At 25, James Gray made his feature directorial debut with Little Odessa, a crime drama about a hitman for the Russian mafia whose latest job brings him back to his hometown of Brighton Beach (the Brooklyn neighborhood nicknamed "Little Odessa") and the family from which he's estranged. The film premiered during the 1994 Venice Film Festival, where Gray won the Silver Lion for Best Director.
A native of Flushing, Queens, Gray's next films would continue telling personal, if loosely autobiographical, stories set in Brooklyn — The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007), and Two Lovers (2008) — before venturing outward to Ellis Island for his 2013 period drama, The Immigrant. Subsequent projects would take the filmmaker further and further from home, into the depths of the Amazon jungle with The Lost City of Z (2016), and then, all the way to outer space with Ad Astra (2019). Now, he's found his way back to where it all began.
At 53, Gray has returned home to make his most nakedly autobiographical film, Armageddon Time, a portrait of his upbringing in 1980s Queens as the youngest son in an upwardly mobile Jewish-American family. Banks Repeta plays 11-year-old Paul Graff, a version of the director, with Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong as his first-generation parents, Ryan Sell as his antagonizing older brother, and Anthony Hopkins as his kindly grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz.
When Paul befriends classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of the few Black kids in his school, their mutual appreciation for trouble sees the boys egging one another on in increasingly serious acts of rebellion, until they see firsthand the very different consequences of their actions. Based on a mostly true incident from Gray's own life, Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age story about identity, inequality, guilt, and complicity — all in pursuit of the American Dream.
In conversation with A.frame, Gray reflects on what inspired him to put his story on-screen, the challenges he faced crafting a facsimile of his youth, and why so many of his fellow directors are feeling existential at the moment.
A.frame: Filmmakers tend to make their most autobiographical film as their first film or their last film. For you, was there a sense of why this was the right time in your life or your career to make this movie?
I hope you're not right. I'd like to make another film by the time I'm done! It's funny you mentioned that, because I like showing all kinds of movies to my children and they really loved My Darling Clementine — which, by the way, makes sense because it's the greatest thing in the world. I was telling them that John Ford made over 100 movies. And you realize that to look at history and think about when a director would make this movie or that movie has changed radically. You know, if I'm lucky, I'll make 13 or something. Like, 15 is not possible at this stage of my life, and I've had a very fortunate career!
So, when you say it comes at the beginning of the end, I know exactly what you mean. And yet, it's like, all bets are off now. We make films so infrequently, and the machinery is so much more arduous. The script was written, actually, a while ago. It was written before the pandemic. It was written before January 6th and before George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and American Democracy being an open question, all of that. I think what it was was just that I'd had it. I'd made very big scale pictures. I was in the jungle and it was not easy on me, physically. And then, I put Brad Pitt on wires in a green box and all of that — very arduous productions. And I had to rediscover the medium in some sense. I had to rediscover what moved me. I wanted to strip it all away and be honest with and about myself. So, I think it's the product of what I had been doing. I felt like I had, on purpose, tried to stretch. I don't regret that. But, am I boring the hell out of you? I feel like I'm very boring.
No, not at all.
But you asked this question, and it almost demands an introspection. So, it sounds like naval-gazing. And then it did intensify with the lockdowns and stuff. I'm sure that Steven Spielberg would tell you the same thing about his coming-of-age thing. I mean, I haven't been lucky enough to ask him, but I'm sure that exists in part because we can see that the movie business is having some trouble. And you want to try and commit yourself to the art form, fully, in a way doubling down because you know it's in trouble. I know that Paolo Sorrentino feels the same way, and I know that Alfonso Cuarón feels the same way, and P.T. Anderson. All of this drive to commit yourself to the personal expression comes as a reaction to what has been happening even on a business industry level. There's no mercenary reason I made the film, obviously — I paid myself scale — but you understand what I'm saying. Right now, it feels existential for us.
When The Fabelmans premiered at TIFF, Spielberg had to tell the audience, "I'm not retiring. This is not my last movie." I would assume that making a movie like this might be emotionally challenging, in addition to all of the other challenges of getting a movie made. When you look back, was there one day that was the biggest challenge to you as a filmmaker, or as a person?
Part of the problem — not problem — it's also weirdly one of the joys, but part of the challenges of cinema is that every day presents you with a new set of problems. So, it really depends. For example, one day will present you with a problem where all the light is wrong. You can't find a good place to start your master shot. The actors aren't moving in a way that makes sense for the scene. There's all those logistical problems. And then there's an emotional challenge. You get to the set, and it's not even that the scene isn't clicking, it's that the emotion of it seems somehow not calibrated for the story you're trying to tell, or moves past what you're trying to do, or the actors are exploring something you didn't quite expect. And that can be great. But it's also a very strange feeling, because you worry that you're losing the thread. So, with movies, when you ask about a challenge, every day presents a new problem. It's why the business of cinema is so vexing, because it's like you can't widget-ize it. You can't say, "Movie A was a hit, so we're going to make Movie B and it'll do the same, if not better."
