Director James Gray Interview – TWO LOVERS

     February 11, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Opening this Friday, in limited release, is director James Gray’s new movie “Two Lovers”. In the film, Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Vinessa Shaw star as three people whose lives are intertwined by love. Here’s the synopsis:

Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, a charismatic but troubled young man who moves back into his childhood home following a recent heartbreak. While recovering under the watchful eye of his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov), Leonard meets two women in quick succession: Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a mysterious and beautiful neighbor who is exotic and out-of-place in Leonard’s staid world, and Sandra, the lovely and caring daughter of a businessman who is buying out his family’s dry-cleaning business.

Leonard becomes deeply infatuated by Michelle, who seems poised to fall for him, but is having a self-destructive affair with a married man. At the same time, mounting pressure from his family pushes him towards committing to Sandra. Leonard is forced to make an impossible decision – between the impetuousness of desire and the comfort of love – or risk falling back into the darkness that nearly killed him.

Anyway, I recently participated in a roundtable interview with writer/director James Gray and it’s below. During our interview, he talked about making “Two Lovers”, what are his thought on Joaquin Phoenix quitting acting, why he loves shooting in New York and a lot more.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview by clicking here. And if you’d like to watch some movie clips from “Two Lovers”, click here.

Question: So you’re known as a New York filmmaker, what is it about New York on film that you think—not just to you—but speaks to audiences in general?

James Gray: Well it’s hard to say when speaks for audiences in general; I wish I knew what spoke for audiences in general. If I did, I’d be in different shape. I can only say like the one thing you’re really striving for I think—at least I am—in what trying to do is to bring a certain emotional authenticity to the work. And a certain authentic emotion to the work. And I guess the best avenue I have is to make it as personal and as autobiographical as I can. I grew up in a semi-attached row house in Queens in New York. And my family and my grandparents and my father’s from Brooklyn and so you’re essentially an outer boroughs kid, you’re growing up. You’re trying to view the world really through rose-colored glasses. It’s difficult because Manhattan is so fantastic and it’s 9 miles away and all these cool rich people live there and have great lives and you live in a semi-attached row house in Queens. So I suppose that you try to steal from your past and try and make it as personal as you can. So that’s part of who I am and I suppose that’s why it’s made its way into movies. And New York is very different from anywhere else in the country. You know, New York was settled mostly by the Dutch so the cultural tradition, I think, of New York—they say it’s a island off the coast of the United States or something—and I think the reason for that is really because the rest of the country or at least certainly New England was founded by the Puritans and is an English background, but I think that there’s a sort of Dutch or more European less island off the coast of Europe. So I think that New York itself feels different. I hope this makes some sense, you know? But it feels very different from Boston for example. Boston has almost patrician, puritanical…New York is a very different place. So all of this interests me and winds up making its way into the movies.

Well, there’s also certain relationships that can only happen in New York because you were there and you can just happen upon people and be shouting across the way from people. That just wouldn’t exist in L.A.

James Gray: That’s so true. I have 2 young children and it’s always very…upsetting is the wrong word but it concerns me that they grow up here because a very good way of experiencing life a very important aspect of human development and imagination is the ability—creativity really—is the essence, the idea of it is the ability to make connections. So if I’m walking down the street with my son in New York—he’s 3 years old—and all of a sudden there’s a Zydeco band playing in Lincoln Center, which has happened, and he said “Daddy what’s that music?”. Now I have Zydeco music at home but I’d have to think about it before hand, take it out of the CD rack, put it in and play him Zydeco music. Here he can discover, in New York, he can discover Zydeco music without me having to bring it up. Or I’ll walk down the street and in the window there will be a book—the painting…the sculpture of Barnett Newman or something that I never thought about. I have a book and I’d have to look it up. In other words, there’s a constant flow of ideas in New York. And in Los Angeles has everything you want. The opera in Los Angeles is excellent. It’s not as big as the Met, obviously. They do like 9 a year or whatever as opposed to 25 but they’re great. You just have to know about them, get in your car, drive, park, get out, go…as opposed to walking down the street and you see a poster oh, at the Met this week is…and you can get out and see it. So I think you’re quite right. It’s a wonderful and very earthy way to experience living. And it’s funny because people have said to me, “oh it’s like the movie has a very acrostic feel. It’s like a 50’s movie.” And I’d say why is that? Well, people yelling out of windows across the way. I’m thinking I went home to see my dad who lives in the same house and he opens the window and says “Seymour, Seymour” and he’s yelling down the….live hasn’t changed. It’s changed for a bunch of people who live in Manhattan and make $700,000 a year or whatever but that’s not most people. So yes, I think there’s a very earthy thing about living in New York, which is true in some metropolis’ but certainly not this one obviously. Los Angeles is a very different culture.

