James Gray’s Journey from the Outer Boroughs to Outer Space
A son might rise and become a father; a daughter might become a mother; an admirer of art, an artist. Such transitions are uneasy and unsure. You try to carry your line forward while improving on it, but there seem to be no rules. What if the future frowns on your best efforts? What if, in seeking gains, you’re actually creating a new kind of loss? These are anxieties that fathers, mothers, and artists share.
The filmmaker James Gray taught himself to face the problem of the future through something that he calls classicism: the idea that what remains from the past can provide guidance for making art in the present. He found his models in clear, almost mythical stories and enduring films—most of all, those movies of the nineteen-seventies in which a generation of directors seemed to exercise daring creative control.
But the assurances of the past are limited; a risk is distancing yourself from the world where you live now. A classicist, like a parent, has the expectation of being understood in retrospect. What remains is the challenge to connect before the delicate human moment has passed.
One Sunday evening two Octobers ago, James Gray had guests over for pasta at a large house he was renting in Central Los Angeles. Gray, a tall, pale man with tufted auburn hair and a whitening orange beard, had moved into the place a month earlier, from the apartment in Hancock Park where he had lived for some years with his wife and their three children. He was the writer and director of six movies, and was shooting his seventh, “Ad Astra”—a film set largely at the outer reaches of the solar system. It was a warm, still evening, two weeks before Halloween. In the front yard, an adult-size skeleton and a child-size skeleton, dressed by Gray’s kids, perched against a gnarled tree in the long late light.
“Should we eat now, Ali?” Gray called to his wife, Alexandra Dickson Gray, a documentarian. He stood at the counter in the middle of the kitchen, fishing peeled tomatoes out of a can with his fingers. Cheese and olives had been set out for their guests; John Coltrane was playing softly from the other room.
Gray had been hosting weekly Sunday dinners for friends since college, when he studied film at the University of Southern California: a period when his mother was dying of brain cancer in Flushing, Queens, and his creative life was gaining speed. Gray’s first film, “Little Odessa”—the story of a young man (Tim Roth) becoming entangled with the Russian Mob while his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) dies, his father (Maximilian Schell) turns him out, and his kid brother (Edward Furlong) struggles to cope—appeared in 1994, when Gray was only twenty-five, and established him as a precocious talent who brought sensitive family-drama realism to gritty crime-drama machismo. His next two films, “The Yards” (2000) and “We Own the Night” (2007), also explored these themes, but his subject matter broadened with the release of “Two Lovers” (2008) and “The Immigrant” (2013), which begins with a young woman’s passage through Ellis Island. In “The Lost City of Z” (2016), based on a book by the New Yorker writer David Grann, about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, he moved away from New York for the first time, filming in the U.K. and Colombia.
“Ad Astra,” which appears later this month, is Gray’s first outer-space film and his largest production to date. He saw it as a narrative about an epic journey, with a flawed hero. “We tried to make a classic, stripped-down story,” he says. “If you’re stealing from something so old, maybe people think you’re new.”
In the kitchen, Gray made a few late additions to an oxtail Bolognese that he’d begun cooking at 8 a.m. He wore, as usual, a black T-shirt, tan cargo shorts, and sneakers, and his shoulders rolled with the forward-drooping aspect of a marionette being pulled up by one string. “Should we drop the pasta?” he asked his wife.
“Are we ready to eat?” she said.
“Wait ten minutes and then drop the pasta!” Georgia, their loquacious fifth grader, cried.
The guests that night included Gray’s friend since film school Ethan Gross, with whom he wrote “Ad Astra.” Gross, a shy, slender man with a reedy voice and a creeping wit, is recessive in the ways that Gray is dominant. “James has that alpha personality, and I like to leach off the energy,” he says. “I didn’t like him at first in school, because he was a know-it-all, and loud.” Today, they seem nearly inseparable. Gray holds court with a nebbishy, self-mocking churn of anecdote and lamentation, and his humor, in the outer-borough Ashkenazi style, can leave one unsure where the shtick ends and the real self-loathing starts. Adjusting his thick-rimmed glasses, he made a series of groans over the broccoli.
“James, how are you feeling about the Bolognese, dude?” Thomas Houseago, the sculptor and painter, asked, approaching the stove. He was from Leeds, and his voice was both brassy and airy, like a clearing whoosh through a French horn.
“It’s top quality—it has medicinal properties,” Gray said.
A loose queue formed at the stove, as Gray spooned sauce. Place cards in the dining room were marked with guests’ initials. “Now, if there were a Yankees game tonight, we wouldn’t be able to do this, because the world stops for the Yanks,” Gray said. Once, he was escorted from his seat at an Angels-Yankees playoff game for excessively raucous cheering in the family section.
“Ever been tempted to start liking the Dodgers?” Houseago asked as they carried their plates to the table.
