Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant"

This week, we reflect on the most interesting conversations about film we heard in 2014. James Gray spoke in between a screening of “The Immigrant” and “Two Lovers” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on September 27th.

“It’s basically like a very expensive…well, in this case, cheap home movie,” said James Gray of his latest film “The Immigrant.”

Gray was right to acknowledge both ends of the spectrum, given that he clearly appreciated how rare an opportunity he had with his latest film to recreate 1920s New York with a thousand extras, yet did so on a relative pittance for such an undertaking, filming the Marion Cotillard-led drama in 28 days for a budget of just under $12.8 million. Sadly not much more was afforded to the film’s marketing when it was released in theaters last March, though many since then have come around to see the film for the extraordinary work that it is, recently honored with Spirit Award nominations for Cotillard and cinematographer Darius Khondji and was a staple of critics’ year-end top 10 lists.

The full majesty of Gray’s accomplishment could be taken in at the Aero Theatre in late September when the director sat down with filmmaker and film writer F.X. Feeney for a post-screening discussion. On the same 70mm-capable screen that is Los Angeles’ most regular home for “Lawrence of Arabia,” Khondji’s jaw-dropping compositions of the Lower East Side that threaten to overwhelm Cotillard’s newly arrived Polish emigre Ewa and the operatic swells of Chris Spelman’s score could properly envelope the audience, with the conversation after painting a portrait of the production that suggested a struggle for Gray that was nearly as difficult as Ewa’s once she falls into the clutches of Joaquin Phoenix’s hustler Bruno. Still, like Ewa, he caught some remarkable breaks.

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cottilard in "The Immigrant"Initially inspired to write a film with a strong female lead akin to the Barbara Stanwyck films of the 1940s after seeing a production of Puccini’s “Il Trittico” with his wife in 2008, Gray recalled a story his father told him about an incident that occurred when he took his father to Ellis Island shortly after the immigration checkpoint was opened for tourists in the mid-‘70s.

“There was a woman there that my grandfather started to talk to in Yiddish and she was in tears, just crying and crying and crying and finally my father talked to my grandfather,” recalled Gray. “For some reason, I asked [my father] what she was talking about and he said, ‘Oh, she had a story, very interesting – her sister and she were separated on the island and she never saw her sister again.’”

Gray’s grandparents can actually be seen in the film as one half of a locket Ewa carries around with her, along with a picture of her sister (played by Angela Sarafyan), just one of many personal touches the director gave to “The Immigrant.” After being asked by Feeney of the influence of his grandmother’s own move to America on the film, Gray shared that the way Ewa first eats a banana in America (peel on) and the way she recalled “spaghetti looking like bloody worms” both found their way into the story and the production design of the restaurant where Bruno takes his women was based on photos he has of his great-grandparents’ restaurant on the lower east side. (In fact, Max Hochstim, the real-life pimp that Bruno was based on operated out of a restaurant run by Gray’s great aunt called Hurwitz’s.)

However, Gray did much of his research at Ellis Island and ultimately decided to give himself the daunting task of actually shooting on location there. It was at the Island’s Bob Hope Memorial Library where he learned of a performance given by world-renowned tenor Enrico Caruso, a concert which ultimately became the linchpin for “The Immigrant”’s plot. In learning of Caruso, Gray also became aware of a magician named Theodore Annemann, the basis for the sleight-of-hand artist, played in the film by Jeremy Renner, that appears to be the only one who can pave a way out for Ewa from her dire straits. Yet although recreating that event would solve a story problem for Gray, it created a practical one for the production.

Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant"“In the comfort of your own apartment, you write, “Int. Registry Room, Ellis Island. A thousand immigrants…” right? And then you realize, oh right, I have to get a thousand people and go to Ellis Island,” laughed Gray.

As he soon learned, it was incredibly difficult to get permission to shoot at the actual location and to ferry in the extras – a feat only made possible after Khondji suggested they shoot the day scenes at night and the National Park Service reluctantly agreed to let the production shoot there for two days from 5:30 pm when the last ferry goes from Ellis Island to sunrise. But even harder for the director was actually getting someone who could play Caruso.

“I asked a guy from the Opera News, ‘Who’s the new Caruso?’ And he said, “Who’s the new Beatles?,” recalled Gray, explaining his challenge. “I said, ‘I understand, but who is the guy who’s like Caruso?’ He said, ‘There’s a guy from Malta – Joseph Calleja — and he sort of looks and sounds like Caruso.’ I called him up in Malta and I said, I’m making this movie. I want you to come and play Caruso. He says, ‘That sounds wonderful. But here’s my schedule…I’m available in 2021,’ because opera singers book their schedules years in advance.”

Thankfully, Gray discovered discovery that Calleja’s one day off for the next decade happened within the film’s shooting timeframe.

“This is the movie gods – he’s got one day off and it’s March 2nd, 2012. I fly him to New York, he shows up, says “Hello,” sings like a god because we recorded live with an orchestra,” said Gray, who used six cameras for the shoot, subsequently scrubbing them from the frame digitally. “The whole thing was incredible. and then says, “Thank you.” They all clap and walks off and goes back to Kennedy Airport. This is the greatest guy I’ve ever known in my life.”

That wasn’t the only piece of scheduling that worked to Gray’s advantage, though he hardly knew it at first. When Feeney praised the director for a “magnificent” scene near the end of the film in which Bruno breaks down in front of Ewa, Gray shot back to his surprise, “I find it horrible.”

