Percy Fawcett’s lifelong quest to discover a lost civilization first grabbed the attention of David Grann when he was researching a book about Sherlock Holmes. The Brooklyn-based author and New Yorker staff writer noticed references to Fawcett as the real-life explorer who inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create his fantasy adventure novel, The Lost World.
“Fawcett’s story had all these tantalizing elements – mystery, obsession, death, madness – as well as great intellectual stakes,” says Grann. “I realized I was fully in the story’s grip when I told my wife I planned to take out an extra life insurance policy and follow Fawcett’s trail into the Amazon.”
Grann’s decision to retrace Fawcett’s path into the jungle came after uncovering the explorer’s private papers at a house belonging to Fawcett’s granddaughter in Cardiff, Wales. “She invited me into a back room, opened up this old chest, and inside were diaries covered in dust with the bindings breaking apart,” recalls the author. “Fawcett wrote in this miniature and writing and almost coded language because he didn’t want rivals to discover the lost city before he did. It took me forever to decipher, but these crumbling diaries and logbooks held incredible clues revealing his clandestine route to Z.”
During his own journey to the Amazon, Grann met a member of the Bakairi Indian tribe, now at least 100 years old, who remembered seeing Fawcett when she was a little girl. “I’m sure she’s the last living eyewitness to have seen him,” he says. “She described her fascination: who are these people and why are they heading into the jungle?”
When it came to extrapolating Fawcett’s mysterious fate, Grann relied on oral histories passed down from generation to generation by the Kalapalo Indians he encountered in the Amazon’s southern basin. “In their oral history, they told Fawcett, ‘Don’t go east because that’s where the fierce Indians live,’ but he insisted on heading east.
For several days they could see the fire from Fawcett’s camp rising above the jungle trees, and then one day it just went out. The tribe went to investigate and found the camp, but there was no longer any sign of Fawcett.”
In 2005, Grann’s adventures into the Amazon were recounted in The New Yorker. The article, entitled “The Lost City of Z,” was published in the September 19, 2005 issue. “I spent many months on the article and it ran about 20,000 words,” he says. “And then something interesting happened. Every time I’d ever finished a New Yorker story before, I didn’t want to look at the subject again; I didn’t want to think about it again. This was the first time I finished a piece that only deepened my obsession instead of satiating it. I still had questions. There were places I still wanted to go. Doors just kept opening and that’s when I thought, ‘I have to do this as a book.’”
Four more years of intensive work yielded The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Doubleday, 2009). Grann’s expanded account became a number one bestseller, and in 2009 the New York Times named it one of the year’s ten best books. After production company Plan B entertainment optioned the property co-founder Brad Pitt invited writer-director James Gray to adapt the book for the big screen. “I was thrilled to see what James Gray created from the material,” Grann says. “I think the book and the movie complement each other wonderfully.”
Gray, known for such critically-hailed dramas as Little Odessa, The Yards and Two Lovers, was excited at the prospect of turning Grann’s narrative into a film, but he knew it would be an extremely ambitious undertaking.
“When I read the book, it seemed almost impossible to make,” he says. “The story involved the United Kingdom, World War I and, of course, the jungle. I thought, ‘Any movie that’s going to be worth anything has to cover all three of those big things, and that sounds impossible — so I’d like to try.’”
Most recently acclaimed for The Immigrant, which also takes place in the early 20th century, Gray brings a distinctive auteur’s eye to every story he tells. “I have a very contrary bone in me,” he says. “If people tell me, ‘You will never be able to do a movie like this,’ I feel like I need to prove them wrong. I saw The Lost City of Z as the ultimate production challenge, but also as a very profound story.”
Fascinated in part by Percy Fawcett’s conflicted relationships with his son and wife, Gray also embraced the saga as a way of addressing issues still bedeviling the world today. “The Lost City of Z involves politics in a way,” Gray explains. “The upper crust in Britain looked down on Fawcett because his father was an alcoholic who wasted the family fortune. They all looked down on the indigenous people. And even the indigenous people warred amongst each other. There was something very powerful in this sad truth about human beings, that we feel the need to put each other in separate boxes of class and race and gender.”