One of the unheralded auteurs of modern American cinema, James Gray has made just five features since his debut at at age 24 with 1994’s Little Odessa, but they comprise a unique and personal world portrayed with dynamic classicism — and in many ways have charted the evolution to acting greatness of his frequent collaborator, Joaquin Phoenix. Gray’s latest, The Immigrant, reunites him with Phoenix for a ’20s period piece about a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) who lands on Ellis Island and falls into a wayward life of survival. Gray and Phoenix were on hand at the New York Film Festival recently to discuss the movie.
The film represents a first for you in that it’s not just about a female protagonist but it’s told from a female point of view. Can you talk about that?
James Gray: I had seen — I think it was in 2008 or 2009, I can’t remember — a performance of an opera called Il trittico by Puccini, in LA. It’s a triptych and two chapters were directed by William Freidkin and Woody Allen; the middle one was called Suor Angelica, and it was told from a female perspective. And I spent the better part of the 60 minutes of the operetta weeping. And I realized, or I thought, that there was something extremely beautiful about exploring a melodrama from a female protagonist’s point of view, because all of a sudden I would be free from the constraints of what I would call macho posturing and male behavior and all of that stuff, and get straight to the emotional heart of it — and I don’t mean, “Women are more emotional;” that’s not what I mean. I mean, because culturally “masculine” and “feminine” are traits that we assign to those words, and 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 quite rewarding actually, quite liberating.
You’ve drawn on autobiographical elements in your other films. Can you talk about the ways in which you did that for The Immigrant?
James Gray: Well, the movie is a strange combination of the Puccini operetta that I just talked about and family stories that had been told to me, really, from the beginning. My grandparents came through Ellis Island in 1923, and their entire history was quite well documented. They shortened their name to Gray. By the way, it’s a bit apocryphal this idea that the customs guys would change their names — that never happened. People themselves would change their names. My grandparents told me all these stories and details, but what was really kind of interesting to me was that it was not like the typical immigration story. When I saw movies about the American Dream they always seemed to be like, [adopts “immigrant” accent] “I came to America and it was fantastic and I loved it.” The truth is my grandparents spoke really no English ’til the day they died, didn’t really assimilate at all, and there was a tremendous melancholy to them — especially my grandfather, who used to talk about how he missed the old country. Which I never understood. My grandmother’s parents were beheaded by Cossacks, so I never understood what he was missing, really. But he still had this pull for this place, and to me it meant that the immigration experience was a bit more complicated than “America’s great!” So that was one of the moods I was trying to impart, and so many of the stories, like the one my grandmother told to me about the trip on the boat, and how dirty it was and how the men were very aggressive with the women. all that stuff wound up in the film. I just tried to bring that mood to the movie.
You could almost look at this film as providing a historical or genealogical context to your other films, which deal with immigrant or ethnic families
James Gray: You know, I had never thought about that at all, and then when I started showing the film people were like, “Oh yeah, it’s a prequel” — and it becomes very obvious. But it was not a conscious decision at all.
Joaquin, you’ve worked together since The Yards. Was the process any different, given it’s in some ways a different type of film?
Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah, I think every film is different. I don’t know. I’d really love to give you examples of how every film is different.
James Gray: You are such a different actor to what you were then.
Joaquin Phoenix: Maybe that’s true, James. I’m just not aware of how so. [laughs] But thank you for your interest.
James Gray: Well I can say that Joaquin has taught me a very valuable lesson, which is to be very process-oriented — not to think about the result, but to enjoy the doing of it, which is not so easy when you’re in the narcissistic position of directing. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from him and I think that’s one of the things that’s changed. You don’t see that at all?
Joaquin Phoenix: Well said, James. [both laugh]
Can you talk about your research and reference points for the film and the character? It seems like photography of the period might have been an influence on the look.
James Gray: Well the photography of the film was all based on two things, really. It was based on these things called photochromes, which are sort of like fake color photographs. They used dyes and hand dyed them on glass and basically made them look like color. These were a series of photographs that were taken from about 1905 to about 1920. So the look of the film is based on that, and it’s also based on — everyone says to me, “It’s like Vilmos Zsigmond and Gordon Willis and all that,” but the truth is that it just came from two things. One is the huge amount of soot and coal burned in the air, all of that stuff cut the light and always made it look like a kind of yellowish thing, as opposed to bright blue skies; and the other thing is when you light things by gaslight they take on a kind of yellow ochre hue. So you could light it another way, with fluorescents, but it would be totally ahistorical. I was very obsessed with trying to get the details right because, in candor, I had made another film in which I used a television commercial that I think was two years out of date or something, and I got raked over the coals for it by friends and critics alike. So on this movie I thought, “I’m not gonna make that mistake,” but I’m sure there’s tons of mistakes in it anyway and there’ll be some IMDb goofs about it.
