ByJack Giroux, writer at
Jack Giroux

In the span of 20 years, writer-director James Gray has directed a total of five films. A movie every four years ain't bad, but when you take into account the quality of Gray's films, it's a shame we don't see more features from him. Then again, maybe that's a part of his appeal: we don't see him churning movies out one-by-one.

Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers, and his latest film, [The Immigrant](movie:356599), are old-fashioned, and often subversive, dramas. The Immigrant isn't the period piece one would expect based on the plot synopsis: a polish woman, Ewa (Marion Cotillard), comes to the United States with her sister to start a new life. For a number of reasons, she ends up working as a prostitute, to survive. Most screenwriters would've made her forced into the business, but Gray writes Ewa as a survivor, a character that isn't naive, will steal if she has to, and, if need be, manipulate those around her.

Unfortunately we didn't touch on the film too much with Mr. Gray. We didn't even discuss the film's fantastic final shot. What the filmmaker was kind enough to discuss with us was the business of filmmaking, the longevity of truly great films, and more:

The first cuts of The Yards and Little Odessa had point-of-view problems. Since going through that experience, has that impacted the way you write?

James Gray: Well, let me gently correct you a little, because Little Odessa didn't have point-of-view problems. The first cut of that film was just a disaster. The Yards did have a point-of-view problem. What it was I was following multiple point-of-views. The film was about this situation that happened in the yards, then the effect it had on all the characters. That just didn't work. What I found was centering it on one person was much, much better and more direct. To answer your question, I believe that, yes, it seriously altered how I write. The point-of-view thing enabled me to focus the story significantly better, making it much simpler. Simpler doesn't mean stupider. In fact, simplicity is a very beautiful thing if you can achieve it. What you're after is something that seems free flowing and easy, but is actually very difficult to achieve. The long version of my answer is that, yes, the experience on The Yards was quite a learning curve for me.

When it comes to making simplicity, is it an ongoing process, all the way up to editing?

James Gray: I certainly think so. If you were to think about a film with a complicated plot... complicated is different from complex, because complex means there are multiple ways to a view a story, multiple readings, and many different ways to view a story. Complicated means many things are happening and it's hard to understand what's going on. Very few good movies are that way, but a good example of that is Chinatown. Even in the case of Chinatown, that's not really what people remember. They don't really remember the complicated details of water, power, and all of that. What they tend to remember, of course, is the fact that John Huston is the villain who sexually abused his daughter and a mass spread corruption, and that's kind of the story. My whole point in saying this is you're really after a simple plot, not simplistic.

How was it finding the simplicity of The Immigrant?

James Gray: Simplicity is brutally difficult. I mean, I can't think of anything harder. What you're trying to do is boil it, if you're a cook, it's fairly easy to use a lot of different seasonings and have it taste okay, but it's actually quite difficult to make something with very few ingredients taste great. When you go into your refrigerator and make a meal only with what you got and it's great, that's difficult. I'd say that's a perfect analogy. What you got here is a situation...well, I think you understand what I'm saying. A simple plot allows you to focus on subtext and character, and that's what's really important to a film, at least to me, anyway. I know other people have different demands, but that's how I see it.

I think others do as well. You've discussed the importance of having an internal and external conflict with a film, and, going back to Chinatown, more people focus on that internal struggle.

James Gray: Oh, absolutely. I'm living in terror, by the way, you're going to quote me saying another really dumb thing that I've said. One of the things that's horrifying about interviews is that people misquote you, but much more common than misquoting is your quoted correctly, and that's much more horrifying. You usually catch yourself saying the stupidest thing. I'll hear, "Ah, isn't it terrible you were misquoted?" I'll say, "No, no, my problem is I'm quoted correctly." Anyway, when you ask someone about the story of The Godfather, there's the story of wanting to sell drugs and all that, but who cares? The story is father and son and the mafia. That's the way I think people see movies.

Do you think people who are interested in subtext is the norm or a rarity?

