‘Armageddon Time’ director James Gray: ‘Cinema may not be here forever’
It’s easy to walk into Telluride with a list James Gray questions about Armageddon Time , his bittersweet coming-of age drama that he’s there for to debut for a North American audience. It’s less easy to get through that list with a writer-director whose passion for film and filmmaking quickly spills beyond queries about Armageddon’s autobiographical details and Reagan-era setting, or where the movie lands in a career that spans from his 1994 festival-darling debut Little Odessa to wide-scale Hollywood productions like We Own the Night and The Lost City of Z.
He’s happy to talk about his starry Armageddon cast, which includes Anne Hathaway and Succession‘s Jeremy Strong as stand-ins for his late parents, and Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as his courtly grandfather, or the challenges of re-creating the working-class Queens of his circa-1980 youth — even his adolescent run-ins with a certain famed real estate family helmed by a hard-boiled patriarch named Fred Trump. But Gray, 53, is just as eager to range far and wide on the politics of Cannes walkouts, the roulette wheel of pandemic-era casting (De Niro! Blanchett! Hopkins! Hopkins!
US actress Anne Hathaway, US director James Gray and US actor Jeremy Strong arrive for the screening of the film “Armageddon Time” during the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 19, 2022.
Anne Hathaway, director James Gray, and Jeremy Strong at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
| Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea of Armageddon Time start for you?
JAMES GRAY: In some ways, it’s your whole life, right? What happened was that I was in Paris to fulfill a commitment to perform an opera, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro .. My wife and children had not yet come to see me, so I was living alone in a very nice apartment in a residential part of Paris. I was very lonely and had very strange dreams. Two films I had made back to back were very difficult for me. I had gone to Amazonia [for 2016’s Lost City of Z] — I mean, obviously it’s not a place that wants you to shoot a movie there — and after that, I had a very difficult experience on Ad Astra, where you’re putting actors on wires and they’re acting in a green box.
I thought, “What are you doing?” You can go back to your inner life and find the things that are most important to you, and then stop separating work and personal. And I just started to think of a movie by Federico Fellini called Amarcord. It’s a little bit of a fantasy — not his real life, but it is. And while I don’t want to get political, I saw an analogous line between Mussolini
You notice all this stuff in Amarcord about Mussolini which is very powerful, because what it does is it tells you that, as ridiculous as the characters can be in that film, the undercurrent that you take from it still is that in a few years the country will be basically destroyed, that war is coming. It adds a dark side to something that is both funny and beautiful. So I thought back to my past encounters with the Trump family and this time in my life when I lost a good friend. I was a very screwy child. So I began planning it all by myself in Paris. I’m sorry. I have given you too many answers. [Laughs]
Well, you covered a lot.
The answer, really — always as a creative person — is to be as personal as you can. Because you are the only one, so the more personal it is, the more it will be. The more specific it is, the more authentic it will be.
During lockdown I watched about 150 movies with my kids, who were about 15, 13, and 11 at the time. I showed them, you know, the staples of world cinema, Seven Samurai and The Bicycle Thief, 400 Blows, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, American In Paris, Singin’ in the Rain. The 400 Blows struck me because it’s Truffaut being as honest as he can with us, and I think that’s beautiful.
Paul Thomas Anderson says it’s because we’re all getting old. [Laughs] He said that as a joke, but I think it’s at least part. Sometimes we believe that art can last forever. This is a mistaken assumption. I mean, opera, for example — there was a period of about 120, 140 years where opera was the popular art form. For Verdi’s funeral, four hundred thousand people flocked to the streets. Puccini actually died before he could finish Turandot, that was 1925. Within a span of four to five years, they were writing fascist operes with large budgets and the art form was dead.
The reason I bring this up is because cinema may not last forever. It is difficult to believe that cinema will ever be the same. When the studios invest in only one type of movie, it gives the impression that the art form goes through something very difficult. I don’t mean to criticize comic-book movies, but it’s great to have them in the mix. If you only have one type of movie that the studios will make it becomes a form of sclerosis. So you have an audience that has been trained to only enjoy these types of movies. The art form becomes smaller and smaller.
