Low Life set report from French publication Libéracion, loosely translated below:Gray Anatomy
April 24, 2012
By Jordan Mintzer
Exclusive report on the shooting of new film by James Gray, with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard. Odyssey in the New York of 20 years.
In this vibrant borough of Queens, just a few subway stops from downtown Manhattan, which was once a bastion of Greek immigration has changed dramatically in recent years. The souvlaki stalls and other Orthodox churches have gradually given way to taco shops, boutiques converted into mosques or restaurants at night, such that Sarajevo Fast Food Corporation. And while the local population was traditionally divided for decades between the working classes of Greek, Irish and Italian, she has recently diversified dramatically, now accounting for Mexicans, Bulgarians, Syrians, Albanians and Brazilians - not to mention a few hipsters in Brooklyn who rents have become unaffordable.
But on this balmy evening in March, that's a different kind of immigrant that one crosses the streets of the neighborhood, those one has not seen for nearly a century. Dressed in three piece suits in tatters, wearing fedoras, pocket watches and hairstyles gominées: it's a small army of extras that goes to the set H of Kaufman Astoria Studios illustrious, where another army - made it to assistants production, props and makeup artists - awaits them on the set of which for now is simply named James Gray The Untitled Project. While these extras are beginning to integrate the decor - the reconstruction of a cabaret-brothel-gambling scale called Bandit's Roost Theater -, they are served in mugs vintage of the (false) beer and are distributed around large tables soiled of peanut shells and ashtrays filled to the brim, while awaiting further instructions.
A team of production assistants listen carefully to the warnings of the first assistant director, Doug Torres: "I warn you. This scene, we'll turn it from every angle. "And for good reason: it is a real pivotal scene of the film, involving the three main actors (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner), a good fifty extras and its share of stunts and breaks. At the other end of the plateau, James Gray, he is calmly sitting in his chair director, surrounded by some of his producers and his team - most of them nervously fingering their Blackberry, anxious that it starts. A few more adjustments in the decor, a little more peanuts scattered hither and yon, and Doug Torres starts: "It is good for us." The hubbub and the animation of a sudden fall. James Gray puts his helmet and sets intensely monitors connected to two huge cameras Arriflex 35 mm installed at two opposite corners of the tray. "Quiet please!" Proclaims Doug Torres. That's when James Gray turns around and smiles, as anxious exalts: "It's always the worst time. I feel like a boxer who steps into the ring. "
This is already the fifth week of the shooting of which - in purely American - is considered an "indie", while for the rest of the world in this ambitious project to dress more like a Hollywood blockbuster. After four weeks of back and forth across New York to shoot the exterior including a day at Ellis Island, which, as an input main immigrants, is a capital place for this drama whose action takes place in 1921 The team has finally asked the studio to put in a box some of the major scenes of what will be the first period film by James Gray. The sets are divided into two pans: one side, the cabaret-brothel-gambling den, and the other, the reconstruction of a dilapidated apartment on the outskirts of the Lower East Side, which will serve the following week.
The story follows the journey of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a young Polish immigrant fresh. Just arrived in New York (with his sister, but it is immediately sent into quarantine because of tuberculosis), she finds herself plunged into the depths of Manhattan where she meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a devious tenant who leads her into prostitution, and his cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a flamboyant magician who could get him out.
"Where was he went for so much poetry?"
As with all scenarios, James Gray was inspired by some of the details related to the history of his own family, in this case a rear-grandfather who ran a saloon at the time. "It was called Chez Hurwitz. B ut where was he went for so much poetry? jokes the filmmaker. The bar was apparently frequented by a crowd of gangsters, bohemians and eccentric, and my great aunt has often told me of a certain Max was the mac Höchsten the corner. It was he who brought the girls out there. "But unlike his other films, which generally revolve around relationships - often violent - between men (fathers, brothers or son), the story is told here of a strictly feminine point of view: "I wanted to place the woman at the center, to get away from any prospect macho. This is, of course, again a tentative analysis of patriarchy, but this time in a very frontal, whereas usually the wives of my scenarios quickly become the objects of men - although they are never objects films. "
In this respect, the story of James Gray Untitled Project inevitably evokes the theme of Two Lovers (a man caught between two women), but this time it mirrored (a woman caught between two men), in a sort of dilemma Shakespearean like We Own the Night. In the evocation of these comparisons, James Gray laughs while sighing: "To be honest, I do not really realize was ... To say that one is always the same movie, this is obviously never the same story that reproduced, but rather we try again and again to talk about what really matters for himself, trying to refine a little more about each time. "
While the actors and technicians are busy in the studio air conditioning H, producer Anthony Katagas (who worked with James Gray on We Own the Night and Two Lovers) flips on the floor of monographs photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, and painters Everett Shinn and George Bellows. The latter, both representatives of the Ashcan School - literally "School of the trash," American realist painting style of the early twentieth century, best known for his depictions of flood scenes of daily life of urban working classes - have been a major source for the iconography of the film. Whether through the costumes, sets, or even how to light scenes, all these references are found in one way or another to the image. And only through this type of preliminary work by a rare precision that it is possible for James Gray to turn this period piece (partly funded by the French distributor-seller Wild Bunch) for the price of a big production indie, and only thirty-five days - leaving little room for improvisation.
