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James Gray on ‘Ad Astra,’ Cannes Woes, Harvey Weinstein, and the Only Way Cinema Can Be Reinvented

Written by on December 7, 2018 

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James Gray has been carving his own idiosyncratic path through Hollywood and beyond for more than two decades. At 25 he was the toast of Venice, picking up the Silver Lion for his debut feature Little Odessa, a triumph that would lead him–for better and worse–to Harvey Weinstein, Miramax, and a rocky relationship with Cannes. His latest film, The Lost City of Z, was a critical hit but came up short at the box office. However, it was enough to convince Brad Pitt–whose Plan B studio produced Lost City–to star in Gray’s next project: Ad Astra, a science fiction film arriving this May that Gray has compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The busy director took a break from post-production on Ad Astra to act as Jury President at the Marrakech Film Festival. We found him in the city’s Medina, seated in the gardens of a lavish hotel that was built on the grounds of a 12th-century royal estate. True to form, all guns were blazing.

I wanted to talk about Ad Astra. How exactly did Brad Pitt get involved?

I had made Lost City of Z with him, or his company, and he said, “What do you wanna do next?” and I was telling him about this movie. I didn’t know where he was at acting-wise. He said, “I wanna do it!” So he’s in it. And he’s great. I have no idea how the world is gonna receive it because you never know that sort of thing. But he’s really great in the movie. He’s brought a lot of his personal commitment to it.

It’s exciting, but it’s far from finished. I’m here, a little bit on vacation. I’m really tired because the previous movie was physically very difficult. It was both Europe and the jungle and this one I thought would be easier. Not easier like an easy movie to make but, like, physically easier and it was not. So I needed to come here. I have to go home. I have over 600 shots to review. I’m getting emails by the way, “Where are you? Where are you? Come back!”

They don’t know you’re in Marrakech?

No, I told them! That I did. They knew so they scheduled around that. It was important to me. I mean, what it is basically is you sit in the theatre for 12-15 hours a day with a little laser pointer. “Shot 603RF! There’s a little bit of magenta in the corner of this image and I would add a little reflection there…”

Hundreds of shots every day, so I’m tired. But it’s a high-class problem. It’s okay. I’m doing something I like.

When do you think it’ll be finished? Maybe Cannes?

I don’t know about that. They want it to be done by the release date, May 22nd. They want it earlier than that and I am really scared about that because originally they wanted January/late December release and I thought—and I was right—that there was no way we were gonna make that. You know usually when you see a science fiction movie there are a number of shots that don’t look very good. I did not want to be up against a release date and have stuff looking really bad. I’m hoping we can make May.

On paper Ad Astra feels like a companion piece to Lost City of Z: two films about sons under the shadow of their parents.

Well, I’ll let you comment on that when you see it. You’re not wrong but you’ll have more insight into that then I will. Because you’re not wrong on the surface. It’s almost like one is the flip-side of the other. It’s not that it wasn’t intentional. I mean I’m of course a narcissist because directors are narcissists. But I’m not that much of a narcissist that I think about it that way. I was just trying to tell as personal a story as best I could.

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Is it more sci-fi or drama?

It’s both. Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.

What does Marrakech represent to you, as the president of the jury?

It’s fantastic. That’s why I’m here because I don’t get to see these movies. I just don’t. I mean I watch a movie every night. I have a great home theater, big screen, great sound, and a very comfortable couch, sometimes too comfortable. But I watch what I can get, either from FilmStruck, which is now going out of business, or other sources that I have that are not FilmStruck which I’m not supposed to talk about. [Laughs.]

But I can’t get on top of watching every movie from every country. I was asked about Arabic cinema at another roundtable. We get nothing of Arabic cinema. I’ll give you an example. I saw a fantastic movie made by a Palestinian director Elia Suleiman when I was in Cannes in 2010 called The Time That Remains. And I watched that and I was like, “That is really really fantastic.” It kind of freaked me out because I realized how little of it we get.

I use that example as an excuse to watch other movies at festivals because it’s the only chance I get. Somebody else asked me about African cinema and I said, past Ousmane Sembène I don’t know shit. Which is horrible, but it’s not my fault. I do the best I can. You know who is great about it is Marty Scorsese. I don’t know how he gets these movies but he has resources frankly beyond mine and he has a whole foundation and he gets everything. So sometimes I get stuff from him but he’s more on top of it than I am. But even he has trouble.

For example, there’s a Portuguese director, Pedro Costa. I had not seen anything by Pedro Costa until about three years ago. But he’d been working for such a long time. I only got to see his movies recently because they finally became available and I wanted to watch them under the right circumstances. I had been hearing about him for many years, that he was a major figure, so you wanna watch them under the right circumstances.

