The Search: James Gray’s The Lost City of Z

In The Lost City of Z, James Gray mobilizes a muscular classicism to portray a British explorer trailblazing into the unknown

By Michael Koresky

Exploration was among the most common themes of early-20th-century cinema, highlighting the belief that the camera was a tool for expedition as much as capturing reality. Almost 30 years had passed since the Lumière Brothers first pulled back the curtain on their invention in Paris when Robert Flaherty went on his voyage to Canada’s Hudson Bay, but his Nanook of the North was received with wonder in 1922, as though people were still tickled and amazed by the very notion of this mobile, empathy-building, trekking device. In this and other early ethnographic-tinged films (Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper, and Marguerite Harrison’s majestic 1925 Angora-to-Persia travelogue Grass; F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tahiti-set Tabu) as well as later benchmark adventures (David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo), the making of the film, and thus the filmmaking apparatus, becomes an implicit part of the narrative. Fully equipped and forging new trails, cinema itself is the pathfinder.

One of American movies’ few remaining true classicists, James Gray evokes this tradition in his latest film, The Lost City of Z, an exploration epic crafted with palpable, down-to-earth textures. While adapting David Grann’s nonfiction best seller—which bears the same name but with the sensational subtitle A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon—Gray took a trip down to the Brazilian jungle in order to enter the mindscape of British explorer Percy Fawcett, a World War I lieutenant colonel whose passionate drive to find the location of a ruined ancient city, Grann’s book posits, would come to overtake his life and overwhelm his duties as husband, father, and citizen. Gray’s film also recalls and subtly interrogates the tradition of British colonialist spectacles so popular in the 1930s, such as the Kordas’ Sanders of the River and The Four Feathers, depicting its white protagonist as more deluded than heroic—yet without the kind of authorial condemnation that would have made it a more oppressive message movie.

Rather than depict Fawcett’s journey as devolving into a kind of Herzogian madness, Gray and leading man Charlie Hunnam take a matter-of-fact, internalized approach to the character, treating his obsession with the possibly mythical Z as an almost practical means of emotional escape, like a parallel life to his everyday responsibilities in the more constricting realities of Edwardian England. As filmed by Gray and the remarkable cinematographer Darius Khondji, who also shot Gray’s superlative and overlooked The Immigrant (2013), the jungle itself becomes a lulling terrain, a place of respite and contemplation despite the many grave dangers posed to Fawcett and his crew (which includes right-hand man Henry Costin, played by an unrecognizable, remarkably recessive Robert Pattinson). Though the circumstances of Fawcett’s 1925 disappearance while on a final expedition remain a mystery, Gray’s film so gracefully depicts his exploration as one of the mind that his speculative ending feels wholly earned—an unexpected expression of spiritual elation, and a reminder that there’s really only one journey we’re all on, and it has just one possible conclusion.

Giving The Lost City of Z even more texture is the fact that Gray shot on 35mm, a decision that complicated an already challenging production, but which nevertheless speaks to a director who remains committed to finding the best way to tell a particular story rather than to playing around with the most cutting-edge technology. As in his earlier films Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and The Immigrant, the emotional lives of his characters take precedence over the way they’re cinematically packaged. During a long lunch in October, right before his film was about to make its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Gray and I talked about finding Z, why he continues to shoot on film, overcoming past frustrations with the industry, and why story matters above all.


How did you begin researching for this film?

We went to the Royal Geographical Society in London. It’s this magnificent red brick Victorian mansion that was given to the RGS in 1912. And in the basement they have archives. So we looked at all the Fawcett archives, Charlie Hunnam and I and the art department, and tried to match all the locations to the photos. And I think we came pretty close. There are certain things, like the end of the film, that were conjecture.

Fawcett was in Mato Grosso, the Pantanal region, which wasn’t filmable because it’s all soybean farms now; it looks like Nebraska. The jungle where he was has been razed. That being the case, I had to look elsewhere. So we looked in Argentina, and that didn’t really do it. There was discussion about Peru, which is where Herzog shot his films. Then finally in Colombia I found what looked like the photos I saw from the RGS and had an indigenous population we could work with from the Southern part of Colombia called the Putumayo, in Amazonía. So that sort of covered all the bases and that’s where we wound up.

You see these films about explorations and expeditions, whether it’s Herzog or The Revenant, and the movies themselves ultimately seem to be about the journey, the Herculean task of making the film, as opposed to the story or characters. Whereas this seems like it was an arduous journey for the sake of telling this story.

