Talking to The Lost City of Z Writer/Director James Gray

Introducing his new film, The Lost City of Z, to a full house at the National Geographic Society auditorium, writer-director James Gray confessed to something he termed "a bit embarrassing": He originally hadn't considered the ecological aspects of the Amazon-set saga that was making its Washington debut in March as part of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. That facet of the tale was revealed to him only when he reached the area of Brazil explored in the early 20th century by his protagonist, British officer Percy Fawcett, and found the jungle had all been razed for soybean fields. (That forced the production to move to Colombia.)

The movie, whose title Gray pronounces the British way as The Lost City of Zed, opened in the U.K. last month and will open in the U.S. on April 14. Derived from David Grann's 2009 nonfiction book, it follows Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) from 1905 to 1925, when he vanished while on an expedition to the site with his older son. The film also covers Fawcett's service in World War I and the role played by his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). It's Gray's first movie not to be set largely in his native New York City, and the first he adapted from a book, as he noted to The Credits the morning after the D.C. screening. The interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, began with a simple explanation of how he got involved in the project.

"It just fell in my lap. I had just finished Two Lovers. This was in fall of 2008. I was sent the book, which hadn't been published yet, by producers Jeremy Kleiner, Dede Gardner, and Brad Pitt, who had bought it for Brad. I don't know why they thought of me. There's nothing in my work that would have suggested I could do this. But I was thrilled to get it.

The first thing that attracted me was a very short passage about Fawcett's dad. He was an alcoholic and a gambler and destroyed not one but two family fortunes, apparently. I'm not even sure how that's possible. He was very tight with Prince Edward. But he blew it. The son of this guy finds this obsession, which becomes almost a form of escape. There's a nobility to what Fawcett is doing, but also a darker side. He's trying to escape the strictures of class in England.

Then I thought about how difficult it would be to get made. But I just went ahead."

Was your approach to writing the script different than in the past?

It necessarily had to be. Here what you have is the danger of riches. In the book, you have so many different threads. You could have made a whole film — and I'm not exaggerating — from Fawcett's courtship of his wife, Nina. That reads almost like a Bronte novel.

You have to lose that part of the story. You lose the present-day stuff, with David Grann running around the jungle. And Fawcett went on eight trips, not three, which is crazy. And got really obsessed with the occult, which I sort of hint at during the war, with the Ouija board and the fortuneteller. Apparently he used to consider gunnery positions with a Ouija board. Which makes you wonder how England won the war.

Creating an original piece of material, you find yourself usually having to invent more things. Not cut out things. So it's a very different challenge. It's not easier or harder, I don't think. It's just not the same thing.

With The Immigrant you went into period, but it was sort of traveling back from the stories you'd told before. With this, it's really stepping out of your world. Was that appealing to you?

It was appealing. It was also horrifying. I was very scared about it. It was an intentional thing in some ways. If I didn't like the story, I would never have done it. It always comes from story, from character. But certainly there was an appeal to not repeating myself completely. As a movie director, I do want to make the same movie over and over again. But in a different way.

Here it's very different. The change in environment, locale, and period was very exciting. But the themes are still there. Father-son relationships, the struggle against the straitjacket that can be social class. At the beginning of the movie, someone says that Fawcett was not very fortunate in his choice of ancestors. I had stayed for the first five minutes of the screening to see the projection and the sound and all that. And I didn't expect this, but that line last night got a huge laugh. Which I found very odd, and really interesting.

There are a couple of places in the film where you can feel a bit superior to the British sense of superiority. That's one of them. There's another scene, where Fawcett presents some Amazonian pottery shards to the Royal Geographic Society and his detractors start chanting, "pots and pans." That moment is so odd that I felt it must have happened.

I actually invented that. There is a description in the book of the raucous meeting of the Royal Geographic Society which he spoke to. And his dialogue is almost exactly taken from the text of what he said. I read about who would be at these things. There'd be about 200 people, all men — all white men. The women would be on the top level; the men would be down below. Women got invited into the RGS in 1912, I believe. It was a weird combination of progressives and skeptics. They would shout at people as they were speaking. I got that context, and then I started watching House of Commons question time in Parliament, which you can watch on C-Span. I based it on that. It's really raucous. The "pots and pans" streaming, I wrote in as a joke for myself.

You're an advocate of shooting with 35mm. Is there a particular quality of film that you wanted for this movie?

Yes. There are technical reasons, that I will not bore you with, for why I think film is still superior to digital. It does ultimately come down to taste, and there is beautiful work done digitally. But with film, the image is made of grain. In each frame the grain doesn't stay in the same place. Digital is like a grid; it never changes. So there's something called temporal resolution, which is why film feels more alive on an unconscious level.

There's a famous essay by Susan Sontag, "On Photography," where she talks about how each still photograph has a quality of melancholy about it, because it's a moment frozen in time that is now irretrievable. Digital feels very immediate. Film has that remove, that distance, that irretrievable past. So if you're doing a period film, particularly one that has the feel of a melancholy passage of time, the irretrievability of the film image is what I was after.

Using 35, by the way, was a major pain in the ass. First of all you have to train the film loader, because they don't exist anymore. Then we would put the exposed film on this single-engine prop plane that landed on this runway we made [he makes grinding airplane noise]. You would see it go off. It would go from there to the local airport, and then to Bogota, and then to Miami, and then to London. This was every day. You would wait by the satellite phone on the Don Diego River, and usually about noon, the phone would ring. And either the film got to the lab or it didn't. We wouldn't watch dailies. We would rely on the color timer to tell us what the exposure looked like, if it was in focus, those sorts of questions.

That's how they made Apocalypse Now. They essentially had weeklies, as they would joke about it. They would ship all this film to Rome, where Vittorio Storaro had to develop his film, then they would get it back a week later. We didn't even do that.