Speaking of festivals, I know you had a difficult experience with The Immigrant in Cannes. What are your feelings towards Cannes?

You know, Cannes is very difficult. I think most of the people that go to Cannes and watch movies, they’re full of shit. I think that they’re there for some bullshit agenda. They don’t allow the movie to be absorbed emotionally. I’ve been on the jury and Isabelle Huppert was fantastic. I told a joke about it in Reykjavik, Iceland to a journalist and the next thing I know it got out that I wasn’t getting along with her which was totally wrong. I mean totally wrong.

I really mean that when I said that earlier. I think filmmakers are really bad judges of movies. And I’ve told that to my jurors here: make sure we are not trying to project what we want from the movie. “It didn’t do this or that like I wanted”—it’s not about that. It’s trying to absorb what they’re trying to communicate. I let time be the judge. I can tell you–and this may be a statement of some arrogance but in a way all filmmakers are arrogant, we have to be—I think my films have held up pretty well and I wouldn’t say the same of all the winners of the awards. That should tell you something. I think the problem is, with that festival in particular–and again I’ve seen it first hand from the other side as well–they are the protectors of the status quo and in a way they don’t think they are, right? They think they are being bold.

And I’m not talking about the festival, Thierry Frémaux, I’m talking about the critical establishment. It is stuck in 1968. If it’s handheld camera… you know the tropes, you can see it from a mile away. It doesn’t mean every movie with a handheld camera is bad–I think the Dardennes are great–but there is a language that is accepted in Cannes, that is a fact. And when you see a movie that has Darius Khondji’s photography and it’s a classical story–or it was presented as such–you think it’s different from the other movies. I’ve seen all the movies in competition from that year and that movie was very different from all the other movies in competition. Even the Coens, they have a very elegant style but the movies are ironic. I’m not saying The Immigrant is good, it’s not for me to say that. But what it was was me trying to do Puccini in a field where they were all trying to do 1968. So it’s a weird thing and you watch it and go what?!

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Is there a distain for classicism? Is that the problem?

I think there’s a misreading of classicism. I think people mistake form for content. They see that it’s a story they can track and they mistake it for conservative. I don’t think that’s what makes a film modern or not. Now, that doesn’t mean that every movie that has a fractured narrative is not modern. Obviously there are some but I think you have to look at what the film is actually trying to express before you proclaim it conservative or not. And that is a much trickier thing to do and it’s just my taste. And that is a problem in these festivals because they want something that is, on the surface, taking big risks.

You know, once I saw Derek Jarman’s movie Blue I knew there is nothing else you can do formally in cinema. There really isn’t. Once Jackson Pollack dripped his paint on the canvas that was it. There is the form of cinema and he kind of broke the mould. And I could try to do that over and over but to me it would be tired. Do you know what I mean by stuck in 1968? It’s like trying to make a political statement with the movies in a form that seems really tired to me.

Can we really advance cinema?

Can we reinvent cinema? Can a person reinvent cinema? Yes, but I don’t think you can do it trying to reinvent it. I think if you’re trying to reinvent the medium it’s usually a problem because there is a sincerity that needs to be there. And if you’re trying to reinvent the medium it means you’re already putting yourself in front of the material. Do you know what I mean?

In other words, there is something weirdly personal about 2001. I mean maybe he was thinking, “I’m going to reinvent the medium.” He probably was, but I don’t think… you know, what’s the best thing in that movie? The best thing in that movie for me is the HAL 9000 computer being killed and that’s a very narrative idea: the all-knowing computer that’s killed. That’s the Cyclops from Odysseus, right? And you feel sorry for it as it’s being killed much like you feel sorry for the Cyclops in The Odyssey when he blinds it.

So that tells me that in Western civilization the Greeks kind of figured it out and if you have arrogance and you think you can reinvent the wheel, then you probably can’t. So you can only do something as honestly as you can. I mean, I think The Conformist is getting at a new cinematic language… and maybe they were trying to do that.

Do you think it’s difficult in Hollywood to make these kinds of formally classical movies?

It’s almost impossible! I’ve talked about this many times. I have a lot of friends who are directors but I feel completely alone. I don’t have a group of friends who are trying to do the same thing as I am—that doesn’t mean I’m right, but it is really hard because I don’t feel that sense of camaraderie. I mean, I have maybe one or two other friends who have similar tastes. P.T. Anderson is a friend of mine and he’s trying to do things like this but even he’s doing something… I don’t know.

But do you feel film, as an art form, still has the same value as it used to?

