James Gray has "only" directed four films to date, but if you haven't seen them, you're missing out on the current American cinema's best-kept secret. Since his debut with Little Odessa in 1994, Gray has thrice collaborated with star Joaquin Phoenix: on The Yards, We Own the Night, and the new Two Lovers. I spoke with Gray by phone about his New York filmmaking and his collaboration with Phoenix, currently grabbing headlines with his supposed (but suspiciously stunt-like) retirement from acting.
Groucho: Hello James.
James Gray: Hello...nice to sort of meet you.
Groucho: Yes! So first of all, this film is a romantic drama, which a lot of people I think view as a moribund genre because of the story difficulties it poses. What drew you to the genre, and how conscious were you of avoiding its pitfalls?
James Gray: Well, I certainly was conscious. I mean, what you do is you find a story you're interested in telling. And then, frankly, the challenge part of it, that's a lot of what attracts me to something. I know that if everyone says to me, "You can't do it" and "It's not going to be good" and "Nobody does it anymore," that's definitely the inspiration for wanting to do it. Because, y'know, what's the expression? There's no art without risk. And in a certain way, you have to take chances. That doesn't mean that I think I'm great, or that "Oh, boy, isn't it fantastic I'm doing this or that?" I mean, taking real chances is going house to house in Basra or something. But speaking in this limited realm, it certainly was a genre that people hadn't done in a long time, and I was anxious to explore something that treated people's emotions with seriousness. Not as a joke. Not with irony. I was very conscious—of course. How could you not be conscious of the pitfalls? I mean, it's certainly—whenever somebody says, "I love you" in a movie, it's such a bold and naked statement, if it's meant seriously, that the natural temptation is to call it melodramatic, or over the top. So, yes, I was very conscious of it. And I guess that was part of what attracted me to it.
G: You also talk about how the film deals with obsessive desire. To you, is real love what Leonard pleads to Michelle and what Sandra offers to Leonard: this idea of learning or growing to love someone over the long haul, or can that not be as pure as this fire of obsessive desire?
JG: Well, I think it's an open question because I think as long as the emotion feels real to you, when you're experiencing it, then it's real. If I look, for example, at a relationship that you have, and your relationship seems somehow bogus to me, that you think you love this woman, or this man or whatever, because this person has this aspect to them that I think is superficial, well, it doesn't really matter that I think that. Because it feels real to you, so it's real. 'Cause you are the only person that matters when it's dealing with your issues. So I think that Leonard really believes what he's telling [Michelle], and I think [Sondra] believes what she tells [Leonard]. I think that that's what makes it real to them. We have the benefit, as sort of objective viewers, to know what it is that's shaping each of their desires. But they don't know that. Just as we don't, in life, know what shapes our desires. So I think that there's possibilities in everything. Of course you can learn to love someone, or love can grow. But just as surely as that is true, the fire that you discussed is also real to those people, so it's real.
G: It's said of filmmakers that they make the same film over and over again, to some degree.
JG: If you're lucky, if you're lucky.
G: This idea of getting out from under the weighty influence of parents or family is a recurrent theme for you. It's obviously a universal one. But what do you hope to say about it, or how does that resonate with your own experience?
JG: You know, it's hard to say—I don't really think that I ever started a film saying, "Well, what is it that I need to say about this?" You're quite right that there is a similiarity, obviously, that stretches across the films, but I never think about it consciously in those terms. What I think about is "What is the most accurate translation of my intimate impressions, and how do I put them in a movie?" In other words, I try not to analyze myself and then put the analysis into the movie, because I feel like that'll create a distance. What I'm trying to do is basically flesh out and depict issues and ideas and feelings in my own life and hope for some kind of universality, hope it reaches people and says something to them. To the degree to which I'm creating something and saying to myself, "Okay, what is it now that I'm going to say about this situation?", I never ever think about that. So what I'm trying to do is simply bring up these elements of my life, translate them to cinema and hopefully they'll mean things to other people when they see them. So whatever you draw from it matters more than what it is that I really thought about, because in a sense I'm a little bit of an empty vessel. I'm simply trying to pour out what it is that's inside of me onto the screen and hope that it matters to other people.
G: I take your point.