But not even just New York vs. L.A. A suburb in middle America is still isolated in the way people meet there is not really in person.

James Gray: Oh, I meant New York as opposed to anywhere else. Obviously if you’re living in a suburb in Winesburg, Ohio, you know…that book but it’s like if you’re living somewhere in a suburb obviously life is a very strange and different experience. I think the automobile all of a sudden kind of becomes a major factor and where I live I don’t even have sidewalks. I live up Laurel Canyon and if I want to walk with my son I have to drive to the park which is so insane to me.

You should live in Little Armenia where I live. You can walk around everywhere.

James Gray: I like Little Armenia. I love Marousch. Have you ever been to Marousch? I love Marousch. My wife doesn’t like Marousch because I reek of garlic for 7 years after eating it, but it’s great.

Does it inform you aesthetically too, obviously, I mean there’s probably some New York films that you love.

James Gray: Oh I love New York movies, but New York movies inform my aesthetic less than…I try not to read very much about myself for a variety of reasons – not least of which is I always come off sounding like an idiot as my own fault, but what little I’ve sort of come across they usually say Coppola, Lumet, Scorsese…. I love Coppola and Scorsese are obviously formative in the movies I love, but I think about them consciously anyway much less than you might think. I mean, what I really am in love with is kind of trying to reproduce the kind of expressive direct emotions of the 50’s movies from Europe, particularly Italy, which is really what I love. So I don’t know how much it’s informed by esthetic. Certainly copying from reality, my father opening the window and going “Seymour” calling down the street, that of course informs what you do, but I think in terms of the New York movies, which I do love, consciously anyway, probably unconsciously all over the place, but consciously they don’t inform them as much as I guess people have said.

But he’s also a photographer in the movie, too I thought that.

James Gray: Well, he’s a photographer….I was trying to come up with someone who….that’s sort of a quasi-autobiographical thing, I mean it’s close to painting. It’s close to cinema, so I had wanted someone who had some measure of artistic dream, which I thought was important.

So you’ve worked with Joaquin in 3 movies. What was your reaction when he announced his retirement?

James Gray: I was befuddled. I mean I…look he’s been doing it for much longer than most people think. I mean, he’s been acting literally for 30 years, so at a certain point you have to respect entirely the person’s wishes but for totally selfish reasons I was very disappointed. He and I get along very well together on the set. I shouldn’t say that because we fight a lot but in a good way. We have a wonderful working relationship and he and I have very similar tastes and it’s very upsetting. You don’t really find that that often where you feel totally sympathetic and empathetic with another actor, so if he’s quitting that bums me out a lot. I also think he’s just really great. The world’s not filled with actors who are wonderful so, for the sake of movies I hope he’s lying.

Did you get a sense from him while you were shooting that he was kind of burned out on acting?

James Gray: I did, at that end. People don’t realize. It sounds like you’ve heard this before people like Daniel Day Lewis and other actors who get so into character that they begin to disappear as people and Joaquin is really one of those guys. I mean he does tremendous amount of work where I would come to set at 6:00 am and the actor doesn’t have to be there until 9 and Joaquin would be there sitting on set in the corner with tears rolling down his cheeks. And I’d say, “what’s the matter?” No, I’m preparing for the day. And at the end of the shoot I remember sort of saying what kind of thing do you want to explore next? And he just said, “man I’m tired. I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to do it anymore. I’m tired of it. I can’t take it.”

And then your film goes down in history as his last.

James Gray: Yeah, but then it’s like being Woody Allen in “Manhattan” where Meryl Streep then has become like a lesbian. You’re like the person who made Meryl Streep go away from being heterosexual

Are you bothered at all by the fact that easily 80% of the press so far for this movie has been about Joaquin’s retirement, his hip-hop career oh, and he’s also in a movie called “Two Lovers”?

