James Gray's reception in North America is a little bewildering, regardless of which side you stand on. To some, including this author, Gray's qualities as a filmmaker are obvious. Decidedly at odds with the trends of contemporary cinema since he made his debut with Little Odessa in 1994 (something discussed in the following interview), Gray's so-called "classical" style is invested in things seemingly forgotten in American movies. He stands outside of the present, yet it is far too simple to say he comes out of the past. Aside from Clint Eastwood, is there another director working in Hollywood making subtle, emotional, expertly-crafted dramas while also maintaining a delicately mannered mise en scène? Because of this, Gray seems out of place. Maybe that explains the lack of Cannes awards on his shelf (despite four trips to the festival's competition), the dissenting reviews (which don't even appear to be written on the same films), and his uncertain placing in both mainstream and cinephile circles. Gray's films are simply not cut out for "the moment", but rather are suited for a more generous future as other films around Gray's date more quickly and his appear more prepared to stand the test of time. His latest film, The Immigrant, as I mention in the following interview, is both structurally and stylistically distinct from his previous work, yet inextricably bound to it. One of the best compliments one can perhaps give to a filmmaker, James Gray's films work beautifully on their own, but put together enrich each other and add up to more than the sum of their parts. A modest oeuvre of five films twenty years in the making, each are made carefully, lovingly, sincerely, with the sort of emotional weight and dramatic and visual craft rarely afforded melodramas in these so-called post-modern times.
This conversation took place on June 23rd, 2013 in Los Angeles. Although specific spoilers are omitted, some brief, explicit discussion of The Immigrant remains. At my discretion, I've included one warning preceding a passage that may divulge too much detail for those yet to see the film. The Immigrant premieres at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 6th, and screens again on October 9th.
ADAM COOK: There are several aspects of The Immigrant that distinguish it from your prior work, the most obvious being that it has a female protagonist, something which changes the shape of your film. Could you talk about making that change, in terms of its conception and on the impact it had on what direction you take with the film overall?
JAMES GRAY: The idea of making it about a woman and told through a woman’s point of view came from an opera I had seen: Puccini’s Il Trittico, which is a triptych, the second part of which was Suor Angelica, directed by Bill Friedkin for the L.A. opera. It seemed very emotionally direct and I was very excited by that. It seemed very disinterested in anything macho, and I was anxious to get away from gunplay and all that, and even Two Lovers was sort of spiraling up a man’s ass. I was just amazed even when I went to Cannes in 2009 when I was part of the jury, and also when I was on the jury in Marrakech last year, you see all these movies and none of them has a woman in the lead role. There were so few films starring women and you think to yourself that’s most of the population. I just sensed that there was an ability to make something emotionally very honest, and for reasons that are cultural of course, not anything else, that’s always associated more with the feminine side. It was just my way of getting easy access to that mood, that mode of expression. Everything I’ve done and everything that has been done that I find interesting has been a move, as close as possible, to emotional identification. I’ve said it before: authentic emotion, the most direct way to our emotional core. Anything that gets in the way of that, I find harmful. So, knowing that this is the natural course I’d like to take my films it seems that anything that gets in the way of that I’d like to get rid of and that anything that endorses or makes—how do I say this—
COOK: —The least amount of distance—
GRAY: —The least amount of distance. If you are—you know they’ve said of me that I’m a classicist but I don’t know what the hell that means, but if you like reading “old things” and you like listening to old music and all that, what you find over and over again, is that it is a very good barometer of what works long term, and what does not really work long term is the kind of obsessive search for what is fresh. It becomes the raison d’etre for the work of art and as opposed to being original simply because it comes from you and there’s only one of you; it becomes a gimmick and it becomes the least interesting thing to watch 10, 15 years down the road. As pompous as this sounds—it is pompous, pretentious, it’s arrogant, of course it’s arrogant if you want to be a filmmaker, it’s an arrogant thing to want to be because you’re saying to yourself: “I’m going to raise millions of dollars to say what it is what I want to say and people should be interested”. That’s an arrogant thing, but arrogant though it may be you want to hopefully make something that people can watch 5, 10, 30 years from now and still get an emotional reaction from.
COOK: All of your films have had an honest, emotional surface, but The Immigrant, moves toward something even more subjective narratively and in the compositions. You bring us closer to the protagonist’s feelings, and spirit, than in your other films—and you make the motivations of the other characters more discreet.
GRAY: That’s true. It’s the way she would perceive it, right? I find it a very male-centric thing to say that we don’t know what motivates Jeremy Renner. But we would never watch a movie which stars a guy and question what motivates the third female lead. You don’t watch Raging Bull and wonder what motivates Cathy Moriarty. It’s all about the male gaze. So you’ll notice that the people that would complain about this lack of clarity are men, because the whole idea is that it’s how she would see the world.
COOK: Which leads into the specific way you present the period setting of the film. We don’t see a romantic, sweeping look at 1921 New York. There are no obvious gestures that cue us in, we see New York through her eyes.
GRAY: If you look at New York back then, Little Italy was nearby, and so was Chinatown, but you didn’t go there. It was extremely dangerous and you lived in a one or two block radius and you did all your shopping in carts in that radius. That was your world.
COOK: Other period films bend over backwards to try and show you a little bit of everything.
