A creative union

Hollywood diaries

The director and screenwriter James Gray and the actor Joaquin Phoenix are back with their fourth movie together, ‘The Immigrant’. The pair talk to Margy Rochlin about their long-standing collaboration.

Director and screenwriter James Gray and his frequent star Joaquin Phoenix both say that they first met shortly after Phoenix picked up a copy of Gray’s script The Yards at the apartment of Liv Tyler, then the actor’s girlfriend. A meeting was set up at Piadina, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. It was January 1997. Since then, they have made four movies together, all set in New York: The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers and, now, The Immigrant.

These are the few facts the two men seem to agree on. But pose a question about the details of their collaborations — for example, how soon in the scriptwriting process does Gray reach out to Phoenix? — and things unravel quickly.

“I say, ‘I have an idea I’m working on,’” Gray said. “And then he goes, ‘Great.’ And I don’t know whether he is actually sincerely saying, ‘Great’ or whether he’s going, ‘I have another script coming from this clown?’”

Sounding startled, Phoenix responded, “Have you ever been surprised by how I react to something?”

When they first met

Phoenix, 39, squirmed in his seat, radiating pent-up energy that often caused him to jump up, wander around and, occasionally, walk out of the room. During the disappearances, Gray, 45, would lean forward, with an expression on his kind face — earnestness, anxiety, something — that telegraphed that he hoped to keep the conversation on course upon Phoenix’s return. Instead, it would veer off into a jumble of topics, from what things are dissected during rehearsals to who read The Immigrant script first, Phoenix or his co-star, Marion Cotillard. “Do you not remember that I told you she sent me an email, like, ‘I’ll read it tonight’?” Gray sputtered. “Then I didn’t hear back from her for, like, five days, and you said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”Whenever quoting Phoenix, Gray switched from his normal, measured speaking voice to a very soft, garbled imitation of Phoenix that, in truth, sounded less like the actor and more like someone with a big mouthful of food.

“Do I sound anything like that?” Phoenix asked. “The thing is, he’s an amazing mimic. But the one person he cannot do is me. That’s very strange.” He looked at Gray. “I’ve worked with you more than many other people.”

The Immigrant, the latest in the Gray-Phoenix oeuvre was released this week. “Quietly wrenching” was how a reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter described the “sensitively observed melodrama” (which also stars Jeremy Renner) when it had its premiere last May at the Cannes Film Festival; Variety’s critic hailed it as a “rich, beautifully rendered film.” 

In the film, set in New York in 1921, Phoenix plays Bruno Weiss, a raffish charmer who hangs around Ellis Island, waiting for new arrivals like the Polish, sad-eyed Ewa Cybulski (Cotillard). His modus operandi is to prey on vulnerable women fearful of being turned away by immigration agents. He pretends to rescue them, but, instead, turns them into prostitutes.

“Base” is how Gray originally conceived of the character. But through protracted discussions — what Gray calls “talking rehearsals,” where he and the cast hash out the script — he came to see Bruno as more complex, someone the audience would vacillate about. “What I realised was that what Joaq was talking about was much better, which was a kind of Fagin,” Gray said, referring to the giddy recruiter of penniless urchins in Oliver Twist.

“Like, ‘Is he repugnant?’ ‘No, he’s actually really nice!’” Phoenix interrupted. “Ugh” is how he registered his shuddering distaste for the character, adding that it was a struggle to play someone who would say anything to get his way. “Bruno was grotesque. We talked about him like he was an agent.” Gray said, “We just insulted every agent.” Both men burst out laughing.

Inspiring each other

By this point, they had fully established how much they enjoy bickering and debating. But in this moment, as they doubled up over the inspiration for Bruno, they also seemed in total sync, backing up a claim of Gray’s: When he’s directing this intensely focused, experimental actor, who is a three-time Oscar nominee, they communicate in verbal shorthand. “There are times when we’ll do a take and I’ll just go, ‘Joaquin?’ And he’ll go, ‘Yeah, I know,’ and his next take will be exactly what I wanted him to do.”

Asked when he noticed they could communicate in half-sentences, Gray pointed to a disastrous first day on Two Lovers. Gray said he felt Phoenix was being needlessly argumentative and responded by making blunt remarks about his performance. That evening, they argued bitterly on the telephone, but, along the way, somehow a truce was achieved. “Something happened,” Gray said. “We never fought again on a movie. The last two movies I’ve made with him have been fantastic — really, really enriching.”

Cotillard described the two as an old couple. “It’s the way they look at each other, talk to each other,” said Cotillard, who learned quickly on The Immigrant that neither man was big on time limits when it came to exploring character and nuance. “Joaquin needs to unfold every bit of story, so they talked a lot. Sometimes, I would be like: ‘OK, guys. I have a baby to take care of, so I’m going to leave now. Tell me what you said tomorrow.’” Then Cotillard added, “I felt lucky to have the opportunity to see them working together and see the process of Joaquin — who’s a special and unique person — and to see how James takes care of him.”

That bond has withstood the weirdest of tests. In a 2009 visit to Late Show With David Letterman, Phoenix appeared bushy-bearded and disoriented. Later, it was revealed that he was playing a part for a media-skewering mockumentary, I’m Still Here. But what got lost in the post-Letterman pandemonium was that Phoenix was there to promote Two Lovers — a small, eccentric character study that probably could have used some high-level publicity.

After about an hour in the banquet room, Phoenix left for good. So it was up to Gray to answer a question about how Phoenix’s antics had affected that movie. “I was upset,” Gray said. “Nobody remembers it was for Two Lovers. They remember the shtick. But the truth is, there aren’t a lot of really great actors, ones you love to work with, and they don’t grow on trees. It is what it is, and we never talked about it. I decided to just move on.” 

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