This is a story about “Armageddon Time” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of ’s awards magazine.
James Gray is one of the most recent directors who look back to their past for inspiration. In the director’s “Armageddon Time,”Audiences are transported back in time to 1980 Queens, when Gray-proxy Paul Graff(Banks Repeta), struggles for his place in a time of cultural unrest. The presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan serves a magnifying lens for issues of race and class, which remain relevant today.
Gray is roughly the same age as Paul at the time. Paul lives in the same area and goes to the exact same school. “Armageddon Time” apart from some of its memoir-adjacent ilk is Gray’s refusal to rose-tint his memories. The film, which is free of unearned nostalgia and focuses on Gray’s young, unlikable protagonist, paints a bleak picture of his past.
“The kid’s a f— asshole,” Gray said matter-of-factly during an interview alongside actor Jeremy Strong, who has a standout turn as Irving Graff, Paul’s father. “I was a punk. I was obnoxious as s—. I was a total a—– at times.”
Depicting his own flawed behavior as a child without sanding off the rough edges is indicative of Gray’s entire ethos with regard to the project. “The whole point to looking back is not to memorialize something that is always so positive,”Gray stated. “Beauty is not necessarily pretty. You’re looking for something beautiful, but beautiful is complex, beautiful has vulnerability. We’re flawed people, flawed individuals.”
Stronger, “James’ movies in general are pretty unflinching and don’t sanitize the subject. I think this one also takes a pretty fearless ethical and moral inventory of these characters and through that, of ourselves collectively as a society.”
Gray’s journey to revisit his past has been a long time coming. “I’d come off two straight movies which were very difficult for very different reasons,”He stated. “In the first one (2016’s ‘The Lost City of Z’), I went off to three different countries, two different continents, including the Amazon jungle. I’m very proud of the film, but it was a huge and physically punishing undertaking. And then I went off to outer space (2019’s ‘Ad Astra’), which had its own challenges of a very different nature. After a certain time with all the logistical nonsense that you have to deal with, I wanted to try to rediscover what it is I really loved about cinema in the first place.”
Gray was determined to go home. In a literal sense, that meant traveling to Queens with his three kids, who had cajoled him into showing them where he grew up and were ultimately surprised by how unassuming the filmmaker’s childhood home seemed. “Many of the people (in the neighborhood) at the time were dead by then, and there was no evidence that we’d been there,”Gray stated. “I wanted to memorialize them in some way, I guess.”
Part of that responsibility inevitably fell to Strong and his depiction of, for all intents and purposes, Gray’s own father. “The character (Irving) is described in the text as a Jewish Stanley Kowalski with a PhD,”Strong words. “And I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’”However, the actor, who is well-known for his dedication and meticulous work, also had his own methods to get the information he needed.
“I’m ashamed to admit this, but I had never heard of the Proust Questionnaire before, even having read Proust,”Gray spoke of the famous series of innocent but insightful questions, which included favorite color, flower, author, and what you most appreciate in friends. At Strong’s urging, though, the director did the questionnaire with his father and videotaped it.“
These questions provide a wonderful composite view of a person’s worldview, and that was invaluable,” Strong said. “It wasn’t until I had that that I felt like I earned the right to walk onto his set and internalize that as much as possible, free enough to really improvise within character.”
Figuring out who Irving was proved vital for Strong, particularly for a scene in which Paul’s misbehavior sparks a rage in Irving that turns physical. The scene unfolds so well that the audience is forced to suspend animation. They are trapped between the terror of child abuse, and the trickle in understanding of a man who has gone too far.
“You have to relate to these things without judgment,”Strong said. “You have to viscerally connect to them so that you can embody that person—in this case, a man who is like a steam boiler, with the forces of pressurization that are on him, but isn’t equipped with the tools necessary to deal with them.
“I do think, fundamentally, it’s a love expression. I think there is a wish to instruct and toughen up and prepare his children for a cruel world that they need to survive in. Now, I might have my own feelings about how that is manifested in his behavior, as we all do, but I can understand where it comes from.”
It is clear that the set was a large part of that understanding. Strong was inspired by the level of care and detail funneled into the recreation of Gray’s childhood home, overseen by the director with cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Happy Massee.
“James’ actual family photo album was on the coffee table,”Strong words. “So in between setups, I would sit there with Annie (Anne Hathaway, who plays Irving’s wife) and we would look through photos. There was something profound about that because of how personal the film is and how personal the experience of making it was and the way we felt being let into the inner sanctum of James’ interior life and childhood. I remember (James) talking about it as a ghost story.”
Gray agreed. Gray agreed. He says he is more aware of the beauty and fleeting nature of life as he ages. “But there also is a profound melancholy,”He replied. “And that’s begun to creep in more and more with me, especially (because) my father died of COVID while I was editing the movie. It was a very strangely disconnected death because I couldn’t go see him, as he was in isolation. We FaceTimed and he died.
“All of a sudden there was very little evidence that he ever existed because by the time I went back to New York, the apartment was cleaned out by my brother. I thought of all these people and places that we knew so well—they’re here for a brief moment in time and that’s it. So yeah, I looked at it very much as a ghost story.”