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Interview: James Gray on Two Lovers, Joaquin Phoenix, and More

Our interview with James Gray touches on the complexities of Two Lovers and the nature of criticism.

Interview: James Gray on Two Lovers, Joaquin Phoenix, and More

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.

I wonder if you thought to bring back Joaquin Baca-Asay to shoot Two Lovers because of this uncanny skill he has for shooting women. People still talk about how he lit Eva in We Own the Night.

That’s a wonderful observation, but no, I brought him back because I liked the way that film looked in general. He doesn’t suffer fools and he’s willing to tell you that you’re an idiot, which I quite like. I like someone who’ll tell me when he thinks I’m wrong, and I’ll tell him when he’s wrong. I like a contentious relationship. I feel that there’s something good that comes from that kind of free flow of ideas. He and I had established a kind of shorthand, and I knew it would be a quick shoot—the picture was shot in 29 days—and we had to work fast. Having said that, now that you talk about it, I do love the way the opening of that film looks. Joaquin starts making out with Eva and it looks fantastic. We had laid down some visual ground rules for that film and he followed them the way I hoped he would and the same thing was true with this one. I got to work with him, may I say, totally by accident. I was going to work with Harris Savides, who did The Yards and Harris was on Zodiac and that went quite a bit over-schedule and he became unavailable. I was already in prep, so I asked him and he suggested Joaquin and I had seen Roger Dodger and quite liked the way that looked. Then Harris was going to do this one too, but he had knee-replacement surgery which he didn’t even end up getting!

Having watched Two Lovers twice now, I feel like asking you if you think obsessive romantic love is a healthy, rejuvenative thing. Leonard seems completely lifted out of his black depression by it.

It’s interesting, you know the last line of Visconti’s White Nights, which was loose source material for this—I’m paraphrasing—he talks about how wonderful it was to have loved a person even though he didn’t get her. What I intended was for it to be ambiguous, frankly. The facts of the story would be clear—you wouldn’t be watching and not comprehending—but the point would be ambiguous. You could watch and see it as a happy ending or think that it’s quite sad and have a bittersweet quality. I wanted both readings to be possible, so to the extent that you feel that way, that’s great.

Have you noticed that the marketing people seem to be selling the film as if it’s about a guy who is “torn between two women?” Weird.

It’s not true. It’s completely untrue, and you know, it’s funny because with We Own the Night I always felt that just by the copy on the ad, I felt poorly served. It said something like “Two brothers on opposite sides of the law,” which is not correct, factually. Joaquin Phoenix is not a criminal. There’s a criminal element, but the whole point is that he’s a civilian caught between both worlds. It’s not that he’s the criminal and his brother’s the cop. They take the law into their own hands, marketing people. You’re quite right, Leonard doesn’t choose at all. In fact, I really hope it doesn’t lead to people saying, “How does he get these two hot babes when he’s such a putz?” That’s not the story. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have a sexual interest in him, really. Over and over she says, “I just want you to be my friend,” and she winds up having sex with him in a moment of obvious emotional vulnerability, when she just broke up with this other guy. It’s not quite a rape, but let’s face it—he goes for it. It’s dark. So you’re right, it’s quite misleading, because this isn’t “I have two hotties, what do I do?” Gwyneth doesn’t have an interest, Vinessa [Shaw] does, but his interest in her is muted because she doesn’t fulfill his fetish. It’s scary how people could perceive it because of the copy on the ad. On the poster, I think it said, “Sometimes we have to make choices in life” or some horrible thing like that, and I literally said to them, “You cannot put this on the poster, because people will read that!” I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, “Two brothers on opposite sides of the law? I’ve seen that before.” And then I’m like “Dude, that’s not the fucking movie! The guy is not a criminal!” You try to make the point and then you sound like a jerk because you’re arguing about the thing. But they did listen to me about that poster [and] it doesn’t say that anymore. Instead, it just has some quote from somebody.

Leonard grows to be a very selfish character, as I see it, or at least has a real single-mindedness in his mission, which culminates in that powerful scene on the stairwell. Is that something you were conscious of?

Absolutely. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to find any American films that deal with the issues of love in a way that’s not a joke. We do romantic comedies very well, we always did. In the ‘30s, they were amazing, right? But at the same time we do films that are serious about love very poorly. We watched two American movies and the rest were European. We watched Vertigo and we watched The Graduate. Vertigo’s a fantastic movie about obsession and desire, but the reason we watched The Graduate was because even though it’s a very funny movie, it has a real melancholy about it that I remembered. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and we watched it and I was right about that. It’s a very melancholy movie and Dustin Hoffman’s character does many unpleasant things in the second half. He’s also not trustworthy. “You wanna take me away and get married? Okay, well, not until we get the blood tests!” I found that very authentic, about the nature of love and desire. Love is inherently an exaggerated form of human behavior and we do and say preposterous things. We act in ways that are almost infantile. Remember that judge, about 10 years ago? He was a Republican judge, extremely respected, and he basically became obsessed with some woman and went off the deep end. This was, like, a 50-year-old guy! This is why it lends itself to comedy, because our behavior is ridiculous. It’s hard not to laugh, when we’re standing outside of some window, watching. It’s asinine. So, yeah, I wanted Leonard’s behavior to be, in some respects, uncomfortably selfish.

