Since the mid-1990s, writer-director James Gray, 45, has made haunting, operatic films about the fraught relationships between immigrants and their children as they struggle to assimilate and to achieve some measure of the elusive American dream.
His debut feature, “Little Odessa” (1994), depicts the tragic travails of Russian-Jewish parents, their wayward gangster son (Tim Roth) and the younger brother who worships him (Edward Furlong), all set in the insular Russian-Jewish émigré enclave of Brighton Beach, N.Y. “Two Lovers” (2008), also set in Brighton Beach, is the coming-of-age story of a young Jewish man (Joaquin Phoenix) who is torn between a Jewish and a non-Jewish woman (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Now Gray’s brooding new film, “The Immigrant” — which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival — serves as a kind of prequel to his previous émigré sagas, as it follows a Polish-Catholic woman, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921, only to fall into the clutches of a Jewish pimp, Bruno Weiss (Phoenix in his fourth turn in a Gray film).
During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, the warm, cerebral Gray said the period drama “is the most personal and autobiographical of all my films” — inspired in large part by his own Russian-Jewish family’s passage through Ellis Island in the early 1920s and their difficult journey beyond.
The film opens as Ewa, along with her sister, Magda, enters the immigrant-processing center after a harrowing journey from her war-torn country in the filthy steerage section of an ocean liner. Magda, who is ill, is almost immediately swept away to the hospital infirmary; Ewa, meanwhile, is scheduled for deportation until she is “rescued” by a seemingly charming businessman, Bruno, who soon coerces her into working in his shady burlesque show, and eventually as a prostitute, in order to raise money to spirit Magda out of her lengthy quarantine. Ewa’s salvation seems to emerge in the form of Bruno’s cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), an enigmatic stage magician who turns out to have his own troubled past; a dangerous love triangle ensues as Ewa fights to survive amid the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side.
In person, Gray, who is tall, bearded and decked out in well-worn jeans and spectacles, appeared to be living out his own version of the American dream, posing (albeit self-consciously) for a Variety photo shoot and ordering room service before settling down for an interview. He began by regaling a reporter with the family stories that informed Ewa’s odyssey: In the early 1920s, he said, White Army troops rode their horses into his great-grandparents’ dry goods store in Ostropol, and beheaded them in front of his cowering 16-year-old grandmother. “At least once a week for the rest of her life, she would wake up from terrible nightmares about that,” Gray said.
Gray’s Russian grandfather, who eventually built up a modestly successful plumbing business in New York, nevertheless hoarded a decrepit Ford truck in the garage of his row house in Rego Park, Queens, “because you never know when they might come for you,” he would say.
Even so, the plumber never learned much English, spoke almost exclusively in Yiddish and Russian, was often moved to tears while speaking of his hometown and longed for the old country all of his days.
“There was a profound melancholy about his experience that was passed down through my father to me, and I tried to infuse those emotions into the film,” said Gray, who grew up in Queens.
The movie, he added, “was also a way for me to explore the wrenching dislocation of migrating to a new place. What I was trying to express was that the American dream is not bogus, but it’s also not honey. It’s complex, and it’s something you keep fighting for. It has both beauty and ugliness at the same time.”
Gray said he made the character of Ewa Catholic in part to cause her to feel even more an outsider on the Jewish Lower East Side; her religion also fit thematically with Gray’s interest in exploring what he called “the Madonna-whore complex” as well as issues of forgiveness and redemption.
To create the character of Bruno, Gray drew on his great-aunt’s tales of a mercurial Jewish pimp and also the historical figure of Max Hochstim, who used his connections with officials at Tammany Hall and elsewhere to lure women into prostitution.
“Of course, I worried that Bruno might become some sort of negative Jewish stereotype, which is why I made Jeremy Renner’s character a kind of positive counterbalance to him,” Gray said. “But I also wanted to make Bruno more than just a jerk. … He is deliberately called a ‘kike’ in several scenes because I wanted to show the terrible anti-Semitism of the time and to suggest that, indirectly, that kind of bigotry became a source for who Bruno would become in this hostile environment.”
America was not always the Promised Land for Gray and his family. His father, who had earned a doctorate in economics at Columbia University, encountered devastating business legal battles around the early 1990s, even as Gray’s mother fell ill with brain cancer and died two years later, at 49, when the filmmaker was just 20. Gray helped care for his mother during her illness, throughout which she had agonizing seizures: “It was so painful to watch her suffer and to be helpless to do anything about it,” he said.
Several years later, he channeled all those emotions into “Little Odessa,” a script he penned when he was still severely depressed, and in which the movie’s matriarch (played by Vanessa Redgrave) is also dying of brain cancer, to the anguish of her husband and two sons.
Things picked up for Gray when he was able to secure a producer and financing for “Little Odessa” on the merits of his moody USC student short film, “Cowboys and Angels,” which he made only a year and a half after graduating from the film school; at just 24, he was lauded as a wunderkind-auteur to watch.
While Gray’s subsequent films, including “The Yards” (starring Mark Wahlberg) and “We Own the Night,” received mixed reviews in the United States, he became a superstar in France, where Le Monde once dubbed him “one of the great American directors of our time.” “The Immigrant” became his fourth film to premiere in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival.
One of Gray’s direct inspirations for “The Immigrant” came as far back as the 1970s, when he visited the visitors’ center at the then-newly reopened Ellis Island with his grandfather. “He walked in there, and the first thing he did was burst into tears,” Gray recalled. “It felt like the entire place was inhabited by ghosts — the ghosts of our entire family — and I thought that might be a good starting-off point for a film.”
After finding a treasure trove of family documents several years ago, Gray began researching “The Immigrant” in earnest, including myriad visits to the library at Ellis Island and plying his older relatives for memories. He also read up on prostitution in the early 20th century, even perusing a bawdy 1915 pamphlet about hookers — all described as lapsed heiresses — whose services could be purchased for a price. Bruno uses the same shtick to present his harem in the film.
However, the sex scenes in “The Immigrant” are almost non-existent: “It would have been absolutely idiotic to include extensive and explicit sex because it would have been completely distracting to what the point of the movie is,” Gray said. “I suppose if I had included those kinds of sequences, perhaps the film would have garnered a kind of sleazy attention, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. Then the film would have become a kind of anthropological study of a hooker, which is not what I had in mind.”
“The Immigrant” opens in Los Angeles on May 16.