All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: Ricky D’Ambrose Speaks with James Gray about Armageddon Time
Armageddon Time returns the American writer and director James Gray to his childhood—or at least to a version of it. While its treatment of grade-school-age protagonist Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) and his dealings with the world of grown-ups in and around his home in 1980s Queens, New York, might not be, strictly speaking, autobiographical (Gray has been careful to distinguish between personal and autobiographical filmmaking), Armageddon Time draws upon the filmmaker’s childhood to fashion a story of a boy’s moral and aesthetic education that seems at once thoroughly lived-in and unsentimental. For nearly two hours, we watch as young Paul battles a seemingly uncomprehending and mercenary father (Jeremy Strong), finds refuge in the figure of his sympathetic uncle (Anthony Hopkins) and struggles to reconcile the pitiless and exclusionary sociopolitical codes of the affluent private school that his family sends him to (complete with guest lectures by Fred and Maryanne Trump, in scenes brimming with Reagan-era nonspeak about personal responsibility) with his own budding empathy for the marginalized and the disadvantaged.
Most of Gray’s films to date—whether set in the streets of New York City toward the start of the twentieth century (The Immigrant) or between planets at the end of the twenty-first (Ad Astra)—seem like pitch-black trips into some kind of inaccessible inner space. He is foremost—perhaps more than any narrative filmmaker working at a comparable scale in this country today—an unapologetically classical stylist, bent on giving form and coherence to the hidden sources of human cruelty and frailty alike.
Gray understands that there’s a special kind of pain—the pain of childhood—that the diktats of teachers and principals and mothers and fathers, with their many codes of conduct and taste, are ill equipped to remedy. But sometimes, exceptions do exist: In Armageddon Time, nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene between young Paul and Hopkins’s kindly elder uncle, played out on a quasi cosmic scale beside the Space Age ruins of Robert Moses’s 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair, complete with toy rocket and countdown to blastoff. If Reagan is Armageddon Time’s resident ghost, a phantom voice and face inside a cathode-ray tube who both feeds and depletes whatever it is that America has come to dream of itself, then Moses—the man who is said to have once asked Walt Disney to transform his World’s Fair into a permanent, year-round amusement park—is its other looming specter. The poisonous, acquisitive fantasy of what America is and ought to be, the notion that there are no (and can never be) limits to human experience—these are the things of the New World. If Gray finds much to lament here, he responds not by telling us to go back to the glorious Old World, but by recovering some of the beauty and confusions of being a child, and by recognizing that all things end, as they must.
Filmmaker: At a talk you gave with Dennis Lim at Film at Lincoln Center around the time The Immigrant was about to screen, you mentioned your Uncle Seymour. You said this uncle was given a cache of documents that traced your family history, and that these papers were later given to you. I wonder whether we’re dealing in this new film with the consequences of Uncle Seymour’s generosity? Did inheriting a trail of documentary evidence about your family affect the way you thought about this film?
Gray: There’s a practical fact that you get this documentary evidence of your past in photographs and documentation, and that’s very powerful. But honestly, it’s been part of my reason for doing the work from the very beginning. I always wanted to try to be as personal as possible in the work, and to put myself into it as much as I could, because the more specific and detailed it could be, the more you could try to reach into your past and find things that moved or affected you in some way, the more honest the work could be.
That was the philosophy I always followed. Now, whether or not that’s true, I don’t know because there are certainly great directors who made incredible films using genre, using a kind of substitution in a sense. I always thought one of the great leaps forward in the movies as an art form came when Cassavetes made Shadows, because so much of that was about movies [being] a form of personal expression—stealing from your own life in a direct way. They can have that intimacy. I’ve always had that as a philosophical underpinning.