GRAY: Right, and that’s the thing, we didn’t want to be ethnographic. I wanted it to be from her point of view, until the end, and the reason for that is a very religious idea, that in a way she delivers Bruno, she forgives him no matter how awful he’s been and that even he can be redeemed, so that the film had to end with him, because she has passed this torch of forgiveness in a way. See, forgiveness, the interesting idea about it, people say “how could you forgive so and so, he or she did such a horrible thing” and my own thing is that forgiveness empowers the person who does the forgiving. If a holocaust survivor forgives a Nazi, it doesn’t empower the Nazi, it empowers the victim. The victim has the power to do that. The whole idea was that she would have this power. For me it was the only way it could end, and then there is a point of view change, but for the rest of the movie you’re quite right and it was intentionally so. It was that way because the way that the cinema works, at least for me, it can capture the most personal details, though it’s not often used for this, it’s used for explosions, at least in the mainstream pictures, but it has such a power for intimacy. And I’m not talking about close-ups, which is not the same thing, though it’s a wonderful weapon, but only if you use it sparingly. If every shot is a close-up it doesn’t matter anymore.
COOK: Which is a problem in contemporary cinema.
GRAY: It stops having an impact. The camera has an incredibly revelatory power, it can almost see through the actor. So you want to take advantage of what it is that the medium does, it can’t be done on stage, it’s not even producible on TV.
COOK: Capturing minute gestures.
GRAY: Yes, so the point of view thing was all about trying to get the most intimate, personal approach I could to her character. Who knows if these things succeed? And to do it in a format that is considered classical—which I think is bullshit; it just means the story functions. Literally. I mean, sometimes I get the sense these other filmmakers are not telling stories not because they don’t want to but because they can’t do it. It’s all about craft. It’s not a measure of genius or artistry; it’s craft, learning how to tell a story.
COOK: Godard said the French couldn’t tell stories.
GRAY: He’s sort of wrong in a way because his greatest work always tells a great story.
COOK: The Immigrant almost feels like a prequel to your other films, which each told the story of a man who couldn’t escape the stranglehold of his familial bonds, and here we see the origin of those family ties and come to understand their significance and what made them something so embedded in the lives of your other protagonists. Do you recognize this as well?
GRAY: I’ve never thought of that until you just mentioned it. Interesting, it makes sense. I guess all one tries to do is mine your own life and try to explore as much as you can what it is that made you you. Hopefully then, something textured and nuanced and emotional comes out of it. I had stolen tons of these stories from my grandparents and so forth. It makes sense now that you say it. It wasn’t conscious.
COOK: I look at something like the gestures shared between characters, the tragic binding power of family and the power of specific moments like Faye Dunaway reaching out to Mark Wahlberg in The Yards, and I see the origins of those moments in The Immigrant. We see why they’re so powerful, we see the struggle they came from.
GRAY: I hadn’t thought about that.
COOK: It adds up to say something about the American family and society.
GRAY: But it’s impossible to look at that for me. You can’t, cause if you do you get a kind of global overview of the character and the world and you start to think thematically—which you can’t help to do a little but not on that scale—then it’s up your own ass and in a way that lends itself to condescension. You have to believe in minutiae.
COOK: Right, and your movies work on this level because they take a microcosmic approach and the macro is left entirely to implication.
GRAY: I think it has to be that way. We don’t have a global view of the way we exist.
COOK: We have a view like Marion Cotillard’s Ewa does.
GRAY: Yeah, exactly right, and we don’t know what’s going to happen a few scenes from now. You could walk out and I could slip on a banana peel and break my arm and spend the night in the hospital, or I could just go to bed after flossing and brushing my teeth. In a movie, the actor knows what’s coming and the director does, “you’re going to slip and fall on the banana peel”, so it lends itself harmfully to the wall, the distance I’m trying to remove.
COOK: If you over-think it, the wall ends up being there.
GRAY: It can’t not be, because the whole idea of the wall, as I’ll call it, is putting on a show—and you don’t want to put on a show, you want to try and express yourself in the most direct, pure, unadulterated, moment to moment, honest way you can. It’s actually about being as honest as you can be.
COOK: So the ideas can’t precede the emotions.
GRAY: Of course, so if that’s the case then you have to work moment by moment. Some people can do it; you sense that Bresson could do both without being condescending. But that’s a different style.
COOK: You mentioned how your family history informed the film, so why is Ewa Polish Catholic and not Russian Jewish?
GRAY: For several reasons, although Bruno is Russian Jewish. There were big quotas that came into play in the 20s and I found out that the most of the Polish immigrants were Catholic. So it started out being just something from historical basis. I could have done it but then I wanted a character who felt out of place culturally in the milieu in which she was set. I wanted a character that would not be able to bond with the other women or fit in with the community.
COOK: Completely alienated.
GRAY: Yes and then I thought “well maybe I keep her Polish Catholic because that will keep her in a box and also that Bruno might have done that on purpose because it would’ve been easier for him to control her.” …It also seemed to fit with theme of the film, which was a very Franciscan idea, that everything has a purpose; I’m not a believer, I’m an atheist but I believe in God for art. The whole idea of God is silly on a practical level but art is the religion for secular people and what it’s really about is trying to organize facts, incidents and emotions and make it somehow inform our lives and give them meaning and so the use of God is almost a kind of substitute for…
COOK: —something else.
GRAY: Something else. It’s not the filmmaker believing in God, it was the reality of those people, who would’ve been incredibly religious. I’m not sure if people got that, judging from the little bit of writing I’ve read from Cannes. We’ve become so secular that I think it’s hard for people to understand. We were talking about the dilemma of the character forced into this life in order to save her sister and it’s like: “it’s a no-brainer, dude, just do it,” but if your whole life has been brought up a certain way…
COOK: It goes against the core of your being.
