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.
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.”
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