James Gray returns to his Queens roots with coming-of age drama Armageddon Time. The filmmaker tells Sceen what inspired him to mine his own childhood.
Beginning with Little Odessa in 1994, James Gray has made five films set in New York and its environs — a world he knows well, having been born and raised in Flushing, Queens. Then, in 2016, he headed for the Amazon jungles and 1920s England with The Lost City Of Z, before blasting into space for Ad Astra. Both were challenging productions for a variety of reasons.
“I don’t regret making those films, but I remember being physically punished,” says a jetlagged Gray, in London for a brief stopover on his way to November’s Marrakech International Film Festival. “It was so difficult, not just Amazonia, even the UK portion [of Z]. I remember being on the Don Diego river, dealing with caimans, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But the film that emerged, I was very proud of. Then Ad Astra presented huge logistical issues, and the final cut didn’t turn out to be mine alone.”
Gray returned home and took stock. “I said, ‘I’ve got to discover what it is I love about cinema if I’m going to continue to dedicate my life to this.’ It’s too hard to not love it.” And so he decided to do “the most goddamn intimate and personal thing you can possibly imagine”.
A coming-of-age drama set in Queens in 1980, Armageddon Time is the thinly fictionalised tale of 12-year-old Jewish-American comic book and space nerd Paul (Banks Repeta) and his friendship with rebellious African-American Johnny (Jaylin Webb). The film’s title is inspired by The Clash cover of Willie Williams’ ‘Armagideon Time’, which peppers the soundtrack in short bursts.
It is not the first time Gray has mined his family history for material. The Immigrant told the story of his grandparents’ arrival in the US in the 1920s. “I’ve tried to put in every film I’ve made stuff that’s directly autobiographical, but here I was asking, ‘What were the plates we had in the dining room? What was the wallpaper like?’ And we shot the film 90 feet from my house. The only reason we didn’t shoot in my house is the [owner] wouldn’t let us in. It became a very expensive home movie.”
Not that Armageddon Time — which was financed by Focus Features, launched at Cannes in May, and released in North America in November — is a sentimental, rose-tinted view of adolescence. Paul’s father, played by Succession’s Jeremy Strong, is revealed as someone who beats his children. “He was worse in real life,” reflects Gray. “But if I showed what he did, you would hate him, so I had to soften it a little. But my job is to show you what I was like, and what my family was like, warts and all.
“Here was a person who was struggling to put food on the table, that I think parenting was not the first, second or even third order of the day,” he continues. “Violence was more normal, if you want to call it that, in the ’70s. He probably suffered at the hands of his dad. I also think it’s an act of incompetence. My mother and he didn’t know how to handle me. I was this wilful little snot.”
Change of perspective
It is fair to say Gray also does not portray himself in a good light. “To my mother, I was very mean. But children can be cruel and dishonest. And I was trying to convey that.” Gray’s father passed away from Covid‑19 two months after production wrapped on Armageddon Time. Did he ever show him the script? “No, I would never give him the script. He wouldn’t know what he was reading. The only person who saw it is my brother. I’m very close with him. He’s very honest with me. He said it was very uncomfortable to see, like a strange Xerox of our family life.”
When Armageddon Time was first announced, it was to star Robert De Niro, Oscar Isaac, Anne Hathaway and Cate Blanchett. Production delays due to the pandemic meant only Hathaway (as Paul’s mother) remained by the time Gray came to shoot. Strong replaced Isaac, Jessica Chastain subbed for Blanchett (in a cameo as Maryanne Trump, elder sister of the future US president), and Anthony Hopkins stepped in as Paul’s maternal grandfather.
“I worked on it for the first few months of the pandemic when I lost De Niro because he went off [to film] with Martin Scorsese, so it became a different script,” says Gray. Originally, De Niro played his paternal grandfather, “who had come over in 1923 from Russia and spoke almost no English. But the script got warmer, and I decided to explore a different side of it once Tony got involved. I rewrote it for my mother’s father and the story changed a little bit. It became closer to the truth, weirdly.”
Gray and casting director Douglas Aibel spread their net wide to find an actor to play his younger self and his former best friend. “We watched something like 600 videos, and there were a huge number of very talented people,” he says. “But you need kids with certain qualities, a tenderness and a kind of braggadocio, but also a vulnerability and a cluelessness. You needed kids that would break your heart. It became about who was improvising and listening the best.”
With Repeta, Gray did not want an imitation of himself aged 12, but got one anyway. “My brother does think it’s quite accurate to me, because, in the end, I was either consciously or unconsciously pushing [Repeta] to do what it is I would do in that situation. So he is playing a certain level of obnoxiousness I had, but also a cluelessness.”
Likewise, with Strong and Hathaway, Gray “didn’t want either one doing an impersonation, so I gave them as little as I could get away with”, he recalls. “Annie kept saying, ‘Is there video of your mother?’ Which there isn’t. I said, ‘Use yourself. You understand the situation, use what’s in you.’ But it weirdly happened they wound up playing them anyway.
Jeremy asked my daughter and my wife if they would video my dad answering the Proust Questionnaire, so he had video of my father. He understood how he spoke, his mannerisms, he got that character completely. And Annie’s really accurate.”
After filming, Strong was interviewed by The New Yorker, and his method approach, outlined in the article, was ridiculed online. In Armageddon Time, his character is a plumber, so Strong hung out with plumbers. “A lot of people don’t understand how vulnerable and difficult it is to be a wonderful actor. And to be good at it demands dedication,” says Gray. “Jeremy diving into the part in the way he does is not difficult to me. Difficult is you don’t remember your lines, you don’t show up on time, you won’t get out of the trailer. Difficult is not somebody who’s so into the character you have to talk to them as though they’re the character. That’s process, and not my business. It’s only my business to try and help them.”
In Armageddon Time, Paul is a comic-book fan who wants to draw superhero stories when he grows up. Given that Gray has made a series of independently minded movies influenced by his love of 1970s cinema, has he ever hankered to make a comic-book movie like his friend Matt Reeves (The Batman) with whom he co-wrote The Yards?
“I’ve been offered a couple,” says the filmmaker, who is currently developing a John F Kennedy biopic. “The problem is there isn’t the necessary control I think you need to do a good version. Some of the Batman movies are tremendously admirable. Not just Matt’s. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
“The question remains, how much control would I have, and would I get fired? I would do it with Elmer Bernstein music and [in] black and white. I would do it like Sweet Smell Of Success with Batman. I would do a very different version, and then I would never work again.”
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