Interview: Tea Time with James Gray
James Gray’s The Immigrant, a period drama starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, opens theatrically May 16. Last October, shortly after the film screened in the 51st New York Film Festival, FILM COMMENT’s Margaret Barton-Fumo sat down for an hour-long rap session with Gray at the Trump International off Central Park. (Gray will take part in a discussion and Q&A this Wednesday at 7pm, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center—where The Immigrant will begin a run next week.)
James Gray: [Scanning the menu] Chocolate donut, sugar donut… This is really expanding my midriff. [Addresses the waiter] I haven’t the slightest idea, what’s a triple chocolate donut?[Waiter responds: “It’s kind of like a cake donut, so it’s chocolate cake that’s covered in chocolate, with chocolate stripes. It’s very delicious, but you need a glass of milk to brave it.”]
JG: That sounds terrible for you, I’m not doing that! I’ll have a corn muffin.
FILM COMMENT: Tell me a little bit about suspense. I watched Two Lovers  again recently and I noticed how even in that film you included a very suspenseful, tense scene: Joaquin Phoenix is hiding behind Gwyneth Paltrow’s door and she’s talking to Elias Koteas…
JG: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I had written that and then thought I shouldn’t shoot it, thinking it was too farfetched or like something out of a Hitchcock movie. But then Joaquin said: “No, don’t take that out, because I did that! Two months ago I did that.” I asked him what he was talking about and he said: “I hid behind the door and there was a girl with this guy…” So we kept it in, more or less. I’m a fan of Hitchcock.
It’s similar to the scene in The Yards  where Mark Wahlberg has been ordered to kill the policeman who just awoke out of a coma. He’s on the run and he’s hiding behind the hospital curtain…
Which is one of my favorite things that I’ve done. It’s also the slowest. It takes its time.
You’re very good at crafting tension at the right time and the right moment.
A lot of people don’t agree with you. A lot of people think my films are very boring. I think I know the origin of my obsession with that kind of thing. On 59th Street right near the bridge was a theater that’s still there that was called the D.W. Griffith. I want to say it was in 1983 or ’84 when a whole series of Hitchcock movies became available after not being seen for something like two decades. There were five of them: Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Trouble with Harry. The first one they screened was Rear Window, which I loved, which had been out of circulation for some time because I believe he made it for Paramount but the rights somehow went to Universal. [Slows down and pauses dramatically] I saw Rear Window. That movie is incredible. There’s that moment, if you know the film, where she’s watching Jimmy Stewart in the apartment across the courtyard and then you see Raymond Burr and you’re like “Get out of the apartment, aahhh!” and you want to tear your hair out.
There’s a lot of voyeurism in your films too.
Maybe that was a big moment for me. I didn’t really think about it before. I think, and you may argue with me on this and many people do, but I think The Man Who Knew Too Much is a masterpiece—the remake. It’s an incredible movie and I know you’re going to think I’m a moron but I’m gonna make a pronouncement, are you ready? [Another dramatic pause] Doris Day is incredible in that film. There’s a scene where Jimmy Stewart has to tell her that Hank has been kidnapped and he’s not telling her. She’s like [in Doris Day voice] “Where’s Hank?” [now as Jimmy Stewart] “Oh aahh I’ll tell you about Hank.” And there’s this case that he has, he opens it up, and there’s a hypodermic needle and he takes a sedative. He gives her a pill, and he says “Just take it,” and she says “What’s that?” and she’s wonderful. Her reaction is incredible. I love that film.
I like that film too. Surely she’s better than Grace Kelly.
Better than Grace Kelly? I love Grace Kelly. I’ve got no problems with Grace Kelly.
My controversial Hitchcock opinion is that I love Torn Curtain.
Torn Curtain has brilliant shit in it but I probably haven’t seen it in about 30 years. So I should go back and check it out because I remember it having incredible stuff in it. My controversial one is that I hate The Birds. It’s terrible.
I don’t hate it but I don’t—
I can’t sit through it! The incredible setpiece with the crows landing and the kids singing on the jungle gym—it has things that are great in it. But to sit through it, that’s painful.
The terrible psychology in it.
You know what it is? It’s where the subtext became the text. And I don’t have an interest in it. It just drives me crazy.
A lot of critics and film theorists love it.
They love it. It’s a little obvious.
