The French seem to be acknowledging James Gray more than his native country does, but he deserves to be considered among the best American directors. Gray is a moody classicist whose New York stories are rooted in great performances and an evocative sense of place and history. His interest in family and the immigrant experience surfaced in his first feature, 1994’s Little Odessa, a contemporary crime drama about Jewish-Russian mobsters in the Brooklyn enclave of Brighton Beach. From there, Gray shifted to the commuter rail yards for 2000’s The Yards, a tale of urban corruption that started a long collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix, who has appeared in every film he’s made since. 2007’s We Own The Night found Gray returning to Brighton Beach for the fractious tale of two brothers (Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg) on opposite sides of the law. Gray quickly followed that with the intimate 2008 romance Two Lovers, about a suicidal man (Phoenix again) who lives at home, but suddenly has to divide his affections between two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw).
In his sumptuous new period piece The Immigrant, Gray draws on family history to carve out an original, powerful take on Ellis Island and the struggles of becoming an American. Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish Catholic who has fled to America with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) after the Great War claims their parents. At Ellis Island, Magda is immediately pulled from the line and put in the infirmary for tuberculosis, and Ewa, lacking sponsorship from an American citizen, isn’t allowed to leave the facility either. Facing certain deportation, Ewa gets sprung from Ellis Island by Bruno (Phoenix), who promises to give her food and shelter, and help her raise money to reunite with her sister. There’s a catch, though: Bruno manages a burlesque house that’s populated with desperate women like Ewa, and he pimps them out on the side. When Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician, enters the picture, Ewa sees a chance to get out of a terrible situation. Gray recently spoke to The Dissolve about giving history a modern urgency, doing period on a budget, and his uncertainty in talking to actors.
The Dissolve: One of the photographs on Ewa’s locket is of your grandparents. To what extent is The Immigrant informed by your own family history, and where do you start inventing?
James Gray: I think you start inventing when the dramatic need arises, but you try to do it as little as possible. When you do invent something, what has to happen is that you have to do it in a context that still feels real and personal to you. So in other words, even if you’re inventing something that’s outside the realm of your understanding, you have to at least substitute in your mind what is personal or interesting to you. You can’t just make something up and not care about it, or make something up and not focus on what the scene means, or what it’s supposed to mean. It’s very tricky. Having said that, very little of the film is made up. I would say that, now that I’m talking about it with you here, I don’t really seem to remember anything I made up whole cloth, that I have no basis for.
The Dissolve: Were these stories passed along through your family? How did you come upon them?
Gray: There were several different ways. The first is that our family history was pretty well documented in paperwork from Ellis Island and photographs from Czarist Russia, that sort of thing, a lot of which the family had saved. Very little of it was thrown out, which was great. That’s where a lot of that stuff came from. Then there was also my great aunt Sue. She just died last year at 101, and she was a great source of stories about the Lower East Side, where her parents had a restaurant called Hurwitz’s, which is actually in the movie. Then of course there’s the research that really isn’t your family history, but informs what your grandmother and grandfather and your great aunt have been talking about. All that stuff wound up in the picture.
The Dissolve: Many historical dramas have a certain emotional reserve, but even though The Immigrant is set almost a full century ago, it’s raw and emotional. How do you account for that? How did you become this invested?
Gray: Because you can’t deny the shape and the power and the influence of history on who we are. Not just history meaning the Saxons battling the Jutes in the Battle Of Hastings. I’m talking about personal history. Who our father and mother are, and who our grandparents were or are, goes such a huge way in determining who we are and how we behave. The whole idea is not to make it something that’s relegated to the past. The whole idea is not to make the terrible actions of one character or another the rantings and ravings of a lunatic—which would enable us, of course, to distance ourselves from their horrendousness. The point is to do something which, even though it is period, has a certain immediacy and desperation and drive that comes out of today, and that’s all about substitution. In other words, it’s all about making something that feels personal to you, even if it took place a hundred years ago. It’s very much about your emotions and where you are. The job of the artist—to finally use that very dirty word—is to explore these things and to be honest with the audience about what they mean to you.
