EXCLUSIVE: ‘Lost City of Z’ Director James Gray Talks Classic Filmmaking, Influences and Making a Modern Epic

A scene from LOST CITY OF Z, playing at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 5-19, 2017.

2017 San Francisco International Film Festival: Director James Gray has made his most masterful film yet in “Lost City of Z,” seamlessly blending classic adventure epic storytelling tropes, alluring drama and Shakespearean tragedy with progressive and timely ideologies. Gray is no stranger to making epic movies in scope and scale while also staying loyal to old technology; Gray insists on using 35 millimeter film over the more common digital technologies used today, even under some of the harsh conditions the “Lost City of Z” was shot under. I had a chance to to sit down and chat with Gray about the difficulty, but ultimate payoff of using 35mm, his love for classic narrative storytelling, digging into Pawcett’s (Charlie Hunnam) character, and the parallels of the film’s challenging of imperialistic thought to what is happening in the world today as tensions rise among world leaders.

James Gray, director of LOST CITY OF Z, playing at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 5-19, 2017.

For Gray, who has shot every one of his films on 35mm, it was never a question of whether or not to switch to digital equipment. Even though this film was far grander in scope than anything he has done before, he wanted to keep the granular style of celluloid to harken back to the old epics of modern filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s:

It was always in my mind to stick with 35 because for this kind of story. May I state, also, there are some filmmakers who work just beautifully, digitally. I mean that’s a different medium, it’s like saying ‘painting water colors’ or ‘painting oils,’ you know, it’s not the same medium. And I had felt that one of the great things about 35 millimeter film, which makes the image up in grains, obviously, is something you might call temporal resolution, because these grains change their position, every frame to frame. Whereas the digital images, pixels, they stay fixed as a grid from frame to frame, so the film has a different feel.

It became clear that Gray’s love for 35mm film goes deeper than just a visual appreciation of the difference in perception; it is also an existential and more personal connection, one that is grounded in tradition:

I feel that, because of this organic grain thing which is a photochemical process, it feels more like, and at least in our own experience, like a captured moment from the past. It becomes irretrievable. There’s a very famous essay, by the way, called “On Photography” by Susan Sontag, that talks about the irretrievability of the past, that a still photograph contains an aspect of melancholy because it is unreachable. Digital doesn’t have the same feel, it feels immediate. We have our phones and we don’t have to send away for processing. We have our phones and all the time we’re videoing everything. So I had one at that distance, not emotional distance, by the way, but visual distance in the story because it’s a period movie and also because it’s the level of the experience which is about the passage of time.

Of course, shooting with 35mm film in the middle of the Amazon River during summertime, with heat, humidity, and a plethora of slithery and crawly critters capable of doing some damage to the equipment, was not an easy technical feat. Carrying unexposed film across the world to be processed can be daunting:

It presented very large logistical issues, but I was eager to embrace those. You’re in the middle of nowhere, so there is not a film lab. In fact, we actually toyed with the idea of making a mobile lab of chemicals in the jungle, but it was so prohibitively expensive, you can’t really do it. So we have to train this film loader in Bogota. And the process was crazy, he would change the film the day that you’d shoot, going to the changing bag, he looked like Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. He would unload the cameras, put the film in these cans and a little crappy torn up cardboard box. We made the sort of runway to signal this engine prop plane [and then it would] take off with your box of film, and you’d say, ‘Goodbye, day of work!’ And the plane would go from the local runway, the local airport to Bogota, to Miami, to London. This was everyday, we had a satellite phone on the river and it would ring if the lab got the film. And, if, at 11:30, it didn’t ring, you were in trouble. So that’s not an easy way to make a movie. Now, I’m gonna tell you something which I think is true. My computer was not working in the jungle, nor was my cell phone. And I think because of the humidity and it’s so weird because the computer comes back to life when the air dries out. So I’m skeptical about how well digital equipment would have done in the jungle. I had a feeling there might have been some problems.

Unfortunately, due to the diminishing demand of 35mm film from filmmakers in the industry who prefer digital, there are very few chemical film labs with the capacity to process a film of this capacity:

A lot of the movie was shot in Northern Ireland, and there are no films labs left in Northern Ireland. There’s only one in the United States, that’s in Los Angeles called Photo Chem, and New York’s film lab – the locks are closed, and I think they’re opening one up again now in New York, which is great news. But it’s sort of like saying, ‘Let’s take the Model T out for a spin’ – nobody does it. That’s not why I chose film, by the way. But I have a feeling it wouldn’t have been so easy.