Some high-minded people tend to like it.
So maybe I’m missing something. I think it’s too obvious.
They like Marnie too.
I know, I can’t go with Marnie! People I love and respect love Marnie so I feel like I’m an idiot. It feels really awkward to me. It feels stiff…
After Psycho, his films kind of lose their sheen and beauty.
I really like Frenzy though.
I know, I like Frenzy, but again I haven’t seen it for about 30 years. I remember the finger-breaking scene.
It’s an edgy one.
He was a big deal to me. I don’t think I’d ever seen movies like that before. Jaws was big for me when I was a kid, which has a measure of that kind of suspense, but I don’t think there was anything that would have prepared me for Hitchcock. I’m big on Apocalypse Now, but that’s not really a movie of suspense except for the tiger, which is an incredible moment. So Hitchcock was a big deal. That’s the only way I can say it.
Which reminds me of another thing that you do…
I would rather you did that than for me have to figure it out myself.
You’re good at teasing out character development by selectively withholding information, sometimes from the characters and sometimes from us. Which leads me to a question I’d like to ask you about The Immigrant: why did you hold out for so long to reveal Marion Cotillard’s experience on the ship? We keep wondering what really happened—to the point where the anticlimactic becomes climactic. Is that why you didn’t film any scenes on the boat?
Someone asked me about that at the press conference, and as is always the case, I thought of the correct answer two hours later: that movie’s already been made by Kazan, the exact movie. Why did I withhold the information? There are many reasons. I guess I saw that confession scene in a way as the center of the movie, not time wise but the dramatic center. It’s at that moment when the codependent relationship between Marion and Joaquin is cemented in a very tragic way. I needed him to overhear it and I didn’t want him to know it immediately—it’s actually more about her because she obviously has that knowledge throughout.
Almost surprisingly so, it reinforces her innocence.
By the way, you’re the first person to ask me that. I’ve gotten about 50,000 questions about this movie and you’re the first person to notice that. It does, but at the same time I ask myself, did she not do more than that? Did she trade sexual favors for food? Did she lie to the priest? I don’t know, in a way for me the point was not relevant. It wasn’t important because what I was trying to communicate at least was the idea that she’s beating herself up terribly, but what’s wrong with trying to survive? Is it such a sin? The church would regard it terribly… That’s such a good question. Because I remember thinking dramatically we needed to learn it later rather than sooner.
There’s a mystery to each one of the three main characters: there’s the dichotomy of the two guys where you don’t know how bad Joaquin’s character is or how good Jeremy Renner’s is, and your perspective changes up until the end of the film. None of them are definitively anything.
Isn’t that part of what drama should be?
It’s important to me to hopefully promote a complex worldview in which people are neither good nor bad. I may be a jerk to person A and never to person B, but our perception of the other person is always our own. You’re different with me than you are with your family or whatever, so this idea of, is the character good or bad, I’m the overlord and this is my judgment on the person… We should not make judgments about anybody and that’s the whole point of it, to leave an eternal mystery at the heart of everybody. See, even with Joaquin Phoenix who plays a really terrible person—I wanted even his character to have an ambiguity. In a certain sense he’s only struggling to survive with such self-loathing. You know the entire picture was engineered so the last scene would not explain or justify, but to make sense of everything that had come before. Someone so filled with self-hate, who’s acting all the time—everything’s a manipulation and at the core of it is this mystery that we’re talking about. It’s an essential part of this complex worldview. To me that’s everything.
The other thing is that the struggle can never only be external. External struggle in movies is interesting but it’s a surface tension. It’s like, “I gotta go pick up the disc,” that’s my struggle, I’ve gotta go get the disc and how do I climb up here, that’s an external struggle. The internal struggle is, if I get the disc I may kill that person while saving that person and it’s screwing me up inside.
Joaquin’s character is pimping out women to survive and doing a number of unsavory things. I know this is a shortcut but: by the end of the film in a sense he ends up being prostituted by her. She really uses him up, you know?
That’s the idea of a codependent relationship, isn’t it? In a perverse way she has a power over him and she must know it.
Someone at the New York Film Festival press screening asked you why you have a female protagonist, and for me, I felt it had to be one in order to emphasize, to show completely, the experience of being exploited in order to survive. It’s a gross metaphor but I think it’s fitting that the film is about a woman.
