James Gray Made the Movie of His Life. Here’s What Happened Next.
In February, the director James Gray was in the guesthouse of his home in Los Angeles, working to finish his eighth film, Armageddon Time. It was late afternoon; outside in the backyard were fig and avocado trees, and a bocce court that had sprouted weird grass from the recent rain. It was a quiet time in Los Angeles, and this suited Gray and his film: a small, intimate movie about Gray’s childhood in Queens, shot in part on the block where he’d grown up. Gray’s last movie, 2019’s Ad Astra, had been giant and arduous and costly. Making Armageddon Time was a corrective to that experience, among other things. “I had to detox,” Gray said.
He and his editor, Scott Morris, appearing on a monitor via Zoom from New York, were working on the climatic sequence of Armageddon Time, in which the fates of Gray’s two main characters — a boy named Paul, played by Banks Repeta and based closely on Gray, and his best friend, Johnny, played by Jaylin Webb — tragically diverge in a Queens police station. Morris cued the scene so they could watch it back once more.
“How’d that play for you?” Gray asked, when it ended.
“Beautiful,” Morris said.
Gray smiled a smile of genuine happiness: “It’s the most depressing scene ever.”
There is competition in this category, not least from Gray’s own filmography. Since 1994’s Little Odessa, a crime drama about a man whose family crumbles around him while on a job in Brighton Beach, Gray has shown a willingness to keep the camera rolling where others would cut; to show grief and madness and human frailty in the midst of what for a while, early in his career, seemed like genre movies (The Yards, We Own the Night) and then expanded into epics that traversed the Amazon (The Lost City of Z) and even space itself (Ad Astra). All have humans at their center yearning for something transcendent and, very often, betraying themselves in their search for it.
“I know,” Gray said, when I tried this observation out on him. “I guess I got dropped on my head when I was young.”
From the very beginning, when Gray was just a 25-year-old former film student coming out of USC, his movies have all been relentlessly personal in one way or another (in Little Odessa, Vanessa Redgrave plays a mother dying of cancer, written at a time when Gray’s own mother was sick; The Yards features a corruption scandal involving the MTA not totally dissimilar to one his father was implicated in at around the same time). But Armageddon Time, which was released by Focus Features in October, was more than personal: it was loosely autobiographical, with Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong playing approximations of Gray’s parents, in a house designed to look like the one Gray grew up in. “It’s basically like a home movie,” Gray said in February, gesturing at the edit screen. “I have no idea whether anybody’s going to respond to it. It’s a very dark movie, this one.”
Whether anybody would respond to Armageddon Time would be a question Gray and I revisited several times over the spring, summer, and fall. In some ways, I think, he and both knew in advance what was most likely to happen: Gray, for reasons that have usually felt out of his control, and that he finds himself less and less interested in, has become the poster child for a certain kind of filmmaker — critically revered, commercially ignored. Because of this, there is a perception of Gray in some quarters as a tragic figure: a master filmmaker who unlike his peers and friends (Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola) or idols (Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, say, both of whom adore Gray), does not have the popular acclaim or the box office receipts to show for his eight movies worth of deeply respected work.
Would Armageddon Change that perception? Did that perception matter in the first place? Was box office or popular acclaim even remotely the right metric to judge what Gray, or any other artist, was up to? Making a movie is an act of vulnerability; putting it out in the world is another. For whatever reason, on this one, Gray let me tag along throughout the process of doing both, as he finished the film and then later, as he reckoned with what the film had or hadn’t achieved.
And in February, at least, Gray found himself weirdly cheerful about Armageddon Time’s prospects, which is to say, slightly less miserable than usual. “This might be the first time I’ve had a distributor who actually liked the film,” he said about Focus.
In conversation, Gray, at 53, is self-deprecating, verging on self-loathing, and compulsively honest. He likes to check in regularly with whoever is listening, just to make sure they’re still really actually listening: “Am I boring you?” Or: “Am I boring the fuck out of you?” Or: “Am I making any fucking sense?”
“Look at him,” Gray said to his editor, pointing at me on the couch. “He’s all thinking and wondering.
“He’s having a good time?” Morris asked.
“I don’t know if he’s having a good time,” Gray said, talking as if I wasn’t there. “I wouldn’t quite put it that way. He said he’s about to have a baby.”
