The first thing James Gray asks me is where I live. “Bensonhurst,” I tell him, with that slightly embarrassed, brace-for-impact tone I always inflect when I confess how close I am to Coney Island—and how far I am from midtown Manhattan. “I know Bensonhurst,” Gray says. “I know all about Brooklyn.” A Gotham-centric filmmaker to his core, Gray says this with a very mild, stereotypical New Yawk timbre, but the declaration isn’t one of arrogance so much as true hometown pride. All of Gray’s movies have been set in New York, and the one that put him on the map at age 25, Little Odessa, takes place just a stone’s throw from my apartment, adjacent to my landlord’s place and the beach where I spend my summer Saturdays. After making movies about crime and love that unfold in Brooklyn (We Own the Night, Two Lovers) and Queens (The Yards), Gray has finally made a period piece about New York as the entry point into America—or, more specifically, into the ever-elusive American dream. If Gray were to quit filmmaking tomorrow, The Immigrant would be his magnum opus, a paean to his Russian-Jewish grandparents who, like Marion Cotillard’s Polish protagonist, Ewa, came to this country in the 1920s, and a near-mystical deconstruction of the many contradictions that define American life. A man whose tendency to ramble is instantly forgiven thanks to the intriguing places his tangents take you, Gray told me about not directing Joaquin Phoenix, his increasingly personal links to his films, and what he loves most about this city.
So you’ve said that—
First of all, I’m just going to stop you right there. Whenever somebody says “you’ve said,” I have a pit in my stomach because I know that what I’ve “said” is going to be dumb. I think, “Uh oh, my moronic words are going to be put back in my face.” But go ahead.
Well I think this one’s pretty safe. You’ve said that The Immigrant is largely based on memories of your grandparents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s.
Yes, I did say that.
Okay, so no worries about stupidity there.
None so far.
Well, I want to back up a little bit and talk about the personal connections of some of your prior films, specifically Two Lovers, which was my favorite film of yours before The Immigrant. What were the specific personal connections for you with that project?
The birth of Two Lovers is a strange one. What happened was, I had married my wife, and she got pregnant pretty quickly. We had been trying to have a child. And we went to the doctor, and I had to get all these genetic tests done. My wife, being the tall, Shiksa goddess that she is, didn’t have to get all these tests done; well, she had them done, but she tested negative for all of these genetic markers for diseases. I tested positive for three. I was shocked. They were genetic diseases that you might pass on to your child if both the husband and wife have them.
Do you remember what they were?
One was called Gaucher’s disease, which is a nervous disease. Another one was called Maple syrup urine disease, if you can believe that. By the way, I don’t have these diseases. I have the genetic potential to pass them onto my children if my mate had the same genetic disorder. You then have, I think, a 50 percent chance of handing it down to the kid. Anyway, the point of all this is that I had been talking to the woman who was giving us the test results, and she said she had seen an orthodox Jewish family where both the husband and wife had tested positive for Tay-Sachs disease. And there’s no cure for that. If your kid is born with Tay-Sachs disease it’s invariably fatal. And I thought, “Well, that’s just devastating.” I thought it was like our genetic, 21st-century definition of fate. So, Two Lovers became born out of that. The woman told us that this couple had broken apart because they both had this gene. And then I started thinking about a story that was about that—this sort of self-loathing Jew who has this genetic thing, which became Joaquin Phoenix’s character. I don’t know how well you remember the movie…
It’s been a few years, but I remember it well.
Yeah, he tells the story, his backstory, and that’s why he broke up with this girl beforehand, and has this weird obsession with the blonde next door who represents everything that he’s not. So it came from that, and then, of course, many other things come into play. I had just gotten married, and in marriage, you always wonder if married life is going to mean good or bad things; it’s filled with all kinds of potential, but also concerns about what your life will be. Now I’ve been married for nine years, and I can say it’s been more or less fantastic, thank heavens.
But you would say that The Immigrant is your most personal work to date?
Well, it depends. Personal isn’t the same as autobiographical. Autobiographical means it adheres to the facts of your life. And a ton of this stuff is taken directly from my grandparents—how to eat a banana, and the whole monologue in the church, where Ewa says, “We are all together, and the ship is dirty, and we are like animals.” All of that is verbatim from my grandparents. But, personal, yes, in that, what you wonder about is what you can feel…it’s not just the mood of the film, it’s what the film, thematically, is trying to express. And how closely and how intimately you feel what the film is trying to express. So, in that way, is this film the most personal? The last two films I’ve made, this one and Two Lovers, are my favorite films so far, because they’re getting closer to the cinematic expression of the mood and the attitude and the behavior and the feeling that I want to communicate to the viewer. Am I making no sense?
You’re making sense.
So when we talk about this film…I guess I had been beating myself up for a long time, about one sin or another that I had perceived that I had committed. And I guess I wanted to try and say to myself and to others that, no matter what you do in life, there is the possibility of redemption. And forgiveness. And that nobody is garbage—nobody is beneath us. This idea of being condescending to this character, or condescending to anybody, is almost a cancer.