Class and Classicism: An Interview With James Gray of 'Lost City of Z'

Charlie Hunnam as Major Percy Fawcett

A student of the game, filmmaker James Gray channels the old-school filmmaking form to make his latest as rich with ideas as the mid-century masterpieces that influenced his work.

The Lost City of Z

Rated: PG-13
Director: James Gray
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland, Sienna Miller
Studio: Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street Media
Year: 2017
UK Release Date: 2017-03-24
US Release Date: 2017-04-21

The extraordinary true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett unfolds in lush, epic, purely cinematic fashion in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. Charlie Hunnam stars as Fawcett, who dedicated his adult life to uncovering a buried, advanced civilization deep in the Amazon jungle. Chronicling his many expeditions over several decades, the film -- based on David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller and starring Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, and Sienna Miller -- explores ideas of gender, class, controversy, and xenophobia in a sweeping style that harkens back to the days of old Hollywood and yet feels distinctly modern.

PopMatters spoke with director James Gray in a roundtable interview about the decision to shoot the entire film in 35mm in the jungle, the film’s underlying themes, and the reason Gray chose to employ a classical storytelling form. The Lost City of Z is out in US theaters this Friday, 21 April.

* * *

Was it always in your mind to shoot the film in 35mm?

It was always in my mind to stick to 35mm for this particular story. May I say also that there are some filmmakers who work beautifully in digital. It’s a different medium. It’s like saying you paint in watercolors or you paint in oils -- it’s not the same. One of the great things about 35mm film is that the image is made up of grains, something you might call temporal resolution. In film, these grains change position from frame to frame, whereas the digital image is in pixels, and they stay fixed in a grid from frame to frame.

Film has a different feel. Because of this organic grain thing, it feels more like a captured moment from the past that becomes irretrievable. Digital doesn’t have that same feel because it’s immediate. I wanted that visual distance in the story because it’s a period movie and also because it’s a level of the experience, which is also about the passage of time.

35mm was always where it was at. But, having said that, it presented very large logistical issues, which I was eager to embrace. We were in the middle of nowhere, so there was no film lab. We actually toyed with the idea of making a mobile lab with chemicals in the jungle, but it was so prohibitively expensive that we couldn’t really do it. We had to train this film loader in Bogota, and the process was crazy. He’d change the film the day we’d shoot and it’d go into the changing bag. You unload the camera and put the film in these cans. We made this little runway and had this single-engine prop plane [makes growling engine sound] and it’d take off with your box of film, and you’d say, “Goodbye, day of work!”

The plane would go from the local runway to the local airport to Bogota to Miami to London... this was every day. That’s not an easy way to make a movie.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas running throughout the film, and the one that struck me the most was this idea of success and failure and rank and medals, and what they really mean to Percy. The film’s ending really resonates because of this idea, which you approach from several angles.

[That idea] was forefront in my mind the whole time. I played it up from the book, this idea of getting medals. For me, the part of the story that is clear is that the guy, in real life, was a racist. But he was a racist according to 2017 -- in 1905, people had a very different sense of what it means to be moral. Do you know Ota Benga?

I don’t.

Ota Benga was a pygmy from Africa, and they put him in a cage at the Bronx Zoo as the link between chimp and monkey and man. That’s horrible. And that’s what you’re talking about when you’re talking about 1900. So, given that, Fawcett was kind of advanced for his time. So, you cannot condemn characters, I don’t think, because we’re all hostage to what is in fashion and what is the idea of the day. I saw Fawcett, given that context, as a rather progressive figure, someone who at least made some attempt to contact and respect indigenous peoples in South America.

Now, given that that was a major aspect of the story, what’s a way to accentuate that? Why was he obsessed? One thing that's clear from the book is that his father was a drunk and ruined the family fortune through gambling. That’s part of the reason Percy becomes an obsessive. Obsession doesn’t come from nowhere -- it comes from a place of great need, a feeling of inadequacy, of a hole that needs to be filled.

So, all of this seemed to draw connections to the British class system, and I started to think of it as a way of expressing that we have this horrible hierarchy that we create. The upper class looks down on him, he puts his wife in a box. Western Europe looks down on South America, the people of South America have slave owners and slaves. This is a repeated and horrible tendency we have to put ourselves and each other in boxes. I didn’t think that there was a much more powerful or complex notion than that. It’s a very powerful idea, because it’s a very basic, human, horrible idea... the humiliation that goes along with that.

35mm is part of a sort of old style of filmmaking. You’re also very well-known for your old-style filmmaking, classical storytelling. How does that style fit into The Lost City of Z, and why did you choose it to approach the story?

You’re completely right that a lot of people say that about me, that I’m a classical director. I’m not disputing what you asked me at all -- you’re quite right. But I would say, to be honest, I kind of resist it. To me, it’s only a discussion of style, not a discussion of what’s going on underneath the surface of the film. That doesn’t mean it’s invalid -- it just means I’m using the classical form to express something that hopefully has some measure of subversiveness about it.

What the film actually is saying is not always readily apparent to us. Sometimes it emerges through subtext. How do you express something through subtext? If you make a film that's not a narrative, a well-told story with emotion and elegance, which is the aim -- is the alternative a cinema essay of sorts? Maybe. In Godard’s case, he did them brilliantly. There’s a level at which, when we say exactly what we mean, the subtext stops mattering. But, what you’ve noticed about the great filmmakers of the Hollywood system -- Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, or any of these guys leading up to Francis Ford Coppola -- there is a subtext that emerges.

The A story of Vertigo is, there’s a detective who has to find Madeleine. You watch the film, and that’s the story, and then she dies and then he follows this woman named Judy, who turns out to be Madeleine also -- that’s the A story, the text. The subtext is that it’s about the nature of desire and fetish and how it is created within you so that he can only love her when he remakes Judy into the upper-class Madeleine. That is a very rich experience.

The pursuit of a classical narrative opens up avenues for greater complexity. Often, the conception is that the more advanced, modern, deconstructionist thing is the more sophisticated approach. But I think that, over time, you’ll find that that’s not really the case.

The John Ford movie Fort Apache, with John Wayne and Henry Fonda... I think you would find scarcely any movie more complex or interesting than that. Politically, it’s a very complex movie. You watch the movie, and you think it’s going to be about John Wayne killing Indians, and then it’s all about how Henry Fonda is an asshole, and every decision he makes is horrible, and he breaks a treaty with the Indians. You think it’s going to be a racist conception, but no -- the movie starts to side with Cochise, and you realize Henry Fonda is a scumbag. The point is, the narrative takes on another meaning.

I wanted the story of The Lost City of Z to be, an explorer goes down to the jungle -- but what would it say when it talks about class and gender? Ethnicity? What does it mean to be civilized? I thought all of this could emerge through a classical style.

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