The Immigrant was less than two weeks away from entering its theatrical release when I last spoke to James Gray, and he seemed relieved that his most ambitious project was even hitting U.S. shores. After a premiere at Cannes in May of 2013, the film was continually held off by The Weinstein Company for reasons no one could properly explain — or not explain in public without burning some bridges — at one point even being rumored for the direct-to-video treatment. Although its eventual opening was no grand occasion — the company barely bothered to promote it on their website, press screenings were difficult for many critics to secure, and to catch a showing outside of any major market took a bit of luck — most who saw the film found themselves deeply moved, aware that Gray had made something of real significance — distributor support or not.
Almost another year later, The Immigrant is coming to Blu-ray with a feature-length commentary track recorded by Gray. This was an opportunity for us to once again speak with one another, now some time after I’d really let the film sit and not so long since I decided to crown it as my favorite of 2014. This discussion is a bit quicker and doesn’t have the benefit of being composed in-person, but that’s not such a huge trouble; it’s hard to screw up this sort of thing when your interviewee is so intelligent and honest.
The Film Stage: The Immigrant only grew for me in the time since our prior discussion. What was then a film I held in great estimation eventually rose to being my favorite of 2014.
James Gray: That’s very sweet of you to say. Thank you.
When we last spoke, you expressed curiosity about how the gap between its premiere and theatrical release might affect an audience’s perception of it. I was hoping that you could now talk about the way it was taken by general critics and audiences.
Well, of course I was very grateful for the wonderful support the film got. It got many, many excellent reviews and many people seemed to respond to the picture, and that was very fulfilling to me. Of course, the film was released the way that it was released, and there was nothing, really, that I could do about that, but given the context of the release, I feel that the picture did okay — certainly given what it was up against. I have no regrets, personally, about what I did on the film, and I feel very proud of the movie.
It’s very hard to distance myself and answer your question intelligently, because it’s sort of like commenting on one of your children or something. You don’t have any objectivity at all. I would say that… you know, in the end, the initial release of the film matters little. I mean, it matters for people who are focused on the bottom line, I guess, but even there it matters less than you would think. For example, what were the box-office grosses of Chinatown? I don’t really know anybody that can answer that question. What was the initial New York Times review of Chinatown? I mean, we don’t know.
So, in other words, it doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless or that you don’t care — you do care, of course; you want the film to get out there and be seen as a beautiful thing — but what matters is really the long term in cinema: how it affects people emotionally, how it lingers in the mind, and, if it matters at all, it’ll matter in that way. If it moves people two, three, five, ten years hence — they catch it on TV — that’s really all you can hope for. Because, like I said, it’s incredibly memorable. You’re never able to predict, and the only thing you can do is be kind of zen about it. I know I haven’t really answered your question.
No, it’s fine. That’s a good answer, truly.
It’s the only answer that I can give, really, because there’s no way to predict what will linger in the mind and in the heart. There’s no way.
This leads to another question I have. When you’re doing a commentary on something that many would consider you the “author” of, I have to wonder if it feels strange to speak directly to people about what they’re watching. Do you feel any sort of pressure about maintaining a certain tone and coming off a certain way, or do you just find it a natural speaking experience?
Well, I try to be as natural as I can. I do hate it. I do it because people tend to like it on DVDs, and people tend to like knowing what I tried to do. That’s great, but I hate it because I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain the movie — and, if I do, that means I failed. It also takes a little bit of the magic away, knowing all the answers. So, knowing that I hate it, I just never do more than have them turn on the microphone, I talk for two hours, and then I leave. It really comes down to that; I don’t make it a whole thing. Maybe I should. Maybe I should do a better job of it.
But I just feel like being as honest and as direct as possible about my feelings and impressions as I’m watching the film. It is strange, because I recorded the commentary on this way after I made the film. I recorded the commentary more than two years after I made the film, and almost a year after it came out — which is unusual. Usually, you’re recording the commentary right after you made it. I also had a little distance; I knew what all the reviews were going to be. I knew all that stuff. So, in a sense, it was almost like giving a commentary for a movie that you made 20 years ago and are revisiting.
When, before this recording, was the last time you’d seen The Immigrant from beginning to end?
From beginning to end? [Pause] That’s a very good question. The last time I had seen it from beginning to end… might have been the final day of mix fixes. I’m going to say the final day of mix fixes, which was April of 2013. Obviously, when it played in Cannes, I didn’t sit through it. When it played at the New York Film Festival, I certainly didn’t sit through it. Yeah, that sounds right: the final mix playback. And I didn’t watch it this time for the commentary, either. There was no sound. I wouldn’t consider that really “watching the movie.” They play the video and you see the image and you just talk. So i didn’t really see it this time either. But I see mistakes I made, and I also see things that I like. It’s a very mixed bag.
