Many oppressed people suffering from repression have long sought and yearned to immigrate to a country that offers better personal, political and economic opportunities. The United States has long been one of the more desirable locations for immigrants to move to, as they seek comfort in the numerous personal freedoms the country offers its citizens. But no matter how desirable a place may appear to be, people’s lives don’t always instantly change for the better after arriving in a new home, which is chronicled in award-winning writer-director James Gray’s new drama, ‘The Immigrant,’ an official selection at the 51st New York Film Festival.
‘The Immigrant,’ which explores the myth of the American dream, follows Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard), as she arrives to Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister Magda. The two almost immediately become separated, as Magda is placed in the infirmary for lung disease. With no money or place to stay and facing the threat of deportation, the mysterious and connected Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to Ewa’s aid, providing her with a place to live and a job at the burlesque theater he runs.
As Ewa struggles to survive and maintain faith, despite the hardship of her situation, the Bruno’s kind nature begins to change. While he has trouble contending with his growing personal feelings towards his new dancer, he has no difficulties in using her in his prostitution ring, saying she can use the money she earns to help release her sister. Despite her growing disdain for Bruno, and her unexpected attraction to Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), whose show she saw while on Ellis Island, Ewa forsakes her own happiness to protect and save her sister.
Gray and Phoenix generously took the time recently to sit down during a press conference moderated by New York Film Festival staff member Dennis Lim to talk about ‘The Immigrant.’ Following the press and industry screening of the mystery drama at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, the filmmaker and actor discussed such topics as why Gray made the title a woman, because he finds something extremely beautiful about exploring melodrama through a female protagonist’s perspective; Gray making Ewa Catholic because he wanted to explore was the idea of redemption and forgiveness, which is almost institutionalized in the church; and how he used his family background as inspiration for Ewa’s struggles in America, to represent that not everyone had a pleasant experience while immigrating.
Question (Q): James, why did you decide to feature a female protagonist in the film?
James Gray (JG): I had seen, I think in 2008 or 2009, a performance of the opera ‘Il Trittico’ by Puccini in L.A. It’s a triptych, with two tragedies directed by William Friedkin and the comedy was directed by Woody Allen. The middle part is ‘Suor Angelica,’ and it was told from the female perspective, and I spent a good part of the sixty minutes of the opera weeping.
So I thought there was something extremely beautiful about exploring melodrama through a female protagonist’s perspective. All of a sudden I would be free from the constraints of what I call macho posturing, male behavior, and just get straight to the emotional part of it. I don’t mean, ‘women are more emotional;’ what I mean is culturally we say ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are there are traits we attribute to those qualities. I just thought I would cut off the trappings of male behavior and do something very operatic. Not melodramatic, but a melodrama. So that was the inspiration for this, and I found it quite rewarding and liberating.
Q: How did you decide to cast Marion Cotillard as Ewa?
JG: I have three young children, and I kind of stopped going to movies in 2006, I go to see some, but I’m a little bit out of touch, and I didn’t know who Marion Cotillard was. I had become friendly with her boyfriend, and we went out to dinner in Paris and I met her, and she and I started arguing about an actor that she thought was overrated, and she threw a piece of bread at my head and she mentioned that she thought I was a jerk.
I thought she had a great face, and not just physically beautiful because she is, but a haunted quality, almost like a silent film actress. I’ve talked about this, but she reminded me of Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film; able to convey depth of emotion without dialogue specifically. So I wrote the movie for her and Joaquin, and if they hadn’t wanted to do the movie, I’m not sure I would have made it. Whether she was Polish or French didn’t really affect the decision at all.
Q: Many of the Polish immigrants coming into America during the 1920s were Jewish. Why did you decide to make Ewa Catholic?
