It took the director James Gray an agonizing six years and three leading men to get The Lost City of Z out of so-called “development hell.” And that, it would turn out, would be the easiest part about making the movie.
The movie, which opened Friday, is an adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling book, which tells the exploits of the British explorer Percy Fawcett. Critics seem to love it as well: It has an 88 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story goes like this: In the early 1900s, Fawcett (played here by Charlie Hunnam) navigated uncharted terrain in the Amazon rainforest, mapping out land for South American governments that had little conception of what lay within their borders. The measure of Fawcett’s accomplishments has been disputed by some — with whom Gray vigorously disagrees — but there is no doubt that the land he explored had little in the way of creature comforts. And in trying to find the right locations in which to make the movie, Gray wound up acting as a bit of an explorer himself.
“I went down to Brazil and I went to Argentina, to Iguazu Falls. And going through Brazil, I decided I had to go where Fawcett was — but much of where Fawcett was is now soy bean fields for farming, and the jungle has been razed,” Gray tells Inverse. “And the irony is, it’s probably a lot of the reason we now know Fawcett was correct in his theories [about a lost city existing in the Amazon] is because when they would clear-cut the forest, they found all this pottery and evidence of moats and bridges and causeways.”
With Brazil out as an option, Gray next looked to Peru, in Iquitos, where Werner Herzog shot 1982’s Fitzcarraldo. But Gray found Iquitas had changed in the 35 years since Herzog made his classic. The next option was Manaus, a city just south of a major waterway in northern Brazil, but it didn’t have the infrastructure required for filmmaking, namely the ability to reach it by car. In the process of elimination, Colombia was up next.
“I got very excited because Colombia had imagery that was exactly like the stuff I saw in the photographs from the Royal Geographical Society [for whom Fawcett worked],” Gray explains. “It had some measure of infrastructure, it had the terrain I wanted, and it had access to the Motilone Bari, which is the tribe that I needed to play some of the indigenous people in the film. It wound up being four different tribes playing the indigenous, and they were in some weird way the best actors you could hope for because they didn’t know anything about the camera; they didn’t care.”
The locals’ disinterest in the physical production of filmmaking may have something to do with the relatively small scale of Gray’s operation. Instead of the typical 100 crew members, he had about 35, and hardly any set decoration or visual aids. It was a grind; Gray woke up daily at 4:30 in the morning, put on his already-fogged up glasses, and headed down to the makeshift set.
“You take this rickety van down to the banks of the river from your euphemistically called eco-lodge, and you either get on the raft and you go down or up the river, or you stay on the raft and shoot on the water that day,” he remembers. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible because you have certain rules about shooting, which are that you shouldn’t shoot on water; you shouldn’t shoot in the jungle; you shouldn’t shoot with animals; you shouldn’t shoot with children. And here I am making a movie where I’ve got snakes and children and the jungle and I’m on the river.”
Fawcett’s many journeys to the Amazon — he went nine times, though the movie condenses his exploits into three trips — were exercises in underprepared improvising. He braved dangerous rivers, wild animals, and language barriers. He had few supplies and fewer friends. Gray too found himself wandering around, trying to jerry-rig solutions, like when he carried around gas-powered heat bars in hopes that they might create a sweltering effect on camera. Other than a small structure that was built for a scene that takes place in a rubber town along the way, the movie was shot in daylight, with fire lighting the odd night scene.
It was a rough experience: Hunnam and co-star Robert Pattinson spent much of the trip starving themselves. Gray, a New Yorker who has spent much of his life making movies in and about cities, just tried to stay sane.
“A kind of madness begins”
“What happened was that after about two weeks, a kind of madness begins to set in,” he recalls, laughing. “Because it’s every day, and you’re in the same place, and you don’t have telephones. You don’t have internet, and you don’t have hot water.”
The jury is still out on whether Fawcett was a good or even particularly accomplished person, but it’s impossible to ignore his dedication to his work.
The chase for a lost city that may or may not have ever existed may seem foolish, but after struggling for so long to tell that story, Gray says he understands Fawcett in a more intimate way.
“Fawcett, in some sense, is a lot like a movie director: He has his obsessions most of them met with a kind of a failure, and he has his wife he neglects, along with two sons and a daughter, just like I have,” he reflects. “And you realize it’s a metaphor for what it means to make film and to fight to make a film you care about. You find yourself not sympathetic, but empathetic, with Fawcett, particularly as you’re in that environment and you say to yourself, ‘How did this guy come down here without the bug repellent?’ At least I had that.”
The Lost City of Z opens April 14, 2017 in theaters.