Written by E. Ryan Ellis | Photography by Sandro Baebler
Percy Fawcett is more famous than he ever could’ve imagined. The 20th-century explorer made several trips to Amazonia, seeking to find the ancient ruins of a city he named “Z,” a sort of extension of El Dorado but based on Fawcett’s very real findings in the South American jungles. Fawcett made many treacherous expeditions to Amazonia, making the acquaintance of natives but never finding his lost city. He fought in WWI, and afterward, on his final expedition, he went missing, never to be found again. Fawcett’s story was written and published in 2005 as The Lost City of Z by David Grann. The film adaptation of the book stars Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson, and was adapted and directed by James Gray. It’s set for release April 21.
Gray, who directed We Own the Night (2007) and The Immigrant (2013), was fascinated by the internal and external conflict of Fawcett’s story. We spoke at length with Gray over the phone and discussed the beginnings of the film, the difficulty in filming on location in South America and the problematic nature of Fawcett himself.
MM Can you talk about the genesis of wanting to direct The Lost City of Z, personally?
JG I had gotten the books sent to me by Brad Pitt and his producers. This was before it was published, and I was very excited after I read it because to me it was an excellent exposé. It didn’t start out that he was an explorer and that was interesting; what got me excited was that he was a person struggling against his family history. Percy Fawcett was a person of great internal conflict as well as external conflict. It was an excellent way of exploring the roots of the creation of an obsession and what that does to a man.
MM Do you ever have moral views of those characters in the beginning?
JG There is no way that you don’t, because that is who we are. But what I will say is that I try to remove judgments and try to express the film in a way that has total sympathy, if not empathy, toward the character. Even if you wouldn’t do what he does, it is not even the same thing. It is like you’re essentially making a movie that extends people’s sympathy and breaks down the wall between the movie and the character and the viewer and the character. We can then understand exactly what he is going through, so we are impassioned through our support of his endeavors. It doesn’t mean we don’t judge him morally; we judge people morally anyway, even when we don’t want to. He makes decisions I wouldn’t have made, but it does not mean I don’t like him. I personally love him.
MM In some ways, Fawcett is a man of his time, but in other ways he’s quite progressive.
JG That was the idea—that he was a very conflicted, screwed-up character because he was in some ways exactly a product of his times and in other ways he was ahead. It’s hard to know, but that is what makes it interesting to me. Abraham Lincoln was like that, as much as we whitewash the history of Lincoln; he said racist things but that does not mean we dislike him. What it means was, for his day, he was as good as we could’ve hoped for.
MM Fawcett was interested, in some ways, in the equality of the native South Americans but not necessarily the equality of his own wife. Can you speak about that?
JG The whole idea was that I was trying to make a film that had many different levels. I was trying to say that human beings have a brutal and violent sense of the hierarchy. The upper class looks down on Fawcett. Fawcett keeps his wife in a box. He may see the indigenous people of South America, in some ways, in a better light than the upper class does, but we don’t know if it was part of his experience or also an experience mixed with a need for glory that makes his desire complicated. The indigenous people also, even in their case, have some battling between groups, as you see in the end of the film when one throws a spear at another. I was trying to say this is the way the world is, not the way I want the world to be—but I do not think that is my job, that is fantasy. This is what I think the world has done and is doing to human beings, and I don’t think it is much different at all even though it is hundreds of years later. Fawcett is more familiar with his wife, and, in some ways, you can understand—not sympathize—why he feels the way he does toward her. The indigenous people have a certain idealism for him, and, in some ways, he has idealized them in a way that is not helpful to him by the end.
MM I like to think of this film and Fawcett’s story as a microcosm of life. It’s interesting you were filming this before the election in 2016. It has strangely become even more relevant.
JG Yeah. I am actually not proud of that fact.
MM It doesn’t seem like it’s on purpose, just serendipitous.
