The historical epic The Lost City of Z, which opens in theaters today, marks a substantial change of pace for writer-director James Gray. Gray’s five previous films—among them We Own the Night, Two Lovers, and The Immigrant—took place in ethnic enclaves of New York City over relatively short periods of time. Lost City, on the other hand, takes place in England, Ireland, and the Amazonian jungle, and its narrative spans two decades. It recounts the true story of Percy Fawcett (played in the movie by Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who was determined to find the ruins of a fabled ancient city in South America in the early 20th century. He made several trips along the Amazon over the course of his career, eventually recruiting his son to join him in his travels. Like Gray’s other movies, Lost City feels classical in its storytelling and cinematic grammar, making it unlike most other films being made today. At the same time, the film advances modern views about women and imperialism that one doesn’t find in, say, the historical epics of David Lean, whom Gray cited as an influence when he presented Lost City (from his personal 35-millimeter print) at the Music Box last Sunday night. I spoke with Gray the morning after that screening to discuss some of his other creative influences, the politics of his new film, and what he hopes to achieve when he re-creates earlier eras.
Ben Sachs: Did you enjoy last night’s screening of The Lost City of Z?
James Gray: I did. It was fun.
How many times have you seen the film on 35 millimeter?
I’ve seen it twice on 35. It’s better on 35, of course. It’s a beautiful thing. It almost looks like a movie that’s been found and restored, which I like quite a bit.
Speaking of older films, the scenes set in England remind me of Luchino Visconti’s historical films, like The Leopard and Senso, because the past feels so immersive in Lost City of Z. Was it always your goal when you conceived and wrote the film to create this seductive entry into the past? Or was that something that evolved while you were shooting?
I think I started off with that, because I’m a huge fan of Visconti. Part of it is that he was able to fill the past with a sense of politics. You sense the weight of history in an amazing way, and yet it’s also a very subjective presentation of history. There’s a very expressive use of the camera in Visconti. And so the way I tried to think of it was, how do you make a historical epic that doesn’t have any of the trappings of stuffiness, the kind of “tea-and-crumpets” British cinema? So I thought if you grafted the Italian expressiveness onto the English countryside, what would that be like?
I guess it’s just this idea of the irretrievability of that lost moment. And that’s what Visconti’s about—both beauty and a certain melancholy of the irretrievability of the past. It’s something I always thought was very beautiful. So, from the beginning, I wanted to approach the material like that. It also has to do with Visconti’s political bent, which was an interesting Marxist read of history. It’s interesting because it’s not just Marxist—it’s aristocratic Marxism, because he was a count. That appealed to me.
How do you see Lost City of Z as political?
I thought that [Fawcett] was the victim of a class system that was ruthlessly unforgiving, and that forced him into a position of inadequacy. That spurred both his greatness and his folly. And I thought that the film could bring life to the idea that’s in the book [by David Grann, the movie’s source material], that his sense of inadequacy was fueled in such large measure by class. That idea obsessed me. I thought, in a larger sense, what the book conveyed and what the movie could convey was the brutal sense of hierarchies. You know, [Fawcett’s superiors] look down on him, and he puts his wife in a box, and Western Europe looks down on South America. So in that sense, the film is political. And when I say “political,” I don’t mean Democrat or Republican or that kind of thing. I mean, in a larger sense, seeing how economics shapes history and how that shapes our lives.
Another thing I admire about the film is that these economic and psychological concerns are presented on equal footing with the historical spectacle. How did you work with the actors to bring the psychological conflicts to life?
You always convey the reality of the situation to them, and you convey their reality. So you can talk about story all you want with an actor—and I do—but it always comes down to one thing, which is, how do you personalize it as much as possible? How do you make sure that the story is precisely connected to their own lives? Every actor uses a form of substitution, whether they know it or not. So say the scene is, something bad happens to your son, and [the actor] doesn’t have a son. How do you play that moment? Well, you have to fill it up with something in your own life that can replicate that kind of issue.
For example, if Charlie [Hunnam] has felt disrespected by a Hollywood producer for not being the biggest movie star of all time yet, and what that indignity feels like—that’s what you play. It feels connected to what the character’s feeling about a different situation, but the authenticity is there.
Did you find that your approach to working with actors was different on Lost City of Z than on your other films? Because it’s about British people in the early 20th century, the language is more formalized than in anything else you’ve made.