“I really tried, but there’s something nauseating about it,” Gray said. His children like to make fun of his pronunciation (he says “nwauw-se-ating” and “be-coss”), and he and his wife, a warm, wry, dark-blond Californian who can seem like his affective opposite, have a running dispute about how to say names such as Craig and Carrie. Gray looked several seats down at Gross. “How’s tonight’s red sauce?” he asked. “A ‘Godfather’?”
“They rate everything according to Francis Ford Coppola movies,” Ali Gray explained. A superb meal on Gross’s scale is a “Godfather.” A meal better than superb is a “Godfather II.” One that’s rewarding but an acquired taste (such as Gray’s lemon fettuccine with jalapeños) is an “Apocalypse Now.” Once, there was a “Jack” meal, but they don’t talk about it.
“A Godfather I or II,” Gross pronounced, although he was eating a vegetarian version of the sauce. He and Gray get together several times a week, often to watch films, and many actors and craftspeople who have worked on a Gray film have been to Sunday dinner at least once during production. The following Sunday, Tommy Lee Jones, who has a lead role in “Ad Astra,” would be coming by. “He sent a terrifying e-mail,” Gray told the table. “It said, ‘I will be hungry.’ ”
The guests laughed. Gray does an exacting impersonation of everybody he meets; each recounted bit of dialogue comes in the voice of its speaker. He had to be up at five-thirty the next morning to make it to the set, but, as a Barbaresco was poured, the conversation drifted, and Gray spoke about his favorite hobby shop in New York—Polk’s, near the Empire State Building, which had been turned into a souvenir store. That sort of thing was happening everywhere: San Francisco, London. . . .
“It’s about the creative life style being packaged with big money,” Houseago said. “I was convinced L.A. would be too big and weird to do it, but no. It used to take years. Now it happens in eighteen months.” He raised his shoulders. “I lived in New York in the early nineties. A few years later, I saw ‘Friends’ and thought, What the fuck has happened to New York? People lolling around on couches with no natural predators? They magically have lots of money, and their problems are ridiculous?”
“There’s a level of bullshit that the culture is now embracing,” Gray said. “The other day, the doctor is poking around my pancreas, and he’s, like, ‘You see “The Avengers 2”?’ I’m, like, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I’m, like, ‘I’m not nine!’ ” Gray thought that public reporting of movies’ gross profits, a practice that took off in the eighties, changed the popular conception of what a successful film looked like. (“My dad will say, ‘That was a very big hit!’ I’ll be, like, ‘I don’t think you’re a stockholder in Time Warner!’ ”) At the same time, differences in how movies were released gave important films less opportunity to prove themselves in other ways.
“ ‘The Godfather’ came out in five theatres in New York and two theatres in L.A., and then it widened and widened and played for about a year,” Gray said. “Word of mouth was very important. By 1990, movies were coming out in a thousand theatres—now it’s five thousand—over the first weekend. A movie that is a big hit will last only five or six weeks, so they stopped having a central place in the culture. You can’t quote lines from huge hit movies now. Whereas, if I say to you, ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse . . .’ ” He shrugged.
Houseago nodded vigorously. “The period when an art space had room to grow and be weird is gone,” he said. “It used to be that if you were a successful artist you could make a living; then you died, and there was a question of what happened to your market. Now you have the contemporary art market existing simultaneously with the secondary market. The pressure on the artist is: do not fuck up your secondary market. You hear that—‘Don’t go off the reservation.’ ”
“The idea of needing that validation immediately is a pretty new, last-twenty-years thing,” Gray posited. “People now want to make a lot of money or win prizes. The Oscars in the seventies were a joke! I don’t think Stanley Kubrick wanted to win prizes.”
“And he didn’t want a franchise,” Gross murmured.
“People say that to you: ‘Gotta have your franchise!’ ” Gray said.
Great movies wrestle with a contradiction latent in most art: they must be challenging, original, and particular while also being inviting, legible, and unifying in experience. Sales typically reward formula and facility more than artistic power; history is full of masterpieces undersold in their own times and prize-winning blockbusters now remembered as dross, if at all. At the same time, a work that can’t seduce an audience has missed a key connection, and is unlikely ever to get its wings.
James Gray’s movies have been notable for straddling the boundary between private vision and Hollywood scale. “Ad Astra,” a drama of adult problems which bears the fingerprints of its maker in every shot, is also an eighty-eight-million-dollar movie, starring Brad Pitt, with twelve past Oscar nominees in the credits. Gray writes or co-writes all his own material, and has a reputation for being a caring custodian of actors’ talents. “Immediately after I did ‘Twilight,’ James was the first person I wanted to work with—I sought him out—because you get in a James Gray movie and you get a good performance,” Robert Pattinson, who co-starred with Charlie Hunnam and Sienna Miller in “The Lost City of Z,” told me. Many actors can cite moments when Gray seemed to understand the psychology of their craft better than they did themselves. Miller describes one point when she struggled to convey remoteness in her character’s dialogue; Gray moved the other actor away, getting the performance he wanted by changing the focus zone of her eyes. Joaquin Phoenix, who has starred in four of Gray’s movies, recalls Gray rescuing him from an overwrought moment by telling him to eat a cookie while playing the scene.
