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Interview: James Gray Talks Working With Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix & The Central Crisis Of American Cinema

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 12, 2012 at 3:50PM

A definite high point of our Marrakech International Film Festival was not only getting the chance to talk with director James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own The Night,” “Little Odessa,” “The Yards”) about his upcoming directorial and writing projects (see our previous coverage here and here), but also having the time to let the conversation spin off, through some of his past experiences, and into a more general discussion about the state of contemporary U.S. cinema. Gray’s perspective as a commentator is of course informed by the kind of filmmaker he is: in his assessment of U.S. cinema being in a state of deep crisis, it is hard not to see a man arguing forcefully for his own livelihood.
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James Gray Low Life

A definite high point of our Marrakech International Film Festival was not only getting the chance to talk with director James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own The Night,” “Little Odessa,” “The Yards”) about his upcoming directorial and writing projects (see our previous coverage here and here), but also having the time to let the conversation spin off, through some of his past experiences, and into a more general discussion about the state of contemporary U.S. cinema. Gray’s perspective as a commentator is of course informed by the kind of filmmaker he is: in his assessment of U.S. cinema being in a state of deep crisis, it is hard not to see a man arguing forcefully for his own livelihood.

But what saves his reasoning from coming off as self-serving is that Gray is truly knowledgeable about the subject, quite beyond his own experience. That and the fact that when it comes to lamenting the squeeze on what he calls “the middle” -- the mid-budget, intelligent, adult-aimed dramas that are his stock in trade, and that form the backbone of his strongest influence, the U.S. filmmaking culture of the 1970s -- it's hard to disagree. Below, Gray’s reflections on the aforementioned subjects, a brief discussion of his other filmic preoccupations, and some further background to his forthcoming drama “Lowlife” starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner.

Jeremy Renner Marion Cotillard Low Life
How did the idea for "Lowlife" germinate?
My brother and I found some old slide photos my father had taken from the mid-to-late 1970s. A few of them were photographs from a trip to Ellis Island. It has become a kind of museum now, but my father took us in 1976 right after it had reopened after closing decades before and the place was untouched to the point that there were half-filled out immigration forms on the floor. It was almost like ghosts had been there.  And we took my grandfather who came to Ellis Island in 1923, and the second he walked into the building he burst into tears. 

So then I started reading about it and I read a story that was extremely interesting to me about women who came in either solo or their families had been split up, and how they would get into New York and sometimes they had to resort to very sad ends to get there, and I’d never seen it done in a movie. 40% of the United States have relatives that came in through there and yet it’s only been in a handful of films -- the opening scene from "The Godfather II," and the end of Kazan’s "America, America" and that's it. 

Pola Negri
In "Lowlife" you work with Marion Cotillard for the first time. Tell us how that came about.
I had no idea who…Marion Cotillard was. When I was in Paris for "Two Lovers," a publicist told me, "A guy named Guillaume Canet wants to have lunch with you." So we met and had lunch, I found him incredibly funny -- I didn’t know anything he had done at that stage, but we sort of bonded because a rat ran across the floor of the restaurant. And then he said, “Come meet my girlfriend” and I met this woman who looked like a silent film actress like Pola Negri or something. And I said, “Who’s your girlfriend?" and he said [French accent] ”You don’t know my girlfriend? She won an Oscar, are you stupide?” 

And my wife and I became very friendly with them. One night at dinner we went to a restaurant and I told her I didn’t like some actor that she thought was great and she threw a piece of bread at my head, and I thought, “Well, you’re interesting.” So I wrote the movie ["Lowlife"] for her, having never seen her in a movie. Because she has this face, you know? She doesn’t even have to say anything, and that’s rare. 

Joaquin Phoenix David Letterman
And of course in "Lowlife" you reteam for the fourth time with Joaquin Phoenix. How did you feel about antics during the "Two Lovers" press tour? 
I was really angry with him, let’s be honest here. But you know, totally brilliant actors who will agree to do your film are not people who grow on trees. I was upset with him. I mean, I think he and Casey [Affleck] did something very silly, but, whatever -- it’s not for me to judge, who cares what I think? My argument was that it came on the back of the publicity tour for the film that I had made with him, which actually was fairly well received in the United States, but there was no discussion of the film. In fact the [David] Letterman appearance where he went nuts was to publicize "Two Lovers" -- he apologized to me for that and ultimately I decided that I couldn’t really care about it, because he’s a wonderful actor so in a way you forget it.

Do you feel the break has made Phoenix a stronger actor? 
That's hard to say. I've always found him to be a brilliant actor. I know him so well… No, I don’t see him being stronger. I think he thinks he’s stronger. I don’t think that’s the case, he thinks he’s a better actor. My own view is that there was a quantum leap in his skill set between the first film I did with him “The Yards” to the second which was “We Own The Night.” Since then I have seen a consistent commitment to the work which is really impressive.

Little Odessa Tim Roth
Your first film, "Little Odessa," got you quite some notice internationally. What effect did its success have on you?
I was very spoiled. I didn’t know what to expect. I took it to Venice, the film festival and it was a ridiculous experience because the theater was half full, and at the end of the movie there was like one clap and I thought, "Well, this is a disaster.” I got on a plane back to New York and I got off the plane and they had a sign: "Call so-and-so in Venice." 

So I went to a payphone, they said, "You have to go back to Venice, you've won." So I got back on a plane, I pick up my award, Monica Vitti is giving me a kiss on the cheek and I’m thinking, "Well this is how it goes. You're 24 years old, you make a movie and Monica Vitti kisses you." And then the next movie came and that was the end of that dream.

This article is related to: James Gray, Marrakech Film Festival, Interview, Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant


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