It didn’t, and maybe that’s a flaw. I certainly didn’t feel that it was a mistake. What I decided to do was to pursue just as I pursued other films. I didn’t think about whether it was British or American or anything like that. I don’t feel like there’s all that much difference in how human beings interact [then and now]. If there were, Shakespeare wouldn’t have any meaning for us. So if you’re looking at someone who wrote in 1580 and it still makes sense to us in 2017, then it tells us that human beings are not that different from each other or through time. So, I just tried to draw as much as I could from my personal life for the movie. I tried to draw on my own feelings of disrespect or letting myself down or letting others down, being driven by an obsession. You know, Fawcett has two boys and a girl, and I have two boys and a girl. I have a wonderful, supportive, brilliant wife, and he did too.
I just tried to project myself into the story as much as I could and not worry about the cultural specifics. Maybe I got some of them wrong, but if I did, it doesn’t have all that much meaning. You don’t watch The Godfather and talk about the inaccuracies about the Italian Mafia in 1953 or whatever in New York. It’s probably quite inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the greater truth. Well, it matters to some, who pick it apart and say that’s not accurate.
Doing that seems to be a popular trend in online writing.
What, to point out historical inaccuracies in movies? Well, that’s because it’s easy and intellectually lazy. It’s the easiest thing to talk about—so-and-so doesn’t pick up a fork the right way. But that’s not really what we look at over the long run. Over the long run, we’re forced to look at more complex factors and more interesting currents in a film. You know, what the film is actually saying. I don’t mean “saying” in a dogmatic way, but what’s actually being communicated, what the story actually means. That takes a little more work. To judge a movie on whether the napkins are folded correctly is lazy and easy and it allows you to pretend that you’re smart. Right? You can show how much knowledge you have about the facts of history. But that’s not what we get out of a true understanding of history, which means understanding broad currents and how they affect our world today.
I think it has a lot to say about the Internet. With the Internet, your access to small factoids—meaningless factoids, frankly—is quite easy. So you can pretend to have knowledge. But there’s a difference between wisdom and factoid awareness.
I remember on the DVD of The Yards, there was a special feature where you went through images of paintings that you had looked at with your cinematographer when creating the look of the film. Is that something you did with The Lost City of Z? Because the film has a very painterly look.
We looked almost exclusively at paintings and not at movies. I mean, you talk about Visconti, but we never looked at him. He influenced me only because I love him, and you can’t hide an influence when you love a filmmaker. We looked at Claude Lorrain for the UK [scenes], and we looked at Henri Rousseau for the jungle [scenes]. We tried to stick to those guys. We looked at [Thomas] Gainsborough, some Watteau, some Corot, Turner. Because we didn’t want to replicate other movies—we wanted this to have its own rhythm. So, we simply pursued a painterly look and tried to communicate the beauty of the jungle in a way that was not copying other directors.
What do you like about Henri Rousseau as opposed to other painters of jungle scenes?
Rousseau managed to capture the melancholy beauty of the jungle without sensationalizing it. He’s taking a western European approach to what the jungle is, means, and looks like, yet there is a humanity to it and a love of it. Ultimately there’s a mystery to it. His paintings are quite mysterious. So, for all these reasons, I tried to fill up the images of the jungle with his approach.
I think a major mistake would be making another white guy goes to the jungle movie where he just loses his mind. That would be Aguirre: The Wrath of God redux, but the thing about Aguirre—which is such a great movie—is that [the protagonist] is driven crazy by greed and megalomania. But that’s not really the story here. Fawcett’s not driven crazy by greed or megalomania. There are aspects of that, but that’s not what overtakes him. The story is really about everybody else thinking he’s crazy when he’s really not—it’s sort of the opposite, in a way. If Fawcett were to go crazy in this film, it would mean his confrontation with the indigenous peoples of Amazonia would have been the thing to drive him crazy, and that’s racist.
So, the Rousseau paintings did communicate the exotic, but they didn’t indicate madness. They indicated beauty—at least for me. Some other people might get different things from Rousseau, but that’s how I felt. There’s a melancholy remove, which I thought was quite beautiful and different.
Could you describe your relationship with Darius Khondji, your cinematographer on this film and The Immigrant? How do you communicate your visual ideas to him?
Our relationship is excellent. He’s a genius, one of the greatest cinematographers in movie history. I owe him so much. Because you know how hard it is [to shoot in] the jungle? Not just physically, but to balance the light in there? It’s one of the hardest things you can give a director of photography to do. I’m hugely in his debt, he was unbelievably helpful. This was a very tough movie to make. I asked a lot of him, and he exceeded my expectations.
At a certain point, I had just had to stand back in awe of what the guy can do. I mean, we didn’t have any lights in the jungle! The movie is basically lit with shiny boards and black flags, which cut some light. It’s remarkable what he did with such limitations. The jungle is the thing that kills directors of photography, because it’s very difficult to balance the light. You have “hot spots” that come when the sun is shining through, which burn out. Then you have areas in the frame that are so dark that you can’t get any kind of exposure. So the range is huge.