They certainly try.
Yeah, they've tried. But there's something still a little broken about the business in a good way. Because, like, 1917 — a movie about World War I — is all of a sudden a huge hit. That's like, what? That's always encouraging. When movies that you don't think will succeed are somehow hugely successful, it's fantastic. And that is why it's always a challenge, because you have to reinvent it every time. It's not like Brillo pad; and then you add a little more soap to the pad and then you say "new and improved," because it has better cleaning action. The movies are quite different. That's why every morning on a shoot, every single morning, I want the car ride to set to last forever, because that's the day, invariably, that I will get out of the car and I won't have any idea how to solve the problem that's in front of me.
So, having said that, when essentially you're watching a very strange simulacrum of your own childhood, in this case, the most challenging by far was a walk and talk of the two boys in front of my public school. And first, I wanted to get the scene right. The way I thought of it was two dorky kids essentially getting to know each other. But also there was the logistics of the shot itself. And then, the catastrophe of the fact that where I grew up and where my school was happened to be in the exact perfect position for both Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports. So, airplanes were overhead literally every 30 seconds. I couldn't get a complete take of what was a two and a half minute walk and talk without having airplanes overhead ruining the take. [Laughs] I think I did 36 takes or something insane like that, and what you see is take 36. It was the last one and the only one I got that was usable.
What is the experience like of watching the final film, both through the prism of your lived experience and as a filmmaker having gone through the experience of making this movie?
If I'm to be completely candid, I very rarely watch the whole thing played from beginning to end. In Cannes, I watched all the way through. But you're not really seeing the movie because you're sitting there with an army of Vichy collaborators, and you're in a black tie, and you're worried about everyone booing at the end. It's a totally screwed up environment and you can't really focus. You're just worried. But the last time I watched it fully straight through was right at the last day of the mix when I saw the whole film put together.
And I felt spent. Like I had put what I could into the film. Not that the movie is great — you don't think in those terms. You think, 'What else do I have left to put into this story? What else can I do to it?' And I had no more ideas. So, I felt empty. I felt like I got no more ideas. I'm watching this thing, it's like a home movie, will it mean anything to anybody? I don't know! I'm going to put it out there, and I'm going to find out. And it feels terrifying. So, I was exhausted, and I watched it and I thought, "Well, seems pretty accurate. I don't know if it'll mean anything to anybody, but I did what I could." That's the way it felt.
Putting out any art is vulnerable. You've said your brother was seeing it for the first time at the New York Film Festival, which is another layer of vulnerableness. What was his reaction?
He's very honest with me about my films. He really loved it and he felt it was extremely accurate to his recollection. He didn't know some parts of the story, but he knew practically all of it. All the stuff at home and Johnny in the clubhouse, he had a pretty clear recollection of all that stuff as well. And he felt it was very, very accurate, so I was pleased. I will confess to you that my father died two months after we wrapped production, while I was editing. He died of COVID, actually. Of course, I was deeply saddened by that. And I was on good terms with him, and it's not exactly a very pleasant circumstance, and yet, I do feel — as awful as this is to admit — a slight bit of relief that he never saw the movie. Because I don't know what his reaction would've been to it.
I think that that character has a lot of humanity. But, on the other hand, he's not perfect. But who is? I don't know. I don't know how he would've reacted. But, by the way, I'm very close to my brother now. We talk three or four times a week at least. He's a brilliant guy. He's incredibly funny, and I love him to pieces. But our relationship became great only about a year or two after the movie takes place. Before that, he and I would always beat each other up. More accurately, he'd beat me up because he was older.
That's all siblings.
Yeah, of course. I'm not saying I was traumatized by my brother, nothing like that. Totally normal.
So then, if he didn't like the movie, you could say, 'I could have made you look a lot worse. Be happy.'
No, I would never do that anyway! [Laughs] There is one thing I will admit. There is a scene that I wrote where they reconcile toward the end, which was something that happened in my life but like, a year and a half later, where my brother really looked out for me. And I had to cut it. The movie worked better without it. Though I did write it. I shot it. It's going to be on the extras or whatever.
That'll be your incentive to get your brother to buy the DVD.
Does anybody buy DVDs anymore? I wish they did. The Blu-ray looks incredible. That is really something beautiful.
And there's a lot that's still missing in the streaming era, if only just the bonus features and such. There's definitely still an incentive to buy the physical media.
You're so right. It's like when everything got converted — and I put everything in quotes —from vinyl to digital, we lost stuff. The same thing is true with cinema. I mean, how many movies are lost? Certainly a ton from the silent era. But, even beyond that, these movies that are turning all pink or we don't know anything about where they are or what's going on. That's art. That's life. It's about loss.
By John Boone