James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z takes the in­die film­maker deep into un­charted ter­rain


AS A DI­REC­TOR, James Gray likes to ring the changes. Vaudevil­lian 1920s drama The

Im­mi­grant was very dif­fer­ent from the mod­ern ro­mance of Two Lovers, which was en­tirely un­like the gang­land rhythms of We Own The

Night. And The Lost City Of Z is yet an­other ex­treme de­par­ture: a his­tor­i­cal jun­gle epic. “You don’t want to re­peat your­self,” Gray tells

Em­pire of his lat­est ad­ven­ture. “The op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore new and dif­fer­ent sto­ries is a ma­jor at­trac­tion of this job.”

The film, star­ring Char­lie Hun­nam as real-life Ed­war­dian ex­plorer Per­ci­val Fawcett, is an adap­ta­tion of a book by The New Yorker’s David Grann. But Gray jet­ti­soned the par­al­lel story of Grann’s present-day ob­ses­sion with the yarn and fo­cused en­tirely on Fawcett, who van­ished in the Ama­zon in 1925 while search­ing for the an­cient Lost City Of Z. The post­mod­ern take, Gray be­lieves, “has been done be­fore, and re­cently, and well. I fig­ured that some­times the best way to go for­ward is to look back­ward.”

Well aware of the pit­falls of that ap­proach, Gray says po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity to the colo­nial era was cru­cial. He didn’t want to mimic Lawrence

Of Ara­bia. “That doesn’t mean I think I’m bet­ter than David Lean,” Gray is quick to in­sist, “but that work is both ben­e­fi­ciary and hostage to its cul­tural con­text; Alec Guin­ness plays an Arab! I was try­ing to up­date that.” Gray says that ev­ery char­ac­ter in The Lost City Of Z, whether Bri­tish or in­dige­nous South Amer­i­can, is “val­i­dated as an in­de­pen­dent be­ing”.

That quest for le­git­i­macy also led Gray to at­tempt the out­landish, chan­nelling Fran­cis Ford Coppola and Werner Her­zog by head­ing deep into the Colom­bian rain­for­est (the his­tor­i­cally cor­rect bits of Brazil now look, ac­cord­ing to the di­rec­tor, “like Ne­braska”) for a flirt with catas­tro­phe. Ex­treme heat and hu­mid­ity, thun­der­storms, in­sects and snakes, and the Zika virus were among the per­ils, as was the rather more avoid­able dif­fi­culty of shoot­ing on film and hav­ing to ship the reels back to Lon­don ev­ery day. A stu­dio set and dig­i­tal cam­eras would have been cheaper and more con­trol­lable, but for Gray, “The au­then­tic­ity was crit­i­cal.” There is, how­ever, no Bur­den Of Dreams or

Hearts Of Dark­ness-style doc­u­men­tary to chart the mad­ness. “My wife was go­ing to make a film about me mak­ing the film,” Gray laughs, “but we ac­tu­ally didn’t get enough footage to make a great doc­u­men­tary from. I don’t like to harp on about the ‘hard­ships’ of this job. I know I’m in a very for­tu­nate po­si­tion.” Along­side Coppola and Her­zog, he’s now part of an ex­clu­sive club, too.

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