JG: The thing is I'm not trying to evade your question at all—it's a great question. It's just much less of an intellectual process, and purposely so, because what you don't want to have happen is you don't want to have that situation where your thinking is so global that you put yourself above the people in the film. I mean, I've stressed this over and over in different places. It's very important. You don't want to say you're smarter than everybody in the universe of your movie. You want there to be no distance at all. So if I viewed it from an analytical standpoint, I think it would be like I was smarter than everybody in the universe of the film, and I don't want that.
G: Yeah, that makes sense. That's sort of the actor's credo is not to judge the character.
JG: And directors, as well: it's important for us to do that too. I really think that's crucial.
G: I wanted to ask too about this notion of destiny in your work; it's something that you also talk about, that class and culture are greater determinants maybe than our own will, in a way. Was it your destiny that you become a filmmaker?
JG: Well, again I can't speak to that because I have no clarity about my own life. I have no objectivity; I can't look back on the way that I lived my life and say, "Well, this or that was supposed to happen." What I can say is that I was very lucky, in some respects. Y'know, I had access to a city, in a time when there were all these revival houses. And you could see all these old films, on the screen. And if I were born even ten or twelve years later, that wouldn't exist anymore. So in a sense we are all lucky or unlucky. We are all products of forces quite beyond our control. I mean, there's a new book out called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell; I don't know if you've read it. It's certainly interesting, and one of the things he posits—he says, "Well, there's a lot of hard work involved, but equally true is luck and timing and when you were born and what's going on in the society at large, so to the degree to which you might call that destiny, I suppose I agree.
G: I want to ask about the character at the heart of the film, this Leonard Kraditor. I love that he's not defined by a single trait or even a single trauma, though he's obviously informed by this loss in his past. Can you talk about defining that character at the script stage, how it evolved, and what Joaquin Phoenix brought to it that, even in writing it for him, you maybe didn't anticipate at first.
JG: Well, Joaquin and I talked overtly about precisely the thing you just mentioned, which is that we didn't want to have a situation in which the character could be reducible into one event, or one thing, that explained behavioral trait x or y. You know, it's called often the "rubber duckie" school of drama. Mommy took my rubber duckie from me when I was a little boy, and ever since then I'm not functioning right. You know, reducing a person into some pop psychology answer. And really the brain is much more mysterious than that. And much more complicated, and complex. So Joaquin and I talked about how he would be, to some people, almost have a hipster edge. And to others would be interminably nerdy. And I would imagine this would be problematic for some people because they say, "Well, you can't get a handle on who he is." But what Joaquin brought to it was certainly an added awareness of this complexity, and he had kept it this complexity. And we discussed it; I think we discussed it every day.
G: That's a thing he really likes to do, I understand, is to hash out the day's work that's upcoming, the scenes. What else can you tell me about his process as an actor?
JG: Well, he likes--it's a very simple process actually. It's a very arduous one, but very simple. He likes, on the weekends, to get together and talk about the characters. And the character. And the scene. Discuss the scene in depth: what it is the scene is about, what his goals are in the scene, where he is behaviorally--he likes to chart his behavior from beginning to end. The previous scene is always important to the scene he's playing. Continuity matters. And he very much likes to--he relies on his senses. He's a very intuitive actor. He enjoys improvisation, and he likes to search for what will be lightning in a bottle. He also has a lot of danger in him. You know, he thinks a lot about the character. And he tries to turn it over in his head, over and over again. Different sides to the person. You know, we always talk about "Oh, a person is like an onion, and you peel layer after layer away, and you never get to the core."
G: His stated retirement from acting: in a way, it seems that it's brought more attention and more promotion to the film than if he had promoted it normally. Would you agree that that's true?
JG: Well, it's hard to say, because on the one hand, you're right. But on the other hand, it's the kind of publicity that I'm not sure you always want. An example: I mean, David Letterman was unbelievably complementary about the film. And he seemed very sincere and actually loved it. But you wouldn't be able to really tell that from the interview because it became all about the craziness. So in some sense, yes, it got wonderful publicity, but in another sense, it was not publicity really about the film. Rather, about the stunt. Or the craziness. Everything that was going on. So it's a double-edged sword.
G: In the films you've made thus far, you're as much a New York filmmaker as Woody Allen, though your intended next film would perhaps break that cycle. Can you talk about how New York is a character in your films?