My wife was expecting a child, our first. “He doesn’t know the misery waiting for him for the next 18 years,” Gray, a father of three teenagers, said to Morris. “I call it like a beautiful misery, you know? Like it’s the greatest thing ever, but I’m not gonna promise you happiness. It’s better than happiness, but it’s not happiness. It’s like… gorgeous misery.”
This is an idea, gorgeous misery, that Gray finds himself drawn to, that he was trying to explore with Armageddon Time, he said. “I wanted to do something that had a direct vitality and a humanity in it and a warmth to it, even if the story was sad. Sad is not the same thing as depressing. And so sad to me is an aspect of our emotional life, which is quite beautiful. It’s who we are. Life is sad in many ways. That’s part of why beauty exists. Beauty is connected to sadness. Beauty doesn’t exist in the infinite. Beauty is connected to death. Beauty is connected to finality.”
While making Armageddon Time, Gray said, he wrote four words on the camera: warmth, humor, loss, love. “But the biggest word was loss,” Gray told me. “The irretrievability. The ephemerality of our lives. That has been a fairly recent, last five years preoccupation. I would blame it on the pandemic, but I had it before that.”
Morris cued another scene, and Gray went back to work. Throughout the film, different versions of the Clash’s cover of “Armagideon Time” play, and Gray and Morris were perfecting the precise timing and mix of the music cue. “I have to get the rights to this damn thing,” Gray said, about the song. (Ultimately, he did.) It was getting dark outside and I had to get home. We made plans to talk a few more times as he finished the movie, and then again after he released it.
“It’s a bit of a difficult period,” Gray said, as he walked me out. “My father has COVID and is sort of on his last legs. We’ve been really preoccupied with that too. That and the movie and everything else. So it’s been a crazy period, but you can come back if you want.”
Five days later, my son was born. In time, Gray texted me, asking how it was going. I sent a photo of my boy: new to the world.
“My father died last week,” Gray wrote back. “Transmigration of souls.”
He congratulated me. I expressed my condolences.
“Yes, sad,” he said. “But that is life, the sad and the beautiful.”
All through the spring and early summer, I’d be looking at my newborn child sleeping and find myself fielding texts from Gray about Stalin (a preoccupation), the Beatles (also a preoccupation), about art or sadness or both. He was grieving; he was finishing Armageddon Time; he was, probably, just being himself. Watching movies in his guesthouse. Working on his own.
While I was at his house at one point during the summer, he told me that the germ of Armageddon Time was a trip back to Queens, this idea he had — “maybe you shouldn’t use this in the article; just for us, the very Proust idea from the end of Swann’s Way, where he says something to the effect of ‘these places, these avenues, these boulevards, these homes, they’re just as impermanent as we are.’ And you know, that all of it is lost over time. And that Proustian idea, which finds its way into a lot of the great films of Visconti and a lot of the great films actually of John Ford, when you see My Darling Clementine and he walks her to church that’s being built, this tremendous sense of longing, of loss. And that’s a beautiful thing. And makes us who we are. And that’s what I was trying to conjure a little. You’re smiling — why are you laughing?”
“Why were you trying to keep that between us?” I asked.
“The Proust part. Because you can’t say ‘Proust.’ People think you’re a pretentious asshole. I learned that the hard way.”
In May, Gray took Armageddon Time to Cannes, where it received a standing ovation. While at the festival, he also gave an interview which went viral — a pithy, less than three minute deconstruction of how the movie business had undone itself. He said the people in charge had made a fundamental, if understandable, mistake. “To think of it as: This film did not make a ton of money, thus we don’t make that film. This film will make a ton of money, thus we make that one.” The problem, he said, was that by green-lighting films based purely on their likely return on investment, you start to limit the kinds of films that are made, and as a result, you exclude everyone who isn’t interested in a very specific kind of movie. After a while, you begin to get a large segment of society out of the habit of going to the movies at all — and before you know it, the movies themselves begin to fade from the popular consciousness, even if some of them still may be extremely profitable. In the interview, Gray quoted Brando in The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“You know instantly what movie that is,” Gray said in the viral clip. “You cannot quote me a single line from Aquaman. You can’t!”
