'The Lost City Of Z' Director James Gray On Why You Steal From The Best [Interview]

For almost a decade, James Gray has been working on an adaptation of David Grann's bestselling book The Lost City of Z, which tells the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a man searching for a lost civilization in the Amazon. After years of trying, Gray's lush vision has finally made it to the screen.

Told through dreamlike visuals – a blend of smoke, fire, and wilderness – captured by Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en), The Lost City of Z is a beautiful story about one man's quest driven by the purest of motivations. It's a long and arduous journey with more heart than madness. While the director behind The Immigrant and The Yards took inspiration from some of the most famous Heart Of Darkness-esque tales, he set out to make a film more poetic and transcendent, as Gray puts it.

Here is our full interview with Gray.

I feel like I have been reading about this project for a long time.

Forever.

When did it start? 

I read the book before it was published in 2008. I started the script, I finished it in 2010. I went on a first scout to Brazil in late 2010. Went to three different actors, made another movie in the middle, and then found myself in the jungle and actually having the longest release pattern of all time. The movie screened in October of last year at the New York Film Festival – so it's been a long time.

I'm sure there was some frustration during that waiting period but was it also beneficial having all that time to prepare and get it right?

It's a very good question, and I'm not sure the exact answer to it. What I would say is that, on the one hand, it's excellent to be able to have a project that just takes a long time, on the other hand, it's bad because you become a different person over a span of years. People change more than we think. I'm just trying to figure it out now. 2008, I had two children, not three. 2008, I was 39 years old not 47 or 46 when I made the film. I had to go re-vamp the script according to what my concerns are now versus what they were in 2008. Is it better? Maybe. It's certainly different, whether it's better, we'll never know.

When you read the book, what about it did you immediately respond to?

It was not what you might think it was. It was not going to the jungle or making an adventure movie, getting out of New York, all those things which I'm sure on an unconscious level contributed to my interest. But it was a very small passage in the book. It talked about Fawcett's father being a mess of a person. He was an equerry to Prince Edward VII. Obviously traveled in incredibly verified social circles and was also an alcoholic and a gambler and destroyed the family fortune and relegated Fawcett's name to garbage.

I found that very compelling because a person like that wanders and doesn't really know, as he says in the movie, "I've been to Saigon and Hong Kong, and now Ireland." He was aimless by the time he was 36 years old, which is the equivalent of us saying, "By the time you're 52" and didn't know his direction in life, and I felt that was a very powerful idea. That striving, that need to prove himself in an environment hostile to him, I felt that I understood that and that moved me. It all had its connection in this class striving. That was really the beginning of it.

Percy's reaction to the men discussing his father says it all. He doesn't have some huge response, and he doesn't really comment on it, but you can tell it drives him.

Yeah, there's really only two references in the whole movie, right? There's one where Marine Melvin at the ball says he's not very fortunate in his choice of ancestors. We know what that means in a broad sense, which is that he's not the right kind of person, but we don't know the specifics of it. Then later, "We knew your father, terrible thing, drinking, gambling." Then, we have a clarity of what the guy was talking about, and I felt that that was enough. I felt that was enough to understand the beginnings of this need to prove himself to have validation, to get medals, to slack within him.

Going into the movie, I expected maybe some madness from Percy, but his relationship with the Amazon is so pure. I found that part of the film very moving.

Thank you. I have heard in absolute candor... After We Own the Night, I swore off reading reviews but what's interesting is that you still have friends telling you what other people are saying, so I always know, even if I don't read them. Most of it has been very positive, which is great, but a couple of people have said it's very cold, which is surprising to me because I had attempted to do something...it really means a certain failure on my part for them, which is that we started in a place which is like Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness jungle sort of thing but I felt an obligation to move past that in a sense.

I can't just repeat the greatness of other 1970's directors. I have to try to bring something of my own to it. I felt that what I could bring to it was that it would start that way and move into a realm that was almost encouraging the transcendent, if you will. Something more poetic. Something more lyrical and something more tender actually. It's not in the book at all, but there's another book called Exploration Fawcett, which was compiled by Brian, the other son who was left behind. "I shall miss you, father, as I always have." That kid grew up and assembled his father's diaries, probably augmented them quite a bit, and it was called "Exploration Fawcett."

