Director's Chair: James Gray — <I>Armageddon Time</I>
Issue: January/February 2023

Director's Chair: James Gray — Armageddon Time

For his last film, Ad Astra, writer/director James Gray headed to outer space. For the one before that, The Lost City of Z, he headed to the Amazon jungle. For his latest drama, whose title Armageddon Time sounds like an end-days epic, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker actually headed back home to New York City, where he grew up and set his first five films, including the award-winning Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night.

Far from being a VFX-heavy spectacle, Armageddon Time is a semi-autobiographical love letter to his youth and hometown, and a humorous, tender and intensely-personal story of his childhood in Queens during the 1980s. Written and directed by Gray, it deals with such timeless themes as family bonds, the complexity of friendship and the generational pursuit of the American Dream. The film revolves around sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a smart if distracted student with dreams of becoming an artist. While he struggles to navigate the academic and social demands of school, as well as a burgeoning friendship with an equally smart, rebellious but poor black classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), he also has to deal with his loving but chaotic family, a middle-class Jewish clan headed by harried parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) and anchored by his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins).

Gray’s creative team included several regular collaborators from previous films, including director of photography Darius Khondji, production designer Happee Massee and editor Scott Morris. 

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Gray, whose credits include Two Lovers and The Immigrant, about making the film and his love of post — especially sound.

This is a big change of pace from your two most recent films. What sort of film did you set out to make?

“That’s an interesting question, as my thought process was different this time and I didn’t set out to make a film for a specific audience, or even think about its effect on an audience. I just tried to express myself as honestly as I could about a three-month period in my life I could remember as best as I could, and let people judge it however they might. It was a very unorthodox approach, as there’s no genre. I wanted to get rid of the barriers and expectations of genre, and not have to think about that stuff at all. I just wanted to make an honest film about my family and me, and make it as personal as I could.”

Fair to say it’s semi-autobiographical, with Paul as your alter ego?

“Yes, but it’s not so close to the facts of my childhood. It’s not a documentary. But I wrote Paul and he is all me, though he doesn’t represent all of whom I am.”

You got an amazing cast. What did they bring to the project?

“The thing about great actors like Tony Hopkins is that they’re able to conjure an authentic presence in the character, and they do things that are consistent with your original idea, but it’s the way they say the dialogue you wrote that brings a vitality to it that you couldn’t fully imagine. They surprise you, but not just with some random thought. It’s always consistent with your idea, but it’s bigger and better. Even for the one day we had Jessica Chastain, who plays Maryanne Trump, and gives the school address, you get this texture and depth that the camera picks up, which you’d never conceived of while writing the part.” 

The film has a great period palette. Talk about working with your DP and finding the right look. 

“I’d never shot a digital film before. I’d only shot 35mm, so we tested formats and in the end shot with the (Arri) Alexa 65 and vintage lenses from the ‘60s, and then added grain to get the right look. I wanted to shoot 35mm, but the problem is that now Kodak makes very few 35mm stocks, and most are engineered for the digital process and DI, and it’s very expensive to shoot 35mm. And even if you did, it’s a lot of work to get the right look, as stocks don’t look the same as they did 40 years ago. It’s easy to forget how bad so many films looked back then. Most were flat, sort of washed out, and very low contrast-y, and Darius (Khondji), and I wanted to reproduce that look, and create a simulacrum as if this was a film from that period that you’d stumbled across. 

Photo (L-R): Darius Khondji and James Gray

“As for the color scheme, we didn’t want it to look at all like other movies. Instead, we looked at a lot of painters, and Darius zeroed in on a painting by Vermeer, “A Maid Asleep,” when we went to The Met together to look for ideas. It really inspired him, and I really see that look and palette in the film now. We also looked at a lot of photographs and documentaries from the period, to get that bland look with basic top light in the school auditorium.”

How tough was the shoot, considering you had a lot of child actors and a lot of locations?

“It was very tough, as we had only about 35 days, and you only get the kids for six hours a day, so my biggest challenge was the schedule and lack of time. Sometimes I’d shoot close ups of the adults without them, or use a body double for an over-the-shoulder shot. It was hard for everyone, but we did come in on schedule.”