“We had to shoot the ending on day two and I said, ‘Isn’t that awful?,’” Gray explained, having to accommodate Renner, who was filming “The Bourne Legacy” before he could report to “The Immigrant” set. “And Joaquin said, ‘It’s perfect.’ I said, ‘Whaa…?’ He goes, [mumbles] ‘No, it’s really perfect. I’ll just do it.’ [But he said] ‘I don’t like any of the dialogue you wrote.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s like a monologue.’ He goes, “Yeah, I don’t like it.” I said, “So what do you want to do?” He goes, ‘I’ll figure it out.’

“Take one, he’s doing exactly what I wrote. So I don’t understand what the hell that was about, but…maybe someday. [But then] he gives this speech, he says this thing, ‘If you could lick my heart, you’d taste nothing but poison.’ So I said, “Oh, that’s good. I like that you channeled that character’s self-loathing.” He said, ‘Yeah, I hate myself.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, the character’s…’ And he said, ‘No, I hate myself. I hate myself.’”

Gray added, “I realized why he wanted to shoot it at the beginning is because it’s all crafted in reverse. The whole performance is he’s a complete liar, really, from the beginning.”

Gray went on to note Phoenix’s character was “written as much more of a standard brute and when we got into the rehearsals, the very first time they read through the scene, Joaquin said, ‘I can’t play it this way.’” He cited a divisive scene in which Bruno confronts Ewa after he attempts to touch her in particular as a moment of brilliance, saying, “I personally love what he does in it, which is when he yells at her and says, ‘Shame on you’ because there’s something phony about what he’s doing to her, but at the same time her situation is truly dire, so it’s a manipulation, but at the same time, it’s real for her, which I found infinitely more complex than a brute who just holds a knife to her throat. It’s also a much more sophisticated view, for me — and it was all Joaquin, really — of codependency, which I guess is a postwar term for alcoholics anonymous, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist through 1921.”

James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of "The Immigrant"In general, Gray spoke of his love of actors, referencing a story from the set of Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 drama “Queen Christina” where the director asked Greta Garbo to do “nothing” as she stands at the head of a ship for the film’s finale and the closeup on her is the film’s most riveting moment.

“The actor brings that and if you love the actor, you give them the space,” said Gray. “The scene where [Ewa] confesses in the church, which had an elaborate light change where the light dims behind her and all this crap, we did 14 takes and I think take 12 is in the movie. It’s a five-and-a-half minute long take and I knew I wanted a continuous thing and I kept wanting to get the camera closer and closer to [Cotillard]. Take one was like here [pointing about a foot away], and finally take 14 was like here [right up against face], practically up her nostril and it’s because I love them. They just reveal their souls to you and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Yet Gray said there were places where he could help guide the performances as a director, specifically citing a detail most audiences would never notice.

“We spent a lot of time on their shoes because how people move is really connected to their footwear,” said Gray, who clad each of his central actors in authentic 1920’s footwear. “[Costume designer] Patty Norris got the shoes, and I remember Joaquin turning to me to say, ‘These are the most uncomfortable shoes, and they’re my size, but they’re the most uncomfortable things ever.’ And all of a sudden, he said, ‘That’s the key. I’m uncomfortable in my skin.’”

Gray also discovered only after the fact that while he and Darius Khondji were both inspired for the film’s look by the same trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it was by completely different exhibits.

“I took [Khondji] to the Met and we walked through the halls and we saw some autochromes,” said Gray, discussing how they achieved the nearly monochrome look of the film by basing it on one of the earliest forms of color photographs that used separate plates of tinted glass to appear as a spectrum when put together. “They have this muted, oaker, faded look and we saw those, some of them and they’re amazing looking and he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ Then they had a bunch of Caravaggios and I guess that’s what he gravitated towards because we were talking about the religious aspect of the story quite a bit.”

He added, “What also is true is you find the color palette comes from a lot of the research that we did. Global warming is a coming catastrophe, but the air in 1921 was so much worse than it is today. You have to realize almost all electricity was from burning coal. The air was so filled with particulate, it was a miracle that the sun came out, even in cold weather, and that’s the basis for what Vilmos Zsigmond did for ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ which is who we stole a lot from and we looked a lot at the opening [of that film] in England. But after we had been told this by a guy at the New York Historical Society, Darius kept saying, ‘You have to feel the air. You have to feel it.’”

Still, Gray wants modern audiences to feel something else. When Feeney brought up Gray’s penchant for making films with “the deep suspension of judgment…because people are filled with duality, but the spirit of forgiveness is in there,” the writer/director was deeply pleased he mentioned it.

“It’s the absolute core of what it is I’m trying to express in every movie however goofily or sloppily or indirectly,” said Gray. “What’s very much in vogue is ever since around ’81, ’82 in cinema seems ironic distance from the character. And I’m anxious, as pathetic as this sounds, to turn back the clock a little bit. George Eliot once said, ‘The purpose of art is to extend our sympathies,’ which I think is such a beautiful idea — that’s why the Catholicism in the film started to creep in because I had done some research on the Polish immigration process on Ellis Island and I was told 98% of them by 1921 were Catholic. Then I started reading about St. Francis of Assisi. But I started to think at the core of it, no matter how wretched we might think somebody is, they’re never beyond forgiveness because so much of the culture today, it seems to me, is vicious. It’s always fingerpointing. So I wanted to do something that was the opposite of snark and the vicious condescension that has creeped into a lot of the culture. This all sounds very pretentious, but I feel like love is a very important subject.”

“The Immigrant” is currently available on Netflix.