I had not seen The Revenant yet, because it was released when I started editing. I had been back from the jungle a month when it came out. In the case of Herzog, I want to preface everything by saying that I love Aguirre, the Wrath of God, I think it’s a masterpiece, and I love Fitzcarraldo. So this is not really about him, but in general the idea that you’re talking about, with all these people who congregate to help you make a film, and—risking sounding corny—realize the dream you have to make it. To me, it’s very unbecoming to sit around and complain about how difficult it is to make a film, and that you should be celebrated for that fact.

It’s difficult of course, but it’s not going house to house in Kandahar, you know? It’s awful, you have bugs, and it’s hot, and all that, but it’s not the reason that the work of art, if I may use that dirty word, should exist. I only saw the jungle as—I hate to use the word metaphor because it’s so fraught, but I always saw it as a person’s way of projecting all of his life’s desires onto something. In other words, it could have been Antarctica. So I thought the jungle was both incredibly important and not important at all. What was most important to me was Fawcett’s psychology. So the process we used was to never focus on the struggle of making the film—it will be awful, it will be incredibly difficult, it will take years off your life, absolutely it did all that. But that cannot be the idea that governs the film.

When did you decide definitively to shoot on film?

We did camera tests in the U.K. two months out. We shot exactly the same thing on film and digital, threw it up there on the screen, labeled them A, B, C, D. I think we tested the Red, the Alexa, Kodak, and Sony. We looked at them blind. And I chose the one that was the best, and it was Kodak. It has to do with flesh tones. The digital’s not quite there yet. So the decision was made. And it added about $750,000 to the budget of a movie that was not a big movie.

Did you have a lot of pushback?

Yeah, of course. Because it’s an antiquated medium. It’s weird: when we did The Immigrant, it was cheaper to shoot film. That was 2013. And almost overnight it became a boutique thing. Now it’s more expensive. It was like 15 cents a foot. And it went to 37 cents a foot. And I don’t shoot a small amount. I was worried that digital wouldn’t even work, because our computers and phones weren’t functioning because of the humidity. So I wasn’t entirely certain that the digital camera wouldn’t have problems of its own. As it was we screwed up lenses; plants were growing in the camera at the end. It was crazy.

Will you continue shooting on film?

If I can. It’s better. We did have problems with a few days of the film, with some damaged negative and so forth. And the cost difference is huge. But I’m going to try because it’s still the best medium. The audience sees the final product, and doesn’t care whether it’s cheaper or more expensive, doesn’t care whether you had a tougher time developing it or not.

I’m interested in the ways you can’t quite define the emotions you’re feeling while watching a film. And one of those things is the difference between film and video. There’s something happening on screen, with texture and grain, though you can’t always articulate it.

Audiences do sense it, but they can never verbalize it. And that’s okay: it’s not their job to talk to you about details in the sound mix; they can’t talk to you about whether it’s film or digital. But these details do matter, because what happens is that they send the unconscious message to our brain about what feels authentic and what doesn’t. So it’s not my job, it’s not our job—well, maybe more your job, I suppose—to communicate to the audience the details of why they feel the way they do. It’s our job simply to provide the experience and allow them to absorb it as best they can. It’s why people say, “That film is very realistic” and it’s black and white. We don’t live in a black-and-white world, so why is that more realistic? Because all cinema is in a way a form of metaphor and you kind of accept black and white as a statement in and of itself. It’s something with film grain, something with that organic aspect of the process.

The Immigrant felt like a movie made out of time, in the best possible way. What are the reasons you think it was perceived as unreleaseable in certain quarters?

Because the film adheres to some aspects of classical narrative form, but not all. I have a sort of bigger philosophy about the movies, which is that the cinema essays of Godard are obviously extremely important in the continuum, but… he did them already. No one else can follow him doing that. It’s sort of like someone who comes along and tries to do a drip painting—it’s like, uh, ok, that happened already, so what are you doing? So I feel like that moment has passed, and my own obligation is to revisit traditional forms of storytelling but almost double down on the emotion of it.

In other words, we’ve now acknowledged that our indulgence in narrative is a bullshit fantasy that we require. We’ve deconstructed it. Okay, good. So now what? We can just go ahead and say the fantasy is nonsense and bullshit, so then fine, you can just kill yourself now. What’s important is that now that we’ve acknowledged that the fantasy is bullshit—that our need for narrative, our need for the extension of sympathy, is some kind of extension of our desires—now we have to delve even further into that fantasy. And in my view, and this is not a popular one, a lot of film criticism out of Cannes, for example, is filled with critics who are stuck in 1968. And still want to see the deconstruction.

Or at least be perceived as wanting to see the deconstruction.