Interesting. I would say that’s accurate. When did you see the film, if you don’t mind my asking?
At the press screening for the New York Film Festival.
I wish that you had seen it at Alice Tully Hall. That was the greatest screening room I’d ever seen in my life.
This was at the Walter Reade.
You don’t understand. Alice Tully—I’d never had a film play at the New York Film Festival before and let me tell you, they know how to run a festival. I’ve had to screen it several places now and I’m always like this [mimes nervous nail biting]. The other night at Alice Tully, I was like: if you’re gonna like or hate this movie, I’ve got no more excuses, this is the way you should see it!
I’m looking forward to seeing it again, now that I know what happens.
It’s true; you have to get past what happens.
The nervous parts.
It’s weird—why is that? I always find that too. You have to get past the story.
[Corn muffin break.]
I read that you were going to direct a biopic about Miles Davis at some point?
Yeah, I had been very interested in it, but it’s such a complicated undertaking, and the truth of the matter is that I felt uncomfortable being a white Jewish guy making a movie about a person who had to deal with the brutal effects of bigotry. I also thought the script was never quite there. In a way I couldn’t solve it, because in one way or another all good biopics are love stories and I couldn’t find the love there. I’m a huge jazz fan. Jazz, blues…
Do you like Clint Eastwood’s Bird?
I haven’t seen it in a long time, but when I first saw it I was extremely impressed. I think it’s really good and I think it’s very bold. I didn’t expect that kind of movie from Clint Eastwood, I don’t know why. I mean, now it seems like a no-brainer to come from him, but this was, what, ’86 or something? Especially now given the fact that Clint Eastwood has sort of taken his place as an American auteur, and it wasn’t always thus. Pauline Kael had pretty much ripped him a new ass when he did Dirty Harry, for being a fascist movie—which it is—and his critical reputation took a long time to recover from that. Though sometimes he makes very liberal movies, I think like by accident.
Speaking of music, that becomes more important as I get older. I have a sort of running commentary with my friend about drummers. Believe it or not, I’m extremely partial to Ringo Starr and I think he’s a genius. I’ll tell you why: if you isolate Ringo’s drumming, you’ll always know it’s him. The fills are incredible. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing, but he’s always perfect for the song.
There’s decision-making behind it—how well he holds the band together, and the decisions he makes in his drumming. What he chooses not to play is important, too.
Exactly. Listen, when the Beatles did that Anthology thing in the mid-Nineties they had a Decca sessions recording of “Love Me Do” with Pete Best on it [scrunches up his face] and you listen to “A Day in the Life”… [Surveys the room and whispers] What Ringo Starr is playing on that song is incredible. And you’re like, what is he doing? It’s so compositional. And of course I used to love Bonzo, who I still love, but he doesn’t swing. It’s interesting, I was talking to a drummer who’s a big Ringo fan, and he was saying the feel is like off the charts. Most drummers hit the high hat [starts to play an imaginary drum kit] but Ringo Starr goes like this [swipes his arm]—he swipes at it, so it sort of swings. Tell me if I’m boring you.
No, I love it! Did you see the Ginger Baker documentary [Beware of Mr. Baker]? He talks about swing in it, how certain drummers don’t have it and how necessary it is to have.
Well, that’s everything, isn’t it? Let me think of who doesn’t have the swing. Does he talk about that?
Oh, yeah he’s a character, a total wildcard. He’s like the Klaus Kinski of rock music. He trashes Bonzo.
Because of the swing thing?
Ginger Baker is one of those learned drummers like Charlie Watts who come from a strict jazz background, and I think he looks down on John Bonham as untrained and animalistic.
That’s not totally true. If you listen to “The Rain Song,” Bonzo’s drumming on it is very accomplished. Jimmy Page gave it that ridiculous Jamaican sound at the beginning, and he’s recording his drums inside a huge echoing space—that’s a very Bonzo kind of thing. He also hit very hard. I’m not too familiar with Ginger Baker’s drumming, but I feel somewhat emboldened by the fact that I was talking about swing and that’s what he talks about. It’s hard to describe because swing is a very elusive quality. Can you teach swing?
I think [Baker] needed the heroin and the drugs to counteract with the learning and the muscle memory.
