Filmmaker James Gray has arguably been trying to avoid himself and his past these last few years, perhaps in order to create something new. A filmmaker who has spent much of his time exploring America and his roots in New York, with humanistic, moral, and family stories about class within the genre of crime (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own The Night”), in the last few years of his filmmaking career, Gray has seemingly gone as far away from New York as possible, into the jungles of the amazon for “The Lost City Of Z” (2014) and into the far reaches of outer space for “Ad Astra” (2019). And while those films have expanded the palette of his preoccupation, “Ada Astra” in particular tackling ideas of American exceptionalism and its myths, perhaps both films—still centered on class, family, fatherhood and more— demonstrated, as far as he travels, the filmmaker cannot escape himself or his human obsessions and concerns.
For his latest film, “Armageddon Time,” seemingly aware of this very “we cannot escape who we are” maxim, the filmmaker returns to New York, but this time, tears off the safety blanket of genre for his most humanistic, vulnerable, and personal work. Starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, and Anthony Hopkins, “Armageddon Time” is a family drama about privilege. A layered, deep, and nuanced film, it’s also about a reckoning with the past, confronting privilege and, as Justin Chang puts it in his recent lovely L.A. Times review, examines the “hard realities of systemic injustice and [the lead characters’] own silent complicity.”
Deeply autobiographical and based on experiences from his childhood that Gray seems to look at with complicated feelings, both warm affection and nostalgia, but also quiet anguish, “Armageddon Time,” essentially centers on Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a young Jewish boy from Queens, New York, who is basically a stand-in for a young Gray. A big dreamer, who is talented, but deeply unfocused, he forms a friendship with another kid in school, a Black boy named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and their penchant for goofing off bonds them. But Graff soon learns—even if the boy isn’t always conscious of it—that his bad behavior at school and Johnny’s troublemaking are not equal. Soon, their mischief spooks his parents (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong), and Paul is sent to an elite, mostly-white private school, which ends up distancing and estranging the friendship between Paul and Johnny. Gray’s look back at this era, set during the Regan years, resoundingly echoes today, the Trump years, and as usual, has much to say about the fallacy of the American dream, and the failures of America itself and how so many of us are complicit in all of its structural and systemic problems.
It’s perhaps a conversation too complicated, deep, and even disheartening to have in front of two teenage boys, but I recently spoke with Gray, Repeta, and Webb about it all, trying to make sense of it all in a freewheeling three-way conversation. Gray’s “Armageddon Time” is open in limited release now and rolls out nationally this Friday, November 4. Our conversation starts in media res as the recorder turns on.
James Gray: When did you see it out of curiosity?
The Playlist: During Cannes.
Cannes, right. I’m frustrated about that, by the way. Because I think the film— I went with a three-day temp dub to Cannes—so I think the film is considerably better and finally finished.
The Cannes thing, getting ready for it, was a mad rush.
Well, everyone seemed to love it, and there was that big standing ovation that hit social media.
Yeah, no, it’s not about that. I mean, it’s just that it, you know, the film was unfinished.
I actually haven’t had a chance to see it since, but I will.
There are also some different lines of dialogue and stuff. Not because I changed them for Cannes, but I hadn’t had [Anthony Hopkins] in for looping yet. And I figured, well, there are only a few lines, but it makes a difference.
I really want to take my in-laws as they are old-school New York Jews from Queens, not that far from where it takes place, I think they’re from Flushing, and I think they would find it fascinating.
When did they grow up?
When? Well, let’s see, you know, they’re in their late ‘60s now, but they’ll—
They’ll get it.
Yeah, for sure. So, tell me the genesis of this one, it seems like it was awakened or unlocked by the events of 2016, Trump, and the chaotic world after that, but that’s also probably somewhat reductive.
