Even though he’s just 44, James Gray will be bringing his fourth film to the Cannes competition on Friday when he unveils The Immigrant. The film stars Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant who arrives in New York City’s Ellis Island in 1921, quickly falls under the sway of a small-time pimp — played by Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix — and then looks to a magician (Jeremy Renner), to rescue her. Gray, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Dickson, and their three small children, spoke with THR about what led up to his fourth trip down the red carpet.
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The Hollywood Reporter: How long have you been playing with the idea for The Immigrant?
James Gray: I was working on another project, which never got made, and as is so often the case my mind started to wander. My grandparents used to tell me stories about their trip to Ellis Island from Russia and life on the Lower East Side of New York. My brother had discovered a whole treasure trove of family history not long ago that he shared with me and I thought, “What a great subject for a movie some day.”
THR: With all the immigrant stories you could tell, how did you settle on this particular one?
Gray: There were stories that my grandfather had told us about a character named Max Hochstim, who was a very mercurial and enigmatic guy, a pimp who had small-time connections to Tammany Hall and to Ellis Island, and that’s how he would recruit women.
But I thought to make a movie about that guy would be pretty spirit-crushing, because he was such a dark and miserable person. But I thought if I make the movie about one of his victims, that might be more interesting, especially since so few films are about women and are from a woman’s point of view. And then in doing the research I found this wonderful photograph by a photographer called Lewis Hine of a young woman in the great hall at Ellis Island. Her face meant so much to me — it was so evocative.
THR: This is your fourth movie with Joaquin Phoenix. It’s turning into one of the great actor-director partnerships.
Gray: I never, of course, set out to steal from the idea of Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa or De Niro and Scorsese. I simply enjoyed working with him so much. I found him so intelligent that he seemed to understand what I was going to tell him before I even said it. It’s a very rare thing. So when you find someone like that, you keep on going back to them.
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THR: How did you cast Marion Cotillard?
Gray: I had never seen anything she’d been in. She is the life partner of Guillaume Canet, who wanted me to help translate dialogue for this movie Blood Ties, which is showing in Cannes ironically enough. We would go out to dinner, and so I met her, and I thought she has such an amazing face. My wife said, “You don’t know who that is? She’s an actor, she’s won an Oscar.” I know it seems unlikely, but when you have young children, you really never go to the movies. We have a 7, 5 and 3-year-old. But I loved her face and I loved her attitude because she was quiet, but she had a total feistiness that somehow came through anyway. And her whole role is conceived as someone who says very little, but somehow conveys will.
THR: Your previous movies have been very contemporary, but here you’re doing a period piece that’s more melodramatic. Why the shift in tone?
Gray: I had been to see an opera, Puccini’s Il Trittico, directed by William Friedkin in L.A., which includes the one-act opera Suor Angelica. It seemed so emotional. There was no wall between you and the story, you and the characters. It was unabashedly direct emotionally. And I thought, “That’s something very beautiful to pursue for a film.”
THR: Your background is Russian Jewish. Why make your heroine a Polish Catholic?
Gray: Most Polish immigrants at that time were Roman Catholic. I thought that’s interesting, because the Catholic tradition is so rooted in redemption, in the possibility of forgiveness. All of these things played into the conception of film in a very beautiful way, because I had been inspired by that Puccini opera, which is about a nun. Also she would be a total outsider, even when she came to the Lower East Side. It would flip the conversation on its head for her to be an outsider there. But mostly because of this notion of redemption.
THR: So were you hoping for another slot at Cannes?
Gray: Not at all. In fact I had hoped to be getting the film ready for Venice last year, but that couldn’t happen because the movie has quite a bit of effects work. So then it was a question of going to Berlin or Cannes. Most of the money came from Wild Bunch, and they said, “If we can get in Cannes, let’s do that.” At least in America, the narrative is I’m a Cannes favorite. But, in fact, I’ve had my best experience in Venice, both with the audience and the jury. It’s an unbelievable honor to be invited to the Cannes competition, but it’s never been by design.
THR: Do you have any Cannes rituals?
Gray: I do two things now. One, I always bring my clothing with me in a garment bag. I never check it, because the first three times I went, it got lost. The second thing: have no expectations. The first time, with The Yards, I certainly didn’t think I would win the Palme d’Or, but I certainly didn’t think I would be booed. The response was very mixed, and I was so profoundly disappointed. So now I just hope some people enjoy the film, and I’m going to enjoy the fact that I’m there.