Indiewire report that James Gray’s long-awaited period drama, “The Immigrant,” finally screened in Cannes early this morning. Featuring the excellent cast of Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner, “The Immigrant” centers on a conniving pimp (Phoenix) who manipulates a destitute Polish immigrant (Cotillard) into a life of prostitution. Saddled with a sick sister, she works to pay for her medicine and her dismal life seems hopeless until a curious magician (Renner) enters it.
Our reviewer called the film “carefully poised and slowly building to a resonant climax,” and that sounds like a James Gray film alright. Mostly unappreciated at home in the United States (but beloved in France), Gray generally makes melodramatic family tragedies disguised as crime dramas (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own The Night”), but “The Immigrant” is somewhat of a gear shift, with its 1920s period setting and having a woman as the lead character.
While Joaquin Phoenix was absent (see why below), Gray, Cotillard, Renner, DP Darius Khondji and several members of “The Immigrant” production team were on hand this morning in Cannes to meet the media and explain their intentions with this operatic, moody, and slow-burning drama. Here’s seven highlights from the press conference.
Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t be in Cannes because he’s shooting a little movie called “Inherent Vice.” One of the first questions from the media in Canne was, where’s Joaquin? Well, he’s currently shooting the much-anticipated new movie from Paul Thomas Anderson based on the stoner/detective novel by Thomas Pynchon. “Actually, believe it or not, he wanted to come, which is a first,” Gray said. “But he’s in the middle of shooting a movie with Paul Thomas Anderson and they wouldn’t let him out. You know it’s a Friday in the middle of a shoot week so, it was impossible.”
Well, lay to rest any other theories and start celebrating that you won’t have a five year gap between PTA movies.
Marion Cotillard’s biggest challenge was learning Polish for the role. As explained in Telluride last year, Gray met Cotillard before he had ever seen a film of hers, but was instantly taken with the actress when she threw bread at his head during a dinner, arguing over the qualities of an actor he disliked and she loved. He was instantly taken and decided to write this new movie for her (it didn’t hurt he was already co-writing “Blood Ties” with her life partner Guillaume Canet).
But Cotillard didn’t have time to pal around with Gray on set. She had her nose in a book during the entire time of production, practicing her Polish. “The biggest challenge was definitely the Polish. It’s a complicated language,” she said. “I had about 20 pages in Polish and I could only understand two words [at first]. But I had a fabulous teacher and no choice. When you speak Polish with an accent, that would be one thing. But I had to speak Polish with no accent, so that put a lot of pressure on me. I knew when I was making a mistake. When I was doing it good, however, I had no idea of how I was doing. It was bit unsettling.”
Gray recalled in disbelief that he only wrote a few lines in Polish, but when it came time to the translation, it was always much, much longer than he expected. “In my slight defense, I would write a third of a page in dialogue… and then the [translation] would come back and it would be four pages!” he complained. “It did not correspond at all to the length of what I wrote it was so bizarre.”
The film went through three different titles — what was up with that? The movie was originally called, “Lowlife,” then around Telluride, it changed to “The Nightingale,” and then right before Cannes, it was announced as “The Immigrant.” Why? Gray explained. “The original title of the book was ‘Lowlife’ and I thought that was a pretty good title and apparently Luc Sante, the writer of the book ‘Low Life’ also thought it was a good title,” he said dryly to laughs.
“Too bad. But Luc Sante is totally brilliant by the way and his book… is really one of the great non-fiction books written about New York. That title by the way taken from a Public Image Limited song, so his hands aren’t clean,” he joked. “I spoke to him, I said, ‘Can I use your title?’ and he said, ‘Uhhhhh… no.’ And then I realized you can’t copyright a title so for a while it was called ‘Lowlife,’ but then I didn’t really want to get him enraged at me.”
Gray noted that there was another film called “Low Life” and both American and French distributors didn’t like the title so he said, “Fine, I’ll change it. I started called in ‘The Nightingale.’ ” As he explained in Telluride, the title came from a line of dialogue in the film, but “Everyone hated it!” he exclaimed. “Except for me,” Cotillard interjected. “You liked it too? Well, fuck it, it’s ‘The Nightingale’,” he quipped. “Everyone told me, ‘I hate that title, it stinks, I hate it.’” Gray said he “pretentiously” went through all his books, movies, operas to gain inspiration for his film and he found that, “They all had simple titles…I just thought, ‘Screw it, call it ‘The Immigrant’ and be done with it.’ Let the movie speak for itself. If people hate the film, they’re not going to hate it because of the title. If they love the film, the title is not going to win the day.”