The Uncle Seymour stuff refers mostly to very old stuff from the past—my grandfather coming into Ellis Island, his paperwork, all the stuff from Brooklyn circa 1928. That was more for The Immigrant. My brother was a great source of photographs for this one because he had all the family photos. Also, to be candid about it, I had been to outer space [in Ad Astra] and the jungle [in The Lost City of Z], and outer space was a very difficult endeavor for me, technically and to finish the film. There were a lot of struggles, and I just wanted to try to get back to—not basics, that’s the wrong way to put it, but to what I loved about the medium, and to make something as direct from inside of me as I possibly could.
Filmmaker: As someone who recently made a film about my own childhood, I find that there’s often an emotional risk involved in looking through family photos or home movies. There’s a sense that by poring over old images of your family for the sake of “research,” you’re denaturing your memories, and you suddenly find yourself having a very different relationship to your past.
Gray: You run a risk doing anything that isn’t for entirely mercenary reasons—and even there you run a risk. If you make an Avengers movie, you take a huge risk because you have a fanbase that gets really angry if you screw it up. There’s no endeavor without risk. The question really becomes, what is the nature of that risk? Is that risk worth taking? You can always screw things up, but in the end, you only really have two things that you can focus on: working hard and taking the risks that you can in order to endeavor to be an artist. And I’ll use that word, because it’s a very powerful and important word: “artist.” I told [DP] Darius [Khondji], “This is like a ghost story.” You have a set of challenges, one of which is to reveal a part of yourself. That is always fraught territory—it doesn’t get easier or harder, depending on your subject. All of the creation of a work is a deep dive into your soul. There’s no way to escape that as part of the challenge.
It’s not really autobiography, although autobiography is an art form in and of itself, because this [film] is not really autobiographical so much as it is personal. You can be autobiographical: “Here are the facts of my life.” It’s much more important that you be personal, that you give a sense of [the state of your] soul and what you care about emotionally. I think a lot of times today in the study of art, we use the wrong metrics. We talk as if it’s almost like a project of social sciences—which, by the way, [have] done brilliant things but [have] also led to a field where we study works of art as though they were science projects to be reviewed under a microscope. It’s very hard to read about a conception of art, a work of art, as what it does to you emotionally. That’s seen as somehow vulgar, beneath us, and [that it’s] much more important that we discuss the kind of social or cultural implications of the piece. But that is a temporary, very fleeting idea. Our idea of what matters in art changes all the time given the culture. What endures is what matters personally, emotionally.
Filmmaker: That’s explicit in the film, I think. Talking about a generational handing down of values: You have a boy who’s discovering Gauguin and Kandinsky for the first time, and who’s developing an interest in being an artist. Then, you have the so-called grownups in the room, the people who maybe have a more mercenary idea about what they want their son to pursue. It’s a bit unrelated, but I couldn’t help but think about the shot of the grandfather with his grandson at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. We see the Unisphere on the former World’s Fair grounds, and then, later on, we see a brochure for Disney’s EPCOT Center. You could think of the ’64 World’s Fair and EPCOT as promoting two different visions of history, and the film is always alerting us in some way to the slide from one to the other, just as it presents two very different ways of thinking about art and money.
Gray: All that was obviously intended. You know, I wrote four words taped on a piece of cardboard on the side of the camera. I had them in front of me every day to remind myself: “warmth, humor, love, loss.” That’s the New York State Pavilion where I used to go as a kid to launch the rockets. It felt like a modern ruin. It was very moving to me because—I’m sure I’ll be made fun of for this because it’s pretentious, but—at the end of Swann’s Way, [Proust] talks about the impermanence of us as a species, of buildings, of neighborhoods that we remember. And I just remembered those dinners at my old house. We shot only about 90 feet away from my old house, and the only reason we didn’t shoot in my old house is because the owner didn’t let us. We moved down the block. It’s the same type of house completely; they were cookie-cutter. And I realized, all these memories are there with my grandma and my grandfather and my parents and my great-aunt and my great-uncle, and they’re all dead. They’re all gone, and there’s almost no evidence that they ever existed, except in my mind. They’re still dancing around in my memory like fireflies but become ever dimmer as time passes. I have terrible difficulty remembering my mother when she was healthy.
