In the programming notes for its upcoming retrospective on filmmaker James Gray, TIFF notes that the director has a “sometimes tumultuous relationship with the Hollywood studio system.” That is putting it mildly, given that Gray’s second film, The Yards, was buried by Harvey Weinstein, as was his fifth, The Immigrant. (This wasn’t a case of Gray being fooled twice, either: “He bought the film without me knowing,” the director told The Telegraph in 2017. “He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter.”)
But there are signs that Hollywood is now treating Gray’s work – intense dramas rich in layered performances, sumptuous lighting, delicately engineered sound and a claustrophobic sense of intimacy – with the respect it deserves. His most recent film, 2017′s The Lost City of Z, got a sizable push from Amazon Studios, while his next, the Brad Pitt-starring sci-fi epic Ad Astra, is being pegged as one of this summer’s bigger films, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Ahead of TIFF’s retrospective, during which the director will participate in a live onstage discussion, the New York-based Gray spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz for an in-depth discussion about working within a system designed for “content,” not art.
In its marketing materials for the upcoming event, TIFF writes that your “fidelity to cinematic tradition has often placed” you at odds with “movies of the moment.” What do you think of that assessment?
The honest answer is it’s not for me to judge. It’s very difficult to get any distance from yourself, and I never think about things in the frame of mind that this is going to be different from what everyone else is doing. There’s a form in which I like to work, and whether that’s in keeping with the times or not, I can’t concern myself with it – I have to be true to myself. I know that sounds like a limited answer, but at the same time, I have no objectivity about myself.
So you would never classify yourself as a “classical” filmmaker, another term that crops up a lot when discussing your work?
Yeah, it does, but I have my own intentions, which of course mean nothing. For example, The Lost City of Z, I intended to set that up as a classical movie but one that would fall apart at the end. The first bit would feel very classical, and then disassemble. I’m not sure that came across or that people got that, and it’s okay if they didn’t. I’ve been lamenting about this a bit, because I’m resistant to putting films in boxes. I watch a movie every night, or I try to, and I never say this is a classical movie or not. I just try to watch a movie and meet it on its own terms, which is not easy to do and I’m sure I fail a lot. I just don’t approach my own work that way.
How do you then approach a retrospective of your own work? This isn’t the first time it’s happened – the Metrograph in New York had one, there have been series in France.…
The first thought is that I’m very flattered and honoured. And then I think that I haven’t done enough to deserve it yet, if at all. And then I wonder if it will be helpful for anyone to see the work. I have to try to be very Zen about it. It’s very lovely, but a huge part of me says that I don’t deserve it, and another part says, I’m only 49. I feel I have more to do. So it’s a little weird.
I can imagine it’s quite surreal, as you’re nowhere near late-career.…
Yeah, the thing is I’m pretty young, and I also started young. I made my first movie [1994′s Little Odessa] at 23, which I was very lucky to do, and which makes it seem like I’ve been around a bit. But I’m only now entering that midpoint, prime-career period. I hope the retrospective means something to younger filmmakers, though, even if they learn what not to do.
In terms of where you are in your career now, does Ad Astra mark a new stage?
I’m still working on it, so it’s hard to make a judgment about it yet. But I will tell you the experience has been amazing, and Brad is incredible in it. It’s pushed me in ways I’ve never been pushed before. In some ways you always repeat yourself – being personal, expressing what you want to express – but you don’t want to do so in the same way.
When you say pushed, do you mean in terms of visual effects or.…
In every way. Visually, narratively. In the way it’s separating myself from what you might call the classical tradition. It’s still a story, but from the beginning it falls apart.
In the same way that The Lost City of Z disassembled?
I would say in the last 20 minutes of Z, when things start to break down, yes. The idea of that film was to present a David Lean movie with a bit more 2016 politics. There’s more subjectivity imposed on the film. This isn’t to bad-mouth David Lean, just to differentiate it. And Ad Astra is further in that direction.
All I know about Ad Astra is the brief log-line out there – “20 years after his father left on a mission to Neptune, an astronaut travels through space searching for him” – but it definitely seems to continue the father-son tension present in your films.
