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“The Immigrant is totally based on something that happened to me at LA Opera,” director James Gray said May 8 at a Landmark Theater on Pico screening of his Marion Cotillard/Joaquin Phoenix-starring film, in a Q&A with LA Opera President/CEO Christopher Koelsch. “I was watching Puccini’s Il Trittico [directed by William Friedkin in 2008] and crying, and I said to my wife, ‘You know, they don’t make movies about women anymore, like the old ones with Barbara Stanwyck and Greer Garson.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you make one?'”
So Gray wrote a role for Cotillard similar to Puccini’s sin-haunted nun Sister Angelica — a 1920s Polish immigrant at Ellis Island tricked into prostitution by a pimp (Phoenix) who falls head over heels for her. “Today, you can pay the Bratislava Orchestra $1200 to play opera, and play it on the set before a shot to set a mood for the actors,” said Gray. “I played a lot of Fancuilla del West — so honest about its cheesiness that it’s not cheesy, it’s just Puccini doing what he wanted to do. There’s a purity to the emotionality of it.
“Marion loved it,” Gray continued. “Joaquin hated it. He felt like it got in his way, because his character is totally insincere. He would call me on the weekends and say, ‘This guy is the worst guy in the world! Sometimes he’s nice, sometimes he’s vicious, but it’s all a lie, and the music is so [sincere].’ He was really upset. He’d say, ‘I never should’ve done it!’ I said, ‘We’re in it together, buddy.’ He’s disgusted by himself in the movie — he gets deep into character, anguished.”
Gray told Koelsch there were other threads in The Immigrant besides Friedkin’s Il Trittico. “I watched Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, with Burt Lancaster, so I thought I’d rip off those two movies, and use Puccini, Wagner, and Gounod — I’d seen your [LA Opera] production of Romeo and Juliet.” Gray also used his own family’s history. “My grandfather told my father stories about the old country, his parents’ heads chopped off by Cossacks, the attitude of the guys at Ellis Island, not understanding how to eat a banana. When Marion shows the locket with a photo of her parents, it’s my family photo.” Gray said opera singers like Caruso really sang at Ellis Island for the immigrants, as in the movie.
Koelsch asked Gray whether he intended the opera score to connect specific scenes from the original operas with the scene in his film — as a commentary on it. “No, when Marion’s getting chased by police with a Wagner overture, it’s not supposed to evoke The Ring,” said Gray, who used opera for its 1920s period resonance, and the honesty of operatic “verismo” compared to today’s movies. “We live in a very cruel and snarky period with a lot of ironic art [that] is dishonest — it puts the cinema audience above the characters and the story.”
Gray thinks the remedy is opera. “People think opera means big, over the top. What I mean is a kind of conviction in the emotion. I’m trying to translate opera for a movie, like Sergio Leone. The Godfather movies aren’t operatic because people are getting shot or things are big, it’s because Coppola has such a wonderful way of making you admire even Sonny Corleone — sure, he kills people, but he tells Michael, ‘I’ll square it with your mom and get a message to your girlfriend.’ He’s a nice guy!”
In a similar operatic way, Gray gave Phoenix’s evil pimp character redeeming guilt and passions. “The idea is, no matter how revolting they may be, there’s a chance for redemption,” said Gray.
“Opera is a sentimental art form, and I think you have made a movie that is totally unsentimental,” said Koelsch. “It’s an inversion of the trope. Gounod and Puccini are deemed sentimental. You dispel all the romantic notions. It’s quite a cruel movie — I say that as a compliment.”
“Thank you,” said Gray.