BY ROBERT ABELE
PROTECTION: Gray says that getting final cut--if you can--is the best way to assure that a director's vision will survive.
Wherever the money comes from, and whatever one’s style is, says director James Gray, the label “independent” is “a state of mind.” Over five intimate, classically-realized features in 20 years, the New York-born filmmaker has evoked the burnished, character-driven cinema of the 1970s, now seemingly long past and of diminishing interest in today’s Hollywood. But if the indie world typically tempts him with creative autonomy, studio films offer the larger canvas that is just as attractive to a director like Gray, whose crime sagas The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007), and the upcoming period drama The Immigrant, swell with epic ambitions. Gray never anticipated being an “independent filmmaker” his whole life. The goal, he says, was always to maintain a personal integrity.
“To the extent that independent means you’re willing to attempt to put your own ideas, personality, and commitment to the material on screen, then of course I hope I’m independent until the day I die,” says Gray. He’s had final cut on his last two films, and for him, it’s less a weapon to be dictatorial with—“there’s always a discussion” on improving a film—but rather the surest way to assure his vision for a film survives. “It’s been my experience that it’s the only way people respect your decisions. If you can get it, it’s everything.”
Whether unearthing the dark side of clans or digging into the moral quandaries of those who straddle right and wrong, Gray isn’t afraid to buck postmodern movie style with long takes, plush cinematography, and measured storytelling, steeped in the trajectories of Shakespeare and Greek drama. “I’ve been resistant to move past storytelling,” says Gray, a Queens native who sowed the seeds of his movie love haunting New York’s revival houses. “I think storytelling is a thing of beauty, and also very difficult. It’s a craft you have to continue to work at.”
On set, any opportunity to add subtext—a lighting choice or a way of framing—is ever present in Gray’s mind. On Two Lovers (2008), while shooting a scene in which Joaquin Phoenix’s bipolar romantic corners Gwyneth Paltrow in a darkened rooftop gazebo, Gray noticed a way to bring the surrounding city into the shot through the gazebo window, then gradually remove it as the camera closes in on the pair. “We put the camera up high, with Joaquin’s back to us, and it’s a slow push-in,” says Gray. “The idea of the scene is that he’s expressing himself emotionally but the world doesn’t necessarily care about what he has to say or feel. He believes the world is indifferent to him. That’s an example of where the subtext dictated where I felt the camera should be. I try to do that sort of thing in every scene.”
Although his characters may be tortured inside, Gray prefers a “funny, amused” set for fostering creativity. His first few takes of a given shot are often to script, but when he senses the actors have absorbed the material, he’ll ask for improvisation. “I’ll tell one actor to ask for a prop or something to break the momentum, or have an actor say something the other actor doesn’t expect,” says Gray. “The key to acting—from what little I know about that wonderful craft—is listening, and interacting with the other person in order to achieve magic. One way to do that is almost to provoke.” He’s also keenly aware that beautiful accidents can happen at any time, so he insists on shooting rehearsals. “The crew might have a heart attack, but always roll camera.”
Gray’s movies, all of which he has written or co-written, have attracted great actors from across the generations. From Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell when Gray was a 23-year-old USC film studies graduate making his first film, Little Odessa (1994), to such notables as James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Wahlberg, Isabella Rossellini and Marion Cotillard. He’s now worked with the famously intense Phoenix four times, including The Immigrant, and loves their on-set shorthand. “I don’t have to talk to him that much,” says Gray. “I’ll say, ‘Joaquin!’ He’ll go, ‘Yeah, I know.’ But I love him as an actor. He reminds me of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the way you sensed that they were at war with themselves, which is a very valuable thing. Shakespeare did not write ‘To be.’ He wrote, ‘To be or not to be.’”
Gray’s films also stand out for their textured sumptuousness. On The Yards, that visual richness emanated from umber-hued, lamplit exteriors, dirty deals in shadowy back rooms, and dimly lit stairwells, all of which underscored the story of an ex-con (Wahlberg) drawn into the politically rigged world of railroad contracts. On We Own the Night, which stars Phoenix as a club manager caught between the Russian mafia and his law enforcement family, Gray eschewed soundstages entirely for atmospheric night shoots on New York streets, in nightclubs and ramshackle buildings. Location shooting is often a trial, he admits, but its rewards are plentiful. “The amount of looping I’ve had to do is frustrating because of the horrible sound,” says Gray, “but for the actors, they feel the place. They smell it. And that makes its way onto the screen.”
As for creating the illusion of scope on a budget, Gray likes to include a well-placed early scene of noticeable size, citing the way Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather—one of his movie influences, along with Scorsese, Visconti and Ford—opened with a huge wedding, then settled into lots of talk in dark rooms while still feeling epic. It’s a strategy Gray employed on The Immigrant, which was shot in 33 days for $12.8 million. The tale of an emigrating Polish woman (Cotillard) in 1922 New York and her interdependent relationship with a neurotic, controlling pimp (Phoenix), The Immigrant opens with a scene at Ellis Island’s massive registry room that uses 800 extras—but Gray only had one of his two total location days there to capture it. “We had to shoot at night, because it’s open as a museum during the day,” says Gray. “The next thing you know, barges are bringing 10Ks in, and you’re putting them on cranes to blast this light in through the twenty-foothigh half-moon Beaux-Arts windows.”
For an establishing shot of the hall’s expanse, only half of it was lit—the rest was added digitally by visual effects company Brainstorm Digital, which also layered in period-era buildings to shots Gray filmed on the modern, cobblestoned Lower East Side streets with green screens carried behind the actors. Gray has used digital effects before— for We Own the Night’s weather-drenched car chase sequence, for instance, where much of the rain was added—but with The Immigrant, Gray showed that CGI didn’t have to be only a tool for fantasists and futurists. “I have huge admiration for what James Cameron and Peter Jackson can do, but you know there are visual effects there,” says Gray. “It doesn’t make it less, but it was interesting to pursue the opposite—to have the audience never notice a single visual effect.”
As an old soul director keeping alive a tradition of emotional, crafted filmmaking, he’s nonetheless disheartened by the waning of 35 mm film in favor of capturing movies in ones and zeros. “You cannot electronically reproduce a certain photochemical magic that happens,” he says of the digital revolution. “Film is better than digital in every way. It has better contrast ratio, better blacks, and better color reproduction. It’s a more organic image, which is more the way your eyes see. If we had been shooting digital all this time, wouldn’t everybody be saying, ‘Hey, there’s this new thing called film! You have to dip it in chemicals, but it looks better.’ It’s just our shock of the new.”