Is there a reason you don’t sit through it at, say, the Cannes premiere? Are you just tired of it after a certain point?
See, the pleasures of watching of your own movie are non-existent by that point. By now, you’ve seen it so many times, you see all of your mistakes, you see all of the patchwork that went into fixing that mistake, you hear things in the mix that you should’ve done better, you see things that you should’ve shot in a different way. I only see mistakes, so why would I subject myself to it? The movie starts, I’m in my tuxedo. As soon as it starts, I sort of walk out and go get a drink with my wife. Though, in that case, I think my wife sat through the movie; I did not.
I mean, it’s very painful, by the way, in Cannes. Steve Soderbergh once described it brilliantly to me. He said, “Watching a movie in Cannes is like having every frame of the movie last for 30 seconds.” It just seems like the movie… because you don’t know. You know, the movie could end and everyone would sort of hoot and boo. Especially in Cannes, that is a real possibility. So, while the film is playing, the only thing you can think of is, “When the lights come up, are they all going to boo me off the screen?” So why subject yourself to that during the movie? You might as well go outside and get a drink to relax or something.
But it (thankfully) earned many plaudits. When it was coming out, had you been paying attention to the groundswell of support it was receiving? Not just reviews, but people asking The Weinstein Company to release it in their area? I can’t imagine you were totally oblivious.
I was a little bit oblivious, but I was extremely appreciative when I started to catch wind of some of the support that I got. I mean, it was… certainly, if it weren’t for a couple of people in particular, the movie would be in mothballs for forever, and it’s impossible not to be eternally grateful to those people. It’s hard to talk about it, because people then think that you’re then, I don’t know, trying to curry favor or something. But I’m eternally grateful to at least two people that I know of in the critical establishment who were major, major, major supporters. There’s no amount of, how do I say this, comment that I could make that would suffice in explaining what that means to a filmmaker. I mean, it’s everything.
Because as much as you want to say, “You make the film and then that’s it — you’re done,” you don’t make the film in a vacuum. You make the film so that people can watch it and give feedback, and you can try to grow. How do you do that if you just make the film and nobody will ever see it? In candor, I felt that I had deserved the film to be seen. It wasn’t like I had failed completely and it was some disastrous thing. I mean, some people felt that it was; others did not.
I felt that the film deserved a release, certainly, so I was very grateful. And I did get a sense, after a while. People started to direct me to things to read — friends of mine. Because I’m not on Twitter and Facebook and all of that. I don’t really ever see that stuff, but friends of mine and my wife are, and I was very, very touched. I was very moved. I’ll put it to you this way: you don’t forget that kind of support. That’s something that lingers and that you’re grateful for for the rest of your life. Also, when you go to Cannes… please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want an award in Cannes. I don’t need that for my ego or for the shelf or whatever. But, in terms of how the film is perceived, it didn’t win anything when it was in competition. So I think there was the sense that it was not a good movie.
Before things wrap up here, very quick: Lost City of Z is as close as we’re hearing?
Z? Yes, absolutely. I’ve been on a scout. Pre-production should start sometime in the first week of June. I’m extremely excited about it. It’s very different from anything I’ve done — and yet, of course, the same. I have very, very high hopes for it. Principal photography, I believe, will start on August 8, although it depends on when Charlie Hunnam will finish King Arthur, which is what he’s doing now; if that finishes on schedule, that’s when I will begin. It shoots in the U.K. and Colombia, probably.
What feeling do you have when on the cusp of starting a production? Is there a lot of anxiety, or is it mostly pure anticipation?
Well, it’s almost exclusively terror. It’s funny: I don’t actually derive much pleasure from making a movie. I derive a lot of pleasure from having made a film. I’m very excited; it’s going to be a huge challenge. But I’m very scared, and I’m under no illusions that I’m going to go to the jungle and have a great time and it’s going to have a party. I mean, it’s going to be an epic struggle, and I’m going to try and do my very best. I have many, many ideas. The project’s been gestating for a long time, and, in some respects, that’s a challenge in and of itself, because you have many, many ideas, and you want to make sure the project has a unity and a singularity and a uniqueness and a consistency. So, if it’s gestating for a long time, you worry that you won’t have that.
Well, we’ll see. But, judging by your track record, I’m not too worried.
I’m glad you’re not.