Birth of an Obsession: The Lost City of Z
James Gray on personalising the material, why writing is like cooking, and the challenges of writing period pieces.
In The Lost City of Z, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a British soldier hoping to prove his worth. While leading an expedition to the Amazon for military purposes, Fawcett discovers evidence that suggests that the native civilizations were far more advanced than European explorers believe.
With strong support from his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), tepid support from the Royal Geographical Society, and outright distain from his son Jack, Fawcett’s growing obsession with finding this lost city in the dangerous foreign jungle becomes his life’s mission.
The exact fate of the real-life Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett – a British explorer who devoted his life to finding the ruins of an advanced civilization he believed existed in the jungles of Brazil – remains a mystery to this day, after he disappeared on what ended up being his final expedition in 1925.
Fawcett’s story was told in David Grann’s 2009 book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. But intrigue regarding the circumstances surrounding Fawcett’s devotion to his seemingly lost cause resulted in the movie rights to the book being purchased by Plan B Entertainment before the book was even published.
Filmmaker James Gray wrote and directed the film, which is now being released after a long development process. Prior to The Lost City of Z, Gray’s filmography was entirely set in New York City – from the gritty street-level, character-driven dramas of Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own the Night (2007), to the period tragedy of The Immigrant (2013).
While Gray’s latest film is a major departure for him in terms of material – it is not only an adaptation, but a film set in the United Kingdom and the Amazon jungle rather than the streets of New York – it features the same attention to character, period detail, and themes of humanity as in his other films.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Gray about what aspects of the characters he connected with while adapting The Lost City of Z, the dynamics of the Fawcett family, and the challenges of writing period pieces and his next film, the science fiction movie Ad Astra.
To point out the obvious, this screenplay finally took your films out of New York City. Can you talk about what drew you to this story?
It wasn’t consciously a thought of, “Oh, I have to get out of New York now, I’ve had too much of that great city.” It was more that I wanted to pursue a character and the birth of an obsession. It came to me from a small paragraph in the book itself.
When I was sent the book in the fall of 2008, it hadn’t yet been published. I didn’t know what it was and I hadn’t heard of the story at all. It takes place outside of New York, and it’s a period piece in the United Kingdom and the jungle. So I had no idea why the people at Plan B decided to send me this book, because nothing in my prior work had shown that I could do anything like this. Maybe it was an act of madness on their part.
But what struck me about the book was not so much the different settings. What struck me was this small paragraph about Fawcett’s father. He was a drunk and a gambler who destroyed the family and the family fortune. Fawcett was a child of an alcoholic in a very classic, pop psychology way. His obsession was fueled in part by a hole that he felt that he had to fill.
So the settings were really secondary to my interests in making a movie about a character like that.
In the beginning of the movie Fawcett is accused of having “an unfortunate choice of ancestors.” This shows the attitude of the community he is trying to prove himself to. Can you talk about that aspect of his character?
I feel every time you make a film, in essence the character becomes a stand-in for you. That moment is an example of how you’re always trying to personalize the material by coming up with an equivalent in your own life that would give you the same feeling.
It’s like not getting admitted into a festival, not winning an award, or not getting a nice review – feeling like you’re outside and not in the club. I think it’s a universal feeling that everyone has at one point or another. It’s why there are gangs and clubs. Everybody is trying to battle that feeling of being alone.
I saw Fawcett’s struggle, his need to feel inside the club yet knowing he is outside of it, and his gradual progression to a place where being outside of the club didn’t matter to him. I felt that was a beautiful movement of character. I’ve not gotten to the same place that Percy has yet.
I find a lot of pleasure in writing a script and directing a film. It’s most of my life creatively. I paint a little bit, but mostly that’s my creative outlet. Yet a small part of me still does crave acceptance. I sympathize and empathize with the early Fawcett in that way. It was a major inspiration of how to make the film personal.
While Fawcett moves on from that obsession, it ends up returning with his son. At first Jack hates his father’s obsession with finding the Lost City of Z, but then he also becomes consumed by the same obsession.
I felt that aspect gave a mythic quality to the story. Something that struck me in the book was that there was something so poetic about a man who had missed large sections of his own emotional growth.
Part of the reason why the movie is structured the way that it is, with three trips to the jungle – I believe in reality there were seven – and the war is because there are three acts to a movie.
While that was the way I hung the structure, I wanted it to feel episodic because that’s the way he and his family would perceive the unfolding of their lives. He would go to the jungle for years at a time, they would lose him and he would lose them, and then he would come back. In a sense, his life unfolded in a very episodic way.
The whole idea of Fawcett going back with his son was ultimately about finding out that he could move past the straightjacket of place and rank – as he puts it – and reconnect with an emotional bond with something that really matters, which is the relationship with his son. In the book, I found that very beautiful and very moving.
Another member of the family is Fawcett’s wife Nina, who has a fascinating role in the film – she’s something of an anachronism with her desire to be part of Fawcett’s career. Can you talk about her role in the story?