During 20th century England, class, rank and social status were important pillars of a person’s reputation. The character of Fawcett, in real life, had a chip on his shoulder from his early childhood, which fueled his need to find this hidden city of Z to not only prove his skeptics wrong, but also restore his family name. Percy Fawcett was considered a progressive in the middle of a time where imperialistic values were undergoing a renaissance. However, today, he would be considered racist:

Fawcett’s need for glory was forefront in my mind, the whole time. I played it up from the book; it’s not really in the book, this whole need to get medals. Well, it’s indicated, it’s hinted at. But for me, that part of the story is clear. Let’s be clear, the guy [Fawcett], in real life, was a racist. But he was a racist according to 2017, and in 1905 people had a very different sense of what it meant to be moral. Do you know who Ota Benga is? Ota Benga was a pygmy from Africa, and they put him in a cage at the Bronx zoo as the link between ape and man or chimp and monkey and man. That’s horrible, he lived in the Bronx zoo in a cage. That’s what you’re talking about when you talk about 1900. So, given that, Fawcett was kind of advanced for his time, so you cannot condemn characters, I don’t think. Because we’re all hostage to what is in fashion and what is the ideas of the day, even if we think we’re not. So, I saw a Fawcett, given that context, as a rather progressive figure, someone who at least made some attempt to contact and respect indigenous peoples of South America. Now, given that that was a major aspect of the story which I think, obviously, there was no way that it couldn’t be. What’s a way to extenuate that? Well, also, why was he obsessed? One thing that is clear from the book is that his father was a drunk, ruined the family fortunes with gambling, destroyed the family name. And I thought, okay, well that’s a guy, who has a serious lack. That’s part of the reason he becomes an obsessive. Obsession doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from the place of great need, of inadequacy, a feeling of a hole that needs to be filled. So, all of this seems to draw connections to the British class system. And I started to think of it as a way of expressing that we have this horrible hierarchy that we create. So the upper class looks down on him. He puts his wife in a box. Western Europe looks down on South America. The people of South America, who are the indigenous people, and then there is the slave. There is the slave owner and the slave master. Maybe the slave owner looks down on the slave master, but this is a repeated and a horrible tendency that we have to put ourselves and each other in boxes. How do we fit into the system, at large? So, I don’t think that there was much more powerful or complex notion than that, that you could explore in anything, which is part of the draw of the book. I thought that was a very powerful idea because it’s a very basic human, kind of horrible idea, the humiliation that goes along with that.

Gray is known for his old style of filmmaking and classical epic storytelling, and certainly for being a master of period pieces covering a wide span of time. He is aware of this, and even embraces this notion:

A lot of people say that about me to my face, that I’m a classical director. You’re quite right. But I would say, to be honest, I kind of resist it because, to me, it’s only a discussion of style, and not a discussion of what’s going on underneath the surface of the film, which doesn’t mean that it’s invalid, it just means that I’m using – at least I’m hoping I’m using the form – the classical form to express something that hopefully has some measure of subversiveness about it. What the film actually is saying, what the film actually means is not necessarily readily apparent to us, that sometimes it emerges through subtext. So, how do you express something through subtext? If you make a film that is not narratively well told with emotion and elegance, which is the aim, is the alternative a kind of cinema essay of sorts? Well, maybe, and in Goddard’s case, he did them brilliantly. But I’m not sure that gives us so much opportunity, or in Goddard’s case it was because he believes in beauty and he’s also a genius. But there’s a level which, when we say exactly what we mean, the subtext stops mattering.

As Gray discusses the importance of subtext and its placement within a film in underscoring its true intended meaning, he talks about some of his filmmaker influences and how they shaped his ability for slipping undertones in his stories so well:

What you’ve noticed, especially [with] great filmmakers of the Hollywood system, whether it was Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or any of these guys, leading up through Francis Ford Coppola, who was very much a classical director; there is a subtext that emerges, so there’s the A story in the case of ‘Vertigo,’ let’s take for example, Hitchcock, it may be the greatest film ever. The A story is, ‘I don’t know if that was a detective, I mean he had asked to find Madeline, find out what happened to Madeline.’ And you watched the film and that’s the story, she dies and then he follows this woman named Judy, and that turns out to be Madeline also, and it ends tragically. That’s the subject, he’s a detective, that is the A story, that is the text. The subtext is much more interesting, the subtext is about the nature of desire and fetish, and what it means, how it is created within you so that he can only love her when he remakes her from the working class woman he defines Judy as into the upper class Madeline. So, all of the sudden, ideas about class come into play, and that becomes a subtext that emerges, and that was a very rich experience. So, the pursuit of a classical narrative often opens up, not closes, but opens up avenues for greater complexity. Often, the conception is that the more advanced modern deconstructions thing is the more sophisticated approach. But I think that over time, what you find is that that’s not really the case. If you were to go back and look at the movie ‘Fort Apache’ by John Ford with John Wayne and Henry Fonda, I think you would find scarcely any movie more complex or interesting than that – especially politically. You watch the movie and you’re thinking it’s gonna be John Wayne killing Indians and then it’s all about how Henry Fonda is an asshole. I mean, every decision he makes is horrible, and he breaks the treaty with the Indians and you’re watching this and you’re like, ‘Oh, I thought this was gonna be Indians getting shot, and kind of that racist perception.’ No, the movie all of a sudden starts to side with Cochise. And you realize that Henry Fonda is actually a scumbag, and John Wayne is the conscious of the movie. And the point is that the narrative, which is just a simple western, you think, takes on another meaning.

