Director James Gray describes his new movie, "The Immigrant," as "a strange combination" of family history and Puccini.
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, the film is an emotional story of a woman making her way in an unfamiliar land, where she is subjected to cruelty, abuse, and a strangely gripping form of desire on the part of the man who sells her body to others.
Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose," "Inception") plays Ewa Cybulski, a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921. Separated from her sister by the authorities and threatened with deportation, she seeks help from a charming but mysterious man, Bruno (Phoenix), who pulls her under his protective wing -- and into a world of burlesque and prostitution.
Their relationship is a co-dependent one, and Bruno appears as tortured by his use of Ewa as she is by her vulnerable situation in a new country.
Renner plays a stage magician, Orlando, who entrances Ewa and becomes a potent rival of Bruno's.
At a press conference during the recent New York Film Festival (where the film had its North American debut), Gray said his inspiration came from attending a performance of the Puccini operetta, "Suor Angelica."
"It was told from the female perspective and I spent the better part of the 60 minutes of the operetta weeping," he said. "And I thought that there was something extremely beautiful about exploring melodrama from a female protagonist's perspective, because I would be freed from all the constraints of what I might call macho posturing, male behavior, all that stuff, and get right of the heart of it."
The film was also colored by stories the director had heard from his grandparents, Russian Jews and Poles who came though Ellis Island in 1923: "My grandparents told me all these stories: 'We didn't know what a banana was, we bit into it,' and that wound up in [the film]."
But Gray said his film is not the typical story told in movies about immigrants, where the newly-arrived declare, "I came to America and it was fantastic, and I loved it."
"The truth is my grandparents spoke really no English until the day they died, didn't really assimilate at all," Gray said. "And there was a tremendous melancholy, especially [for] my grandfather, who used to talk about how he missed the old country, which I never understood -- my grandmother's parents were beheaded by Cossacks! I never understood what he was missing really, but I found it interesting that he still had this pull for the place. And to me it meant that immigration is a bit more complicated. So that was one of the moods I was trying to impart."
Gray, who said he wanted to apply the post-war concept of a co-dependent relationship to a period story about a man and woman, co-wrote the film (with Ric Menello) for Cotillard and Phoenix.
Originally, though, "I didn't know who Marion Cotillard was," he said. "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 who she loved and I thought was overrated. And she threw a piece of bread at my head. And when she mentioned she thought I was a jerk, I immediately liked her as a result."
"I thought she had a great face -- not just physically beautiful, which she is, but a haunted quality almost, like a silent film actress. She reminded me of Renee Jeanne Falconetti [from the Dreyer film, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'] -- very able to convey depth of emotion without dialogue specifically. So I wrote the movie for her and for Joaquin, and if they hadn't wanted to do the movie I'm not sure I would have made it."
Phoenix and Gray had worked together in "The Yards" (2000), a crime drama set in New York's outer boroughs; "We Own the Night" (2007), about a nightclub owner and his brother, a NYC cop; and "Two Loves" (2008), a romance co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
When asked how working with Gray on "The Immigrant" differed from their previous collaborations, Phoenix replied, "I don't know. Every film is different. I really don't remember. I'd love to give you examples of how this is different but I can't think of anything."
"That's so untrue," said Gray. "You're such a different actor than you were then."
"Maybe that's true, James!" laughed Phoenix. "But I'm just not aware of how so."
Gray added, "Well, I can say that Joaquin has taught me a very valuable lesson, which is to be very process-oriented. Not to think about the results but to enjoy the doing of it, which is not so easy when you're in a narcissistic position like directing."
"Well-said, James," Joaquin quipped.
Production of "The Immigrant" took place in New York City (including two days at Ellis Island, the first feature to shoot on the island), with stage work at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where the film's tenement sets were constructed. The film was luminously shot, on 35mm film, by cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Seven"), and features excellent production design by Happy Massee ("Two Lovers," Welcome to the Rileys") and costume design by Patricia Norris ("12 Years a Slave").
The lighting and textures of the film, in addition to the tenor of the piece, recall Hollywood films from the early 1970s -- a period that was particularly important to Gray. "That was a wonderful period in American cinema where there was a kind of honesty and directness to the emotional life of these characters," he said. "There are many filmmakers today who work in a very admirable way, but if you look at the studio system, it certainly represented a kind of a peak -- there's 1939-1941, and then there's 1969 to about 1974, '75. Those are the periods that have inspired me."
Gray said that while he strived to make sure the production was true to period, "We softened it quite a bit. Truth is, actual tenement life was worthless -- rife with vermin, everybody had typhus. I decided I didn't want the movie to be about that. It's not an anthropological study."
"The Immigrant" (The Weinstein Company) is rated R, and opens in select theatres on May 16.
To watch a trailer for "The Immigrant" click on the video player below.
More from the New York Film Festival:
- NYFF review: Joaquin Phoenix virtually in love in "Her"
- Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"
- NYFF review: A con man's "Abuse of Weakness"
- "12 Years a Slave" a wrenching odyssey
- Ben Stiller talks "Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
- NYFF: Not envious of "Jealousy"
- A short take on very long takes
- NYFF review: The Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis"
- Images of revolution: "The Square" and "The Missing Picture"
- NYFF review: "Le Week-end" a memorable Paris sojourn
- Review: "Captain Phillips" a gripping thriller