James Gray. Photo: Irene Cho
There was no lighting bolt moment for James Gray and his new film, The Immigrant. Starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, the film debuted in Competition near the end of the Cannes Film Festival and, while it didn't win any awards at the festival, it provoked passionate responses in France.
On the final weekend of the festival, Gray sat down for a FilmLinc Daily Buzz interview. We chatted in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel. The idea for The Immigrant came together over time, Gray elaborated. He'd pieced together a few thoughts on index cards, points that ended up mirroring elements of his new period drama.
Gray recalled touring Ellis Island with his grandfather in the late 70s and hearing the story of a woman on the tour who was crying about being separated from her sister when they first arrived in this country. The sibling was detained in quarantine for fear of a contagious illness. He also recalled photos of his great grandfather's Lower East Side restaurant and tales of an infamous trickster told by his great aunt. The man sounds a lot like the shady pimp played by Phoenix in the film. Finally, there were fish out of water stories shared by older relatives about the humorous challenges that immigrants faced when first arriving in America (including how to eat a banana).
To underscore the authenticity of his movie, set in New York City in the early twenties, Gray took painstaking care to make sure his movie was accurate in its depiction of the era.
"We researched the film insanely, to the point where I think I drove everybody crazy," Gray admitted. He said that his fear was that an eagle-eyed viewer would catch an inaccuracy and his spell would be broken. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khonji tried to mimic the look of autochromes (early photos from the time period) and found a Bronx street with buildings from the time period that could stand-in for the Lower East Side.
It's said that the French, in particular, love James Gray. But, what does he think of that idea? He says he's heard that the French love him but admitted that he gets more fan mail from America than France.
"You know where it comes from? It comes from Cannes," Gray said as the festival came to a close over the weekend, "When you take the film here, there’s a very small group of journalists, really, who are French or English or American. And they either like you or they don’t, you know? And they seem to like me here—so, it’s not a total myth, but that idea has grown."
That said, he's okay with the idea that he's big in France.
"I will say this, that if you wanted to be liked by one group who have a really good track record of criticism in film, it would be the French," Gray said. "Now, they could be wrong in my case. But I’m hoping not, just for my own survival’s sake."