You know, as is usually the case, it’s not a thunderbolt of any kind. “Oh, the idea. I have it, boom! I’m going to write it.” It doesn’t work like that. What happens is that there are a number of things that occur, a number of details that start to accumulate in your mind. And after maybe two or three years, something begins to emerge and reveals itself. There were a few things. The first was I love telling stories to my children at night, and they always wanted to hear bedtime stories about when I was a kid; always about my childhood. And a lot of times, weirdly enough, they weren’t necessarily positive ones or, you know, ones with an upbeat or a moral ending or a lesson learned. And maybe it was my advancing age, being able to look back with some kind of more honest eye. And I loved embracing the challenge of doing something where I am not the wonderful kid that became the wonderful adult, That it could be complicated and messy. So it started there.
Trump’s election was a whole different matter, but ultimately, I started writing it in September of 2019 after two straight movies. One was in the jungle, as you know, and was very physically taxing. And the other one, set in space, was very difficult for entirely different reasons. And I wanted to reinvent my love for cinema. It had been starting to wane. So, I used the stories I told my kids, and I wrote the movie. And this was before, of course, January 6, before George Floyd and those subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, and weirdly, it all seemed to line up. But as I said, I did not have a boom! “I have this idea. Let me just go do it!” It has to do with recalling or reclaiming parts of the memories that dart around in your mind like fireflies and become ever dimmer as you get older. And it’s a way of trying to reclaim the past. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Well, it just sparks my mind a little bit because, for me, a big takeaway is the past, reckoning with it, confronting it, seeing the messy sides of it, as you said, the empathy throughout. But just the bittersweetness of it all. I see a lot of it as a goodbye to youth or like a death of innocence when we’re forced to confront the world and see the ugliness of it as a child. There’s a lot of heartbreak in it, some of these painful lessons.
I would dispute only a handful of things you just said. It is certainly a goodbye. And that was intended, but I don’t believe in the death of innocence because I don’t believe children are innocent. Children don’t have moral or ethical foundations at birth. But you can be cruel, you can be liars. You lie to your parents. All the time. I did it all the time. Constantly. This idea that children are pure and will be soiled by the terribleness of society. It’s not really true. I mean, my children, I love them. I want to eat them [laughs], But you know my daughter would make sheet cake, and half of it would be gone. And he would be in the backyard eating it on camera. And I would say, “Who ate all this!?” knowing who did it. And I said, “Rafi, did you do it?” He’d say, no, I didn’t right to my face. The reason I mention this is not to point out that Rafi is troubled; he’s typical. It’s not really a lesson learned either unless you want a lesson to be included, to mean failure.
But failure’s actually a great lesson.
Yes, I suppose. But usually, when they say “lesson,” they mean it like in a classical positive lesson and message you then apply later in life. It doesn’t work like that. And what I wanted to say was that history is like a constant and fruitless effort to, to peel off the layers like an onion. “Okay, what’s beneath it?” But it’s a fruitless enterprise because history is unendingly complex, and we cannot target the single specific thing that caused X or Y. So, in some sense, I was after a movie that posed no answers whatsoever. And that’s why I resist, you know, lessons learned— the oppressor is also the oppressed at times or whatever. It’s a very elusive thing to grab onto that kind of core morality.
Yeah, right. I guess I mean painful lessons or experiences that sting you awake to the world. That both Paul and Johnny experience, Johnny’s being way worse. Obviously, Paul’s having to do much more with shame. I don’t want to bore you with details, but when I was a kid, I had a somewhat parallel experience that has stuck with me forever. Kids doing dumb shit, two white kids and me. Who do you think was the fall guy and pays the only price? That woke me up fast.
Of course, I know what you mean. And that’s what’s in this film. But it’s like I said, it’s more complicated than that or can be in my instance. Because if that cop had not known my dad; if my dad didn’t fix his boiler for nothing. It could have been, “He’s a jew right there.” You don’t know. You don’t know how it could pan out.
Yeah, fate, luck, chance, all of it.
Luck! Chance plays a huge role, but so does class and race and ethnicity and sexuality, and, you know, all these things go into the big cauldron that you try and make sense of. That’s why it’s a very complicated thing. If it were easy, we’d have some asshole politicians, and they would figure out how to solve everything. And that would be the end of that; snap your fingers, and the problem would be solved. It’s not that easy.
More from this conversation on Page 2.