When I walked into James Gray’s Upper West Side hotel room, he was on the phone having a debate with the marketing team about his new film, Armageddon Time. A poignant reflection of Gray’s own youth (Banks Repeta plays Paul Graff) – which includes his relationship with his parents (played by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong), his early education at a Trump family-run private school, and his friendship with a Black classmate (Jaylin Webb) – admittedly, I could see some differing opinions on how to market a movie this nuanced and earnest in today’s movie landscape. It’s certainly not a feelgood movie – the situations are presented too realistically, and as we all know, real life is messy – but there are many moments of true optimism, which usually comes when Anthony Hopkins, as young Paul’s grandfather, is on screen.
Gray seems to concede to whatever the marketing team is telling him, finally looking at me and saying, “Well, once you finish the movie, I guess it’s out of my hands.” Though, to take Gray’s side, to make a movie this personal, I do understand why he’d want it framed exactly the way he wants it. Gray’s Armageddon Time will be compared to Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light and Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans – three movies made by noted filmmakers about their childhoods; though, having seen all three, none of these movies are even remotely alike – and it seems Gray’s motivation was how difficult his last two movies were to make (Ad Astra was taken away from him; The Lost City of Z‘s jungle location was physically punishing) and he wanted to make something that reconnected him with why he wanted to make movies in the first place. James Gray is one of the more outwardly thoughtful filmmakers you can meet in person and let’s hope he’s found what he came looking for.
Speaking of that, there is a scene in Armageddon Time that is interesting in how he changed it, dramatically. Young Paul and his friend Johnny, who is Black, are caught trying to steal a school computer. A pretty major crime. In real life, James and his friend were caught shoplifting a $50 Star Trek item at Bloomingdale’s. In the end, both Paul and James got off because their dad, “knew a guy,” and their friend had to face the consequences. I am curious why Gray depicted the events making his situation look worse than they actually were.
But, first, after his marketing phone call, Gray tries to figure out where movies are even going right now and if there’s even a future for movies like his in theaters. As Gray points out, the audience is “fickle.”
Yes, it is fickle. I can’t figure it out these days. I’m sure you feel similar.
No, no, I feel the same way. But nobody ever could. I mean, they tried to reduce it to a science, which is why you get 50 movies of one type. But even that doesn’t really work all the time. And there are cracks even in that armor, so to speak. It’s a wonderful thing. We should embrace the insanity of the audience because it’s what keeps the movies interesting. If the business side of it knew exactly what would make money at all times, you would see the same exact movie all the time, which is sort of close to what’s happened. So the more the audience can throw a monkey wrench in the works, the better off we are.
Also during the worst of the pandemic we were all watching older movies and realized how good they all looked before every blockbuster became digital CGI. Even something like, say, the Schwarzenegger movie, Eraser…
Oh, I haven’t seen that. James Caan is in it, right?
Correct. A movie I saw in theaters and was just like, “Yeah, that was fine.” And then I rewatch it now and it looks gorgeous, comparatively.
Isn’t that kind of why Top Gun: Maverick was treated so well?
Oh, I believe that.
Oh, it’s actually a narrative. You can follow the characters.
That’s true. There’s nothing convoluted about it. And I think our brains can tell we are watching something real with the effects.
One of the things you just brought up is one of the most underrated and monumental changes to movies, which is the way that the cinema and video games have become to sort of meet in the middle and what you’re talking about, which is the kind of the CG action sequence where nothing feels particularly grounded in reality.
And there’s so much going on in each shot. It’s too much.
So much going on you can’t focus. All that you’re talking about. When I see my sons play their video games, I recognize the same aspects. And it has to do with, I suppose the first thing I would say, is lack of point of view. Because point of view, you can’t focus on everything happening all at once and you’re not always entirely sure of what’s happening. Confusion, in a good way, can sometimes be great for an action scene. Not even action, but suspense. Polanski was always so great at withholding things. Things that you can’t see.
Alien did that.
Alien, of course. Alien, which I think is such a great movie.
I agree. And, again, a simple plot. Every blockbuster today, the plots are so convoluted.
A hundred percent. It’s a problem. It’s where a strange form of the desire, the very laudable desire, for equity meets the corporate boardroom. Which is where the corporate boardroom thinks that every single point of view always has to be represented in any work. And that’s not possible.
And you need someone as powerful as Tom Cruise to say, “No, this is what’s going to happen in the movie.”
Exactly. It’s insane.
I hope studios realize this.
I don’t know, because the movie 1917 was actually quite a hit. We didn’t get anything that looked like that that followed.