Well, it’s the central myth of a lot of the male-oriented Western culture, the Oedipal myth. I’m not a woman, so I can’t direct movies from a woman’s point of view – though I did try for one of the films I made [2013′s The Immigrant] – but if I’m focusing on trying to achieve a measure of interiority, I have to go personal. And it seems that the Oedipal myth is the single most important one for the classic Western, male model of film. You can use these classic tropes as a departure point, though. You can mess with them, break them down. I think there’s a big difference from presenting it and commenting on it. In Z, it’s the patriarchal society, it’s the white man going into the jungle. The question is not whether it’s another colonialist movie, but does the film question the issue? Does it call into question the basic core of supposed truths that society has come to accept? To me, that’s what makes something potentially subversive or not. That’s the key. I might fail, but the only thing you can do is to try to break the mould a little bit.
On the notion of trying, you’ve said in the past that the issue with movies today is not a question of delivery or distribution, but the movies themselves. That narrative laziness is a big affliction. Is that still your perspective?
It depends on the circumstances you’re talking about. I have said that in the past, but I was talking specifically about American, big-budget movies. If you look outside the United States, there’s a huge number of unbelievably talented filmmakers. In that sense, I have a larger fear of distribution. But the American studio model doesn’t know how to tell stories any more, that is true. It’s always been about telling stories in a very particular way and marketing it as a global product, if I can use that ugly word, or content, for an uglier word.
But within that American studio system, you’ve been able to work. Ad Astra will be distributed by Fox, although I guess that’s a bit of a moot point given Fox might not exist soon.…
I was going to say, I don’t know because Disney bought them. I guess it’s Fox still, but I actually don’t know. I didn’t have much of a relationship with the Fox people because the movie was put together by a company called New Regency, and they’ve been fantastic. It’s a rare and beautiful circumstance, and I’m extremely lucky. The one thing I didn’t need to be taught is how lucky I am. The movies I saw recently [at the Marrakech International Film Festival, as jury president], they knocked me out. But I ask, are these people going to be lucky?
Are you optimistic about their chances?
The answer is complicated. I’m optimistic about how many talented people are out there doing interesting work, and I’m optimistic because filmmaking is becoming more democratic. I’ve championed shooting on film over digital for a long time, but there is something anti-democratic about my position on that. It’s a little bit obnoxious. The digital format is much cheaper, and allows people to do interesting stuff for much less money, and in that sense it’s welcome. I have huge optimism about the talented people out there, but less so about distribution and, frankly, the audience. If it were up to me, every high-school kid in the United States would have to take a cinema class or an art class which cinema would be a part of. And the idea of a communal experience in a theatre, that’s at risk, let’s be honest.
On the note of exhibition, how satisfied were you with Amazon’s rollout with The Lost City of Z?
It wound up doing decently well for what these days is an independent movie. The reviews were wonderful, and I was thankful for that. The film came out, for my taste, at the time of year it gets less notice for this kind of movie. I prefer a fall release, and both The Immigrant and Z were not done a great service being released when they were, in the spring and summer respectively. But these are small complaints. I’m happy for them to have come out theatrically at a moment where that’s not being done. My situation is better than most.
Regarding situations, in an interview with New York Magazine in 2017, you said that you were struggling financially. That generated a lot of discussion, and kind of shone a light on the reality of working filmmakers. What’s your situation today?
Again, I’m very fortunate in many respects. When I was talking about that with New York Magazine, my point wasn’t oh, boo-hoo me. I’m fine, and Ad Astra helped me out, but my point is that filmmakers are subject to the same larger forces that govern modern capitalism, which is the growing cleft between a small number of people who are massively successful in the business, and the rest. My life is wonderful in many respects, but I was trying to shine a light on the larger forces at play in the world, and how filmmakers are not immune from an environment in which the middle has dropped out. If you look at history, artists, if I may use that word to describe myself, artists never made money. There was a brief moment from maybe 1945 to the 1980s where, all of a sudden, artists could make money. Francis Ford Coppola could make The Godfather Part II, a hugely subversive comment on American life, and it was a huge hit. Maybe that was a momentary, anomalous blip in what is the actual true state of the artist, which is: You struggle.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
The Ties That Bind: The Films of James Gray runs Jan. 4 through Jan. 13 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, with the director participating in an onstage conversation Jan. 5 (tiff.net).