“The Immigrant” stars the terrific cast of Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner, and the 1920s-set period piece is superficially something very different for filmmaker James Gray. Gone are the genre trappings, macho-male leads with guns, stories deeply connected to the pain and sadness of family, and the shrouded Gordon Willis-like photography the filmmaker evinced on films like "The Yards," "We Own The Night" and "Little Odessa." However, “The Immigrant,” with its themes of the fallacy of the American Dream, the desire to fit in and idea that no one is beyond redemption is very much a James Gray film. It’s a further continuation of a singular pursuit told slightly differently, retaining Gray’s signature sense of emotional intelligence, intimacy and graceful restraint.
In 2013, “The Immigrant” was set to be a TWC-Radius/VOD release. Gray didn’t explain what happened exactly or why the film moved over to a proper The Weinstein Company theatrical release, but that’s where our second, more recent conversation began (you can read part one here; editor's note — parts of this conversation are also taken from a chat with Gray during a Q&A hosted by The Playlist at Brooklyn Academy of Music). Warning, mild spoilers below.
I should say congratulations because you must have naked pictures of Harvey Weinstein or something because now we've got a regular release.
I don't have naked pictures of Harvey. That's what I'll say. I will tell you that I am eternally grateful to the people who have seen the film and responded to it. They've made their affection for the movie known and that has helped the cause tremendously. There was some kind of prevailing narrative about the film getting mixed response in Cannes; divisive, which is really bullshit. It comes essentially entirely from the U.K. Because they all hated the movie. The rest of the world, very positive. So as a consequence of this prevailing narrative, that's very unhelpful when you're trying to get your film released, particularly when it relies on critical approbation.
The irony is you’re known as a Cannes guy, but your films get routinely roasted there. But “The Immigrant” seems to actually have garnered the best response of all your films at the festival.
By far. And for reasons that I have no idea, it was not publicized. It was maybe a better story to write about how it was divisive. But I'm telling you, every film I've ever made has been hated by the U.K. critics. And they hated it. That's where that kind of narrative has come into play. But you're right, this one was very well received. I'm grateful because the movie is coming out.
You’ve got three terrific leads in this movie, Marion, Joaquin, Jeremy Renner; how did they mesh together? How are their acting styles different?
Good question. All actors have different styles, really. It’s not unique to this movie. William Atherton has a very different acting style to Bonnie Bedelia, she has a very different style then Bruce Willis. But the movie is “Die Hard” and the buildings are blowing up and you don’t even really register Alan Rickman in it, too. In other words: it doesn’t really matter if they have different acting styles, because they’re all playing a sort of bubblegum kind of thing. By the way, I’m not badmouthing “Die Hard.” I love that movie and I think it’s excellent. It holds up, it’s an exciting movie and it’s about as well-done as those movies come.
So this movie…
When the movie is focused on performance you start to realize these are issues. So Marion Cotillard is doing her best [Renée Jeanne] Falconetti impression, with her big eyes tearing up like a silent movie character. You’ve got Joaquin Phoenix, method boy, and then you’ve got Jeremy Renner, the craftsman. Renner shows up, knows every line, does them exactly the way you want, goes, “let’s play,” does 42 different versions that you love, all of them, and you go, “Jeremy, you’re good.” And he goes, “Thanks, man!” walks off and is the coolest guy in the room. Joaquin inevitably turns to me and goes [adopts anguished, nasally, mumbly Joaquin Phoenix voice], “C’mon, how does this guy do it? He’s so good. He just shows up and does it. That guy is so fucking cool.” But you cast according to type. That's the way to do it, I think it, play to what the actor does. By the way, Marion is just an incredible actress, I’m not trying to be glib. The way you deal with it is to be very specific with each actor and to try and give specific and personal direction attuned to each person. I’ll whisper something to each of them individually.
How about Joaquin, specifically?
In Joaquin Phoenix’s case, he’s so inventive and all over the place in the best way. And on this movie, he was really wonderful to deal with because I had written the part as a brute. And he said, “I don’t wanna do that, why do you let me do what I wanna do?” And then he tells me during rehearsal, “I don’t think we’re making the same movie.” And Marion is sitting there going [adopts her French accent], “You guys are like an old married couple.” So I’m like, “What movie do you think we’re making?" And Joaquin explains that the character is a manipulator from the very beginning of the movie and everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. He says, “I think, sometimes he’s very nice to her and sometimes he’s very terrible and everything is a manipulation.” And I was like, "Wow," and that was a much more complex and interesting take on the character that we used.
So for direction you don’t do the “Good, but not interesting” thing anymore? [laughs] (Context: On the DVD extras for “The Yards” Charlize Theron has this hilarious anecdote about Gray’s direction back then which was, [she adopts his nasally voice], “Good, but not interesting.” Gray is appalled at himself in retrospect and Theron says that while harsh, in the end she appreciated his no bullshit feedback.)
I didn’t remember saying that, but it’s awful. Apparently I said on the set of my first and second movie, “That’s good, but not interesting. Do it again.” I’m not even sure what that means anymore. But I thought I was the greatest on the first movie. While I was shooting it I thought I had arrived. The first movie, I was 23, I thought I knew everything, but my ego soon took an irrevocable blow.
I was listening to the commentary on a few of your films recently…
You mean the DVD commentary? I can't stand doing them. To me it's like, "Let me explain to you what the movie means" and to me that's death. If I have to do that then I'll do it. But they're important to the people that make the DVDs. They're always like, “You have to do it!” Does Paul Thomas Anderson do them?
He stopped a long time ago. After “Boogie Nights” I think.
He stopped, right? Because Paul would be like, “I don't want to explain the movie and then ...”
Steven Soderbergh stopped doing them too, and you guys did “The Yards” together which is terrific.
He stopped doing them?
Yeah, and his were great. Yours, Soderbergh and Fincher’s were great, too.
Fincher's were good? I didn't know that Steven stopped doing them, but I'm thrilled to hear that Paul has stopped. I never even discussed commentaries with him, but knowing him I would guarantee to know that he'd think the same thing I do.
Speaking of Paul Thomas Anderson, he was one that suggested using Mark Wahlberg for “The Yards,” right?
Well, we've been close. I've known Paul for years and when did I meet him, 1992? Now you're making me wonder, when did I meet him? In fact I saw “Pulp Fiction” with Paul. That was in 1994. I went to the movies with him then so I obviously knew him by then. Anyway, why are we talking about this?
Paul recommended ...
Oh yes, what happened because I said I'm looking for an actor who's the salt of the earth, working class—like I need John Garfield or one of those guys. And he said, “Oh, I've just started working with Mark Wahlberg [for 'Boogie Nights'], I think you're going to think he's great.” I was like, “Marky Mark???” He said, “No, the guy's great,” and I met with Mark and I thought he was fantastic. I love Mark Wahlberg, I have nothing but great things to say about him.
He’s definitely underrated.
You know why? Because it's very hard for Mark to find movies that are good for him because they don't make them. They don't really make movies that call for [Marlon Brando’s character in “On The Waterfront”] in Hoboken. They call for him as an astronaut. And so Mark finds comedies now to do. If you saw “The Fighter” I thought his work in that was so underrated because it's not showy, which is not to denigrate Christian Bale, who was terrific, but it's a very earthy performance and it's not showy.
He does that especially in “We Own The Night.” Very restrained.
Yeah. I love what he does in the film because to me he removes the ego, the tough guy thing, and that's a courageous thing to do in a way.