Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Alison Herman

Promotional poster for ARMAGEDDON TIME

Host Alison Herman talks to writer and director James Gray about his upbringing as a secular Jew in Queens, attempting to empathize with Maryanne Trump, the purpose of art in encouraging empathy across class and racial lines, and more.

James Gray is the writer and director of eight feature films, beginning with his 1999 debut LITTLE ODESSA, as well as films like the 2007 crime thriller WE OWN THE NIGHT and the 2013 drama THE IMMIGRANT, and the 2016 biopic THE LOST CITY OF Z. Most recently, he directed Brad Pitt in the 2019 space drama AD ASTRA, which he co-wrote with Ethan Gross.

His latest project as writer-director is the semi-autobiographical drama ARMAGEDDON TIME, in which he returns to New York and more specifically Queens for an intimate portrait of social class, assimilation and coming of age.

ARMAGEDDON TIME was released in late October 2022 and is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Alison Herman is a staff writer for The Ringer, where she writes about culture in general and television in specific. When not fighting a losing battle against Peak TV, she tweets at @aherman2006.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Speaker 1: Hello, you’re listening to OnWriting a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.

Alison Herman: You’re listening to OnWriting a podcast of the Writer’s Guild of America East. My name is Alison Herman. I’m a staff writer at The Ringer and a member of the Guild. And today I’ll be speaking with James Gray, the writer and director of the new movie, Armageddon Time. In our conversation, we touch on Gray’s upbringing as a secular Jew in Queens, attempting to empathize with Maryanne Trump, who he once encountered in real life as a middle schooler and the purpose of art and encouraging empathy across class and racial lines. I hope you’ll give it a listen. Our guest today is the writer and director of eight feature films, beginning with his debut, Little Odessa in 1994, most recently he directed Brad Pitt in the space drama, Ad Astra. For his latest project, he returns to New York and more specifically Queens for an intimate portrait of social class, assimilation and coming of age. I’m absolutely delighted to be speaking with James Gray. James, thank you so much for joining us.

James Gray: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Alison Herman: Of course. Well, this film Dramatizes a real incident from your childhood and we can maybe discuss what that incident specifically was. But my first question was if you always knew that you wanted to tell that particular story in the form of a film someday, or if that impulse arrived maybe more recently?

James Gray: No, I never actually thought of it as a film at all. It’s very hard to compartmentalize your life like that. Like you don’t say, “This is good for a film.” I never do that. What happens is that you begin to see, or at least in my case, I began to see what I thought were very specific and important currents in the culture that this particular series of incidents in my life had a kind of reflecting or rhyming quality with. So the whole idea was to make the film really to reflect and to resemble our world today. I found it at an uncanny kind of rhyme.

Alison Herman: Yeah, that’s a quality, I think, the film captures really well, that it’s very clearly from the perspective, not necessarily of a 12 year old boy in the moment, but of the adult version of that boy looking back on things.

James Gray: Well, a 12 year old boy, and in the case of both those kids, both the character that is a kind of stand-in for me in some respects, and also for Johnny, the character of Johnny, 12 year olds really don’t have all the tools, particularly 12 year old boys. It’s funny, I have two boys and a girl, three children, and my daughter has… I mean, how do I put this? Elegantly has matured emotionally on a significantly faster rate than my two boys. My daughter will be… She’ll be reading in the corner and my two sons will be hitting each other with clubs. And the reason I bring that up is that 12 year old boys, their brains are not yet developed to understand all of the specifics of moral and ethical questions and quandaries that we face.

And so in some sense, the film, yes, it is in the 12 year old boy point of view, and yet it’s not. How could it be? Because if it were, it would be a jumbled mess of cognitive dissonance, the story necessarily almost has to take a step away from that in order for it to make any sense at all. In that way, we have really no window into… Certainly into Johnny’s character for a variety of reasons and definitely… And not even mine.

Alison Herman: Well, speaking of having the window into Johnny’s character, that is a structural choice I wanted to ask about, that the film is largely, apart from a little bit towards the end, from Paul’s perspective, was the film always conceived that way, and why was that important to you in structuring the film?

James Gray: It was always conceived that way because it would be impossible. And you don’t just say this sort of thing to be sound hip or something. It’s an obvious fact of American life that there has been a very small, almost pinhole sized hole through which we see the world and there haven’t been a variety of voices telling their stories. So I felt that it was incumbent upon me only to try to tell my own, not to try to tell Johnny’s point of view because that would be insane.

I don’t have a window and didn’t actually have a complete window or even close to it of his life. So the only window I had that had specifics and accuracy to it was my own. But I feel that that’s okay. The idea is not to try to tell everybody’s story in one work. The point is to have a variety of voices, everybody telling their story, and that’s the richness of experience. So I felt that if Johnny’s story could be told, it should be and certainly not by me. So I tried to really focus it in on that perspective that I thought I had at least somewhat whole understanding of, and that is my own.

