Lost City of Z: Interview with Writer-Director James Gray

Director’s Obsession
As The Lost City of Z made its long and arduous journey to the screen, the film became something of an obsession for me–fitting, given its subject.
Percy Fawcett’s preoccupation with the Amazon and its peoples was motivated by many factors, and his story is marked by incredible twists and turns.
But when I read David Grann’s book, one idea struck me as particularly worthy of exploration: here was a person for whom the search meant everything. His dream of finding an ancient Amazonian civilization sustained him through unimaginable hardships, the skepticism of the scientific community, startling betrayals and years spent away from his family.
Class and Fitness
The film also touches on issues of class as well as the difficulty some individuals have fitting comfortably into society.  Moreover, I was equally fascinated by Fawcett’s internal struggles. As much as he finds himself at odds with the British scientific and military establishments, he is also often a man at war with himself: an ambitious army officer resentful of a seemingly obscure mission; a  devoted family man and patriot who becomes a restless adventurer; a precise and pragmatic soldier who harbors an almost spiritual belief in the existence of Z.
Family Dynamics
As is often the case in my films, The Lost City of Z examines the dynamics of the family.  I was particularly drawn to the unbreakable bond between Percy and his dedicated wife Nina, as well as the complex one between Percy and his oldest son Jack, who as a boy resents his father’s absence but later joins him on what turns out to be his final expedition.
Hero and the Jungle
Finally, there is the relationship between Percy and the jungle itself, which became a central character in the film. We shot the Amazonia scenes deep in the Colombian rainforest. And although the hardships endured by our cast and crew were nothing compared to the privations suffered by Fawcett and his men,  we did face our fair share of difficulties – from snakes to bouts of dengue fever.  As a native New Yorker, I was about as far out of my element as I could be.
Shooting on 35mm
We chose to shoot the movie on 35mm film (something I’ve done with all my features so far), but this turned out to be particularly challenging in the middle of the jungle.  The remote locations required flying the exposed film thousands of miles for processing and editing, which meant we didn’t see the “dailies” until a week later.  Still, in the end, I believe the authenticity of the locations made it all worthwhile.
Universal Issues
It may be hard for us today to imagine a world in which there were still broad swaths of uncharted land, but some things have not changed since the dawn of the 20th century. For me, the most universal and timeless theme that runs through The Lost City of Z is that, as Fawcett says in the film, “we are all made of the same clay.” One only needs to turn on the news to see that the human struggle to transcend differences has, lamentably, lost none of its relevance.