JG There is no way it could’ve been on purpose. What is creepy and kind of horrible about it is it speaks more to the unpleasant aspect of our lack of progress over the span of hundreds of years. I do believe in progress, but progress is a tricky and complex thing because it doesn’t work like you think. Progress is an ever growing, burgeoning thing, and every year you have better and better societies, and everything is better. It moves and starts, and sometimes you take three steps back to take one step forward. It is very uneven. For example, in the early 20th century you get the polio vaccine and you also get Hitler, so it is a very complicated thing. I think that when I read the story I thought it was relevant even in 2015 or 2014. When I wrote the story in 2009, not to get too political, I didn’t feel that Obama was getting a fair shake in a white male Congress. It was on my mind, I think. Trump is not a surprise. He is just a lack of progress, lack of forward movement.
"What got me excited was that he was a person struggling against his family history"
MM Can you talk about how important it was for you to develop Sienna Miller’s character, because often I think those “left behind” characters are marginalized.
JG We felt it was very important to convey a complex idea about who that person was. [In film] it is always about the extension of our sympathies. It is critical when we look at a character like this that we say, “it seems to me, that she was the one with the tragedy.” He achieved a level of transcendence because... he died in the jungle and became remembered forever. She was just swallowed up by the same expression, but nobody knows who she is. She is the one who really suffered. He got killed, which is true, but he was the one who saw part of the world that most white Europeans will never understand at all. To me, that made the story beautiful for him. That gave him and his son, even though they died, a level of transcendence. She was the one who wound up having to suffer. She was owed something by the movie; the movie owed her a moment.
MM The Amazon almost acts as a character in the film. Like a character that Fawcett continues to miss and revisit. Can you speak on that a little?
JG It is impossible to go down there and not have it be a character. It is so unforgiving, and you go down there, expect to have a tough time and hope you can plan enough of it to make it manageable. There is no plan you can take down there, and it dictates exactly what it wants to do. You realize very quickly that we are essentially a world populated by insects occasionally invaded by humans, and that is kind of how it feels. It is so harsh. You say to people 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity, and people don’t understand how horrible that is.
MM Not to give too much away, but the ending was beautiful. There is a transcendental beauty to it.
JG We wanted it be like a religious service and that he was given to the gods. When you see the footage of ISIS killing the reporters, or whomever they are about to murder, the imagery or the videos are strangely calming. It is not the panic/weeping thing that you’d expect. The video evidence is something quite different. It is a lack of belief that it will actually happen. My instincts tell me I would be panicked. [You] see a grace, which is really weird. We talked about that very specifically when we were shooting. Not that they were happy about that, but that there was an awareness that the story is not necessarily over for them in the spiritual terms. That is the way we treated it and also the idea that we would go back to [Sienna Miller’s character] who was alive with the tidbit about the compass, which I didn’t make up, but I do find very weird. I found it quite haunting that it would bail me out of what was a dark ending, and I didn’t want it to feel like an oblique ending.
MM It very easily could’ve been.
JG Well, yeah. He was probably eaten, and with a story like that, you don’t want it to end with a super bummer. Maybe it does now, but I did not intend for that. I think he achieved a measure of his dreams, and, ultimately, he turned out to be right. He made a miscalculation; he believed—wrongly— that he would find big stone temples and so forth. That part is absurd, but what isn’t is the idea of pre-Columbian settlements all over Amazonia, and he was 100 percent right about that. The one part that is a tragedy, scientifically, is that he was probably walking on top of Z all the time and did not realize it. The cities weren’t made of stone. They were working with organic materials, which dissolved into the jungles, which is why they found all the pottery, roads and bridges ... but not buildings. I wanted to shoot where Fawcett really was, which was the Pantanal region of Brazil, but so much of the area is cleared for soybean farming that it looks like Nebraska. It doesn’t look like it did when he was there.
MM The only question I have left is what will you be working on next?
JG I have an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum: I will be doing a science fiction film, believe it or not. It is exciting to me going to the end of our universe. And I’m going to try to do it in a way that is not too hackneyed, the type of that you don’t see. It is like science-future fact. MM