Alison Herman: That makes sense. I mean, you mentioned this sort of relative immaturity of a 12 year old boy and that perspectives and ability to totally understand the experience. So I’m curious what happened in the considerable amount of time between when this movie ends and when you started making it, when you started to form that understanding and what kind of things helped you in doing that?

James Gray: It’s a great question, but it’s not an easy one to answer because when you look at, dare I use this term history, it’s almost unknowable how many different factors enter in that change review of the world. I mean, the pandemic certainly did and does still with us. Trump’s election certainly did and does, economic disaster of 2008, certainly did and does, George Floyd certainly did and does. There are so many things that go into what makes up for a history and how history affects us and how we approach a piece of material, that it is almost unknowable. And trying to get to the core of it, it’s like trying to peel the layers of an onion. It is folly to do it, to try to analyze what has changed since 1980 that made you the person that you are that has affected your view of your own story, I just don’t have…

It’s a great question you ask. I’m not pooh-poohing it, but it’s impossible for me to have the distance necessary to specify what exactly I went through. What I can say is that the governing principle that I had really as a creative person from the very beginning that has only become intensified over the decades is that our function is to make sure that the long arm of compassion is lengthened ever further. And that the idea of ironic distance or making fun of a character or villainizing or demonizing, these are notions that we have to push away and to try and invite souls in to try and extend the reach of our understanding and our sympathy and our empathy.

That is to me, what art actually does. It’s not necessarily about seeing a reflection of myself, I give you me in the work, but it’s not only for you to see a reflection of yourself, it’s a reflection for you to have a window into somebody else’s world because that is how compassion is formed. So that is the one constant that I’ve had from beginning to end. And if anything, I believe in it more than I did 30 years ago.

Alison Herman: The film is incredibly compassionate, but I would say it also has some antagonistic figures chiefly the figures of Fred and Maryanne Trump, which I know is based on your own experience and on this theme kind of synthesizing your own memories into more of a concrete thesis. I’m curious what your initial instinctive reaction to those people was in the moment and when you started to connect the dots to their impact on the real world.

James Gray: Well, I have less, I don’t even know if I want to call it sympathy, but I have less understanding for Fred Trump than in a way that I do for Maryanne Trump. She came to the school and she gave a speech about how hard she had to work to get where she wanted to be. And I can tell you, even as a 12 year old, I found the speech completely preposterous. Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, she said about George W. Bush, I believe in 2000 in the Democratic Convention. She said, “George W. Bush born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” But it’s one thing to make fun of that and there is value to making fun of it, but it’s also worth our understanding that we are all each in our little individual ideological box. And it is unbelievably difficult for us to step outside of that box and look at another and see the world from another person’s point of view.

That’s why I get back to this idea of what art actually should mean and should help us do. And in her case, she was giving a speech as a woman, she felt, I guess the word would be oppressed, which seems insane to me, but that was the way that she felt. That was her box. She couldn’t see outside of it to see how absurd she was. You ever write an email, forget to send it, and then two weeks later you read what you wrote and all of a sudden you have some distance from what it is you created. And it seems an almost obscenely naive document. Well, it’s almost like that’s the kind of extended view of the world that I have, that everybody is constantly in their own heads and it’s our job to see past that.

So I look at her now, I don’t want to say with compassion, but I look at her now and I think I kind of see, well, she didn’t have a view of the world that was at all expansive. Is it her fault? Yeah, but where else could she be? Look at who her father is, look at the world she grew up in. She was cosseted. So my reaction to her then, is different than it is now. With Fred, I have less of a sympathetic reaction because frankly he had this one moment of confrontation with me in the hallway where he seemed like some kind of evil clown, and I couldn’t really formulate much of a more complex reaction than that. He seemed overtly antisemitic to me. But what do I know?

Alison Herman: I mean, it sounds like your read on Maryanne almost resonates with other themes in the movie and that it’s possible to experience oppression, whether it’s misogyny in her case or antisemitism in Paul’s, and not necessarily come away with the right lessons or experiencing it as a nobling event.

James Gray: A hundred percent. See, part of the problem is that when you provide a story like this, you have to remind… You find yourself reminding not just yourself, but sometimes frankly others, that it is not a purely simple divide between good guys and bad guys. And there’s all this discussion these days about things like white guilt and so forth, but it’s unfortunately more complex than that because it’s connected to the idea… This idea of privilege is connected with our economic system and frankly, the kind of ridiculous hierarchy that gets established because of class and race of course, but also yes, religion and gender and sexual preference, all that stuff seems to be like a hierarchy of unending complexity and it’s not so easily unpacked. So when we talk about these things, the idea is to show the world in all of its layers and all of its anguish on these layers so that we can understand that this is not simply something for a few buzz words or for a tweet, but for discussion.