James Gray: Very good question. (Pauses) I'm trying to figure out if that's the case. It's hard to know with an audience. I don't think short-term people like having that discussion [with a film], but I think long-term is what matters. Short-term matters for an easily digestible idea. I mean, Captain America immediately tells you what that is. Captain America can be made brilliantly well. There's only something wrong with that kind of movie if there's no heart or soul in it. When people say "heart" and "soul", they really mean subtext, where you can feel the filmmaker's voice. I think, in the long-term, that's what matters.

The Immigrant has a story that reveals itself over the course of the narrative. I think that kind of storytelling usually sticks with you, where you didn't get what you saw at first glance.

James Gray: I certainly hope so. There are really two kinds of stories you can tell: where the arc is extreme or where the arc is nonexistent. In other words, you can have a character who begins where he ends. An example would be Martin Scorsese's After Hours, which literally begins where the character ends. You also don't get the sense that character has changed much. Usually dramatic movement is better. If you're somewhere else at the end, that might be a sign of really good storytelling. (Pauses) Or not, because there's really no rules.

When do you know the dramatic movement works? Is it based on an audience's reaction or your own?

James Gray: I don't think you've really got a handle on what you got until you put it in front of an audience, but I don't think you've got a handle on what you got even after you've screened it for an audience. There is kind of a herd mentality going on, a kind of groupthink. Audiences can be wrong. Audiences can celebrate movies that really don't last. I think the only thing that tells you if you were right or wrong is if the movie lasts 10 years after it's been made.

Francis Ford Coppola has said you should judge a movie 10 years after it's come out, because that's when you really know its quality.

James Gray: Francis would know. I mean, Apocalypse Now was not heralded. Some people thought it had great sequences, but the response to the film was very mixed. It's hard to look at that film now and think it's not a masterpiece. Apocalypse Now is a great film. Where were the people proclaiming its greatness in 1979? They weren't really around. The movie that won best picture that year was Kramer vs. Kramer, and it's hard to see the competition...well, there shouldn't be competition between works of art, but that's what the oscars are. I don't think people talk about Kramer vs. Kramer very much. People certainly talk about Apocalypse Now.

How do you look back on your own films? Does your perception of them later on ever differ from how you envisioned them?

James Gray: It's hard for me to answer that, because I don't actually watch the movies after I've made them. I stayed for about five minutes for a screening of Little Odessa, where I had to do a Q & A. I watched five minutes of it and I was so disgusted by my work that I left, and that was about four years ago. I don't know what I would think of it now. I would probably be embarrassed.

When are you done with a film? Is it once it's completed or do you keep on thinking about what could've been different?

James Gray: I'm done with a film when I have no more money and they take it away from me. If it were up to me, I would work on a film for the rest of my life. I can't imagine a scenario where I wouldn't be slaving away on a movie if they gave me the time. There's always something you can rethink, make better, make clearer, make scarier, and make funnier. There's never a shortage of things you could tweak. There's never a shortage of ideas, at least for me. They say the art is abandoned, that it's never finished. I think there's a truth in that, because if I was given more time, I would always tinker with it more.

You're still a quality over quantity filmmaker. Is all that tweaking why we don't see a film from you every two or three years?

James Gray: Making the film is hard. Getting the film made is very hard. I do take my time with the script. I don't think writing an original piece of material is particularly easy, at least it isn't for me. It takes me about, I'd say, six months to knock the story out, but I think it's mostly about raising the money and getting the actors. That's what takes the most time. It's a difficult struggle.

You present worlds, like prostitution, in this case, or the New York Transit business in The Yards, without much glamorization. Do you think because you're not making glossier pictures that's what makes financing difficult?

James Gray: I think what makes financing difficult is if the movies are hits or not. I mean, We Own the Night made people money. There's only one movie I've mine where I lost money for the investors, which was The Yards. I've made money for everybody else, so that's the good news in all this. I don't think it's just about making money. You have to make people a lot of money, because it doesn't really pay to have people making eight million dollars when they could be making 500 million dollars.

I think it's very simply a dollar and cents thing. I think what you're talking about, frankly, is on a much higher level than than what most financial people are thinking about. For them, it's really dollars and cents, not the unconventionality of an approach or anything like that. By the way, one may follow the other, meaning, if you take an unconventional approach to something, it might mean the film is likely to be less financially successful. That might be true, but I'm also not sure if that's the case either.