It was a very James Gray sequence of events: his film was beloved in Europe, but back in New York and Los Angeles, people just wanted to argue with him about comic book movies. “I had all these people who were huge fans of Aquaman telling me I was an asshole,” Gray told me. We were at his house again. Gray is tall but nearly always bent one way or another; his red hair is rusting with age. He was wearing gardening clogs and a gardening hat, in defense against the sun. His sweatpants were tucked into his socks. When I had arrived, pasta water was boiling in one pot in the kitchen, a deep red all’amatriciana in another. It was only after he’d handed me a plate that I realized he wasn’t eating too. (Cholesterol.) He contented himself by swearing at me everytime I enjoyed a bite of the thing he’d made. “It’s good, right?” Nod. “Fuck you.”
I asked if he ever regretted being so candid, or so free, with his opinions about the movie business — Cannes was not the first time he’d given an interview that ended up making news for his thoughts about the industry, rather than whatever film he was promoting. “Everyone’s so afraid of their livelihood,” Gray said. “And to me it’s the job of the artist not to lie, to point out what’s wrong with the world, not what’s right with the world. Right? The world is like an advertisement for American capitalism. I mean, that’s not interesting for me. I mean, maybe it is for some people. Some people are very good at it, I don’t know.”
But he also acknowledged that his willingness to talk about things like money and how the business worked — or more accurately, didn’t work — probably had an effect on the way people perceived him, and not in a way he always enjoyed. “What I don’t like is when people misinterpret a certain amount of the capriciousness of the business itself as somehow reflecting the movie’s inability to connect or that I’m underrated or some nonsensical narrative,” Gray said. “That’s just not true. My kids will ask me about this. Like, you know, ‘Why haven’t the other films been nominated for Oscars and stuff?’ And I’m like: That’s so connected to the distributor and when it comes out and whether they want to support it. And if you have an ad on Sunset Boulevard, stuff that has nothing to do with the movies. I say to the kids, I always say, ‘Please don’t focus on that, focus on the work.’ And eventually, I believe eventually it all evens out.”
In Europe, his films have always been well distributed, Gray said, “and I sort of get money out of there.” Movie stars (Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Pattinson, Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Marion Cotillard, and so on) had always been drawn to him; so too had executives with taste, even if those executives didn’t always survive through the release of Gray’s films. The business otherwise was what it was. “It’s like complaining about the sun rising or setting, you know? It is a fact of life. But you’re quite right about this fact that I am honest about it. Because what’s the benefit to me spinning a bullshit narrative that we both know is untrue? That you make Two Lovers and you know, Magnolia releases it and they don’t spend any money and they release it in February? I mean, that’s what happened on that movie. And it’s like, well, I could create a reality where Sony Classics released the movie and did it in October or November and put DVDs out for academy consideration and all that crap. And that Joaquin Phoenix didn’t become a crazy person during promotion and all that stuff. But it would be a fake narrative. It didn’t happen. I’d be full of shit.”
Gray stopped himself: here we were again, discussing a movie from 2009 and how the star of that film, in Phoenix, went on a now notorious press tour for I’m Still Here while Two Lovers was in theaters. “I’ve had somewhat bad luck about distribution on a number of movies,” Gray admitted. “But you know what is also true? I have been able to make what I want in the way that I want it for seven out of the eight times that I’ve made films, and I’ve done it on my terms. And that is unbelievable good fortune. I mean, it is extremely hard to find someone who has been able to do that. So I have had bad luck on that end, but not really.”
I said maybe we could discuss the eighth time, the one that didn’t happen on his terms.
Gray made a pained face. “No, why?” he said.
But he also couldn’t help himself. He didn’t want to get into a lot of detail. But the film he was referring to was Ad Astra. That movie, which starred Brad Pitt, cost more than $80 million to make. There were reshoots and uncredited rewrites. Gray did not have final cut, and the version of the film that ended up in theaters was considerably different from the one Gray had handed in.
He was trying to be diplomatic about what had happened, but being James Gray, he also couldn’t help but tell the truth about it. “Here’s what I can say,” Gray said. “I can say that the experience was extremely difficult. That when your opinion is not the most important opinion in the room and you are titularly the writer-director, that tends to lead to problems. The frustrating part for me is that as the writer-director, it’s an act of public humiliation. When there are things in the film that you had nothing to do with, didn’t write, didn’t do, that become the focus of criticism. And you are assigned the blame for that. Now, that’s part of the business. You take your lumps, you move on. And I acknowledge that, but I also acknowledge that it sucks and it’s not who I am. And I actually think that if I had been just the director or if the project didn’t originate with me, it would be quite a different thing.”