Alison Herman: Yeah. So much with the way the movie approaches that idea is specifically through Jewish identity, in the way Jewish identity kind of confounds a lot of those binaries of privilege or not, marginalized or not. And given this movie’s roots in your own experience, I was curious about how you felt about an experienced Judaism as a kid, because it’s not really depicted as religious ritual in the movie. It’s much more of a cultural identity.

James Gray: Exactly. We were kind of what you might call secular Jews. I mean, it’s sort of like when people forget about the foundation of Israel was… David Ben-Gurion himself felt that if an Arab should win the popular vote, then so be it. The whole idea of the Kibbutz itself is almost kind of communist idea. It was not really a religious state in that sense. And my family was very secular. We did not really go to Temple and we were not observant in that way. But you cannot avoid the, as Ashkenazi Jews, you cannot avoid this sort of sway of Eastern European culture. So we had that, but you’re right, as a kid, I got that, well, I’ll call that cognitive dissonance where we’re oppressed but we’re not really, because there’s Johnny and look at him in the school and then look at me and I’m in a different… Really, I regard it differently, but at the same time, my parents are telling me to watch out because everybody hates us. This is why it is not digestible in a very simple slogan. It requires a kind of, that’s why I say it requires discourse and there are no “lessons learned” and there isn’t an answer provided by the film. There are only these questions.

Alison Herman: Given that this is the Writer’s Guild podcast, I did want to ask a few questions about your writing process. I read previously that you tend to have a longer outlining phase and a relatively quick screenwriting phase. Was that also the case for Armageddon Time?

James Gray: It’s always the case. If I find myself hung up in the writing phase, it means I haven’t done the work on outlining. It means something is wrong in the conception or the execution of the story or there’s something structurally wrong. I will tell you that I don’t know if I’m particularly categorizable as a good screenwriter, but I will tell you that I have gotten pretty good at outlining to the point where my outline determines the writing of it. And in the writing process, my first draft almost always winds up around 105 to 120 pages, which frankly is kind of the length you want to be at if you’re doing a three act structure. Now, of course, not to get too inside baseball, but this is the Writer’s Guild.

Alison Herman: Exactly.

James Gray: If you were doing a five act structure film, for example, The Godfather or something, that’s three hours long, or if you were doing something for TV, six hours, whatever, they are different structures, different formats, different ideas. But for a narrative feature, it’s interesting, last night I saw a movie called Jeopardy with Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Meeker directed by John Sturges. And it was a quite good story idea, very effective story idea, kind of a Benoir and there was a lot I really liked about the movie. The movie was a hundred, no, it was one hour and seven minutes long. It was 67 minutes. And the movie had things that I didn’t think worked because they were not fully elaborated on or explored, but there was enough story there.

So you ask yourself, Well, why is that? Is that just my instinct, how I was raised? Well, no, there were certain things in the story that weren’t quite clear that they needed more time to explain. So if the movie were 90 minutes, 95 minutes, it probably would’ve been categorizable as a great movie instead of a merely very interesting one. So for whatever reason, our brains evolved and the movie going experience evolved somewhere around 1928, 29 to absorbing something around 90 to 120 minutes for three acts. And my outlines tend to run about, in screenplay form when I execute them, about that length. They are very detailed. They’re about 50 or 60 pages and they take months. But the writing process is usually only about two to three weeks for a first draft, of course I’m talking.

Alison Herman: Yes, of course. Chronologically, I’m curious how that outlining and writing phase lined up with your other work. Were you doing this while you were working on Ad Astra, or was this purely afterward?

James Gray: I have many friends who are in the motion picture business and many screenwriting, directing friends, many great ones. And I’ve noticed with tremendous admiration their ability to work on multiple projects at the same time or put something away and then revisit it. I am singularly inept at many things, not least of which is multitasking. When I was working on AD Astra, it was only that. And then there was only this. And I have never been able to change that, which is why I have… I’ve made eight pictures and I feel very fortunate. So don’t get me wrong, but I’m probably about two or three pictures behind the other directors I grew up with in terms of output because of this very reason.

Alison Herman: Well, that’s the wonderful thing about something like writing, because it’s so individual, everyone does it differently.

James Gray: That’s one of the beautiful things. As a friend of mine who’s a wonderful painter, he says, “The thing that’s magical about it is you don’t have to choose.” As a joke I’ll send him texts, I’ll say, “Chaïm Soutine or Francis Bacon?” And he’ll write back, “Neither And both.” Like the idea that you don’t have to choose, thank heavens. There is no one process. There is no one great way to do things. There is no one style that fits. It’s the universe that can accommodate 2001 and it happened one night and both are masterpieces.

