TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. A recurring theme in screenwriter and director James Gray's films, including "The Immigrant" and "Little Odessa," is what it's like to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants in America. Gray's other films include "The Yards," "Two Lovers," "The Lost City Of Z" and "Ad Astra." His new film, "Armageddon Time," is based on his own childhood as the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who fled antisemitism in the 1920s. Set in 1980 when the child, Paul, is 11 and living in Queens, N.Y., the film is about his reaction to hearing some of his grandparents' stories and about learning how race and class in America often predetermine the course of your life.
Paul is the son of a working-class father and a mother who comes from a more prosperous immigrant family. Although Paul's grandparents fled antisemitism and his whole family considers itself liberal, they're blind to their own racism. Paul's best friend, Johnny, is Black. They're both considered troublemakers in school. But Paul's family pulls him from public school and away from Johnny. They send him to a private school based on the school James Gray attended. Paul felt rich in public school but realizes he's far from it after he arrives in the private school, which his grandfather is paying for because Paul's father, who's a plumber, can't afford it.
In the film, Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, is on the board of trustees of the school and is a financial donor, just as he was in the private school James Gray attended. In this scene, on Paul's first day at the school, Fred Trump's sister (ph), Maryanne Trump, who at the time was an assistant U.S. attorney, gives a motivational speech to these very privileged students. The speech is James Gray's attempt to recreate the speech he heard her give when he was in school. Maryanne Trump is played by Jessica Chastain.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARMAGEDDON TIME")
JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Maryanne Trump) Today, I'm not here to give you the same old talk. Today, I'm going to give it to you straight. You're going to want to go to a good college. You're going to want to succeed. But you're not going to. Mmm-mmm. That's right. Unless - unless you follow the example that I'm going to set forth for you. You may be saying to yourself, what does she know? Well, when I came here, no one handed me anything for free. How did I succeed? By good, old-fashioned hard work. And that's how you're going to make it. I knew there was no free lunch. Through college, law school, the U.S. attorney's office. I was a woman in a man's business. But I kept on fighting. That's right, girls. I'm talking to you, too. Mmm-hmm. You can be anything you want to be in this - the greatest country in the world. You people in this institution are going to wind up on top. And you'll know at the end of the day, it won't be because of a handout, right? It'll be because you earned your way there.
GROSS: James Gray, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like this movie, so thank you for joining us.
JAMES GRAY: It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Can you compare your reaction to Maryanne's Trump's speech when you heard it, when you were 11, to how you think of it looking back on it now?
GRAY: I have to confess to you that at that age, I did think it was ridiculous. So I am not sure my attitude on it now is all that different. I remember thinking, what is she talking about? She's probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, obviously, there was probably some aspect of the speech which makes sense to her, which - right? - is that she is a woman in a man's world. But on the relative scheme of things, I mean, of course, the level of fight that she needed was infinitesimal compared to others.
GROSS: The assumption in her speech and then what is made more explicit later in the movie when Fred Trump makes a speech is that you have an obligation to be the leaders in business, finance and politics. You are the elite, he's telling the students. How did you feel? 'Cause you weren't the elite.
GRAY: It's a weird thing, you know, when I look back on it now. It's sort of like - what you see is that you can be the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time and that the world is a - I remember thinking this actually at the time. I was confused, you know, that there were many layers, that I was on top in public school. And I thought I was - you know, I thought I was fantastic and was really No. 1. And then, all of a sudden, I went to this new place, and I was at the bottom. So I think that that was a pretty good instruction on the kind of class hierarchy that we have not only in this country, but of course, in the world. And what can I say except that my view on things hasn't really changed very much?
GROSS: In the film, the character based on you, Paul, the 11-year-old, encounters Fred Trump on his first day at the private school, where Fred is on the board of directors. You had a similar encounter. Tell us what happened to you and what your encounter with Fred Trump was like.
GRAY: Yeah, I just walked in there, and I must have looked absolutely absurd. I had - I remember that my brother was - he gave me this product, Dippity-Do, which was this sort of hair gel, and my...
GROSS: I remember it.
GRAY: Of course. And, you know, I probably thought of myself as looking like a - I don't know - a young Elvis Presley or something - and looked insane, I'm sure. My hair was, like, plastered down. And my father had given me an attache case. I remember him saying, (imitating Gray's father) this is a Classe (ph) 1 attache case. And you're going to go to school, and you're going to work. And it's a business now. It's all business. No more playing around.
