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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

Let’s talk about how Ric Menello influenced your work [Gray’s co-writer on “The Immigrant” and “Two Lovers” who was also a sage, bullshit detector and guide; he passed away last year]
You can’t emphasize enough how much you miss a person. He was like an encyclopedia of movies, but he was much more than that. He had a lot of soul and emotional intelligence. He knew basically every movie ever, and I think he understood drama and dramatic structure. In the case of [“The Immigrant”], I called him up and told him the type of movie I want to make, the subject about my grandparents, and then we just started thinking lists of scenes. And we talked through them and tried to structure it tightly in three acts. And he helped with that and the dialogue. We worked like that and he was just an invaluable resource. His death hit me rather hard because I talked to him every single day for four hours a day for years. I was totally stunned when he died, and just really upset.

"I approached 'The Immigrant' as a fable instead of a film noir. The other films, for all of their trappings, are really noirs"

That New Yorker piece from last year was interesting. How did you meet him?
You know, I didn’t anticipate that piece would be reprinted as an interview and quoting me verbatim. I wound up really regretting some of the things I talked about because he had a whole life apart from mine and I was a bit glib. The truth of the matter is he had this whole life apart from what we were doing. When he died there was this huge outpouring, affection from all these corners I didn’t know anything about.

I met him through Rick Rubin. And then I would introduce him to all these directors I knew. And before you knew it, he was the resource. Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky loved him too. You could call him at three in the morning and describe the movie you’re watching on TV to him and he would figure out what it was instantly, “Oh, it has this actor, and that actor in it, so obviously it’s…” he would tell you everything about it.

Did he aspire to write his own movies?
He certainly did, and he wrote several scripts, but this was something I learned about after he died. I knew that he had written a couple of scripts but he never gave them to me to read, which I respected. But he totally had this whole other side to him and I was unaware of it. I don’t doubt it one day someone will make them, but he never showed them to me, so I respect that, so I won’t pursue them.

The Yards James Gray Harris Savides

Switching gears, I’m curious why you didn’t work with Harris Savides after “The Yards.” It seemed like both of you were on the same page.
He and I were very close. We did “The Yards” together and I adored him, I thought he was a beautiful person. After we did that film I did not work again for 6 years. When I finally found the money for “We Own The Night” he was doing “Zodiac” and it went a bit long and he simply wasn’t available. He suggested Joaquin Baca-Asay who he thought was very good. When I did “Two Lovers” I thought I would have the chance to work with Harris again, not that I didn’t love Joaquin [Baca-Asay], but he wanted to move onto directing. Harris was going to do it but he needed double knee replacement. So I asked Joaquin to hold off his directing career for a little bit and he shot it. [ed. Baca-Asay is now set to direct an Ol’ Dirty Bastard biopic]. I miss Harris dearly.

Your films all have a similar look despite only having worked with the same DP twice.
Well, for better or for worse, that is the case. I focus on what the film is going to look like. Each of the people I’ve worked with are wonderful artists and I try to accept some of their ideas that I really like. But once you set the framework, they end up having really great ideas within that framework. The films have a similar look because obviously I’ve thrown down with the cinematographer. But that isn’t always a good thing because part of a director’s job is embracing the visions of others as long as they enhance the scope of your original concept.

The Immigrant

I think this film looks very different from all of your other films. It’s a lot brighter, it’s not obsessed with darkness like the others.
Well, it’s a different time period but it’s also because I’m trying to do something else. But [“The Immigrant” DP] Darius Khondji is an incredible artist. He brings a lot to the table. As for how the look differs, well, I approached it as a fable instead of a film noir. The other films, for all of their trappings, are really noirs. I guess “Two Lovers” was the first step outside of the noir range, but this I want it to be like a beautiful little jewel. I didn’t want it to be so obsessed with the darkness. We tried to achieve that with the sound and the visuals, with lighting people from below, giving them an angelic appearance. Here’s an interesting sound thing: every time Jeremy Renner’s character appears you hear these Christmas bells subtly buried in the soundtrack.

I assume you shoot this on 35mm film.
Yes, we shot it on Kodak. There’s no substitute for that. People say film is going away but I don’t agree. You hear all this talk about that, but there’s all these people who are playing vinyl records again. Just for archival, the digital process is shit. Have you ever tried to play a floppy disc recently? The film print stores the proper temperature – it’s a totally stable element. It’s unlike the digital process where the technology changes every five years. Companies are stopping making film stock, but it doesn’t mean they’re never going to do it again. I think it’ll make a bit of a comeback. The whole thing is silly because the product has better contrast ratio and better resolution and it’s not pixel but grain more like you eyes see, when it’s reintroduced everyone’s going to say “what’s this thing” and you’re going to say “film” and they’ll want film. Scorsese shot “Hugo” on digital but he thinks with the digital effects and so forth that digital is more useful in that way. But I believe that archivally you have to do film out. You know, we shot a blind taste test with the Red, the Alexa, Fuji, and Kodak, and Darius and I were screening them and the Kodak take was the best. You just can’t beat it.

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These interviews are highly condensed versions of our original chat and I omitted much of what he had already said about “The Immigrant” in previous interviews. But if you’re also a big Gray fan or want to know more about “The Immigrant” specifically, I highly recommend reading these two pieces from the New York Film Festival last year because Gray talks about film eloquently and in depth. More from our interviews later in the week.

“The Immigrant” opens in limited release on May 16th.

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


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