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Director James Gray behind the set of Columbia Pictures´ We Own the Night.
Director James Gray behind the set of Columbia Pictures´ We Own the Night.

Gray's philosophy

The acclaimed director James Gray talks about his filmmaking aesthetic, his influences and the strange career of his go-to leading man, Joaquin Phoenix.

It seems perfectly fitting to be interviewing James Gray in Brooklyn over goulash and spaetzle. Gray, the American filmmaker, is in town for the US premiere of his new movie, Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix (in what he says will be his final film performance) and Gwyneth Paltrow. The next days' press interviews will take place in Manhattan.

But the island is a world away from Gray's films, which have all been set in the outer reaches of Brooklyn or Queens. Gray was born in 1969 in the Queens suburb of Flushing, and grew up in the house in which his father still lives. Talking over dinner, Gray, a tall, affable man with reddish hair and a beard, says: "I loved growing up there because I had access to Manhattan. But by the same token, Manhattan was nine miles away - it may as well have been 90,000 miles away. It was like Mars."

Gray credits his interest in movies to his Latin teacher, who started a film club. "That was the thing that got me involved in watching movies, all these films that I wound up really loving," says Gray. "If it weren't for him..." Here he breaks off, resuming with "so many people I went to public school, elementary school with are either dead or in jail". That's the fate of many characters in his first three films, Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007). They are tales of corruption and violence in which the families that the characters are born into - ones made up of gangsters and cops - can get them killed.

Gray's new film, loosely based on a Dostoevsky short story and on Le Notti Bianche, the 1957 film made from the story by one of Gray's favourite directors, Luchino Visconti, is far gentler in plot if just as searing emotionally. Phoenix plays a troubled young man, recently released from an institution, living with his parents in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. Shattered by a broken engagement and in fragile shape, Phoenix's Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young woman from that faraway world of Manhattan. For Leonard, Michelle is everything he dreams of in life. But Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the man who wants to buy his family's dry-cleaning business, is the young woman he feels immediately comfortable with.

The film opened in the United States on Valentine's Day weekend. In France, where it opened last fall to rapturous reviews, it has been nominated for a Cesar Award as Best Foreign Film. So far, this has been the pattern of Gray's career. Gray is in a line of American artists more admired in Europe than in their own country. Two Lovers has won Gray his best stateside reviews, though some long-time detractors, particularly J Hoberman of the The Village Voice, have been as unmoved as ever.

You have to wonder whether the disdain that has greeted Gray in his own country is due to what one critic called Gray's being "defiantly unhip". "To get caught up in fad and fashion," Gray says to me, "is the worst thing a filmmaker can do. To take a position which is inherently condescending towards the characters in the film, where the filmmakers are above the characters, to me is antithetical to what the idea of art is."

Gray speaks about being influenced by the renaissance in American movies of the 1970s that allowed filmmakers to bring new realities to the classic narrative forms that had dominated American commercial cinema, to make movies that were more open, less settled, while still being expertly crafted. "You could choose the most famous movie from that era," says Gray, "The Godfather, and you'd be amazed at what a perfect movie that is narratively. It was able to combine an American commitment to storytelling with a Japanese commitment to atmosphere with a European commitment to thematic depth and characterisation." He doesn't see much commitment to craft in an era when, thanks to digital technology, "you go to the periodontist and he's like, 'I've made a movie'."

To say of Gray that he subverts style to substance is to imply that the only style is a flashy one. Such a statement could never comprehend the style in the films of classical Hollywood directors such as William Wyler or Fred Zinnemann - style that doesn't announce itself yet is palpable. The characters of Gray's films are the ones who, in most movies set in New York City, simply don't exist. Or they exist as jokes, the bridge and tunnel crowd, the "dem, dese and dose" vulgarians introduced for quick laughs. Gray cites the films of Federico Fellini made in the 1950s from I Vitelloni through Nights of Cabiria for the director's empathy and love of the not very worldly characters. "If," he says, "I could put 1/1,000th of his generosity into something I could do ... that's the only ambition I've got. Forget everything else. Forget any artistic ambition beyond that. If I could do that, that's all I really care about. You love the art form, and you love the art form because when you saw these pictures it moved you, and it moved you because there was such compassion in it and it made you feel connected to the world. You're not alone."

Crucial to that is Gray's ability to work with actors. "I love actors very much," he says in a manner self-effacing about his skill with them. "It's easy to be good with actors. They're better at their job than you are. So you let them be, you create some space for them and, as long as they know their lines, you allow them to improvise, you allow them to play." One of those actors, Joaquin Phoenix, who has starred in three of Gray's movies, has recently created a stir by announcing that he's giving up acting for music and for making a much-mocked appearance on David Letterman's talk show. Does Gray believe that Phoenix is sincere? "He's weirdly shy," Gray says (this seems closer to the mark than the accusations of strangeness that followed the Letterman interview). "He doesn't like being exposed outside the film camera." When I tell Gray the actor exposes his emotions fearlessly on camera, the director concurs: "He gives you everything." But what about his new career plans? "The guy built a recording studio in his house. I asked him: 'You serious?' He said yes. I feel pretty sad about it for totally selfish reasons because I love him. And he said to me, 'Yeah, but I've been doing it for 30 years, that's what you don't understand. I'm tired. I want out.' He's a very complicated guy."

And it may be that as the ramifications of the global financial crisis play themselves out, Gray's ethics, as well as his aesthetics, become clearer. "I cannot tell you," he says of Two Lovers, "how many people have talked to me and said, '30-year-olds who live with their parents?' And I've said, 'You know what, buddy? Time to get out of Beverly Hills and out of Manhattan.' Because it's the highest number of people living with their parents since the Great Depression." And there is a sense in which Gray must go to the boroughs because, increasingly, this is where the spirit of New York has gone. Gray says: "If you chase out all the artists and all the musicians, what have you got? You've got a bunch of Bernie Madoffs walking around."

His tentatively scheduled next project will, however, take this most New York of directors not only out of that city but out of this era. The Lost City of Z, based on a book by David Grann, tells the story of Percy Fawcett, the British explorer who became determined to find the lost city of El Dorado. After being gassed at the battle of the Somme in the First World War, Fawcett, no longer believing in the civility of his own culture became obsessed with "proving Amazonian tribes created as great a civilisation as Europeans". Fawcett disappeared into jungles on a 1925 expedition and was never seen again. Does Gray, who is about three-quarters of the way through the script, worry about getting lost in such a departure? He says it has many of the things he's interested in, primarily social class. And its historical sweep will allow him to work on a scale comparable to his beloved Visconti. "Steal from the best," he says grinning. "You can't ask for more than when you can put on screen piranhas eating someone and the battle of the Somme."

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