And he gave me this attache - I'm - you know, so here I am with my plastered hair, walking with an attache case through school. And there's this man just standing there in a three-piece suit. And I hate to get all gruesome about it, but I remember he had these, like, weird scabs on his forehead, and he looked like a kind of evil clown to me. And he called me over. Oh, what are you doing here? What's your name? And I remember thinking, why is he talking to me?
But I will tell you, instantly, I got the message that I was on the bottom. And it was one of those things where - look, I mean, it's a humiliation. And I understand that my life is - I've been very fortunate, and things have gone very well for me in many ways. And on the other hand, no one is free from this kind of indignity. And I remembered storing this sort of moment in my head. And it's rendered, I have to say, quite accurately in the movie.
GROSS: Did he ask you your last name?
GRAY: He sure did. And he said to me - I remember he said, what's your name? And I said, Gray. He said, what's your parents' names? I said, Irwin and Hester. And he sort of looked, and he nodded. And I - it was - I mean, now it's very clear to me. At the time, I remember thinking, why is he asking me my last name? But my parents - of course, I told them the story maybe about six months later because I was a bit embarrassed. And I remember my father just sort of nodding and going, OK, so just say your name, and don't worry about it.
GROSS: So your original name, your grandpa's...
GRAY: That's right.
GROSS: Was he trying to find out if you were Jewish? Was that it?
GRAY: I'm sure. I'm sure. No question.
GROSS: So Donald Trump went to the private school that you went to. So in addition to his father, Fred Trump, being on the board of trustees and his aunt (ph) Maryanne Trump giving a speech to the school, a motivational speech - yeah, so Donald Trump went there. Did you have any connection with him or any good stories to tell?
GRAY: Well, no, he's quite a bit older than I am, I'm proud to say. But...
GROSS: Of course, I should have realized that, yeah.
GRAY: But I - of course, his - he had a legend because he took a desk, apparently, and threw it into the center of what was then called the Interborough - it's now called the Jackie Robinson Parkway - which is right in front of the school and almost caused a terrible accident. So this is - talk about a weird world. His father took him out of that school and put him in a military academy, where his, apparently, dorm roommate was Francis Ford Coppola.
GRAY: Yup. It's one of the weirdest things ever.
GROSS: The movie is, in a way, about a child who doesn't have the vocabulary or the knowledge of history to articulate or understand the race, class and ethnicity issues that he's facing and he sees around him. But he knows things aren't right. And his family in the movie - and you could tell us about your family. His family, his grandparents, fled antisemitism in the 1920s. But they don't see any connection between the antisemitism they faced and the way they really distrust Black people in America and are very wary of Black people moving into the neighborhood or attending the school, like, starting to go...
GRAY: That's right.
GROSS: ...To the same school that Paul attends, the 11-year-old. And I was wondering if that was - if it was that way in your family and if you understood the contradiction or hypocrisy behind that?
GRAY: It's a great question. It's a very strange thing in the world that we live in a kind of ideological box, right? And you can't really step outside of that box. What you can do is maybe have some kind of awareness that there is another point of view. Now, part of the whole thing about the Maryanne Trump thing, she's giving a speech. She says, oh, my God. I had to fight. I had to fight, fight, fight. I'm a woman in a man's world. Well, maybe that's true for her. And what I did not see was any kind of attempt to see outside of her own world. And my parents and grandparents, they lived under this feeling of threat.
And I don't want to say - I'm not going to let them off the hook because there was this racism. They did have good intentions, certainly. Although, the world is ruined often by well-meaning people. But I remember - for example, my middle name is Marshall. They named me after Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed just before I was born. So they had sort of good intentions, we should say. But they were not - they couldn't step outside of that box. And they saw threats from all directions.
I remember my grandfather, he had a Model A truck, which was barely functional, in the garage. And I once said to him, I said, Grandpa - and this was on my - grandfather on my father's side. I said, Grandpa, why do you have this truck? And translated, because he didn't speak much English, my grandfather said to me, he said, well, because you never know when they'll come for you. So there was this kind of terror, this weird trauma that was handed down, frankly, to my brother and me. We didn't have to experience the trauma directly to sort of get it. And I think that my parents tried to see the other side only very infrequently. Do I blame them? I kind of do. And on the other hand, we're talking 1980, 1979. I mean, things are different now.
