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James Gray, Queens Kid, Comes Home

The director of “Ad Astra” talks to Hell Gate about the unsparing truth of his latest film, “Armageddon Time.”

(Focus Features)

James Gray has been on a journey—his last two films, "Ad Astra" and "Lost City of Z," explored the cold, answerless void of space and the vast, suffocating Amazon. In "Armageddon Time," the Queens-born filmmaker is returning home, and to an environment no less fraught with horror, as well as fleeting escape, and the sometimes-suffocating confines of family. 

As the 53-year-old Gray explained to Hell Gate at a hotel near Central Park on an unseasonably warm November day (weather the director described as "horrific''), everything that occurs in the movie during the fall of 1980 actually happened. The film centers on sixth grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, playing Gray's stand-in) and his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black student bused to Flushing from Hollis. Paul and Johnny's brief friendship comes during a time of upheaval for both of them—Paul's parents (played by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) are deciding whether to keep Paul in his overcrowded public school. Meanwhile, Johnny's home life is deteriorating, and he's been held back a year. 

The film portrays life in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Queens during the precise moment that inequality in the country is about to skyrocket. To Paul's Jewish Ukrainian grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), the goal in life is to be a "mensch," to fight back against the type of hatred and discrimination that ended the lives of his own grandparents in Eastern Europe, and stand up against racism at home. Even so, the decision the family is struggling with will set them on a path that ties them to the white supremacists next door—specifically, and incredibly, the Trumps, who lord over the private school that Paul is eventually sent to. 

Gray's portrayal of New York in his films ("The Immigrant," "Two Lovers," "The Yards," "We Own The Night") are about trying to do "good" in a world whose momentum is swinging irrevocably toward the bad. His latest is a coming of age story with no easy, treacly lessons about race, wealth, and privilege, one that asks, "Is it brave enough to just admit you've failed?"

"Armageddon Time" is a long subway ride through a quickly dimming memory of what is proving to be an extremely consequential place and time—deep Queens in the 1980s. Like its lyrical namesake, there's no justice to be found in the film—and that's what makes it hit harder. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Max Rivlin-Nadler: Why did you decide to turn inward at this moment—after a space film with "Ad Astra" and the jungle in "Lost City of Z," what was the pull to return to your childhood in 1980 in Queens?

James Gray: You can’t really put your finger on why you do certain things. A lot of times, it takes a shrink to unpack it completely. I'm very happy that I made "Lost City of Z," but it was very physically taxing. The Amazon jungle isn't really a place to make a film, and I was in the middle of nowhere for months and it really beat me up. And then I went off and did this space epic that was really difficult for a variety of reasons. I was tired, and I wanted to rediscover what I love about cinema. And the simple thing is that I wanted to make something personal and small, something that I could control. I wouldn't feel this horrible financial burden over my head, like, "Oh you spent this money James, you spent this money." No, we can make it on the cheap, giving myself scale, getting something very small and trying to remove the outside stresses and just express myself as personally as I could. 

The idea was not to try to have people see themselves in the work, but to show you my experience. Maybe people could have an emotional connection to it, but film is the closest thing we have to going into someone else's dream. And that's part of what's beautiful about it. I was trying to make a film that was as personal as I could, in reaction to what had been really punishing projects. 

It's interesting that you refer to the film as being like a dream, because especially at that age—eleven, twelve—you look back at things that happened then and reinspect them as an adult and ask yourself, "Did that happen that way?"

What you're describing is actually something that's quite profound—something that just gets more intense as you get older. I have terrible trouble remembering my mother in her healthy state. Photographs remind me, but I don't have any videos of her. Annie [Hathaway] asked me for it, I didn't have it. My father just died two months after we finished shooting, of COVID actually, so we had a firm sense of him. But the others are beginning to dim. It's almost like fireflies at night. You can see them briefly lighting up, but they're becoming further and further away, dimmer and dimmer.

Do you think if you did have home videos, recordings, things like that, that would supplement your memory or replace it? Everything is now caught on camera. 

People are not themselves when the camera turns on. Unless you're Frederick Wiseman with high schoolers, and they're able to forget he's there over weeks and weeks, you're not yourself on camera. I prefer my current state—recreating a memory as best I can. All other things seem fraught, fake, difficult, phony. You're not even after the truth when you create something like this film, you're after a greater truth, you’re after a truth but not the truth. There's probably more beauty in it, more grace.