The Dissolve: The film shares some of the iconography of other classic American movies about immigration, like America, America or maybe the early scenes of The Godfather: Part II. How much did films like that influence you?
Gray: Not at all. I love The Godfather: Part II. I think it’s possibly the greatest American film ever, it’s right up there. Francis Ford Coppola has been an unbelievable inspiration to me. He’s a great man. I never knew [America, America director Elia] Kazan, but certainly Kazan’s cinema is incredibly important to me. I’m sure they influenced me on an unconscious level throughout, but neither Darius [Khondji, the cinematographer] nor I referred to them in the making of this. We really tried to think about other sources, mostly paintings, autochromes, that kind of thing. We didn’t want to rip off the greatness of Francis Coppola and Elia Kazan. We tried to make our own statement and our own comment about it. Part of what makes The Godfather: Part II so beautiful is a certain aspirational quality. Vito comes off the boat, and he gets into Ellis Island, and he’s quarantined, and he looks out at the Statue Of Liberty, singing his little song, and you know he’s going to become Don Corleone, the great mob boss who runs this family. He has this incredible power. That’s aspirational. And we didn’t want to do that—not because it’s not great, it certainly is, but just because it’s been done already. We decided we would try to march to the beat of our own drum. We decided we wouldn’t follow that kind of template at all. We don’t want to rip off somebody else’s movie, though we probably did anyway. You can’t not.
The Dissolve: Maybe I’m thinking about Ellis Island specifically as a setting. You really spend a lot of time there, and give a sense of it as this strange little purgatory, or way-station, before getting to America. There’s a little bit of that in The Godfather: Part II where he’s quarantined, but your film goes into more detail.
Gray: Coppola was a little hamstrung by the realities on the ground, because when he made that film in 1973, they weren’t allowed to shoot in Ellis Island. Ellis Island was basically just a dilapidated space which was falling apart. I know he desperately wanted to shoot there, and offered to restore part of the island if they let him shoot there—and, idiotically, they denied his request. I was able—really by sheer luck and good fortune—to linger there and to shoot there, which neither he nor Kazan was able to do. I’d never seen a movie that took place in Ellis Island. There’s probably one or two in history. I think there’s a movie called Ellis Island. There’s also a movie called Gateway with Don Ameche. But they’re very subpar efforts, as opposed to the greatness of the Coppola and Kazan movies.
The Dissolve: The Immigrant scrupulously re-creates the period, but you had to pull that off within certain budgetary restrictions. How did you approach that challenge?
Gray: Like a general going to war. That’s really the only answer I can give you. You have to plot it out very carefully and know there will be curveballs along the way. But it’s not a pleasant experience. If I had $5 or $6 million more, I would have been really in good shape, but I didn’t, and I’m lucky enough to have gotten the film made. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, certainly, but it’s hard to get this kind of film made in the current environment. You have to just anticipate. You get maybe three or four takes per scene, per shot, and you have to try and anticipate what’s going to be in the film. There’s very little that winds up on the cutting-room floor in such a scenario. You have very little wiggle room, and you know there won’t be any reshoots. All these things that make making a film difficult—but, you know, what the heck? That’s part of the magic, right? You’ve got to to for it, you’ve got to go for the challenge.
The Dissolve: So it was really more about time than about wanting do more things with the period, or wanting more locations?
Gray: Of course we would have wanted that. Of course I would have wanted more exteriors of Marion [Cotillard] walking around lower Manhattan and all that, and to go into other areas of the city. But you can’t. It’s not of any value to just wish something could happen. You can say, “I wish I had $20 million to make the movie,” but you don’t, so you just deal with it, and you make the film with the restrictions you’ve got. In a certain way, it’s not such a bad thing, because art is often created in a context that involves restrictions and discipline. Sometimes it falls apart when it doesn’t have that discipline. Who knows? Maybe the movie wouldn’t be good, or as good, or interesting, or as interesting, if it were made on a bigger budget. Or maybe it would be better. Who knows? You don’t know. That’s a reality I don’t want to contemplate, because it’s not there for me, in front of me. It’s not worth thinking about, because it’s so impossible.