GRAY: Right and you’re having sex with someone for money but you’re shaming yourself before God which is the most important thing in your life, there’s nothing worse, there’s no bigger conflict. It would torture them, it would torture this character.
COOK: You’ve mentioned Diary of a Country Priest as one of the main influences for The Immigrant. What specifically about it inspired you? Some of it is obvious, I suppose. The closeness to character.
GRAY: Certainly that and a kind of silent film pathos and austerity…
COOK: Something transcendent?
GRAY: A clear-eyed and transcendent core. But, but, and this is the thing that amazes me about what Bresson is able to do: even though his films are tragic there’s something, a kind of epiphany, they’re not depressing…
COOK: They’re affirming.
GRAY: They’re life affirming, it’s amazing what he can do.
COOK: A Man Escaped, too.
GRAY: For me it was always Diary and Au hasard Balthazar. Life affirming doesn’t mean good things happen.
COOK: It can still be realistic, even somber.
GRAY: Life-affirming and authentic. And even I softened it a bit because if I had made it exactly the way those people’s lives were, it would’ve almost been piling it on. People had rampant cases of typhus and rats were pervasive in the tenements. But it’s not the point of the film. That, by the way is also a very in vogue thing for art cinema, a very ethnographic or anthropological approach. A historian’s distance, which to me is not interesting. I wanted stay as close to the actors’ emotions as I could.
COOK: You’ve said you used something from Diary of a Country Priest?
GRAY: A shot. When she backs into the confessional, turns to us and looks into the camera and goes into the dark, which is a shot from Diary where a girl goes into the confessional and you only see her face, it’s just me stealing a shot.
COOK: There’s a rhyming going on there, isn’t there? With recurring bifurcated compositions at the confessional and again at the end with the mirror and window. There’s another one too. It establishes that Ewa and Bruno are on separate paths. The confessional is where he realizes he’s lesser then her, and that they can’t ever be together.
GRAY: Oh yeah, that’s there, of course. The confession was meant to be that. Though he’s not lesser, he just thinks he’s nothing. He’s filled with self-loathing, which is not the same as self-pity, which he has none of, just self-hatred. He just keeps doing what he’s doing and he can’t help it. It’s how he survives.
COOK: It’s also one of the only scenes where it breaks from Ewa’s point-of-view. When Bruno follows Ewa and enters the church, and looks up at the ceiling you cut to his POV for just the second time after the opening shot of the film.
GRAY: That’s because at a certain point you have to start feathering that in to prepare for the end. Although, maybe it’s a flaw—
COOK: —I think it makes sense because even though it’s his POV, it’s her territory, the church. It’s not his trajectory, it’s hers still, and he’s finally recognizing it.
GRAY: It’s his introduction to her world and his redemption.
COOK: Your choice to include and exclude certain details is really interesting, in terms of what happens in the narrative. You don’t show much of the domestic life.
GRAY: It would’ve halted the storyline and broken the emotional through line. You get hints.
COOK: Also, you don’t focus on the prostitution, it’s mostly implied, you don’t show—
GRAY: —hot immigrant on immigrant action. [laughs] That’s all peripheral to the film. Narrative is all about the delivery of information and what is delivered when. If the film is made with a modicum, or at least, illusion of control, what you’re going to do is provide to the audience the information that you think is relevant to the theme. This is a problem, by the way, because you set up expectations, and if the film does not fulfill them, sometimes people get frustrated, but that to me is irrelevant because what your job is, is to say “here is the theme and I am going to illustrate it and show what I want to show,” it doesn’t mean you think you’re God, it means the story is told to feature the things that are important. You’re told that she sells her body for money, you don’t have to see it, it would be gratuitous or giving the audience what it wants. You shouldn’t give the audience what it wants, you can’t. In some sense, it’s your job to infuriate the audience, to provoke them. Giving them what they want is cowardice. The whole point is to give the audience what it needs.
COOK: This is your first collaboration with Darius Khondji. What’s it like working with different cinematographers yet working towards the same personal style?
GRAY: I hate working with different cinematographers. If I could, I’d work with one person. Joaquín Baca-Asay, who did We Own the Night and Two Lovers, was very good but he wanted to go off and direct. Harris Savides was fantastic, but he was attached to other pictures and got sick and has now passed away. So I have to find someone I can keep working with, who wants to do that and I love Darius, his sensibility, his taste, and I love him as a person. The problem with taking on a new cinematographer is I always feel I have to indoctrinate them a little bit. I have to tell them what I like and what my taste is about, as opposed to a shorthand you develop over time—like I have with Joaquin Phoenix. I don’t really have to tell him anything; I almost never have to talk to him. I would love to have that situation with a cinematographer but I haven’t been so lucky. I’d love to keep working with Darius, if he’ll have me, but we’ll see.
COOK: You’re quoted as saying The Immigrant is the best thing you’ve done. You’re a humble guy, so I have to ask—does this statement come from a critical position on your prior work? How do you look at it differently, as a film and as a personal success?
GRAY: I think it’s the best thing I’ve done, but it doesn’t mean that somebody who disagrees is wrong, it means that the only way I can measure it is against what I originally had in mind and wanted to express and how clearly it wound up being related. Now, people might not like that. Or that may bore them. But this and Two Lovers are the only pictures I’ve made where I felt at the end of the experience, it’s coming close to what I’m trying to express.