The Lost City of Z Trailer

[Spoiler Alert]

The anguish of not having a father there is palpable in even the foreword of Exploration Fawcett and the stuff that he adds in the end. The anguish is palpable, and I thought that's the source of the emotional aspect to it because I didn't want to make a tragedy. Guy, at the end of the movie, is eaten by indigenous people, that's not really all that interesting to me. What is interesting to me is yes, he dies almost assuredly, right? But he sees a part of the world white men from Western Europe and North America could never even imagine and comes to some kind of understanding in a way that other people are not equipped. I found that very powerful, so I didn't think it was a tragedy for him.

Now, for his wife, by the way, is another issue. That's another issue because she was left without him, without her son and without answers and for decades, and that haunted me, and that's why I wanted to end with her because I felt that we had to give her her due and understand her as a person. Almost all the dialogue in that last scene is taken from her words exactly. It's almost sort of a monologue that she has.

[Spoiler Over]

I think what you're talking about the kind of emotionality I tried to bring into the movie, it really stems from the familial relationships I think and also this idea that they have seen a part of the world and the universe as an extension that other people have no knowledge of.

You really feel like you're along with Percy. Not until someone asks why he does what he does that you question what drives him. 

Right. It's a very critical moment, I think. It's the scene with Pattinson toward the end where he says basically if you find it, it's not going to give you all the answers. Which I thought was a powerful thing because if Fawcett had found El Dorado or something like that, big stone structures in the jungle, totally unlikely. He might have just walked into the middle of it going, "Wow, what's next?"

We have a comparative real world example, which would be Hiram Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu in I believe 1911 or maybe 1912, I forget these things. His life was clearly not over, he became a senator afterward and there was clearly still unfinished business. And you get the sense that Fawcett's exploration process was both noble and what it is that you wanted to see — but also a form of escape from the rigid class structure in the United Kingdom. A form of escape from life's indignities and then, of course, the war comes. The mechanized death that probably haunted the hell out of him and it became a way of escaping that.

Charlie Hunnam

The book goes into much greater detail and much darker detail about his racism but also the effects that the war had on him, and his commitment to the occult and then he kind of went off the deep end and I saw through that because I didn't want to make a movie about a lunatic. I didn't want you to be able to distance yourself from him. It might have been a more in vogue style movie since we love to laugh at people now and we love to look down on people.

We love to say, "Look how great we are. That guy's a piece of shit." My own attitude was that I was trying to do the opposite. To have us understand or feel compassionate for him as much as we could so I did have to soften those things. It's not based on historical fact, but I don't really care, it's not a documentary, it's not the point, not the reason the movie exists. You don't watch Raging Bull and say, "Whoa, the brother and his manager are a composite and that's a cheat." You don't watch Richard III and boo at it when it's historically inaccurate, so to me, it doesn't make any sense.

You said you want to make a "tender" film, and it's funny, I think that's how you could describe Charlie Hunnam's performance, and you look at him and he looks like someone that would be the lead of a classic adventure movie.

Exactly.

He has this big presence but great sensitivity. What qualities does he have as an actor that you responded to? 

That's a wonderful point. You know, he was not supposed to be in the movie. It was supposed to be Brad Pitt at first who bought the book, and then Brad went off to make ... We couldn't quite get the project together, it was very expensive, and he went off to make World War Z and one thing led to another, the movie fell apart, and I went off to make a movie called The Immigrant, which was not on the side. I'm very proud of that film, but it was just me trying to do something else after I couldn't get this going.

Then, when I was on post on The Immigrant, I got a phone call from Plan B and they said, "We just made this movie called 12 Years a Slave, and there's an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch,. We'd like you to meet with him, he wants to do it" and I was like, "Who?" I've never seen Sherlock or I am a loser.

I also don't watch Sherlock.

We're losers.

Lost City of Z

[Laughs] There's also just so much to watch.

There's too much, but I said this, I want to be an expert in at least one thing before I die so every night, I watch an old movie. Every night. Some pre-1960. After 1960, I've seen most stuff but lately, I feel like I've been into Busby Berkeley and George Seaton. Before that, I watched The Furies, an Anthony Mann movie. I've tried to really make sure that I don't miss anything.

You're quite right about the swashbuckler aspect, and we could get into that in a second, but anyway I met with Benedict, I loved him, and he's such an odd looking guy in a great way. I thought I know what to do here. But then Benedict's wife became pregnant, and she was due to give birth right in the middle of the Amazon portion of the movie. And I couldn't, with any reason, ask her to give birth in what was a very remote place, so that didn't happen again.