Alison Herman: Yes, of course. I mean, you are in the very, I think, increasingly unique position of having written or co-written, I believe everything you’ve directed. And I did want to ask how those two identities of writer and director interact with each other and shape each process for you.

James Gray: I don’t really honestly see a path to directing without having at least some hand in the writing. But we really always was thus, even with the studio directors, I mean Alfred Hitchcock, I know that Vertigo is credited to other writers, for example, but he was such a integral part of the screenplay writing on all of his movies. He just didn’t take credit for it. So he was less pompous than we are, less obnoxious. The movie is the script. I mean, the screenwriting is everything. And let’s say you are working on a personal film, or a film that’s not autobiographical, but personal anyway, how else would you express that? It’s not only in where the camera goes, you know what I’m saying?

Alison Herman: Yes. Well, you’re also a visual artist by background as well, which is something that appears on screen in again in time. And I did want to ask, in addition to your identity as a writer, how your identity as a visual artist has translated into your filmmaking career?

James Gray: Well, it’s not that easy for me to talk about that because I did it. You know what I mean? I don’t really have the distance to say, I will tell you that I use painters as probably now, my principle inspiration for the work between my cinematographer and me. It used to be movies, movies and painting, other movies, and now it’s become restricted to painting. I mean, we looked at nothing for this one. I did show him lots of painters though, Darius. And so the composition and the light is certainly from that. But also I do write a lot of that stuff in. See, lighting has a huge impact on narrative and our perception of performance. For example, if you were to see the opening shot of Raging Bull, for example, which is one of the most famous openings ever, slow motion shot of him in the fog and the symmetrical boxing ropes and the opera music, if you were to see him clearly, his face clearly, the shot would have a very different meaning than it is now where he’s obscured in the robe, it becomes more of a mythic figure than otherwise.

So do you write that into the script? Well, I do because I feel like that’s part of the idea of creating this myth of character. So I write very… Sometimes quite irritatingly, I bet. I write very specifically all of these things. Now, Stanley Kubrick, if you were to ever to see the way that he wrote his scripts, for example, now there is an absolute master of cinema that we all look up to and rightfully so, but you read his scripts and they’re very strange. The margins are almost the opposite of our traditional writer margins. The dialogue is a smaller margin of… Kubrick’s dialogue is the larger one. It’s almost written like a play, but not really. And he has none of this stuff. But that was because his process as a director was on set to… He had at the time. He created a system where he had the time and he would figure it all out on the day. So I can’t work that way because my budgets aren’t that way. We can’t negotiate crew deals that way. It has to all be figured out in advance. That’s why we’re facing this new scenario. So I try to write those details in.

Alison Herman: Who are some of the painters that you’ve looked to for influences on past works, if not this one?

James Gray: It changes every movie. I mean, on this movie we looked at Zurbarán, who’s a fantastic painter. And it was weird too, also, because I don’t know what Darius Khondji, the cinematographer, I don’t know what he’ll always gravitate towards. So what I always do with him is we go to a museum wherever we’re shooting, we go to the nearest art museum and preferably one with a large swath of artists and types, variety being the spice of life. By the way, yet another riff on why you need to hear from more voices and all these different media. And for painting, we look at everything as varied from Van Gogh to Rembrandt and to Goya and all of a sudden to Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and even I’ll say, “Hey, what do you think of Lee Bontecou, it’s random in a way. And then we begin to drill down.

On this movie, we went to The Metropolitan, which is a fantastic choice because unlike Laufer or The Prado, as great as they are, you go there for very specific types of art. And The Met has a very, very wide range. So in the same day, like I said, we were looking at Vermeer and the next minute we were looking at Adolph Gottlieb, just totally different form. So I think he gravitated towards one painting in particular on this movie, because I told him, I said, “I wanted the film to be a ghost story.” So the whole idea was that the actor was never truly in their key light. It’s a little bit unorthodox. If you’re lighting particularly a movie star, you always put the key light on in a way that’s very flattering and so forth. But here, for example, the kid comes home from school and Anne Hathaway’s in the living room, but the light is coming from the dining room and she’s not quite in the key light, so everyone is like a ghost story.

Everybody’s avoiding the light. Everybody is slightly elusive to us, visually. So even in the dining room scene when they’re having dinner, there’s a top light chandelier, but it’s two stops underexposed. In other words, everything is sort of like these people are temporary inhabitants of the space. And he gravitated towards a painting by Vermeer, which was of a maid sitting in the kitchen sort of like this. But the key light being quite a bit in the foreground. And she’s in the back sort of, like we would say in photography, maybe three stops underexposed.

