Deadly Obsession: James Gray chronicles a British explorer’s quest for 'The Lost City of Z'

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In his five features to date, James Gray has rarely ventured far—if at all—from the five boroughs of his native New York City. “I’m genetically engineered to be an accountant in a shtetl,” glibly confesses the 48-year-old writer-director responsible for Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant.

“It’s a body of work I’m proud of,” the filmmaker concedes, “but it felt as though I’d been working toward something, so it wasn’t that I was personally unhappy with what I’d done. It’s just that I had about enough of New York for a while. At some point, I always feel like if you want to be—dare I use the dirty word?—an artist of some merit, it’s going to demand that you try things out of your comfort zone.”

For his sixth flick, Gray trekked way out of his comfort zone—2,036 miles, to put a precise point on it, from NYC to The Lost City of Z. Actually, true to life and to the 2009 David Grann book that the film is based on, that city stayed resolutely lost while Gray & Co. roamed the hot tropical countryside that’s wildly uncharted around Santa Marta, Colombia, in September and October of 2015.

“It’s a very, very scary proposition to go into the jungle,” he recalls. “I was horrified by the idea. I felt it would be a terrible experience and that I would be personally and professionally scarred by it forever—so, of course, I said, ‘I have to do this!’”

The finished results emerged the following September, just three weeks before Gray world-premiered the picture as the 2016 New York Film Festival’s closing-night attraction. It has since been marinating in the studio vaults for a half-year, awaiting a spring release—while Gray has been resisting the temptation of tinkering with the two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time. “I tried to toy with both longer and shorter edits,” he says, “but, in the end, the movie tells you what it wants and needs. Sometimes people think you can always make it shorter, but when I tried to cut stuff out, the narrative threads stopped making sense, and that becomes a problem.”

Gray tells the true, complicated, unwieldy story of Col. Percival Fawcett, a British artillery officer who comes from the old-school, swagger-and-dash heroic mold but missed being widely celebrated because he was denied his great “Eureka!” moment.

In 1906, on the orders of the Royal Geographical Society, he led an expedition to Bolivia to map the Brazilian border, taking on this task as a means of redeeming his family name in the eyes of the English upper-crust in Edwardian society. As one British snob sniffed, “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestor.”

The idea of an outsider trying to get in is a conflict that seems to come up a lot in Gray movies, and it is basically what drew him to Fawcett. “The struggle to fit into a larger system is a very strong and common feeling. We join gangs or clubs or fraternities, whatever—all of this is our own personal need to conquer aloneness.”

“His father had been a complete mess and had squandered not one but two family fortunes,” says Gray. “Fawcett’s character and drive were formed by that—by having to make up for the sins of the father. I found that a very powerful idea.”

Because so much was at stake in this Brazilian expedition—everything, really, for Fawcett—he became consumed with finding an ancient civilization deep in the heart of the Amazon, and this turned into an obsession that kept him charging blindly in overdrive through omnipresent perils—spears, arrows, piranhas, hostile natives.

Not just once, either. He made three expeditions to the jungles, with time out for World War I in which he was injured—but not enough to stop his explorer’s passion.

Brad Pitt brought Grann’s bestseller to Gray’s attention as a possible vehicle for himself and his Plan B production company. “They sent the book to me in late 2008 in galley form. I started writing the script the next year and finished it in late 2009.”

The historical ground covered, the stately pace at which he takes the picture—all that betrays a genuine cinema craftsman at work. His way of reasoning it out turns out to be simple: “If you’re doing an elliptical story, is that your friend or your foe?”

“The truth is that a lot of the time the elliptical framework sort of works magically for you because biographies—and, I guess, in some perverse way, this is a biography—tend to be very dull or conventional, since they are essentially trying to capture, beat by beat, a person’s life, and that sort of thing is not really knowable. Every person is like an onion. You keep peeling away the layers to get to the core.

“The idea was that the connective tissue would not be the facts of the case. The connective tissue would be: What is the meaning, the cause and the cost of obsession? So, knowing it would be folly to try to follow all the events and beats of his life—to say nothing of the fact that Fawcett did so much more it would have taken 19 hours of movie—the film had to be, by necessity, structurally elliptical.”