Everything is impermanent. It’s all temporary. But that’s part of what makes it beautiful. If it lasted forever, it wouldn’t have that much meaning.
Ephemerality is part of what lends magnificence. I didn’t really know what the World’s Fair was. I mean, I knew it was like a big party that I had missed in Queens. EPCOT, you’re quite right, that’s truly commodified—and you’re right, the ’64 World’s Fair had that, but it was still a World’s Fair. It still had the nations’ pavilions. EPCOT is a Disney version of a World’s Fair—a fake World’s Fair, if you could call it that. So, yes, there is some progression in that way.
Filmmaker: The period of Armageddon Time seems in some way to be, at least in proximity, very close to what we now like to think of in a very superficial way as the height of America’s post-war prosperity—the ’64-’65 World’s Fair being like a pre-Vietnam peak—and then you have the Reagan presidency seeping in. There’s a sense of these characters existing within a closing gap in history. Hearing Maryanne Trump speak was very confusing to me because she spoke not like her brother but like a Reaganite, which is very different than what the party has become under Donald Trump, I think. So, you have these shards throughout the film of what’s to come. Initially, having read about the film, I thought, “This film is going to try to provide context for our current situation through the prism of this family.” Maybe your experience of Reagan is different—I have no firsthand memory of him—but the kind of politics that Reagan signaled—conservative, strong fiscal posture, trickledown, cut taxes, deregulate—is very different from the situation we’re living in now, where the Republican Party’s become very pseudo-populist. I’m wondering [whether] you see Reagan’s appearance in this film as pointing to where we are now or as a kind of—I wouldn’t say nostalgia, but something that itself had an end.
Gray: Let me gently remind you of my age, which means that I actually have a very good memory of Mr. Reagan firsthand and can tell you that, with respect to what you’ve said, there are two different things. The first, that you’ve spelled out correctly, is the trickledown thing, which is very different from whatever Trump’s political or economic philosophy is—which to me is murky, at best, kind of Huey Long–style fucked-up populism but totally ineffective. He couldn’t pass anything along those lines. What he actually did pass was quite Reaganesque: tax cuts for rich people. So, he may talk a game about populism, but what he actually did is quite Reaganite. But I want to ask you a question: Do you know where Ronald Reagan kicked off his Presidential campaign?
Filmmaker: I know it was racially symbolic in some way . . .
Gray: [It] certainly was. Philadelphia, Mississippi, is where he kicked off his 1980 campaign. Do you know what Philadelphia, Mississippi is famous for? The Klan’s [Freedom Summer] murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. And he talked about states’ rights. I think it would be a serious mistake to say Reagan was about cutting taxes for rich people and is not like Trump. I think there’s a very direct line. The GOP since Roger Ailes’s employment by Richard Nixon—his whole Southern strategy was to utilize racism as a political tactic to success. Started under Nixon, perfected under Reagan.
You have to remember that in 1976, Carter took all the Southern states. It was still a Democratic solid South. Reagan weaponized race. By 1980, he was able to turn all of the South Republican because he talked about states’ rights, and we know what that means. He weaponized racism. Trump is an extension of that. Reagan cannot be let off the hook. In fact, Trump in many ways governed precisely like Reagan. Trump cut taxes for rich people and was racist as hell. Reagan was much nicer, Reagan was smarter, Reagan had better people around him. Reagan was a more effective person in ideas of how to govern. But Reagan was vicious against people who were not well off, toward people in poverty—very famously, his administration called ketchup a vegetable for school lunches. I can give you a litany of things that Reagan did that were quite Trumpite. So, the film is meant to say that this was the start of something, and it wasn’t very good. Lee Atwater was Reagan’s guy, then of course later worked for George H. W. Bush in one of the more ignominious campaigns in recent history. So, all of this is part of the same stew. Maryanne Trump gives a speech in the movie, which is about how hard she had to fight to get where she was—well, maybe that sounds like Reagan, but I don’t see that much of a difference between Reagan and Trump. Reagan is Trump in a tuxedo. The same shit.
