Last week, we ran an excerpt from our Cannes Film Festival interview with director James Gray in which he spoke at length about his upcoming sci-fi project. But of course the reason he was there, and the reason we were talking at all, was to present his new film, “The Immigrant,” which premiered in competition and stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner (you can read our review here).
At the time of our conversation, Gray was not yet fully acquainted with the polarized reaction to his film, though he later responded in an entertainingly forthright manner to those who labelled it “too slow.” For our part, we had another very enjoyable talk with the director, even managing to squeeze in a little discussion of some of the issues facing contemporary U.S. cinema as a kind of a follow-on to the topics that had arisen during our last chat in December, as well a quick update on the status of a few of his gestating projects, aside from the sci-fi film.
There are some mild (thematic rather than narrative) spoilers in our discussion of the closing scenes of “The Immigrant,” just so you know, but that section is clearly marked.
So what’s your initial response to the reaction to "The Immigrant" so far?
I don’t know what the reaction is -- I live in a bubble. The reaction at the official screening was great but that’s always ...no I shouldn’t say it’s always great, that’s not true, but it was great, so that was nice. But in terms of other reactions I’m in a bubble. You have to tell me…
Well, I think the word so far is "divided."
That’s great. Everybody agrees on it, it sucks.
*Mildly Spoilery Section Begins*
At the very beginning. It was always part of the design. It’s an asinine thing to do in one respect -- in a way, it’s designed for multiple viewings because of that. But it was always part of the design, that the film would be about her and her point of view, and in the end he is the one who is redeemed, because he has somehow found, as disgusting as he is, the capacity to admit… everything.
And up until then everything’s a lie, everything’s a manipulation to keep himself distant, but at the end he has to admit to his self-loathing: “I set the whole thing up from the beginning and I’m a piece of shit.” It was constructed that way because it was sort of built to last, hopefully. Hopefully for repeated viewings and hopefully for a long time…I’d be curious to see what your reaction is if you ever get to see this film again.
Well, I can say that the recasting of the film, the kind of mentally spooling back and changing the focus of the story worked well for me, even on first viewing. Everything fitted.
I’m so glad to hear you say that. This is the whole challenge of the movie It’s the experiment. I didn’t want to make something that seemed, like the ending would jump out at you or anything, but [I did want] something that was very subversive in that way. That was always part of the design... I’m glad to hear that [it worked for you on that level]. If you can communicate to some people, that’s great.
*Mildly Spoilery Section Ends*
How did you approach balancing the intimacy and immediacy of the story with the potentially distancing element of the period setting?
Oddly it was very helpful to me, because you find that the period setting -- the trappings --enable you to live entirely in the world of the film, so it’s less distracting. It’s hard to describe. We shot the apartment on a stage, and that’s where most of the action takes place, and the theater as well, that was built on the same stage. So you live in an incredibly -- I mean, I sometimes slept in the studio -- you live in the world of the film. So it helped me a lot.
And then in some respects it’s not as good because the actor doesn’t feel the location, but I understand why Stanley Kubrick favored it, because you’re in the world of the film and you can’t leave it… So I felt it was almost like a process of method acting in a way. I didn’t see it as a hindrance at all.
Marion Cotillard has mentioned elsewhere that she felt like she had established a deeper relationship with you than with any of her previous directors…
She did? That’s very nice of her to say.
You’re not worried about getting a punch in the eye from her partner, and your friend, director Guillaume Canet? [whose script for “Blood Ties” Gray has a co-writing credit on]
I probably will!… And I haven’t seen “Blood Ties” yet. I was meant to, but then my daughter’s passport expired and I only arrived in Cannes an hour into his screening…