GROSS: In the film, Paul has a good friend, who's Black. And I think you did, too, when you were his age, when you were 11. Was it unusual in your public school for white and Black kids to be close friends?
GRAY: That's a - this is a very important question. And the answer is, absolutely not. The bussing program meant that the class was filled with all kinds of people from all kinds of parts of the world. I mean, it was a very, very, very big ethnic racial mix of all peoples. And it was not unusual. And in fact, I never heard the N-word. I never heard antisemitic slurs. I never heard anything like this in public school - anti-Asian, nothing like that. The first time I heard this stuff was when I went to the private school, which was all white.
GROSS: So when you went to, like, the white, very privileged private school, how did you respond? Did you feel like you could talk back to them and say, you know, you're just wrong? Or did you feel like you had to be quiet about it?
GRAY: It depends on whether I should answer this honestly...
GRAY: ...Or whether I should say, I'm a very good guy. No, the sad truth is that the - most of the language was pretty vicious and considerably worse even than what's in the movie - and terrible things also, by the way, about the girls in the class. I did not - let's just say I did not acquit myself particularly well. I was, you know, 11 and 12. I wanted to fit in. And that's a huge moral failing on my part. The best that I can do is to try to move on. And I knew what I was hearing was appalling. But I was trying to fit in and not be made fun of. And, in fact, it was sort of the message that I got.
You know, my grandfather, who was a delightful man, on my mother's side - wonderful man, but there was a kind of cognitive dissonance, you know, Terry? Like, he would say - on one hand, he would say, your name is Gray. That's a very good name. You're going to fit in. Just behave. And on the other side, he would say, you know, you have to do the right thing and be a mensch. Be a good person. Now, being a good person and trying to fit in are not the same idea. The world is particularly hostile to people who don't try to fit in. So I remember that state of push and pull. And I must tell you that my own - in my own life, up until I was maybe 18, I really was struggling to try to just become part of that new world that I was inhabiting.
GROSS: The new private school, more elite world?
GRAY: That's right. Well, I knew that was my ticket, you know? That was the way that I could succeed in life, or at least I thought it was, you know, that I could get to a university and - which I wound up doing, getting scholarship money, this whole thing. That was my path out. And it worked, you know? I went to the University of Southern California. I made a student film that did very well for me. And so now, here I am. But there is a way, in a way, that you can look at it where you say, OK, I'm now making films, which is what I dreamed of doing by the time, you know, starting when I was 13 years old. And yet, metaphorically, maybe my foot is on somebody else's neck.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director James Gray. And his new film is called "Armageddon Time." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA ORCHESTRA AND FRANCO FERRERA'S "CIMITERO & GIGOLETTO & CADILLAC - CARLOTTE'S GALOP")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director James Gray. His new film, "Armageddon Time," is based on his life when he was around 11 years old and his parents took him out of public school and put him into private school. And in public school in the film, his best friend is a Black boy his age. And in the private school - that's an exclusively white, very privileged school. And the kids there are pretty openly racist. James Gray's other films include "Little Odessa," "The Yards," "Two Lovers," "The Immigrant," "The Lost City Of Z" and "Ad Astra."
So let me get to a central incident in the film without really explaining what it is, which is that, you know, at a point where both Paul, the white boy, based on you, and Johnny, his Black friend, are both very disillusioned with their lives and with school, and they both want to just kind of get out. And they come up with a scheme to get money to do that. And I want to, without giving too much away from the film, flip to an incident in your life where you and your friend stole something. And I'd like you to explain what you stole and why you did it.
GRAY: We stole - I mean, we were space nerds. We went into a Bloomingdales, which was in Fresh Meadows, Queens, which is where I grew up, and they had a small bookstore area, and they had these "Star Trek" Enterprise blueprints. I mean, this is beyond insane now to me to even say this sentence. But they had "Star Trek" blueprints, and they were $50. And $50 to me - $50 is a lot now, I think. But $50 in 1980 was, like, a million dollars. And we really wanted it. We took it, and we were caught, of course, rather instantly and pulled to the back room. And the treatment was very unequal. So we decided...
GROSS: Wait, wait. In what ways?
