The Immigrant: James Gray on Being Beloved By the French

The Immigrant Marion Cotillard Joaquin Phoenix James Gray

Director James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night, The Yards) is a very patient filmmaker. There is a lot of lore about him – the wunderkid who, at 25, won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his first film, 1994’s Little Odessa – but he’s only made five films in the past 20 years.

His most recent, The Immigrant, stars Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant who’s coming to America; Joaquin Phoenix as the “theater” promoter (read: pimp on the side), who offers her a cot when her own family turns her away; and Jeremy Renner as a magician who performs at Ellis Island and is instantly smitten; moreso when he learns that Phoenix, his cousin, is also.

It’s good that Gray is patient. The Immigrant debuted at Cannes – last year – and, despite critical laurels, is only now landing in very select theaters (four) and your living room, via video on demand. We recently chatted with him about the wait, the misconception that he is one of France’s most adored filmmakers, his familial influence on the story and – despite being a critic’s darling – the disservice that film criticism can have. 

As expected, an interview with Gray – who is a connoisseur of cinema from yesteryears – provides some extra home-viewing homework (shoutout to Greta Garbo!). But, while you can also view The Immigrant from home, we’d very much recommend you seek it out if it is playing in your city this weekend. There are amazing performances and, per these eyes, one of the best single camera shots we’ll probably see this year.

CraveOnline: I adored The Immigrant, partially because the early 1920’s is close to the era that my father’s side came to America and we rarely see that experience. We love an established Roaring 20’s film, but it’s rare to see a Struggling 1920’s. Were there family ties that you were directly exploring in The Immigrant?

James Gray: There’s virtually nothing made up in The Immigrant. So much of the film came from somewhere in my family’s past. All the details are from my own family. My grandparents came over from Russia in 1923. The Cossacks beheaded my grandmother’s parents. Then they came over, they came through Ellis Island, they settled in New York. My grandmother could vividly describe the boat and the temperament of the immigration officials and a lot of details came from that; (like Marion Cotillard’s character) she too didn’t know how to peel a banana! A lot of those things made it into the movie, and in fact they even made it into the movie: my grandparents are half of the locket that Ewa (Cotillard) carries. I guess you could say that The Immigrant is a very elaborate home movie.

What made you want to make a personal period film?

I have a contrarian bone in me about family history, in that if you look at what’s out there at the movies – and some of which is very beautiful – we rarely go back. There are plenty of period films set in Europe, but few set in America… I thought that this was a way for me to examine memories of my grandparents, and explore some beautiful and dark areas of my past. It’s fascinating how personality traits, emotional states of being can be bequeathed to my father, who, in turn, has bequeathed them to me.

You mention that this type of film is not attempted much in our era. One thing that we’re getting hit with a lot lately are films that try to de-pant The American Dream, and expose that it’s an ugly myth. But I think your film gets it. The American Dream isn’t something that was once relevant but is now dead, it’s just not possible for every single person who comes here or is born here to fulfill it.

I feel that The American Dream is this fallacy that you come to the United States and win lotto. That’s a disservice to The American Dream because the American Dream is worth striving for. And it’s not easy. It’s not like you step foot on the soil of America and get a zillion dollars. In cinema The American Dream has more validity if it feels real to us. That’s what I’m trying to do with the end of the film – not to promote that The American Dream is a fiction or an absolute truth – just that it’s a possibility. And a possibility isn’t fiction.

You mention the ending – without getting spoiler-y – the framing of the final shot (a dual panel of two of the main characters going in opposite directions) is magnificent. When you wrote the script did you intend to end with that exact image?

It was planned in the script stage and was always going to be the ending. But I needed three effects shots and more than one camera to do it because – in actuality – that shot is impossible to do. The whole point of the shot was to say that they both have uncertain futures – great things could happen for her or terrible things could happen to her, and the same is true for him.

Since you asked about The American Dream, that’s what I wanted from a final image: The American Dream is something that you don’t close the book on. It continues.

I personally love when a film ends by holding onto an image. Do you have any favorite closing shots?

Oh yes, I have a lot of favorite final shots.

The ending shot of Queen Christina with Greta Garbo is amazing. She’s at the head of the ship and she’s been through so much and the camera gets so close to her face. That really sticks out for me. Another one is Paul Muni disappearing into the darkness after he says, “I steal,” in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang! Anthony Quinn crying on the beach in La Strada: absolutely magical and beautiful.

That is certainly what going to the movies is about – or certainly it was, maybe it isn’t anymore, but I think it still is – the notes you leave on. A final image can move you, certainly, but it can also fill you with a longing. We get the choice to be mysterious as filmmakers and that’s the best gift.

You mentioned a Greta Garbo silent film. The Immigrant often focuses on how Marion Cotillard uses her lips, eyes and expressions as she silently makes decisions. She’s extraordinary in the film and very silent film-era…

The intent was to make a film that felt like a throwback in a stylistic sense. The story has a lot of silent film concepts in it (vaudeville, magic, two suitors) and Marion has an expressiveness that lends itself to a silent film style – she has those big, sad eyes, and she has great beauty but it isn’t a vapid beauty. The camera is in love with people like that. It’s not often that you get an actor like Marion – with those qualities and intelligence – and when you do, you have to exploit that. When I knew she was going to be in the film, I already began framing her face.

Now that must feel like a long time ago. This film was already completed for a while and held for Cannes 2013, it’s been held for another year before release because we’re already coming on Cannes 2014. Do you feel like you’re finally being released from Ellis Island with this movie? Is it maddening how long a film of this nature can sit?