JG: I made her Catholic because one of the themes of the film I wanted to explore was the idea of redemption and forgiveness, which is almost institutionalized in the Catholic Church. The Madonna/whore, all of this stuff is connected to Catholic tradition. It comes to what I wanted the film to be about, which this idea that no one is beneath us and everything is of value, which is a very Franciscan idea. All of this is consistent with making her Catholic. It would also make her an outsider, even on the Lower East Side, so it would put her totally in that position.
Q: Why did you use your own family background to infuse the portrayal of the immigrant experience?
JG: My grandparents came through Ellis Island in 1923, and their entire history was quite well-documented; we’ve got all the paperwork. What was really an interesting thing for me is that it was not like the typical immigration story. When I saw movies about the American dream, it was always “I came to America, and it was fantastic and I loved it.”
The truth is, my grandparents spoke very little English until the day they died, they never really assimilated. There was a tremendous melancholy, especially to my grandfather. He always talked about missing the old country, which I never understood. I mean my grandmother’s parents were beheaded by Katza, so I never understood what he was missing really. But I found it interesting that he still had this pull to this place, which meant that the immigrant experience was a bit more complicated than, ‘America’s great.’
Q: Joaquin, did you do any research for the role, or want to bring anything to the story that wasn’t in the script?
Joaquin Phoenix (JP): I became obsessed with rickets, but it didn’t really have a place in the film. I kept trying to get it in there, but it just wouldn’t work. That’s about all the research I did.
JG: James, how do you relate to your actors? Do you have any acting experience?
JG: I’m the worst actor ever. I had two chances to act in my life; the first was when Wes Anderson wanted me to be in ‘The Life Aquatic.’ He said, “No, it’s going to be fun. You come, we’ll be in Rome, and it’ll be amazing.” So I said, “What do you mean, Wes? How long?” He said two to three weeks, and I’m thinking, No way two to three weeks.
I didn’t understand why he wanted to cast me, but he’s a friend, and as a consequence wanted some form of revenge. So I said okay, and then we’re going to go. All of a sudden I got the schedule and it was five months in Cinecitta, and I could just see mental illness creeping in.
Then the second chance I had was I acted in a film called ‘Love Jones,’ and I had a scene with Lorenz Tate. If you see ‘Love Jones,’ I’m not in the movie, so that shows how good I was. “
Q: ‘The Immigrant’ mainly features dark colors. How did you decide on the visual aesthetic of the film?
JG: Well, the photography of the film was based on two things, really. The first was these things called autochromes, which are these fake-colored photos that are hand-dyed on glass to make them look colored. And then it’s also based on. Everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s Vilmos Zsigmond and Gordon Willis and all that,’ but the truth is it just came from the huge amount of soot and coal, all that stuff that burned in the air, basically cut the light and always created a kind of yellow-ish thing as opposed to a bright blue sky, a huge amount of pollution.
Another thing is when you light things by gaslight they take on a kind of yellow-ocre hue. You could light it a different way with fluorescents, but it would be a-historical.
Q: You shot ‘The Immigrant’ on film. What are your thoughts on the future of the digital and film formats?
JG: The decision about digital or film is going to be made for us. I think the answer is that film is going to be gone. Although I think it’ll make a comeback, and it’ll be like vinyl records.
But the movie was shot on 35 mm film. (Cinematographer) Darius Khondji and I did tests on Alexa, Red, Kodak, and Fuji, and I did them blind. We just screened them and said, “Which one is the best?” Screening them blind wasn’t even close; the Kodak looked incredible.
But I think it’s the power of what is new that is in some ways very damaging. Let’s say everybody, including Steven Spielberg and Chris Nolan, was shooting digital, and all of a sudden I come out with a new product, and say, “There’s this thing, it doesn’t see in pixels, it sees in grain, it’s more like your eye sees it. It has better contrast ratio than digital and better representation of color than digital, the blacks are better.” Everyone would be like, “this new thing, film. I have to change to film.” I can’t understand why everyone wants to migrate to what is, in my mind, objectively worse. It’s not even that cheaper.
To watch the full press conference, watch the Part I and Part II clips on YouTube.