Tell me about an important conversation you had with Gwyneth, or one you thought was key.

I remember one, early on. We had a phone conversation a couple of nights before we started shooting and we just talked. She talked about how there were no more walls between herself and the characters she was playing, and that she wanted to be herself in the film. And that would mean being vulnerable at times. And that she wanted to do something raw. I kind of got a sense at that point that she would be great. Joaquin and I worried about working with her. She was the new player at the table and I’d heard that she didn’t like to improvise a lot and that she could be difficult. I did not see her being difficult at all and Joaquin and I loved her. She warmed up completely to the idea of experimentation, but at the same time brought a great discipline to Joaquin’s acting. It was a very happy set, as you know. They both understood what I was trying to get at, which was a lack of irony. A lack of distance. Authentic emotionality. How do I put this in no uncertain terms? If someone says “I love you” in this film, they mean it. It’s not held up as a fucking joke. It’s not like one person is a jerk to the other person and then the movie is talking down to the characters, like “Look at them, aren’t they both idiots? Let’s laugh at them.” There are pictures made in that tradition which are extraordinary. It would be difficult to watch Dr. Strangelove and not come away with the notion that everyone in that movie is an idiot, but everyone is equally skewered and you almost feel like it’s a sad lament for the human condition, which is a genius thing about that film. What I was trying to do was more like a ‘50s Italian movie, in spirit. I even ripped off the ending of La Strada, with Anthony Quinn crying on the beach. I stole that for the end of this. Also, him looking into the camera is from Nights of Cabiria. I wanted to get at the idea that the more ethical position for a work of art—I use the term loosely—is one with a certain compassion or empathy. I felt that would somehow convey the emotional complexity I was going for. The actors understood that, embraced it, and wanted to pursue something like that.

Speaking of influences, there was a bit of Cavalleria Rusticana in there at one point—another tragic sort of outer-borough love story.

Do you know that you’re one of the few people who knows that? One guy, I think, at a screening asked me if I chose that on purpose and I was like, “Of course I chose it on purpose!” It didn’t just wind up in the movie by accident. I’m a huge opera fan and have been for a long time.

Do you ever worry that, in pulling in all these influences, your own vision might be subsumed by them?

Of course you worry about that. As a filmmaker, I’m worried about virtually everything. I’m worried about stinking! I’m worried about not communicating my ideas or seeming tired or boring or hackneyed, and I’m sure I’ve been all three. So, of course I’m concerned about it, but one must have almost a maniac’s confidence to make a film. If you assessed your likelihood of making something that lasted, the likelihood is so poor that you’d never even start making the film. You need an idiot’s confidence. Another realization that one must make is that greatness is incredibly close to horribleness. An inch to the left is horrible and an inch to the right is great. In order to try and do something terrific, you have to risk doing something terrible and that’s a huge fear. To some, I’ve made horrible films, so I suppose that I’ve failed, but you have to take the risk and try to do something interesting. Do I worry about it so much that it shuts me down? No.

I’ve also seen you make efforts to visualize very abstract ideas, like the concept of vertigo during the car chase we mentioned, in We Own the Night. Creating a sense of panic on all sides, resulting in a kind of psychic freeze, which I’m sure was very conscious on your part.

That’s definitely conscious. In the sequence to which you refer, I thought very consciously about all of that, including the weather conditions and weather’s involvement; I wanted the cosmos to kind of put its own imprint on the sequence. And certainly, the way it was shot, it’s a very subjectively shot sequence, almost entirely from inside the car, which I did to differentiate it from other car chases. I wanted to make it, frankly, traumatizing. You see car chases sometimes and there’s no psychological or emotional ramification to it, but if you’ve ever been in even the remotest car accident, anything north of a fender-bender, you know that you can leave the car shaking like a leaf. I wanted to make a car chase where the characters were really fucked up afterwards. I wanted it to be part chaos, part claustrophobia, part survival instinct. All of those things went into my thinking. What you find very quickly is that the amount of thinking you do on something always winds its way to the screen. Unconsciously or not, the audience knows whether you thought it through, you know? There have been times when I was probably rightfully criticized for not thinking something through. It’s such an incredibly demanding, interesting medium, cinema. It reveals you even when you don’t think it is.

Do you feel like Two Lovers has purged Brighton Beach from your system?

I think so. Maybe I’ll come back to it at a certain point, it’s got a wonderful mood to it, the neighborhood. I used to love having out there with my brother and going to Nathan’s and Coney Island, but Coney Island is going to be gone, you know? Astroland is going to close and they’re going to build condominiums or something—I don’t remember exactly what they’re doing—but it’s certainly going to be different than it was. It had this wonderful, decrepit sense of history, but I think that’s over now.