So yeah, not just stories from my own family but certainly Luc Sante’s book Low Life was a big influence, and I spent a lot of time talking to the librarian from Ellis Island; he became my best friend, you know.
In terms of the actors, did you show them anything to prepare?
James Gray: I did have a 1912 prostitution manual, which I based [Joaquin’s] dialogue on. [To Phoenix] I don’t know how much research you did, I think you just made it very personal.
Joaquin Phoenix: Rickets. I became obsessed with rickets, but it didn’t really have a place in the film. I kept trying to get it in but it just wouldn’t work. That’s about all the research I did. [Gray laughs]
James Gray: Well you learn something new every day.
Joaquin Phoenix: We actually talked about it a number of times.
James Gray: Well we talked about afflictions. I think we softened it quite a bit. The truth is that actual tenement life was worthless. The tenements were ripe with vermin, everybody had typhus, basically, but I decided I didn’t want the movie to be about. It’s not an anthropological study.
How did you come to cast Marion Cotillard? Did you consider casting a Polish actress?
James Gray: Let me explain it this way. I have three young children and I kind of stopped going to the movies in about 2006 — I mean, I see some of them at the end of the year — and I’m a little bit out of touch with movies right now, and I didn’t know who Marion Cotillard was. I had become friendly with her boyfriend and we went out to dinner with them in Paris, and I started arguing about an actor who she loved and that I thought was incredibly overrated, and she threw a piece of bread at my head. And when she mentioned that she thought I was a jerk I of course immediately liked her as a result. I thought she had a great face — and not just physically beautiful, which she is, but a haunted quality almost, like a silent film actress. She reminded me of Falconetti, from the Dreyer film; very able to depth of emotion without dialogue, specifically. So I wrote the movie for her, and for Joaquin, and if they hadn’t wanted to do the movie I’m not sure I would have made it. Whether she was Polish or French didn’t really affect the decision at all, altough she wound up cursing me — she would be on the set and she’d have her little book of Polish, she was really stressing about getting it right. She’s very intelligent and very intuitive, and I loved working with her. She’s one of my favorite people to work with. With Joaquin, I’d worked with him before, and I think he’s just fantastic.
The film has the feel of a New Hollywood work. Was it shot on 35mm, and do you have feelings about shooting on film versus shooting digitally?
James Gray: The decision about digital or film is going to be made for us, you know. Film is gonna be gone, although I think it’ll make a comeback. It’ll be like vinyl records. The movie was shot on 35mm film. What we did do was — Darius Khondji, the cinematographer and I — we did tests on the Alexa Red, Kodak and Fuji, and we did them blind and I screened them and just said, “Well which one is the best?” And to my mind, screening them blind, it wasn’t close — the Kodak looked incredible. But I think the power of what is new is really in some ways what is damaging, because let’s say everyone was shooting digital — the whole world, Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan, all those guys, they were all shooting digital — and then all of a sudden I came out with this product and said “Well there’s this thing, it doesn’t see in pixels, it sees in grain, which is more like your eye sees, and it has a better contrast ratio than digital and it has a better color representation,” everybody would be like “This new thing — film — I gotta change to film.” I can’t understand why everyone wants to migrate to a medium that is — in my mind — objectively worse. It’s not even cheaper, really, digital. Now there are some advantages, and it comes from cinematographers being fearful, because what happens is that on digital you see exactly what you’re getting from the monitor, and so there’s no evening of terror — I remember Darius’s reaction when we did all that stuff in the sewer system where Marion and Joaquin are being chased by police, that night Darius was like, “Oh, I did all that and I don’t know what you’re going to see.” And that’s gone with digital. But the audience doesn’t care about that. The audience cares what the movie looks like, not about the sleepless night you had worrying about the thing getting developed.
The Immigrant screens this week as part of the New York Film Festival.