It’s the same thing. Two sides of the same coin. So that’s why the Palme d’Or winners and the films perceived as great out of Cannes are generally movies with very little staying power and are incredibly boring to watch. And it’s why there’s this terrible feedback loop of critical response in Cannes, which is all about the same tropes, which are in some ways every bit as clichéd as Batman vs. Superman. Handheld camera, austere, working class… I’ve been a juror, and you can smell them a mile away. It’s a joke, almost.

And it’s not just the austerity and the aesthetics, but this perceived relevance. Especially right now with cultural currency being so different online. Discussions around films being tagged to political talking points.

It’s so boring.

Your films don’t seem to have a need for any fidelity to that conversation.

I don’t care at all.

So this is perhaps why they get lost.

Right. It’s not rocket science. Why would they respond if I’m actively working against everything that they want? Now, my argument would be that they’re dead wrong. And that history is against them. That what will happen is what has always happened. Which is that what is very now and fresh will be rancid 10, 12, 15 years from now. So we’ll see who’s right. Maybe I’m totally wrong. But my own view is that such a reaction—this has never been done before, it’s so fresh—is a very narcissistic, self-centered idea, because it’s saying we have discovered something no one else has seen. And if they think that, it’s the most pathetic misreading of history. Because for example there were forms of deconstruction and self-reflexivity in post-Virgilian work, in Rome. Now we don’t read it, except for graduate students in the Classics, but it’s there, it’s been done already. And even if you thought, “Man, deconstructing narrative is awesome,” go watch 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her on an endless loop. You’ll be very happy. He did it. Godard is still a towering artist. And I think that’s connected to the fact that even as discursive as the films are, there’s always a nod to the fantasy. If you look at the great work of his, look at Contempt, there’s still not only an element of narrative, there’s also a great drive toward the personal and emotional. He is not totally deconstructing; he is allowing us to do the deconstructing.

And I would argue that it’s still in his work. Even in his new films.

Well, he believes in beauty. Look at the close-up of the swirling coffee in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The birds in In Praise of Love. There’s still an awareness of the ephemeral nature of beauty.

Even in the 3-D film Goodbye to Language. People who don’t want to dive into these films emotionally and see them as remote objects might not be on their wavelength. But he’s not using 3-D or digital as devices just to use them. Like that moment when the two images on different sides of the eyes come together. It’s clarifying, not obfuscating.

Because he still believes in it. I think we have a need for subtext. And that’s actually the number one thing that’s missing from a lot of these films; not in his case, of course. I know exactly what these films are supposed to be about. Instantly.

It’s like titles these days. Hey, it’s a movie about sisters. Let’s call it Sisters.

Yeah, Horrible Bosses. It’s marketing. So you ask me about The Immigrant. It’s also possible that the movie just stinks. But that’s a different argument. Is it poorly acted, is it poorly photographed, is it badly told? Whatever, that’s a different discussion. The wholesale rejection—“Worst film in Cannes,” the publicist told me was said about the film quite often—that comes from people’s very obsessed need to stay true to what they think is deconstructing a hackneyed art form.

It’s self-protection. I believe that 95 percent of critics just want to fall in line with the critical consensus around something. So they’re protecting their own image as critics and making a comment of their own relevance.

The last two have gotten very mixed responses. Two Lovers and The Immigrant were very divided.

That’s a good sign.

In retrospect I like that. Upon release you want everyone to like it. It hurt in the case of The Immigrant quite a bit, because the distribution company handling the film felt it was a sign the movie was weak, and decided not to release it. And when they finally did, it was only under tremendous pressure. It was quite well received when it was finally released theatrically. But by then they didn’t do any publicity or spend any money on it. So I definitely bore the brunt of a strange set of circumstances. I don’t know. I don’t read the specifics, but if you say cinephiles like the film now, that’s great, tremendously gratifying. But in some ways it hurts, because where was everybody in 2013 in Cannes?

Here’s the thing: I did think about the long game and I thought, well, if The Weinstein Company shelves the movie permanently, which of course was a realistic prospect, maybe what it means is that there’s this movie that people can discover 30, 40, 50, 60 years from now, and if it’s worth anything it will survive and if it’s not good enough then it won’t, and that’s not something I can control anyway. I had to calm myself down with that thinking. It didn’t really work. I went through a very difficult period after that film in 2013.

Many filmmakers have gone through it.

I’m complaining and it’s so pathetic. Because if you look at filmmakers like Orson Welles… can you imagine you’re 27 years old and you’ve made this incredible movie about the changing of time? The most monumental work. It’s the greatest thing ever. Then he goes off to another country, and they destroy the film in his absence. I don’t understand how he didn’t kill himself. It’s an act of public humiliation. Savage. I mean, that missing footage is cinema’s holy grail. There was apparently one print that was sent to him in Brazil, for him to watch. And nobody knows where it is. That’s the one hope.