Right, but I’m not sure studios looked at that as an action blockbuster. That was an awards film…
That’s true. But they didn’t want to make it. That took, I think, wasn’t that Spielberg finally got that made? I think it was. But my point being that the industry has great difficulty breaking the paradigm. It’s very hard to get the studio executives or the studios themselves, which are now such global corporate entities, it’s almost like trying to move an ocean liner. You know what I mean? It can move, but it has to be really slow. And I don’t know. Well, the movies were always famously slow to react. I mean remember in the late 1960s everything they were making was bombing and they didn’t know what to do?
Then Easy Rider happened.
Easy Rider was not a studio film. Easy Rider was made for nothing. And then Columbia Pictures, I think, picked it up and it became this huge thing and nobody expected it. That moved the ocean liner. But they, even so, were very slow to react. I don’t know. I don’t know about the business. It’s a weird thing.
I mean, movies aren’t going away. But I don’t know how long they’re going to be in theaters that aren’t something like Thor.
Exactly, that’s the thing I fear. It’s not that they’re going to be gone, it’s that they will become only one type of thing. I’ve talked about this repeatedly, but it’s like I don’t have any problem with making a movie from a Marvel or DC character. Some of them are actually excellent.
Oh, I agree.
The first two Captain American movies I’ve seen, I really like, for example. And some of the Batman films I think are terrific.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman movie is really good.
Matt Reeves, of course. Of course. And I’ve talked about Tim Burton’s second one, which I think Michelle Pfeiffer’s brilliant in. And Nolan’s Dark Knight and all that. Anyway, point is, it’s not that those movies are a problem. They’re not. The problem is very simply when it’s the only type of movie you can see in a theater, isn’t that sort of a problem?
It is a problem. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think anyone does.
No, nobody does. Right.
To be fair about 1917 though, Sam Mendes did seem to use that capital to get Empire of Light made. A movie about his childhood, which you know something about doing…
Of course. He did. But I haven’t seen that. I haven’t seen The Fablemens. I was hoping there was a screening I could go to for either one of those movies. And there hasn’t been.
I’ve seen your movie. I’ve seen Sam Mendes’s movie. I’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie…
You’re too fancy.
Yeah, that’s me. Fancy guy here. That’s what you were thinking when I walked it…
No, we’ve spoken before.
We last spoke about Ad Astra.
I saw it really early. The effects weren’t done.
Oh my God, I’m so happy that I don’t remember that.
My dad had just died, too. So I think that’s why they wanted me to see it because it was a very father movie.
No, it was a lot about that. But yeah, I had a difficult time on that. I also had a really difficult time on, for other reasons, not for creative reasons, on a movie I did call Lost City of Z.
Yes, I have seen that.
The jungle almost killed me. That was two continents, four countries.
That should be the name of your autobiography, by the way.
The Jungle Almost Killed Me.
But it did! I thought it was act of heroism to go and film.
Yeah, it looks really unpleasant.
It was so difficult.
People don’t move to jungles for a reason. You aren’t going to retire to the jungle.
A friend of mine went on vacation there and got dengue fever.
Somehow I did not get dengue. I did get, I mean all manners of scorpions and bugs on me and almost got bitten by a snake. One crew member did get bitten by a viper. He had to be airlifted. One, I remember, got malaria. Charlie Hunnam had a bug crawl into his ear, start eating his ear drum. It was awful. So I decided I had to go back home, make something really personal and small and something I could control.
Well, after a trip to space.
After the trip to space and those two movies back to back… I mean I was exhausted and I wanted to focus on something that was emotionally so dear to me. And that became this movie. And I have to say I’ve never had a more joy working on something, even as anguishing as it could be at times.
In Armageddon Time, the character that is based on you and a friend steal a computer from a school. Your dad bails you out of trouble, but your friend, who is Black, has to face the consequences. I’ve heard you say in real life you two stole a $50 USS Enterprise blueprint from Bloomingdale’s…
Do you feel so guilty about that you make it worse crime in the movie?
Oh that’s interesting. No, I don’t feel guilt. I don’t feel any guilt.
In the movie that’s grand theft, as opposed to a $50.
No, no you’re quite right.
He’s in real trouble in the movie. In real life, 50 bucks, that’s not nothing but also not grand theft.
But no, you’re right. You’re right. But first of all, it was part of our plan. We were going to steal the computer. What I will also say is this, I don’t feel guilt because I was 12. What the fuck else was I going to do?
Well, yeah, I agree. That’s why I’m wondering why you changed it.