GRAY: The security guard - my father was called in. My friend had his - he lived with his grandmother, who had Alzheimer's. Now I can - you know, I know what it is, but at the time, you just said she's losing her mind, you know. You didn't know what it was. And my father got me off, and my friend was still sitting there. I don't know what happened to him after that. I never saw him again. So that was a - it was a strange - it was a very - I mean, it was a very easy way to learn that the world is not an equitable place.
GROSS: Based on what I've read, it sounds like about six years later, he was killed in some kind of drug deal gone wrong.
GRAY: That's right, in an area called Jamaica, Queens. That's right.
GROSS: How did you find out about that? And what was your reaction? I mean, I'm wondering if you thought that, you know, after the incident, you know, where you were both caught at Bloomingdales, whether that kind of sent him into a downward spiral, you know, whether his punishment from the police or the security guards or whatever just kind of put him on the wrong path.
GRAY: There's no way for me to really know that. What I can say is I was devastated when I heard. It was not at the moment. I heard several years after it happened. I think it was 1986 that he was killed. And then I heard probably the early '90s. My cousin had told me when - in casual conversation. He had read it in, I think, the New York Daily News. By that time, I had either gone to college or was about to go to college. I wasn't reading about local news stuff in New York. And he knew about it; I didn't. And I was stunned, I have to say. But it makes perfect sense now to me. If you know about New York in particular and, in particular, Jamaica in the late - mid-to-late '80s, the crack trade devastated that area - I mean, just tore it to shreds.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like, oh, there's more I could have done for my friend so that when I got cut loose, he would have benefited from that, too?
GRAY: Wow. I hate to tell you the answer is, honestly, no, I never thought about it. Again, I don't want to beat myself up too much because, you know, you're 11 or 12. The world is really a very different, binary place. But part of it is - you know, it's funny. People have said to me, oh, is this a movie where you learn your lesson? And my answer is no. The opposite is true, that all of this means that you see the world as layered and complex and lacking answers and lessons...
GROSS: And unfair.
GRAY: ...And in fact - yeah, and unfair. And it becomes ever more troubling when you know that you benefit. Most people, I think - how should we put this? Most people don't try to do bad things, but most people also are living with this fear of surviving and thriving on their own. I felt that way. I felt like I have to do what I have to do to survive. So as appalling as it is, I never did give a second of thought to it, which is embarrassing and disgraceful in many ways, but I must be honest with you.
GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director James Gray. His new semi-autobiographical film is called "Armageddon Time." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMAGIDEON TIME")
THE CLASH: (Singing) A lot of people won't get no supper tonight.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director James Gray. His movies include "Little Odessa," "The Yards," "Two Lovers," "The Immigrant," "The Lost City Of Z" and "Ad Astra." His new film, "Armageddon Time," is based on his own childhood as the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who fled antisemitism in the 1920s. The film is set in 1980 when the child, Paul, is 11 and living in Queens, N.Y. And it's about his reaction to hearing some of his grandparents' stories and about learning how race and class in America often predetermine the course of your life.
In the film, the father beats the boy with a strap or a belt, and it looks quite painful. Did you have to endure that?
GRAY: Well, this is - this feels like my therapy session. Yeah, it was worse, actually, in real life. But you don't have the time in a movie to depict it as it actually was and still have sympathy for the father's (ph) character. But in real life, it was worse. But you - I don't...
GROSS: What did he do to you that was worse than what we saw in the film?
GRAY: Well, I mean, to hit me directly with his hand and his fist. But, you know, this - I will say this. It was - again, I'm not excusing that behavior, which is beyond disgraceful. I mean, I've never once - I have three children. The idea of hitting them, to me, is insane. But it was more common in 1979 - '78, '79, '80. That's - you got the belt. I mean - and I got the belt. But he would take it too far, which was horrendous. But it was more in keeping with what was considered appropriate parenting, so I view it in that way.
And I remember at one point, when I was 12, I think, it happened and then - I had done something. I don't remember what. You'll forgive me for not remembering. But I did something wrong. And he - and I was beaten. And I remember saying to myself, OK. That's the last time. You're never going to do it again. And if you do, I'll kill you.
GROSS: You said that to him? Or you just thought it?
GRAY: Oh, no, I thought it.
GRAY: And he never touched me again. Never. For whatever - I don't know what it was that I communicated to him unspoken. But I thought it. And I had this - you know, I used to build model rockets and model kits. And I had this little knife they called an X-Acto knife. And I remember thinking, you do it again, I'm going to stab you right in the middle of the chest. And that was what I thought. And he never touched me again.
