Filming The Lost City of Z involved no shortage of horrors. A beetle burrowed into star Charlie Hunnam’s ear when he was sleeping. The hotel room of co-star Robert Pattinson was regularly flooded with massive spiders. Young actor Tom Holland inadvertently swam alongside a black caiman. A snake bit the neck of a crew member.
But for writer-director James Gray, shooting in the jungles of Santa Marta, Colombia, was a sunny stroll through the woods compared with the nearly decade-long process of getting the film into theatres.
First, in 2008, Brad Pitt’s production company hired Gray to adapt David Grann’s non-fiction book before it was even published, with Pitt eyeing the starring role of Percy Fawcett, the early 1900s British explorer who was obsessed with finding an ancient Amazonian city. Then Benedict Cumberbatch hopped aboard after Pitt became unavailable. After Cumberbatch dropped out, too, Hunnam was drafted. The casting delays became so pronounced that Gray made an entirely different movie, The Immigrant, between signing on for Z back in 2008 and shooting in 2015.
All the while, in the background, the film industry roiled with seismic shifts – the advent of Netflix and its streaming competitors, the rise of uber-franchise films, the cratering of adult-oriented dramas, the fleeing of talent to prestige cable television. By the time Gray’s cameras started rolling in Colombia, you couldn’t help but ask the question: Who was going to watch The Lost City of Z – a mid-budget, mid-star drama with absolutely no franchise potential at all? (One-hundred-year-old spoiler alert: Fawcett doesn’t make it back home.)
Finally opening in theatres this Friday, the film enters a decidedly different reality than the one in which it was conceived – a fact that unnerves its director far more than an encounter with six-inch-wide insects. “The time right now is both excellent and terrifying for filmmakers,” the director says over the phone from Los Angeles. On the one hand, as he points out, Z has avoided the fate of so many recent middle-ground, adult-oriented dramas: it actually got made (eventually) and will screen into honest-to-goodness theatres across North America instead of falling into the direct-to-streaming void, a scenario that’s increasingly akin to hitting the lottery in Hollywood.
Z’s good fortune is largely thanks to Amazon Studios. Unlike its competitor Netflix, the upstart film wing of Jeff Bezos’s retail empire respects the theatrical distribution window, giving its films lengthy runs on the big screen before they become available to stream on the device of your choice.
Netflix, meanwhile, insists that theatres play its films the same day they become available to stream – a strategy that’s earned few takers, as theatre owners believe such a move cannibalizes box-office sales. (In the U.S., Amazon partnered with Bleecker Street to distribute Z to theatres; in Canada, it’s Elevation Pictures).
“First, Amazon and Bleecker have been fantastic to me – they really care about the film, and have supported so many other interesting directors. It’s sort of like United Artists in the 1970s,” says Gray, noting the company’s embrace of filmmakers Jim Jarmusch (Paterson), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) and Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman). “But what is scary is the potential of losing the theatrical experience, which is in some peril. The large picture, the sound that surrounds you, the dark of it all – there is simply no match for that womb-like experience.”
“Womb-like experience” is also the perfect way to describe a James Gray film. The 48-year-old’s work trades on rich production design, sumptuous lighting, delicately engineered sound, and close-up shots so intimate they feel like a personal violation. Even though every one of his films before Z was confined to borders of tiny New York City enclaves (more specifically, Queens), Gray’s work is operatic in its ambition and scope, each frame an immersive experience designed for the biggest screen possible. Even his lone misfire, 2007’s cops-and-robbers melodrama We Own the Night, is compulsively re-watchable thanks to Gray’s sharp eye for set design and larger-than-life visuals.
A film about a doomed adventure in the lush jungles of the Amazon, then, seems perfectly attuned to Gray’s sense of aesthetic grandeur – even if the director wasn’t always so sure. “I read Grann’s book and I had no idea what [Pitt’s company] saw in my other work that would lead to them to think I could do this. I had never been outside Queens,” Gray says, in a typical moment of self-deprecation. “The first thing I felt was, this is impossible. But the second thing was, I have to try it.”
Gray dove into Grann’s material, and found himself becoming obsessed with Percy Fawcett’s story as the production delays piled on – and in doing so, found the thematic link that Z held to the rest of his filmography. “Fawcett had been the son of a man with high social standing who lost not one but two family fortunes to drink and gambling. Well, I thought that was interesting because the seeds of obsession always have their roots in some sort of psychological lack, or sense of inferiority. The need to prove oneself is a powerful motive,” says the director, whose films, from 1994’s Little Odessa to 2013’s The Immigrant, pivot around the theme of escaping one’s background. “It became personal for me, because I’ve always felt that inadequacy in me. That was my way in.”
But Gray would have to find his way into Z with fewer resources than he might have been afforded even a decade ago. “Making a film like Z in late 2015, I cannot compete with David Lean or Francis Ford Ford Coppola,” he says. “I mean, forget my lack of talent, that’s another issue, but even on the machinery level of filming on a movie like this. I can’t shoot for a year. I can’t match the operatic amazingness of, say, getting the Philippines air force to fly a helicopter sequence for me. I can’t match them for that, but I can bring something else to the table, which is an evolved political sense.”
The story of Fawcett may be of a white man searching for the exotic “other,” but Gray was intent to balance that inherent colonialism with a scathing critique of the socioeconomic order that fuelled it, as well as a nuanced look at the struggles faced by the explorer’s homebound wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). “I was very scared that I would make a film that would essentially be about the magic white guy who can save the indians, so I ensured we went the opposite direction,” Gray says. “This story is about Percy’s transcendence and Nina’s tragedy … If I’m trying to make an inclusive movie, her story needs to be told as well.”
Which is how Gray eventually, finally, found himself splitting his time between shooting in the relative comfort of Northern Ireland and in the sweltering danger zone that is Colombia, fending off floods and 100-Fahrenheit heat and all manner of creatures that wanted to kill him, lugging around 35mm film to capture the impossibly verdant environment. (The director originally wanted to shoot in Brazil, near the same area Fawcett had explored. But today, the area is all clear-cut soybean fields.) “When you have no Internet, no phone, no hot water, you start to feel the walls close in on you,” he says. “With the sameness of the day, a certain madness sets in.”
Gray is grateful for the opportunity, though – for any opportunity. He is a working artist in the most obvious definition of the term, earning a living in an industry that seems to value him less and less. He doesn’t own a home, he has trouble paying his bills, and he has no desire, so far, to work on a Marvel movie. The Lost City of Z will play on the big screen, but it’s anyone’s guess as to where Gray’s next effort, the sci-fi film Ad Astra, will end up. The jungles of the Amazon may be cruel, but the landscape of the film industry is far more challenging to tame.
The Lost City of Z opens April 21 across CanadaReport Typo/Error