Director James Gray Talks Finding ‘The Lost City of Z’


The Lost City of Z director talks about filming in the jungle, the persona of his actors, and connecting with classic films.

Lost City of Z director James Gray is a man who loves movies. Anytime an interview can seamlessly segue into discussing the world of classic cinema and musicals, you know you’ve found a kindred spirit in the cinematic universe. This isn’t surprising considering Gray’s previous works, most notably The Immigrant, convey a narrative and directorial aesthetic that wouldn’t be too different from the hand of director George Cukor.

Gray’s latest, a story of exploration and madness based on the novel of the same name, The Lost City of Z certainly has its roots in Old Hollywood and is all the better for it. Gray sat down with Culturess to discuss filming in the jungle, debunking IMDb rumors, and what classic films he’s been enjoying lately.

Kristen Lopez: What was the interest, for you, in doing this project?

James Gray: I was driven to the movie not by what you’d expect; the whole logistical  challenge of it was something I actually thought was painful. I didn’t want to go to the jungle or do the war. I’m a wimp. I like staying in nice hotels and stuff. What was an attraction was when I read that book, that character, that man was very conflicted and that makes for a good story, a person who has all these things tugging in all different directions. He feels insecure in so many ways, and he needs to prove himself, and I saw it as the birth of an obsession that makes for very powerful drama. So I accepted all the hardships of the film’s shoot as a horrible, brutal aside.

KL: And that makes sense especially when you hear Francis Ford Coppola told you not to do a movie in the jungle.

JG: Can I tell you something? It’s not true, and in fact I’m so upset about it because I told that story to a person waiting for our cars at the valet as a joke. What happened was a guy named Roger Corman, whom Coppola apprenticed with in the early ’60,  he’d said that to Francis about Apocalypse Now and I was joking about that and it got put in print. It’s just the opposite is true. Francis is unbelievably inspiring and supportive. He’d never say “Don’t go.” He’s just terrific. You’ll ask him his advice and he’ll give you a whole treatise on what you should do. I was so perturbed by the fact that that’s out there as a fact that Francis was discouraging me because it’s not true at all.

KL: It’s very Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “print the legend.”

JG: It’s true! But I take the blame because I did say it, but I was kidding.

KL: What was the film’s shoot like? Everything looks so beautiful but I’m sure it wasn’t all fun.

JG: It was brutal. I can’t really soft soap it. You go down there and you are an invader. And I don’t mean other people look at you askance. I mean insects and animals do not expect you to be walking around there with camera equipment, and they don’t like it. You have howler monkeys above you in the trees and they throw their feces at you. Bugs on the ground come up your pant leg and sting you. The ants will attack you with the most painful sting you’ve ever felt. You realize you have to accept a certain level of that in order to get your day done.

And you’re also hostage to the weather; the rainstorm that comes invariability at 3pm that is gonna cover you with water in a way you can’t possibly imagine, lightening bolts that will hit you 90 feet away and knock you off your feet. It’s its own thing.

The first two weeks I was there I had a fantastic experience. I was in it; I was reinvigorated. Then after two weeks a certain kind of madness sets in because there’s a sameness to every day. You get up at 4:30am, your glasses are all steamed because of the humidity. You go down to this old van that bumps around. It’s still dark. You get down to the banks of the river and get on the raft, and you either go up the river or down the river. You either shoot on the water or you park the raft and go into the jungle. After every day being the same thing in this heat, you start to go a little batty yourself.

KL: Speaking of Apocalypse Now, is the finished film your cut? Was there anything you wanted to shoot but for various reasons you didn’t get to?

JG: It is my cut. There will never be another director’s cut. But your question is excellent because there is one thing I wasn’t able to do, and that frustrated me. In the book [Percy is] the first person in Western society to confront an anaconda, and they didn’t believe him. When he came back to England he said, “I saw a fifty-foot snake” and they laughed at him. They thought he was a crackpot. I’d written this whole scene where he confronts the anaconda, and I couldn’t get it because you can’t shoot with a real anaconda, that’s too dangerous. The CG anaconda looked too bad and the mechanical anaconda didn’t work. After awhile I just ditched it because it didn’t look good and I couldn’t do it in the jungle, and it was a real disappointment to me. But other than that it was the film I wanted to make.

KL: With this, The Immigrant and We Own the Night, you have this amazing ability to capture the world of the past. What’s the appeal to you of films set outside our contemporary time period?

JG: Sometimes we want a certain level of distance and I don’t mean emotional distance. All movies are essentially a metaphor. It’s not real life; it’s a heightened version of real life. And what period films can do sometimes is show you more about the present than you think. It’s almost like a Trojan horse. Yes, the movie takes place between 1905 and 1925 with different social mores and different concepts of what it means to be a racist, for example. But, still, we battle the same ideas and issues about class, and gender, and ethnicity that are explained in the film. The period allows us a little bit of distance, a little bit of relief, but hopefully reinforces our present.

It’s weird you mention The Immigrant because I made that film and tried to absorb myself in the details of Ellis Island, “likely to become public charge,” and you read the paper today and there’s the exact same discussions going on. “Likely to become public charge” was a phrase I hadn’t heard in forever and it just came up about the new population, and the struggle that we have about whether to accept Syrian refugees or not, and our nativist streak, and it’s all the same.

KL: I actually watched Dr. Strangelove again recently, and while the audience I saw it with was laughing, it’s hard to not see similarities to what’s going on today that are depression.

