Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time, by James Gray. Courtesy of Focus Features
Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time, by James Gray. Courtesy of Focus Features

James Gray learned from his previous film, Ad Astra, that big budgets mean compromises and concessions with the people signing the checks. So in his latest film, Armageddon Time, Gray decided to tell a very personal story that could be made for far less money. Yet he still managed to land an A-list cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, and the latest Best Actress winner, Jessica Chastain.

How did Gray get them all?

“They work for nothing,” he explains in our new feature on the making of Armageddon Time. “And I’m hugely grateful to them. Because you say to them, in exchange for that, I’m going to give you a wonderful experience.”

We asked Gray for a little more detail: How does that work, exactly? “You say, ‘I’m going to send you a script, I can’t pay anything, and in exchange, I’ll give you a fantastic experience.’ Pretty much like that,” he said.

So he offers… a more leisurely pace than other films? “No, that’s the bad part, right? You have to move quickly,” Gray said. “But what’s fantastic about it is you can express yourself completely. You can do the work. You can be vulnerable. You can feel safe and protected as an actor, that your best work will be revealed. And you have to trust me, but that’s okay. That’s part of the process. If you don’t trust the director, you don’t have anything.”

Armageddon Time includes especially vulnerable performances from Hathaway and Strong, who are modeled on Gray’s real parents. The film is set in 1980, and the actors have to say and do things that will seem racially insensitive, at best, to today’s audiences. Gray said he valued honesty over making audiences comfortable.

“The M.O. in the movie was warts and all — this is who we were. And to do the sort of opposite of a virtue signaling, where you say, Look at these assholes and look at how much better I am. But to say, We’re all complicit, this is what it looks like.”

He added: “You can’t point fingers at specific people a lot. You can’t say what the father does is the act of a jerk. It’s not. He has this son he loves.”

The film is about a young Jewish boy named Paul (Michael Banks Repeta), who befriends a fellow student, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is Black. When Paul’s parents decided Johnny is a bad influence on Paul, he is transferred to an elite school lorded over by Fred Trump, the real estate magnate and father of a future president. Chastain turns up as his daughter, Maryanne Trump. Hopkins plays Paul’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who sees parallels between Nazi Germany and the racism in the United States. You can watch the trailer here or above.

Gray explains in the making-of Armageddon Time piece that his approach to directing actors has changed since his 1994 debut, Little Odessa, released when he was 25. He said he’s learned to be “a little bit looser with the actors,” giving them more freedom.

“Where you put the camera becomes a very unsubtle compromise between what the actor requires and what the film requires. So I think I’ve embraced that compromise more than I used to. I respect the actor more,” he said.

Freedom is essential to Gray’s filmmaking, and the loss of freedom on Ad Astra was debilitating. He vowed that he would never again give up final cut after he dealt with what he considered harmful meddling during the post process on the Brad Pitt sci-fi film.

“‘Final cut’ does not mean that it’s 100% representative of your ideas,” he told MovieMaker. “In fact, it means quite the opposite. For me, final cut means that you have the ability to embrace the ideas that expand your original notion — and take the credit. (I’m kidding about the last part, of course.)”

He added: “It’s the director’s job to embrace the ideas that expand the notion of the film and get rid of the ones that get in the way. And so when you have final cut, you can be open, ironically. And when you don’t have final cut, and when the ideas of others are more important than yours, and you’re the writer-director, then the waters get very muddied. And the work is necessarily compromised. Some of that comes down to budget — what the perceived risk is. But I made that choice to give up final cut on Ad Astra, which was a terrible mistake. And so I vowed that, if a film has my name on it, particularly as the writer director, I can’t have that happen again.”

Main image: Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins, working on Armageddon Time, written and directed by James Gray.