COOK: Whereas with The Yards, you faced difficulties, it changed a lot structurally.
GRAY: It was a big fight, and I had issues with the script as it was structured and We Own the Night was my first film in so long and it was also a struggle, I didn’t have enough time or money. And my first movie I was only 23 years old so I didn’t know what was going on. I do think The Immigrant is the best film I’ve made, it has the most scope emotionally, and Cotillard’s performance in the center of it is really something special, and I love Joaquin in it, and Jeremy is great. It doesn’t mean I’m right. I am haunted by my failures, no question.
COOK: Which failures?
GRAY: There are so many. I can only tell you that when I screened Little Odessa in Le Forum des Images in Paris, I was supposed to stay for a Q&A and I figured I should watch the movie. I hadn’t seen it since 1995 and could barely remember it. I stayed for five minutes and I was so appalled I had to get the fuck out of there. You see your mistakes and things you would change. Why did I put the camera there and not here, this would be better. I’m not really qualified to say what works or doesn’t. There are things in each movie that I really like and there are things in each movie that I can’t stand.
COOK: You said about Two Lovers that each character has a chance to be understood and loved; do you feel the same way about The Immigrant?
GRAY: By like a hundred times more, I think.
COOK: Despite the discreetness of the characters?
GRAY: I think so, because the only thing you need to know about these characters is that the daily struggle is for people to do the best they can to survive, and I think that’s clear in the movie. Bruno is doing the best he can in his own, pathetic way—and I’m not endorsing his behavior—and Ewa recognizes his self-loathing and sees this. You can’t ask a chimpanzee to sing Nessun Dorma from Turandot. You can’t ask somebody who’s not capable of feeling the way you need them to feel, being the way you need them to be, you can’t ask that of them. In the case of Renner, we do know quite a bit about him. He’s self-destructive, a gambler and a drunk. We also know that he has done this before to another woman that Joaquin was involved with. But we also know he can fucking levitate. We also know that in the worst place that Ewa has been in in her life, he gives her a rose and shows her that there’s something transcendent out there. He gives her hope. In that way, even though he’s mysterious, he’s the holy fool, he can still show her the way even though he himself is flawed. Even the other hookers have their own position that makes sense.
COOK: You can hint at it.
GRAY: It’s the best you can do.
COOK: Going back to the idea that film feels like a prequel to your other work, at the beginning, Ewa turns to her sick sister and says “we will have families and have lots of children.” For me, it’s the key line.
GRAY: It’s important. It’s about establishing hopes and dreams, and the greater implication is that one day she’ll do just that.
COOK: It’s an optimistic movie.
GRAY: I think it is but you know, it’s funny, I guess I have a very Slavic and depressing tone to me because I thought that the ending was upbeat, and people have said to me it’s the most tragic ending….“What are you talking about?
COOK: I think it’s your first ending that isn’t tragic.
GRAY: I think you’re right.
COOK: At the same time though, the implication, for me, isn’t all optimism. Here we see this struggle that is rewarded with the chance to establish these hopes and dreams, but as your other films have shown, these hopes and dreams have consequences. That these familial bonds contain within them negative and positive power.
GRAY: Right. That’s all true, you’re saying it now and I understand completely, but it was not always thus. I never thought about that. I never thought about the other films.
COOK: You can’t.
GRAY: You can’t.
COOK: At the end of the credits, there’s a lingering ambiance that must carry on for thirty seconds after the credits have rolled.
GRAY: I’ve done that on every film. We Own the Night it goes on for two minutes. I like to make sure the audience is left, ultimately, with the sound that first made me feel the mood of the piece. In this case, I remember going to Ellis Island in 1976 and hearing those seagulls and the surf. The Yards ends with the sound of the subway, Two Lovers ends with the surf of Brighton Beach, We Own the Night is the prison. It’s my own personal way of signing off with this stage of my life. This is where I was at this part of my life and this was the mood I was trying to impart to you and it’s coming full circle. That sounds really pretentious, but it’s the truth.
COOK: Where does this fixation with family come from? It makes sense in that it’s an essential dramatic theme, but there has be something personal behind it.
GRAY: It’s the most important thing in my life. I’ve got a wife and kids, which is a fairly recent development, I got married late and had children late. Before that, you’re trying to reach out to the most important personal connections—that’s my brother, my father, and then my mother is third on that chain, not because I didn’t care about her but she died a long time ago. So then you start to experiment with how you can express the strangeness within your own family dynamic. In the films, I talk a lot about my relationship with my brother, my father, my mother who’s dead or dying…It’s all the same dynamic in my own family. It’s my way of putting myself into the films as much as I can so it has relevance and emotional truth. Not the truth, but a truth. The truth is for assholes who can’t invest in a tripod. What you’re saying when you do that is “I’m going to show you the truth.”
COOK: Which no one can do.
GRAY: Bogus idea. I can show you my truth and hopefully it’ll mean something to you. I don’t think this applies to the Dardennes, by the way, they’re able to keep it cinematic, it’s a real strategy. But just shooting something in front of you with a handheld camera means you’re under the illusion that you have some kind of objectivity.
COOK: It’s naïve.
GRAY: Very naïve. It’s one of the great sins of art cinema, the notion they have the truth. What it says is that something that has a formality to it or formalism to it or tells a story in a traditional way, is somehow beneath them. If it’s beneath them, it means there’s a lot that’s beneath them and they’re not embracing everything and everybody.
COOK: We talked about the mythmaking that goes on at Cannes.