By the way, there’s another great Ringo Starr thing: his drumming on the song “Rain” is incredible. Try to listen to the drumming on “Strawberry Fields Forever”—it’s ridiculous. [Whispers again conspiratorially] And I also think Paul is an incredible bass player, totally musical.
The thing about Paul is that he was the one in the band who was open to more far-out music.
Oh, yeah, you’re right, he was the avant-garde guy.
Paul championed Albert Ayler.
That’s right, and Stockhausen.
He was into the weird stuff, more so than John.
I know, it’s amazing to think that. They were all sort of arty-farty. They all went to art school in Liverpool, which is amazing to think about how they really were obscure in some respect. Just look at the cover of Sgt. Pepper, oh my god! Lenny Bruce and all of these sort of arty icons are on it. Anyway I don’t want to go on about it. I could talk about music forever!
Please, go on.
I came to Ringo Starr late in life. If you try to listen to the Beatles song “She Said She Said” from Revolver… The greatest popular rock music record ever. Revolver is upsetting: from “Taxman” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” it’s like everything on that record—what would the movie equivalent to that be? What’s a movie where there’s nothing wrong with it from beginning to end? Revolver covers a huge range, I don’t even know what that would be! I don’t know, what are they saying the greatest movie of all time is now, Vertigo?
It bumped off Citizen Kane (from the Sight & Sound poll).
Which I love, by the way. I think Vertigo’s incredible. But Vertigo’s not Revolver. Vertigo is very consistent in what it’s doing, it’s not all over the place.
Now, I will not accept from you any discussion that tries to equate the Beatles with the Stones. I love the Rolling Stones but they’re not the Beatles.
It’s kind of dumb how they’re considered the two pinnacles of rock.
Did you know there’s a book that just came out, Beatles or Stones?
It’s such a tired argument.
You can’t have the Stones without the Beatles, you can’t imagine that… I’m talking bullshit, I’m sorry. I love music.
Did you go to film school?
Yes, I started off studying filmmaking, but I quickly switched over to film studies.
So you studied film theory? Is that like Jacques Lacan?
Not as an undergrad, but I had to learn all of that in graduate school.
That’s interesting because I found film theory both liberating and terrifying. It’s incredible if you’re writing about cinema. It’s horrible if you have to create it, because it says you’re meaningless in the process as a creative person.
Or you’re everything.
Or you’re everything. You have to learn from it and then forget it. But as a tool for writing about movies, it’s incredible. And actually as a tool for seeing the world, it’s incredible. One of the true breakthroughs in thinking—it’s been a long time, but I remember they made us read something in school by Louis Althusser. One of the weirdest guys of all time, literally a murderer!
The apparatus guy.
The ideological apparatus of the state: ISA! He talked about how we are all empty vessels through which a series of cultural and ideological forces basically flow. And the argument is incredibly cogent and reasoned. You read it and it’s almost unmistakably correct but at the same time completely depressing, very harmful to the cause of creation.
Don’t even go near the Frankfurt School then. They’re all a bunch of downers. Adorno, Benjamin—he’s a fun one.
You know his fate? That’s an incredible story. Also I should tell you this is probably the first time I’ve talked about Walter Benjamin in probably 20 years. I had to read Walter Benjamin, also Dwight MacDonald was a big one in college, Baudrillard. I remember the first book they had us read in film school was John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, that key text. Wasn’t there this whole thing about Magritte in it? It must have been around 1988 when I read it, I don’t remember these things. But it rocked my world. I was like 19 years old!
You attended film school in California, am I right?
You know what happened, I got a scholarship for USC but I didn’t want to go. I made a huge mistake—the result of being a moron. I thought that Francis Ford Coppola, who was my hero, had gone to USC, when he actually went to UCLA. But I wanted to be like “that kind of guy” and USC gave me the money, so I went there and set up shop. But I always wanted to move back. But New York has changed, it’s just going to be a place for zillionaires. They pushed me out, I don’t live here anymore.
Are you blind? I’m blind.
Yes! How did you know that? Did you just guess?
I guessed. I wanted to look for a kindred spirit because my eyes are such shit. I’m now at the edge because I’m getting old, and it’s like my nearsightedness is counteracting my farsightedness. This is what happens when you reach 40. The distance you are across from me, you’re at the edge. I can see you with glasses or without.
I have to go to a contact-lens specialist and have them shipped out from Colorado. It’s awful. My glasses are like—