GROSS: Your grandparents, like the grandparents in the movie, fled Ukraine. They were fleeing antisemitism. And in the movie, your maternal grandfather tells the story of why his mother fled, which I believe is based on the story your grandfather told you about why his mother fled. Tell us the story of why your great-grandmother fled Ukraine.
GRAY: They had a dry goods store in a small town called Ostropol in Ukraine, which, by the way, is now no longer even a town. It was razed by the Einsatzgruppen in - I think, in 1941 or - no, might have been '42. And they had this dry goods store, and there were these pogroms that would go after and hunt Jews. And at one point, the Czar's troops rode their horses right into the dry goods store because it was almost like - apparently like a barn with a very large front and took out their swords and killed her parents right in front of her. And apparently, my father told me that - and my mother told me that they they would - my grandmother would scream in anguish in the middle of the night, and my grandfather would scream remembering these stories and remembering this incident, witnessing this sort of thing.
Both of them had witnessed - both my grandfather and my grandmother had witnessed very similar events. They had bonded over this at a dance held by the Workmen's Circle in Brooklyn when they first came to the United States. They met in the United States and had almost precisely the same kind of tragic stories about the pogroms killing their parents. So they came to the U.S., really, in a very circuitous route, Hamburg, Southampton in England and then finally to the United States on one side and on the other side through Argentina.
GROSS: Was that because of immigration law?
GRAY: That's right. I mean, 1924, the door closed as the United States basically said, no more immigrants. And that's about it. And that was really the end of Ellis Island as a functioning immigration center. I mean, it stayed open, I think, until 1954. But by then, it was basically a place for political dissidents and very sparsely populated. But they had to come through all different places, you know, in order to get in.
GROSS: Is it true that your great-grandparents were beheaded?
GRAY: That's correct.
GROSS: So your grandmother actually witnessed that?
GRAY: That's correct. I mean, you can imagine that would be - you can imagine that would scar you for life, I think.
GROSS: Did that scar you just hearing the story?
GRAY: I think so. I have been much more educated lately over the past 10 years and, thankfully, with the help of my wife on these matters, who's really fantastic in all ways but especially this one, really, in illustrating how something catastrophic - I mean, almost feels like the idea behind the "Oresteia," right? That something awful is handed down from generation to generation. It doesn't mean that you have to experience it directly. And you can still feel that mood in the house, and it can still affect you, and it can still traumatize you. I think it's an act of some madness, by the way, to tell an 11-year-old that story right before the 11-year-old goes to bed. But that was considered an OK thing to do, I suppose.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director James Gray. His new movie is called "Armageddon Time." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER SPELMAN'S "FLUSHING MEADOW")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director James Gray. He made the films "Little Odessa," "The Yards," "Two Lovers," "The Immigrant," "The Lost City Of Z" and "Ad Astra." His new film, "Armageddon Time," is a semi-autobiographical film based on his life when he was 11.
So you heard stories about the antisemitism that your grandparents faced and why they fled, including that your grandmother saw her parents beheaded by Cossacks in Ukraine. What did antisemitism mean to you when you were growing up and you were 11 in 1980, the year the movie is set? Did you see much of it around you, like - because I think a lot of kids grew up feeling so distanced from the antisemitism that their grandparents or great-, or great-great-grandparents fled because it seems so far in the past.
GRAY: Yeah. I will tell you, my attitude was that that was in the past and that they were being a bit fuddy-duddy about it, that it was - you know, we don't have that here. This is the United States. And I did not experience in public school, to be honest, any antisemitism at all. And I thought that they were - it was just the moaning and groaning of old folks, you know? And I will tell you that the moment in time of which we speak, which was, you know, 1980, it was a kind of - a comparatively halcyon moment for antisemitism in the U.S., at least in my memory. I see more of it now than I did then. I see a recrudescence of antisemitism in a way that profoundly disturbs me right now. Over the last four or five years, I think we've seen much more of it than we used to. So it was not a tangible thing to me then. And actually, it wasn't in my life until fairly recently.
GROSS: Your grandfather was more prosperous than your father, at least that's the way the story is told in the movie. How did he make his money?
