After James Gray finished reading David Grann’s book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” – a nonfiction chronicle of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive quest to find a lost civilization buried deep in the Amazonian jungle – he was confused why Brad Pitt had sent it to him.
“I have absolutely no idea what they want me to do this,” said Gray when he was guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “There had been nothing in my career as a director that had shown I could do anything like this.”
Paramount had bought the book for Pitt , whose production company Plan B (“Moonlight,” “12 Years a Slave”) ultimately produced the film. Pitt had always wanted to work with Gray, and while it didn’t happen this time, Pitt will star in Gray’s Sci Fi film “Ad Astra,” which is shooting this summer. But “The Lost City of Z” is a departure for the director, whose previous five films (“Two Lovers,” “The Immigrant”) were all set in New York and had a deep connection to issues of family and class. However, in reading Grann’s book, Gray found one short passage in the book that fascinated him – Fawcett’s father was member of the rarefied inner circle of English society, but was a drunk and gambler who lost the family’s fortune and died a disgrace.
“I thought now that’s interesting as a character Percy (Charlie Hunnam) would have to emerge from something so difficult, especially in a system where overtly class is such a major aspect of English life, particularly Victorian/Edwardian England,” said Gray. “What I got interested in is this idea that the human race has created for itself a punishing, heartless hierarchy.”
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Growing up in working class Queens, Gray said this sense of being on the outside looking in at high society is something that has found its way into all his films.
“Manhattan was a very exciting place [and I] felt shut out and that conflict, that desire, that need to be embraced and loved and not looked down upon, not condescended to was palpable,” said Gray. “There is personal odyssey that we can go on and it doesn’t really matter if it’s nine miles to Manhattan or in the case of Percy Fawcett, it’s probably 4000 miles away [to the Amazon].”
Gray says that he has made a conscience effort to move away from incorporating autobiographical details in his work after his first three films (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” and “We Own the Night”) were built around specific details from his and his family’s life.
“Autobiographical is not the same thing as personal,” said Gray. “The world is a beautiful and terrible place and the more we can embrace that in the work, the more we make it about ourselves, not in some narcissistic way, the more we can make the work an expression of our state of soul and make ourselves be vulnerable, so that when someone says your movie is shit, it hurts and it’s good that it hurts us.”
“The Lost City of Z” is in theaters now.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.