Where did you post?

“It was mainly all done at Harbor [Picture Company] in New York, including the sound and the DI. Post was very strange on this, partly because of COVID and partly because, sadly, my father died during the editing, so it was all very bitter-sweet. I actually edited the movie in my guest house here in LA while my editor Scott Morris and his team were all back in New York, along with the rest of the post team. So it was all remote, and I would log in every morning and FaceTime with Scott for ten or more hours a day, and we cut the film like that, and it was surprisingly effective. It’s not the same as being in the same room, but I got [the] flu and then COVID during post, so we had to do it that way. 

“We cut for about 14 weeks, and we had a very fast picture edit, as we were asked to screen it in Cannes, which was a bit stressful, as we had some loops outstanding, we hadn’t finished the music, and I wasn’t happy with the temp dubs. So we screened the unfinished film in Cannes, and then I did go to New York, where I supervised all the scoring and mixing, and we finally finished all the post work.” 

Do you like the post process?

“I do, but not all of it. I actually don’t like the editing process because I see all my mistakes. Editing to me is a lot about fixing what I did wrong, both on the set and on the screenplay level. I always have to figure out why a scene plays long or there’s a problem with a story arc, and it’s a constant reminder that I’m an inept person. 

“What I do like about post is that feeling you get when you finally hone in on the film you set out to make, and when threads and moments sometimes emerge that you didn’t realize were there in the story. It’s very weird, and narratives are very unforgiving. There are days you’re on the set and you shoot a small, very short scene that doesn’t seem very important, and ones where you shoot what you feel is the most important scene in the whole movie. Then you get to post and the edit, and ‘the big important scene’ gets cut out while the ‘little unimportant scene’ suddenly becomes crucial to the whole story. So the film always teaches you what it wants to be in the edit, and that’s scary but also beautiful.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you.

“That’s the part of post I love the most, especially the mix. That’s when I see the whole film come together, and when I can really drill down and focus on new ideas. 

“We had a great sound team at Harbor, headed by supervising sound editors and mixers Robert Hein and Josh Berger, and I think I drove them all mad, as I’m a crazy person with sound. I’ll take my iPhone and constantly record stuff I like, like an AC unit that makes a strange chirping noise, and I’ll suggest that. And I recorded sound effects I remembered as best as I could from my childhood and tried to recreate all that.” 

All period pieces need VFX. What was involved in this?

“We had a huge number of VFX shots — over 250 — done by various companies, including Brainstorm, The-Artery and Assembly. You’d be shocked at how much had to be touched, but then the ‘80s is a long time ago now, especially in technological terms. So we had to paint out a lot of stuff, like satellite dishes and even Teslas. 

“When the school kids visit the Guggenheim, we shot the exterior and I thought it’d be so simple, but I was so wrong. It’d been restored since then, and the color was wrong for the period, and we had to use VFX to change a lot of stuff, such as signs and so on, and it turned into a huge number of shots. And we were allowed to shoot on the subway, but naturally they wouldn’t let us add any graffiti, although back then all the trains were covered in it, so we had to do all that with VFX. 

“Then for the rocket scene in the park with Paul and his grandfather, we used a real 1979 vintage rocket in most of the shots, and we wanted to do the launch practically, but the kit was too old and we used VFX for the launch.”

Photo (L-R): James Gray and Jeremy Strong

Tell us about the DI. What was involved?

“The colorist was Damien van der Cruyssen, and we did it partly at Harbor in New York, where he’s based, and some here in LA. We looked at a lot of the original references, and Darius was very involved for a couple of weeks, evens though he was shooting Bardo for (Alejandro González) Iñárritu. 

“It’s interesting, as he comes from the whole film tradition, and DPs with that training and background tend to be very good at making fast on-set decisions. They don’t leave a lot to the DI, but we had a fair amount of work to do, fixing errors and so on, as well as finessing the whole period look. I was unhappy with the grain overlay, as it didn’t seem integral to the image, but Damien solved the problem and brought a truly authentic look to the film, and did a great job. So the film turned out the way I hoped it would, and was both different and better in some ways.”