GRAY: Well, he was only - let me be clear about this. He was only marginally more prosperous. I mean, my - there was a big kind of - it was interesting, a kind of class divide in my house. My father's father was very, very Russian. He spoke no English, really, at all, even through the day he died. And he would sit - he would come. He would sit on the couch. I'll never forget this. He would sit on the couch and would just cry. And my father would say - I would say, Dad, why is he crying? He'd say, because he misses the old country. Now, I have to tell you, given everything we've talked about here, what was he missing? I don't quite get it.
But I think it also speaks to the difficulties that sometimes - you know, when you see it depicted in some books and motion pictures, I came to America. It was great. And it's a land of plenty - or whatever. That's not the experience I had at all. I saw him really longing for where - from whence he came. And so that was my father's side. My mother's side, they - because they came in - I think it was 1904. I can't remember the exact year. You'll forgive me. But they came slightly earlier. So they had another generation, I suppose, to become, quote, "American," close quote.
They - and they were schoolteachers in the New York City public school system. And that's - they entered the labor market, I think, in 1933, which, of course, is probably the worst year economically in the history of the 20th century for the United States. And they got precious jobs in the New York City public school system. And they had done a very good job just saving their money, living very frugally. And so by the time they retired around 1978, '77, they had a decent amount of money. Were they rich? Absolutely not. But they had done OK for themselves and could at least contribute to trying to help raise my brother and me.
GROSS: I think your grandfather on the other side owned a saloon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Is that right?
GRAY: Well, my great-grandfather. That's very impressive. You...
GROSS: Oh, your great-grandfather?
GRAY: Yes, that's right. And he - it was called Hurwitz's. And it was - I think it was on Orchard Street. Though, I could be wrong about that.
GROSS: Was your great-grandfather involved with bootlegging or any other kind of crime?
GRAY: That I don't know about. Although, I do know that my great-uncle was Ralph Capone's accountant, which I think is one of the greatest...
GROSS: No. Really?
GRAY: Yeah. Yes, that's right.
GROSS: What was Ralph Capone's relationship to Al?
GRAY: He was Al Capone's brother. They were part of his accounting team. I'm just so happy that I got to know him, because I don't know why he wasn't 86ed after Al Capone got fingered for tax evasion. I don't think you want to be Al Capone's accountant - or even Ralph's, for that matter.
GROSS: Wow. That's a pretty impressive connection to organized crime (laughter).
GRAY: Well, (laughter) impressive is an interesting use of words, but yes.
GROSS: You know, on a, perhaps, not unrelated note, your father, who was an electronics contractor - and correct me if I'm wrong on any of this. His company was hired as a contractor by the New York City subways and was involved in...
GRAY: Oh, actually, Metro-North Transit and SEPTA for Pennsylvania. I don't think he wound up doing any work...
GROSS: Oh, SEPTA, too?
GRAY: That's right. I don't think he did anything for MTA. Although, you're quite right that that's what he did do in his...
GROSS: SEPTA is the transit authority in Philadelphia, where our show is produced.
GRAY: That's right, Philadelphia. And the shop was in Mineola, N.Y., which is on Long Island.
GROSS: So he was involved in a corruption scandal in the mid-1980s, which your film, "The Yards," was inspired by. Would you describe the corruption scandal your father was involved in?
GRAY: It's a pretty simple thing, really. My father wound up getting into this business in order to, as he would put it, to make sure that our boat comes in, you know, to support the family. And this was probably - I think the business was started in 1986. And in order to do business back then, basically, it was explained to me that they were making payoffs in order to get inside the business and to be able to fix these things that link trains together called couplers. And I think that they were making payoffs down in the train yards in order to get the business.
And my father - I have to say, my father - and I'm not just saying this to, you know, to protect his reputation, but it is true. My father was not really the guy with the boots on the ground there. My father was the kind of guy who would sit in front of a computer spreadsheet. And he was - his job was as the comptroller. So he was really the guy looking at the numbers and was not hanging out in train yards, per se. But he was not a limited partner. He was a partner. And so he was found culpable nonetheless.
GROSS: So he was indicted on 56 counts of fraudulent activity. That's a lot of counts.
GRAY: It sure is. And he had written letters. Part of it was that he had written letters to Metro-North, I think, and, like I said, SEPTA, saying, you know, this part was delivered; how come you haven't paid, when the part hadn't been delivered or under false pretenses according to the law. And so then it got into mail fraud and all this other stuff. I'm not sure how much of this really - I'm not sure how much of this he was really conscious of, to be honest. And also, my mother got very sick and terminally ill and died in the middle of all this. And his mind was really not on the details of business by this time. I mean, he was really driven quite mad by that illness.