And I will tell you without trying to say that I’m letting myself off the hook. When a boy is 12 or 13, well, frankly, really up as late as 16, they don’t have the ethical or moral foundation to understand completely their actions. They need to be taught. Sadly, that was missing in my life. And I don’t know if I could have acted in any other way. I have regret, that’s not the same thing as guilt. But you’re right about one thing…
Then why make it worse on screen?
Well, I’m going to tell you, your point is excellent. I’m going to try and explain why. You’re the first person who’s ever asked me this. He wound up dying.
Yeah, I read that.
In a drug deal. Maybe about five or six years later I would say. In Jamaica, Queens. I’m not exactly certain of the year. I am tempted to make sure I know the actual story. But anyway, I did read it in the Daily News maybe 10 years later or something. But I wanted to imply the significance of his fate in the movie. If it had just been Star Trek blueprints, you would not have gotten the full sense of what was to happen to him and what the implications were for me. So it was heightened.
So the audience will think, oh, they’ll slap on the wrist.
You’re exactly right. I couldn’t have done the Star Trek blueprint thing because he would’ve been fine and he was not fine. Again, it’s not about pointing fingers or blaming.
Though it’s interesting to put a story based on your life on screen and someone watching it is going to be like, man, your family really hosed over this kid, when in reality it wasn’t as significant as that.
Yeah, but sometimes a greater truth is more important than the truth. And I say that because of what I’m saying is that the movie has to imply a reality that continues after it exists. It can’t just be only about that moment. I mean it’s not real life, a movie. It’s not even a documentary. If I followed you or if you followed me in a documentary, you would see me get up and brush my teeth and some floss and coffee I make.
And then head off to the jungle and fight vipers.
Okay, that would be pretty good. But today it wouldn’t have been so exciting. Hitchcock said, “It’s real life with the boring parts cut out.” So I felt that was necessary in order to heighten the drama appropriately.
Jeremy Strong plays your dad. What was your relationship with your father? He reminded me of my father in that I could just get in trouble at school and I’d be in “kick down the door” trouble. But then if I get in some real trouble, like you do at the end, he would do everything he can to actually help me. Does that make sense?
No, I know exactly what you mean. It makes a hundred percent sense. I can only tell you that the act of hitting your kid, it got worse for me in real life than is depicted in the film. It’s an act of ineptitude. It’s the parent saying, “I don’t know what to do about you. I don’t know how to handle this.” I think your perception is quite accurate. You know what it is, it’s different versions, as weird as the sounds, of an expression of love. The first one is ineptitude. He’s hitting the kid. He’s trying to whip him into shape, trying to save him. The second time he tries to save him, he knows that violence will have no meaning. It’s the first time the father’s wise in the whole movie. The problem is, what he tells him is, I think, quite horrifying. Which is basically to give up. The grandfather, of course, is different figure in his life. But my own feeling on that was I don’t blame my father. He was trying to do the best that he could. On the other hand, he made some mistakes. But every parent makes mistakes. I mean, do you have children?
So I have three children and I’m sure I’ve made just an ocean of mistakes with them. So, not the same ones. I’ve never hit my children. Never even come close. What’s the old joke? That you want to raise children who are just successful enough to pay for their own analysis?
I’ve never heard that. Not having kids, that’s probably why no one has told me that joke.
Yeah, no one’s told you that joke. You spared yourself quite a headache in some ways.
Jeremy Strong in this movie reminded me of my father a lot. He’s very good.
Yeah, it’s very authentic performance. And he captured something about my father… At one point the car comes up after the funeral, the family gets out and Jeremy says, “Lock the doors.” Which is exactly something my father would’ve told us to do with the car. I don’t know how he knew to say that. My father didn’t have a funeral. He died of COVID. It was a really weird, no funeral, no memory.
No closure. Fathers and sons have the most difficult time. But you know what, everybody does. I’m going to tell you a brief story, if I may.
So I have three children. And I was home alone over a couple of nights with my youngest son. I said to him, “Well what do you want to do? What’s your ideal day?” He said, “Daddy, I want to go to eat dumplings at the Huntington Gardens and then come back home and make lemon chicken,” which is a dish I’d make — a Sicilian lemon chicken, which he loves. “And then watch a movie in the guest house,” where we have this little theater thing set up.
And we did all of that. And he had the greatest day. And I told him a bedtime story and he had the greatest bedtime story. And I was stroking his hair and the light was just coming in from the outside hallway, very dark. But he was looked like a cherub. And I’ve never been more in love with anyone or anything in my life at that moment. And I kissed him and I said, “I love you so much.” And he looked at me and he’s smiling. He said, “Daddy, I’ll never kill you.”
Oedipus. But fathers and sons, they’re always going to be like this.
‘Armageddon Time’ opens in theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.