Writer-director of the movie "The Lost City of Z"
A Creative Screenwriting interview with James Gray whose writing-directing credits include Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and The Immigrant (2013). His latest is The Lost City of Z starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, and Sienna Miller.
With the exception of Blood Ties, which you co-wrote but didn't direct, The Lost City of Z is your first film from an adapted screenplay. Is your writing process any different when working on an adapted screenplay?
The process itself isn't, but what is interesting is that when you're adapting something you already have all of the ingredients that you need for a story. It's almost as if you went into a pantry and you had all the seasonings that were made by one company, and you had all these different meats and vegetables that you could use to make a meal. You say, "I have garlic and onion, but I don't have shallots. I have butter, but I don't have olive oil. I don't have thyme, but I have sage."
In other words, you have different ingredients that you can use, and it's your job to find out what are the most important ingredients and the best flavors for that dish.
On the other hand if you're writing an original piece, it's like you just walked into the entire supermarket. There is nothing to limit any choice that you make. Now, that's both liberating and terrifying. How do you make any choices at all?
If you're adapting, you have a set of choices.
One is not necessarily harder than the other, but they are different challenges because what you worry about is losing something that is of real power from whatever it is that you're adapting, worrying that the choice you make the violates the whole project. In an original piece, you rarely have that challenge, but you also don't have all the choices in front of you already.
Your earliest films were contemporary, but like The Immigrant and We Own the Night, The Lost City of Z is a period piece, and your next film, Ad Astra, is a science fiction movie. What are some of the challenges of writing a period piece or a movie that takes place in the future?
The challenges are enormous. The idea is always to prove your case to the audience by making a film in which the audience believes all of it.
It's not always something that can be connected to facts. For example, toward the end of We Own the Night, Joaquin Phoenix's character becomes what is called a provisional officer. This exists — it is real and I did not make it up. But I can't tell you how many people have said to me, "He just becomes a cop just like that? I don't believe that." The whole reason it was in the story is that I discovered the program exists.
That is not to say that the audience is wrong. It's to say that you didn't do your work as a screenwriter to justify the context of it, and to prove your case to the audience. In period films, you have to prove your case. Sometimes you find you can't include things that actually did happen, or things that people actually did say, because they'll seem out of step with our perception. That's a real challenge.
As for science fiction, that is a whole other set of issues. Science fiction is essentially creating an entirely new world in which every move you make is going to be tested against the passage of time. I got sent a very funny email yesterday — one of the Replicant's birthdays from Blade Runner is April 10, 2017. So you're always worried about being off when you're prognosticating.
These are both huge challenges, and it all comes down to the same thing: Can I set the context for the audience to accept what I'm trying to give to them?
A trailer for the movie:
For the rest of the Creative Screenwriting interview, go here.