Filming in the jungle drives you mad, they say. The Lost City Of Z’s James Gray doesn’t agree
JAMES GRAY SHOT the vast majority of The Lost City Of Z, his superb movie about the long-lost British explorer Percy Fawcett, in Northern Ireland. But when it came to the film’s many jungle scenes, he, along with his cast and crew, relocated to Magdalena, Colombia, for ultra authenticity. Filming in the jungle has long had its risks — just ask the cast of Predator, or Werner Herzog — but in this frank interview, Gray refutes some of the more popular clichés...
The Lost City Of Z bears some relation to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Was he a particular influence?
It was impossible to avoid the influence of Werner Herzog, because you’re in the same locations that he was, more or less — he was in Peru, I was in Colombia. And Aguirre is a towering film. So you have to both embrace that and avoid watching it. I didn’t want to rip him off — I’m already ripping him off! But they’re very different stories. Aguirre is the story of a megalomaniacal, would-be conquistador who leads this group of people into madness and death. Here I felt the story was that Fawcett engaged with the jungle and came to terms with the humanity of the people in it. It would have been a terrible mistake to demand that he go crazy because it’s the jungle and that’s what makes a man crazy. I felt what would be more interesting is to rob white Western Europe and white North America of this fantasy that the jungle equals madness. The idea that the jungle invariably breeds insanity is a racist idea... Let me make this clear: I don’t think Herzog’s racist, because Aguirre’s driven mad by his own megalomania and greed, but if Fawcett had gone crazy, it would have been racist because he would have gone crazy confronting a different form of the normal.
It extends to filmmaking — there’s the cliché of crews going mad while on wild location shoots. And yet you seemed to stay very sane...
Well, we didn’t go crazy by any stretch, but it was very physically difficult. You’re in extremely hot weather and there are insects and animals everywhere, and it’s not really meant for a film crew. My effort was to not exoticise the jungle, but say the opposite is true. And to whatever degree I could reinforce that in the means of production, I wanted to do so: take it one day at a time, try to plan as best you can.
Charlie Hunnam wasn’t always the first choice to play Fawcett, was he?
Brad Pitt had bought the book and was gonna do it. But we couldn’t quite put the movie together — it has such a dark ending — and then Brad went off, ironically enough, to make World War Z. So I decided, “This is never gonna happen,” and went off to make The Immigrant. Then Brad’s company Plan B called me and said, “What about Benedict Cumberbatch?” But his wife got pregnant so, with good reason, he had to drop out. Plan B called me again and said, “What about Charlie Hunnam?”, and I said, “Absolutely not. I will not have any California biker dudes in this movie.” Because the only thing I knew about him was Sons Of
Anarchy. And they said, “No, he’s from Newcastle, England.” And the next thing I know, he’s come over for spaghetti, and here’s this dashing, handsome English guy. I thought he was terrific.
Previous to this, you worked with Mark Wahlberg twice and Joaquin Phoenix four times. Why did you click so well with them?
Joaquin is an unbelievably intense, dedicated person who has tremendous emotional reserves. And Mark has a real earnestness that can be conveyed on screen in a magnificent way. Those are not common qualities; when you have two actors like that who will tolerate you and be willing to work with you on more than one occasion, you have to jump at the chance. I think Mark’s been under-served by movies. If he were around in 1948, you would be casting him in film noirs. He’d be John Garfield, right? But they don’t make those movies anymore. Today you wear spandex or wind up in a comedy with Will Ferrell. And he excels in that, but in some sense there’s a sadness because you’re not seeing another great side of Mark.
This is only your sixth movie. In fact, you’ve made just five since your debut, Little Odessa, back in 1994. Why haven’t you made more movies yourself ?
I realise there are huge gaps in my filmography, but it’s hard to get films made at a certain scale — and the truth is, I haven’t taken a job just for the money. How do you go to the set every morning if you don’t care about what you’re making?
Cast and crew wrangle the tricky conditions.
Cast and crew wrangle the tricky conditions. Below: Director James Gray with Hunnam on set.