Alison Herman: I wonder if the idea that this is a ghost story is related to one of my takeaways from the film, and I think one that is specifically a product of your collaboration with Darius Khondji is that it is a film that really feels very viscerally like a memory. It doesn’t really feel like you are experiencing 1980 necessarily in the moment as Paul is, but it feels like you are looking back on it almost as a remove. Was that part of what you were trying to get at with the ghost story conceit?

James Gray: A hundred percent. We change things in our memories completely. One of the strange things about photography is that, or cinema, is that it’s sort of the closest thing we have to a time machine. So I could remember a class photo one way and then find that class photo 30 or 40 years later, and it’s quite different than my memory was. And so knowing that that idea of memory, and I don’t want to call it nostalgia, because nostalgia is usually a positive glow on something, and I don’t think that that’s what this film is at all. But that distance that we create where our mind wreak havoc on what we might call objectivity, which of course is folly anyway, it requires a necessary visual distance. Now, let’s be very frank here, and it’s very important as a distinction, what is visually distant is not the same thing as emotionally distant.

An emotional intimacy and proximity is essential to a work of art. Visual distance is not the same thing. You almost need to have both, some measure of visual distance, but none of the emotional distance. So what we were trying to do was create this idea that the film is this memory, this reaching back in time that these people who were so important to me, my mother, and sadly now my father and my grandparents, my great aunt, my grand, they’re all dead. They’re all gone. And their memories are… It’s only up here. That’s it. Dancing around in my brain like little fireflies and the memory of them is getting a little dimmer. I have a great difficulty remembering my mother in a healthy state to be candid. So you present these things with love, but also with distance, not with judgment, but distance.

Alison Herman: Because this film is drawing from things that actually occurred in real life and weren’t necessarily only experienced by you, did you have any conversations with people who were around you at the time as part of the writing process?

James Gray: Well, constantly the answer is constantly, and that was with my brother with whom I’m very close in the movie where brothers and he’s hitting me all the time and everything. And that is real. That is what it was. But I mean, maybe a year or two after the picture takes place, my brother became very dear to me and very clearly dear to me, and he has an incredible memory. He remembers all the details about PS173 and about Mr. Turkletaub and about the school that I wound up going to after that.

So I relied on him enormously. And I actually still have a relationship with a couple of the teachers where I went to school in the prep school and they also filled me in. And I have classmates of course I still talk to. So yeah, of course I relied on many others, but I did try to stay pretty damn true to myself and my own story. Now I break point of view once, but the reason I broke point of view, and that’s to show Johnny with his grandmother for a brief glimpse, is to emphasize, to throw down on the idea… With the idea that, and to really double down on the idea that I cannot know that side and you’re going to see a glimpse, but you’re not going to see more than that because it’s closed off to my experience.

Alison Herman: Were there any moments as part of that process where you were surprised to find your own memory diverging, either sharply or subtly with other people around you?

James Gray: Well, the answer is almost all the time. My memory about some things like the Maryanne Trump speech, which I never did find a transcript for, but my brother and I… I tasked him with writing up what he thought it was, and then I wrote up what I thought it was and they were very close. So that leads me to believe it’s pretty accurate to what she said. But in other cases, it was totally different. I remembered my grandfather’s funeral one way, my brother instructed me it was another. I mean, maybe the truth is somewhere in between. At a certain point you have to liberate yourself from that because it’s not a documentary. It is true to large swaths of my own childhood, I think it’s a greater truth though, that you’re after.

The facts on the ground, I mean, yeah, you try to stay true to them, you start try to stay accurate, but it’s… There’s no way to be a hundred percent right about it. You’re going to make a mistake, somebody I’m sure will call you on it. It’s not a documentary, it’s not what the reason for its being is, it’s supposed to achieve a kind of poetic quality at some point. So I can’t kick myself for what we might call inaccuracies. You just do the best you can

Alison Herman: At the same time that this is an incredibly personal and specific story, I think one of the things that struck me about it is that it also exists as part of a continuum of fictional narratives, specifically about interracial friendships. And I think the takeaway from that relationship Armageddon Time is much less redemptive than maybe you’ll get in you’re Driving Miss Daisy’s or your Green Books. I under-

James Gray: Well, I found that… Let me just say I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I found that absolutely essential because in life we like to think there is this redemption. We like to think of forgiveness as very, the inevitable end, justice is always around the corner. It was not my experience that way. And to me, you want to make the world a better place. It’s not to convince others of a fantasy, and it’s not to convince others of what is unlikely to happen in a good way. If you want to make the world a better place, you reveal the world as you think it is and was. So I did not see easy redemption. I did not see answers. It wasn’t about me becoming a better guy. It wasn’t about me winning. It wasn’t about me forgiving or them forgiving me or guilt or… No, the whole point of it was to resist the easy answers and the temptation to “solve” a problem in two hours. And I found that to be absolutely critical.