JG: Well, it's like what I said before: there's a great quote by Edward Hopper, the painter. You know, somebody said, "Are you painting paintings about loneliness?" He kind of looked at the interviewer as if to say, "What are you talking about?"..."My aim in painting," he said, "was the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature." He said, "I like painting sunlight on the side of a house." So beautiful to say. Because really that's true: what you try to bring to a movie...or any work of art, if I may use that word--is...not truth, but a truth, your truth, to it. You know, I grew up in New York. It's a major part of who I am. And I'm trying to impart the mood of New York, or a mood of New York, that matters to me. And put it in a film, because cinema is such an emotional medium. And cinema is so connected to mood and atmosphere, in a way that even theater is not. Movies are like dreams. So I'm always trying to connect with my childhood, and location and atmosphere are such important parts of that that I've tried to include that in the films. So yes, New York has become a major character in all of them so far.
G: One of the things you're known for on the set is having to chew on a towel to keep from laughing. Is there a moment that stands out from the production of this film?
JG: Oh, are you kidding? Absolutely. Joaquin's dance in the club. In fact, I was operating one of the cameras, and I had to stop, from laughing so hard that I would ruin the take. 'Cause I didn't know what he was going to do. And if you watch the scene again, and you watch Gwyneth's reaction, not him but what Gwyneth is doing, it's kind of fantastic, because it's totally authentic. She had no idea he was going to do any of that. But I have that sort of thing all the time. What I laugh at is generally moments of human behavior accurately rendered. Or moments that surprise me but that still feel genuine. That's really what the magic of making movies is.
G: And what is that rap that you did that Joaquin picked up on and asked to do in the film?
JG: Y'know, when I was a kid--this is so crazy--when I was a kid, my friends and I had--we would be silly, and my friend had a recording deck, and we would record music. And I thought I was going to make this great rap record. And I was sixteen years old at the time, and it's completely awful and totally ridiculous music. And I told that to Joaquin, and he thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard, so he wrote this absurd rap that he did in the car. Now what that has to do with what he's going through now, I have absolutely no idea, but it was certainly the case that he thought it was very funny and gravitated towards it. I mean, what we were trying to indicate character-wise was that at one point in his life, he wasn't just your standard nerd, that at one point in his life, he sort of had a kind of hip side to him, but that that's now all gone. Because of the psychological traumas that had been inflicted upon him.
G: You made a brilliant and underrated NYPD movie, We Own the Night. When you did police ridealongs to research that script and prepare for the film, what was most striking about those ridealongs?
JG: I thank you for that compliment; it's very sweet of you to say. I took one thing from it, really, one thing overall. First of all, it was very scary. I did it a couple of times, and I found it very frightening. But what I took away from it really was that heroism itself is not particularly interesting. Succeeding is not always interesting. That what was interesting about that was that sometimes surviving was its own form of heroism under what were really difficult and kind of enervating circumstances. And what the police do oftentimes is survive. Which I found interesting. It's not really about triumph. So when I made the film, what I was really trying to do in it was to say, "Well, everybody does the best they can." And sometimes that doesn't mean they succeed and they're heroes. And sometimes the thrill of vengeance is without pleasure. There is no joy in it. And also of course social class made its way into that film in a very big way. And I was trying to make a film in which a person would be redeemed in the eyes of society at large and yet, in his own life, there would be tons of regret and a feeling of loss, because there was a whole side of him that was never ever ever going to be indulged again. So you and I could watch the film and see that, and others around him would never be able to. The ridealongs really taught me about the soul of those guys. Y'know, I stole a lot of very detailed stuff from them. A lot of stuff, by the way, people said maybe it's my fault, because I didn't create a specific context for it. But a lot of people said, "Y'know, the movie is not accurate, or--" I mean, I didn't make up anything in that film. I had some people say, "Well, some of the dialogue is hokey," and then they would repeat lines to me that cops themselves said, that I wrote down in the notebook. So it's hard for me to say, because I tried to make it as accurate as possible to those ridealongs. But maybe to others it feels bogus or something, I don't know.
G: You also bring over from that film to this one Moni Moshonov, who was so great in Late Marriage as well, and now for the first time, you're working with Isabella Rossellini. Could you say something a little bit about those two and how they worked together?