In the nineties, Gray emerged as part of the same precocious generation of American directors as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Sofia Coppola, all of whom he counts as friends. Today, he has admirers among his lifelong heroes. Francis Ford Coppola says, “I hold him in the highest regard.” “James is one of the people I look to,” Martin Scorsese told me. “He’s an individual voice and always has been, from ‘Little Odessa’ through ‘We Own the Night’ and ‘The Immigrant’ right up to the present.”
It is striking, then, how selectively Gray is known among American audiences. People who have travelled with him on the Continent insist that the French approach him on the street as if he were, well, Brad Pitt. And yet, to casual American moviegoers, “a James Gray film” doesn’t conjure something in the way that his peers’ work does, and it’s an open question why. Some describe a change in the industry. “We’re in a moment when individual voices are being marginalized and demeaned and dismissed in whole new ways on whole new levels,” Scorsese says. “The idea of challenging the audience has been gradually replaced by servicing the audience, which is much more corporate-friendly, and everyone seems to be playing along.” Coppola gives a different accounting: “Maybe it’s the grayness of his name.”
The dark-horse position has not been lost on Gray. “He feels underestimated—I’ve seen that sometimes,” Sienna Miller says. “He deserves to be up there with the rest.” In moments of self-assurance, Gray is convinced that he is doing the best version of work that he believes in, that he is giving a pure voice to his particular idea of the world. In darker moments, he fears that he is working off bad navigation, drifting over the horizon, lost by his misplaced faith. He told me, “If you’ve dedicated your whole life to the pursuit of something, and then everybody tells you it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, and, even if it did exist, there’s no way you could ever relate to it—I hate to use the word, but there is something tragic about that.”
On the Monday after Sunday dinner, Gray showed up at his film set looking askew. His hair was swept in multiple directions. His belt, stuck through only three loops of his pants, dangled before him like a backward tail. He had slept past his five-thirty alarm and rushed to get to the soundstage, in Boyle Heights, on time. “Ad Astra” is the first film that Gray has made off location, on a stage in Los Angeles, and neither he nor his family, who normally travel with him to shoots, were wild about his working so close to home. It was like normal life, they said, except that he wasn’t around.
“The Lost City of Z,” Gray’s previous movie, had been an arduous production. Half the film was shot in the Colombian jungle, where temperatures reached three digits, with high humidity. Charlie Hunnam, who played the lead, had had to be airlifted out at one point after waking up with an insect flapping deep in his ear canal. Crew members were felled with intestinal ailments, and Gray had fallen into a dazed anomie. Yet work on “Ad Astra” proved, in some ways, still more difficult. Gray wanted to shoot the movie on film, with a minimum of green screens, to create a space where actors could do their best work. It meant that every zero-gravity shot had to be set up with mind-bending geometries—sets flipped on their sides, scenes filmed from below as if from above—and actors had to perform on wires while floating their limbs about, in a whole-body plank exercise.
That day, Gray was shooting footage of a craft filled with drifting dead bodies. The shot, done from Pitt’s point of view, was filmed through a space helmet. “We’ve been studying NASA footage, but something nice with space is that there are no real visual references,” Hoyte van Hoytema, the director of photography, who has been the d.p. on such films as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Dunkirk,” told me. “James is very bold—he’s been pushing me to take whatever risks I can take.”
Some directors are visibly high-strung on set; Gray is not one of them. Between setups, he read the news on his laptop and held court with a seemingly endless supply of comic anecdotes. He gave mini-lectures on widening aspect ratios (“In closeup, suddenly you have all this negative space”) and the menace of small screens (“People say to me, ‘I saw your movie on a plane.’ It’s, like, Why don’t you just tell me, ‘I watched your movie while taking a shit’?”). The video-assist operator on set had taken to playing a “stump Gray” game, digging up obscure foreign B movies on IMDb and asking him to name the director, and Gray came out ahead. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has a knowledge of cinema like his,” Miller says. The director Damien Chazelle was an undergraduate in a film course at Harvard, in 2004, when Gray gave a guest lecture. “What was amazing was his whole attitude about film—this invigorating passion that had a real bite to it,” Chazelle says. “It was what I imagined the young Godard and Truffaut being like: tearing down certain heroes, building up others, and crafting their own language.”
The instant “action” was called, Gray hunched his face toward the screen and clapped on a pair of headphones playing music—that day, Gustav Holst’s “Saturn.” He believed the music helped him set the action in an arcing, outer-space pace. “There’s a very particular rhythm to his movies,” Pattinson says. “As an actor, you feel as if he’s very in touch with the movement of the cameras—there’s a kind of rolling aspect to it.” The headphones were also Gray’s cue for entering the dream world on the screen in front of him, the place where he retained control.