Alison Herman: Well, the reason I brought it up is because I understand you certainly don’t make movies as an act of cultural criticism, they’re personal expression. But I was curious if you are kind of aware of the cannon or cultural narratives you’re entering into while you’re making something like this?

James Gray: It’s a great question. The answer is complicated because as you well know, and as everybody listening to this knows, being writers, you don’t write the script and then the day later you shoot it and the day after that, takes one day to shoot. It’s released in theaters. The script was written years and years ago. So you cannot predict January 6th, you cannot predict Black Lives Matter. You cannot predict George Floyd. You cannot predict Donald Trump trying to get back in office and a group of neo-fascists trying to run for Congress. I mean, these things are not in your control. What is in your control is to be as honest and forthright as you can be with the story that it is you’re trying to tell. That is the function, dare I say it, of the artist. The artist, that’s what we do. We express ourselves as best we can, as honestly as we can.

Now, is there a cultural conversation? Of course, but I don’t think we can be conscious of that because, a, the conversation changes every five minutes. B, part of the problem with it is what is moral and ethically correct today will be absolutely reasonable to us 30 and 40 years hence, just as surely as we look at a conversation like I showed my daughter not too long ago, Kazan’s movie Gentleman’s Agreement, which is about antisemitism starring Gregory Peck and Celeste Holm, and it’s Kazan, it has very beautiful stretches, but it is also a very dated and at times laughable movie. Now, Kazan himself felt that way actually back in the 40s. But the point being, we’re not fixed objects. Morality is not fixed, ethics are not fixed. So be true to yourself. That’s it. The rest is out of your control.

Alison Herman: Yeah. I think something that has been an uncanny speaking of things that you cannot predict and that are out of your control is that the time that this movie is being released in the last several weeks have been full of very prominent news stories that touch on a lot of the same themes in this movie, and specifically the intersection of the Jewish and Black American experiences with your… I think the listeners ought to know that you are currently holding your head and shaking it. But I mean, I did want to ask what it has been like to watch those stories unfold as you are promoting this film.

James Gray: The Jewish experience and the Black experience have so much in common. They have so much in common. And when you hear Trump go on his antisemitic jeremiads it’s aligned perfectly with what we know is his racism, his sexism, what he says about… He makes fun of handicapped people on the stump speech. It’s like a cruelty of a viciousness. The cruelty is the point. It’s horrible. In the case of someone like Kanye West, I had respect for him, tremendous respect for him as an artist. And it has been with such profound bewilderment and disappointment and sadness that I hear this invective coming out of his mouth that at least I read about it and I have no answer. I don’t know where…

And I have heard some people say, “Oh, well he is crazy.” That’s true, maybe he has some problems. I don’t know. I don’t Kanye West personally, but not all people with mental problems are vomiting out antisemitic rhetorics. So something is afoot and I don’t understand it really. If I could, I would solve problems in the world. I can only look at it with such a sense of sadness and bewilderment. I don’t have an easier glib answer, unfortunately.

Alison Herman: Yeah, I mean, it’s not something you can treat with glibness. I think as a spectator of your film, it almost feels like the end point of the process that your film tracks the beginning of, which is Paul is able to go in one direction and Johnny goes in another, and now we’re we’re miles apart.

James Gray: But what it also shows you, I think, is that the reduction of a discussion where it’s like, as we call it the white guilt narrative or whatever, it’s not so simple, is it? There are other currents involved that create for a kind of Gordian knot, a situation of such unending and almost numbing complexity. Let me give you an example. If you had said to my father, who was a guy who in the 70s, we needed the food assistance program in 1977, and by 1980 they were doing a little bit better, but still my father was repairing boilers and so forth. If you had said to him, “Dad, you are the beneficiary of white privilege,” my father’s reaction would’ve been probably to get extremely angry and be completely baffled by what you’re saying. And yet he was. He was. So what does that mean? It means that if I sat my father down at the table, instead of saying, Dad, you benefit from white privilege.

If I said to him, Dad, here are the steps that I’m going to talk you through why you are in a better place than someone else in your position who is not you, at the end I guarantee you, my father would’ve gone like this, “You know, have a point there. I see what you’re saying.” So the reason I say all this is because discussion and discourse and what we call unpacking something is of critical value. That is what artists do. That is why we do it. And so the culture now, of course, wants you to say, you are this or you are that. And that’s why people push back to get angry. There’s no discourse. Everyone calls everybody else a name. This canceling this… No, no, no, the idea is to bring people in to a complex discourse so we can contemplate all of this.

Alison Herman: I have to say, your imitation of your father just then really drives home how accurate Jeremy Strong’s performance is. It’s quite uncanning.