I was heartbroken to give him up, but then Plan B again called and said, "What do you think of this actor Charlie Hunnam?" And I said no, it's a terrible idea, I'd never cast him ever because my wife had watched Sons of Anarchy and I said I'm not going to cast an American. We have to get a British guy. They said, "What are you talking about? He's from New Castle." He is? He's playing a biker, he's playing an American guy.

I invited him over for dinner because I didn't know any of his previous work 'cause, again, I'm a loser. He came over and he's the handsomest man of all time and my wife fell in love with him. I liked him enormously. He was funny and smart and tough but vulnerable. All these things that I find interesting. What I saw in him was this kind of '30s Errol Flynn type thing. He may well turn into a mega star, King Arthur and all that stuff is probably going to be huge for him. When we cast him, he wasn't that yet. It was a sense of that striving even though he had all the goods, there was a sense of that striving that he had not yet reached that place and I thought that's great, he can identify with that part of Fawcett.

He was crazily committed. He lost something like 50 pounds in the span of 8 weeks or something. He and Rob both were basically starving in the jungle, they didn't eat. So I would roll camera a lot without them knowing, and you see it all in the film, it's all there with them on the raft looking like death. 100 degrees, 100% humidity. It's a very arduous experience. I love them both so it was some ways a very happy set because when you like the actors and everything, it goes okay, but there's no doubt that the physical demands and starvation that the actors are going through has a long term deleterious effect.

I was listening to an interview with you earlier today where you mentioned how early on, you were interested in painting.

That's true.

There are some beautiful shots, like when Percy and Nina are engulfed in darkness or Percy watching his son from a distance in a field, that feel painterly. How much do you think your beginnings in painting influenced you as a filmmaker?

Hugely. I have the sculptor friend, a great sculptor friend, Thomas Houseago, who is one of my closest friends and he's a great artist, recognized actually, fortunately. I showed him the film, and he said, "James, the movie is a masterpiece, and it looks like a painter made it. You're a painter." I said, "Okay, thank you, I think?" But that part, I don't really know why would you say that and it was amazing because he cited a lot of the painters that Darius and I looked at. We looked at Claude Lorrain, we looked at Crowe, and we looked at Rousseau for the jungle, Henri Rousseau.

I'm not a good painter. The reason I never became a painter is I'm not a talented person. I have technical skill. I have that talent in other words if you said to me, "paint that silver coffee pot," I could do it realistically in canvas and oil, but that's not what a good painter is. I don't know whether you would look at Ringo Starr and say he's technically the best drummer, but that doesn't matter, the dude is the greatest drummer ever. You're talking about bum bum tss tss tss tss bum bum bum tss tss tss tss puh puh puh puh but you know what the song is ["Come Together"]. How many drummers can do something like that and you know? It's incredible.

I abandoned my dreams of being a painter pretty quickly because I knew I didn't have what it took and I did find that movies were a wonderful extension of the visual arts and that they involve more than just painting. Although certainly part of it is painting. Part of it is dance and how you put the actors in the frame and move them around and part of it, of course, is photography. Part of it was of course theater. I have talked about this before but it seemed like the combination of all things I thought were interesting and for this movie, part of the reason I'm pretty sure you feel that way and why my artist friend responded so much to the movie where other people might not is that we didn't look at movies, we looked at a painting. The painting we looked at autochromes, you know what autochromes are?

I don't.

I would be surprised if you did. Nobody has done autochrome in 120 years but before color photographs were color film, what people did was they took photographs and made plates on glass and then tinted the glass with a red, green, and blue and combine them to make an essence of color photographs. I wonder if I can find one for you, actually [looks at his phone]. These pictures were a very good source for us, for the UK material like her and him in the field playing with the kids in the beginning, it was a total autochrome inspiration.

There's a level of desaturation but it's not only desaturation, there's something technically wrong with the color, but at the same time, it's very painterly. Some of them are just extraordinary. Here's an autochrome.

I wonder if this is what I think it is. Is this the Titanic? I can't tell [Note: It's the RMS Mauretania]. It certainly looks like it. I don't know what it is. Anyway, this was a major inspiration visually for us. It's an amazing art form because it's ersatz, fake color but at the same time. If you watched the movie, you could see we cheated and stole these frames but you steal it from the best, right?

That's right.

I got to drop this name while we're here 'cause it's such a good story. I wrote this big fan letter e-mail to Francis Coppola, whose birthday is today. I got to make sure to send a note or something but anyway, I was all, "I love you, I'm so in debt to all of your brilliance and all that and I've stolen everything from you." He wrote back, "Dear James, that's what it's there for." Best thing ever in my life. That's Francis Coppola.

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