James Gray at the Film Society Wednesday. Photo by Julie Cunnah.

The roots of James Gray's The Immigrant reach back to an uncle who died leaving behind a treasure trove of family history that he and his brother were unaware existed. “There was stuff I had never known about including paperwork from my grandparents going through Ellis Island, which I was fascinated by,” Gray told Director of Programming Dennis Lim during a chat with the filmmaker Wednesday as part of Film Society's ongoing Free Talks series. “My brother and I dove through it and my father's reaction was, 'What are you going through that stuff for?'”

Gray said that his grandfather “begrudgingly” told him and his brother family history, including how his family emigrated through Ellis Island, much of which ended up in the script of his latest feature, The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. The film screened at last year's New York Film Festival and will begin its theatrical run at the Film Society May 16.

In the drama, Cotillard plays young Polish immigrant Ewa, who is separated from her sister at Ellis Island and finds herself caught in a dangerous battle of wills with a shady burlesque manager (Phoenix). Set in 1920s Manhattan against the backdrop of prohibition, the film is richly imagined by celebrated cinematographer Darius Khondji in which Ewa is pursued by a charismatic magician (Renner) and falls prey to prostitution.

While the story itself was based on family tales, some of the spirit to pursue the story came courtesy of a legendary American filmmaker who gave Gray a little advice about making movies. “Francis [Ford] Coppola told me, 'There's only one of you in the world and if you speak in your voice, it will be interesting,'” said Gray who launched into a his own “Coppola character” recalling the advice.

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

James Gray had a lot to say about his actors and even about his own chops at directing actors, which he said he “is not really good at.” Gray, who won a Silver Lion in Venice for Little Odessa (1994) and has had four films screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (including The Immigrant), is also something of a performer himself even when simply conveying a story. Gray spontaneously launches into character, imitating people he has directed or met as they meander in and out of his conversation. His Immigrant stars Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix also became part of his schtick Wednesday.

Gray recalled that Cotillard had to quickly learn enough Polish for certain scenes in the film. He launched into an imitation of the Oscar-winning actress buried in a book, practicing her Polish between takes, occasionally getting frustrated and looking up and saying (most certainly jokingly): “Fuck you, James Gray…”

The end result, nevertheless, has won critical attention, with The New York Times noting: “The Immigrant hums with pure, deep, and complicated emotion,” and The Village Voice lauding: “Anyone who cares about movies, and about what movies can be, should try to see it on the big screen.”

“I indulge my actors to no end,” said Gray, who also imitated Phoenix telling him once, “I've been acting since I was 8. This is some dumb-ass direction, don't talk to me…” Added Gray: ” I think it was a flaw of mine in the first movie or two that I was  more interested in the actors doing what I wrote. But I have long since lost the confidence  and I think this is a good thing… It lead me to believe I don't know what I'm doing with actors. But I think I have good taste with actors.”

[The Immigrant opens May 16 at the Film Society. Click here for more information.]