Feb 18, 2009

Interview: James Gray, Two Lovers

By Evan Louison

In terms of the living and honest representation of human emotions onscreen, no film director has touched me more in recent times than James Gray, in all four of his feature films, but especially in his new film Two Lovers, for which you may find my review below. I had the privilege to speak with James Gray last night from his home in Las Angeles. The conversation, above and beyond that which is included in his work, speaks for itself.

CEC: What if any connexion can you trace between the characters in your films? Particularly Joshua [Tim Roth in Little Odessa] and Willie [Joaquin Phoenix in The Yards], Reuben [Edward Furlong in Little Odessa] and Leo [Mark Wahlberg in The Yards]. And now more recently, also with Bobby [Jaoquin Phoenix in We Own the Night] and Leonard [Phoenix in Two Lovers].

JG: Well first, it's harder for me to comment on it. I know people say they have a distance from their work, but it is true. I have absolutely no idea what they look like. It's the same as if someone asked me if my mother was cute --- I couldn't tell, I'm too close to her. I suppose they are [connected], because I'm me. Look, what you've just asked me, you're obviously right, but what I will say is that fantastic observation or not, it's not one I've made myself. I have made similar types of flms in order to sharpen and fine tune the original concept. I do feel I'm trying to make a sharper and clearer picture than the last one, always. Thats not the same as being hit over the head, but it's so that people can get it and be moved by it emotionally, to strike the perfect balance. One of the things you have to focus on is craft. Part of craft is the idea that practice makes perfect.

CEC: Do you feel your positioning of the characters of mother and father (Max and Vanessa, Elyn and James Caan, Robert DuVall, Moni Moshonov) is archetypical in a way that has reverence for the classical form of drama? And can you comment on some critics view of your work that it might be one that ignores the nuances of how these roles in a modern family have evolved in modernity?

JG: Listen, I have not heard that myself, and I don't read my own reviews, except by accident when I've come across them. I will tell you though, and you've struck a chord in me, pushed a real button here, if that's a criticism, it's the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard. If that person who says that think s the whole world has changed so much and that they are so special and "Oh how brand new my life is, etc," it's hogwash. The human condition has not changed at all in thousands of years, the way we live our whole lives is so ludicrously similar, it's sad. It's obvious. To have to combat a conversation that is so infantile in nature, as an artist, and I use that term loosely (again, you've hit a chord) --- Of course I have read that kind of thing about other works of art that I love, but I find it really objectionable. There's so much preposterous ego, the idea that "I'm so special because I'm born in this era." Our emotions, our sturggle with mortality, all of it, is the same. If someone invented a pill, and it made the paradigm shift, maybe, but they haven't. That to me is the folly of the form of analysis where we're constantly looking for the new. That's excactly why you can view King Lear today, and it can still be as relevant, and as important, and you can still learn something from it.

I can tell you, it's the sign of a truly decadent society --- and not in terms of like, everyone's having orgies all the time --- but the idea that a work of art's primary motivation is innovation. or should be, I mean... Hamlet deals with the same struggle as Oedipus. Shakespeare was not innovative. Take 2001. That film is innovative, but it's not what makes it worthwhile. It's about being moved or transcendent, not a scientific thing that has to be altrered and new. Being stale is not what they are talking about I imagine, but I would rather appear stale to them, if in the end it's that they can view the similar themes in the work. Part of art for me is what I can recognize, it's what I can feel and know is beautiful in it, not innovation for the sake of innovation. I hate that. It's very easy to do that kind of movie. Take Jean Pierre Melville, who in 1970, said it takes more guts and more talent to make a classic story, one that's elegant and with emotion and subtlety and restraint, with no stylistic quirks to get you through the day, than a modern one.

Obviously, none of this means what I'm doing is good at all. Everyone who hates the films could be right, that's entirely possible . But to just say that it's not fresh, I think in five or ten years, if that's what they're using to make their argument, if that's all they're using, they're all gonna look very silly.

CEC: I was struck recently by the watercolours displayed on the The Yards DVD extras. Your frames are so obviously composed in all your pictures, is that practice one that you feel has helped you maintain such consistent tones aesthetically in your work, even when moving between different stories, different scales of stories, and disparate time periods?

JG: It's hard to say cause I only did those for the first two movies. I abandoned that practice on We Own the Night for a reason. I wanted to be more raw, more "street" if you will, for that picture. Of course I prepared, but I wanted the DP [Joaquin Baca-Asay, same as Two Lovers] to go past what I had in mind. It did help me to establish the visual style very clearly in the first two pictures, and the DP did see those first two, so once I did that I was able to expand on it collaboratively. I learned that in terms of where you put the camera, what lense you use, etc. --- it comes very instinctually, so by instinct you make the same decisions over and over. If you make a personal film, with a specific idea, you make the same decisions, or the same types of decisions visually.

CEC: Formatively, is there a film or the work of a specific filmmaker who you feel your stories might not be the same without?

JG: It's a good question, not one I've never heard before, but the answer is too complex for me to really say. It would be very difficult to say where I would be as a filmmaker without any of the films by Francis Coppola or Marty Scorcese or Robert Altman or Billy Friedkin or Stanley Kubrick. For me, they were the education. Watching Apocalypse Now or Raging Bull or The Godfather Part II --- you discover through Coppola [Luchino] Visconti, and through Scorcese you discover Bertolucci. Those two pictures changed everything. The only stuff I saw before that as far as I can remember was Superman and Rocky, so... In terms of films I saw before that, the only one that has held up, I suppose, is Jaws. [Those films] changed the way I looked at movies. They were dark, profane, intense. They were almost anthropoligical.