The Dissolve: One of the things that maybe worked in your favor is that the world of the film is so cloistered, and having so few locations gives it that sense of suffocation. There’s an intimacy to the film that something more expansive would have lost you.
Gray: That is certainly the case, but what happens there is, you realize what you have to do, so I focused on that intentionally, because I know that was the case. I knew I had a restricted budget, and that I was going to get into an issue with bigger expanses. I had to play the hand I was dealt, and that’s sort of what happened. The film became very much a product of that restriction. It does no good to try and force the film into the vision you originally had when you were doing it on the page. Who cares about that? What matters is if you can take the film that’s in front of you and maximize its forced potential. That’s really what we tried to do. We were very conscious of that, by the way, and very conscious that it would feed into [Ewa’s] point of view. She sees the world very dimly, and she sees only this aspect of the world, so we would shoot it from her point of view, and then maybe this restricted quality, as you put it, would help us. Certainly we thought about that.
The Dissolve: One of the really striking aspects of the film is that you have this lead character who has absolutely no power or leverage in her situation, but she keeps asserting herself anyway. She isn’t given to passive self-sacrifice. How did you conceive of that character? Was she influenced by anyone in particular?
Gray: What we didn’t want to do was make a film in which someone was just a saintly figure who just walks through and sacrifices herself, and feels sorry for herself. What we were really focused on was to try and do a portrait of someone who was going to do what it took to survive, in a quiet way. She’s not like Joaquin, who is also trying to survive: The difference is Joaquin says it, and she’s much less flamboyant about it, but that’s the same thing, right? It’s the same idea. For example, the woman in the cell says, “Isn’t it terrible how they treat us here? Like we’re nothing” and she says, “I’m not nothing,” almost rudely. She won’t succumb to that. All of that comes from a place of trying to feature a character who is not self-pitying or a martyr or something like that, because dramatically, it’s not particularly interesting.
The Dissolve: The moment that really struck me is when she just comes out and says, “I hate you” to Bruno. In her situation, that seems completely against her interests.
Gray: That’s right, exactly. Not only that, but I myself have always wondered and worried about what she did on the boat. I don’t think it’s so ironclad. She’s pulling out a weapon every five seconds, and she lies to the doctors. She gets to the island and she says to her sister, “No, no, don’t cough. Don’t do anything.” [Her sister] has tuberculosis and [Ewa] knows it, but she’s trying to cheat the system. The sister is sick. She knows she’s done wrong, which is why the confession scene is all about her saying, “Maybe I do go to hell.” That part of her deserves it. Then she says, “Is it a sin to try and survive?” This is all born from the fact that I always thought my grandparents had a tremendous will, even in the face of some disaster.
The Dissolve: What did you ask of your actors going into this film? What sort of research did you want them to do before shooting?
Gray: That’s none of my business when I talk to them. The way I always operate is, it’s up to me to do all of the research, and it’s up to me to tell them when they’re doing something wrong. I want them to play themselves, I want them to reveal part of themselves—their attitudes, their behavior, their emotions. I don’t care about the thread count on the suits for them. In other words, I care about it, I research it, but that’s my business, not theirs. Their business is to focus on being themselves, and revealing part of themselves, and being emotionally attuned to who that person is. I’m sure Joaquin and she did—in fact, I know they both did—a lot of research, but I don’t really care about that for them. I’m there to help them with that stuff if they need it. I became sort of a quasi-expert on the period, but I don’t think it’s up to them to become so, too. I don’t want it getting in the way of the honesty of the moment. I don’t want them to worry about if they would hold a fork a different way. They can’t think about that. If they did, the performance would be ruined.
The Dissolve: Have you had to learn a little bit about how to direct actors or talk to actors? Has that changed since you started?
Gray: I don’t know. I think I’m pretty bad at it, talking to actors. I don’t think I know how to do it, really. I think I’m pretty good at casting, and I think I’m pretty good at making actors feel free, in the moment, to do what they need to do. But I’m not good at helping them or talking to them. I don’t really know their language. I find them very mysterious and interesting people. To the degree that my style with them has changed, I don’t know if I could say it’s out of a maturity or intelligence. I think it’s more or less out of just struggling to do my best to communicate with people whose language is very different from my own.