The highlight of the New York Film Festival post-screening Q&A for “The Immigrant," director James Gray's long-awaited period film, was the unlikely and rare appearance of the notoriously evasive Joaquin Phoenix. And while the press shy actor nearly stole the show from his entertaining director, funny and amusing in his own right, Phoenix did it by hardly uttering a word.
Gray's film is even more mature and patient than expected, especially for a filmmaker that has made a name on thoughtful and contemplative morality tales, with this one exploring the ideas of forgiveness and redemption via terrible characters that are nearly beyond salvation (read our review of the film from Cannes here). Set in 1920s New York, the drama chronicles Polish émigré Ewa (Marion Cotillard), who comes to America with her ailing sister through New York's famous immigration port Ellis Island. While the film documents the hardships of the era—Cotillard's character is manipulated into prostitution to pay for the care of her sick sister—the movie uses these tough times as a kind of Trojan Horse to explore a codependent relationship between Ewa and her manipulative pimp Bruno (Phoenix). Co-starring Jeremy Renner as a magician who could be the key to Ewa's freedom, the movie slowly builds to an emotionally grueling climax where Boris has to face what kind of man he truly is, and in doing so the movie also comments on the dark nature of the America Dream.
It's a somewhat challenging film that is slow-burning and threatens to change point of view midway through, but ultimately a thought-provoking one with deep emotional resonance that lingers. While Phoenix wasn't up for talking much, he still helped make the discussion lively and entertaining. Here are the highlights:
Gray describes in detail why “The Immigrant” is his first movie to feature a female as the lead.
As Gray described to us in our very recent interview, the inspiration was multi-tiered, a Puccini opera he saw directed by director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” “The French Connection”), tales from his grandparents from the same time period, and the copious amounts of research he did, but moving out of his moody male comfort zone was part of the desire as well.
Moved by the opera and the tragedy of its female protagonist, Gray said this was a starting point to investigate a feminine perspective. “I thought there was something very beautiful about exploring a melodrama from a female protagonists perspective because all of a sudden I would be free from the constraints of, what I would call, macho posturing, male behavior and get straight to the emotional heart of it,” he explained during the Q&A. “I just thought I could cut out all the trappings of male behavior and just try to explore the emotion of it and to do something very operatic—not melodramatic, but a melodrama. So that was really the inspiration for it and I found it to be quite rewarding and liberating.”
The movie is somewhat autobiographical, using his grandparent’s immigration tales as a launching pad to explore some bigger themes.
Gray’s Russian Jewish immigrant grandparents came through Ellis Island in 1923, so several details in the story come directly from their recollections. Like many immigrants of the time, Gray’s grandparents changed their last name, but he said during his research he discovered that it wasn’t the government’s doing like you’ve seen in movies such as “The Godfather, Part II.”
“They shortened it,” he stressed. “It’s a bit apocryphal that the custom guys would change the name. That would never happen, the people themselves would change the names out of embarrassment.” The filmmaker said what drew him to these migration stories is that they were much darker than the “coming to find the American dream” narrative.
“When I saw movies about the American dream, it was about 'I chame to Amerikkka and eet was fantastique and eye loveed eeet,' " Gray said in his funny penchant for putting on accents sounding half French and sort of like Borat. “The truth is my grandparents spoke no English until the day they died , they didn’t really assimilate at all and there was a tremendous melancholy, especially from my grandfather who used to talk about how he missed the old country, which I never understood."
Gray’s great-grandparents’ were beheaded by the Cossacks in the old country right in front of their eyes (a detail used in the movie) and yet his grandparents still yearned for home. “It meant to me that the immigration experience was a bit more complicated than, ‘Amerikka eez ghreat!’ So that was one of the moods I was trying to impart and so many of the stories about my grandmother the trip on the boat and how dirty it was and the men being very aggressive with the women—I just tried to bring that mood to the movie. “
Many commented on how “The Immigrant” ties into Gray’s debut film.
Themes of immigration and ethnic families are part of the fabric of Gray’s films, especially his debut, “Little Odessa,” which centers on a Russian Jewish family in Brighton Beach, New York. The movie focuses on the relationship between a wayward son (Tim Roth) lost to a life of crime, his family (Vanessa Redgrave and Edward Furlong) and his domineering father (Maximilian Schell) who was modeled after Gray’s grandfather.
“I had never thought of that before,” Gray emphasized. “And then when I started screening the movie people were like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s like a prequel [to Little Odessa],’ and it’s become very obvious, but it was not a conscious thing at all.”
A hilariously uncooperative Phoenix barely described what it’s like to work with Gray.
Joaquin Phoenix and James Gray have worked together four times in a row for Gray’s last four films—“The Yards,” “We Own The Night,” “Two Lovers” and now “The Immigrant”—and when, asked about their creative process, and how it was different this time, the actor was typically evasive.
“I’d love to answer that,” Phoenix said through long pauses which caused audience laughter. The actor also mostly refused to use the microphone which was additionally amusing. “I don’t know how this was different, I think every film is different. I love how this mic isn’t working—Oh, you just need to talk into it. I don’t remember. I’d love to give you examples of how it was different, but I can’t think of anything.”
“That’s so untrue, you were such a different actor back then!” Gray remarked in frustration. “Maybe that’s true, James. I’m just not aware of how so.” Phoenix paused and then said to the moderator Dennis Lim, “but thank you for your interest.” Amusingly enough, I spoke to Gray briefly after the Q&A and he told me that Phoenix’s taciturn responses, were for him, positively loquacious. “He’s terrible at this sort of thing,” he said of Phoenix undergoing the interview process. “I find the most brilliant actors usually are.”
During the Q&A Gray said that Phoenix had taught him the very valuable lesson of enjoying the process rather than the end result. “Which is rather hard to do if you’re in the narcissistic position of directing,” he admitted. “It’s a very egotistical, narcissistic thing and I’ve learned a lot of lessons from [Joaquin] and that’s one of the things that’s changed for me.” Phoenix quipped, “That’s well said, James.”