James Gray: It’s incredibly accurate. His performance is crazy accurate. But I bring it up because I don’t want you to get lost in the impersonation thing because what is very important is that it is easy for us to condemn others for what we view as a kind of my father’s frankly primitive worldview. For me, for my taste, my father’s worldview, to me in many ways was insane. I find, I mean without spoilers, the speech in the end in the car, to be insane, to be horrendous. But I have to try to put my own feelings about that aside, and understand where it comes from and the kind of roots of it all. To me, that is the core of drama.

Alison Herman: Yeah, I agree. Maybe on a lighter subject, I think one thing I was fortunate enough to see this film in a theater, and I hope everyone listening to this has that privilege as well, and that’s increasingly not a given when you are watching a new original film, and I was curious if you’ve ever either considered collaborating with a streaming service on a streaming first film, or if not, why you think it is important that this film is being shown in theaters first?

James Gray: You’ve sort of asked two different questions at the same time. So the first question is, would I ever do something for streaming? The answer is absolutely. The format that they encourage is amazing. Sometimes you get six hours or eight hours, it’s different. It’s not making a movie, but it’s… Let’s say you’re a painter, there’s a difference between making oils and making gouache, a watercolor or making a sculpture. They’re all different things. The difference between a streamer, even for a feature length movie and a theatrical release film, it’s just a different format. And of course I would engage that. That’s amazing. That’s a great new possibility. Now, the other side of it is, how do I feel about the theatrical, of course? Which I think is absolutely critical, you don’t have a discourse with yourself.

You cannot. Which is why, by the way, I’m sure for all of you writers out there, when we write by ourselves, it’s really hard, right? You kind of always need a friend to bounce an idea off of because you have a dialogue with yourself, it’s brutal. It’s why it’s nice to have a collaborator. And sometimes I’m very lucky enough to have one. But you kind of need to experience some works of creativity in a communal environment. It’s not always you watching it in the privacy of your own home, on your couch. Any comedy, for example, takes on an entirely different context when everybody’s laughing or any joke that you get in any movie. And I try to have a lot of things be very funny in Armageddon Time and it’s just sitting at home. I think it probably would register very differently and maybe not at all, or maybe more, I don’t know.

But you get a collective energy from others and the discourse is different and more complex. What’s the number one reason? No pause button. I can’t pause the movie in the theater. I am hostage to that experience from beginning to end. Now maybe my bladder will force me to leave the film halfway through for two minutes, but I don’t like it. I don’t like missing a movie to go to the bathroom. So what the theatrical experience is, aside from the obvious facts of a big screen, better sound that you have at home, is the communal experience and the lack of ability to pause it. You must listen to us for two hours. That’s beautiful.

Alison Herman: It’s the only time I’m really away from my phone unless I’m on an airplane.

James Gray: Let me ask you a question since you asked me this.

Alison Herman: Please.

James Gray: You’re at home, you decide to put on something, maybe you turn off the light, maybe you don’t. Depends on your experience, and you turn it on, you start watching it. Is it as good? Is an analogous to the moment in the movie theater when the lights start to dim and you’ve got your popcorn? Not even close.

Alison Herman: Of course it isn’t.

James Gray: Not even close.

Alison Herman: No, it’s a necessary evil. It’s a compromise.

James Gray: I have proved my case.

Alison Herman: I think you might be preaching to the choir a little bit, but I think we’re in agreement.

James Gray: Well, I think most people actually would agree, I think very few people say, “I would much rather watch a streaming movie than go to the movie theater.” But there are other factors involved, getting a babysitter, the cost of movies versus streaming, and of course the pandemic. And it’s a lot of competition now for entertainment. And people, frankly, let’s be honest here, people work long and hard hours. And they work longer and harder than they did in the 1960s and 70s. They have less leisure time. And that is one of the great unspoken truths about American life and two wage earners, not just one now required for a certain standard of living. So two wage earners, working longer and harder hours, a pandemic, let’s be easy on the people who don’t go to the movies. It’s hard.

Alison Herman: Yeah, I mean, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about how the pandemic affected the production of this film from a practical perspective.

James Gray: I found it quite harmful. I found it extremely unpleasant. I like having very convivial atmosphere and open and maybe some dark stuff happens when you confess things, or maybe you do dark things on a set, maybe you do beautiful things on a set. But the idea is that it’s an open place and free place for you to really explore character and to explore the story. And sometimes actors have to go to dark places. You just think of Robert De Niro, just to talk about Raging Bull one more time, punching that prison wall. You have to actually really expose yourself in a film. And I like having big dinners beforehand, none of that. Instead you go to set, everyone’s tested 4,000 times, you’re putting a swab up your nose every five minutes, you got a mask. This is a very intimate scene, you threw a mask and a hazmat suit with a plastic on your face. And it’s a wall between you and the work. And I hate that.

Alison Herman: I interviewed a comedy writer a few months ago who said, you really find out if a joke works, if it can penetrate two layers of mask and a swab.

