Based on the non-fiction book by David Grann, The Lost City of Z follows the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a real-life British explorer who was sent by his government to map the Amazon River and its vast surrounding jungles. Fawcett stumbled upon what he believed to be evidence of a vanished, highly advanced civilization whose existence was previously unknown, and he went back to the Amazon seven more times over the next 19 years to prove his claim, eventually taking even his oldest son Jack (Tom Holland) on one final quest that ended his obsession once and for all.
The movie is directed by James Gray, the independent filmmaker who has tracked themes of obsession, family dynamics and self-realization throughout his previous five movies, including his 2000 debut Little Odessa, his crime drama We Own the Night and his 2013 period epic The Immigrant (his next film, Ad Astra, is a science fiction tale about a man — possibly played by Brad Pitt — who voyages to Neptune in search of his missing father).
The Lost City of Z is a continuation of Gray’s concerns while also his biggest and most ambitious effort to date, with its sweep encompassing Edwardian England, the Amazon and the European killing fields of World War One. As he told us when we sat down recently in Los Angeles, his quest to tell Fawcett’s story soon began to echo the experiences of the explorer himself.
Den of Geek: Did the journey of making this film almost mirror in some sense the journey that Fawcett was on to find this lost civilization?
James Gray: That’s a great question. You don’t plan it that way, but somehow what happens really is that in order to do the thing where you’re investing in it as much as possible, investing yourself in it as much as possible, you try to personalize. You try to say, “Well, what is it about this situation that I have been through something like this,” and to try and bring yourself to the movie because in a sense, all of narrative is a kind of metaphor. You see a story, which is about something else, but it really is only about the extension of our sympathies.
To the degree that that’s true, the movie began to take on, in a way that I wasn’t fully aware of until about midway through the shoot, it really took on my own story. I have a wife and two boys and a girl. When you go off on a movie, you’re off on an obsession and you leave your life and children behind. There’s a cost to that, and my wife doesn’t say, “Why don’t you spend time with your family,” which is a bit of a cliché, but rather my wife in real life has said to me, “I wish I could come with you. I want to come with you.” They camped in the jungle with me.
The movie began to take on a very personal feel. Whether that’s conveyed to the viewer or not, I don’t know, but I certainly tried to bring to it a kind of analogous situation. Then as it unfolds, it does become Fawcett’s situation because you find yourself really in the middle of nowhere in the Amazon jungle and you don’t have telephones and internet. Your shower is the rainwater thing that you pull and it’s cold water that comes out. Every day is the same, it’s equatorial so you have equal time night and day. The bugs and mosquitoes are attacking you and you’re like, “Wait a minute, there’s no difference between Fawcett’s obsession and my own, which is to get this film made.” The parallel is very clear.
This is clearly the biggest film you’ve made so far, so how did it test you as a filmmaker?
I mean, the movie was brutal. It was brutal. I remember reading the book and then writing the adaptation of it. When I write a script, I try never to think about the difficulties of production, because if I do, I’m never going to do anything because every movie is difficult to make. If we were making a movie here in this room, it would be hard to make an interesting scene out of it. I try to push that out of my mind. I gave the script to my friend Matt Reeves, who is a wonderful filmmaker, who I’ve known for 30 years, and said, “Please give me your feedback, tell me what you think.” He reads it and he goes, “Why would you want to make this? Why would you want to do this?”
We shot in Colombia and Peru. For the first two weeks, I thought, this is great. I understand there’s no hot water and it’s really hot, but I’m here and I’m doing it. After about two weeks, a certain sameness begins to set in: that 4:30 a.m. wake up with the glasses that you put on that are so steamed because of the humidity and then the crappy ride through the middle of the jungle down to the river.
Then you were on the river all day in the most punishing heat. You can’t help but have it hit you in a major way. To be candid about it, a certain madness kind of sets in. There’s no way to avoid it. I don’t understand how someone like Francis Coppola went to the jungle for a year (to make Apocalypse Now). That movie is so incredible, but I literally don’t understand how he physically was able to tolerate that.
And that was 40 years ago. They didn’t have even some of the conveniences you might have had now.
Well, we didn’t have very many conveniences, I will say that. We tried to go old school. We shot on film. We didn’t watch any dailies. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. They built those rafts and those boats for us, and one of them would be the hero raft, which is where the actors would be and the camera. The other was the crew raft. You’d get on and then you’d go down the river or up the river and you would either shoot on the river or you would go into the jungle, you’d beach the rafts and then march into the jungle half a mile or whatever it was to shoot. It’s interesting what it does to you. You begin to live the movie in a way that is both good and terrible.
How far did you go in terms of taking creative license with Fawcett’s story or the book?
The book is untranslatable to a movie because a lot of it covers the writer, David Grann, trying to retrace the footsteps of Fawcett. That I had to lose…The other thing is that Fawcett himself, first of all, was much more morally ambiguous and quite racist, although he was a product of his time. He said preposterous things about meeting groups of white Indians who would be more evolved and all that. You have to judge the person within the context of 1905 Edwardian England. I accepted that level of ethically challenged, morally challenged person. Also, he went on eight trips, not three as we have in the film. In fact, he was considerably more obsessed, even more than the character in the film. It’s an approximation of a greater truth. It’s not a documentary.
Your next project is a science fiction film, Ad Astra. You have gone from genre to genre on each movie, what made it the right time for you to tackle sci-fi?
It’s interesting because you’re always trying to make the same film over and over again. It’s the same thematic concerns, it’s the same personal concerns, but you do it in a new context that hopefully helps you grow and helps you see it in a new way. There was both this struggle to do the exact same movie and in a completely different framework. My attempt to go to outer space is really — if you see the film, you will understand, I think, more. My attempt to visualize outer space is really only an attempt, ultimately, to validate our lives here and what the Earth means to us. In some sense, I had never thought of it this way, but a couple of people working on the film said, “This is like a sequel to Z because it’s about an explorer who goes out into space, except he seeks his father.” It’s almost told from the point of view of Jack in the movie. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. It’s true.”
If you think about it, Fawcett going to Amazonia in 1905 is really no different from an astronaut going to Mars. I mean, Western Europe had no idea what was down there. There were no maps, which is the reason they send him there, but there was no real understanding. I mean, the Spanish and the Portuguese had been down there and had done their very best, frankly, to destroy it through both disease and enslavement. They didn’t have an acute or detailed awareness of the content and its details. Fawcett, really, was traveling down to space. So what I’m working on now is only really an extension of what it is I’m trying to explore.
Do you get interested in a specific genre when the material calls out to you thematically, or do you work with the genre to make it fit your concerns?
Incredible question. I’ve never been asked that. I have to think about my answer there.
I’m making you work hard this morning.
I would say that my own approach, if I had to think about it in these terms, I would say that my own approach is to bend the genre to what it is I’m trying to express. It’s interesting, when we talk about genre, genre is both very helpful and dangerous for filmmakers because the critical establishment, let’s be candid here, the critical establishment tends to look down on genre filmmaking…I’ve always thought of genre as a way in, as a hook to express something personal because in the end, that’s really what matters. The best advice I ever got, if I may drop a name, Francis Coppola once said to me, “Be personal, there’s only one of you.” I thought wow, that’s the greatest thing I ever heard. It’s true.
The Lost City of Z is playing now in New York and Los Angeles and expands nationwide next week.