The life of a film is very strange. Once the film is done, you wish you could forget about it and move on. You can love a film, and I do, but it’s been a very strange, arduous and lengthy process [to get The Immigrant released]… It’s hard because I’ve had to force myself to move on. It’s hard enough to get films made, but it’s even harder to wait after they’re finished. Then you keep watching it and see things that you’d like to change, but you’re also not in the mindset to know if that’d make it better or worse. I’m happy that now people can see it and they can judge for themselves and I can move on.

Speaking of moving on: The Lost City of Z (a period adventure film, concerning British surveyors looking for a city in the jungles of Brazil; Z was set up to be made with Brad Pitt back in 2004) appears to be ready to film (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Pattinson). Do you have a start date?

We’ll begin filming in January. I’m going to start prepping in September. It’s a very elaborate film and requires extensive prep. We’re going to shoot in two different countries. It’s going to be a very challenging, but hopefully rewarding shoot.

You’ve been close to making Z a few times, what type of film can we expect? Has it changed in scope over the past decade?

I want to ask the same question with each film, which is: what does it mean to be a human being? The Lost City of Z is almost set on two different planets – the jungle and Victorian England. What does it mean to be a civilized person? This to me is a profound question. What is progress? Is progress just economic growth? Or is it understanding what’s around us? Is it growth of emotional intelligence or GDP growth? How do we contemplate new and old ideas of humanity? That to me is what Z is about.

Speaking of Z, that will be your first film in a long time without Joaquin Phoenix, who is gangbusters in The Immigrant. I think that Joaquin has become, maybe the best, but certainly one of the most interesting current actors.

I think I’d pinpoint that with your last film Two Lovers. Starting with that film he’s combined a certain intensity and guarded sensitivity that keeps an audience unaware of where his characters can go. With The Immigrant he really balances that and even by the end there’s a murky cloud hanging over his character…

Joaquin is unbelievably intelligent. You can never gauge what the result is going to be and I love that about him. Working with him is very different each time. That’s incredibly rewarding. Working with him has been very illuminating, he’s grown and I hope that I do, too – although I’m not sure how much I’ve grown but I can see that he has. He’s given me a great gift to work with. And I love him deeply.

Are you tired of being referenced as the American film director that France loves?

I think it’s a very tired narrative. It’s not even true. I try to bring this up with people who bring that up to me: I get waaaaay more fan letters from the US than I do from France. Even when you take into account the difference in population sizes. The reviews are very similar in each country. At Cannes last year the reviews for The Immigrant were much better from American critics than from the French critics. At a certain point you just throw up your hands because that narrative has set in.

Really what they’re talking about when they talk about being a darling of France is that I’ve had better distribution of most of the films in France. Two Lovers, for example, was released in France by a bigger company, Wild Bunch, and they did a very good job publicizing it. And it made $7 million – which for France, is equivalent to a movie coming out here and making $60-$70 million. The American distributor was Magnolia. They are very nice people and they are very sweet, and they made a decent amount of money on the film because of their VOD platform – they probably made $4 or $5 million without having to do much publicity or even distributing it in the normal way, and standard box office is still how people are determining popularity – perhaps incorrectly.

So this narrative has set in because of different means of distribution. That’s not as sexy as being called France’s favorite, or whatever, but that’s the fact.

But this job is a marathon and not a sprint. If you make films, particularly those of a personal nature, you just keep working at it. Eventually you either gather a critical mass or you don’t. Even the Coen Brothers – they were not overnight sensations: Fargo was the first film that got huge, universal acclaim, made good money and won awards. And that was (6) movies into their career.

You have to build your audience. I hate use the word “brand” but that’s what you have to do, “build your brand.” That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve not been trying to take from other people, but I am trying to establish who I am and hopefully people respond to that. I guess people have responded to that quicker in France, but I do very much feel it here and I am very pleased and very fortunate. I’m very pleased, but that narrative is a little tired…

Hopefully we’ll help put that to rest here for you…

What do you think? Maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

Well, I have no data, but I did find you via film sites that I visit that are based in New York or LA. I can’t read French but I can ask where the toilet is, so it hasn’t been through French critics. But that is a narrative that I’ve read over and over about you. But regardless of countries, it is a film world and you are well respected in that world.

Maybe it’s because I’m psychotic, but I do not feel unloved or underrated. I’m deeply grateful for anyone, anywhere that likes the work. I don’t feel underrated here.

I think that’s a very American thought, you’re either overrated or underrated. For lack of the better word, there’s less of a “gray” area. We like to have opposition, one thing versus another. Underdog vs. Top Dog.

Exactly. You’re either the champion or you’re shit. Movies aren’t a sporting event. Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, etc. it’s not productive to just give thumbs up and thumbs down and rate movies on a scale of how many burritos you’d give it out of 5.

Exactly, I recently had to give a film a “rotten” splatter but I didn’t really feel that way about the film. Using a tomato analogy, I felt that I’d cut up a tomato and I enjoyed part of it, but then the uncut part rolled off onto the floor. There’s no image to properly correlate that in the yay/nay aggregation. Rolling tomato?

In a sense, we’re disrespecting the medium. You’d never rate a painting that way [pondering]: “hmmmm, this painting gets four paintbrushes out of six possible paintbrushes,” but for some reason we’ve decided that it’s okay to do that with movies.

I agree but, after all that, I will be adding to your “fresh” count for The Immigrant.

Well, thank you very much. Talk it up like crazy. I need as much help as I can get for this damn thing.

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.