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Armageddon Time is James Gray’s eighth feature and by far his most personal — right down to the sets, built to exacting specifications based on family photos he provided to the production design team. Born and raised in Queens to a family of Holocaust survivors (his grandfather changed the family surname from Greiszerstein when he arrived in the U.S.), Gray attended USC, where he channeled an early passion for painting into making films — five of which have been up for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The writer-director, 53, recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the bittersweet memories unlocked in Armageddon Time.
Your last film, Ad Astra, was an austere, meditative film. This one is quite different.
Ad Astra was a difficult movie on a logistical level and for other reasons and seemed to go on forever. I wanted to try and rediscover my reason for loving cinema. [On Armaggedon Time,] I didn’t have a fight on my hands about the cut or anything like that. I had final cut.
What kind of sacrifice was it to not have that?
Look, there’s a lot of Ad Astra that’s probably still recognizable as mine, but there’s a lot that isn’t, and it was a compromise I made to get the film made at a certain level — and it’s one that I wouldn’t go through again because it’s just not who I am.
In Armageddon Time, a character based on yourself persuades an African American friend into helping him steal an Apple computer. You get off scot-free, while he remains incarcerated. Did it really play out like that?
That was our ultimate plan. But I stole Star Trek blueprints from Bloomingdale’s, and we got caught. Very expensive blueprints from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And it was like $50, which in 1979, 1980 was a fortune.
And then he ended up in jail?
It ended up with us in this room at Bloomingdale’s with their security people and, basically, he stayed behind. My father got me out of there. I never did see him again. [Revisiting that moment] was a way to use the past to reflect upon the problems of the present. And on a plain, personal level, the loss of that friendship was painful for me.
Did you ever try to track him down?
The character in the film [played by Jaylin Webb] is mainly based on one person, with some aspects of another friend mixed in. [The main subject] died in a drug deal in Jamaica, Queens, probably around 1986. And I didn’t find that out until considerably later. Probably the year 2000.
Where does the title Armageddon Time come from?
It’s from the Clash song “Armagideon Time.” I was hugely into the Clash by 1981, so it seemed to fit. Then I remembered Ronald Reagan always talking about Armageddon. He was always mentioning the world ending. It was cultural trauma. That weighed on kids in 1980. In the [Reagan interview] clip you see in the movie, he’s actually talking about Armageddon as a result of homosexuality, which is crazy. He’s talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.
Characters are very critical of Reagan in the film. And Donald Trump’s parents appear as menacing presences at your school. Are you worried that your film may alienate those outside of blue state America?
I didn’t make it for Democrats or Republicans. In some ways, I made it for Republicans. When you’re fighting paycheck to paycheck, it’s easy to say, “What do you mean, white privilege? I don’t feel any fucking privilege.”
But certainly you see how the current media landscape weaponizes culture.
My only answer would be that I don’t really care. It’s like saying, “Do you care that Joseph Goebbels has a real problem with your movie?” It’s like, “No, I don’t care.” That’s an excellent enemy to have. I don’t care that Donald Trump doesn’t like it. That man is a vile, destructive force in the country and in the world. And if he hates it or if his acolytes hate it, if Ron DeSantis, Mr. Fucking-Education-Destroying DeSantis wants to hate on my movie, that’s fine with me too.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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