This film marks the first time that James Gray wrote a leading role for a woman. He wrote the character Ewa Cybulska especially for Marion Cotillard. He also wrote the role of Bruno especially for Joaquin Phoenix.
Marion Cotillard was cast after she met director James Gray during a dinner at a French fish restaurant where Gray and her boyfriend Guillaume Canet were talking about the script of Blood Ties (2013). Gray and Cotillard proceeded to get into an argument about an actor. "She threw bread at my head and she mentioned that she thought I was a jerk. And of course as consequence I immediately loved her." Gray told he had never seen Cotillard in anything before, but was instantly drawn to her. "I thought she had a great face, and not just physically beautiful because she is, but a haunted quality, almost like a silent film actress. I've talked about this, but she reminded me of Maria Falconetti in the Carl Theodor Dreyer film [The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)]; able to convey depth of emotion without dialogue specifically. I watched every film of hers I could get my hands on. And then I knew I had to write something for her. So that's the genesis of this thing [The Immigrant]. I wrote the movie for her and Joaquin Phoenix, and if they hadn't wanted to do the movie, I'm not sure I would have made it", he told.
For the role of Orlando, Jeremy Renner was taught multiple magic stunts and card tricks across a short period of time directly prior to filming. He apparently caught onto these tricks so quickly that the magician who trained him claimed Renner could become a professional magician with just a few more days of training.
James Gray told that he was watching Giacomo Puccini's opera 'Il Trittico' [directed by William Friedkin in 2008] and crying, and said to his wife: 'You know, they don't make movies about women anymore, like the old ones with Barbara Stanwyck and Greer Garson.' And she said: 'Why don't you make one?'. So Gray wrote a role for Marion Cotillard similar to Puccini's sin-haunted nun Sister Angelica. Gray also used his own family's history, the movie is also based on the experiences told to the director by his grandparents who were Russian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1923.
The title was originally "Lowlife", but the author of an novel with the same title threatened to sue James Gray, so the title was changed to "Nightingale" and was changed once again to "The Immigrant".
James Gray revealed to Salon in May 2014, that Joaquin Phoenix was miserable on set. They would shoot a scene and he would walk up to Marion Cotillard and say - because he loves Marion - "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." There was one scene where he felt so horrible that he had to hide in his dressing room for hours. He couldn't come down. He kept saying to Marion, "I'm so sorry, this is not me, it's not me." Because of the position the movie puts him in, he was very uncomfortable playing that part.
The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2013, but it was only released in US on May 16, 2014. Although the film didn't have much promotion in US, it over-performed at the box office and grossed $2 million in limited release two months after the film had leaked on the internet. Despite the good box office numbers, the film wasn't given a wide release. The Weinstein Company gave preference to Begin Again (2014), which was released in over a thousand theaters, against The Immigrant's 150 theaters.
Director James Gray reportedly had a lot of trouble with producer Harvey Weinstein, because Weinstein wanted a The Sound of Music (1965) - style ending with a soaring camera shot of Cotillard's character and her sister walking over a mountain to Los Angeles, while a V.O. narration was saying 'I made it, I made it' and we hear soaring music. Gray refused to end his movie like that and made no changes.
The scene in which Ewa doesn't know how to eat a banana, was based on James Gray's family history. His grandfather told his father stories about the old country, his parents' heads chopped off by Cossacks, the attitude of the guys at Ellis Island, not understanding how to eat a banana.
According to James Gray, Marion Cotillard's character was inspired partly by "La Strada" star Giulietta Masina. "There's a bit of Giulietta Masina, but Masina winds up playing almost exclusively simpletons. I had seen Marion as a combination of Giulietta Masina with a bit of Maria Falconetti from a Dreyer film ["Passion of Joan of Arc"] and a bit of Lillian Gish - a kind of silent film movie actress. She has a strength too, a will. If you come closer she'll kill you. I thought that was a kind of survival mode, which Masina doesn't have", Gray told.
The Immigrant was the first period film to be shot on Ellis Island. Francis Ford Coppola tried to get it for Godfather Part II but was refused. The island was in terrible shape when he did it. His company apparently offered to restore it and they said no.
In June 2012, The Weinstein Company acquired U.S. distribution rights. Though the film was completed in time for 2012's Toronto Film Festival, The Weinstein Company insisted on holding it until Cannes 2013, with Harvey Weinstein hoping he could convince the director to change the ending. James Gray (I)' didn't change the ending and the film was only released in the U.S. in 2014.