James Gray: That’s so true. But look, at some point this will end, but it’s obviously not going to go on forever. But it is really a bit much, and it has done a lot to, let’s say, crimp the style of the human race. I see my own children who were home for a year doing their Zoom, and boy, I’ll tell you, it has really had a deleterious effect.

Alison Herman: Yeah, I think it was hardest on kids.

James Gray: And our family we’re incredibly lucky. And I can see it.

Alison Herman: One thing I read about your relationship to your work is that you used to read reviews earlier in your career and you have since dropped the habit. But I was wondering if that’s maintained even as you’re releasing something that’s perhaps a little more directly personal than your last few projects?

James Gray: Excellent question. I had maintained it, and then somebody close to me urged me to read A. O. Scott’s Review in the New York Times of the film because this person found it very pertinent and of a very high level of discourse. So I did read that and then I read one other in Vox, which I had been linked to, which I thought was also actually brilliantly written. So I read those two and then I started reading The New Yorker because I get the magazine, it was just here. And I said, “This is not helpful to me,” because I… you know what it is? Just as surely as you’re hostage or sometimes beneficiary of the moment in which the film is birthed, so are they, and you don’t really know until about 10 or 15 years from now how the film’s going to last. I’m going to be candid with you. I’ve never really had, I mean, I’ve had a couple of financial successes of one varying kind or another, and I’ve had some critical successes, but I’ve never had an out and out like wins the Oscar, $500 million gross, that kind of movie.

But what I have had is where I’ll make a film and I made a film called Two Lovers, which was a very pleasant filming experience for me. And it got nice reviews, but not raves and it didn’t make any money. So many people send me notes about that movie today and that’s wonderful. And then there are other movies of mine I thought this is going to be really… And then nobody mentions them. So you don’t really know, and I try to avoid it because when they’re good, you believe them and your head gets big, and when they’re bad, you believe them, your head gets tiny and you lose confidence. So what’s the benefit? It’s not for me anyway, it’s for you.

Alison Herman: I think that’s a very evolved perspective, and I sympathize with having the review physically present in your home. I would not be able to resist that either.

James Gray: Oh yeah, I couldn’t, because the magazine comes to me and I love the magazine, and it was there and I started reading it. I did stop. I got a little frustrated actually, it was by Anthony Lane. It was quite a nice… It was mostly a very positive review. But he said something very funny. He said it was a script flaw that I didn’t address what happened to Johnny and me when we cut class and left the Guggenheim. And the reason I didn’t is because nothing happened to us. So I got frustrated. So that’s not a flaw, you start yelling. And then my wife’s like, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “Oh, you’re right.”

Alison Herman: I think that’s also really a sign of the time. I feel like I believe that that would have no consequences 40 years ago. And I think now there would be like a citywide manhunt.

James Gray: Well, the reason it had no consequences in 1980 is because there were 46 kids in my class. The teacher couldn’t handle it. And that, by the way, is in the movie. He didn’t do a head count and said, “Can you help me wrangle these kids?” They couldn’t, couldn’t keep track. They didn’t care. They didn’t know. So yeah, we got a lot… It’s called getting away with it. We got away with a lot. Eventually not, but yes, in that moment we did.

Alison Herman: Well, I think we’re reaching about the limit of our time, but I did want to ask, I was very happy with-

James Gray: Well, by the way, you’re certainly reaching the limit of my intellect. So that’s another issue but…

Alison Herman: I think you’re doing great. It’s been a wonderful conversation. But I did want to ask, I was very happy when I was researching my questions to ask today that there was an announcement of your next project, which is going to be about JFK. And obviously you can’t give everything away now, but I did want to ask where you’re at on that and what makes you excited to dig into that particular project?

James Gray: The war in the Pacific is strangely undermined, under… How do we put this? It’s not undermined, but it’s a strangely unexplored part of the second World War and quite formative and will get more important as the decades to come, pass by. But also the idea of the Great Man Theory of History and what that actually means and the currents and the cultural tide and the evidence against that. We build up these myths of people and then rightly and wrongly both tear them down and that conflict that we face, do individuals matter? Well, yes, but does that mean the Great Man Theory of Validity? Well, maybe not. So this complexity in what we think of as a myth, as a heroic character in myth, we face, it’s a fantasy, but is it a necessary fantasy? And this dialogue with myself that I’m having now is part of what’s going to go into that film.

Alison Herman: Well, I’m very excited to see the final product of that, and I will be seeing it in a theater whenever it comes out. But until that day, James Gray, thank you so much for joining us.

James Gray: You’re so welcome. I enjoyed this very much.

Alison Herman: Likewise.

Speaker 1: OnWriting is a production of The Writer’s Guild of America East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at You can follow the Guild on all social media platforms @WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.


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