"It’s a very, very personal movie": James Gray, the great American director Americans have never heard of

The director of the slow-burn '20s melodrama "The Immigrant" on Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Ellis Island

Published May 20, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

James Gray    (Reuters/Regis Duvignau)
James Gray (Reuters/Regis Duvignau)

James Gray is a peculiar figure in American cinema, almost a unique one. If you’re not a serious movie buff, you may never have heard of him. Yet his films – “Two Lovers,” “We Own the Night,” “The Yards” and now “The Immigrant” -- are genre-flavored mainstream narrative dramas starring the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and his perennial muse Joaquin Phoenix, not experimental or willfully obscure art-house fare. Gray belongs to the small subset of American directors whose work is better known in Europe than at home, but the reasons why that’s so are less obvious than in the case of, say, Jem Cohen or Lodge Kerrigan or even Jim Jarmusch. One way of understanding Gray’s career, which I feel sure he would appreciate, is that he was cut out to be a major Hollywood filmmaker – but not in this era.

Even that is probably an oversimplification. On one hand, Gray comes out of the classic Hollywood tradition of lovingly constructed, well-acted and highly pictorial mid-budget moral dramas for adult audiences, somewhat in the spirit of John Ford, William Wyler and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But there’s also a strong post-1970s current in his work that’s not always obvious on the surface, an awareness of internal contradiction and a desire to highlight alternative readings or to subvert conventional narrative. (The first time I met Gray, we sat in a Chinese restaurant in New York and talked about the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s conception of free will as an ideological fiction.) When his 1980s New York cop drama “We Own the Night” was met with scattered boos after its Cannes premiere in 2007 – some viewers understood it as an endorsement of the Reagan-era “war on drugs” -- Gray leapt into the breach to insist that those readings were “lazy” and his intentions were far more complicated. (Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, perhaps, could have benefited from that example.)

Gray’s new film, “The Immigrant,” may be his best yet, but may face the same marketing challenges as the rest of his movies: It’s too understated for mainstream audiences, and demands some open-minded, open-hearted thinking, but it lacks the transgressive sizzle of an art-house hit. Don’t let the fact that it looks like an oft-told American fable fool you. "The Immigrant" is a subtle and slow-burning 1920s melodrama that builds to tremendous passion and power if you give it time, built around marvelous performances by Cotillard and Phoenix. The former plays Ewa, a vulnerable Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in the early 1920s with her “moral character” in question (translation: she was probably raped on shipboard) and must face the perils of America alone after her sister is quarantined for tuberculosis. I’m in no position to evaluate Cotillard’s Polish (which I’ve been told is pretty good), but Ewa’s severe, Joan of Arc luminosity, and her American journey from victimhood to self-realization, don’t depend on language.

Phoenix, who has starred in four of Gray’s five features, plays Bruno Weiss, a character based on a notorious real-life New York pimp of the period. He sees Ewa’s combination of beauty and desperation as a business opportunity, to be sure, but Phoenix captures Bruno as much more than a pasteboard villain. He does despicable things but is not inhuman, and the fact that he loves Ewa after his own fashion may offer both of them a degree of salvation. Bruno has convinced himself that he genuinely cares for the young women he has turned to prostitution, and that he’s educating them about what is necessary to survive in America. If that sometimes includes giving blow jobs to strangers in a Central Park pedestrian tunnel, welcome to the land of the free.

Gray and his production team re-created the crowded streets of the tenement-era Lower East Side in the Bronx – since the real Lower East Side, as Gray puts it, "is all Jil Sander now" – but “The Immigrant” became the first major film to shoot at the real Ellis Island intake facility, where Gray’s own grandparents (and mine too) arrived in precisely that era. As Gray said when I sat down for coffee with him at Cannes last year, he means “The Immigrant” to be both a period piece and a timeless American story, a fable about the last great wave of white European immigration and about the fundamental nature of our country.

Let’s talk about that specific period, the early 1920s and the last big wave of European immigration. What was it that drew you to that era?

Well, it was a very formative period for the country. Right after that, in 1924, there was a series of quotas that clamped the doors shut at Ellis Island. That was the last great immigration wave until fairly recently and certainly the last great immigration of Europeans. I mean, 40 percent of the country has a direct descendent who went through Ellis Island, which was only open in that incarnation between 1900 and 1924.

