Filmmaker James Gray recalls having a realization around 1980, when he was 11 or 12, that “something was terribly wrong” with American society.
The writer-director, whose grandparents were Jewish Holocaust survivors and whose father was a middle-class artisan, recalls realizing that by the dawning Reagan era, the American Dream was out of reach for many, even if it wasn’t could then express in these terms.
“The entire arc of this narrative, which my parents wholeheartedly believed, was based on the fallacy of a classless society,” Gray recently told The Chronicle.
He attended the Mill Valley Film Festival with his coming-of-age autobiographical film, Armageddon Time, which opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, November 4th.
“I don’t think I particularly blamed the issues on class or race at that point, but I knew something was wrong,” Gray said, sipping tea in a quiet upstairs room at the Smith Rafael Film Center before he presented the film in the Marin audience.
Gray’s eighth and most personal film, Armageddon Time, has received critical acclaim since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. Its title is a reference to a 1979 Clash song (“Armagideon Time”), as well as President Reagan’s frequent scaremongering in the 1980s about the nuclear apocalypse, shown in TV flashes in the film.
The film recreates a shameful experience from Gray’s youth when his black schoolmate fell for the two boys’ pranks and theft together. Disastrous consequences befell Gray’s boyfriend, who was loathed by her bigoted teacher and lacked family support, when the police intervened.
Young actor Banks Repeta plays autobiographical lead character Paul, and Jaylin Webb (“The Wonder Years”) plays his friend Johnny, who was held back a class and shares Paul’s innocent space obsession and his more annoying class clown antics.
“The cards are stacked against Johnny,” said Gray, whose film draws on his experience transitioning from a large, diverse public school in Flushing, Queens (NY) to an exclusive, mostly white private school in more affluent nearby Forest Hills 12. Fred Trump (played by John Diehl) was on the board of trustees, and Gray discovered that his new classmates were using the n-word casually.
Gray reflected on the experience of using a teenage incident to try to come to terms with both his own privilege and larger “profound rifts in contemporary American society.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to separate the issues of racism, classism and anti-Semitism from the particular catastrophe we are now facing, which is the decline of the middle class,” he added.
The film’s A-list cast includes a brilliant role from Anthony Hopkins as Aaron, young Paul’s beloved grandfather. He has a crush on his grandson and also scares him with stories about his mother fleeing murderous anti-Semitic Cossacks in Ukraine. He tells Paul to “never forget the past because you never know when they’re going to come looking for you.”
Anne Hathaway and a grey-haired, short-tempered Jeremy Strong play Paul’s troubled, aspiring parents.
Gray said after I shot his last two back-to-back movies, one in the Amazon jungle (“The Lost City of Z”) and one in outer space (“Ad Astra,” starring Brad Pitt). I was physically exhausted and just wanted to do something personal that was about loss.”
He worked closely with his Armageddon Time production designer, Happy Massee, to recreate his childhood home except for the identical faded wallpaper, wood paneling and posters of Gray’s childhood hero Muhammad Ali and the Beatles.
He used one of his real family photo albums as a prop on the set’s living room table, and Hopkins wore Gray’s grandfather’s felt hat.
“Armageddon Time” was filmed just “90 feet south” of Gray’s childhood home, and he described feeling “overwhelmed with melancholy” as he revisited the neighborhood. “I saw my neighbor looking at me out his window and I knew him from 40 years ago,” he said.
“I think James was really brave to do this film, in the unabashed way that he did it, with that kind of truthfulness,” Strong said in a video interview from New York. The actor has been on production hiatus from filming his Emmy-winning role as billionaire media scion Kendall Roy for the upcoming fourth season of HBO’s Succession.
“This tremendous historical fidelity to James’ past is so interesting, but in a way he’s just using it to tell a much bigger story.”
Strong explained that this role was different when he played historical figures—like Jerry Rubin in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7—”when you have templates to base your work on, all of Jerry’s videos and the books he wrote. So I had to find some kind of emotional source code.”
Strong was unable to meet Gray’s father, who died of COVID during the film’s post-production, but explained, “I finally enlisted the help of James and his family to put a tape recorder in front of James’ father, he lived then. They gave him the Proust Questionnaire, which allowed him to easily answer many questions that show how a person sees the world. That was a starting point for me.”
The actor also recalled the film’s most harrowing scene: when his character, Irving Graff, flies into a rage and attacks his son Paul, who is cowering in the bathtub. The boy had been caught smoking a joint in his middle school bathroom.
“It was a very somber day on set and James didn’t say much that day,” Strong said. “You know, this character on the page was described as ‘Jewish Stanley Kowalski with a Ph.D.’ I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew conceptually that it meant there was violence in him. Speaking at length with James, I know that there was violence in his household that was accompanied by love.
“(His father) didn’t know how to regulate himself. I remember saying to James one night, ‘I think he regulates himself like a kid.’ And James’ eyes got kind of big.”
When asked how close Strong came to impersonating his father, Gray shook his head, seemingly in disbelief at how closely he mimicked his father’s voice, body language and emotional outbursts.
“He does it just like my father,” he said. “God, it’s so surreal.”
“Armageddon Period” (R) opens in theaters on Friday, November 4th.