GRAY: People really liked me asking me about the reaction to my movie at Cannes, and I don’t know, the only people I talk to are those who interview me and each has their own story. It’s all bullshit. Every opinion on everything from anyone is valid. Of course. But what I think is appalling is the idea, and I’m sure you do this Adam, so you’ll be totally offended about what I say, the idea of Twittering right after a movie is finished is so awful. The film should sit with you and then if it’s worthy, demand some kind of explanation, discussion, or if it doesn’t, it’s not worth it, to you. Here’s the thing, I’ll tell you why Twitter freaks me out. I know that when I first saw The Conformist, which is now one of my favorite films—
COOK: —Your tweet about The Conformist would’ve been…
GRAY: “Beautiful looking, cold as heck” [laughs]. I would’ve been wrong. I have to let it linger. When I first saw Vertigo I said “what the fuck is this movie, Jimmy Stewart’s driving around in a car for an hour, this is boring” and then I had to see it again the next day. And again and again and I couldn’t stop. I was obsessed. I only came to understand Vertigo completely many viewings in, and one of the things that became so beautiful about Vertigo was how much it validated Kim Novak’s Madeleine. I’ve talked about this.
COOK: In Jordan Mintzer’s book, you said it was the moment she looked into the camera.
GRAY: I misspoke in the book. The best moment in the history of cinema is when she comes out of the bathroom in Vertigo and fulfills his fetish. It’s so genius cause it validates his notion of her perfection but it’s her tragedy more than his. The whole thing is completely beautiful because both characters have their moment. How could I tweet this? Maybe I could…three years after I saw it. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be critics. I think critics are more important now than they were before the internet. I don’t know about aeronautical engineering, I don’t go online and comment on the design of the batteries in the Dreamliner. So, why is it people think they can write in about movies? The whole point of the critic is to establish an excellent level of discourse and there’s top quality writing on movies in the blogosphere. That’s more important than ever. That’s why Twitter is so scary.
COOK: Your film had a divisive reaction as usual.
GRAY: I don’t mind that. If you please everyone you’re doing something wrong. It means you’re not under their skin, you’re not provocative. Although there must have been a great film that everybody loved. Godard would say it’s by accident. When a great movie’s a success, it’s an accident. It’s hard to think of one. My friend said “what about The Godfather” and I said to him “google Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic, The Godfather.” Kauffmann said it was incompetent and that Brando is a moron, that the great performance of Jean Gabin in The Sicilian Clan blows away Brando. All this stuff.
COOK: 2001: A Space Odyssey sent everyone running.
GRAY: 2001 was beyond divisive. The story John Boorman told me was that Kubrick had called John and asked him if he had seen 2001 and John said “Yes, it’s a masterpiece” and Kubrick said “would you please give me a quote for the poster cause I don’t have enough critics’ good words to put on.” 2001! It might be the greatest movie ever made that was an absolute failure in the eyes of the director. That doesn’t mean I know what Kubrick thought of the film, but he was clearly going for some sort Homeric epic hero story. The movie’s called A Space ODYSSEY, he’s got the main character named Bowman, he fights a Cyclops, a one-eyed computer, he’s going for the mythic hero to the point where there’s even a rebirth at the end with the Starchild, it’s a total attempt at this mythic, Campbellian sweep, but you don’t know anything about Keir Dullea, so the movie doesn’t operate at all on that level, it operates brilliantly as a kind of Myth of the Gods movie. It doesn’t work at all as a Campbellian model. The movie’s fantastic, still, because what he did was he was able to capture the genius of the computer’s dilemma and the genius of this idea of the monolith, which I think came from minimalist 60s art, maybe something by like Donald Judd.
COOK: If all goes as planned, is the science fiction film you’ve talked about your next project?
GRAY: I would hope so. But there’s the reality of paying bills. I’m shooting a pilot next month. There’s this idea that if you make movies you’re a rich guy and that’s not the case, especially when you only make movies every five years and do only what it is you care about doing. At some point that’s going to have to end because that’s reality. I’ve been very fortunate, but it won’t go on forever. I’m writing the film now and it depends on actors, how fast I can get them to do the thing.
COOK: Can we look forward to it being another collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix?
GRAY: You already know too much about it. The ambition of the film is very Campbellian, very mythic and to do it in the way that is entirely based in scientific fact. It takes place in the future but it wouldn’t be ridiculous production design and it would feel like Apollo 11 footage, it would feel like space travel today.
COOK: Still fitting within the subjective style you’ve moved towards or not?
GRAY: That’s ahead of where I am now. I’m trying to make sure the dramatic conception is entirely whole, which is always the way that you have to start. I do always of course think about sequences, you have to, and music—which is extremely challenging with science fiction because if you go with electronic it’s incredibly hackneyed and you certainly can’t use most classical music because it seems like you’re emulating Kubrick, so right off the bat that’s a tremendous challenge. The other challenge is to relay a non-dystopian vision of the future because: A) Dystopian futures are boring dramatically, and, B) incredibly hackneyed, the future sucks everyone looks like shit, whatever. First of all, that’s not true, in the history of the human race, the trajectory is pretty good, uneven but it’s progress. The average person doesn’t die of bubonic plague at 12 anymore, the average person for the first time next year will be middle class…The United Nations say that next year the average person will live in a middle class fashion. I don’t know exactly what that means according to the UN, but it does mean shelter, food, clothing, the essentials. The progress of man is pretty steady, with hiccups—Hitler, for instance—but it’s forward moving. So this idea that everyone a hundred years from now will live in a shit hole is puerile thinking. How do you radiate a certain level of optimism with a certain level of pessimism because at the same time of progress there is global warming and McDonald’s as opposed to the cow that was milked outside? It’s always a balance, presenting a vision of the future in space and balance optimism with pessimism. I didn’t succeed with my first two pictures, they were altogether pessimistic.