There's a lot of shadow in this film. Obviously, you're under tree canopy much of time. But there's a scene where Percy and Nina are picnicking in Britain, and they're in an open field, but her face is in shadow because it's under the brim of this enormous hat. Was that to sustain the motif?

I've never thought about that. You are obviously right. In an unconscious way, it's there. How we light the face has huge impact on how we perceive performance. It's one of the director's more underrated weapons. You can't even imagine what The Godfather would look like if it didn't have that top light. If you didn't struggle to see Marlon Brando's eyes. It was part of the calculation that cinematographer Gordon Willis made. The movie is about their sin, so to not be able see their eyes, that frustration is going to help the audience understand they're trying to hide from their sins.

Here, that wasn't what the movie was about thematically, but the idea of the dark and the light, the powerful nobility of his experience but also the darkness underneath his ambition. It's a very powerful idea. You want that sense visually in the film. Sometimes withholding somebody's face is equal if not more entrancing than seeing it.

I don't know how well you remember Raging Bull. But there's this scene where he gets thrown into jail for serving alcohol to a minor. And he starts punching the wall, hitting his head against the wall. "No-o-o-oh!" He's doing it in the dark. You don't see him doing it. There's just this sliver of light. That darkness implies a greater mystery. That's part of what we were trying to do.

Later, there's a moment where you can tell that world has changed because she's not wearing a hat.

That's right. Then at the end she is wearing a hat, but it's totally different. It's a flapper hat. It also mirrored what I thought was important, which was that they became more what they were. When you read the book, what's interesting is that they started out as that era's version of hippies, in way. She was a very independent woman, she was a suffragette. She was very committed to equality of the sexes, which is unheard of in 1905. They were both Buddhists. They became more and more obsessed with alternate ways of thinking as they got older. And really became seen as kind of lunatics toward the end. We were trying to imply some of that.

You said that you watch an old movie every night. What's your definition of "old"?

What I call pre-"New Hollywood," which is pre-1967. After '67, the movies changed so much. That's the line I put in the sand.

What's more appealing or more interesting about pre-1967?

It's not necessarily more interesting. I would say that my knowledge of post-1967 was already quite dense. The number of movies from 1970 on that I haven't seen is very small. There's always a new interesting movie to watch, I'm sure, but I've seen a lot of those.

I'm trying to shore up my weak points. Busby Berkeley made a film noir that I'm really interested to watch, with John Garfield. There's a lot of movies that I have to watch from that period. I mentioned Busby Berkeley, because I've recently been watching all of his. Gold Diggers of 1935, which has an amazing sequence. Gold Diggers of 1993, which is great. I've been really impressed by how cinematic those routines are. He was obviously a genius.

When you see one, do you think, I could do that?

Absolutely. This is all about thievery. That's what it's there for. Gotta steal it.

Last night you talked about Apocalypse Now and Sorcerer. One movie made in the wilderness you didn't mention is Burden of Dreams.

I love it. But that's not a movie you want to see before making this. It's a cautionary tale. My wife read Conquest of the Useless, Herzog's diaries from making Fitzcarraldo. She said, "You should read it. We're going to go off and do this." I said, "That's the thing I don't want to read."

I love Burden of Dreams. I have a weird thing about that, which is that I find Werner Herzog to be one of the funniest human beings I have ever seen. I'm not even sure I can explain why. There's this thing in that movie were he's wrestling a goat. It's hilarious! But Burden of Dreams is also sad, because people were killed on that movie. No movie's worth dead people.

There's a lot of talk in your film about the savagery of the Amazon natives, yet the most savage sequences take place in France in 1916.

That's me, making a comment. I have an interest in World War I anyway. I find it the most important conflict the world has ever known. More important than World War II, because World War II is an extension of World War I. There was just a brief hiatus where we didn't have a war. For the most part, our geopolitical problems today — in the Middle East, for example — stem from the First World War.

So I thought there was something very powerful about how the same people who declared colonial subjects to be savages are the ones who threw chlorine gas into a trench.

Because this was the first time you've adapted a book, was it liberating to get to the end of Fawcett's story, where no one knows what happened, and you get to make it up?

I've never been asked that. Was it liberating? No. It was horrifying. With an open end like that, what goes through my mind if that I'm to get it wrong. If you don't know what happened — is it positive? Is it negative? Is it transcendent? Is it tragic?

I felt that it was huge challenge. A daunting and terrifying thing to have to put my own imprint on what happened to those guys. You have to choose the mood, the emotional temperature, that you want. That's not easy to do when it's unresolved.

It will probably be a ridiculous admission, but I thought of Escape from Alcatraz, with Clint Eastwood. Because at the end of that movie, there are three guys who escape, and nobody ever heard from them again. It's a weird mystery. Now they almost certainly died. But you don't know. So I looked at that ending, and I thought, How's that work? I think what Don Siegel did there was interesting. He implies that somehow they made it. That's how I began to think about it.

You talked about filming in the presence of caimans, and not realizing the danger. But you didn't mention the black jaguar.

A beautiful animal, by the way. Magnificent. And quite rare. They have this weird sheen that looks almost fake. Which is funny, because there are quite a lot of visual effects in the film, although they usually are paint-outs of rigs and things like that. The jaguar is not a visual effect. A friend of mine saw the movie and said, "I didn't see any visual effects except one, of course. The panther." And I said, "What do you mean? That's a real panther!"

That was Pablo Escobar's panther. From his zoo. I guess it was a cub when he died. It was separated from us by a sheet of glass, and we squirted a little bit of water at it to make it shriek like that. The animal did not love us. But we got the shot.

Featured image: Director James Gray (left) and actor Charlie Hunnam (second from left) on location for THE LOST CITY OF Z. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

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