Gray got the idea for “Ad Astra” several years ago, while thinking about the loneliness inherent in American ambition, and decided he had to set the film in outer space, the last true terra incognita and a lonely zone. He and Gross watched all the space films they could find, and then started composing the screenplay the way Gray usually does: he bought a stack of five-by-seven-inch index cards, jotted down ideas for scenes, and looked for common threads. The threads began to coalesce into an outline. When it had reached about fifty pages, they began to write the script. The outlining process, for Gray, takes months; writing the screenplay takes a few weeks. “Ad Astra,” when finished, followed a tight three-act structure, and it clocks in at less than two hours.
The movie opens on Major Roy McBride (Pitt), a cool and collected man whose heart rate never exceeds eighty beats per minute, even in moments of crisis. He is doing the work he dreamed of—“I always wanted to become an astronaut,” he says in the film’s opening narration—and it bothers him only slightly that, in middle age, this work has not entirely given him what he’d hoped for. He has separated from the woman he loves (Liv Tyler), and accepts the separation as a casualty of his focus. When a series of cosmic-ray bursts from the far reaches of the solar system, known as “the Surge,” starts passing over Earth, flummoxing all our circuitry, he agrees to lead an exploratory mission.
In a briefing, Roy is told that his father, H. Clifford McBride (Jones), a hero of the space program who disappeared during Roy’s youth while running a research project near Neptune, may be alive. He may, in fact, have gone rogue, abandoning Roy and his mother, and he may be responsible for the Surge. Roy sets off toward Neptune. “The idea of portraying a man who couldn’t connect, who had to go to the outer reaches of space to unlock himself, spoke to me,” Pitt said. “I think it will speak to anyone who has tried to protect themselves in life and ended up walled off.”
Neptune is a long leap for Gray by any measure. He grew up in a Russian Jewish family, in what he calls the Archie Bunker part of Queens. His mother taught at Queens College, his father at the New York Institute of Technology. His elementary school had classes with combined grades, owing, he says, to low funding. He found other ways of occupying himself. “He was always drawing on these piles of scrap paper, all day long, mostly superheroes,” his older brother, Edward, an intensive-care physician, says. “It was almost fanatical.” His parents eventually arranged for him to have art lessons.
“It’s a very important part of his identity that he had this kind of lonely, weird, fish-out-of-water New York childhood,” says Gwyneth Paltrow, who played the lead in “Two Lovers” after years of friendship with Gray. When Gray was in junior high, his parents moved him to the private Kew-Forest School, in the more affluent Forest Hills neighborhood. Donald Trump was an alumnus, and Fred Trump was on the board of trustees. His mother used to drive him around to ogle the big houses. Gray was an indifferent student who cheated on tests, and the new surroundings fed an inferiority complex. Still, he says, the school changed his life. Its motto was “Ad summum”: To the highest.
“He was so much a personality—I’m not sure I had ever met anyone like him,” Christopher Spelman, who taught Latin at Kew-Forest before going on to a career as a film composer, says. With the support of Spelman and the school’s French teacher, Gray helped start a film club with the mission of going into Manhattan and watching movies at revival houses; afterward, the club would process to La Bonne Soupe, or some other teen-ager-friendly spot, and talk the movies through. Gray funded his excursions by stealing money from his mother’s purse, a transgression for which he says he still has no regrets.
In the autumn of 1981, Gray went to a double bill at the Carnegie Hall Cinema: “Dr. Strangelove” and “Apocalypse Now.” “New movies back then were ‘Jaws,’ ‘Superman,’ and ‘King Kong’ with Jessica Lange,” he explained. “Then you see ‘Apocalypse Now’ and it was, like, What the fuck was that?” Over the next few years, Gray saw everything he could. (He continues the habit: every night, after his wife and children are in bed, he steals past a lavender patch behind his home to a guesthouse, and watches a film.) “He was always ambitious for himself as a director, even in the seventh grade,” Spelman says. When Gray revealed his burgeoning ambition to his family, the response was not what he had hoped.
“What? You’ll never make it!” Gray recalls his father saying. His mother: “James, look where we are. We have no connections. We’re in Queens!” His older brother understood the dream but did not share his hope. “You might as well be an astronaut,” he said.
The year that Gray was making his college thesis film, his father and his father’s business partner were indicted on fifty-six counts of fraudulent activity committed through their electronics company, Envort-Gray, which supplied the M.T.A. They were charged with bribing a Metro-North employee and billing for undelivered parts; the year when Gray started working on “Little Odessa,” his father pleaded guilty to three counts and paid a fine. “In a very short time, my father had his legal troubles, my brother went to college, my mother died, and I went off to California,” Gray says. “Almost overnight, the family unit was destroyed.”
The experience hardened him. But it was also during this period that he developed a rigorous, exultant command of craft. Gray has a reputation among actors for being unable to stop laughing when a take is going exceptionally well. “I remember being one time, like, ‘James, what the fuck? I’m baring my soul here, and you’re giggling,’ ” Paltrow says. “He just gets so excited about the art of it.” In “Little Odessa,” the cancer-afflicted mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, collapses on the kitchen floor—a moment that draws on Gray’s mother’s illness. To the surprise of people present, Gray laughed all through the scene as it was shot.