Filmmaker: Yes, with a smile.
Gray: It’s actually very comforting for people who supported Reagan who are now anti-Trumpers—like Bill Kristol or someone like that, who has acted in some ways that are quite laudable. He’s able to see past the catastrophe of his own tastes and decisions. But at the same time, I have seen that irritating justification of their change by saying Reagan wasn’t like that. Well, Reagan was like that. Reagan gave us this. So, with respect, I disagree with the premise of your question, and I think I see tremendous similarities between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. By the way, both celebrity figures. Again, one has the patina of elegance about him—if you could call it that, because dyed hair and a silly handkerchief in his pocket and a Windsor knot and all that. But I don’t see much difference, to be honest.
Filmmaker: This is the first film you’ve written without a co-writer or that’s not based on an existing source. Had you thought about working with another writer this time?
Gray: Well, my former cowriter [Ric Menello, Gray’s cowriter on Two Lovers and The Immigrant] is dead, so I couldn’t bring him on even if I wanted to. But no, I never thought about anybody else. I mean, it was my story to tell. I didn’t want to get involved with anybody else on it. You know, collaboration is excellent. I believe in collaboration wholeheartedly. But at the end of the day, a movie plays best, I think, when it is the product of one person’s unified idea. So, I encouraged collaboration from Darius and Happy Massee, my production designer, Madeline [Weeks], the costumer, and of course, the actors. I love that. But my job as the director—and, in this case, the writer as well—is to be able to filter out all of the things that do not enlarge the scope of what I originally had in mind and to adapt and absorb all the things that expand that idea. In the writing process, I tried to get it as intimately and directly onto the page as I could. I did not want anybody to help or to divide the responsibilities.
Filmmaker: How did that work for this script? Did you outline?
Gray: You have to outline. I think outlining is the most important thing if you’re interested in telling a story, because telling a story is about structure. Maybe it’s changed now with streaming—because you can pause a movie, watch the first half on a Tuesday and on Friday you watch the second half or whatever. Maybe it’s changed the rules about how you need to structure things. But I’m very old school that way and like to be able to try to structure a thing, where [the viewer] has to sit there and not pause and not be able to go pee. You’re in a theater and watch the thing from beginning to end, and there’s a series of mounting tensions. Structure is everything under such a scenario, so I think outlining is unbelievably important. It’s 80 percent of the work in the script for me.
Everybody has their own process. I remember hearing once that P. T. Anderson said that he doesn’t outline, but that he makes lists. I thought, “That’s excellent, because that’s just another form of outlining.” A list of scenes is basically Paul structuring it in his head, you know? That’s just as good. You take risks all the time in structure. You can make a movie that breaks the rules, but you have to know the rules to break them. This idea that you just do any old fingerpainting and it’s great, it’s nonsense. Jackson Pollack had a very firm grasp of craft. He didn’t just start just throwing paint on the wall. There’s great structure to his work. So, I believe in it wholeheartedly. There’s a book [with] Francis Coppola’s outline for The Godfather.
Filmmaker: The Godfather Notebook, I think it’s called.
Gray: You see the work he and Mario Puzo put into that. It’s extraordinary and it shows. You look at the denseness and richness of that narrative experience—that’s when craft translates into art.
Filmmaker: If I’m remembering right, Coppola broke each scene according to a set of elements, like tone, character, imagery …
Gray: Yeah, imagery to tone. The most important thing, which he took from Kazan—I’m absolutely obsessed with this—the core. What is the core of a scene? What’s the thing that the scene you’re doing ultimately has to communicate for the narrative? I write that down and put it on top of the monitor in the morning, so I have an idea of what it is I need to communicate for the thing to progress narratively. It’s very important. This is all the legwork of craft.
