Written by: Letty Muse Tomlinson, Special to CC2K
What’s more intimidating than conducting an on-phone interview with the filmmaker of a recently released, critically heralded film that’s been pleasantly haunting you? Try making that your first ever interview. Toss in a technical glitch and you’ve got the makings of an awkward, but otherwise amiable first time.
I had the chance to cut my teeth on James Gray, writer and director of Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow.
LMT: Let me begin with a disclosure: you are my first interview. So, if I come across sounding more like Chris Farley than Terry Gross, I apologize in advance.
JG: Oh, that’s all right. I mean I’m trying to make your life as easy as I can.
LMT: Great! I really, really enjoyed the movie. It’s been sitting with me.
JG: Oh, thank you.
LMT: Your last few films have had more of a crime backdrop. I was curious what inspired you to do Two Lovers, to shift gears there.
JG: Well …
I hear nothing for a few seconds.
LMT: Hello? Oh shoot …
My landline has dropped the call. I curse and scour the incoming calls list on the caller ID, praying for the originating number. It’s there. I’m going to have to rely on my mobile phone. Fantastic.
I call back in.
JG: How much of that did you get?
LMT: I got “well …” and then it cut out. I’m so sorry about that.
JG: That’s very funny. I was giving you a monologue. I was just saying that the movie had its origins with Gwyneth Paltrow. I had known her socially for many years and I ran into her at a party. I said, “How’re you doin’; how you been? Are you acting?” She said, “A little bit, but I wanted to focus on my children. But what do you care? It doesn’t matter anyway, I couldn’t work with you!” I asked, “Why is that? You don’t like my films?” She said, “No I love them, but you make movies about guys with guns and guys yelling curse words. I can’t do that. What part am I going to play in that?” I said, “You really think that’s all I can do?” It was almost like a goad, but it worked.
I went ahead and decided I was going to try and do something without any of that, without any of the machinery and just do something with a certain purity of emotion – hopefully, an authenticity of emotion. And the picture really had its origins in that, because you can’t make same movie over and over again. I mean you want to have certain elements of continuity. If you think the movies are personal, you care about them, then you want them to feel as though the same person made them from beginning to end. Having said that, you don’t want to get stale.
So, really the inspiration for it was Gwyneth, and a couple of other things that were going on in my life. It sort of all came together to forge the story. I really also must say I wanted to make a love story, with some seriousness, some purpose.
LMT: I think you succeeded. It has many layers. I feel like I’m peeling them back like the many layers of filo dough on baklava. I’m just sitting with it.
JG: (laughs) I’m glad. What you want to do – or at least what I want to do – is make a picture that sticks to the ribs. Or you make a movie that has an almost deceptively simple story but that has a certain ambiguity about it, a certain narrative complexity that makes people kind of contemplate it, that you hope [people] will remember years from now. That’s the goal. You’re dreaming of making a picture that people think about over and over. That’s very difficult to do.
LMT: Something about this movie reminded me of Conversations with Other Women. Don’t know if you’re familiar with it. It’s with Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhardt and it’s shot entirely in split screen.
JG: I know what movie it is. I didn’t see it. But now I guess I have to.
LMT: I would recommend it. I think maybe it reminds me of Conversations with Other Women in that it’s deceptively simple.
JG: Exactly. There are two different things you’re working towards. The difference between simple and easy is quite vast. For example, I was once watching this interview with Greg Louganis, the diver, and he was announcing that he had AIDS, or that he was HIV positive, I can’t remember which. I think it was with Barbara Walters. He said, “Barbara, I have AIDS.” Now, if you wrote that in the script, most actors would look at that and they would start bursting into tears as they announced it. But in real life, he said, “Barbara, I have AIDS,” and he laughed. He laughed! Now, laughing is a simple choice that an actor could make in prying that moment, but it wouldn’t be easy to choose that. Simple is not the same as easy. In fact, choosing beauty through simplicity is very difficult. And what you hope to achieve with a story is that the story is very simple so that you can understand it, but that it has a lot of ambiguity and that you can turn it around and around.
