Q&A With James Gray
The director of Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow’s new romantic drama, Two Lovers, dishes on Phoenix’s controversial retirement, Gwyneth’s lifestyle website, and why modern filmmaking won’t stand the test of time.
This is your third movie with Joaquin Phoenix. What do you think about this idea that he’s retiring from acting? Did he discuss it with you?
He’s such a hard-working and intense performer. Towards the end of the shoot, he was really tired. He kept saying, “I’m tired, I don’t want to do it, anymore. I can’t take it.” You don’t take him seriously when he says that. You just think, it’s the end of the shoot, he’ll recharge his batteries later. Then about two or three months later, after we returned, my wife said to me, “Honey, I want to show you something.” There was some website with Joaquin looking like Rasputin and saying, “I’m done.” I was a little pissed off, because I was at least hoping he’d call me and tell me this. But he didn’t, and I had to drive up to see him. He’d built this whole recording studio in his house.
“There was some website with Joaquin looking like Rasputin and saying, ‘I’m done.’ I was a little pissed off, because I was at least hoping he’d call me and tell me this.”
Have you heard his music?
I’m not going to comment on that. Look, if he’s not serious—I mean, he built a studio in his house. What I’m hoping is that his battery’s recharged, and his creative process gets going again. Sean Penn has announced his retirement from acting about 72 times.
Or it could be a Michael Jordan thing, where he went to play baseball for a few months and then came back. Some people just need another outlet.
That’s true. You almost forget he did that.
But if he did retire, you must feel honored that he made his final movie with you.
I guess so, but it saddens me, too. I love working with him. I think he’s a wonderful and very intense actor. Beautiful actor. He has a lot of vulnerability, which he’s willing to put onscreen. But he’s been acting since he was eight-years-old, so it is what it is.
When you read these reviews, like when you read the reviews for The Yards [Gray’s 2000 crime drama that received some heavily negative feedback], was it ever like, ‘never again’?
No, because you can’t judge a movie until many years after it’s made. You really can’t. If you were to go back and look at the reviews of, say, Nights of Cabiria—my favorite movie—I doubt it would have any resemblance to the way the film is regarded now. Time can be very good or very cruel to films. So you have to ignore it. They’re not written for me, anyway, they’re written for people who go to the movies. Not for the people who make them.
I remember reading Pauline Kael’s review of Raging Bull—and Kael is now held up in some high regard—and her review of Raging Bull is so moronic, you almost want to have her banned from public life. The review is idiotic, because Raging Bull is not too bad a movie, but she hated it. You can be contrarian, but that doesn’t make you right. When you read that and you think, “Well, I’m Martin Scorsese, and I’ve just made what is essentially a consummate work of art, and I have the most prominent critic in the country writing a completely idiotic review,” what does that tell you? If I was Martin Scorsese, would my confidence by shaken, having just made what is essentially a masterpiece? That would be very sad. How are we talking about this?
I don’t know. I want to go back to what you said about Nights of Cabiria, though. That movie has an old-fashioned quality to it, especially in the acting. It feels timeless, like a character piece in a play. How do you think of Two Lovers in terms of its era, and did you want it to seem more like an old film?
I absolutely did. In a way it’s my rebellion, because for the most part, I think we’re in trouble. I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think [modern films] will age well. They seem very mean and condescending towards the characters.
There are terrible clichés in art cinema. Take the camera off the tripod, make the subtext the text, and it’s about this issue, and it’s so real, it’s realer than real, and we’re going to tell you a real fucking story right here, man, and we’re going to be raw, and we’re going to be rawer than raw. We’re going to show you how little money we had to make this film. How can you be transcendent that way? You’re making a fucking point. What I was anxious to do was something that transcended that, that was not concerned with making a point, but was rather concerned with a kind of honest or authentic emotionality.
How lucky to get Gwyneth. I know you had talked about working together for a while.
She said, “I can’t work with you, you only make movies about guys with guns.” So I said, “Oh, yeah? I’m going to make a romance, baby.” I’m very biased. I read horrible things about her from time to time. People that don’t know her say horrible things about her.
Well, she has that website that’s like, here’s how to live an awesome vegan lifestyle, and people take issue with it.
I have looked at the website. I’m not a website guy, although I’m not a Luddite, either. I have looked at a computer, but I don’t go to PopSugar and Goop and all that. So I can’t say, but what I can say is that the person I know is wonderful and very generous, and has a great vulnerability and is very sensitive.
That scene where they’re in a club, and she gets the call where he says he’s not going to leave his wife, it’s one of the more realistic female breakdowns I’ve seen. That’s exactly what would happen.
That was multiple cameras. I wanted it to feel found, so I shot it with very long lenses, and there’s people walking in front of the camera, and almost messy, dirty, because I wanted it to feel authentic. And it was written that way, but I didn’t know how she was going to play it. She said to me “Look, just make sure technically we’re okay with Take One, because I’m ready to go.” We did seven or eight takes, but when I went to look through the footage, take one was so real. I remember laughing when I saw it because it felt so authentic that I was embarrassed. It’s horrible to watch. And he loved her. They had a very warm relationship during the movie, and got along very well. And he kept saying, “Oh man, she’s like really good, man, I don’t know.” And then he ad-libbed and improvised that whole thing were he says, “You’re very high.” And he took that cue from her, and it’s those moments that are very exciting to make films.