I think a lot of the movie business has to do with luck, and that's not a pleasant or comfortable thing to admit. A lot of times it's timing, luck, and being in the right place at the right time, which we don't really have control over.

Why do you think We Own the Night wasn't embraced more warmly?

James Gray: It's like I said, sometimes you're the beneficiary of timing, but sometimes you get hurt by it. In the case of that film, I had to get domestic distribution for it, so it played at Cannes. which really wasn't the right place for that film to premiere. That's a genre film, and those pictures generally don't play well at that festival. They're usually looking for a more openly subversive or obviously subversive type of cinema, not a narratively based one. It played at the festival, which kind of set things off critically on the wrong foot.
The other thing is, I don't think people are interested in what you might call "subtext". I think people are generally interested in the surface of the film and what they're seeing, but that's always been the case, even with some of the greatest films.
If you looked at something like Vertigo, that was not hailed as a masterpiece until quite later, because people saw the genre the elements and said, "Oh, Hitch blows it this time. It's one of those crime movies he makes that doesn't quite work this time." I can understand why they would think that, because it's really a difficult film to gather on first viewing. It's a really personal film. It's one of the greatest films of all time, so if that's the case with that movie, you can only imagine how it'd be for a film not on that level.
It's not only the fault of the audience. A director's job is to communicate to the audience, but it's just that we don't know or have the answer for what will and won't connect to an audience at that moment. There are very few filmmakers who have found their moment. You know, people like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron have a remarkable track record of commerciality, while still doing what for them is personal material. That's really impressive. It does happen, but it's rare.

How much do you have to consider the business side of filmmaking?

James Gray: I think about it all the time as I make the film. You don't want to make a film that nobody sees or cares about, because that's very painful. You also want it to make money, so that you can keep making movies. I certainly think about it, but it doesn't change what I'm doing creatively. I definitely try to tailor the budget and the cast to what I think would be safely profitable for the people who put up the money. You have to keep that in mind.

Could you ever direct a film as a pure work-for-hire job or does it always have to be personal?

James Gray: You know, I went to a very good High School with a number of extraordinarily intelligent people. I saw some of them go to Wall Street and become very wealthy and successful people. I think if it was my ambition to become wealthy, I would've just gone and done that. I don't really have any interest in doing something that I don't care about. What's the movie going to be like if you don't care about it? It's years of your life, but you're also not being honest with the people giving you that money. You're trying to make the best film you can, so you don't just take a paycheck. I have many flaws, but I don't think being a hack is one of them. I hope that stays the case. I mean, you never know, because fate could intervene. Some catastrophe could force me to do that. I certainly hope that's not the case. I've certainly struggled long enough to build a filmography that speaks for itself. We'll see what happens.

Some people think that there is no mass audience interested in period pieces. Do you think there is a marketplace for films like The Immigrant?

James Gray: I think that there is an audience. It's a complex situation, because you're really talking about is: is the audience going to the movies or staying at home watching television? There are huge numbers of very intelligent American audience members who have gotten out of the habit of going to the cinema. Some of them are just staying home and watching the quality drama that's on television. With television, there's a different narrative strategy going on, and one I prefer slightly less to cinema.
Cinema has mostly become the domain of nine-year-old boys, and that's why you see what you see. That might change, because the demographic of the country is changing. Is there an audience for a period movie? Well, if there isn't one now, there certainly will be pretty soon. I think there's always an audience for any kind of movie. I mean, they didn't want to make The Great Gatsby. They were all worried about that being a period piece, but they made it and it was a big hit. You never know. The good thing about the movie business is that it'll always throw you a big curveball.

Before I let you go, as a big fan of your commentary with Steven Soderbergh for The Yards, I just want to say I hope you two do another one together in the future.

James Gray: [Laughs] I don't know if Steven is doing them anymore. Well, maybe I'll ask him to do one for The Immigrant, but I don't think he's doing them anymore. I think the poor guy has retired from them. I don't blame him. He's done about a billion of them, but I love how he does them. They're almost like questions and answers. They're great.

The Immigrant is now in limited release.


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