Filmmaker: Does the script change during the shoot?
Gray: Of course, but you’re talking about two different things, right? You work on it; of course, you try to get it as good as you can, but then it invariably has to change because the actors bring different things to it. You have to adapt and say, this’ll play bigger than you realized it would, or this doesn’t play the same way. You have to constantly be reworking as you go. Again, some people have a different process. Hitchcock never touched a word, and he made better movies than anybody. I can only tell you what my process is, which is to absorb what it is I get from people. Also, it’s necessarily different for me than for someone like Hitchcock, because Hitchcock didn’t have to run up against Method actors or actors schooled in a tradition where they walk to different parts of the set. They adhered strictly to marks, and he could do that. And you tolerate a certain level of artificiality—a fake background or whatever—in old films that would not be tolerated today.
Filmmaker: With regards to the actual writing, before you’ve even gotten on set, are you thinking about the arrangement of shots, about the way the film will be edited?
Gray: I do that, and I do think about how I would shoot it. I write it down, shotlisting, draw them out and all that. But then I get on the set and forget it completely. It’s all necessary work, not busy work. But you then have to be open and listen to the actors and your cinematographer. It’s weird. You find that you change it completely, and yet the work you did somehow does filter into the scene in the end. For example, the Maryanne Trump thing you’re talking about, I remember I kept talking about Frederick Wiseman’s High School.
Filmmaker: It reminded me of the end speech of that film.
Gray: The end speech by the principal, the greatest ending in any documentary I’ve ever seen. I kept saying to Darius, “When I wrote it, I was thinking of Frederick Wiseman.” He was like, “Frederick Wiseman? I don’t want to do Frederick Wiseman.” And now, I see the drippings of it, even though Darius and I decided to veer away from it—we went with a stranger top light thing. It still feels like Frederick Wiseman.
Filmmaker: You mention Frederick Wiseman, and I think of the square [Wiseman’s regular Academy aspect ratio, used until his switch from 16mm to digital capture].
Gray: Yeah, this is 2.40.
Filmmaker: What made you choose 2.40?
Gray: There are many reasons. Darius wanted to shoot 1.66, which I thought was a terrific idea, but then we went with the viewfinder through the sets and the ceilings were very low in most of these places. In the house itself, the ceilings are very low. In 1.66, every shot you saw the ceiling. You wouldn’t have been able to hang a light anywhere. It was a practical decision. And at one point I said, “2.40 is okay if we use these very old baltar lenses. And Darius said, “400 Blows wouldn’t do that ’scope.” I said, “400 Blows is ’scope actually.” He didn’t believe me, so I took out the DVD and it was ’scope. Once he saw that, I think he felt that we should do it in ’scope. I’m being a little bit facetious, because I always wanted to do it in ’scope. The reason is that it’s the kid’s story and it’s small, but the possibilities for his life have a certain endless quality. And just because it’s a small story doesn’t mean it can’t also be an epic story. “Epic” is not 100,000 camels running down a sand dune, necessarily. Obviously, David Lean’s movies are epics, but that’s not really what makes them epic. It’s not how much money you spend. It’s epic in the sense that it’s about the landscape of the soul. I mentioned Cassavetes earlier; A Woman Under the Influence is an epic film about her soul. It involves myth in its own way. So, that’s what I was trying to imply in some way with the idea of having a ’scoped treatment, that the kid’s world seems unendingly big and filled with possibilities for him.
Filmmaker: The movie reminded me a little bit of the Ermanno Olmi film Il Posto, which is about a boy coming into his own in the adult world, in the world of office workers, and being disillusioned by it. Unlike Olmi’s film, though, we don’t necessary get a sense of the boy’s fate by the end. But the point of view of the adults, of the adult world, seems to always be intruding upon Paul in ways that are interesting and subtle. I’m thinking of the scene in the public school classroom, when Paul is being reprimanded by the teacher. You cut to a forward-moving tracking shot toward Paul from the teacher’s point of view.
