Movies

James Gray’s New Movie Is About Growing Up With Trumps, but It’s Himself He Scrutinizes

Armageddon Time examines what happens when white liberal ideals are tested by hard realities.

Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong sitting at a dinner table in a scene from Armageddon Time.
Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong in Armageddon Time. Focus Features

A science fiction movie starring Brad Pitt should have sent James Gray’s career into the stratosphere, but after the “torturous experience” of having Ad Astra taken away from him in the editing room, Gray, whose movies also include The Immigrant and Two Lovers, decided to stay closer to home. Armageddon Time, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year, is as close to autobiography as the Queens-born filmmaker has ever come, the story of a 12-year-old Jewish boy whose rebellious streak gets both him and a Black public school classmate into serious trouble. Paul, Gray’s alter ego, ends up at a high-priced private school whose alumni include Donald Trump, while Johnny, his friend, ends up on the streets, dodging social workers who want to stick him into the foster care system. It’s a clear-eyed, sometimes unsparing look at what happens when white liberal ideals are tested by harsh realities, and the ways that children come into an understanding of the world they live in, sometimes too late to prevent the worst from happening. Gray spoke to Slate about why he’s afraid of the end times, why he’s not afraid of Twitter, and his encounter with Donald Trump’s dad. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Sam Adams: All your movies feel personal in one way or another, but Armageddon Time is the first that’s overtly autobiographical. What made this the time for you to tell this story?

James Gray: There’s about three or four things that led up to it. I have three young children on my own and—well, now they’re not so young, but five years ago I would tell them bedtime stories all the time. And they loved hearing stories about my childhood. One day we were driving on the 59th Street Bridge, and my kids said, “Dad, didn’t you grow up around here?” So we pulled off at Queens Boulevard and I took them to my old house, and they were like, “This is it?” I don’t think they quite believed that it would be quite as underwhelming, frankly, as it was. But I saw my old neighbor there, he looked out the window, and I was overwhelmed with a melancholy feeling. I started to feel that there was some emotional pull that I had, and then was when I thought maybe I should try to tell a personal story.

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Then I went off to the jungle [to make The Lost City of Z] and that was very physically taxing. It’s not a place that wants you to be working there. And then I made another movie, in space [Ad Astra], which was brutally difficult for entirely different reasons. And I had a dinner—if I may drop this name, will you forgive me if I … ?

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I will, yes.

So I was in Paris. I was doing an opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Martin Scorsese was coming to publicize The Irishman, and I went to see him at his premiere and he said, “Well, do you want to go to dinner tomorrow?” And at the dinner I expressed to him the difficult time I had on my film I had just made. And he was so great. He just was so inspiring and was like, “you have to fight for what it is you love about cinema, about what you love in the art form.” He talked about his own travails right around The Last Temptation of Christ, when the rug got pulled out from under him the first time he tried to make it.

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It was a deeply moving conversation, and I’m sure I got a little too weepy for anybody’s good. But he was so amazing and inspiring about the need to fight. And that was why I decided to go and make this. I said, “Fuck it. I’ll remove any artifice I can and tell it as directly as I possibly can—how I see this part of my life and this moment in the world.”

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Was that the most boring answer you ever got to a question?

It was not, at all.

OK, so it’s not in the top 10.

This story, about Paul and Johnny, who are stand-ins for you and a childhood friend—is it one you’d thought about and gone back to a lot? What place did it have in your memory?

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I thought about it a lot.

It’s very hard because … I don’t go on Twitter, but my wife and daughter do, and they’ll show me sometimes unbelievably brilliant, witty things. I mean, people have a talent for it that’s just astonishing. But one of the things that I’m scared of is that any work of art, if we may use that word, can become instantly reducible to something banal and maybe even politically unpalatable. So for example, you would say, “Not another movie that glorifies mobsters.” And we could be talking about The Godfather or Goodfellas or something. In other words, there’s no ability to discuss nuance, detail, anything. So when you’re doing a movie where there’s a white character, a Black character, it’s all of a sudden something politically fraught and the movie will have to live in the details and the specifics of character. So I was afraid of it, because I didn’t want to paint some banal portrait that involved such a lack of detail that it started to feel like some generic bullshit. But I also didn’t think it was only about that when I started to craft the story. It wasn’t only about race. It had a lot more to do with race and class and how you can be both the oppressor and oppressed at the same time. And that history is an onion. You’re peeling away the layers and you don’t get to the core of it.

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I read something on the wall of a museum’s art installation. It said, “History and myth begin in the microcosm of the personal.” And it was such a beautiful quote because it told me so much about this specific story. Could I use it to explain what I saw as the onslaught of rot that I see now? I’m very afraid of where the country is, the world is. Why Armageddon Time, that name? For me it feels appropriately end-of-days. I’m very, very scared.

We live in a world now where integrity is … you can’t monetize integrity, and it’s become a catastrophe, because you find that someone like Donald Trump is completely transactional, right? What can you do for me? If you do this for me, I’ll do it for you. Everything’s about the brutality of the exchange of goods and services. At some point, life is more than that. And I saw this story as being representative of something bigger.

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Donald Trump isn’t in the story, but his family is: Fred Trump was a big supporter of the Kew-Forest School, which you transferred into, and his daughter Maryanne spoke at an assembly while you were there. You changed the school’s name, but both Trumps appear in the movie as characters, played by John Diehl and Jessica Chastain. Was their presence in this period of your life one of the things that brought you back to it?