But the thing that Gray could not get over was, the film was personal. “It was a very difficult movie, not just for the reasons that I just expressed where your opinion is devalued, but also technically. I mean, you have actors on wires and green boxes and a guy alone in space who is completely crestfallen the whole time.” Gray was still upset about the process. He was also a little mad at himself. “I was angry at myself for making a work that felt closed off,” he told me.
Ad Astra had been about his family in certain ways — “about my relationship with my father who was beginning to lose touch and his dreams of grandeur.” So, too, was Armageddon Time, in a much more literal way: the character Jeremy Strong plays in the film is meant, more or less, to be Gray’s father. I asked what it was like to have put his father on screen, only to lose him right before the film was finished.
“It’s an important question,” Gray said. “I don’t have a great answer because he died suddenly after I had already filmed all of that stuff and intended on showing him the movie. It would be more pertinent, I suppose, if a), I knew his death was imminent. I didn’t. And or b), that he had already died when I was shooting. See, once you’ve shot the footage and he’s still alive and you’ve cut it together and now he’s dead. Right? Part of me feels great about it because part of me feels like a portion of him is in there. And when he died, I was on very good terms with him.”
His father was going to be 87, Gray said. “The last conversation I had with him was like: ‘Are you okay?’ But it was great. It’s very sad, but it’s not tragic. It’s part of life.”
Armageddon Time was released at the end of October, and then went wide in November. The reviews were positive. (Gray tends to avoid reading them, but he made an exception for A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, who called the movie “tender and lacerating.”) Gray made the rounds of film festivals — the last time I saw him, he was just back from New York and the Gotham Awards, where he and Todd Field, the director of Tár, had presented an award to the executives at Focus, “which tells you a lot about the world we live in,” Gray said.
Gray, a great talker, was in the midst of another vigorous press cycle, including conversations with Marc Maron and Terry Gross, the latter of which “took sort of years off my life.” (Gross, in her typical way, had asked Gray about the decades-old corruption scandal involving his father, which afterward had sent Gray spinning, even if he didn’t blame Gross. “I don’t think it’s in our DNA to have your father’s legal troubles be known by however many people listen to Fresh Air,” he told me.)
Gray was once again in sweatpants; the guesthouse where we were sitting smelled like beer and the aftermath of a party one of his sons had had over the weekend. “How’s being a dad?” he asked. “Are you sleep deprived?” I was struck, as always, by his solicitousness, by his genuine curiosity: he’d been asking about my son for as long as my son had been alive.
Armageddon Time was a critical hit, and a little controversial too — Gray’s portrait of an unequal friendship between Paul, a white kid destined to make it out of Queens, and Johnny, who would not, was polarizing. Gray had thought he had made a movie about class — in a memorable scene, a member of the Trump clan appears and basically exhorts the kids at Paul’s private school to band together and pull up the ladder behind them — or at least, about the way that “race and class are not divisible,” Gray said. Did Johnny have the same agency in the film as Paul? If he didn’t, was that by design? “My intention was to do something actually about class and about the nature of what we call oppression, where it’s not simple, it’s not cut and dry that you can be both actually authentically oppressed and an oppressor at the same time,” Gray said, about the complicated role his stand-in plays in the film.
But when the dust settled, the verdict, box office wise, was again clear. The film made around $5.5 million internationally. “Commercially the movie was a failure,” Gray said. “But so is everything. I mean, I know that’s not true. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not. But you’re now in a situation where literally every single one of these movies” — meaning independent, non franchise films — “is not doing well, and in some ways that’s the great equalizer.” Whether Tár or The Fabelmans or Armageddon Time, the commercial result was the same. “But you also know as a film person that has absolutely no bearing on the long term reaction to a film. I’m a film person and I have no idea what the box office receipts were of, you know, A Clockwork Orange or something. So I try to divorce myself from that as well. Because I can’t do anything about it.”