Gray: That’s right.
Filmmaker: The scene when Paul’s mother tells his school principal “my son isn’t slow,” is followed almost immediately by a slow-motion shot of the boy exiting the principal’s office. Now, the viewer has already seen Paul smoke a joint, so it’s understood that the slow-motion is meant to mimic the hallucinatory effects of being high. But I also think it has the unintended effect of mocking the principal’s point of view, the figure of authority, who said he thinks that Paul is “slow.” There are these little perspectival intrusions throughout the film, and I thought that they were interesting ways of poking at the kid’s world.
Gray: I think Il Posto is a beautiful movie, and I love the ending. It’s quite dark: it essentially tells you that the kid is going to basically live a life of incredibly dull civil service. Il Posto does something interesting—I’m not sure it totally works—very early on. It has an experimental quality. He changes points of view and follows all the adults about three quarters of the way into the film, almost like a montage. For brief clips he shows you their lives. It’s a very interesting idea, and I stole that a little bit when you see Johnny with his grandmother. There’s a point of view shift. You play with point of view because what I was trying to say was, the kid’s world is everything to him, but there are things that will intrude.
Kids don’t really have agency. This idea is nonsense. Adults don’t, either, by the way, but that’s a larger discussion. But kids have rules they’re supposed to obey, and if they don’t, there are consequences; their ability to function in a system [is] always modulated very heavily by grownups. So, sometimes I would flip point of view that way. And the shot that you’re talking about in the school was exactly meant to be that: You’re inside the kid, extreme close-up, and all of a sudden you’re outside of him. The adult is going to impose his will and then you’re back in with the kid. Point of view can be played with, but it’s very fragile. If you break point of view for too long, our ability to identify main characters falls apart, so it’s tricky.
Filmmaker: It makes me think of how different the film would be if there were a narrator.
Gray: The idea of narration was floated to me. I really hated the idea of a narrator because I always thought that, no matter what the text was, [narration would] lend a kind of cheesy sentimental quality, a wistful nostalgia. And I didn’t want nostalgia. I have no illusions about some of the terrible things going on and how the world was not a better place then, and I don’t want anything that gives the haze of nostalgia treatment to a period that I think was pretty rough and tumble and laid some serious groundwork, in a brutal way, to what has come to pass. I didn’t want the elegance of distance.
Filmmaker: That’s one of the things I think I really appreciated about the film, how free it is of nostalgia.
Gray: I appreciate you saying that because I didn’t want virtue signaling or pointing fingers or distance. It’s like, “Here it is. This is what it was like. And if you don’t like it, you can lump it.” One of the things that’s important for us as creative people—and you’re a filmmaker, too, you understand this way better than I could explain it—is that you can’t forget or soft soap or paper over the more unpleasant aspects of our nature or of history. It’s our obligation to expose and examine those things, not to forget them. That’s Stalinist, like something out of an Arthur Koestler work, and it’s our function as creative people to say, “This is what’s wrong with the world.” Now, it’s not always the function, although I actually would argue that there’s actually always a function—even in something like Star Wars, at least the original trilogy, certainly. George Lucas had a tremendous command of myth and of story. And myth often tells us what’s wrong with ourselves, right? One of the things that’s very powerful is the flawed humanity of Achilles. Odysseus has tremendous hubris, [such] that you feel sympathy for Polyphemus, the Cyclops. He wins over the Cyclops, but in the end, he has such hubris. He starts mocking Polyphemus, and you feel bad for Polyphemus, the villain, because Odysseus is a jerk. Even in the most beautiful form of mythic storytelling, there is this desire for the artist to show what is flawed about us as a path forward for transcendence. That’s beautiful. We don’t want to run from that. We should embrace it.
Armaggedon Time is out from Focus Features on October 28.