Gray’s co-writer Ric Menello died a few months before the film’s debut in Cannes. Menello is legendary in film cinephile circles (make sure you read this fantastic piece in the New Yorker about him). He was a so-called “cinematic savant”/shut in who had apparently seen every film you could think of (and more) and had a near photographic memory about all of them. He had become a friend and confidante of Gray’s and filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and others as well. All of them would routinely call Menello up and tap him for his infinite encyclopedic knowledge and Gray became so close with him he actually gave him screenwriting credits on two of his films, “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant” (though in the New Yorker article, Gray admits that was in part so Menello could get health insurance).
“Ric Menello who was incorrectly referred to as a savant, because this was a guy who knew everything about everything,” Gray said. Def Jam founder and legendary music producer Rick Rubin was the one who first put Gray in touch with Menello. “I want you to meet this guy Menello,” Gray said adopting a funny low Rick Rubin voice and recalling the conversation. “He’s amazing, he knows everything.” Gray would called Menello at any hour of the night when the TV guide wouldn’t properly display what was playing, hold the phone to the speaker and Menello would inevitably know what the movie was. “He was a human movie Shazam,” Gray said referencing the music app that will instantly tell you the title and artist of a song. “You used this guy as a reference, it was that simple.”
“But he’s gone, I miss him, I love him,” he reflected.
Gray inadvertently put Joaquin Phoenix through the emotional wringer with this role. While Joaquin Phoenix is known as a mercurial actor and person, James Gray has worked with him four times now. But the filmmaker said it wasn’t an intentional Scorsese/De Niro or Kurosawa/Mifune type of consistent collaboration. “What happens is you gravitate towards actors who feel the same way that you do about the world, about art, if I can use that dirty word, about human behavior and I realized very quickly on the first film I made with him [‘The Yards’] is that he has a tremendous emotional awareness, intelligence and sensitivity,” Gray said. “My relationship now is we talk a lot, we argue a lot like brothers in a way, but its very, very enlightening. He lives for process, he lives for the moment when you can discuss the scene and break down the character that to him is everything.” “For me that’s very rewarding,” Gray continues, “Because you’re trying to create a character of many levels, and in this case he’s playing a very terrible person, a predator, a manipulator, a constant liar who only really reveals himself in the end. And I remember he would call me up every night and say, [adopts incredibly mumbly, borderline incoherent JP voice] ‘James, James, why are you making me do this? Look at that scene I did with Marion, I had to put that little boy in front of her…James what are you doing?’ And he was very upset with me. He called it the revenge of [the fake quasi Joaquin Phoenix documentary] ‘I’m Still Here,’ because I made him such a horrendous person.”
Jeremy Renner loves James Gray, but not all his films. “I’ve seen all of his movies, some I like better than the others, but I love James,” he laughed. “How did we come together?” Renner asked and launched into a story about meeting him at the actor’s house. Gray countered later with, “Some of your performances I really liked,” Gray said. “I don’t expect you to like all of them!” Renner laughed. “Eh, some of them I liked,” the director shrugged. “The Godfather Part II” weighed heavy on the movie, so Gray and his DP looked elsewhere for influences. Set in the same time period as the flashbacks in “The Godfather Part II,” Gray and DP Darius Khondji (David Fincher’s “Seven,” “Panic Room,” Wong Kar Wai’s “My Blueberry Nights” among others) knew the film would inevitably draw comparisons. The filmmaker said while they did watch the Francis Ford Coppola epic, and movies like “La Strada,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Heaven’s Gate,” they started to look elsewhere for inspiration, like photographs and artwork.
“If you show a street in 1921 in the Lower East Side, there’s no way to do it accurately and not have someone go, ‘I see Godfather II!’ Because Francis just did it completely accurately,” he explained. “There’s only one way to do it, he did it right. So I realized that that was coming a mile away that I had stolen from this movie or that movie, so what Darius and I ended up doing was going completely away from movies and started looking at autochrome photography [and art].”
Gray then rattled off tons of visual references, Carlo Mollino’s polaroids, the Ashcan painters Rockwell Kent, Guy Pène du Bois, John Sloane, George Bellows, Robert Henri, Reginald Marsh, Everett Shinn, William Glackens and more. Also a big influence to Gray was opera. “I thought about making something that felt like you filmed an opera with grand emotions,” he said. “Not played in hysteria all the time, not like, [starts to sing in high pitched shrieking voice] ‘Everbody’s like thiiiiiis!’ though there is a little bit of that, but really about the sincerity of the emotions.”
“One of the best quotes I ever heard about movies was from Stanley Kubrick,” Gray continued. “He said, ‘I wish movies would be more daring and more sincere,’ and I loved that and I wanted to make something that it would be so sincere that it would be kind of daring. That it was not ironic or distanced or an experiment in any way. That it was simply looking backwards to go forward. So backwards that it would hopefully feel modern, like an opera put on film.”
“The Immigrant” doesn’t have a U.S. release date yet, but The Weinstein Company will release the film sometime later this year, presumably/hopefully in the fall.