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Making ‘The Lost City of Z’: ‘The odyssey swallowed me whole,’ says writer-director James Gray

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James Gray’s ‘Lost City of Z’ is based on the exploits of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times))

In late 2008, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, the principals of Plan B (Brad Pitt’s esteemed production company), bought the rights to a book. They called me, asking if I would read it. I was beyond flattered, beyond excited and I wasted no time before cracking it open. It was called “The Lost City of Z,” by David Grann, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. It also represented an enormous challenge.

It concerned a British explorer I’d never heard of. He was from the turn of the last century, and his name was Percy Fawcett. His life contained multitudes: He’d gone treasure hunting in Ceylon; he’d been a spy in Morocco; he’d fought in World War I and been injured by chemical weapons. And he’d ventured to the Amazon jungle — eight times, it turns out, in search of a lost city.

On his final journey, he took his son with him and disappeared without a trace. He was brave and obsessed and more than a little bit crazy. In that way, he sounded to me like a typical movie director.

I was surprised by the story and surprised Plan B had thought of me. I had made five films before this, all in New York City, all featuring characters battling the chaos of urban life. This book certainly wasn’t about that. To this day, I’m not sure why they called me, but I’m glad they did. I accepted the job because I knew it was special, but I had no real answers for any of the difficulties that the material presented.

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Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller star in “The Lost City of Z.”

I tried to keep that last part secret from everyone, and as my wife will tell you, I failed utterly in that regard. Adapting a book is invariably a fraught endeavor, but what of this sprawling yet interior epic? How to embrace the complexities and the ambiguities without writing something downright vague?

Some of the answers were right in front of me. As I broke down the book into screenplay form, I began to see through the surface of the narrative, and it enabled me to uncover the more personal layers hidden inside. I could relate to so much of it: the desire to fit in, to prove oneself, to search for the sublime. I could indeed make it personal, and I could do it framed against some truly vivid backdrops. There was Victorian England, stifling and suffocating, and downright vicious to those deemed not worthy. There was World War I, apocalyptic and insane.

And there was that jungle, which I found both terrifying and inviting. Movies had been made in jungles before, of course, and by truly great filmmakers. So I knew I couldn’t copy them — but I had an opportunity. There was something different about this story. For Fawcett, the jungle didn’t represent the savage or primitive; for him, the jungle was magical. The place enabled him to escape the rigid class structure of Europe and, later, the unfathomable horror of World War I. The jungle was not the locus of madness. It was Fawcett’s chance to repair a broken part of his soul.

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The jungle was not the locus of madness. It was [Percy] Fawcett’s chance to repair a broken part of his soul.
James Gray

Director James Gray goes on his own search while creating ‘The Lost City of Z’ »

So one day I found myself in the United Kingdom and months later in Amazonia. The odyssey swallowed me whole. The obsession overtook others too. Charlie Hunnam lost 50 pounds in eight weeks and consumed Fawcett entirely; Sienna Miller became a committed Edwardian-era suffragette; Robert Pattinson disappeared behind his beard and gave the film his inner life. And then there was my valiant and dedicated crew. I am forever in their debt.

Depicting that jungle was critical to us, and we knew the shoot would be tough. It did not disappoint. The river would rise and fall several feet within minutes, forcing us to bolt to safety at a moment’s notice. There were the bugs, the caimans, the malaria. And there was, of course, that heat, that wet, oppressive heat from which there was no relief.

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I could not help but feel a physical connection to Fawcett. I often stood in that lush green hell and worried that the film had become my own deadly obsession. But as we toiled on under difficult circumstances, I believed we had a great road map: David Grann’s marvelous book. And I hope we honored it.

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