So it presents a major aspect of American history and American life that very few people know about. I mean, you would be shocked if I told you how few films get it right. There’s the opening of “Godfather Part II,” very famously, which did not shoot at Ellis Island, because they couldn’t. By the way, “Godfather II” is, I think, the greatest movie ever. I’m just saying as an Ellis Island document it’s not accurate. And there is the ending of Kazan’s film “America, America.” Virtually nothing else, maybe “Hester Street,” a little bit. What intrigued me is that was a major aspect of my own grandparents’ life, how coming into the country formulated their view of the world. So I just thought, if you want to tell a story about America and even a contemporary one; if you were to look back, that would be the period.

Because I feel like we’re in another phase. It’s going to be the salvation of us in a way — immigration. The minute you say someone is against immigration, that nativist thing, look the other way because this is the thing that saves the country. It’s a beautiful regeneration, but it is not without its hiccups, flaws and tragedies. So that’s what I was interested in exploring. Obviously I didn’t want to make a movie that was boring in the beginning, but I very much wanted to make a movie that was a slow burn. Where things were introduced, you weren’t exactly sure where they were headed and then a main character is introduced midway through, which is quite unusual. And then the movie would burrow its way into your brain. All of the movie was constructed to lead to the last scene, where the whole thing really was to become a kind of meditation on codependency, a very modern, postwar psychological concept, but viewed through the prism of this hooker and pimp relationship. It was meant to creep up on you, because those are the films that I feel are the most satisfying and last the longest in our unconscious and last the longest as films.

I remember seeing Fellini's “Amarcord,” which is one of my favorite movies, and going: “Where is this leading to?” There’s many scenes about living and growing up and all this Mussolini stuff and all of a sudden the picture ends when they’re on the beach and the blind man’s playing the accordion and then the thing hit me like a ton of bricks. And you realize all of this capriciousness and silliness, all leads to one place and that’s World War II. And the movie gathers, as a consequence, this cumulative effect. This power. So this was the ambition; to try and emulate that style of storytelling as much as I could. Again, it’s not to say you want the first third or whatever to be not interesting. You hope it’s interesting, you hope the audience says, “Where is this going, is this interesting?” And then it sort of lands like a ton of bricks, that was the idea.

In that sense you are challenging the prime directive of our time, which is that everything has to be immediately entertaining -- and in fact immediately obvious -- because the audience has no attention span and no patience. I have the feeling we’ve talked about this before, but the ultimate counter-example is Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev,” which is actually pretty boring to sit through …

And then has the greatest ending ever, with the rain …

When they finally ring that bell, you want to experience orgasm and death at the same moment.

It’s the greatest thing ever. It’s the greatest thing ever. What it means is the movie is slightly like work, but that’s why it becomes tremendously rewarding in the end. And I feel that way because it’s almost like it has to work that way. “Vertigo” works that way on me. He drives around for an hour following her, “Madeleine, Madeleine,” you know? Where’s this going, come on? And then she looks into the camera and you see that flashback. And then she comes out of the fucking bathroom and then she falls off the bell tower. And you’re like, that’s the greatest thing I ever saw. So it was the ambition behind this film, to play that way.

You said a few minutes ago that it was a movie about America and that was certainly the way I reacted to it. I want to ask a naked question about theme. Were there issues that you wanted to bring up that were contemporary in nature, about the kinds of national myths and stories that we tell ourselves? Because the immigrant experience is supposed to be inspiring, and while this story has those elements, it also suggests that the immigrant experience can be brutal and dreadful.

I will tell you this, Andrew: My grandfather came over from Russia in 1923. He settled first in Buenos Aires in 1922, because of the quotas, and managed to get in a year later through Ellis Island. He became a plumber and set up a life for himself on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn, which I guess is now Bed-Stuy. I’m sure it was hard because the Depression came just six years later, but they got through that and it was definitely better than getting his head chopped off by Czarist troops, which is what happened to my grandmother’s parents.

That anecdote is used in the film. That’s drawn from your family history?

That happened, straight on. Yeah, that’s true. And it haunted her until he end of if her life. But you would think after that my grandfather would be like, “America is the greatest.” Until the day he died, he would romanticize Mother Russia. I never understood it. All I can say is sometimes home gets burned into your occipital lobe and it can’t leave you and there’s always that longing. And yes, America is better than Czarist Russia. That’s an objective truth for almost anybody. But it doesn’t remove the longing. And I had never seen an immigrant story which had that angle too it. That maybe there was something that the person had to do to survive that maybe led to a better place, but still kept itself in that person’s memory. My own feeling about Marion’s character is that I think she’ll do very well. But I’ll worry about her character for the rest of her existence because she’s always going to be haunted by that guy, the experience.