Gray had his theories about why this was happening. Studios had put their energy into streaming but streaming had no real way of producing revenue. COVID was still a box office factor: “You have older people who would go to these kinds of movies. They’re much more at risk from COVID-19. Right? So all of a sudden they’re not going as much on that basis alone, fear of death.” In turn, audiences staying home did damage to the theaters that movies like Armageddon Time used to be shown in. “Armageddon Time played in Lincoln Square in New York, which was entirely the wrong theater. It should have played at the Lincoln Plaza or the Paris or something like that. But the Lincoln Plaza is gone.” Even Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator, was playing a role, Gray thought: “It’s taken all the nuance, and actually encourages a three star review that everybody gives you as opposed to that wonderful kind of divisive debate discourse that we used to love, right?”
Plus a pandemic had made movies more expensive to make. “My film cost 15 million bucks,” Gray said. “3 million of that went to COVID-19 protocols, 3 million. And that’s not money that winds up on the screen. The movie should have been twelve and a half. So does 3 million or 4 million matter to Wakanda Forever? Not really. Does it matter to Armageddon Time? Hugely.”
He said as far as he could tell, no one would actually lose money on his movie — it was relatively cheap, and “with output deals, everyone will ultimately be okay.” And Focus, his distributor, was arguably more interested in selling the movie to audiences at home, with premium video on demand, or PVOD. Theatrical was nice; at this point, it might also mostly be marketing for the home release, Gray said. “Maybe that’s the thing that helps the movie business survive because they’ve shown that even if the movie doesn’t do any business in theaters, the fact that it came out in theaters first, it always does much better on PVOD and streaming. So maybe it plays to empty theaters and that’s okay. I don’t know.”
Gray repeated a line he is fond of, about the contemporary audience obsession with box office. “It tells you something of how indoctrinated we are with capitalism that somebody will say, like, ‘His movies haven’t made a dime!’ It’s like, well, do you own stock in Comcast? Or are you just such a lemming that you think that actually has value to anybody?”
I said that one reason people fixate on box office, when it comes to Gray, is that it seems to have implications for whether he’ll be able to make more movies —as Gray himself had pointed out, if money is what decides what studios make and don’t make, then surely box office had a bearing on his future as well?
But this, too, he disagreed with. Time was enemy, not money. “I’m 53. I’m not 33. So let’s say I have, god forfend, I have 20 years left. That’s a huge number. 20 years left of working life. If you make a movie every three to four years, what does that mean? I got four or five left at best. At best. That’s assuming every movie’s a smash. So it’s not only about what you’re talking about, meaning the industry may not be around, and that’s quite apart from me or whatever my movies will gross. It’s also not even true anyway because a number of my films have made a decent amount of money because they don’t cost anything. You know, if Two Lovers costs $9.8 million, if the fucking thing comes out in France alone and makes six, they’re going to ultimately turn a profit. So I think people have a misunderstanding.”
We Own the Night made good money, he said. The Lost City of Z was a streaming hit for Amazon. And so on. “Now does that mean it’s in a classic way where lines are around the block like Avatar or whatever? No, but the finances are not so bad because it really comes down to: Can you do it for cheap?” Gray said he didn’t quite understand why he is frequently asked about the box office performance of his films when by and large, they all did fine. “I’ve noticed there’s some filmmakers who lose a lot of money and nobody seems to question that at all,” he said.
Gray loves movies — old movies, in particular — and one of the things he loved about them was: he didn’t know how much money they earned or what people said about them on Twitter. He just watched them as they were. He said he’d recently been to the Prado, in Madrid. “And you look at these works of art, they’re incredible and you see something like Las Meninas or something by Velázquez, and it just sort of goes into the soup. And I don’t know exactly when he painted it, or what the reaction was, but now it’s sitting in this museum in a totally different context than how he did it. And the meaning is different. And my reaction is different in 2022 then it would’ve been several hundred years ago. So it’s like, our relationship to art is in flux, which makes us in flux.” None of the verdicts being handed down now would have a lot of bearing on the future. You had to just look at the thing and decide for yourself.
So Gray returned to the work. He felt good, he said, about Armageddon Time. There was no other story to tell; there was no one else interfering; no one else to blame for its success or failure but himself. The film was what it was supposed to be. “I’m not unhappy creatively,” he said. “That’s a much better place to be. Like I don’t think: holy cow, I screwed it up. Or like the whole thing was screwed up for me. I feel it’s kind of what I meant to do.”
Zach Baron is GQ’s Senior Staff Writer
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