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James Gray on being more honest and more direct with Armageddon Time

We spoke to filmmaker James Gray recently about his new drama movie Armageddon Time and how the project allowed him to get back to his roots

Jeremy Strong as Irving Graff in Armageddon Time

After forging his career in the art of small-scale drama movies, James Gray’s last two projects saw him step things up a notch with the science fiction movie Ad Astra and the movie based on a true story, The Lost City of Z. With his new film, Armageddon Time, Gray has returned to his roots to tell a more intimate story.

Armageddon Time stars Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, and Succession cast member Jeremy Strong, along with newcomer Michael Banks Repeta. The film depicts Gray’s own life growing up as a young Jewish boy in a time of civil unrest and uncertainty in America.

The Digital Fix had the pleasure of speaking to James Gray recently ahead of the film’s release to discuss the difference between Armageddon Time and his previous works, his relationship with Joaquin Phoenix, and the state of the modern cinematic landscape.

The Digital Fix: This is the first time you’ve taken on sole writing responsibilities since 2007 and I just wondered if this story being so personal led to that decision to go for it alone?

James Gray: Yeah, it absolutely did. I didn’t see how I could bring on another writer. I mean, I probably was wrong to say that because when I look at the work of Federico Fellini on Amarcord for example, I think he was one of three writers. So maybe I should have had somebody along to give me some distance. But the thing was so directly from me that I didn’t have the need for another voice in the room. I was just trying to do it, where I was as uncensored about myself as possible, you know, and it included, of course, me not being at my prettiest.

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TDF: Yeah, that makes sense. And that kind of goes on to the next question quite nicely. With the film having such a strong political and sociological backdrop to it, was it a conscious decision to bring this story to life now, given the nature of the world as it is?

JG: Well, you know, it’s funny, you don’t write a movie and make the film and then the next day it comes out, you know. The script was written several years ago now. And I didn’t think, well, let me predict the future. No, the idea was always to make a film set in that time period, because I think that that time period is very, very important for who we are today, really, across the Western world.

But I don’t think that much changes in life. I think history does mean progress, but it takes a very long time. And if you were to chart history, and its progress, it would sort of be like a chart that would have all sorts of ups and downs. In the main, there’s progress, but there are fits and starts. And the idea was, okay, here’s the way the world was to me. And what does that mean going forward? Well, nothing comes from nothing.

Michael Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time

And there’s now this real temptation to look at autocracy as a viable means of governance. And of course, revanchism is very strong. You see that with Vladimir Putin and his desire to take Ukraine and all of these forces, they’re really not new. So I was just trying to say this is the world as I saw it, how much has really changed? The answer is not much.

TDF: No, certainly not. And speaking of change, your previous two films Ad Astra, and Lost City of Z were pretty big in scale, whereas obviously, Armageddon Time is a lot more intimate. How did the experience differ between those two projects, and this one?

JG: I’m very happy that I made those films, although Ad Astra was a very difficult experience in the final cut, which I didn’t get on the film. So it’s not entirely representative, actually, of my edit, but I’m still happy. I have the experience and Lost City of Z, I’m very happy I had that experience. And I loved making that film. But that movie, in particular Lost City of Z, that was a physically brutal experience for me.

It’s not easy to go to Amazonia and to go to work in the middle of a river that’s a tributary of the Amazon. In this case, it was the Don Diego River. It was a very, very arduous shoot. And at some point, I kind of said to myself, well, you’re getting caught with a lot of these logistics and the difficulties. Isn’t it time to try to do something where you forget all of that, and go back to your roots a little bit and discover something intimate inside of yourself.

Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z

And that’s the reason that you love cinema, isn’t it James? I’m talking about myself in the third person, but really, I’m doing it with hopefully some sense of humour. The idea being, to cut out all the crap and try to focus on expressing myself as clearly as I can, and as unpretentiously as I can. I was frustrated with myself, I think, as a creative person. I wanted to be more honest, more direct.

TDF: Nice answer. And speaking of the past, obviously, you’ve worked with some brilliant actors throughout the years, but it’s been a while since you’ve collaborated with Joaquin Phoenix. Do you miss working with him?

JG: Yes, I love him to pieces. Joaquin and I talk all the time, and we have discussed something coming up. But it’s about timing, work has been very busy. And I’ve tried to get him for movies and he’s not available or, you know, he’s not great at offering me stuff. You know, in fact, I don’t think he’s ever brought me something in all the years I’ve known him, but he does say, ‘Yeah, let’s go. Let’s do something else’. I mean all the time. So there’s almost no question that I’ll make another film with him. The question that remains, is when?

Jaylin Webb and Michael Banks Repeta in Armageddon Time

TDF: I’m sure fans will be happy to hear that. Now, I recall an interview you gave a while back discussing the importance of taking risks in filmmaking, and the idea that studios need to find a balance between blockbusters and low budget work. Would you say that situation has improved at all since?

JG: No, I would say that the movie business is in rather parlous shape. See, I’ve spoken to this before and it’s been if I may be candid, it’s been a little bit misunderstood, because some people have said to me, ‘Oh, you hate big blockbusters?’ No, I actually quite like a lot of them. And they’re huge fun, and I love seeing them with my kids. The problem is not the existence of blockbusters, the problem is not the existence of DC movies or Marvel movies, which can be wonderful.

The problem is now you face a menu of only the cheeseburger. I simply asked for a menu which also has, you know, the poke bowl. It’s like you just want different flavours. I mean, imagine if you went to an art museum, no matter how great Jackson Pollock is, and he was great. The only canvases you saw on the wall were drip paintings by Jackson Pollock. After a while, you’d be like, ‘Well, wait a minute, this is the only kind of painting I can look at?’

Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong in Armageddon Time

So it’s sort of like that. And I understand that the business of a studio is not to look at it as a cultural temple, or themselves as cultural temples. But they kind of are. I mean, it’s the great art form of the 20th century. And you want to keep it going for the 21st. So you need a little bit of variety. I think that’s my big issue.

TDF: And that kind of fits in nicely with the last question. So recently, I saw you were a keen purveyor of old movies, and I just wondered what you do see as the major difference between the classics of old and the modern cinematic landscape?

JG: It’s a great, great question. The old movies tend to have a real obsession with telling a narrative. The idea of story seems a little bit different, a little bit different to me in the older pictures, whether they’re from Asia, Europe, Africa, United States, South America, anywhere, they have the classic ideas that really have been handed down since the Greeks. And that is a very heartening and satisfying thing for me personally, because I like stories and films.

I think now, with the influence of corporations it’s different, but also back in the day in the studio system, you were able to remake a quarter or half of the movie rather easily. Right? You showed the movie, the story didn’t work. You went over to stage six, and you got Cary Grant and stage four, you got Katharine Hepburn or whatever. And you brought them back to reshoot because everybody was under contract. So you can keep working until the narrative functions brilliantly.

Jeremy Strong as Irving Graff in Armageddon Time

Today, if you’re making a film, unless it’s just a huge budget, and there’s some kind of apparatus in place, that doesn’t happen. I mean, I got no reshoots on the film I just did. You just can’t do it. So that’s part of what contributes. Imagine if I said to you, you could write a book that you could never add or subtract words. These are the words you have to use. Now you can edit those words in different places, but you can’t write a new paragraph, it’d be awfully difficult to make a story that functioned. I think that’s probably the big hidden difference.

Armageddon Time is in UK and Irish cinemas from 18th November. Until then, why not check out our list of the best Brad Pitt movies, or find out more about the Succession season 4 release date.