That whole thing about how she doesn’t know how to eat a banana? That was taken from my grandmother. All the details that they would tell me, I tried to put into the movie. In that way it’s a very, very personal movie. The one thing that isn’t drawn from my family is her Catholicism. I wanted her to be a Polish immigrant for several reasons, and almost all the Polish immigrants were Roman Catholic. So I wanted to stay true to the history and also I wanted her to be an outsider even in that community. Also the confessional idea, the idea that nobody is beneath our reckoning or our treatment, even Joaquin’s character, as horrible as he is. As filled with self-hate as he is, when he reveals himself in the end. And his performance was balanced that way, where you would never know much about him. He’d be enigmatic and mercurial and you wouldn’t know about him, wouldn’t get to know about him, he’d be elusive and then at the end would come his version of a confession. He basically spills everything: “I followed you from the beginning. I’m garbage. You’d like to think there’s goodness in everybody, I’m terrible.” It’s almost his mea culpa at the end. All of these things, these ideas, were very personal to me.

I thought it was a brave choice, or a set of brave choices. You’re identified, fairly or not, with a strongly Jewish worldview, and I can’t say I ever expected to see a confession scene in a James Gray film. But speaking as someone from a Catholic background, I thought you handled the entire question in a very compelling and complicated fashion. To make the pimp Jewish and the woman Catholic – I mean, there’s nothing stereotypical about this story, but you’re invoking the stereotypical anti-Semitism of that period, and that’s brave.

I hope that I’m not criticized for that. Jeremy Renner is his cousin and obviously by extension Jewish, and is not an awful, worthless person. I can’t change the absolute fact that the character Bruno is based on was a Jewish pimp. I’m sure that aspect will be offensive to some people, but I don’t think it should be because there are other factors that balance it out. And I think ultimately the idea of the movie is that everyone should be treated with sympathy, no matter what. You know, Fellini’s “La Strada” was very much a touchstone for me, with the dynamic of the Holy Fool and the guy keeping her in bondage. But that scene in “La Strada” where Richard Basehart says, “Everything has a purpose, even this pebble.” And it led to me thinking like, you know, I am not nothing, you’re not nothing, nobody is nothing. Which I think is a very ethical approach to characterization in movies. As opposed to “I am not that person, that person is shit. I’m better than that person.” The idea instead being, we are all part of this thing, the human race.

That confession scene, in which Marion’s character confesses her sins and gets counseling, strikes me as the heart of the movie. It’s a striking evocation of the Catholic faith in action, which is funny coming from you, but it goes well beyond that. There’s a spirituality in that moment – and that’s a term I usually avoid – something ineffable and uncategorizable that really changes the movie. It isn’t really about religious faith at all, but if you had told me right after seeing that that I needed to go back to church and get right after 30 years, I’d probably have done it.

For me it’s the best scene in the film because there’s two things going on: She’s confessing but at the same time he’s giving her advice, which may be good advice. She says she can’t take the advice, because of that perverse codependency. She knows she needs Joaquin’s character, and you know what? She does. Because in the end, she gets what she wants.

Right, she makes her own spiritual path, independent of religion, after that. But let me also note that she looks like the Virgin Mary in that scene.

That’s the idea! A lot of paintings were stolen for that. When she walks into the confessional, turns and looks into the camera? That’s totally ripped off from Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest.” There’s a lot of rip-off there.

How much of this movie comes out of your long relationship with Joaquin? You understand each other so well, and he will go to these extraordinary places with you.

He was miserable. He was great, by the way. Maybe as good as he’s ever been, but he was miserable on set. We would shoot a scene and he would walk up to Marion and say — because he loves Marion — “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” There was one scene we did [plot spoiler redacted] where he felt so horrible that he had to hide in his dressing room for hours. He couldn’t come down. He kept saying to Marion, “I’m so sorry, this is not me, it’s not me.” Because of the position the movie puts him in, he was very uncomfortable playing that part. Extremely uncomfortable.

Well, the character does repugnant things. We flinch away from him. We don’t want to be him, but I actually never questioned that there was another side to his personality. I never questioned that he was a person who did terrible things for what he thought were good reasons.