His favorite movies, he confesses, “are unbelievably elliptical. Raging Bull is an amazingly elliptical movie. There are chunks of Jake LaMotta’s life up there. His first wife just sort of magically disappears in the film. It doesn’t matter. It works for the film’s benefit, because what it does is, instead of adhering to the traditional trappings of the genre, what you can do is to connect a series of scenes through a thematic unity, not a narrative unity—and that can be a much more powerful thing. So, this elliptical framework was the governing idea in the scriptwriting stage.”

Pitt dropped out of the project as star but stayed on as producer—and Benedict Cumberbatch signed up as Fawcett. “Unfortunately,” postscripts the director, “Benedict’s wife got pregnant, and she quite reasonably did not want to have to deliver the baby in the jungle. The due date was in the middle of that three months’ shooting stretch. He had a commitment after that to Doctor Strange, so I didn’t think it made sense to wait for two years, which was what it would have meant.”

For a Cumberbatch replacement, Gray had to look no further than Plan B to find Charlie Hunnam. “The company had worked with—and loved—Charlie, and they suggested him. At first, I pooh-poohed the idea. ‘No, I want an English person. I don’t want bad English accents in the movie.’ And they said, ‘What are you talking about? Charlie Hunnam’s from Newcastle.’ I thought he was an American from ‘Sons of Anarchy.’ When I met with him, I liked him immediately. What I felt was that he had the necessary swashbuckling but ambivalent feel about him—and he was willing to do things that were very un-star like in the movie, be selfish and lose weight and not present himself as the best person you’ve ever met. Thinking about it now, it works very much for the film’s benefit. He doesn’t have a ton of mythology behind him.”

In a testosterone-driven adventure yarn like this, the female lead is usually lost—or left holding a lamp by the window like Maureen O’Hara in John Ford movies. But, here, Gray has bothered to create a lively kindred spirit for Fawcett to woo and wife, and Sienna Miller takes it from there. Her portrayal of Nina Fawcett is another thing that takes the movie off a straight action course, giving it the breath of humanity.

As Gray casually unwinds his lifelike saga of obsession and sacrifice, he lets enough time to elapse for one of Fawcett’s three children to grow and take his place beside his father on the adventure trail. Tom Holland, the upcoming Spider-Man, plays him ably. On earlier forays into dark-green unknowns are Angus Macfadyen and a bushy-bearded (take my word for it) Robert Pattinson. Ian McDiarmid and Franco Nero contribute fleeting cameos.

Gray, who is becoming known for his last-shot summations, tops the final image he had in The Immigrant, by throwing the last scenes to Miller. “Nina Fawcett was an amazing person in her own right,” he points out.  “Here, I’ve already dealt with White Man Goes to an Exotic Land as a kind of politically offensive idea for a movie.”

The Lost City of Z doesn’t permit us the traditional happy ending—or, indeed, any kind of ending. No one has ever learned what happened to Fawcett & Son when they disappeared in the jungle in 1925, and Gray has kept that mystery. “I wanted to give an ambiguity to it. I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to Fawcett’s wife? She’s left behind.’ In real life, she basically suffered for 30 years, lived to be very old and died a lonely woman—so I didn’t exactly want to tell that part of the story because it’s a real downer. What I did do was give an idea to the audience that the same obsession that killed him, in some way, swallowed her up as well. That’s why that last shot exists. The idea was that the same obsession ultimately also eats away at her soul.”

Next stop on Gray’s moviemaking agenda is even farther from New York—a sci-fi epic called Ad Astra. “I like to say it’s more future fact than sci-fi,” he corrects. “I want to try and make the most realistic film about space travel that’s ever been made. I have a very tough road ahead because it’s a very difficult genre to master.

“Most, if not all, science-fiction films wind up resorting in one way or another to a certain kind of light show. Now, I’m a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey—I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made, and it’s certainly one of my favorites—but even that film, as brilliant and masterful as it is, does fall prey slightly to ‘We’re going to awe you with a light show at the end.’ It makes up for it because it’s so conceptually brilliant, but I’m going to try and do something that doesn’t rely on that.”

It’s something to shoot for all right, and, if all goes well, he will start shooting in July.