So, how does Gray’s love for classic narratives with complex subtexts translate into “Lost City of Z?”

With this movie, I wanted the story to be, [not just] ‘explorer goes down to the jungle,’ but [also] what would it say when we talk about class, of course, and also gender, ethnicity? And what does it mean to be a civilized person, what does it mean to be civilized, what’s civilization actually mean? Because World War I destroyed the idea that Western Europe had ownership over the most civilized society that was mechanized death. That’s why the Battle of the Somme is in the movie; it’s in the book too, of course, but he was blinded for about a year of chemical weapons. But as he said in the book, ‘I was in the Amazon for so many years and nobody ever dumped chemical weapons on me there.’ So you have to ask yourself, ‘What does it mean to be a civilized person?’ So, I thought all of this could emerge through a classical style.

The imperialistic ideology at the turn of the 20th century was seeing a worldwide reinvigoration. Teddy Roosevelt, the United States President during the beginning of the film, often gave speeches about how it is man’s right to explore and conquer those who were then considered by white men to be ‘less civilized people.’ Gray and I discuss this historical figure and his influence on the imperialistic overtones in the U.S. government today:

It’s funny you mention Teddy Roosevelt. I had been forwarded a piece from some English professor questioning whether Fawcett was ahead of his time, or whether he was a man of his time, and that I couldn’t as a filmmaker use the excuse that he was a product just of that time period. And he used as an example of the good, virtuous one is Teddy Roosevelt, but Teddy Roosevelt preached sterilization of immigrants, and was a Eugenics theorist and called Africans ape-like creatures and this is not a, to your point, this is not a progressive person, really. He’s on Mount Rushmore and all that, but there is a real darkness to that as well. He was a sickly child, he was very effeminate.

If you made a movie about Teddy Roosevelt, no one would believe it. He was an attempted assassination [target], somebody shot him and the bullet lodged itself in a speech folded in his pocket. You put that in a movie, nobody will believe that! Battle of San Juan Hill, five feet away, the guy fires the gun right at him and misses? I mean, the life that guy lived was crazy. It makes “Forrest Gump” look like a documentary. Amazing figure, I don’t mean to badmouth him, but he’s a complicated figure.

Is there a potential James Gray-helmed Teddy Roosevelt biopic in the works in the near future? No, but perhaps Gray may want consider it. He certainly has the aptitude for a story of that scope, which explores similar themes he has tackled in the past. Wishful thinking, for now. Although it was not Gray’s intention to parallel what is happening with the regression of sociopolitical ideologies of today more in line with those of Roosevelt’s, he was aware that it was still a timely tale that needed to be told:

I didn’t know about president Trump and I didn’t know about Brexit [during the ‘Lost City of Z’ screenwriting process in 2009]. Having said that, I felt that it was worthy to pursue it because, even though it was a ‘white man goes into the jungle’ movie, the book is not closed on a European or American white guy being a racist, but some people could say we’ve had enough of that. There is a movie called ‘Embrace of the Serpent,’ which is a lovely film made from the point of view of the indigenous in Amazonia but, A, that exists already, it’s called ‘Embrace of the Serpent.’ B, I don’t think that we are finished really going over what the hell are the causes and the roots of colonialism. I can’t match David Leen or Francis Ford Coppola. Forget talent level for a second, although I can’t, but forget the fact that I’m not as talented as they are. I can’t match them for scope and for the time it took to make those films. They went off to the desert or the jungle for a year to clip, and had all the resources of major studios, and Leen’s case was Columbia [Pictures] and Sam Spiegel and all that. I can’t do that; I can’t get the entire Philippine Airforce to give me all their helicopters. So, knowing that I can’t match that, I have to try and approach it by saying, ‘What other pleasures can I deliver to the audience?’ And for me, the other pleasure was a political awareness that did not exist in 1961 or 1979. There are no women in ‘Apocalypse Now’ except for Playboy playmates. They don’t matter. And Alec Guinness is playing an Arab man in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ which is ridiculous. It’s not to bad mouth, obviously, Francis Coppola is god to me, so this is not badmouthing him, it’s just the limitations of what the story is, and the concept behind it in some way. And Leen is an incredible director, but that’s what I was trying to bring to what was a different kind of political. It’s really summed up by the scene [in ‘Lost City of Z’] with Franco Nero, who’s rubber baron where he says, ‘I will help you because you will make sure nothing will change.’ And this whole idea that he is sent down there to make maps, you don’t actually think of it that way. The whole point of making borders is so that you don’t make wars, so that we all continue to make money, we all have our slaves and the system continues. And when I wrote, I wasn’t thinking of today, but I also was thinking that nothing in it was dated. And unfortunately I was right, because you look at where we are now and it’s miserable. There is a level ‘two steps forward, one step back.’ It is better than it was in 1955, you know, white and colored water fountains, this kind of horrible shit, but on some level it’s not that much better. And so I do think that the movie weirdly took on some kind of timely fashion element to it.

Awards Circuit would like to express gratitude to James Gray for taking the time to chat with us about “Lost City of Z.” See it in theaters on April 21!