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How weird is that? If you had told me Donald Trump would be president of the United States, even as late as 2008 or whatever, I’d be shocked. I was not fully shocked by his election. Donald Trump went to the private school depicted in the film, and he threw a desk into the middle of what is now the Jackie Robinson [Parkway], then it was called the Interboro Parkway. And his father then took him out of the school, put him in military academy where his classmate was Francis Ford Coppola. Which is one of the weirdest little tidbits ever. Fred was on the board of trustees of the school, and he would sort of stand in the halls, his arms folded. I walked in with my attaché case and he saw me as weird immediately. He had prospective parents to show the school to, and here was the little Jew with the suitcase.

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The way the movie is structured, there’s a real arc to the way we perceive the characters, especially the adults. The dad, played by Jeremy Strong, is a joker who does funny dances when punk songs come on the radio, and his mom, played by Anne Hathaway, is horrified when her mother says something racist at the dinner, while the grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins, is twinkly-eyed and wise. But then we see the dad is physically abusive, and the mom is worried about her son hanging out with Black kids, and the grandfather is behind him being transferred to this ritzy private school. They have these liberal ideas and they hate Reagan, but they also want their kids to have a leg up, and if that means you learn to work the system and play the game but leave everything else as it is, so be it.

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It’s fucked up, right? You’re the first person who’s pointed this out, and I’m happy that you got it. I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, the grandfather is such a saintly person,” and my attitude is like, well, the grandfather is a person who genuinely loves him. His grandfather does something terrible. That’s his contribution to an unequal system. He gives up on the public school system.

And I get it. I’m a white liberal who sends my kid to private school.

Of course. And you faced that dilemma. You say, “Am I going to sacrifice my kid’s education?” I send my kids to private school. And someone said to me, “Are you a hypocrite?” I said, “Probably. Everybody is.” The truth is very simply this: If I send my kids to public school, every time I go away for a movie, I cannot bring them with me. So I lose them for a year. Now, when my kids go to private school, they’ll let us take the kids out, get privately schooled, and all that. It’s worth it to have my kids with me, because that’s about my love for them. And that is a privilege. There is no doubt. But I love them and I want them with me.

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You run into the question of, am I teaching my kids my values, or am I using them to prove a point?

Of course. That’s a tough question to answer. And the movie’s not supposed to answer the question. The movie’s only supposed to pose it. But the other thing that is true is that it’s not really an act of hypocrisy. Because you can send your kid to a private school, it doesn’t mean that what you think is wrong with the system isn’t actually wrong. Local property taxes finance education in this country, and there’s nothing that contributes more to an unequal society than that. Why this is not a point of serious outrage, I have no idea. Do you know that 70 percent of subprime mortgage stuff in the 2008–09 crisis happened when families were trying to buy their way not into a better house but a better school district? There is a kind of quiet knowledge that this is the case, but people are not protesting that methodology of funding public schools. It’s the biggest contributor to inequality that we probably have.

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A tough thing about making a movie like this is that whatever judgements apply to the main character also apply to you. So when people say they can’t get over what Paul does, or doesn’t do, they’re really saying they can’t forgive you.

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The point of the movie is not whether you can forgive a character. Can you forgive Michael Corleone? Is that the standard? There is this idea that the movies, or any art, should send a morally correct message. And that is a bankrupt position that will lead to folly, because the same ethical position you think is so correct today might not be correct 20 years from now. The work of art must only express itself honestly, straightforwardly, with clarity, so much clarity that the ambiguity can then emerge. And then we must actually process it and have it enlarge in our minds to understand what it actually all means. No one has the moral high ground. Those without sin cast the first stone.

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Did writing this movie, talking it over with the actors—did it change how you understood what happened to you?

Well, first of all, I’m still quite close to it. I’m sitting here talking to you about it, finished it a month and a half ago. It wasn’t finished in Cannes. The movie’s changed. There’s dialogue and music that’s different.

I feel less sure about anything. I feel more certain that a narrative film should be clearer and thus have more ways to interpret what it means. Sometimes people confuse vagueness for ambiguity. Vagueness is like, “What the hell’s happening here?” But it’s, as I said earlier, to make it so clear that the ambiguity emerges. You know what happens at the end of Apocalypse Now. He says “The horror, the horror,” right? He’s killed [Kurtz], and the boat’s returning home. So it’s not like the events are unclear, but the meaning of it is multiple. And so for me, I don’t have an answer or two or three, but this is a part of my life that I want you to see, because I’m in it, warts and all. I don’t think it’s my job to produce a work that makes me look terrific. That seems insane to me. It’s my job to say: “Here’s what happened. Go ahead and make your own opinion.”

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The feeling I get from Armageddon Time is that this is something you learned from, but later. You didn’t figure it out when you were 12.

Again, I don’t blame myself for that, because a moral or ethical foundation for a person is something that needs to be taught. It’s why they draft young men at 18. You get older and the men are able to comprehend a bit more of what they’re getting themselves into. Easier to train men who are 18. It’s funny, I see my daughter and my two boys, they mature at different rates. My daughter will be off in the corner, she’ll be reading Thucydides, and my two sons will be hitting each other with clubs. There’s definitely a difference.

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I’ll tell you what was obvious to me at the time. When Maryanne Trump came to give a speech at school, I remember very clearly being like, “What the fuck? What is she talking about?” Because I was like, “You’re really rich, lady. What’s the problem?” I remember thinking that. The [old] joke, “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” But I would say that I became much more aware of things like my private school being a certain amount of privilege, and that ethical decision itself being fraught. That stuff came later. I didn’t have any clue about that. You’re right. There is a level of introspection, I guess, that now comes with making a film that took place 40 years ago that I didn’t have back then. I couldn’t have made the film when I was 25.

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