On Tuesday, Pitt came on set in a spacesuit, and he and Gray went over the next hours’ material. Pitt, who has been a producer on Gray’s two most recent movies, described receiving “very vulnerable e-mails” from Gray every morning, exploring the director’s private hopes and fears and relating them to the scenes of the day. “It’s the most difficult film I’ve ever worked on, because the material is so delicate,” Pitt explained.
It was approaching 9 P.M. when a takeout order of dumplings from Din Tai Fung arrived for the crew. Gray exclaimed, “Oh, my God, yeah, baby,” but kept working without a bite. A bit of tricky shooting was about to begin. He had to film a few moments of footage in which Roy emerges from an air-lock door and leaps into open space—the lead-in to the climax of the film. Pitt had been strung up on wires, and was perched atop a partial set of the spacecraft’s exterior, against a black background; stars would be painted in when the wires were painted out. Pitt called down from his perch, “Steal me some dumplings!”
“We’ll make you a plate,” Gray offered. “What do you want—pork, chicken, shrimp?”
“Pork!” Pitt called. He peered over the edge of the structure, to the concrete of the stage floor. “How about a nice pad right here?” he said, swirling his hands around the empty space. Crew members rushed to drag a mat beneath him.
“All right, let’s go,” Gray called. “Picture! Take Brad to one.”
Pitt slowly unhooked his space-walk tether wire and rose. “Three, two, one, launch!” Doug Torres, the first assistant director, called. Pitt gave a little leap and a wire hoisted him into the air by an elaborate pulley system. “And cut!”
“That was pretty damn good!” Gray said. “If you can do one more, we’ll make it really tight on you.”
A Scorpio camera crane was pulled into position to film the part of the sequence, preceding the leap, when Pitt’s character exits through the hatch. Van Hoytema had been shooting with custom wide lenses, to allow extremely close focus and to encourage optical flares, and he and Gray found that, by notching up the film rate, from twenty-four frames a second to thirty-six, they could imbue some shots with the underwater quality of space-walk movement. Now they wondered about working in the opposite direction: if they recorded just six frames a second and Pitt moved at a quarter of his normal speed, the footage would look normal, except with a slight moon-landing jerk.
Gray got behind his monitor. “I don’t know how he’s going to be able to do this,” he murmured with a grin to van Hoytema.
“I turn to the left?” Pitt called from inside the hatch.
“It’s an awkward turn, but it ties to what comes after,” Gray called. “The audience is so visually literate that if you make a fuckup it’s all over IMDb.”
“Picture’s up!” Torres called. “Roll film. Three, two, one, action!”
Slowly, slowly, Pitt opened the door of the craft. The whole soundstage was quiet. As he climbed out of the hatch and turned left, a tight, high giggle issued from behind the director’s monitor. Gray put a palm over his mouth and shook. Even at this slow pace, he could see what the finished shot would be. When Torres called “Cut,” he exploded. He doubled forward in disbelieving laughter. He began to clap his hands. “It’s so good!” he cried. “It’s so good!”
A question that often arises among people who spend time with Gray is why he’s never made a comedy. In person, he is funny in the way of a comedian, for whom the act of making humor seems to aid a digestive function in the soul. Wes Anderson tried to get Gray to play the comic role of Vladimir Wolodarsky, in “The Life Aquatic” (the part ultimately went to Noah Taylor), and Luca Guadagnino recently contacted him about acting in a project under way. But, besides an early, abortive attempt, playing Larenz Tate’s “white friend” in Theodore Witcher’s film “Love Jones” (“I got so nervous when the camera was on that I was stiff and terrible, and he obviously had to cut me,” Gray says), he has been wary of letting his funny self onto the screen. “If you’re not charming or handsome or smart, joking is how you get popular,” he says. “It’s a survival instinct.”
“Little Odessa” is often assumed to be Gray’s most personal feature, but it was his most calculated in approach. A producer named Paul Webster, who had liked his U.S.C. thesis film, offered to make a movie with him—a remarkable break. Gray didn’t take to any of the scripts he saw, so Webster suggested that he write his own. Gray recalls, “He said, ‘O.K., James. Tell them the story of your relationship with your family, but add a genre hook.’ That was the calculation, and the Russian Mafia hadn’t been done to death yet.” The Grays had no direct experience with the Mob, but it was never far away in Russian Queens and Brooklyn, and he knew just how to bring the texture of the place to life. “I come from South London, so it was a million miles away from what I knew. But that world was so clearly indicated,” Tim Roth says. Gray explains, “I was trying to use the form of the New Hollywood. In a sense, it was a young person trying on a style.”
Gray describes himself as a beneficiary of a now vanished market for voicey indie movies that could linger on in video. Yet, unlike many such films, “Little Odessa” became known for its classicist restraint and grace. “The camera was locked down—it didn’t move a lot—whereas every other director at that time was trying to be like ‘Goodfellas’ Scorsese and move the camera everywhere,” Gross says. The movie went to the Venice Film Festival, one of the most prestigious in the world.