GROSS: Did he have to go to prison or anything?
GRAY: No, he - I think he finally had a plea bargain and settled with the court. He was fined a lot of money, I think, which we didn't really have. So he was paying it off in small installments, really, for the rest of his life.
GROSS: How surprised were you that he would kind of beat you when he thought you were leaving the straight and narrow, and he was involved in this corruption scandal? Whether he knew all about it or just part of it, he was still participating in it.
GRAY: Yes. You know the term situational ethics?
GROSS: Yeah, I do know that term. Yeah.
GRAY: I'm sure you do. I think part of it was that he thought that he was inculcating me to be better than he was, that he was involved in a daily, weekly, monthly struggle and that hopefully I would not have to worry about that. That's the way that I read it.
GROSS: How much did it change your understanding of your father?
GRAY: I mean, it was deeply heartbreaking. The whole thing was heartbreaking. You have to understand that in this moment of my life, there was that. Your father is charged with 56 counts. My God. And our mother had died of brain cancer. Just in that - within a very short time frame, both of these things had happened. And so this family unit that you see depicted in the film - which, for all of its flaws and all of its troubles, was quite tight - within a matter of just about three or four months was torn apart. My father had these legal troubles. My mother died. I went off to college. My brother went off to college. And so all of a sudden, we were not one family anymore. And it was overnight, virtually.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director James Gray, and his new film is called "Armageddon Time." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER SPELMAN'S "IN THE CAR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director James Gray. His new film is called "Armageddon Time." He also made the films "The Yards," "The Immigrant," "The Lost City Of Z," "Ad Astra" and "Little Odessa."
So you wanted to get, like, details correct about your family, including the way your father spoke. Did you have pictures of, like, the wallpaper and the furniture from the house you grew up in? And did you show that to the set designers? And if so, what are some of the things you wanted in the film that came out of your home?
GRAY: Let me tell you, Terry, my father was an avid photographer, and he was completely awful. And thankfully, he was totally unaware of his awfulness. We had thousands of photographs of the house, of people in the house, all this. And so we knew the chandelier, the wallpaper, the furniture, the Danish modern dining room table, everything. And I told them, you have to do this exactly. There are two things that are very important about production design, I find, in general and specifically in this film. The first is that when you have details, you are essentially telling the actor, I care about the world around you. So you have to give me all that you've got. It is an unconscious message to the people in the film to give it everything they've got because you've given it everything you've got. So it informs performance.
You know, there's a great story, which I will tell you as a kind of detour about this. There's a marvelous movie - in fact, really one of the great films ever made - by a director named Lucchino Visconti called "The Leopard" with Burt Lancaster. And in the film, there's a moment where Burt Lancaster opens a drawer and he throws a roll of money at the actor Alain Delon. Now, the camera is quite low. You don't see into the drawer. After they did a few takes, Burt Lancaster said to the assistant director, the camera's low. You don't see inside the drawer, right? And the assistant director said, yes, that's correct. You don't see what's in the drawer. And Lancaster said, yes, but all of my shirts are monogrammed and folded perfectly in the drawer, but you don't see it. And he said, yes, but Lucchino wanted it for you. Now, that is what I'm trying to get at. When I say all the details - you open up a drawer, and you see the napkins that we had, the plates with the green kind of floral pattern on the edge. All of this stuff mattered.
GROSS: I want to contrast your new film, "Armageddon Time," in which you basically tried to recreate your home and the furniture and the wallpaper and the clothes and all of that as it was in 1980 - contrast that with your movie "The Lost City Of Z," which is shot in the jungle of, I think, Colombia.
GRAY: That's right.
GROSS: And from what I've read on the set, I mean, people were getting, like, sick, all kind of intestinal diseases, insect problems. Would you ever make a movie like that again where people have to suffer a certain amount being in what sounds like a pretty hostile environment? Would you ever want to do that again? It just sounds like it's hard enough to direct a basic movie, but to be in the jungle while making it, unless you're, like, Werner Herzog and you are really an extremist (laughter), it sounds really rough.