No. If I say to you the line: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

See you laugh, you know what movie that is! That was made in 1972. Can you quote me a line from Avatar? See, you can’t. Because the place of cinema in the culture is different and the reason it’s different, at least why I think it’s different, is that the studios used to make a commitment. There were 7 studios–there was also Republic, RKO—but let’s say 7. Each one of them made one or two movies that they didn’t think were gonna make a lot of money but maybe were awards movies or whatever but that meant at the end of the year you had maybe 10, 12, 14 movies that maybe weren’t successful. Maybe weren’t good even but they were at least attempts. And then you had the New Hollywood which was a whole other story.

So for the first 60 years of sound era in Hollywood you had an investment in maintaining a broad-based interest in the medium. Then after Star Wars, something happened where the interest–well I guess it’s capitalism—in making only things that made huge amounts of money started to come into play and they don’t make those one or two movies each and they probably think that’s so smart because they don’t have to waste money on them and now the medium is dying.

So, why is that? Why is it no longer part of the language? I’m talking about the United States. I can’t speak for other places because I live in the United States. I can tell you that in the United States it does not have the same position of prominence and importance that it used to have and I think the reason is that the work isn’t coming from American filmmakers like it used to. Now, internationally it is but that’s a whole other story because the delivery system for international cinema is quite different and also the American system is so goddamn dominant.

What do you think of Martin Scorsese making a film for Netflix? Martin himself said that he’s very unhappy about companies talking about content instead of films because in a way he is making content for Netflix.

I don’t blame him at all, I mean a filmmaker is a hostage to the system. I mean they gave him the money to do it and he’s making an experiment and god bless him. I would never blame him. I would do it in a second if they gave me the money to do some personal movie.

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You’ve mentioned 2001, Star Wars and Avatar, which are three very different films. I wanted to ask what your relationship is with science fiction?

Well, I don’t consider Star Wars science fiction. I consider it fantasy. Star Wars is sort of like Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers; you know one of those B-movie serials that people watched on Saturday mornings. You know, that’s basically what he did. Combining it with the story ideas of Campbell and Kurosawa, it’s a weird mélange.

I know this sounds like bullshit but I try to think as little as possible about the genre if I’m doing a genre film. I try to think as little as possible about science fiction because I don’t want to get stuck in the tropes of the genre. So I didn’t watch 2001 before this, I didn’t watch Blade Runner. I love those movies, but I don’t wanna get stuck in what they’re doing because then I’m gonna repeat it and it’s not gonna be as good.

And on a personal level?

No, I understand your question. I guess what I’m answering you on a personal level would be: I don’t think about the genre. I think: is the movie being honest with me? I really don’t think about genre. It’s funny because Michel Franco, who I love and is on the jury with me, he said, “What’s the hardest genre? I think it’s biography.” So I said, “Huh? I never thought of that. It’s really hard.” I said, “Well you know, Raging Bull’s great.” And he said, “Yes but Jake LaMotta is not a great figure.” He said, “What is like a great figure-great movie?” So I said, “I dunno, Lawrence of Arabia?” “Yeah, but it’s not really like telling his story.” And I said, “Well, come on!”

So I realized I don’t think about genre, but maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’m wrong!

The audience does.

They do. And critics do. So maybe I should, but I don’t. 

Do you think about last shots? Lost City and The Immigrant both built to grand, evocative images.

Well, it depends on the context. In those cases I thought of the shots. I mean you have to, they’re very complicated, both of them.

[Pauses momentarily.]

I don’t think that’s a good thing. You don’t want the image to stand out like that. That’s calling attention to itself. It’s what the audience is left with. You know maybe it’s a reaction because I had the ending of one of my films fucked with early on.

The Yards?             

Yes, The Yards. And the critics in Cannes that year were correct. But I couldn’t do anything about that because the ending was changed. And maybe it’s an unconscious knowledge that I have to fucking get the ending as memorable as I possibly can! By the way [Harvey Weinstein] wanted to change the ending of The Immigrant. And he fought me like crazy and I can talk about Harvey. It’s so great! It’s like this huge weight is lifted cause now everybody knows what I was talking about for twenty years!

In that case Harvey said, “I’m not gonna release your movie. It’s terrible. It sucks.”

You do him really well!

Oh, thank you… I think? And I said, “Why?” and he said, “The ending should be like narration, where she’s like walking over a mountain with her sister and you hear voiceover saying, “My sister and I made it, we’re in California, we’re doing great.” And I said, “Harvey, that’s the ending to The Sound of Music!” And he said, “Well, your fucking shot is stupid.”


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