The experience was disorienting for Gray. On his first day at the festival, he went to the opening of “Il Postino” and sat next to its esteemed co-director Michael Radford. Fresh off a red-eye from California, Gray fell asleep the moment the lights went down and snored in Radford’s ear all through the screening. He had worn a T-shirt and jeans—he’d been told that Venice was casual—and found himself at a black-tie affair. Abashed, he wore a tuxedo to the première of “Little Odessa,” only to discover that he was the only one dressed up. Maximilian Schell sat beside him and spent the screening making small unhappy noises and moaning, cryptically, “I will never again play Handel!” The theatre seemed, at best, half full.
“I was so depressed I flew back to L.A. and went to bed,” Gray recalled. The studio called and asked where he was. It turned out that the screening of his film that he’d attended was not the public one. The public screening had been full; his movie had received an uproarious ovation. It had won the Silver Lion—David Lynch had been the head of the jury—and he needed to return to Venice at once to accept.
In Gray’s own telling, even many upbeat stories end with his humiliation. For a period in the nineties, he lived in an apartment building next to the one where Sofia Coppola lived. He had never met her, but part of her apartment faced his terrace, and Gray would sometimes sit outside and listen to someone practicing the harp in hers. When they met for the first time, at a party, he was overcome at being face to face. “You’re Sofia Coppola!” he cried, as if greeting an old friend. “I’m James Gray! I can see into your apartment!”
“It’s one of those things that, as soon as it comes out of your mouth, you know it’s horrifying,” Gray says. He describes the incident as “probably the most embarrassing social moment of my life.”
Soon he was at work on “The Yards,” which draws its material from his father’s shady dealings. It concerns a paroled convict named Leo (Mark Wahlberg), who becomes embroiled in corrupt ploys to get subway contracts, with murderous consequences. “The Yards” was also the first collaboration between Gray and Joaquin Phoenix (as the hardboiled man who leads Leo into the underworld). “He’s very good about stripping away the intellectual ideas we have,” Phoenix told me. “We talk for hours and bring up references—friends or well-known people—but eventually you want to deconstruct that and reveal something that feels not like a character.”
For Gray, the thrills of creation came in details that could resonate with his experience. “For example, in ‘We Own the Night’ ”—the story of a Mobby night-club manager (Phoenix) and his father, a deputy police chief (Robert Duvall)—“a guy takes the eye of the fish and sucks on it, which is something my grandfather used to do,” he says. His first three movies all use an aural effect that sound engineers call “singing semis”: the wash of distant trucks, which to him bore the authenticity of home.
“We Own the Night” brought Gray his first taste of real commercial success. Despite his precocious start, he was nearly forty when it came out, with just two other films to his name—a casualty of the struggle for financing amid meagre box-office performance. On the strength of “We Own the Night,” he was able to move on quickly to a new project. “They basically said to me, ‘Here’s $9.2 million. Make whatever you want,’ ” Gray recalls. “I was given a rare opportunity.”
Gray was by then married, having met his wife at a dinner party where he was being set up with her writing partner. He felt that he had reached a happy moment in his life. “Two Lovers,” which he wrote with the late Richard Menello, an eccentric whom Gray describes as a cinematic encyclopedia, follows Leonard, the depressed son of dry cleaners in Brighton Beach (Phoenix), as he is introduced by his parents to a nice young woman from a prospering local family (Vinessa Shaw) but finds himself falling in love with a more mysterious and troubled woman (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose apartment, across from his, he can see into. Her window becomes a screen for him, a passage to a distant, different life that he can learn to touch and live inside.
“Two Lovers” was Gray’s first attempt to move from the autobiographical to the personal—from capturing his outer world (the fish eye, the singing semis) to capturing his inner life. Near the climax of the film, Leonard throws a ring with which he was planning to propose to Paltrow’s character toward the sea: an unambiguous, timeless gesture, and one that reflects Gray’s interest in stories that convey particular experience through the durable structures of myth. “The classical idea is not to make conservative movies, but to give a structure through which we explore the lie of the fantasy of narrative,” he told me. He objects to well-made movies that have cloudy or open-ended narratives; a film that can be read in many ways can be read in any way, like a Rorschach blot, he thinks, merely reflecting viewers’ minds back at them. A work of art ought instead to extend a viewer’s empathetic reach, to force a confrontation with the mind and the experience of someone else. If the story was clear, you could bring anybody anywhere. And you could give them somewhere solid to stand even as the film performed a scrutiny of its own myths.