GRAY: That was, in some ways, an act of hubris on my part. Obviously, I was a huge fan of Werner Herzog and "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo" and - "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God," that is - and, of course, also of Francis Coppola and "Apocalypse Now." And I really - I always saw my job as having some kind of guts, if I want to use a dirty word, to go out there to the jungle or to some remote place and really make - you know, David Lean go in to the desert. And I thought that I could marshal - I thought I could keep control because I was scripted down to the letter. I had storyboarded everything. And really what happens is you get down to the jungle and you realize, you know, there's a - what Mike Tyson once said - he said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, you know? Well, that's what happens when you go down to Amazonia. That is not a place that wants you there. It's not a place to make a film. You don't bring, like, a hundred people to the Don Diego River or some tributary, you know, which is in the middle of nowhere.
And I remember at one point, I was knee deep in the Diego River, which you could do when the tide was very low. And I remember I was looking at Darius Khondji, the cinematographer, and he was looking up at the sky. And he was saying (imitating Darius Khondji) yeah, we're going to shoot very soon, but the cloud, it has to cover the sun. I said, Darius, I think we need to shoot now. (Imitating Darius Khondji) No, just a few more minutes. I said, Darius, I think there's a caiman and it's pretty close to me, and I think you need to start shooting now. (Imitating Darius Khondji) Just one more minute. Darius, there's a caiman, and it's right near me. So I'm getting out of the water now. Like, it was that kind of environment.
And it's - a madness takes over. After about two weeks, you just start to say, how can I survive the day? How can I get through? How can I win the day? The heat is brutal. The humidity is brutal and unrelenting. You're quite right people got malaria. There was, you know, a viper - someone got bitten by a viper. A bug crawled inside Charlie Hunnam, the lead actor's, ear and started to eat his eardrum. I mean, the stories are legion.
GROSS: You didn't want to wait to shoot a certain scene because there was a caiman approaching. What is a caiman? I should know this, but I don't.
GRAY: Oh, dear.
GROSS: Is it like a kind of alligator or something?
GRAY: Yeah, it's a kind of crocodile. And I remember saying to the guy - I said to him - I said - the wonderful producer from Colombia. And he was standing in the boat. And I said, Philippe (ph), are there crocodiles? Because I didn't know what a caiman was either, by the way, at the time. I said, are there crocodiles in this water? (Imitating Philippe) No, no, Mr. James, no crocodiles, only caimans. Now, I don't know why I accepted this as a benign thing, but I did. I did panic a little bit because it looked a lot, let me tell you, like a crocodile. And then when I came back to the United States and I was editing, I told the editor this story. I said, you know, the water was filled with caimans, not crocodiles. And he was appalled. And he was the one who, of course, sent me all these links that was like the black caiman is a slightly more dangerous version of the crocodile, you know.
GROSS: By the way, I noticed that when you do your inner voice, when you're impersonating yourself in telling a story, it's not your voice. It sounds more like it would be the voice of your father or grandfather.
GRAY: When you listen to yourself on tape - not that you do or should - does it sound like you think you sound?
GROSS: Well, I've listened to myself enough that, you know, I've learned that that is how I sound. But the first few times I heard myself, I was really just totally embarrassed and thought like that can't be true.
GRAY: That's right. So what I'm doing for you is the idiot that I think that I actually am to you. That's - I'm trying to apply - you know, the opening of "Mean Streets" where Harvey Keitel...
GROSS: In the church?
GRAY: No, it's when Harvey Keitel sits up in bed. It's the very beginning of the film.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, yeah.
GRAY: Right before that, you hear a voice sing you do it in the streets. And it's this little bit kind of this pre-film, maybe two- or three-sentence monologue that you hear. And it is supposed to be Harvey Keitel's inner voice, but it's voiced by maestro Scorsese. And Scorsese says it's because you hear your inner voice differently than others hear you. Your inner voice is different. So I thought it was so beautiful. And so maybe that's part of the reason the inner voice that I have is kind of this idiot voice, you know?
GROSS: James Gray, it's been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
GRAY: Great to talk with you.
GROSS: James Gray's new film is called "Armageddon Time." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, journalist Luke Harding will talk about covering the war in Ukraine for The Guardian. He's written a new book called "Invasion." He was in Ukraine when the invasion started and has continued to report from there. He formerly was The Guardian's Moscow bureau chief and was expelled from Russia because the Kremlin disapproved of his reporting. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER SPELMAN'S "WALKING HOME")
GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER SPELMAN'S "WALKING HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.