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.

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