“I’ve been through certain versions of hell,” responds James Gray when I ask him about the difficulties he and a bunch of dedicated and wildly ambitious actors faced when they charged into the jungle to make The Lost City of Z. He admits that it was both a physical and psychological hell to shoot his adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller in the depths of the Amazon, in conditions not unlike those that early-20th-century explorer Percy Fawcett faced when he traveled to the South American jungle in search of a fabled civilization. But it was worth the sacrifice, because the American auteur feels he succeeded at conveying Fawcett’s drive toward transcendence—what Slant’s Ed Gonzalez described as his “mind being freed from the shackles of obsession.” I sat down with Gray after The Lost City of Z’s gala screening at this year’s Berlinale to discuss, among other things, the film’s intriguing casting process, his influences and his desire to deviate from them, and what happens when you introduce your wife to Charlie Hunnam.
Much has been said and written about the extreme difficulty of making The Lost City of Z. How difficult was it in reality?
Honestly, I’m reluctant to talk about that. I want the film to stand on its own. I don’t think I want audiences to watch it just because it was tough to make. The world is filled with so many difficult jobs and hearing someone complain about making a film can be unbearable, especially when everybody’s there to service your dream. We, the people behind The Lost City of Z, like to mention that it was physically horrible, but that’s obviously not the same thing as going through some kind of physical hell. Of course you know we’re making a film, all the time. But then you’re faced with 100-degree temperatures, 100% humidity, and insects, crocodiles, snakes, spiders, and all that. I tried to dedicate myself completely to the film. My wife only came to visit for about three weeks. When I came back, I had this very long beard and looked like a drug-crazed Moses. It was then that I told her I’d been through a certain version of hell, and I meant it. On a different level it was very gratifying. I was making a film that was hopefully going to be at least in some measure an homage to heroes of mine, to the films I saw when I was a kid.
An homage to heroes like the directors of Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Apocalypse Now?
I do like, even love Fitzcarraldo, but my favorite Herzog is still Aguirre, which I think is one of the great films of all time. And, of course, there’s Apocalypse Now. That’s a very different film, set in a very different place, but we’re talking about the physical difficulty of the production, and that’s what all these productions have in common. Despite the similarities, I put a lot of pressure on not just repeating what Coppola or Herzog did, since I was trying hard to do something else. If you’re able to make films it’s wonderful that you can rip off your heroes and at the same time try to bring yourself to it.
You worked on The Lost City of Z for years, and you’ve realized other projects during that time. How has the finished picture changed from the initial idea?
It’s probably harder for me to answer that question that it would be for you, because when you live it, when you’re in it, you don’t sense how it changes. I think my wife could tell you a lot about how I’ve changed in the meantime, which you certainly shouldn’t ask. [laughs] But truth be told, I don’t know if it changed that much. The thing that drove me to be interested in the film in a major way was this idea that all of us are subject to some perpetrators of a certain order. And that’s a scary concept. People can be victims of class, gender, ethnicity. We as people have a really bad quality, which is to shove each other in different categories and to look down on other people instead of recognizing a certain independence in them. Unfortunately, this concept turned out to be weirdly timely in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. Frankly, there’s still this underlying discussion of white people’s racism. I thought that book was closed, but that isn’t the case. At least we can go make film with all sorts of points of view, which we should and we do.
When we think of films produced in Hollywood, it’s not easy to find adventure movies set in South America. They’re usually set in Africa or Western countries. Why do you think that is?
I can speak as a North American, and my theory would be that the answer is based on a certain kind of racism—racism presented in some films that were made in Africa, like in Out of Africa. Africa is very clearly perceived as the place of the Other, black people, primitivism. In other words, it’s a sort of a racist hegemonic ideal. South America means a trickier dynamic in terms of the discussion of ethnicity and race. There’s a more ambiguous distinction, particularly since there’s a very large Latino population in the United States. I’d say this isn’t such a clear-cut case. The subject becomes harder to identify and depict. Even politically, the U.S. has neglected South America in economic development and I think it has to do with that. Our relationship, ethnically, is much more complicated with South America than it is with Asia or Africa.
The films you talk about in relation to The Lost City of Z are about obsession and a man in the jungle, and how this obsession is destructive. Certainly obsession destroys Fawcett, but at some point it also seems to elevate him.
My ambition when it came to The Lost City of Z is that surely I didn’t want to make the same film as the ones you mentioned. However, I tried to think of those pictures as a starting point and indeed I was going in that direction: obsession destroying Fawcett. In a sense, it does, as he’s technically a failure. But I wanted to try and move that idea into the realm where a certain level of fulfillment is to be gained from a person who’s able to see a part of the world and understand. I felt that even in Fawcett’s failure there was a certain level of transcendence. I wanted to communicate that. My idea wasn’t to adapt Heart of Darkness, because that exists already. It’s called Apocalypse Now and it’s a masterpiece. The whole approach was to indicate a level of transcendence, a move in another direction. Fawcett at least reconciled with his son and he seemed to have gained some measure of understanding of the independent existence of the Other. The idea of Fawcett gaining that measure, limited as he was, racist as he was, forged a level of transcendence that hadn’t been present in these other pictures. In my mind, Aguirre is very single-minded about his obsession and his greed. It’s not the case with Fawcett, I don’t think. His obsession was rooted in a feeling that he would never be able to articulate his need to escape from the structure of the society from whence he had come. In a sense, Amazonia is simply a stand-in for any place or anything that isn’t England in 1905 that he had to get out of.