The film shows something really heartbreaking, which is this kind of "save yourself" mentality of second-generation Jewish immigrants in New York City, whose parents arrive to this country as mostly liberal, and with really steadfast ideals against fascism, racism. The grandparents in the film, both former NYC public school teachers, just think the schools have deteriorated to such a point where their grandchildren shouldn't attend them. How did this moment in time impact the direction these families went afterwards?

It certainly was, for me, cognitive dissonance. Because you're quite right, it's how they made their way. My grandparents entered the job market in 1933. It was the single worst year economically in the United States. As Jews, the only job they really could get that was quite prized was as a schoolteacher. So they made a commitment to the system. So when the grandfather says in the movie, "I made the choice" regarding switching schools, they're telling [Paul] to fit in in the new private school. But that's weird because then in the next scene, the grandfather is telling him to be a mensch. Be a good guy, but fit in. Play the game, but stand up. They're at odds. 

They abandoned the system, of course they did. I think they made a giant mistake, but I realize why they did it. I had 46 kids in my public school class—46 kids with one teacher. In one scene, the characters skip out on a class trip to the Guggenheim. They go to Central Park, and they get away with it. And the reason why they got away with it, was because it was two classes of 46 kids each, so over 90 kids. They didn't care or couldn't handle it. 

And you have these teachers, a lot of them Jewish themselves, who aren't the most sensitive, the best-equipped. They have been through their own strikes and labor struggles, but they don’t have the capacity to deal with a class this size. 

They're really at the end of their rope. I'm not letting them off the hook. The teacher clearly had issues. I'm not saying no one deserves blame for bad actions—but on the other hand, the system was completely broken. It's hard for people to remember that now—public school in New York in the late 1970s, what that actually was like. Because there wasn't a lot of learning going on. 

And that's where you get this two-tier system that forms, with these magnet and specialized schools, to further segregate the system. To sort out the winners and the losers, which continues to this day. 

When I was a kid, there was Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and I would never have been able to get into either of those schools. Didn't have the test scores. 

It's a pretty distinct outer borough experience to form these cross-cultural relationships—this film happens during the era of busing—but it didn't work, and we're still failing to integrate schools. Still, right now, the mayor and City Council speaker were both bused from southeast Queens to Bayside. Do you see busing as ultimately a positive during this time? 

These integration efforts, busing, were hugely successful in many ways. I've been fascinated by reviews that have said that Johnny is the only Black person in the class. That's not true. We were very careful with our extras to make sure that it reflected a very diverse group of students. And the private school—not at all. And that was a big difference, and a boon to my education. Because when I got to private school, that was the first time I heard any of this racist garbage come out of students mouths. The teacher in public school, yes, but with kids? You didn't hear that kind of garbage at all. You only hear that racism at a school where there was no diversity. It might seem counterintuitive, but that's true. 

I think busing represented a huge success in that way. One of the fascinating things about the late 1960s and early 1970s was that there was such a tremendous and well-intentioned push to rectify a lot of the terrible things in American life. Ultimately, there were no real answers to be had in the end.

You go from this intimate portrait of this family in Queens, and then you drop in the most famous family in the country. But in Queens, it's all very parochial—these people come from a place and a mindset. Did you interact with the Trumps? The speech Jessica Chastain gives as Marianne Trump is very, very chilling. 

That's all true. Fred Trump was on the board of trustees of the school. He'd just stand in the hallway like that, call me over, ask me, "What's your name?" And I was twelve, but I clearly got the message—he was figuring out if I was a Jew. And they really did believe that they weren't born on third base, that they had hit a triple. I remember even as a kid hearing Marianne Trump speak to us, and being like, "Lady, what the fuck are you talking about?"

It's impossible for people to step out of their ideological boxes. And the best we can do is try—so I try to step into her world view. As a woman, was she disadvantaged—maybe a tiny bit? But it's sort of like saying, "I'm in the major leagues and I'm slightly disadvantaged as a lefty batter versus a lefty pitcher." It's such a high level already, and she seemed totally clueless. 

And it's lectures like the ones she gives in the film about "being self-made" that reinforce the worldview of these kids, of the next generation of Trumps. Even your brother, in the film, is just telling you to keep your head down during this stuff, to go along to get along. 