James Gray: It doesn’t bother me really because…I hope this doesn’t offend you guys because I do have a real awareness of how important press is for a movie, but you know this is my 4th movie and at a certain point you realize that the life of the film…it’s a marathon and not a sprint. And what’s written about today about a movie is not really the story of the movie. I mean, you don’t know how much money…maybe you do I would be very impressed if you did…how much money “Chinatown” grossed or something. Or what the original reviews are for “Klute”. At a certain point all that stuff goes away and you have to focus. If I focused on that aspect I would be very depressed. And I will be in, with respect being totally candid, my first 2 movies I would read the clipping that the publicist would send and I would get ultimately very thrilled and incredibly depressed when people said the movie sucks or whatever. Or it’s about this when you meant it to be about that or whatever. At a certain point it gets very wearying but then what you find is it’s not really ultimately what is in the end. So with Joaquin’s, as my mother would have called it years ago, mishagosh I have to respect whatever it is that he wants to do and I must say the film is what it wanted to be. It doesn’t mean that I think I’m super deluxe genius or that it’s perfect or anything. I just mean that it’s what I wanted to make. And at a certain point you can’t be unhappy about that. If the film is what it wants to be then in a way I’m much more at peace now than I’ve ever been. So I’ve tried to be a little bit Zen about it and after The Yards, We Own the Night and this, I haven’t read anything about, you know, reviews or press or anything. I try to ward myself off. I hope that answers your question.

Well, but still in the short term and everyone’s careers involved it’s obviously better if the movie makes more money and do you think that all this mishagosh has helped bring more attention to “Two Lovers” or is it the wrong kind of attention to it?

James Gray: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s probably brought more attention. It’s a small film, you know? And it doesn’t have a print and advertising budget that you know “Spider-Man 3” does or whatever. So any attention it can get is fine. I know that’s not why he’s doing it. And would I be thrilled if the attention were all about the film? Sure, that would be wonderful, but whatever it can get is great and there are a whole host of other small wonderful movies that don’t get half the attention.

Well let me just ask you one more thing along the lines because you know obviously Joaquin raps in the movie, so did he come to you with this idea and say this is something that I want to go into long-term or was this just a random improv?

James Gray: No, that was an improv thing. Well, sort of improv We talked about it before shooting. We had wanted not the traditional nerd. We had wanted a person who actually was appealing and probably 10-12 years before might have been considered a hip dude. There was a certain element of his that might have been cool in school but that he had lost that and that heartbreak had kind of ruined him in a way. And that’s based on a person that I know actually. So we were trying to come up with ways, and he says I had a crew, I had a crew. This is what we used to do. And then the break-dance routine that he does in the club which is sort of kind of good but not great. It’s sort of imperfect and its simultaneously embarrassing but you can see why the girls might like it. We did this in the spirit of a person who used to be happening but is now damaged. So whether he used that as a springboard for his current escapade, I have no idea. What I can say is that it felt authentic to that character.

Did he just make up the rhyme off the top of his head or…?

James Gray: We worked on it a little bit. He sort of made it up and then we….there’s literally about 20 minutes of film on that and so I chose….I picked and chose what I felt was best and blow up your face like Louis Armstrong—like totally absurd. So I picked and chose what I liked best about it.

And you’re attached to a film called “The Legend of Z”?

James Gray: Oh, the “Lost City of Z”. Yeah, yeah, yeah. With Brad Pitt, yeah.

What can you tell us about that?

James Gray: It’s totally different from anything I’ve done. It’s of unbelievable ambition. I love Brad for that reason. He does not lack for ambition. And he had sent me the article from The New Yorker by a guy named David Graham, about a guy named Percy Fawcett who was sent to South America to….you know people don’t realize what recent history….the mapping of the world is recent history. The last hundred years or so, or at least the accurate mapping of the world obviously. So, the British had sent this man down to South America to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil because the rubber trade was huge back then. 1905-1906. Because BF Goodrich and the invent of the automobile. So the borders were not clearly delineated. They needed somebody—a 3rd party—to chart the borders correctly so that Bolivia and Brazil wouldn’t argue anymore about who had what. And he went down there and rather quickly lost his appetite for mapping, which he did with wonderful success, but he quickly became aware of the possible existence of El Dorado, the city of gold and a lost civilization in the jungle and he became obsessed with archeological issues and to be direct about it went quite mad. The story is quite sprawling. He went back to fight in WWI where he was injured in the Battle of the Sum. Basically he was attacked with chlorine gas and eventually went back to the Amazon and brought his son with him to finish the exploration to find this lost city. They disappeared. They were never seen again. It’s a fantastic story. I mean, it’s unbelievable. And I think it has the potential to be something really quite powerful. I’m about ¾ of the way through the 1st draft of the script now and I’m going to give it to Brad when I’m done in probably about another 2 months I’d say.

