Interview w/ James Gray


Leonard Kraditor, a man suffering from an acute sense of loss over his last relationship, skulks about in his room in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Heavily shuffling his feet one moment, then feigning confidence the next, Leonard’s emotions flutter impulsively through two women’s lives, creating a volatile spiral of hurried naiveté. In creating the story of Two Lovers, director James Gray made his most personal film to date. Gray reveals shadows that are darker and wider than the ones left by Brooklyn’s most bestial buildings.


Robert Patrick: This is your first film that deviates from crime related topics. What interested you in taking a step away from those elements, and, more importantly, when did you first get the idea to write Two Lovers?

James Gray: I’ve been asked this before and I feel like I always give the same answer – and even though it seems like it’s not a credible one, it’s the truth. I never perceived my other films as genre films, even though you’re quite right that they are. The movies, themselves, have a real autobiographical slant to them; they always have. In other words, I never sat down and said to myself, “Well, I’m going to do something that has cops in it.” My stepbrother is a cop and my father worked in the train yards, so that is where The Yards came from. Two Lovers is the least the least autobiographical of the movies; it doesn’t mean it’s not personal — it’s very personal — but they’re not the same things, autobiographical and personal. I had been to the doctor, once I got my wife pregnant — well, when I was trying to — and we went to the genetic councilor. The councilor told me about a whole series of diseases that Ashkenazi Jews have, and I tested positive for a couple of them. I was a carrier for a couple of diseases. And this was very disturbing for me. But my wife was negative so I didn’t have to worry about it. So we both lived our life. The genetic councilor said that sometimes, when a couple tests positive, they will hand down the genetic diseases to their children. And that’s a very bad thing, because sometimes they can be fatal. And I was curious about what happened in cases like that. And the councilor told me that sometimes, in cases like that, the relationship falls apart. I thought to myself that this is a fantastic story, so I put it in a drawer, and then couldn’t come up with a story about it because it sounded so inherently melodramatic. While waiting for We Own the Night to get made, I pulled Dostoyevsky off the shelf for a little light reading, I guess. I ended up reading a story that I had read years earlier called White Nights, which is a beautiful little love story. And I felt that I should combine the history about the genetic disorder as a back story — not the story itself — and make the film based loosely on the Dostoyevsky work. I wrote the script very quickly, in about three weeks. And I guess it came together very quickly because the actors wanted to do it.


The character of Leonard has many idiosyncratic characteristics; how important was it for Joaquin to capture all of these subtleties on film?

Well, you know, I think he is — current craziness aside — about as good as anybody as an actor; he has tremendous range. One of the things that Joaquin and I had talked about while making this film was that we didn’t want to have a pat answer for the main character. In other words, it didn’t say that the main reason that Leonard is like this is because of that. What we kept talking about was a pop culture version of mental illness; where someone is loopy and always entertaining and charming. We were anxious to do a film where there was a complexity to the character; many facets. Joaquin and I are very simpatico. I wouldn’t have made the film without him; if he didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t have made it.


While watching your film, there is a very specific visual sense of mood and atmosphere; how vital was that in telling the story of Two Lovers?

I think it’s kind of everything; if you didn’t have that, you could just write a book. Movies do mood and atmosphere exceptionally well; that is their strength. It’s a joy to be able to make a film and bring to them a sense of the world. Movies are like dreams, they’re almost primal, you know? They feel like an extension of your dreams. And the pleasures of your dreams aren’t always narrative. The pleasure of dreams is the mood of them; the unconscious beauty that you cant quite verbalize.


Since character interactions are the fabric of your film, were you pleased that the cast had such good chemistry together?

Well, I’m glad that you think they did. Joaquin actually thought he would hate Gwyneth Paltrow before we started shooting – I mean as an actress, not as a person. We both were concerned that Gwyneth’s acting style would not be what we wanted. We thought she would take two or three takes and then leave. And the truth is that she said at the beginning, before we started filming, that she really doesn’t improvise. I mean, Joaquin and I do twenty or thirty takes and improvise quite a bit. But then what happened, as the film progressed, was that she, too, began improvising a lot. We just loved working with her; it was a very happy set. We shot the entire thing in twenty-nine days, and I don’t think we could’ve done that without Gwyneth. We were really fond of her actually.


Did Joaquin ever let on, during the filming of Two Lovers, that this may be his last movie?

Towards the end, he kept saying, “I’m tired, I’m tired. I’m sick of it. I don’t want to do it anymore.” But at a certain point you just don’t even want to listen to that; you just think it’s the ramblings of someone at the end of a shoot, so I kind of ignored it. But that was the only thing I heard about it. And then two months later, after I came back from the filming, my wife called me into the kitchen. She showed me a picture of Joaquin on the computer screen, with this big beard, looking like Rasputin. And he was saying that he was quitting acting. I was a little bit peeved because you would think he would at least call me up. But, I don’t know, he marches to the beat of his own drummer. That Joaquin, he’s an interesting guy.


Your films always have very thoughtful dialogue. Do you think, in this day in age, that movies have compromised their emotional resonance by adding quirky verbiage for the younger crowds?

Wonderful question. It’s hard to say because movies are the lingo of our times. Dialogue reflects the current slang; to say what we perceive as hip. There’s no question that I try to stay away from what you may call “in fashion”. Because as soon as you make a film in fashion, five years from now it will seem out of fashion. I’ve always try to make the films stand up twenty, thirty, fifty years down the road. I’ve tried to avoid familiar, hipster tropes. Can the audience take that? I don’t know. The picture is doing rather well. But I don’t know; things change in popular culture on a dime. In the early nineteen-sixties you could look at the culture and think it was boring; the movies are all Annette Funicello beach movies, the music is the Percy Faith Orchestra. And then all of a sudden, within a couple of years, you got The Beatles and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bonnie and Clyde. You never know when something around the corner will shake things up.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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