‘The Lost City of Z’ puts past, present and future in dialogue: An interview with director James Gray

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There’s a scene in “The Lost City of Z,” based on a true story that was chronicled in David Grann’s book of the same name, in which explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) makes an address to London’s Royal Geographical Society. Fawcett, freshly returned from a survey expedition in the Amazon, is there to announce his staunch belief in the titular lost city. Despite having pottery as proof of an ancient civilization, he is met with boos and incredulity that an advanced society could have spawned outside Europe.

Thus, Fawcett is determined to prove the existence of Z — an effort that began out of a need for recognition in Britain’s hierarchy but became a quest to bring understanding and tolerance across cultures. The film posits that “We’re all made of the same clay,” and Fawcett is out to prove it, no matter the cost. Such a sentiment is one that director James Gray was engrossed by. “It’s this repeated and horrible tendency to put ourselves and each other in boxes. I didn’t think there was much more powerful or complex notion than that,” he said.

According to Gray, Fawcett is portrayed as more progressive than he was in real life, which makes his character feel anachronistic. This isn’t a critique though, because the connection between the past, modernity and the future is a theme that runs throughout the film. For example, Fawcett believes that finding a city lost to the past will pave the way for humanity’s future as a more understanding society. More grimly, the killing machines of World War I belie their modernity through the primal violence they inspire.

The tension between the past and the present exists narratively, but Gray also weaves it into the filmmaking itself. His decision to shoot on 35 millimeter film speaks to such a theme, as 35mm is an analog format that recalls cinema’s past but simultaneously sports a polished look that can rival images shot with modern digital cameras. The look and texture of 35mm film steeps “The Lost City of Z” in a cinematic timelessness but also help the colors of the jungle, brought to life by cinematographer Darius Khondji, become more vibrant on screen.

Shooting on film also established a certain mood, according to Gray. “There’s this irretrievability of the past — that a still photograph contains an aspect of melancholy because it is unreachable,” he said. “Digital doesn’t have that same feel because it feels immediate.” Even though shooting on film required Gray to fly reels of the medium to and from the South American jungle after each day of shooting, such an effort was more than worth it in his eyes.

Gray’s preference for 35mm film is in line with the classical style of filmmaking that is his bread and butter, as seen in films such as “The Immigrant.” As with shooting on film, such a style is another hallmark of cinema’s long past, that of David Lean and Francis Ford Coppola. And while Gray was resistant to box himself into a single stylistic choice, he embraces a classical, methodical pacing for “The Lost City of Z” for the narrative potential it afforded him.

A slower paced narrative allows Gray to span nearly the entire adult life of Percy Fawcett, and, according to him, such an epic scope also allows him to explore the film’s subtext. “The pursuit of a classical narrative often opens up, not closes, avenues for greater complexity,” he said. “I wanted the story to have an explorer go in the jungle, but what would it say about class and gender, ethnicity, and what does it mean to be a civilized person? What does civilization actually mean?” he posed.

In exploring such questions, Gray’s film takes on a certain, albeit inadvertent, timeliness. Gray became attached to the film all the way back in 2009 — getting “The Lost City of Z” made was, itself, a tortuous journey, since it lost Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch as its stars before Charlie Hunnam took the role. In the eight years it took for the film to land on the big screen, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump allowed Fawcett’s plea for understanding to become our own. “When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about today, but I was also thinking that nothing in it was dated,” Gray explained. “And unfortunately, I was right. You look at where we are now, and it’s miserable,” he said.

Throughout the film, Fawcett is told time and again that Z does not exist. Yet Fawcett obsesses over it, perhaps because of the possibility for human understanding that Z represents. In this sense, Z is an ideal worth striving for, and just as Fawcett looked to the ancient past to inform his present, the film invites us to consider our own past in reconciling our current reality.

“The Lost City of Z” opens tonight at Shattuck Cinemas.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].