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Director James Gray goes on his own search while creating 'The Lost City of Z'

Director James Gray goes on his own search while creating 'The Lost City of Z'
Charlie Hunnam in "The Lost City of Z." (Aidan Monaghan)

"The Lost City of Z" concerns a polarizing character who spent years searching for a holy grail despite experts' skepticism.

Its on-screen story also contains many of those elements.

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“Z,” directed by James Gray, marks the latest movie from one of the greatest (to fans) and frustrating (to some establishment skeptics) of modern American filmmakers. For its creator, it involved nearly a decade of production obstacles that included potential star Brad Pitt’s second thoughts and the pregnancy of prospective star Ben‎edict Cumberbatch’s wife — and tastemakers who scrunched their faces at a longtime chronicler of New York City immigrants and outsiders tackling empire expansion in South America.

The movie's world premiere Saturday night at the New York Film Festival was thus much like the journey of its hero, British explorer Percy Fawcett. The movie was a cause for celebration to Gray's devotees and a chance for wariness from those who've dismissed him before — and its own end to an improbable odyssey.

"I find an endless obsession," Gray said, "extremely fascinating as a narrative."

There is much relentlessness here, both on- and off-screen. Shot with an old-school sweep and pace, the 35-millimeter “Z” follows several decades in the life of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). The story, also documented in the David Grann bestseller on which Gray based his screenplay, involves Fawcett and his deputy Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) as they make repeated trips to the Amazon in the early 20th century to find a rumored lost city — all the while negotiating Fawcett's tricky life with wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and the upper-crust British geographical society that doubts him back at home.

Robert Pattinson, left, Sienna Miller, James Gray and Tom Holland attend a screening of "The Lost City Of Z" for the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Robert Pattinson, left, Sienna Miller, James Gray and Tom Holland attend a screening of "The Lost City Of Z" for the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

While seemingly a tale of adventure, the movie is slyly about much else — not just the price of obsession but Gray's trademark theme of an outsider's desire to remake oneself after a journey, and the collision between new and old worlds at the end of the age of exploration.

(Though Gray has never made an adventure story before, the themes are hardly as far afield from his previous work as it would seem. Fawcett, who came from a discredited working-class family, was impelled to seek out distant lands as a way of proving himself to a British high-so‎ciety and even breaking into it. Gray's interests have often run in that direction; with movies like "Little Odessa," "Two Lovers" and "The Immigrant," he crafted stories about outsider characters seeking acceptance and assimilation.)

And though its scenes evoke plenty of reference points — "Apocalypse Now" and "Tarzan," to name two — it also shies away from them by not supplying the same codas or payoffs as those antecedents. Gray's new movie evinces what the 47-year-old has done for much of his career, in the subversively not-quite-crime-stories of "We Own the Night" and "Little Odessa," or the decidedly non-American melodrama of "Two Lovers" and "The Immigrant": zig when he might be expected to zag

"I'm sure some people will say, 'Where are the chills and thrills here?'" Gray said, speaking the day after a premiere, at a restaurant in a hotel where he, his wife and their three kids were staying while in town from L.A. "But there's a point where denying expectations is an important part of the aesthetic. A movie has to unfashionably be itself. You look at Rothko or Pollock, two of my favorite painters, and they stand on their own and don't give a … of what you think. I owe you nothing, I owe critics nothing; I just want to put myself completely in a film."

Of course, that makes Gray sound like an artist with a high seriousness of purpose. And he is. He's also a grade-A kibitzer, a gregarious character, whose chatty and self-effacing wit bespeaks his Queens upbringing and Eastern European-Jewish heritage.

Lanky, with red hair and a beard, he has a wisecrack for many occasions. The director came out for a pre-screening introduction Saturday night by saying that "unfortunately for me the book is excellent.… I'm sure I'll hear a lot of, 'Well, the film was OK but the book was better.'"

At a party afterward, industry people and old New York friends repeatedly came up to Gray and told him they saw the film. He'd begin many of these encounters with a mischievous, "So, garbage?"

A sense of humor came in handy in the making of "Z."

Gestating for years — this reporter recalls a hopeful conversation with Gray about it nearly eight years ago — "Z" looked for a time like a go with Pitt, whose Plan B Entertainment was producing. Financing issues wore on; Pitt dropped out as star. (Plan B stayed with it, and Pitt remains an executive producer.) But Paramount, where it was initially set up, walked away. It was not, financially speaking, prudent to make a movie of that scope or with the level of art-house rigor that Gray brings.

Cumberbatch would come aboard, but the shooting window coincided with his wife's pregnancy, and he was out too. Gray directed several movies and a TV series in the meantime. The film was eventually financed independently, then bought by Amazon and Bleecker Street; they will release it in the spring.

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It wasn't the first time Gray encountered some industry troubles.

With “The Immigrant,” his 2013 period drama of becoming with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, he faced a yearlong battle in bringing the film to audiences. Gray plays down the reports of editing-room battles with  distributor Harvey Weinstein on that movie, though not his frustration with both a lukewarm festival reaction and the delays in getting the movie out.

"It took me a long time psychologically to recover from [the tepid reaction at] Cannes. And the film's hibernation period was" —he pauses — "very difficult. For a while I was brokenhearted. But once it did come out it was a huge weight lifted from my shoulders."

Outside of his genre-infused, wide-release "We Own the Night," no Gray movie has grossed more than $4 million. And though in some quarters he earns the same respect as his pal and contemporary David Fincher, he's not had nearly the commercial or awards success.

Some of this has been weird luck: It was during the promotional tour for “Two Lovers” in 2009 that Phoenix decided to appear on David Letterman as a bearded faux rapper, a stunt that swallowed any attention that might have been paid the film itself.

But some of it is a general ambivalence on the part of critics, particularly at festivals, where Gray's movies can falter, only gaining steam many months later. After 'Two Lovers'" dismissal at Cannes, it eventually came to be seen as a compelling story about relationships and family. It's hard to understand exactly what's behind that slow road to acceptance, though the fact that he seems to operate in uncommon registers may have something to do with it—"Two Lovers" is a dyed-in-the-wool melodrama, a rarity for an American, while "We Own the Night" seems to set up the gritty pleasures of a 1970's crime movie but rarely delivers them.

Gray simply says, wryly, that "I guess that's a better situation than the opposite."

One can imagine a similar arc here: "Z" already has its fans. Slant Magazine, in a glowing take, noted "the film's riches as a plumbing of a man's existential confusion," and the Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri was on social media touting the film for chunks of the weekend. But others were less enamored. Variety's Owen Gleiberman noted that "The film is infused with Gray's meticulous gravity, yet it also has his recessiveness — that feeling he can give you that you're watching the action under glass."

Gray said he has little animus for critics, the culture of the insta-Twitter review excepted. ("That is crap. And extremely harmful for the business.") But he still sometimes wishes they viewed him differently.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have terrible frustrations about it. It's made my life much more difficult," Gray said of his films' polarizing critical response. "I've stopped reading reviews. There's no point." He said he can only hope to achieve what Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers have—"to create a new language and eventually bring the audience with them."

It does not, however, make him wish to change the grammar of his movies.

“I remember reading a quote from Martin Scorsese,” he said. Scorsese and, particularly, Stanley Kubrick are heroes to Gray, and he often wishes to emulate them in attitude if not sensibility. He said, ‘you just have to infuriate the audience.’ And I thought ‘that’s fantastic.’”

The man who has become a chronicler of the outsider paused and reflected. "It's a lot better to be subversive inside the system," he said. "You have a lot more power. Then they can't dismiss you as a lone psychopath. You can make something that lasts."

steven.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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