“ ‘Vertigo’ does it perfectly,” he said. “The story is not vague, but there’s also a window through which you can see the text at war with the subtext. That’s a thing of beauty. ‘Contempt,’ by Godard, is a great narrative, though it’s told in an unusual way. ‘Jeanne Dielman,’ by Chantal Akerman”—a film paced around domestic chores, performed in real time—“is a story.” In crafting the story of “Two Lovers,” Gray found himself worrying less about carrying audiences into the physical world he knew (a sliver of Brooklyn and Queens) and more about carrying them into feelings and self-generated narratives that shaped his actual experience of the world. “It was about uncertainty and being embarrassed of your background,” he told me. “I was trying to break down the wall between myself and the work.”
Ethan Gross describes the film as a breakthrough. “I love Scorsese and ‘The Godfather,’ but I saw too much of it in James’s crime-genre work,” he says. “ ‘Two Lovers’ is small and carefully drawn, and I was amazed at how emotional it was.”
Shifting the storytelling focus inward liberated Gray, who began to set his films in other times and places. For his next project, “The Immigrant,” he wanted to make a film about a woman coming to New York from Eastern Europe in the early nineteen-twenties: a movie that would look frankly at what it meant to be an American arrival, through the lens of relationships in the New World. He drew on the experiences of his grandfather, who had fled Eastern Europe around that time and run a saloon on the Lower East Side. Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a young Pole who is separated from her sister at Ellis Island and who falls into the world of a small-time theatre impresario and pimp (Phoenix), who holds her in an ever-changing relationship.
When the movie was in postproduction, its funders told Gray that they were selling it to Harvey Weinstein, who hadn’t seen it but who liked what he had heard about it. Gray begged them not to. He had worked with Weinstein on “The Yards,” and Weinstein had insisted on changing the ending to make it more upbeat. Gray’s worries were borne out. “He just didn’t like the movie,” Gray says. (Weinstein says the film tested poorly.) When Gray refused to change “The Immigrant,” the Weinstein Company put it in a drawer for a year. When it was finally released, with little promotion, it did well critically and at festivals—Cotillard won several honors—but was largely overlooked.
By then, Gray had fallen into a long, hard depression. He couldn’t work. He found it difficult to focus. At his darkest, he grew suicidal. It wasn’t that he thought he’d failed in his ambitions; “The Immigrant” remains his favorite of his films. It was the opposite. He had drawn on skills he’d honed over the course of a career to produce his fullest effort at a great, true, moving film, only to find, when he let go, that nothing happened. The movie just floated there, to the indifference of its guardians and the silence of an unreachable world. At the crucial moment, when he’d summoned a life’s worth of mastery and his true voice, no one seemed to be listening at all.
“The Lost City of Z,” the story of a brilliant, fanatical explorer who invests his life and spirit in an effort to recover a vanished kingdom and then disappears, was for Gray a journey into the light. “I think the idea of being back on set was the perfect tonic,” Sienna Miller says. “He was clearly galvanized by the experience, very happy to get back to work, very happy that it wasn’t being produced by Harvey Weinstein. He felt very in control of it.”
Gray struggled with the material’s structure—the film has a five-act story, with a war in the middle—and his first cut ran more than four hours. But the finished movie had a lushness and grace that recalled Technicolor epics, albeit with a haunted, modern edge. “In ‘Lost City,’ I thought, This guy has really evolved into his own thing,” Pitt says. “He knows everything he could about his masters, but he’s made it his own now. I perceived it as being really open.”
Postproduction work on “Ad Astra” began in the winter of 2018 and took almost two years, as constellations, rocket flames, and planets were added to nearly two hours of film. Gray spent the week of the Oscars in 2018 holed up in an editing office near Runyon Canyon, working on a sequence in which Pitt’s character climbs up the inside of a rocket funnel just before it fires. (It was the year when Kobe Bryant won a Best Animated Short award. “Always remember: Kobe Bryant has as many Oscars as Stanley Kubrick!” Gray exclaimed merrily.) He spent the week of the Oscars in 2019 reviewing visual effects, a process that continued through the next six months. In late summer, he flew to New York. He was writing his next movie about his home turf, he told me, and wanted to check details. We got in a black S.U.V., and he gave the driver directions into Queens.
It was a sweltering day; the car’s dashboard thermometer rose past a hundred degrees. Gray’s hair was wet from the shower, and he looked sinewy and focussed. In the past year, he had turned fifty and lost thirty pounds. “The doctor said my arteries were basically crème fraîche,” he said. He had tried a cholesterol drug but had experienced side effects, so instead he had cut carbohydrates from his diet six days a week. His Sunday dinners had become a reprieve.
We crossed the East River and took the Queens-Midtown Expressway toward Flushing. Gray grew animated as we neared his childhood home. “This is Utopia Parkway, and as you can see it is utopian,” he said as we made a right onto a wide boulevard. “You have to try and imagine this with fewer trees, because it was considerably grimmer without them.” On 175th Street, we pulled up at a little two-story brick house.
“Here it is, the palace,” he said, facing the front yard. His voice caught. He blinked repeatedly, and took off down the sidewalk so I couldn’t see his face. “My mother died here, and that’s unfortunately a very clear memory of mine,” he said, a couple of minutes later. “On the day of her death, my brother and I went out and got pizza, and we were fine with it,” he said. “Three weeks later, I saw her shoes in the garbage can, and that fucked me up.”