"I became totally obsessed with the 20s"
"That's the key, says Anthony Katagas. Generally, producers are preparing a movie thinking "in case". They wonder: "Oh my god! What would happen if the director finally decided to shoot in broad terms rather than close-up? Are we ready for this?" We, we do not have the means to ask such questions. "In more succinct, fairly typical of his childhood in Queens, James Gray for his part described the folly of this process by the popular phrase Trying to shove 10 pounds of shit Into a 5-pound bag, literally "try to get 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag." And it works: when it came to a crucial stage and pass the streets of the Bronx today in Lower Manhattan to those of a hundred years ago, the team carefully studied the photographs and paintings reference and has succeeded in effecting the transformation of an entire city block in just a few days - where normally there would need several weeks.
This is the kind of challenges facing the daily production which, despite the presence in the credits of a winner and two Oscar nominations, has not a dollar to spare. "It was nice running 24 frames per second, notes Anthony Katagas, such films are really working frame by frame."
After finishing the script, James Gray has spent several months in multiply round trips between his home in Los Angeles, and New York, looking for potential film locations. He also visited dozens of times in the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street (Lower East Side, Manhattan) and Ellis Island to document the best of the time. "During the preparation of the film, I became totally obsessed with everything about this period, he says while the team prepares for a new decision. Especially details such as the permanent consumption of cigars, pipes and cigarettes, the absolute lack of hygiene, the fact that people had very bad teeth ... I remembered everything, but just to be able to forget everything when shooting. "As production had not the means to turn everything on location (and anyway, the Lower East Side today, totally gentrified, nothing like that of the time), James Gray has appealed to Happy Massee (already designer of Two Lovers) to create the impressive studio reconstructions that provide the framework for much of the film. His team had very little time to build upstream, but this constraint sets finally allowed themselves to keep pace with the shooting, in symbiosis with the film's characters - gradually, they have also become, according Massee, "more sophisticated, burlesque and colorful."
"I thought of Bresson"
Color, precisely, was a key element to represent the time that - because of the photos that remain to us - is generally thought in black and white. This is perhaps the biggest challenge that faced the legendary French-Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Funny Games, Midnight in Paris ...): transform this world into a monochromatic palette vibrant, colorful and richly colored. While he was filming last fall in the next Woody Allen film in Italy (To Rome with Love), Darius Khondji began receiving hundreds of mail iconographic references sent by James Gray, explaining his vision of the film , the image type to which he wanted to go. One of the major inspirations was, unexpectedly, a series of erotic Polaroid taken in the 60 and 70 by the Italian architect Carlo Mollino. "This is one of the first things he sent me, remembers Dairus Khondji from a loft in lower Manhattan, during a weekend of well deserved rest. We studied all the pictures closely. We wanted to find the perfect texture to film the skin texture, and type of lighting that would give an almost religious at all. "If religion has always been part of the world of filmmaker (Russian Orthodox chants float on the first scene of Little Odessa to the bar mitzvah of Two Lovers, through the Catholic funeral of We Own the Night), she finds a special place in this new film that questions directly notions of faith and redemption . "At risk of sounding pretentious, says James Gray, Godfather II apart from which it has referred a lot - but for the scenery - I thought mainly to Bresson by preparing the film, including Diary of a priest campaign. I even looted an end to a scene in the confessional. "
According viewed the rushes in the apartment of Darius Khondji on a monitor set up specially by the laboratory, this film seems to be a real break - at least in terms of visual aesthetics - with all that the filmmaker was able to before. This impression is partly due to the sumptuous costumes created by the octogenarian Patricia Norris (who often worked with David Lynch, including Elephant Man and Lost Highway), but also something more troubling: a radiant appearance and in the air how actors on the screen, perhaps reflecting the desire of the director to move away from formal realism here who signed his previous films, to go further sought in the myth.
