“There’s a guy who is a complete asshole,” James Gray says during a revealing moment in our conversation. He’s not outing a difficult actor or, thankfully, pointing at me, but reflecting on his own 24-year-old self, the brash young filmmaker who arrived in 1994 with a textured Brooklyn crime saga, Little Odessa, that made him a standout newcomer even amidst a bumper crop of backlot rebels. “Arrogant and obnoxious” is Gray’s dismissive assessment of that kid today, offering a window into his oft-noted tendency toward excessive self-criticism, a quality that may be both undeserved and necessary for one so committed to a unique artistic trajectory. Gray’s films, which aspire to what he terms “authentic emotionality,” are at once openly shaped by far-flung influences (cultural, literary, and cinematic) while at the same time so blinkered to modern fashions that his dense, character-driven cop dramas The Yards and We Own the Night seem beamed in directly from the 1970s.
A theme that appears regularly in the margins of Gray’s work, the elusiveness of joy (think We Own the Night’s club manager Bobby Green jealously protecting his existence in a self-built party paradise) moves to center stage in the director’s latest, and most mature work, Two Lovers. The story follows Leonard Kraditor (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix) a depressive whose suicide attempts confine him to his parents’ suffocating Brighton Beach apartment. As they go about trying to arrange for him a makeshift life, with a family-connected job and girlfriend, Leonard’s spirit and expectations for the future continue to sink, until the arrival of a gobsmackingly beautiful new neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose own problems make her seem attainable and whose vulnerability and sexiness make her worth one last-ditch attempt at true happiness. My interview with James Gray, conducted at the offices of Magnolia Pictures, touches on the complexities of Two Lovers and the nature of criticism.
Still not reading reviews of your own work?
I stopped reading reviews six or seven years ago. It’s too painful. They’re not for me, you know? They’re for people who go to the movies. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong; the worst thing in the world is when you read a bad review and the person is right. Is it instructive [for me to read them]? No. Each time you make a film you’re essentially reinventing the wheel. Problems that will present themselves on Movie X will not exist on Movie Y and so many times the problems that people write about are entirely out of your control, which doesn’t mean it’s not your fault in some way or another, but if an actor doesn’t show up on time and then you have to make the scene too quickly or if an act of God happens and you have to change locations and then the energy isn’t right…it’s very tricky. That’s why, when you say that so-and-so is a great director, if they made two or three terrific movies out of 20—yeah, they’re great. You know this as well as I do, it’s a very difficult thing to do. Let’s say that you have four friends and you call them and say, “Let’s go to dinner,” and then you have to decide where to eat—sometimes that’s a huge undertaking, right? Some people want to eat here, some want to eat there, and finally two guys say, “Fuck you, I’m not eating there at all!” Well, imagine getting 150 people together for two years and having to keep them on the same page, with the same creative idea, and make sure it has some sense of unity. Tough stuff.
Sounds like a man who’s about to deny the auteur theory.
Well, I believe in the auteur theory to some degree. Most terrific pictures are the vision of one person from beginning to end, but the auteur theory is nonsense in one respect, which is that it is a very, very collaborative process. I think the way I would put it is that the director’s job is essentially to understand and realize that some of the people the director has surrounded himself with—the actors, the cinematographer, the editor—are better at their jobs than the director and he should let them do things that expand the scope of the original idea and try to get rid of the ones that destroy it. So, in that sense the auteur theory is nonsense, but in another sense it’s not. If you write the movies too, they do tend to have a similar feel and that’s an idea behind the auteur theory that makes some sense.
In reading the article you wrote for the latest issue of MovieMaker, I was struck by how nostalgic you seemed for the old days of working out a process with Joaquin Phoenix on set, when it was more arguing and drama. Was it more fun then?
In some respects, it was. In that thing you’re talking about, I wrote that he had moved past me, which is true in a way. I don’t know what he’s going to do now or whatever, but if he really has left films forever, then that’s very sad, but I think it would be entirely because he just doesn’t get a charge out of it anymore. You know, I would come to the set some days and try to talk to him about a scene and he’d go “I know, I know, I had that idea.” Or another thing he likes to say is “Eight.” The first time he said it I said, “What do you mean?” And he says “Eight!” [Exasperated] “I don’t understand, Joaquin…” And he says, “I’ve been doing this since I was eight, okay? I understand. You don’t need to tell me that.” He’s tough. But he’s brilliant, so you live with it, you know? He’s engaged and creative and inventive, so that’s a wonderful thing.
You’ve also identified yourself as process-oriented like him, which struck me as a little strange. You’re known to spend lots of energy on set pieces like the car chase in We Own the Night. Isn’t that stuff audience-oriented?
That’s a great question. I would say that by process-oriented, what I meant is finding pleasure in the doing and trying to please yourself. The audience—what does that mean? There are 300 million people in this country, and that’s just domestic. To try and even say “the typical American” just makes no sense. The population is so huge and so diverse, and our diversity is fantastic, that there’s no way to predict what people will like or not like. The only thing you can do is make something you might like to go see. And also by process-oriented I meant that you can’t worry about what others say. If you were to talk to Francis Ford Coppola about his filmography, I think he’d tell you that almost all of his films were received poorly, or in mixed fashion, upon initial release, even including The Godfather, Part II. He would say that it takes time. Movies that are made today can only be judged 10 or 20 years down the road. Raging Bull was panned. That’s one of the great shames. Pauline Kael’s review of that is one of the most ignorant…for all the lionization of Kael, and some of it was deserved, she was an important critic, she really missed the boat on some movies and that was one of them. So, if you think about that then you can’t be result-oriented. It’s too painful when they hate it and it doesn’t really mean anything anyway. Finding pleasure in the doing is part of what being a creative person means. I must tell you though, I don’t sit in a room and try to make myself laugh. It’s not some kind of narcissistic or solipsistic exercise.