It was a wonderful opportunity for me, because in real life Nina Fawcett was very advanced for her day. She was a suffragette who repeatedly proclaimed herself an independent woman, spoke several languages, and could quote Shakespeare at will. Yet it was a world where the Royal Geographical Society did not allow women in its membership until 1912. There were still rules and barriers for women.
I felt that a woman who was fabulously evolved and yet in a straightjacket of her own not of her making was a wonderful contradiction.
The irony is in the argument she has with Percy later in the picture when she says, “I want to go with you,” and he says, “That’s impossible. You don’t have the training.” Now, that’s true, and her request on the face of it is rather silly because she doesn’t have the training. On the other hand, what she is really saying is “I need you to acknowledge me as a person and listen to what it is I need.”
I found that very moving in her character, and I was a huge fan of what Sienna Miller brought to the movie. I just thought she was wonderful.
With the exception of Blood Ties, which you co-wrote but didn’t direct, The Lost City of Z is your first film from an adapted screenplay. Is your writing process any different when working on an adapted screenplay?
The process itself isn’t, but what is interesting is that when you’re adapting something you already have all of the ingredients that you need for a story. It’s almost as if you went into a pantry and you had all the seasonings that were made by one company, and you had all these different meats and vegetables that you could use to make a meal. You say, “I have garlic and onion, but I don’t have shallots. I have butter, but I don’t have olive oil. I don’t have thyme, but I have sage.”
In other words, you have different ingredients that you can use, and it’s your job to find out what are the most important ingredients and the best flavors for that dish.
On the other hand if you’re writing an original piece, it’s like you just walked into the entire supermarket. There is nothing to limit any choice that you make. Now, that’s both liberating and terrifying. How do you make any choices at all?
If you’re adapting, you have a set of choices.
One is not necessarily harder than the other, but they are different challenges because what you worry about is losing something that is of real power from whatever it is that you’re adapting, worrying that the choice you make the violates the whole project. In an original piece, you rarely have that challenge, but you also don’t have all the choices in front of you already.
Your earliest films were contemporary, but like The Immigrant and We Own the Night, The Lost City of Z is a period piece, and your next film, Ad Astra, is a science fiction movie. What are some of the challenges of writing a period piece or a movie that takes place in the future?
The challenges are enormous. The idea is always to prove your case to the audience by making a film in which the audience believes all of it.
It’s not always something that can be connected to facts. For example, toward the end of We Own the Night, Joaquin Phoenix’s character becomes what is called a provisional officer. This exists – it is real and I did not make it up. But I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “He just becomes a cop just like that? I don’t believe that.” The whole reason it was in the story is that I discovered the program exists.
That is not to say that the audience is wrong. It’s to say that you didn’t do your work as a screenwriter to justify the context of it, and to prove your case to the audience. In period films, you have to prove your case. Sometimes you find you can’t include things that actually did happen, or things that people actually did say, because they’ll seem out of step with our perception. That’s a real challenge.
As for science fiction, that is a whole other set of issues. Science fiction is essentially creating an entirely new world in which every move you make is going to be tested against the passage of time. I got sent a very funny email yesterday – one of the Replicant’s birthdays from Blade Runner is April 10, 2017. So you’re always worried about being off when you’re prognosticating.
These are both huge challenges, and it all comes down to the same thing: Can I set the context for the audience to accept what I’m trying to give to them?
The Lost City of Z is a throwback in style in many ways. Were there any particular films that influenced you?
You would be surprised how few. There are Francis Coppola and Werner Herzog movies that are set in the jungle, but we didn’t steal from them. Apocalypse Now is obviously set in southeast Asia and is not about the same story at all, and Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are obviously very different stories as well. Apocalypse Now is just one journey down the river, and the same is true about Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, which are stories about megalomania and greed.
For this we were after a story that was essentially about transcendence – that someone in the beginning would be a believer in the British way and adherence to class and rank, and at the end of the film would achieve this transcendence where he says that we’re all made of the same clay. I was trying to think of movies that were like that, and I couldn’t come up with many.
This is not to denigrate those films by the way – I think they’re all brilliant and made by great artists. But we realized quickly that this movie had nothing to do with those movies.
At some point, the cinematographer, Darius Khondji and I started to use paintings as inspiration. The jungle was Henri Rousseau, and the United Kingdom was a lot of Lorrain, Gainsborough, Turner, and Watteau.
Fawcett says to his son that “Nothing will happen to us that is not our destiny.” Can you talk about how that fits in the theme of the story?
I felt that the Fawcett family, and in particular those two men, believed that everything that they did was the unfolding of their destiny. They were devout Buddhists, which was really an act of sedition back then, because it was the job of colonialists to spread Christianity.
The Fawcett family was really heretical in that way, almost like hippies would be in the late 1960s or something.
This idea that they were divinely touched and thus destined to go to the core of the jungle and find this lost city was a major aspect of their belief system. It’s what most motivated them to even try going down to the jungle to the begin with. I felt that line would allow us to understand that point of view.
Featured image: Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z, an Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street