COOK: I don’t think so, The Yards—
GRAY: Yeah, maybe not in that one but—
COOK: Little Odessa is about doom.
GRAY: It’s a movie made by a 23-year-old suffering from terrible depression. I was going through a very difficult time and my mother had died a few years before that and my father gone through terrible legal troubles and I was a devastated person and that was the film I made. It was certainly close emotionally to where I was. I’m trying to move past that now. I’d love to. I clearly have no talent with humor because I thought so much of Two Lovers was funny and so much of this movie was funny, and people say there are no jokes.
COOK: Two Lovers definitely has its moments. Phoenix rapping in the car, for instance.
GRAY: …and when he says there was a terrorist alert in the subway and his Dad says [emulates Moni Moshonov] “Terrorism?”. [laughs] Or the thing where Isabella Rossellini says [emulates Rossellini] “look, he’s trying to open the box with plastic spoon.” I’m laughing but the movie screens and there’s not a peep. This movie, I think Joaquin Pheonix’s burlesque show is ridiculous: “Miss Egypt…All the mysteries of the universe!” and he does this thing with his crotch.
COOK: I like how he’s a clumsy showman.
GRAY: He’s inept. I thought that stuff was good. Renner’s show is totally cheesy. Movie screens and not a peep.
COOK: It’s because of prevailing tone.
GRAY: Obviously, so I’m a failure at creating a kind of tone that enables laughter, which is important.
COOK: What about making a comedy?
GRAY: I just explained to you I think it would be a disaster—
COOK: —but if the prevailing tone was comedic.
GRAY: I would love to do one. It’s a very difficult idea because unless you are doing satire, the perfect example being Dr. Strangelove, where there isn’t a specific main character and the whole idea is to be better than the character—wait let me take that back: the genius of Strangelove isn’t that Kubrick is better than the characters it’s he’s saying we’re all idiots, which is not the same thing as saying they’re all idiots.
COOK: Everyone’s on the same level.
GRAY: Everyone is a fucking idiot. Despite our best efforts, the world will blow up. Unless you’re doing satire like that, comedy partially has to have a happy ending, in classical terms, whereas a tragedy or drama ends the opposite way. If I could come up with an idea for a comedy, I would do it in a second. I may do one someday, Playtime is genius. That one’s up there for me too. Playtime, Vertigo, Godfather, 2001.
COOK: Notorious edges out Vertigo for me.
GRAY: I love Notorious.
COOK: It’s the film where it’s the most painful when the love interests are apart.
GRAY: Yeah I cannot defend Vertigo over Notorious, I love it. The sense of mood and character. The same reason Vertigo is so great. There’s incredible compassion for Cary Grant’s struggle, but also Ingrid Bergman’s struggle is so ridiculously clear.
COOK: With Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here stunt, was it easy working together again. You were upset initially, weren’t you?
GRAY: Yeah, I had no problem with that. After the initial release of Two Lovers, I never gave it a second thought. I was just pissed at the time.
COOK: Did you see the film?
GRAY: No, I saw a three hour-long version to give comments on.
COOK: But I imagine it’s difficult for you to see that film with any sort of objectivity?
GRAY: I can’t look at it. I know Joaquin so well and the machinery around making it.
COOK: Your relationship has evolved a lot over the four films.
GRAY: I’m so close with him. He drives me crazy and I drive him crazy. He’s an extremely intelligent person. So intelligent. Emotionally, not book smart.
COOK: Which is just, if not more, important.
GRAY: It’s everything. He’s extremely focused and disciplined, and he really thinks about what he’s doing. It may not have been always the case.
COOK: Not on The Yards.
GRAY: He didn’t have his method done pat, his craft. Now, he’s got it down.
COOK: All of your films have been in opposition to American cinema of the moment—Tarantino is a direct contemporary and in some ways his cinema is antithetical to yours, and of course he’s become a giant. Did you feel a part of the “American independent cinema” culture when Little Odessa was released? How do you feel about how you’ve fit in or not fit in to this culture? Do you feel outside of it?
GRAY: I didn’t use to feel outside of it. I used to feel like I was part of it and that whatever I was doing would contribute to American cinema culture, but particularly over the course of the last two pictures I have felt outside of it.
COOK: —at odds?
GRAY: At odds. Maybe because I see how difficult the distribution is of them and I am also stunned by how successful a lot of these other kinds of pictures are and I’ve been shocked by the audience—what they seem to respond to.
COOK: Is that the audiences changing or just a systematic symptom?
GRAY: I don’t think people have changed since the beginning, the demographic has changed. I shouldn’t say people haven’t changed. I’ll tell you who has changed, where this whole American cinema where we are today, where it all has changed. In the mid 1960s, up to maybe ’78, ’79, you had a radicalized audience in colleges in the United States, so when Kubrick made 2001 or when Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde, the people that went to that movie were the disenfranchised and disaffected, disillusioned college students, and that’s over. When you go to colleges today, they’re waiting 16 hours for the new fucking iPhone. In a way, Slavoj Zizek was right when he talked about now capitalism has pushed to an ideology-less society, the only ideology is the product. The most disappointing people, I think, are college students. Think about this: it’s ridiculous to point fingers and I’m sure every college student will be enraged at how I’ve insulted them, but that’s not the point of what I’m saying at all. George W. Bush started a war under completely false pretenses and everybody knows it. Where were the college students protesting? The only reason there was protesting in the 60s, and I want to emphasize it doesn’t mean people in the 60s and 70s were better, it was because the draft existed and it would’ve’ forced them to fight a totally illicit war. If there were a draft to fight in Iraq, you would’ve seen holy hell break loose.
