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

by Jessica Kiang
December 12, 2012 3:50 PM
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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.

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  • Proletcult | December 22, 2012 5:01 AMReply

    Mr. Gray's concern with class is refreshing. He's right, class as a driving theme is virtually absent in American cinema today. Left-ish fimmakers have substituted middle class identity politics for genuine class politics. And the results have been an absolute disaster. We've gotten to the point where 400 people now own as much wealth as the bottom 150 million. Part of the blame goes to those artists whose progressive politics are designed more to make themselves feel good about how "enlightened" they are than to inspire a genuine shift in mass consciousness. Part of the blame also lies with film critics who elevate the myopic, ultra-twee, middle class angst of Wes Anderson's work to the status of art.

    Beasts of the Southern Wild was one notable exception to the routine. Here there is a genuine affection for poor people and their struggles. It's approach is still that of enlightened liberalism rather than radicalism, but it's a start.

    I'd point to Ken Loach's work, but he's a Brit. Nonetheless, if there are progressive filmmakers out there genuinely concerned with the plight of the working class, appalled by the suffering of poor people, appalled by the thievery of the banksters and other one percenters and looking to inspire the working class to action then they could do worse than to be good students of Loach's work, which goes beyond the usual liberal bromides to tell working class stories with a radical edge.

  • randy | December 16, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    james gray is the only contemporary american director who is as talented in making movies as in talking about them.

  • Zach Heltzel | December 16, 2012 4:45 AMReply

    When discussing how there is very little irony in modern storytelling, despite the fact that we live in a very ironic time. I'd like to throw Joseph Kahn's name into the ring here; his movies DETENTION and TORQUE are drenched in irony, and that is partly why they are incredible strokes of genius that have yet to be appreciated for what they are.

  • Aksel | December 15, 2012 6:13 AMReply

    Great interview from a great director! Thanx!

  • Duder NME | December 14, 2012 1:56 AMReply

    The main reason for this shift of movie tastes is centered on adults not finding/having enough time to watch films en masse while also giving their children so much disposable income, which now dictates moviegoing and moviemaking. That simply wasn't the case in the 70s, even after the advent of the blockbuster age, some early 80s summer films were part of the old aesthetic. Now it's all about release windows and viral schemes and branding, to the point where adults can't be motivated unless they've already heard about an established franchise (the Big Mac).

  • T.A. | December 13, 2012 10:29 AMReply

    Never knew a single thing about this man before reading the interview. Seen two or three films by him, not knowing who had made them or that they were even made by the same director. All in all, he was certainly a pleasure to listen to in this interview and he is indeed calling for right things here. Makes me want to see his films again and the ones I had not seen already. Less Spiderman and more social class, soul and honesty should be the topic of 2013!

  • tania | December 13, 2012 10:01 AMReply

    Marion is a wonderful actress

  • Alan | December 12, 2012 6:32 PMReply

    "And what neither of them has ever really addressed, and I have not read it anywhere else either, is the troubling disappearance of "the middle."" Clearly, this guy doesn't read enough film criticism. I hear this ALL THE TIME.

  • Alan | December 13, 2012 4:44 AM

    Yeah, David Denby wrote an entire essay about how big budget films are swallowing the market and eroding the market for well-made middle budget features, but I guess that isn't going "deep enough". Oh wait, David Denby wrote, so, no, it isn't deep or intelligent enough, but at least he intended to write something about the issue.

  • Kim | December 12, 2012 7:22 PM

    Yeah sure, by writing 2 sentences about it every 15 reviews? He is right, they never go deep enough, they never truly explore it.

  • CL | December 12, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    I could have sworn this movie's title had been changed to "Nightingale" - much more evocative. So now they're changing it back? And is there enough time to de-Weinstein this project so it won't get dumped on two screens and buried?

  • The Playlist | December 12, 2012 7:30 PM

    Yes, Gray recently told us it was reverting back to it's "Lowlife" title. It was named "The Nightingale" for about 8 months or so. He explains it all here.

  • ere | December 12, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    This is a great, great interview. James Gray is awesome

  • TheoC | December 12, 2012 4:50 PMReply

    Excellent stuff, great interview. I'll be adding this to instapaper to pore over again

  • Christian | December 12, 2012 4:35 PMReply

    Good stuff. However, if he wants edgy studio pictures and American cinema about social class problems then he should watch a little indie flick called The Dark Knight Rises which has more in common with Charles Dickens than Marvel's latest adventures of flying men in tights fighting aliens.

  • Yod | December 12, 2012 9:46 PM

    Batman fans are so annoying. The Dark Knight Rises was a shallow popcorn flick, albeit a good one. Nothing more. Just big 'spolsions and stuff. To claim otherwise makes you a fool.

  • 4 | December 12, 2012 5:07 PM

    Read the interview: "But there is tremendously interesting cinema being made that is very small, and there are very huge movies which have visually astounding material in them, but you know Truffaut said that great cinema was part truth, part spectacle, so what’s really missing is that."

  • Claire | December 12, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    Thanks you so much Jessica for the interview. This guy is so passionate, it's very inspiring. He is an amazing director and he should have more confidence in himself, he is truly one of the best storyteller of the last decade. I honestly can't wait to see his next effort "Lowlife" & I wish him to finally renew with the critical acclaim and success he deserves.

  • sduh | December 12, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    Great stuff! So true.. thumbs up

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