When the medium is in trouble there’s an artistic rebellion en masse. It’s the idea to say “No, Doctor Strange is the Multiverse ” and that the story is not over. I don’t think that this is a nonsense. What I’m saying is that there must be more. Let’s imagine you walked into Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a lot more enjoyable than the Louvre or the Prado. I love that I can see Aristotle with a bust Homer by Rembrandt. I also love that they have great Vermeers. But I can also look at Mark Rothko. It’s this incredible range that makes us human. It’s what makes us, dare I say, beautiful.
There’s been a lot of talk about the disappearance of the mid-range movie, almost like it’s gone the way the middle class in this country. We are also facing the loss of a monoculture, which was a place where everyone experienced entertainment in varying degrees.
When the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show, not a single hubcap was stolen in the city of New York. It’s true! Everyone was there watching them. [Laughs]
But you raised something very important which I think is critical, and it is the central crisis of our age. You spoke about the decline or disappearance of the middle-class, the middle movie, and all that. It all stems from the one unanswered question that every policy maker doesn’t know the answer to, and that is how to monetize integrity.
Sounds like a school teacher. Although it’s a noble job, it doesn’t pay much. What do you do if a society doesn’t value integrity? Donald Trump is a transactional figure. American capitalism has done a remarkable job of getting rid the notion that making a million dollars doesn’t really matter.
Though when we talk about how movies used to be, the golden age of cinema or what have you, we also forget sometimes to acknowledge how poorly a lot films did that are now considered classics — It’s a Wonderful Life, a total flop. Dazed and Confused made about $10.
Yeah. It’s A Wonderful Life was a disaster! It almost ended Frank Capra’s career. It did happen, in fact.
To get back to Armageddon, how hard was it for you to recreate the Queens of your childhood physically? New York obviously didn’t stand still for 40 years.
The truth is we went back to my street. Where the kid lives in the movie is 90 feet south from my house. The public school they are walking to at the beginning is my public school. Queens is more or less unaffected physically.
Culturally it’s quite different. It used to be Archie Bunker Central. We were the only Jewish family on the block. We shared our semi-attached rowhouse with a man who looked, talked and acted exactly like Carroll O’Connor. He even had a flagpole placed just a bit to his side so they could see who the real Americans were. [Laughs] I quite like Queens now more than I did when I grew up there.
I want to talk about the casting for a minute, because it seemed like an unusual amount of musical chairs: Oscar Isaac was an early hire who had to drop out, Robert De Niro’s name was in the mix. You even had Cate Blanchett on board at one point to play Donald’s sister Mary Anne Trump — which is only one scene, but she gives this very fiery speech at the school that your stand-in, Paul (played by the charming ginger-haired newcomer Banks Repeta) goes to.
Well, after I wrote the script I went off and cast it, and then the pandemic hit. Everyone’s schedule was completely messed up. I think Bob De Niro, Cate Blanchett were credited in the final film. Bob was very involved in the script and was very helpful. He helped me make the film. He then went to Marty Scorsese’s film, which took a long time to shoot.
“Fine, Bob! “
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, what am I gonna say? “Don’t do it”? Oscar was the victim of the same fate. COVID allowed him to move forward with the project he was currently working on. It’s strange with movies, sometimes they are made the way they should be made.
In the case of De Niro he was going to be a more blue-collar father than my dad. My mother’s father was very Tony Hopkins-like. He was very urbane, very Tony and very well spoken. My father’s father was a Brooklyn plumber and more of a bruiser. So I had to rewrite it. But it worked out exactly as it should because my mother had a nervous breakdown after my grandfather’s death and never recovered emotionally. I am not happy Bob couldn’t make it. I love Bob and have wanted to work alongside him for a long while. It was unlocked a lot of story when Tony joined the team. It was completely true to the story.