COOK: The genius of the system is its evasiveness.
GRAY: Totally genius, cause now there’s no draft so you have poor brown and black people fighting the war so college students don’t have to give a shit, they can be completely divorced from politics. How does this affect movies? Well, it makes you realize the movies no longer have to convey to us a reality we recognize. Why? Because college students no longer face an imminent life or death situation. They aren’t forced to confront mortality. So they don’t need Five Easy Pieces. They need Avatar: “Cool ride, man.” That’s really where American pictures have changed, because that audience is gone.
COOK: It used to be a pillar.
GRAY: —and it’s gone. Now, they focus on 9-14 year-olds and hopefully that will be the gift that stops giving cause if it keeps on you’re going to see more and more of what we get, which is superheroes. Some people bring up that more movies are made now, and that’s true and what is also true is that there’s a thriving independent movement, but there is not the craft goes along with that movement.
COOK: It’s less sophisticated.
GRAY: It’s all consumed with “how the date went”. You get the sense from watching these movies that nothing bad ever happened to anybody. That can’t be true. It’s weird, they feel bourgeois. Maybe this is the sign of a more healthy society. Childhood is a relatively recent conception, courtship is older, it’s Eleanor of Aquitaine, but childhood is Victorian England. Before that, you had 7 and 8 year olds helping load the cannons in the Battle of Trafalgar. I think this means were going toward a more healthy society because people are not so worried about death when they’re 18 years old, but the by product of a better society is that you have worse movies.
COOK: Are there any films and filmmakers that you feel a kinship with or that you recognize as having similar goals as you and your work?
GRAY: I don’t get to see too many movies because I have three kids, but who do I have a kinship with? Well, I have friends who make movies, whom I love very much. I love Paul Anderson and I love Wes Anderson, David Fincher, J.J. Abrams, and Matt Reeves is my closest friend. For better or worse, and in their case for the better because their careers are all better than mine, they’re not doing what it is I’m doing. I really like these people.
COOK: What about Clint Eastwood? You’ve cited Unforgiven as a favorite.
GRAY: Yes, I love it.
COOK: What about what he’s doing now?
GRAY: Hereafter was periodically fantastic. I’ve come to love Matt Damon. I saw Behind the Candelabra and I don’t understand he’s not the one with all the great reviews. Anyways, I guess I don’t feel a kinship with anybody. I feel very lonely in many respects. It’s not a good feeling. I just read Bill Friedkin’s memoir, which I enjoyed very much and it sounds like in the 70s he had his friends, he had Francis Coppola, and a whole bunch of other directors that were making movies. I have friends who make movies but…
COOK: Not that synthesis of friendship and philosophical alignment.
COOK: It’s interesting. Fincher and Soderbergh are very specifically digital filmmakers now. Pioneers even, along with Michael Mann, of digital form. It seems inevitable that you’ll work with digital at some point. Is it coming soon?
GRAY: I think the more you focus on that, the shittier the movie is. It’s a superficial care. What are the characters doing, saying, meaning? What is the mood you want to create? The technical aspect of it, the language is the same.
COOK: Is that true? Doesn’t digital elicit different connotations and feelings? They have distinct properties and effects. Like a close up in digital is different than one in film. It just feels different. Ultimately, there are two different approaches to digital: trying to come as close to film as possible or to mine these distinct properties.
GRAY: Yes, that’s true, but I can’t think about that. It’s not like painting, where I could go to the store and ask for cadmium red light or cadmium red medium. Which one, I can choose. Very soon, that choice is taken from me, whether I shoot in film or digital. Here’s the tragedy of digital: if I said to you tomorrow that there was no film, everyone used digital. Best digital image you can get. And I came around said hey I got something guys, it’s not electronic and you have to run it through these chemicals and it’s plastic but when you shine light through it it’s got better resolution, better contrast ratio, it sees the way the eye sees with grains emulating the dots as opposed to pixels. It’s called film. Everyone would be like “holy shit what’s this fucking film thing,” and maybe you’d have Chris Nolan saying “sorry I only shoot digital.” [laughs] Everyone would move to film. I don’t think digital is there yet. Maybe the next generation ARRI will. I did camera tests for The Immigrant on Alexa, Red, Fuji and Kodak, and did them all blind and filmed them out and it wasn’t close. It was Kodak by a mile. It beat Fuji by two miles, over the Red and the Alexa by a mile and a half, so until I see what it is I can do with a product that’s better than film I’m going to try and use film as long as I can. When the powers that be say to me time’s up, I’ll deal with it. It’s not a zero sum game though, film isn’t just staying the same, it’s getting better too. The film stocks are so good now that a chimpanzee could do it. You don’t have to do anything, you put a little light there and you run film through the camera and you have exposure, it’s incredible, you put the film in the back of your trunk at 100 degrees in Death Valley for 15 hours and then develop it, it looks exactly the same. We tried to bake the film on the movie, we put it in the oven to see if it would degrade the film stock, make it look like old film stock, old color, old two-strip and you would bake it for 9 hours at 140 degrees and go develop it and it looks exactly the same, you call the Kodak guy and say the film stock looks perfect and he says “yeah, isn’t that amazing what we can do.”