LMT: I find I’m most attracted to the stories that are deceptively simple.
JG: Yeah. The tricky stuff does not last. I’m sorry. The stuff with all the plot twists and all that. What generally happens is that it has a sort of temporary enjoyment factor. So if the idea is: “Who did it? Who committed the murder?” The enjoyment is very fleeting. If you find out who did it, and watching it again … it’s almost a mechanical process. You know what’s going to happen.
LMT: Switching gears here for a second. A surface detail that sort of struck me: this movie takes place over the fall and winter holiday season, but the holidays are never really addressed, with the exception of New Years Eve. Was that intentional? Were you intentionally ignoring Thanksgiving and Christmas parties and such?
JG: Well, the characters in at least Joaquin’s world, are Jewish, so they wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas, really. As for Thanksgiving … I didn’t think it was a holiday that he even cared about. For all we know, Leonard was eating a TV dinner in his room watching television.
LMT: I understand that his family is Jewish and they wouldn’t celebrate it. But I guess where it stuck out to me was with Michelle. Her boyfriend was gone for two weeks, over Christmas. It seemed to me that that was a moment when she wouldn’t want to be alone, that Leonard would have maybe reached out to her.
JG: That’s possible. Maybe that’s just an oversight of mine.
LMT: I liked Leonard’s relationship with both women, and I liked the fact that he was two different people. With Sandra, he was more the patient, but with Michelle, he was more the doctor. I don’t know if that’s what you were thinking [when you wrote it] …
JG: What I’m thinking is really not that important, because you want the movie to be a living thing, to mean different things to different people. I can tell you what each thing meant to me, but it would probably be very uninteresting. And it would diminish the film, I think.
LMT: I don’t think it would diminish the film. What did his relationship to each woman mean to you?
JG: The nature of desire is so fickle and it so depends on things we really can’t even put our finger on: why you might like one guy or woman or why you want. Why did I marry my wife, when there are other women I could’ve married? Why did my wife strike me the right way? And it’s about life’s very subtle compromises. You find a woman with whom you are attracted. But there are other attractive women out there, so what is it about your wife? Really all sexual attraction, and all desire, is in some way connected to fetish. So, if my wife had come into the party where I first met her and she were wearing too much makeup or a different outfit, I might never have talked to her. So, Vinessa Shaw is probably … even though I wanted to cast someone who is quite desirable and quite lovely, the whole point [is] that Leonard is blind to that. It doesn’t matter how lovely she is; she doesn’t fit his fetish. She represents part of the old culture. Where as, Gwyneth is a total break. So part of that is appealing to him.
LMT: It looks like we might be running out of time here, but I understand that your next project is something called The Lost City of Z. What’s this about?
JG: Brad Pitt had sent me a book of the same name. It’s coming out in a week or two. It’s about a guy named Percy Fawcett, who was a real person. He was a sort of real-life Indiana Jones. And he was an archeologist and explorer at the turn of the last century; he was sent down originally to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil over the rubber trade. We don’t realize how recent the mapping of the world has been – at least the accurate mapping. And that whole part of the Amazon was totally unexplored. He went down there and he basically started to develop a theory of a lost civilization in the jungle. Everyone kind of laughed at him and thought was crazy. He went sort of mad in the jungle and came back to fight World War I, where he got injured with a chemical weapon. He finally decided to go back to the jungle in the Amazon and brought his 18-year-old son, and they disappeared. They were never seen again. And now, almost everything that he theorized about with the City of Z has been … so much of what he says has turned out to be true.
It’s an amazing story. Brad Pitt looks exactly like the guy. The guy was unbelievably handsome, very dashing and he sort of let himself go.
LMT: I’ll definitely look forward to that one. Thank you so –
JG: Well, you did not do a Chris Farley!
LMT: (laughs) Well, thank you so much for your time, sir. I appreciate it!
JG: You’re welcome.