I saw this as an expression of love for him, though. It was his way of imparting wisdom to me to survive. I'm very close with my brother, and that was what my brother was taught [by] my grandmother, my grandfather. That was the key to surviving, keeping your head down. They wanted me to go on and survive. I don't view it as an act of hostility from my brother. 

These issues of race and class are so layered. The idea of identity is so layered and fraught, so much of the system is intertwined with the results of our lives. When someone asks how much agency a character has—I've always considered it in my films that people don't really have a lot of control over their lives.

I think the American cinema has played a crucial role in making people believe that we are not victims of or beneficiaries of the sweep of history or economics, but that's all we really are. It's a frightening prospect, that we don't have much control over who we get to be, but that's at the core of all great drama. Oedipus has no control at all. He's living a life that's quite terrifying—one of helplessness. And that's very frightening for Americans, who live by this collective myth, the Horatio Alger myth. This is part of what is causing such anger and frustration and rage in the culture now. That myth no longer has enough success stories to sustain itself. And when the myth dies, the culture dies. 

You use the city in your films in a way that people interact with it in real life. I feel that really sets some of your New York work apart from how it's portrayed in other films. Shooting off Estes rockets in Flushing Meadow Park, people meeting on roofs in "Two Lovers." What's special in how people inhabit this city, and what's changed since you grew up here?

The city has changed a lot. In some ways, for the good. Central Park used to be quite dangerous. But in many ways, it's gotten worse. The middle class has been pushed out and a lot of mom-and-pop stores have been pushed out. To have mom-and-pop stores, there was a great sense of discovery. I was obsessed with this place called Jerry Ohlinger's on Bleecker. I used to go look through lobby cards of old movies. That sense of discovery is quite hampered—every block has three banks and a Walgreens. You have to be much richer to live here now. That's how I got pushed back. I didn't want to go back to Queens—I grew up there. And most neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I'm priced out. 

Physically, New York has changed, because unlike Europe, we tear things down. I love Paris, but it's become ossified. A Disneyland for grown-ups. New York has the ability to reinvent itself. It's possible something amazing can still happen here. 

It feels like your last two films were really about searching for god. In "Ad Astra" at least, aliens might as well be gods because once we are able to actually prove they're not out there, that means we're really, really alone. And it drives Tommy Lee Jones's character insane. For a film focusing on a Jewish family, this wasn't a very religious film, but it still dealt with a very Jewish set of moral ethics. 

We were not a religious family at all, we were very secular. But it's still that Eastern European culture, and the trauma my family suffered generations ago, we still felt it. But religion was not a part of our family—I stopped going to Hebrew school when I was seven. Culturally, it was all still very powerful. 

So much of identity is class, in a way that we don't like to discuss because what lies beneath it is pretty ugly. Your success being always connected to the foot on somebody's else’s neck, my own family's striving, I felt was tangentially connected to my friend being pushed to the side. It's an unpleasant thing to contemplate, but if someone's up, someone else has to be down. It's a catastrophe. 

My own parents' behavior, I understand why they would want a better life. But it’s a down payment into a system that's unjust. It's troubling. 

It's borne out in the film that just the smallest of connections can change your life. 

It's a combination of luck and privilege. If you said to my father in 1980 that my father was the beneficiary of privilege, he'd be offended. He'd have no idea what you were talking about. But if I talked my father through all the things that enabled him to have his own position in life, he'd see what we were saying. 

I was trying in this film to excavate the layers of privilege. The idea of privilege isn’t that you're a Rockefeller, the idea is that there are layers to it, that you can be a beneficiary inside the system even when you don't think you are. Paul's going to succeed at this new private school. 

So in the film, I solve nothing. It's quite dark. I wanted to end with his failure, because I didn’t want to make a white savior movie, which is not only a lie but asinine for all sorts of reasons, and it's not the truth. I wanted to end it on my failure, which is essential. I always felt that my job is not to create an idealized version of myself. My job is to say, “Here it is,” and sometimes it's fucking gross. Some places, it's ugly. I’m not trying to win a merit badge. You just don't make progress in life by telling yourself how great you are. I was trying to make a movie that reflected the world I inhabited as honestly as I could. Knowing it was my own story, something of impact could come of it.  

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