COOK: Is the recurring Pietà imagery in your films something conscious? I think I’ve noticed it in each of your films.
[Note: the following answer includes details from the ending of the film]
GRAY: Really? In the new one, I know, the ending is totally Pietà, it’s almost written in the script. You’ve got me wondering. [James pulls out a copy of the script from his office] It was more overt in the script, the ending of it, which I made a little less obvious:
[reading from the script] “The rain begins to seep through the roof and taps Bruno on the head. She takes the water that dribbled on her hand to his head and uses it to push back his hair and clean his face, he looks up at her but seems to stare a thousand yards past her, his head sinks forward, she strokes his head as if he were an infant, yet he falls asleep, a noise awakens him.”
It’s not too far from where it is, but I remember very specifically doing that.
COOK: In We Own the Night, there’s the shot where Phoenix comes home to Eva Mendes and collapses to her feet—
GRAY: —which he didn’t want to do, by the way! He said “it’s phony, I would never do that,” I said, “yeah but sometimes you make sacrifices for poetry.”
COOK: I love that shot, the way that at first it’s composed to emphasize Phoenix and his struggle but then as the camera moves forward and zooms, it recomposes to emphasize Mendes and her emotional struggle, to the point where he’s no longer in the frame—it’s like with Vertigo, the shot’s actually about her tragedy.
GRAY: I should see that movie again. I haven’t seen it since I finished it; I remember what you’re talking about but not necessarily the context of it.
COOK: So much of your films are bound up with ideas of love, different kinds of love…What does love mean to you, in cinema? How does one show love? Commitment?
GRAY: What makes it so hard is that love is the most beautiful and encompassing emotion that a human being is able to express. I’ve just started this book which is called The Tree of Knowledge, it’s extremely interesting, about consciousness—the subtitle of it is “The Biological Roots of Human Understanding”. It’s for the sci-fi thing. One of the things you realize is that the idea of consciousness itself…there is not a dividing line between human beings and anything else that does not have consciousness. It’s an outgrowth of evolution and evolutionary processes, so just as a leaf is integral to the tree, our consciousness is integral to us. Love is essential to our consciousness. I guess you could say the way you show love in a movie is to make clear the ongoing struggle to connect, what it means to be a human being in the world—because love a fantasy, but it’s also real. Just because it is a fantasy, as Jacques Lacan would tell us, it doesn’t mean it’s not real to you.
COOK: …Reminds me of Two Lovers.
GRAY: Well that’s the whole idea behind the movie… “In vain your image comes to meet me for I am the only one who finds it.” This is a poem from Louis Aragon, it’s from the lectures on psychoanalysis by Lacan from 1965. It’s very beautiful; maybe it helps answer the question.
[quoting the poem from his computer]:
“In vain your image comes to meet me and does not answer me for I am the one who only shows it.
Turning towards me you can find on the wall of my gaze only your dreamt-of shadow.
I am that wretch comparable with mirrors that can reflect but cannot see
Like them my eye is empty and like them inhabited by your absence makes them blind”
Incredible. “I am that wretch comparable with mirrors that can reflect but cannot see”. Is this guy like the fucking greatest genius ever? The point is, how do you show love, I don’t think that can ever be an ambition. I think if you show, as much as you can, an honest depiction of our struggle and what it means to be a human being, then love is going to be part of the equation.
COOK: Because you reflect it.
GRAY: How can you not? It’s about how you react to and with people—and it’s such a primary need to love and be loved, that it will be integral to every reaction every character has if you position them correctly in the scene. So, the other thing I would say is important is in order for us to come to terms with the bittersweet arrangement of biology, which is that our death is imminent, we have to delude ourselves somehow, and I think death as a presence has to imply other things; by the nature of its finality it has to imply the opposite: life and beauty, and love. So, inextricably bound together with mortality is the other side. The opposite of death is to love, to be loved, that is a richness, the richness of the human experience is the opposite of death, not just living...
This doesn’t answer the question at all. I suppose that if you were to strip away everything, it certainly holds true for 2001, and holds true for a whole bunch of other movies I love like Walkabout and so many others, what does it mean to be a human being? What is the nature of consciousness? Love is the most important aspect to our consciousness, that, and the knowledge of our death because it leads to our bloodlust, it leads to neuroses and that’s not a comfortable or pleasant part of our selves, so love is the best thing we’ve got to give to the world, to present to the world. The other side of our consciousness is considerably uglier. So, in a sense, the way to show love in a work of art is to try to explain most clearly that essential struggle to connect because implied is the need for love, and how do you show that? Well, that’s how the actors relate to each other, how the characters relate to each other, and how the story forces characters into a position where that becomes self evident...
Difficult question, because part of its difficulty is putting into words what is never a verbal exercise. It’s not a concrete thing—on the other hand, it is and it is no question that when you make a film love is a very present idea. The more you can make love evident in every frame—and by love, love is often meant to mean a saccharine presentation of affection, that’s not what I mean—the more we make evident the struggle to connect, the need to express emotionally to somebody else without judgment, the more clear we can make this, the better the work will be. Cassavetes, he’s a hero, to everybody, why? Love. He has it in abundance. In every frame he was able to impart it. I think that’s what distinguishes real art.
COOK: It comes back to sincerity.
GRAY: It does, doesn’t it?