Before his mother became ill, Gray revealed, she had suffered from depression. “She used to tell a story: she would say, ‘I never could understand why your father took so long to come home from work, but one day I was at the supermarket, and I saw him come out of the subway. He wandered into this store and he wandered into that store; he looked at this book and that magazine. Your father, the absent-minded professor!’ ” Gray interpreted the anecdote differently. “I thought, Schmuck—he doesn’t want to come home.”
Somewhere between the first and the third acts of “Ad Astra,” there is a quiet tonal shift. What was cynical and ironized, at the start, becomes earnest, direct, vulnerable, even hopeful. “There’s a part of the design that’s a move toward the greatest possible sincerity,” Gray told me. “The idea was to strip away the myth of the heroic, of machismo, to say once and for all that it’s a crock of shit.” Pitt: “James and I were looking into the definition of being male, as we knew it, and asking, Does true strength come from vulnerability? Does true confidence come from embracing the self—the foibles, the missteps, the regrets?”
Back on the freeway, as we passed Flushing Meadows, Gray suddenly leaned forward and told the driver to take the exit. He wanted to visit the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. “I was always attracted to the melancholy of this place, the way that it was all dilapidated and wasn’t kept up, almost like modern ruins,” he told me as we stepped into the swelter. Above us, the disk-shaped observation towers of the New York State Pavilion loomed like flying saucers. The fair’s dedication had been to “Man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” In 1964 and 1965, more than fifty million people had gone to see it.
We sat on a bench in a patch of shade, and Gray told me that he’d recently realized he’d lost his wild ambition to be included in the pantheon of legendary directors. He used to memorize the worst paragraphs of his reviews—the criticism stoked some inner furnace that drove him to become a Great Man. Now he didn’t look at the stuff. He had found a new creative lodestar in the time he spent with his wife and kids. As the brass rings had fallen away, however, he hadn’t lost his drive to make beautiful movies, to touch an audience, because—why? Gray had puzzled over that, until he decided that the answer was, quite simply, that he cared. Caring for other people was the essential human privilege, he now believed. Caring was what both artists and audiences put into an exquisite work. The tragic thing, he decided, wasn’t caring about something no one else seemed to appreciate; the tragic thing was when you stopped caring, got too cynical, grew afraid to let yourself be seen to care and be cared for. “The key is to get more personal, not less,” Gray told me.
Gray talked about the movie he was writing, which currently exists as a twenty-page outline. “I did the Amazon, and I did Neptune, so it’s time to go home,” he said. The film is set in Queens and Manhattan in the nineteen-eighties. “It’s about my change from public school to prep school,” he said. “It’s about class and race and a kid’s coming of age and realization of what that means—the striving, the humiliation, the ego and pride about our position in life, the disgusting hubris.” The Trumps will appear in it. So will the music Gray encountered as a teen-ager slipping into Danceteria, CBGB, the Ritz, and Studio 54. He has found himself studying the ominous insouciance of Fellini’s “Amarcord.” “That movie ends with them in a field, which is lovely, and yet you know Italy will meet with total catastrophe in a few years,” he says. “In some ways, it’s an accusation—basically, If you’d gotten your fucking head out of your ass, maybe we wouldn’t have had Il Duce.”
Gray told me that he had a sudden wish to see the Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model showing every street, every house, an inch for every hundred feet, commissioned for the fair by the godlike Robert Moses. “My brother and I were obsessed with this,” he said. “My grandmother would take us, and we’d hang out here all the time.” Now he took his own kids. Boats the size of beetles waited by the loading docks of the harbor. Zips of transparent wire carried tiny model airplanes toward the sky. “It used to go from daytime to night,” Gray said. “The city would light up.”
When he came here as a child, he would make a point of finding his house. As we followed the walkway back in the direction of Flushing, he said that he’d recently been struggling to find a new balance—a more immediate and vulnerable expression of his passion for old forms. “All the classical format really means, to me, is: take your own ego out of the equation,” he said. “It’s all about you, but the style is not about you. Something is lost in that mediation, but that’s the battle that you face.”
We found his childhood home—smaller even than in life, and near a concrete playground represented as a park. Gray stood above the model looking pleased. The streets unfurled before us, a sharp, ordered grid. The model was impressive, refined, a thing to behold.
He’d begun to turn away when, suddenly, there was a shifting in the buildings’ shadows, a sense of movement in the static model below us. The light started to change. It glowed rich gold and deepened toward orange. Gray looked on, captivated, standing at the rail.
“I thought they didn’t do this anymore,” he whispered, and remained still for a long while. “Look at that.”
The light over the model of the city turned a vivid blush. We watched it silently, keeping our eyes on the place where Gray’s home had been, feeling subject to a tiny miracle, as pinpoints of light rose among the buildings and the room went dark. ♦