James Gray is a filmmaker out of time—in the absolutely best sense—and that’s reconfirmed by The Lost City of Z, his adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction book about early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who repeatedly ventured into the Amazon in search of an ancient South American civilization. As with Gray’s prior films, it’s a saga defined by empathetic melodrama and lush, haunting, hypnotic widescreen visuals. Yet despite its adherence to the “classical” style that has gained him so much acclaim both here and abroad, the 48-year-old director’s latest (whose touchstones include Apocalypse Now and Aguirre the Wrath of God) also stands as something of a departure, at least insofar as it’s his first tale to not be set in his native New York—a shift, he claims, that was less than wholly conscious.
“Thinking back on it now, there must have been a major aspect to it, at least unconsciously, where I didn’t want to fall into a rut, and keep making the same movie over and over again,” Gray says via phone during his media tour in support of The Lost City of Z, which debuted to raves at last year’s New York Film Festival. “You kind of want to keep doing that. You want to express the same thematic concerns. But you don’t make the same movie exactly. So I was worried about falling into a rut, and I wanted to try to grow as much as I could. I felt, after The Immigrant—which I had a very happy experience making—that it was certainly time. But even after Two Lovers, when I first got this book, I had begun to feel the itch.”
To be fair, this is hardly the first time Gray has sought to recreate a distinctive, era-specific environment for the big-screen—be it the sheltered life of Joaquin Phoenix’s single Brooklynite in 2009’s Two Lovers, or the 1920s New York traversed by Marion Cotillard’s exploited young woman in 2014’s The Immigrant, he’s long been fascinated with highly specific milieus fraught with class tensions. And moreover, he’s been drawn to characters who, mired in such environments, find themselves feeling “disrespected, and alone, and apart in the world.”
Class is an enormous factor with most Gray protagonists. That’s certainly true with regards to The Lost City of Z’s Fawcett, who’s desperate to raise himself up into high society through a career as an explorer and, in doing so, to shake off the dishonor bequeathed to him by his father. His mission to find the Lost City of Z—which he believes to be the birthplace of a bygone culture far more advanced than his British compatriots believed South American “savages” were capable of producing—is thus rooted in a desire to make something of himself in the face of constant doubt and disparagement.
Gray confesses that such emotions are what spoke deeply to him about the material. “Part of his [Fawcett’s] desire for exploration was noble, but part of it was about a certain form of escape from the shackles of class. And I found that very personal, if not autobiographical. I’m from a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. A semi-attached row house on a treeless block—it’s like Archie Bunker’s house. I don’t have all that many happy memories of my childhood, to be candid. So I do remember Manhattan being this elusive, fabulous world that I had no access to, and in some ways, that experience shapes you completely. So Fawcett being shut out of the ball at the beginning of the movie is, I suppose, the same thing as my film being not accepted by somebody or another. Not being part of a club.”
Just as Gray’s films are about men and women trying to carve out a niche for themselves in an often-hostile world, so too do his own films occupy a small sliver of a modern movie landscape awash in big-budget spectacles aimed at an adolescent (or, at least, adolescent-minded) audience. With adult dramas such as his increasingly squeezed out of the marketplace, Gray perseveres in the hope that, via his work, he can create a unique brand for himself à la his good friend Wes Anderson (“I hope that’s the case for me as well”). While he believes today’s dominant cinematic form, the superhero movie, isn’t inherently bad—saying that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight proved that “you can do something beautiful and interesting” with the genre—he laments the increasingly “sclerotic” nature of today’s studio system, which seems intent on only making comic-book movies, few of which are as personal as Nolan’s efforts.
“What you’re talking about is a system where they have limited and trained the audience over a couple of decades, to have a certain set of desires and priorities. That to me is a sadness, because that’s not the only thing the art form can be,” he says. “It’s funny, people say that to me all the time, ‘Why did you make this sort of movie?’ And I think to myself, ‘What is your problem? If you want to see blockbusters, every movie is a blockbuster! You can see that constantly. I’m trying to do something different.’”
Consequently, it’s not easy for Gray to get movies like The Lost City of Z made in the first place. “Of course it’s a struggle,” he states. “But I think it’s a worthy struggle. In a sense what you’re trying to do is fight for the medium. If you spend your entire time obsessed with this idea of a certain kind of cinema, then I think it’s worth fighting for. Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe it’s so not in vogue and nobody cares or wants it, and then you’re trying to force-feed something that the system can’t accommodate. But on the other hand, what’s the alternative—that you give up, or sell out?”
Also troubling to Gray is the mounting marginalization of the theatrical experience—which as he points out, is happening this very instant. The Lost City of Z is being distributed by Amazon, and he acknowledges that they likely care most about putting the film on their Amazon Prime service. Nonetheless, he was grateful that the company committed to getting it where it belonged—on the big screen.
However, “Is the theatrical experience in peril? Absolutely,” he warns. “Netflix is much more of an assault on the theatrical experience, and let’s be candid—that’s dangerous. I understand that people have 60-inch televisions and all that bullshit, but that’s not the same as going to the movies. I don’t care how big your TV is—I watch a pre-1960 movie every single night, and that’s great, and my TV is good, but it’s not going to the movies. It’s not a womb-like experience, it’s not the identification with the silver screen, and the projector projecting that image from behind your head. There’s no communal experience. So I don’t know why people think this is the perfect substitute.”
Given that The Lost City of Z is set in a culture dedicated to repudiating the equality (and basic humanity) of people from distant lands, it’s hard not to feel that the film’s arrival is unexpectedly timely. Gray, for one, finds that both accurate and depressing. “All across the Western world, it’s a state of some catastrophe. The film was made in 2015, and I wasn’t thinking about Donald Trump, that’s for sure. But when you focus on something that has happened very clearly in history, often times you’re in good shape because it will repeat itself completely,” he remarks.
“I mean, the human race is not evolved past a point where we are completely aware of our shortcomings. This idea of validating each person’s existence, respecting and acknowledging the humanity of each person—the extension of our sympathies is a very important and emotional idea, and I’m sorry to say it’s completely timely right now. It’s a sadness, there’s no doubt about it.”
The underlying cause of this swirling global distress, according to the director, is that, for the past few decades, there’s been no ideological counterweight to the idea of a market-economics system, resulting in a lack of social and financial “balance.” That scenario is also true of the movie industry itself, where there are “four or five directors at the top who make Batman and they make a bajillion dollars, and then there’s other people making movies on their iPhone. And the middle, that we love, is going away.”
To combat this state of affairs, Gray believes that critics play a vital role. “Movie critics are incredibly important. Movie criticism, and the quality of movie criticism, is very important to the health of the medium. Now, sometimes I don’t like when somebody says I stink—it’s painful. But what is important is that high-quality movie criticism validates the art form in the culture. It reasserts its important in the culture.”
Imbued with a haunting sense of loneliness, curiosity, ambition, and longing for escape, The Lost City of Z also reasserts the continuing relevance (and necessity) of intelligent, adult mainstream dramatic filmmaking, especially in a marketplace that caters, first and foremost, to 9-year-old boys. It’s an adventure of grand scope, and a highly personal expression of equally significant ideas—even if, as Gray admits, he didn’t realize until recently just how closely the film mirrored his own life.
“A friend of mine saw the movie just last night, and he said, you know, the movie is about being a movie director. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s about you. You go off and you have this obsession, and most of the time, they fail’—which is true, most of the time, movies are failures, which is a strange sentence. ‘And then you have a wife with two boys and a girl at home, and they’re obviously subject to your obsession.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s completely accurate!’”