Z MARKS THE SPOT
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.