CEC: How do you feel about the candidness and naked portrayal of gender in your work, and of gender roles that play out in romantic relationships, intimacy of family, and violent conflict?

JG: I am very conscious of it, and I have always tried in all my films to make some comment, not only on patriarchy and women's roles, but certainly particularly on how, to this day, white men pretty much run things. The work, I would hope, would reflect not some condoning of that, but that that is a reality still that we face today. Are women better off than in 1900, yes, but around the dinner table, from what I've seen, it's still there --- the men control the dialogue, the women get the coffee, sitll. That's how I see it. In the first two pictures the woman gets killed. In The Yards the society is rotten, from its foundation, rotten to the core, and the person who gets killed was who? The young woman. And you don't want to talk about it that much cause it makes it seem schematic, but that's what I found so powerful about a film like Chinatown. What endorses that behavior and what captures it is not the same. Raging Bull is illustrating a reality, not saying that what its illustrating is a good thing. That's ok, that's part of what art is supposed to do.

CEC: When working with an actor repeatedly, is there a continuity of style and character as stories change?

JG: It's hard to say, what really happens is that you change and the other person changes and you hope you change together and you hope that you stay on the same page. The way I work with Joaquin has really changed over the last ten years. The best piece of advice I ever got was Coppola said to me once, "Make it personal. There's only one of you, and whatever's interesting will shine through." To whatever degree that's true, it's simply coming from who I am, or at least it tailors to what concerns me. Joaquin's a better actor now than he was 12 years ago. He's more diligent, complete, and much more willing to explore. 10 years ago he wouldn't even improvise. On this movie we had to hold him back from improvising 40 takes . Him and I, we finish each other's sentences. I'll say "Joaquin, it would be great if..." and he'll go "...if I don't walk down there and stop here?" That's a great thing to have with an actor. People always make fun of people in the press, but his script looks like an insane fucking road map, like he crumpled it up and scribbled all over it, all kinds of thoughts and notes to himself.

CEC: Do you inform the actor [in terms of rehearsal and development] of all the details of your story's past, or is there something you don't tell? Has it ever been that it has helped inform a scene or film of yours to play an actor against what he or she doesn't know, or something you've told another actor being something completely different?

JG: I must tell you the answer is very complicated. It's never the same, this actor should know this, this one shouldn't. It depends on the actor, the way they work and the strategy you want to employ for that movie. One is always looking for a common language. But the common language always changes. British actors are trained in a completely different way than American actors. They need and ask different things of you. It's unbelievably varied, how you approach it, how much information. I will tell you though, as a general rule, I think I always try to tell them as little as possible narratively, because there' a global aspect to every story, and it's not that the actor should not be aware of that global stance, but often, then the actor stands above the character, and ends up coming to judge or observe the character, and I hate that. In certain cases it might help. Cocteau had a great quote that often times those who are critical think they judge the art or the work, but really the art judges them, The person believes he or she is greater, and that's unethical. It's like those Op-Eds in the Times that are so concescending, so "You are so stupid, and this is why..." If that's true, let's look at what we've made in the last 30 years. You don't want to be in a position where in another view you are treating every moment with equal preciousness. There's a bourgeousie preciousness too all of it. The most beautiful films are the ones that say that people matter and they're not garbage and I'm not smarter or better than them. It either committs itself entirely and there's a truth to it, or it's bogus.

CEC: In terms of criticism, how do you respond to those who see the work as melodramatic, or too wrought with emotion?

JG: Maybe it's because I don't believe, and it's probably somewhat of a failure on my part, but I don't think something can ever be too sincere, unless it's making an overt political point like some Stanley Kramer movie or something, but really, how can it be that validating the emotion of the character, not judging them, is ever too sincere? I will say that it's somewhat of a relief that [In this country] the reviews have been mixed and hostile, but not for this film [Two Lovers]. It's very pleasant for me that finally I am communicating something to people in my own country.

CEC: You told a funny story at the BAM Q & A about your experiences with Joaquin on set, how you would show up hours before his calltime and he would already be there, brooding, in wardrobe, in character, standing by himself in the corner, waiting for you. Is a heavy and focused methodology in an actor something that mirrors your approach as a director, and is that what you require of a performer? Or is there something to the differences between your performers and how you assign roles for them? Mark Wahlberg once referred to what he did for you in The Yards as just saying to you, "Tell me what to do," you telling him, and then doing it.

JG: You have to work differently, but all I'm after with anyone is to tell if they are lying or telling the truth. If they're buidling a wall between them and the character or not. If they are, I have to tear it down. I treasure that in Joaquin, but Gwyneth works very differently. Just as long as they get there. There is no one size fits all strategy. I ran up against an actor once who was award winning and historically revered, and I just could not get him there, and that was very frustrating for me as a director. There's no clear cut, one size fits all strategy. It's specific to the actor and the situation.

CEC: Can you talk about your next film?

JG: I'm working on this script for Brad Pitt to be in, he sent me a book called The Lost City of Z, and I loved it. It's about a guy named Percy Fawcett, who was sent down to South America to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil, and the rubber trade there. He went down with the mission to make a reliable map of the area to resolve the conflict and just became completely obsessed with an advance civilization in that climate and environment being more sound, less brutal than European civilization, creating a civilization existing in the Amazon with indigenous people there anew, and he eventually sent for his 18 year old son to join him, and they disappeared. I'm 3/4 of the way through the script, and when I finish it and send it to Brad, if he likes it, then we're gonna try and make it.