Is that what The Lost City of Z is really about? Going to Brazil for the missing Magnificent Ambersons footage?

It might have been a better movie. I don’t know. But that’s a cautionary tale, and a comment about how I shouldn’t ever really whine. Because there’s a truly great artist who dealt with something far worse than I will ever have to deal with. Look at Van Gogh: maybe the greatest painter in history, and he sold one painting to his brother. And now it turns out he may have been killed by a couple of dopey teenagers? I mean, if that happens to him, then what chance does a loser like me have? Herman Melville? Moby-Dick? Had to be rediscovered by a school headmaster who needed a good seafaring book. It’s the best novel ever written in the English language. And I thought to myself in 2013 that if this happens to Melville and these people who are infinitely greater, then just calm down and do the best you can and keep moving on. But I only moved on when the film came out, in 2014.

So when did you start on The Lost City of Z? Obviously you picked yourself up again and made this elaborate new film.

Well, at a certain point, after about eight months of moping and psychiatry, and my poor wife putting up with it, I thought to myself, there are two alternatives here. Keep doing what you’re doing, or pick yourself up and actually try again—and fuck everybody. I thought the latter was more appealing. So that’s when I started to get The Lost City of Z resuscitated. And Benedict Cumberbatch wanted to do it. I had never seen anything he was in. So I just met with him, which I thought was better than knowing his work. I found him a very interesting-looking person, very commanding. So I thought okay, let’s make this, and he was about to do it, but then his wife got pregnant and was scheduled to give birth right in the middle of the jungle shoot. So what could I say? I couldn’t urge him to be in the jungle then. I’d be a major jerk.

You’d be like Percy Fawcett.

Exactly. So the financiers said they would do it with this young actor named Charlie Hunnam. I didn’t know his work at all either, so I went and familiarized myself with everything. I met with him and liked him a lot, and it was obvious he was going to be very dedicated. So we revamped and made the movie. He was wonderful. Apart from my personal affection for him, I love his work in the film.

Robert Pattinson is also great. There’s such a lack of vanity, and I know that’s a phrase that’s overused in talking about actors, usually so they can get awards, and that’s not what I mean. He just kind of disappears into the fabric of the film. Is that something you worked on with him or that he brought with him?

I certainly didn’t work on that with him, but I noticed him doing it. It’s a remarkable thing to have an actor divest himself, disappear from his star power. I love him in his last scene, when he’s in the tuxedo, and he’s obviously not going to go on that journey. I had a very good time making the film; I think The Immigrant and this were the happiest I have ever been on a set.

You talk about subtext a lot. Is this something you’re thinking about on a scene-for-scene basis?

For me subtext in narrative is the whole ballgame. That’s the reason you’re doing it. Moby-Dick’s not really about the anatomy of a whale. I mean, it is, but it’s not. So it’s tricky. I don’t ever tell the actors about the subtext of a scene unless we’re talking about the motivation behind a certain bit of behavior. But if the actor plays the subtext, that can’t be. The actor can only play his or her reality in the moment. If the actor is playing the subtext, then the actor is playing with a level of distance that I don’t like. It means they are above the character.

You can tell the difference when you’re watching a film that’s enamored of its own themes.

What would be an example?

I feel this way about a lot of David Cronenberg, for example. His films are about overarching concepts, and that makes its way into how the actors are directed. Maybe it’s obvious to say that’s distancing, but it goes beyond that into a kind of thematic overdetermination. And then I can’t be in the moment of the film. Certainly in the last one, Maps to the Stars, for instance.

I think this is being above the character. I haven’t seen that film, by the way. I was busy making The Lost City of Z. It’s funny, I have gaps in my movie-watching that correspond precisely with when I’m prepping and making a film—2014, 2015. I’ve sort of started again, as of two months ago, but I have to play catch-up. Although I’ve been watching some of Max Ophüls’s American movies. I saw Caught recently, and The Reckless Moment, of course. I have a couple of others yet to watch.

But anyway, suffice it to say the whole point is the subtext. The narrative is only a vehicle through which you express another idea. There is a subtext between us, though I don’t know what it is. An outsider would know. Maybe I want you to think better of me so that you write a better article than “James Gray Is a Dick.” So I’m probably a little softer than I am in private, less aggressive, less angry. But I’m also trying to prove to you my sincerity, so maybe I’m going too far, saying too much.

Closer Look: The Lost City of Z opens on April 14.

Michael Koresky is the Director of Editorial and Creative Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.