JG: Oh, 100%. Really, nothing has changed except maybe Merkin Muffley, the President, is maybe a bit more rational.

KL: You brought up gender which I found you explained so perfectly with Sienna Miller’s character in this film. I loved how you took the time to explore how progressive she is, yet she’s still bound by the domestic sphere which is something you did with The Immigrant. What do you set out to show regarding the female experience in your work?

JG: It’s a wonderful question. I would say, without really having a canned answer for you because I’ve weirdly not been asked that, the sad truth is we still ignore a lot of issues of gender. I was very committed certainly in the case of The Immigrant, but in this I felt the story was not the boys’ tragedy; they see another side of the world. They go and they do it. They die, but they’re legendary. They disappear. But nobody remembers her. She was a very evolved woman. She spoke several languages, could quote Shakespeare at will. She was a suffragette and was an independent woman. She was the one left alone for decades to come. It’s a very powerful idea.

KL: And she has this brilliant moment with her son where there’s a marked difference between them. He uses her rhetoric to go on this exploration, but the fact it’s her words spoken through a male voice makes all the difference.

JG: Exactly right. Also, the point of the whole movie, to me, wasn’t that it was some guy goes into the jungle and becomes crazy. The point of the movie was a person who in some sense had a degree of sanity and everyone else thought he was crazy. The extension of that was he began to understand the certain common humanity with the indigenous peoples in the jungle, but that didn’t stop at the door, and it also included his wife. I felt, just as we look down on the indigenous people as savages, we also look down, as men, on women. It’s all part of the same thing; it’s all part of the same discourse; all part of the same logic.

KL: Well and what’s amazing was how many young women latched onto seeing this movie because you cast Robert Pattinson in it. I have to ask the question and extend to the rest of the cast, what was it like working with two actors – Charlie Hunnam and Pattinson – who have such ingrained personas and take them out of their comfort zone?

JG: In some ways your question is excellent and in some ways your question is more for them than it is for me. To me, all I tried to do was adhere to the truth of who those people were, and basically try to get the actors to become as dedicated and committed and passionate as I felt they could be. They brought that passion with them, and sometimes you don’t have to. In this case, with both boys, I didn’t have to encourage any kind of divergence away from their persona. In some ways the actors are desperate to leave their other personae behind because they don’t want to be typecast, and they want to grow, and show other parts of themselves.

Rob was wonderfully open about it; he grew that big beard – that incredible movie face. Really, I find a wonderfully bold choice to disappear into that part and be this kind of quiet, but loyal and ferociously effective aide de camp. And, in truth, Rob was the Twilight guy a few years ago so it’s a very different thing.  I think all the young girls who are clambering to see the movie I hope they go for selfish reasons, but they’ll also see a side to him as an actor that’s really growing.

KL: Considering your films’ love and reverence for the past (and that I’m returning from a classic film festival), what kind of classic films inspire you as a director?

JG: It’s a great question because I watch an old movie every single night. I watch a movie made before-1960, sometimes I’ll go into the mid-’60s, every single night. My wife and kids go to bed, on comes the television. It’s a form of education for me. The point of all this is that when you watch all these old movies, you realize they were narrative masters.

They understood how to mount the story. I don’t want to say it was easier, but there are reasons why they could do it with more effectiveness on a routine basis than we can. It has to do with the fact that they’re shooting on a sound stage and it has to do with a much more mechanized form of the production, so you can control it better. When movies started to have to go outside, when the style of acting turned into a more method style due to Brando, the ability to control the production began to slip a little bit. In addition, we don’t do reshoots.

If you make a movie now, and you screw up a part of the movie, you have to get the actors together and they’re off on other projects, in different parts of the world with different hairstyles. Think about what it was like in 1938 if you made a film that had a section that didn’t work. What they did was all the actors were already under contract and still on the lot for some other movie, and certainly didn’t look different – Cary Grant didn’t grow beards – so you took him away for the day, went out and reshot a section and cut it back into the movie.

The system really worked. We wouldn’t accept the technical issues they had, but that’s why the stories are well told. I watch them to see how the stories are mounted and my taste for old movies is unquenchable. Lately I’ve been really into Busby Berkeley.

KL: Berkeley is amazing! Gold Diggers of 1933!

JG: That’s an amazing movie. That’s the one with “We’re in the Money” and she starts singing in Pig Latin. It’s unbelievable. There’s something else that [Berkeley] did which I think may be greater. If you’ve ever seen Gold Diggers of 1935, that has that Winnie Shaw, “Lullabye of Broadway” sequence that’s jaw-dropping.

KL: The technical mastery of those films.

JG: Genius!

KL: You can really see those different styles in classic cinema that emphasize how much filmmaking has changed.

JG: It’s all about storytelling. They have the most unbelievable sense of narrative. You should also see Dames! Where Ruby Keeler almost becomes a Surrealist [painting]. The movies themselves all have the same structure. For the first hour you’re still trying to figure out where it’s going and there are some nice musical numbers with Dick Powell. Then all of a sudden they have these musical numbers and the film deconstructs and becomes incredible. I also really love late ’40s, early ’50s noir. I saw a very striking film called The Sniper, an Edward Dmytryk movie from 1951 with Adolphe Menjou that’s a very interesting movie.

KL: I’ll have to hunt that one down! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today!

JG: Thank you so much!

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The Lost City of Z is now playing in select cities and expands this Friday.