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Interview: James Gray on Making The Lost City of Z

The auteur discusses the film’s casting process, his influences and his desire to deviate from them, and more.

Interview: James Gray on Making The Lost City of Z
Photo: Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street

“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.

What images did you have in mind when you thought of the film’s setting?

We didn’t watch any films if that’s what you have in mind, but we did look at paintings, extensively. Particularly the paintings of Henri Rousseau, with all the black, blue, and gold. Claude Lorrain and Camille Corot as well. We started by looking at the jungle as a projection of Percy Fawcett’s desire, not necessarily something tangible. Z is only a substitute or replacement of anything and everything else that he wanted. It’s a form of escape from the rigidity of the class structure and the expectations put upon him.

You picked a true son of anarchy, Charlie Hunnam, to play the noble and brave Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson, the “pretty boy,” as some glossies like to call him, as his somewhat rough, bearded companion. Pure contradiction.

There’s a funny story included in the casting process, and I’m sure you’ll be really curious to know it. In the middle of the production of a film that I was doing at the time, I got a call from the producers at Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company. They had just finished 12 Years a Slave, where they worked with and loved Benedict Cumberbatch. They thought he’d be great for the role of Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z. But, believe it or not, I didn’t know who he was. I said I wasn’t set yet but that we could of course send him a script. After that, I had a meeting with Benedict. I liked him, and I found him to be a really interesting looking guy, very engaging. A few months later, we’re about to go into production and I get a call from Benedict saying that he couldn’t take the part after all because his wife got pregnant and was about to give birth while we were supposed to be in the jungle. There’s nothing you could really say to convince him, and I don’t think I even wanted to do that. We were very out of the way. He was just facing a choice: being by his pregnant wife’s side or not, which would mean she’d give birth without him.

Just like in Percy and Nina’s case!

Exactly! [laughs] So I knew it wasn’t going to work. At that point we thought that this film wasn’t going to happen. Then Plan B called me again and said that they had just had a meeting with an actor who they thought would be perfect for the role: dashing handsome, but also sort of troubled and dark. So I obviously asked who that was. They said, “Charlie Hunnam,” and I immediately said, “No.” I wanted an English actor to play the part. I’d only seen Charlie in Sons of Anarchy and I thought he was American. Later, I learned that he was from Newcastle, England. I met him, so did my wife, and she nearly fell in love with him, claiming that he’s the most handsome man she’s ever seen. And I will say that he’s really charming! Anyway, Charlie was incredibly dedicated to our film. He lost about 60 pounds over nine weeks, or something crazy like that. And he was just great to work with.

As for the “pretty boy,” he’d asked to meet with me. Of course, I didn’t know any of the Twilight movies. I’ve only seen Robert in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, and I found him to be a very arresting, rather weird-looking guy, but in a great way. He said he would do whatever I wanted him to do in the film. I thought he was too young to play Percy. But I was also sure he’d find something interesting in the character of Henry Costin, and he agreed to play the role and to have this big, great beard. I love Robert in the film, and he was super dedicated to the production. Both those guys were just nuts!

What about Sienna Miller’s character, Nina, who’s actually not just a housewife. Even before emancipation she almost goes to the jungle, something unheard of at the time.

We discussed these traits of the character at length. We never wanted her to be just behind her husband. She’s very stoic, very strong. Sienna didn’t want her to be vulnerable, to confide too much in the society. It wasn’t an easy time to be a woman, but Nina didn’t ask for pity, she took things in her own hands. And so did we doing The Lost City of Z.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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