Right. That was the whole idea we talked about. We talked about how a weirdly narcissistic personality -- not narcissistic in a cliché way where he likes himself in the mirror but meaning someone who is so inside of himself that he would be oblivious -- would think, and he says it in the movie, that you have to do these things to survive. He didn’t want to do the typical pimp, which was, “Hey baby, baby.” It’s a cliché. It’s been done brilliantly by Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.” That’s like the greatest performance ever, but we didn’t want to repeat that. He said, “I need to be the ultimate liar, the ultimate manipulator, where I don’t even know I’m lying. It’s become a truth for me. Everything I’m doing is to justify like, my caring for you. This is for you. On the street you will be killed. I am looking after you. We’re like a family. We’re going to survive.” It’s demented, it’s psychotic, but it’s original. We didn’t think we’d seen a pimp conceived that way.

Getting back to the ethnic and religious issues, and the way these groups of immigrants arriving at the bottom of the totem pole wind up in conflict, I started to think about my own grandfather, who got here in 1917. He could have been one of these Irish cops, beating up Joaquin in the tunnel and calling him names. Of course the Irish were at the bottom of the pyramid at one time, and then they got ahead by becoming part of the power structure.

That’s exactly right. And you know what? Anyone who starts badmouthing Latino immigrants is not only a racist but ignorant. You need to refer them to what was written about the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, any group you want. At Ellis Island, I mean, you didn’t go there if you arrived in first class. It was only the poorest, the people in the worst shape. On the ships, it was weeks living at close quarters with vermin. The women were often raped, or compelled to do sexual favors for food. That was in the original draft of the script, I had to get rid of it because at a certain point it’s just piling on. Marion does refer to her rape on the boat in the confession, because there’s no way that woman would not have been raped on a ship, in steerage. That woman, looking like that, 90 percent of the time would be raped. If I’d avoided it completely I would have been whitewashing. There was plenty of stuff I didn’t put in about the typhus epidemics, the rats and insects. Anyone who romanticizes the past is a fucking idiot, because life is so much better even for the worst of us today. Before Social Security and Medicaid, labor laws. It was just awful. There was a book by Luc Sante called “Low Life” which is fantastic. It covers from about 1840 to about 1920, just up to this period. Its depiction is incredibly vivid and by all accounts extremely accurate and just really upsetting. And it lays waste to the whole “streets were paved with gold” fallacy. So I felt it important to make a film about that, but I didn’t want to make a film that was just misery. I wanted to make a film which was emotional and had a certain beauty to it. It’s why the film -- I want it to be visually beautiful, I didn’t want it to look squalid in that way.

Did you and [cinematographer] Darius Khondji look at a lot of art and photography from that period?

It was all copied from what was called autochromes, which were the color slides. We looked at autochromes, we looked at the Ashcan School: Rockwell Kent, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Bellows, John Sloan, Robert Henri, a whole bunch of those artists. Those guys taught us a lot about the usage of light, the direction of light. The theater itself was based on a place called the Haymarket, which had vaudeville shows, but also where the women were sold to the highest bidder and they were bought off sometimes from Ellis Island and didn’t speak much English. So we tried to get the details of it as close as possible to accurate as we could.

Tell me about shooting on Ellis Island. How difficult was that to arrange?

First of all, like I said, Coppola had tried to get it for “Godfather II,” but was refused. The island was in terrible shape when he did it. They didn’t have the museum yet. His company apparently offered to restore it and they said no, which was beyond dumb. You have to understand, that place is open almost every day as a museum and they were not willing to close it for us, so our only option was to shoot at night. That big room, that registry room, which has capacity for 5,000 people, is not on the first floor. It’s on the second and third floors of a building on an island. So all of a sudden you think, OK, if I can only shoot at night, what do I do with these huge Beaux-Arts windows, all of which have to be covered with tracing paper, so we can blast lights through all of those windows with cranes? We had to get condo cranes sent to the island on barges! I thought it was important, to be in the real rooms, the real corridors. But the amount of shit that it took just to get that stuff at Ellis Island, it’s nuts.

To get the extras there, we had to costume them in Lower Manhattan and get the ferry to bring them over. Lunch was at 3 a.m., and we had to bring the caterers’ food over on the barge. It would be impossible to do it today because of Hurricane Sandy. The Island is closed and the entire electrical system of Ellis Island was underground, all of which got flooded. [Note: The Ellis Island museum has been partially reopened, though many areas remain off limits.] Even if they bring it back online they’re gonna rip power from the mainland, and we would not have been able to do that, our power draw was too needy. But it was an incredible experience. We used real antiques for clothes and tried to get it as right as we could. And Enrico Caruso did sing at Ellis Island. We re-created his show as best we could with the magician performing beforehand. It was a great trip. It was like going into a time machine, closing down that avenue and making it look like 1921.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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