When Brad came to you, did you have to kind of stop and say and figure out what you visually could bring to it because it’s so different from what you’ve done?

James Gray: I didn’t because the story meant a lot to me. I’m very interested in history and I’m very interested in an economic approach to history. I don’t want to say Marxist because obviously Marxism is absurd in the way to organize the world. It’s ridiculous. But in the way of looking at the world as a form as historical analysis, it bears some scrutiny. I mean, it’s certainly interesting. And the idea itself of civilization—the civilized world—is almost ridiculous. And the idea that everyone had called the….or the indigenous population…I almost don’t want to use the word Indian because of what that really means…and the indigenous population of the Amazon….they’re savages, they’re savages. Well, they’re basically savages because the Spanish and the English and everybody else went down there and essentially forced them into slave trade and treated them horribly. So when they saw a white man they quite reasonably had a violent response. It’s self-preservation. And the only time that this man really got injured was in WWI and the Battle of the Sum. I don’t know if you know about this. It’s literally like the end of the civilized world. It’s the thing that made the Geneva Convention because the British had brought 2 regiments of Indian troops from India on horseback—Calvary. And they would fit gas masks on the heads of the…this will all be in the movie of course, on the heads of the horses to gallop out of the trenches to get machine gunned. It’s was insanity. So what interested me was not even the visual aspect at first. What interested me entirely was a narrative idea about a person who was at a certain quest about a lost civilization. It fueled, at least in part, with his disappoint about what his civilization had produced. A certain obsession with class distinction anyway. So I loved the story. The story itself was great and the visual aspect of it, that comes for me 2nd or even 3rd. It’s not the primary thing I think about…which is maybe a flaw, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not what I think about initially. What I think about initially because I feel like if you want to be a narrative filmmaker, which is what my dream is, the narrative muscle needs to be engaged first. The storytelling. I think that story is a wonderful and lost art. Somebody told me last night that MIT was literally creating a program to teach story because they thought respect for story had become degraded, which I found really interesting and weird. I’m majoring in story. What does that mean? But story is transformative and quite beautiful and so that’s the story itself is what drove me in kind of the edible bizarre twist that he brought his 18 year old son with him in the end. And they were never seen again.

Sounds like you’re thinking about a real-world history approach.

James Gray: That’s what I’m trying to do. You know, Indiana Jones was based him. Of course it’s a totally different Republic B serial’s approach to the character and doesn’t bear any resemblance finally, but that’s who he sort of was the basis for Indiana Jones. And the stuff in the book is unbelievable, like I mean falling off the raft and starting to get eaten by piranhas. And he literally was the first person in western civilization to discover the Anaconda. They didn’t believe him. He said I saw a 30-foot snake that was eating deer. People thought he was making it up.

Sounds like Herzog.

James Gray: The Wrath of God. You know wandering through the desert…the jungle and all of a sudden hearing opera and thinking you’ve gone mad, and guess what you’ve reached the clearing and there’s a fucking opera house in the middle of the jungle that the Portuguese have built 150 years before. I mean, it’s madness but it’s great. Aguirre is a masterpiece I think and I’m going to try my hardest not to rip it off. It is really hard because it is a masterpiece. And I don’t think I will rip it off because it involves a lot of European history as well in a way that is not really connected to Ageara. Ageara is in it’s enclosed, oneric, beautiful way. Quite different. I mean a big set piece in this movie about 2/3 of the way through will be the Battle of the Sum , which I’m hoping I can do in a way that other people have not. I don’t know, I’ve been doing research on it. It’s just like hell on Earth. It’s awful.

I assume he will be disfigured for part of this film too, right?

James Gray: No, he was not disfigured. What happened was he was a crazy person. He literally began to….he was put in charge of 700 men and the generals came….and he was almost like Forrest Gump….everybody he ran…..and Winston Churchill he came in contact with and Archduke Ferdinand he was in contact with in Sri Lanka. He was one of those guys who was always connected somehow to major figures and Churchill came down to the trenches and said “a major problem—all of you have your hands in your pockets and as soldiers you should be behaving for the King” and everybody’s like “what are you talking about? We’re getting like mustard gas dumped on us” So anyway he finally was ordered not to try to take a particular territory. He said, fuck it. I’m going to be brave and he led these 700 guys and he wasn’t directly, physically injured except that he inhaled chlorine gas and scarred his lungs. And he began to have this horrible cough which became progressively worse.

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