Back on the set H. The team is preparing for yet another take of a scene that, for two long days, will be shot at least twenty-five different angles. While Darius Khondji and lighting (the esteemed John DeBlau, who has worked on over sixty films since Sophie's Choice, by Alan J. Pakula, the early 80s) carefully regulate their light, liners replace the three stars that spin behind the scenes. Phoenix remains seated in its character, pacing in the dark; Renner leads to a magic trick that will perform on stage, while joking with the team; Cotillard joins his son, Marcel. The image of the actress cradling her baby as she is - for the purposes of the stage next - dressed as the Statue of Liberty as "vaudeville" offers a rather surreal moment of intimacy.
"That one, for sure, we keep"
Meanwhile, the extras are redirected to their site by the second assistant. Those who have nothing to do form naturally in small groups to watch YouTube videos on an iPad lying around. For anyone who has ever attended a film of this magnitude, we know how the organization's work is generally a precision and extreme rigor. The "magic" is most often absent and, in a meticulous sometimes bordering on the absurd, it often seems to have been replaced by a quasi Taylorist division of labor. It is also the case here. It was assigned a task as accurately as specific to each team member, more than 120 people, excluding post: repair bulbs stroke, operate the smoke machine to clean the broken glass As the catch or still run the return playback. This monotony broken by sudden and intense acceleration, and the extraordinary pace of shooting (with days that sometimes go 3:00 p.m. to 3:00 am), make it extremely difficult to identify in the film advance . Except for James Gray, with his usual lucidity, comments on his approach: "Everyone on board has a specific task, except the director. The film could almost do without him - we also wonders if this is not what happens on some projects. In fact, his only real job is to maintain a certain emotional temperature throughout the shoot. "
But this mission is all the more difficult it's always something new on the set - as at the moment this group of chorus girls dressed in mini dresses fringed Charleston who arrive, greeted by a swarm of makeup artists who poudrent on many exposed parts of their bodies. Yet James Gray seems to totally ignore this whirlwind of activity: "If you get involved too, and throughout, we can no longer focus when the camera rolls for good. When the first assistant said "Action!" I put my helmet and I look at the monitor. This is the only time that matters because in the end it's the only thing that will be in the film. Everything else is just noise, and you must pass to extract. "
Half an hour later, Doug Torres announced that the team is ready for shooting after the scene, who will this time include some stunts involving Renner and Phoenix. The first dose is missed quite across, and the extras are particularly out of sync with the rest of the action. "It has not yet found the right pace," says Gray, before going to talk Renner, suggesting a new way of approaching waterfalls. Gray approve, review all ran from the scene with all the players, then gives the final entries to the cameraman. Everyone falls into place for a second take. This time, the actors will go to the bottom, Renner skillfully dodging the blows of angry Phoenix, giving himself entirely to his role, demonstrated the passion that marked his faithful collaboration with Gray from The Yards. Even before Torres could say "Cut!", A huge laugh out from behind the monitor. Gray is folded in half, as if watching the Marx Brothers (whose films Coconut Explorer and Madness have also been shot in this same studio Kaufman Astoria in the late 20) . The team hurries to join him around the monitor to the board decision and whenever, Gray bursts into laughter, enjoying the vision of a scene played excellently. "That one, for sure, we keep it."
It's time for "lunch break", although it is actually 20 hours. The extras take the air out in the streets adjoining the studio. As they integrate with the local population, one can not help but see new form of the strange array of immigrants between 1921 and 2012 they met in the same suburbs. Taking advantage of this hour to get a phone call to his wife and children, Gray hurries to his desk, looking rather calm. So I ask him how he managed to remain stoic in the midst of this chaos, he stopped, thought a moment and replied: "It's funny because I was talking with Doug [Torres] this morning, and I told her that, for me, all that matters is trying to win the battle daily. This is not for the preparation - which has other issues - but rather for the filming that we must look at every morning in the face and say: "Today I must get good catches . I need a good game from the players, to reveal a truth. " It is useless to think of yesterday, whose catches are already in boxes, or tomorrow. It's day to day to think. And if we manage to compartmentalize everything well and truly forget yesterday and tomorrow, to focus only on what you have to do today, so I think the battle is already half won. "Source