I have to admit that I didn’t know Jeremy [Strong] was a writer. He came on after Oscar, and I then had to watch Succession, because I’m not a TV person. Wow, that guy is great. Andy [Anne Hathaway] was there from the beginning. Cate was going do that Mary Anne Trump thing for a day, and then she went up doing Mr. [Todd] Field’s movie [TAR], so she was unavailable to come. She was amazing. She was like, “Darling! I’ll do the green screen in Berlin on the weekend.” Jessica [Chastain] was then available.
Credit: Anne Joyce / Focus Features
What was it like to get that seven-minute standing ovation at Cannes? Did you have your Sally Field moment, “They really like me”?
Well, Cannes, we have a love-hate relationship. I’ve had a ton of movies go there — The Immigrant, Two Lovers, We Own The Night, The Yards. I like to say that they love movies there as much as a dog loves meat. This is a confession: Everyone said, “Oh, you were clinging.” Did you feel moved by the ovation? I wasn’t moved by the ovation. My father had died one month prior to COVID.
Oh, I’m so sorry. Did he have a chance to view a cut of the film before his death?
No, it is a shame. It is a regret. He was quite old, and we were on very good terms. I was still tearing up, because we had discussed getting him to Cannes.
But honestly, I felt like he had escaped. They didn’t boo. I’ve been on the jury, and they have these seats there when you get up, they go thwack. I was watching a movie made by a great director, which I won’t say the name of, and maybe within the first 30 minutes, half the audience had walked out. So you keep hearing, thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack. You live in fear that this is what will happen to your life. When you asked me how I felt, I said that relief.
I spoke to you a few years ago when I was writing a profile of Brad Pitt for Ad Astra, and I had asked him whether he’d be interested in following some of his movie-star peers into serial television. He said he would embrace it because he loves the possibilities for longer-form storytelling. I see you have a credit for an upcoming Norman Mailer series. Is TV calling your name?
I do, for certain things. Scenes from a Marriage was originally made for television. The Dekalog , was created by [Krzysztof] Kieslowski. It is a form of snobbery, to say that you wouldn’t. If you’re working in a certain format, then it’s beautiful. It was eight hours long, and was made War and Peace by Sergey Bondarchuk for Russian television. “Peter,” I said to Focus’s head, who is a great man, “Peter, we have an eight-hour-long film.” Could you distribute it? He can’t. He won’t.
Although you know, something like 45 percent of Americans now have theaters at home, which is a flabbergasting number. I’m very lucky, I have a 110-inch screen with a projector and the popcorn machine, the whole thing. I believe there is a problem that people don’t talk much about: “I pressed Pause, I got up, and I pissed. I then checked my phone. I wanted to reheat the shrimp jambalaya that I had yesterday …. You know what? Tomorrow, I’m going to watch the second half. “
When you were a captive audience, it meant that the filmmaker, the screenwriters, the director, whatever, we had to be experts at saying, “Here are a series of rising tensions that build throughout a 110 minute, 120 minute period that make going to the bathroom the least pleasant thing you can do. need to see what’s going to happen. You need to see what’s gonna happen.
You mentioned It’s a Wonderful Life, but if you were making a studio picture in 1943 or whatever, and you took the film and previewed it in say, Pasadena — and the preview audience was, by the way, quite different in 1943, although they still made their big mistakes, look at Orson Welles. If they had a problem with something or another, Darryl Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, or whoever it might have been, would tell you, “The story doesn’t work in that section.” This was Monday. Tuesday, you got Ben Hecht to rewrite the scene. Wednesday saw Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman take their places on stage seven and nine, respectively. They came back to reshoot. You could then cut it on a Thursday and screen a new version on Friday.
So the stories worked brilliantly. They kept improving them. The unsung hero of old movies is the reshoot. You can’t do reshoots today unless you have a huge budget. Even if you had all the money the world, it would be impossible to get the actors. We now shoot in Australia and Bucharest. It’s impossible to bring everyone back together.
And also of course, the stars of that era were often locked into their studio contracts. They couldn’t say no.
They could not say no. Cary Grant didn’t want to do The Awful Truth, the Leo McCarey film, which is a beautiful movie. He offered to pay the studio back out of his contact. He said, “Please don’t force me to do it!” This is comedy. I’m a serious actor. He did it. The rest is history.
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