
Well, I didn't consciously do the exact opposite. You know in the end you can't hate yourself, you have to embrace who you are and you have to play the hand you're dealt. But if you’re paying attention to what's in fashion you're going to be out of fashion next year and what's the use of that? Just focus on what it is that you want to do, what it is that you dream about and everything else you can't worry about.

The film was very personal. Do you look back on your films?
It was very autobiographical. My mother died of brain cancer, I have an older brother and there was a lot in it that was very intimate and I was dealing obviously with some issues. I just tried to make it as personal as I could. Do I look back on my movies? No I don't. It's not helpful to me and in many ways it's quite painful. The only film I don't look back on with much anguish really would be “Two Lovers,” because that was made without much pain. It was a very smooth running set and I didn't argue with producers and distributors about the film. But even there I have regrets and certain things I didn't get right but I guess what I mean is I did the best I could on that film. I didn't feel that it was interfered with.

This article is related to: The Immigrant, James Gray, Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Interviews, Interviews