JG: Well, Moni is a fantastic actor. I mean, he's sort of one of the really big stars of Israel. I had seen Late Marriage and thought it was such a beautiful film. And I thought, "Well, who is that guy? I gotta put that guy in a movie. And I wanted a very atypical kind of villain for We Own the Night, and I remembered Late Marriage. And I thought, "That guy is so interesting." And then I found out he was kind of this big star, and we had to hire this lawyer to get him into the country and everything. That was a whole mess. But I loved working with him so much that I cast him again, this time. And one of the things that I loved about him was that he's--I don't really understand his process as an actor. He doesn't seem to work very hard at it. And every line that comes out of his mouth seems utterly authentic. So when you're working with him, the language that you establish really is very basic. "Let's do it again. Do it faster." Or, you know, almost primitive: the style of direction you would give him. Isabella is such a pro. Her parents were so intimately involved in every aspect of cinema that you can be so specific about her, physically almost. You know, "Please don't close your eyes when you hug him. Try and turn your head a little this way. It looks better for the camera." And she responds to that. Other actors, the language of that is bizarre. Because they need to be motivated from an emotional place. Which is fine, too. I'm not criticizing them. But Isabella's very precision oriented, very mechanically oriented. So in that sense they were both quite similar. They also loved improvisation. You know, they were very open to me throwing curveballs at them as the camera was rolling.
G: You have an impressive magpie's collection of film touchstones in your memory. When did you develop your love of movies?
JG: Well, I would say that it's very early on. I would say I was probably around ten or eleven. I can tell you that I saw Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull. Apocalypse Now I saw August of '79. Raging Bull my brother and I saw--we sneaked into the movies and saw it in 1980. And those two pictures really shaped the way I saw movies from then on, because, y'know, before then I had seen Superman and Rocky and stuff: a very different kind of film. And they were the first movies that shook my soul a little bit, made me aware of what the director does and so forth. And then very quickly I learned about their influences, y'know, Coppola's influences and Scorsese's. And then I learned about movies through them, really. Through their movies. And I started going to revival houses around New York. I must've been about twelve or thirteen. And I saw so many pictures that way. I mean, I saw the best stuff. And this was a very wonderful period of my life, from probably around the age of twelve to the age--probably around age seventeen. And then they all started to go away; they all went out of business, those revival houses.
G: Yeah, that's happened in San Francisco, as well, slowly.
JG: Oh, is that where you are?
G: Well, I'm in San Jose, but I see most of my films in San Francisco.
JG: It's very sad, because, y'know, these movies are not made for television. They're not made to watch on your computer. They're not made to watch on a telephone. They're made to watch in a theater, the communal experience, with an audience on a big screen. That's how they're constructed. And there's something beautiful about that. And I'm afraid that's a dying tradition.
G: Well, I'm going to have to let you go in a moment, I'm sure, but lastly if you wouldn't mind teasing The Lost City of Z, this script that you're wrapping up on. Hopefully talking about it will help to conjure it.
JG: Well, it's an amazing story. The book is coming out the next week or two, I guess. But it's really something, because what it is is it's about a guy, named Percy Fawcett. He was a real person; I mean, the book is non-fiction. And he was sent down to South America in 1906 to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil, because, you know, he was English and he could go down and act as an impartial observer. And people think of the mapping of the world as a given. But it's really been mapped with any accuracy only very recently, within the last century. And there were all these areas in the Amazon which were totally unexplored. And they sent him down there to sort of mediate this border dispute over the rubber trade. And very quickly he lost interest in mapping. Although he completed his surveying duties, he became obsessed with finding a lost city, a lost civilization in the jungle, of which he thought he saw evidence. And went sort of mad in the jungle. And the story becomes quite sprawling and amazing, because he then went back to fight in World War I, where he became injured by chemical weapons. And he became obsessed with the idea also that European civilization, such as it was called, was a totally overrated idea, and that the indigenous peoples of South America and Amazonia were every bit advanced if not more so than Europe was. And he finally resolved to find this community once and for all in the jungle. And he brought his eighteen-year-old son back to the jungle, in 1925, and he disappeared. He was never seen again. But in 2003, 2004, there have been archaeologists who have now discovered materials in the jungle, and [there] is a whole new school that thinks that Fawcett was completely right, that everything he said was true. That the old thought of the human race migrating across the Bering Strait--going south through Canada and what is now North America into South America--is wrong, that there have been people there for thousands of years before that. The Indiana Jones character is sort of based on him a little bit. I mean, there's a lot of liberties they took: this is a different approach to the material, that's for sure. But it's a remarkable story, and I'm hoping I do it justice.
G: Well, it's been great talking with you. I really respond to your films, and I wish you the best of luck with this and the rest.
JG: Thank you so much.