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NYFF: James Gray Almost Appeared In Wes Anderson’s ‘The Life Aquatic,’ Talks ‘The Immigrant' With Joaquin Phoenix

Photo of Rodrigo Perez By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist October 7, 2013 at 2:02PM

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.
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Jeremy Renner, James Gray, The set of the Nightingale

Cinematographic reference points
Soaked in amber and ochre hues, Gray said everyone thinks he and in-demand cinematographer Darius Khondji (David Fincher’s “Seven” & “Panic Room,” Wong Kar Wai’s "My Blueberry Nights," and Woody Allen’s "To Rome with Love") were trying to ape the style of Gordon Willis’ work on “The Godfather Part II” and Vilmos Zsigmond’s lensing on “Heaven’s Gate” and while he did look to them for inspiration, he said research informed the look first and foremost.

"I’d love to give you examples of how it was different, but I can’t think of anything." - Joaquin Phoenix

“The photography of the film was all based on autochromes, “ Gray said of the photography process in use before the advent of subtractive color film in the early 20th century. “The truth is it came from two things: the huge amount of soot, coal in the air that gave everything a yellow-ish look instead of a bright blue sky, a huge amount of pollution. And things lit by gas lamp take on a golden amber hue. You could light it another way, with fluorescents, but it would be totally ahistorical.”

Joaquin Phoenix claims he did no research.
When asked about the research that he did for the role, Phoenix went into an amusing little aside and his Laurel and Hardy routine with Gray continued. “Rickets,” Phoenix said monosyllabically, which Gray, after more of his frustration with his friend, explained that Phoenix became interested in the maladies of the day. “I became obsessed with rickets, but they didn’t really have a place in the film. I kept trying to get it in. That was the only thing I wanted, but it just wouldn’t work. That was all the research I did,” Phoenix said. 

“You learn something every day,” Gray said incredulously, and Phoenix quickly countered. “We actually talked about it a number of times. “ Gettingserious Gray said tenement life in New York during this period was brutal, with vermin, typhus and squalid living conditions, but he decided to dial it back because this was not what the movie was going after.

Gray revealed he almost had a role in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”
Gray calls himself the worst actor ever and he described two chances he had to act. One of them was in the “Love Jones” co-starring Larenz Tate and the scene was cut from the film. “If you see ‘Love Jones,’ I’m not in the movie, so that tells you how good I was. It’s called cutting room floor,” he laughed. The second opportunity was in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic” which Gray eventually turned down despite his filmmaking peer’s protests. “ ‘No, it’s pretty fun, you’ll come, we’ll be in Rome, it’ll be amazing!,’” Grey recalled doing his best fey Wes Anderson impression. 

“ ‘How long?’ ‘Two, three weeks’ and I’m thinking, ‘No way, no way.’ I didn’t understand why he wanted to cast me, but he’s a friend and probably as a consequence wanted some form of revenge,” he quipped self-deprecatingly. “So I said OK, and we were going to go and then I got the schedule and it was like 5 months at Cinecittà, and I could just feel mental illness creeping in, so I said no. And he was like, ‘What are you talking about, it’s Rome! You gotta come!’ I said, five months in Rome! And all of a sudden I felt like Rupert Pupkin, ‘I can’t give you the six weeks!’ ”

What was the role? Gray told me afterwards it was Wolodarsky, the composer on the ship who creates electronic scores to the documentaries within the movie (the role eventually played by Noah Taylor). 

“The Immigrant” will be released in the spring of 2014 via Radius TWC. Watch the entire press conference below.

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival by clicking here.

This article is related to: The Immigrant, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gray, Marion Cotillard, New York Film Festival, Features, Feature, Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Interviews, Interviews


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