You don’t want to use the same place over and over again, anyway.

Yeah, you don’t want to make the same movie over and over again. You kind of do, thematically, but you want to use your thematic priorities in another way and you want to explore different genres and different worlds.

Are your first three films pieces of a thematic whole, you think?

Impossible for me to say. I haven’t watched my films since I made them. I was in France two months ago and they were showing a retrospective of my movies and they showed my first movie and they asked me if I’d like to stay for it because I had to do a question-and-answer afterwards, and I thought, well, maybe I should because I haven’t seen it in 15 years and I kind of don’t remember it all that well. So, I stayed for about four minutes and I thought it was so horrible that I had to leave and I left. To a certain degree, once you make them they are no longer a part of you. They’re the world’s and the world can do whatever it wishes. To me, the scariest idea is a director who sits there and watches his own movies two years after he made them. It’s insane. I guess some do, but for me it would be too painful. I would remember all these things that went wrong. I only see the mistakes. Write a letter. Don’t mail it, by accident. Then find it three weeks later and read it and see how you feel about it. You’ll be like “Was that me? I’m an idiot.” You know, I saw a clip of myself which they showed as a joke at the Two Lovers wrap party. I saw this clip of me at age 24, talking about movies for a Sundance documentary and I watched it and I thought about it and I said, “You know what? There’s a guy who is a complete asshole. Just pretentious and obnoxious.” I was so embarrassed. So, I certainly couldn’t pass judgment on what my own movies are.

So much of cinema is caught up in expectations, especially when you go to Cannes. This is my third movie at Cannes and every time you play a movie there, there’s a whole set of expectations. People think they know what the movie is going to be before it plays. So, if they know that, or they think they know it, then the movie is bound to disappoint or anger them. You know, the movies that get the best response out of Cannes are the ones from filmmakers that nobody knows yet. All of a sudden, they explode onto the screen because there are no expectations. When they have expectations, it can either help you or hurt you, but I try to ignore all that as much as I can. Of course I read certain things, which you can’t avoid.

Let’s talk a little about the future, the script you’re working on about the explorer. What about the story of Percy Fawcett is appealing to you?

Someone asked Stanley Kubrick why he chose the stories he chose and he said, “That’s like saying why did you marry your wife? Yes, she’s lovely and she has a nice figure, but there are lots of lovely women with nice figures.” You don’t fully know what attracts you to a story, but I do know that that’s a fantastic story, which deals with social class and history and the nature of obsession. These are things I think are very interesting. Fawcett was a guy who was sent to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil in 1905, and what people don’t realize is that the mapping of the world, as complete as it is now, has only been this complete for 50 or 60 years. It’s a very recent thing in world history and in 1905 they hadn’t accurately mapped any of the areas around the Amazon and its tributaries, and he was sent there to mediate this dispute because the rubber trade was so big that they didn’t want a war between Bolivia and Brazil. Once in the jungle, he quickly found himself obsessed with finding a lost civilization and he became quite mad. It’s not just that though. He was sent back to Europe to fight in the Battle of the Somme, where he was injured with chemical weapons and he began to think of European civilization as not necessarily being more advanced than the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He was, in a way, a forward thinker on that front and people laughed at him and said he was an idiot. He went back to the jungle in the end—brought his 18-year-old son with him—and disappeared. It’s a powerful story that has a lot to say about, what is the true nature of civilization? What does it mean to be a civilized person? What does the acquisition of language mean and the trappings of social class? It’s silliness, social class. It’s insane. It’s just a lucky condition of birth. All these things are fascinating to me. Whether or not they are there in the other films, that’s for you to say.

It does sound like quite a departure from anything we’ve seen from you up until now.

You know, I was really struck once by reading this quote by Duke Ellington. Someone asked him what kind of music he listened to and he said, “Well, there’s the good kind and then there’s the other kind,” meaning of course that there wasn’t really one type of music that he would say yes or no to, it’s about whether the music had the convictions of its own emotions, whether it was true to itself, unfashionably even, sometimes. I feel like that’s what one strives for, to just make a movie that is unfashionably true to itself. A work of art, if I may use that dirty word, which is either fashionably or unfashionably true to itself. It doesn’t care about anything except having an internal and inherent integrity. I think that comes from trying to make an honest film. It doesn’t mean I pulled it off this time; I’m not sitting here saying, “I’ve arrived, I’m the man,” but I’m saying that this is what you strive for. I wanted to make a film that did not adhere to either the clichés of popular cinema or the clichés of art cinema. You know, take the camera off the tripod, give me something that looks very verite, let’s have multiple stories, or the end comes in the middle—nothing that was tricky or of the moment. Something that existed entirely in its own universe because it was what it wanted to be. Something that was emotionally direct. The only thing I care about is that my films are emotionally direct and emotionally honest. That’s all you can ask from a movie.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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