Marrakech Fest: James Gray on Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood's Tentpole Obsession

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James Gray

"I can't compete in a world where I need to make them $800 million," says the director, who also laughs off his label as the "darling of Cannes" by pointing to bad reviews for his festival films.

MARRAKECH – Director James Gray, whose The Immigrant is screening at the Marrakech Film Festival out of competition, delivered a master class here Tuesday night where he commented on his perceived rivalry with Quentin Tarantino, how negative Cannes reviews for one of his early films put him in "movie jail" and how he feels he can't compete in an industry focused on tentpole releases.

The self-effacing director also stayed well past the scheduled hour as he joked with and took additional questions from the eager audience.

VIDEO: Live From Cannes: James Gray on 'The Immigrant' and Working with Marion Cotillard

Gray, whose last four films have been shown in competition at Cannes, said that his regular appearances on the Croisette were the glamorous side of the more nuanced story of his film career.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh you're the darling of Cannes,' and this is one of the great fictions that is out there about me," he said. "Cannes has treated me -- not the festival itself because those people are great -- but the journalistic community has treated my films very poorly. When [The Yards] screened, it was booed."

That critical reception ultimately spelled disaster for his second, and darkest, film. He fought with Miramax about the final cut and, as a result, the company released The Yards in only five theaters, he said. The brooding drama, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, took in less than $1 million in the U.S., and because of that he struggled for five years to get his next film made. "After that I was in movie jail," he said.

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Gray also reflected on the state of the movie industry for smaller and independent filmmakers. "The age of handsome salaries for directors, except for maybe like Christopher Nolan, is pretty much over. I have made so little money on the movie business, it would startle people in this room. I live in a two-bedroom apartment," he told the audience, which included many local film students.

"The problem with the movie business in the United States now is if I say to you, 'I can make a movie for $8 million that will make you $10 million in profit,' they say 'Goodbye,' because what they want is to spend $200 million to make a billion. I can't compete in a world where I need to make them $800 million, I just can't."

Said Gray: "The only thing I focus on doing is making the most personal films and hope they connect."

His earnest, emotional style earned him a reputation as the anti-Tarantino early on. "It made it seem like I was in a war with Quentin, which is ridiculous," he said, rejecting the media's comparisons. "I have huge admiration for what he can do. When you see movies that he does, the audience is so enraptured, I can't do that. He has talents I can never even approach."

Gray also said that "the films I grew up loving are generally not the postmodern kind of winking stuff." He also discussed inspirations for his movies and his approach to filmmaking.

"Really, I'm just trying to make home movies on a very big scale," he joked of his personal film style, telling the audience that his first movie, Little Odessa, was modeled after his family's relationship and his mother's death, while The Yards was about the world of New York subway workers, such as his father.

The Immigrant is his most personal film yet, with dialogue from star Marion Cotillard's character directly lifted from stories his grandmother told him about emigrating from Russia, Gray said.