For two decades, James Gray has been making some of the most visually striking, classically elegant films in American cinema. His subject has mostly been New York, but now he’s arrived with The Lost City of Z, a historical epic about Percy Fawcett, the British explorer who disappeared while pursuing his lifelong obsession with a mythical city in the Amazon. Gray feels the film is very much in line with the rest of his work, largely tales of cops, crooks and New York oddballs. He talked to us about how he came to direct this new film (hint: Brad Pitt was involved), his cinematic style and why he actually considers The Lost City of Z subversive in parts.

Watching The Lost City of Z, the idea that keeps coming into my head is institutionalized aggression. From the hunt at the beginning, to the scenes during World War I, to the debates at the Royal Society and the confrontations between Sir James and Percy, so much of what we see suggests a civilization built around conflict and aggression. It’s codified into every institution and aspect of human behavior. But then the last 20 minutes or so, when they’re back in the Amazon, is the opposite of that — this kind of gentle, dreamlike acceptance.

That was all totally intended. I don’t see the story as a tragedy at all, because ultimately Fawcett was able to achieve some measure of transcendence. He saw a part of the world that practically no Western European and North American will ever see, and he reaches some level of understanding that certainly most people of his time didn’t reach. And as a result, he became a much more legendary figure than he would have if he had survived and found some pottery somewhere. So I worked backward from there and thought that the last 20 minutes, that last trip basically, had to be treated as a beautiful dream in which, even though he doesn’t technically achieve what he wants, he still reaches a kind of transcendence.

The first part of the movie was his struggle to get somewhere in traditional terms. As you said, it’s “institutionalized” — that’s a good way to put it. I was certainly conscious that all of the pressures of the society, the culture, were weighing on him and doing their part to devastate him. And the world was very hostile to him; the die was cast for him in British society right away. He had this father who was a mess and had destroyed not one but two family fortunes, and had consigned the family to the trash heap, and he was battling against that.

Even though Fawcett is ostensibly looking for the lost city, all throughout we sense a growing mystery as to what he’s actually seeking. Near the end, Robert Pattinson’s character even suggests that he’ll never really find it, because it’s more than just Z.

You see a lot of movies where the obsession is there from the beginning. I wanted to make a movie about how an obsession grows. Sometimes it comes from very pernicious elements. And I had seen the class structure, place and rank, as genuine evils that were going to restrict him. The obsession took on a whole other dimension. It was really about filling a hole. It was about trying to address the grievances that the culture had put on him, that society had put on him, that civilized behavior had put on him. And then the war had this terrible effect on him. He had all of this drive and need to escape. If he had found Z, it might have been very anticlimactic for him. It was even for Hiram Bingham. When Bingham discovered Machu Picchu in 1912, it was an amazing discovery, and then he had to have another act in his life where he became a senator, because it wasn’t enough.

The opening hunt and the dance afterward — I feel like Percy is in this world where he knows exactly how everything operates — there’s a clockwork precision to everything, even to the way you shoot it. That contrasts with the final ritual at the end, where we have no idea what’s happening, where the tribe is speaking a language he doesn’t understand — everything almost becomes abstract.

Absolutely. At first, he has an understanding of the limits of that world. He is shut out of that world, but he has what he thinks is clarity. At the end, he realizes the total limitations of his knowledge. “All of life is a mystery,” he says to his son. The more we understand our limits, the more wisdom we have. In the trenches, he says, “I used to think that place and rank meant everything.” But his movement as a character is away from that idea — away from a sense of control, away from even wanting to be in control, away from thinking he has an understanding of the reins of power and what that means.

Because that’s what that opening is about. He has that hunt, he goes off on a different path entirely and kills the deer in a way that is not traditional. That banquet, which is of course cribbing from Visconti, is all his belief that he is either going to be embraced by or rejected by the system. And then in the end, there is no system.

So yes, that was built into the architecture of the movie; the film almost has a meltdown. That to me is what made it subversive. Because if you’re doing a classical-style movie, you want to try and do something that either has a subversive subtext or is shaking things up a little bit. I saw the film as moving more and more toward abstraction. And the last shot, of course, is totally abstract.

Credit: Courtesy Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

Credit: Courtesy Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

Could this be your most optimistic film?

It is — except for his wife. Because the movie is her tragedy, ultimately. Charlie and Tom, the man and the young man, they achieve some kind of legendary status — you know, “disappeared, never seen again.” She suffers with that for decades. And I felt that I needed to pay attention to that for the ending, that it couldn’t end with them, because that’s not the only part of the story. But their story is optimistic.

He achieves peace at the end. We had put these contact lenses in Charlie’s eyes in all the England stuff after the war, because he was an old man. We thought once he went to the jungle that he wouldn’t wear them anymore, that in some way there was a hint of a fountain of youth to him, like he’d been reborn. That he was able to, as Joseph Campbell might say, achieve “atonement with the father.”

Can you talk about adapting David Grann’s book, and the decision to focus just on Fawcett’s journey?

First of all, it’s very difficult to adapt books, as opposed to short stories. Almost all books have too much story for a movie. The book was sent to me — I have no idea why, because there’s nothing in my work that would say that I could do anything like this. But Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt sent me the book, and they said, “We really want you to do this.” This was after Two Lovers in 2008, so I have no idea why they thought of me. But when I read it, the first thing I thought was that I had to lose the Grann stuff [in which David Grann weaves his own journey into the jungle with Fawcett’s]. That part of the book is incredibly entertaining and interesting, but I didn’t want to do some postmodern thing — especially because it’s already been done very well, in films like Adaptation.

There was one passage — not long, maybe four sentences — about Percy’s father, who had destroyed the family’s reputation, and how the son, Percy, had grown up with brutal schooling and in a very Victorian, puritanical way. He floundered in the military. He didn’t really have a cause. And I thought, “Oh, that I can empathize with.” So I tried to latch onto that.

If you look at something like The Godfather II, that whole thing about Vito Corleone killing Don Fanucci — Gastone Moschin in the movie, and De Niro kills him. It’s a very short passage in the original novel of The Godfather, but Coppola and Puzo were brilliant about how they recognized that short, small moment would have mythic importance, and blew it up for the movie. It was all they needed. You find just very simple, small ideas and you can expand them. Otherwise, you could make a 16-hour film about Fawcett. Just the way that he meets his wife in the book is enough for like a Brontë novel or something, it’s crazy.

I was impressed with Charlie Hunnam here. You found a sadness in him that I hadn’t seen before, certainly not in his film work.

It was originally going to be Pitt. But I think we both came to the conclusion that it should be an English person who plays that part, and the movie went on mothballs, and I went off to do The Immigrant. I didn’t think it would ever happen. But I got a call saying that Brad still wanted to produce and that they were interested in Benedict Cumberbatch. I didn’t know Benedict Cumberbatch’s work at all — I’m a loser, I’m a Luddite, I don’t watch TV or go on social media or anything. They said, “Would you meet him? We just made 12 Years a Slave and we think he could be wonderful.”

He wanted to do it. He was a very interesting-looking guy and he had this great, very deep voice. We were all set to go, and then his wife got pregnant, and she very reasonably did not want to give birth in the middle of the jungle shoot, which is exactly when it was scheduled to happen. So he had to back out, and I was depressed but I understood. Again I said, “That movie’s never going to happen.”

Then Plan B called me again and said, “We know this actor that we’ve been working with, named Charlie Hunnam.” And I said, “Charlie Hunnam? Sons of Anarchy? I’m not gonna cast some American guy!” Now, I didn’t really know anything about Sons of Anarchy; my wife had watched it, so I’d seen moments from it and I thought he was an American. They said, “No, no, no, he’s from Newcastle.” I said, “I don’t want to see anything he’s done, because it’s not of any help to me; he won’t have done anything like this.” Instead, I invited him over for dinner, and my wife thought he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. I really liked him, and I thought he was really bright, with a wonderful sensitivity and, like Fawcett, a real need to prove himself.

He had a drive. He felt disrespected, and that he hadn’t had a chance to do what he thought was good work. I thought, “OK, I can use that.” And he was so dedicated. I mean, he lost something like 40 pounds in a span of eight weeks. Crazy. He’s extremely intense, and there’s a danger to him in a way that you don’t necessarily anticipate — a real darkness. When you meet an actor, all you’re looking for is that openness to be vulnerable, that willingness to expose him or herself emotionally. And if they have that, the sky is the limit.

Credit: Courtesy Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

Credit: Courtesy Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

Robert Pattinson has done a lot of interesting work with directors like David Cronenberg, but I would never classify any of it as realist; what he does in a film like Cosmopolis is very arch. But in your film, he completely disappears into the part.

It’s an act of generosity, really. Rob has this ridiculous beard and it’s such great, self-effacing, wonderful work he’s doing. I love actors very much because they do things I could never do. Directors are all frustrated actors anyway, and it’s very exciting as a filmmaker to see an actor who really is that generous with you. It was a very happy shoot — as arduous as it was, brutal as it was.

Location has always been important in your work. I noticed that Fawcett’s house in England has the vines growing around it — almost as if he’s trying to control nature, but failing.

Totally intentional. We had found an abandoned house that had real vine overgrowth, and we left most of it because the calculation there was that he had let the earth overtake him to some degree, and we wanted the visual idea to somehow unconsciously make its way into the viewer. So we tried to say that there was not that much of a divide between England and the jungle, at least in his mind — that the jungle had overtaken him at least a little bit. Who knows? Maybe the house did not have that kind of overgrowth but he projected it onto it.

There are a couple of those expressionistic little moments throughout the film, kind of reminiscent of the kiss from Vertigo, where suddenly we’ll see the jungle in the background of a scene that’s not taking place in the jungle.

Yeah, that happens when he’s in the trenches. I ripped that off from Richard Fleischer’s movie The Boston Strangler, toward the end. It’s a pretty great movie, and Tony Curtis is incredible in it; you have to see it widescreen because it uses split-screen and multiple screens. The movie starts in a rather classical fashion, and really almost melts down at the end, in a great way. Edward Anhalt wrote it, and he did another movie with Edward Dmytryk in 1952 called The Sniper, which is sort of the precursor to The Boston Strangler.

What they do in Boston Strangler is, as Curtis is confessing, it shows him in those multiple locations. I thought that would imply Fawcett’s mental breakdown a little bit. And I even planned more of it. There’s a scene in the film when Percy’s son says, “Father, we must go back.” Fawcett’s an old man by that point, and he looks out and sees his wife in the distance. I shot two versions of Tom’s close-up, and one was in the jungle.

I was thinking that maybe at times I would cut to him in the jungle, but when we cut it into the movie nobody noticed. Slavko Vorkapich, the great montage artist from the ’30s, talked of deep immersion, you know, where the audience is so involved in the story that they don’t notice things that are massive continuity changes. Nobody noticed it, so I had to remove it.

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