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James Gray on the Wistfulness of ‘The Lost City of Z,’ Twitter Mishaps, and Stealing from the Best

Written by on April 12, 2017 

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Read even just a couple of interviews with him and you’ll realize that James Gray — in his humor, candor, self-effacement, knowledge, and general kindness — is better at the process than almost anybody else. So I’d experienced twice over, and now a third time on the occasion of his latest picture, The Lost City of Z. Although I liked the film a whole lot upon seeing it at last year’s NYFF and found it a rich source of questions, our conversation proved too casual and genial to be intruded about with a query about sound mixing — which I, of course, just knew I’d ask before entering a hotel room and sitting at a tiny table, complementary chocolate cake between us, and realizing that my muse then and there was instead a question about Steven Soderbergh’s Twitter account.

It’s not every day you can bring it up, and it’s certainly not often that it leads to a sort-of-amazing anecdote about the prior week’s risible Pepsi commercial — least of all when it ends up involving someone you’re friendly with on a day-to-day, sometimes professional basis. But yes: you’ll learn about The Lost City of Z‘s many-layered production, and to very specific extents that, as far as I can tell, haven’t yet been covered.

This first question may seem kind of stupid, but I ask it sincerely: how do you, personally, pronounce the title? I and others have been saying “The Lost City of Zee,” but…

Yeah. The correct pronunciation is “The Lost City of Zed,” but I don’t say that. I say “zee”; I call it “zee.” But that’s an English-American divide, I suppose.

I just needed to ask that.

There you go. How about “both”? That’s an answer, right? Both.

You’ve been involved with, or at least circling, The Lost City of Z for a long while. I wonder about the feeling of finally starting a movie that’s been percolating for years. Many directors have passion projects — recently Scorsese with Silence, to name something obvious — but is there a particular force at play when cameras actually roll for the first time?

I think it’s a real problem. Because when you’ve had your ideas percolate for a long time, you become a different person — you change — and maybe some of the things that you thought were just terrific about the story when you read them in 2008 don’t strike you as quite so marvelous in 2016. Or maybe other things that you thought nothing of… I mean, I had to reread the book, like, 400 times over the span and, at some point, you wonder if you’re going to have to reinvent your passion for the movie, which is a very bad thing. But, in this case, I felt — out of sight, out of mind — that I actually wasn’t… I was dying to make it around 2010, but when it fell apart, I gave up. I went off to make The Immigrant after that, and the movie was out of my mind completely. It really was. It came back to life purely because of Plan B: they were the ones who were committed to making the film — really, in a great way — and I owe them a huge debt.

And I think that’s a good thing, that I wasn’t dying to make it, dying to make it. I thought, “Oh, this won’t happen.” In the end, it allowed me to approach the material in a way that I think was who I am in that moment of my life in 2015, in 2016. I had to do a big script rewrite — I had to do some other things to get it to where I am now — but I think that’s the only way you can approach these long-gestating passion projects. I had to do a Q & A with Martin Scorsese for Silence when it came out in Los Angeles, and I asked him this exact question because of exactly what we’re talking about here, and he responded in a very similar way: that he had been through so many other projects that, in a sense, it allowed him to come back to this one fresh. Which I think is the same thing here. I mean, I don’t have his greatness or talent or whatever, but the same idea.

Are there things about yourself that you could identify as having changed?

You know, that’s hard for me. Not because I don’t care about what you’re asking, but quite the opposite: I don’t have a good view of myself — which is probably abundantly clear to you already — but I can’t judge myself. I have no filters; I always answer questions completely honestly. I don’t even know what the hell I’m saying half the time, and how I’ve grown or changed is totally imperceptible to me. Have I grown as an artist? Well, I certainly hope I have. But growth is not assured. If growth were assured, Full Metal Jacket would blow away 2001. So I don’t even really know how to approach my advancing age. You hope you’re growing, but life and the world have other ideas. So I think it’s better for you to ask that, or to answer that, than it is for me, what the work looks like now vs. what the work was like in 1993.

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I did think your involvement was strange, knowing what you’d made up to that point — that the man behind Two Lovers and We Own the Night would do this jungle movie. But The Immigrant is… I don’t want to say “a stepping stone,” because I think that’s a great film and to call it as much puts a certain, not-flattering spin on it, but —

I know what you mean.

But I’m thinking of that as you’re talking.

Well, I do wonder why — and I say this not argumentatively; I’m just really curious — it was a weird choice that I might make this movie. Just because I’ve done one kind of movie doesn’t mean I want to spend my whole life doing that kind of movie. I mean, when somebody sends me a Russian-mafia script set in Brooklyn, I barely… I don’t even read it most of the time. It’s like, “No, I did that. Somebody else could approach it in a much more fresh manner and make a much better movie than I ever could.” Now, maybe some people will say that, “No, the perfect director The Lost City of Z is Sam Mendes.” I’m just thinking of an English director — I don’t know — and maybe that’s true; maybe that’s not. Maybe it needs cultural distance.

John Schlesinger is an Englishman who made, I think, the best movie about New York in the ‘60s. Midnight Cowboy has its own feel and is a completely beautiful film, but he was an English director who made Bill Liar, or something, before that, and all of a sudden came this beautiful work. So I don’t think you can predict, really, what one filmmaker can do or should do. What I do think is consistent is a point of view, and a view of the world. The best quote I ever heard — not to get too sententious on you — about a filmmaker was about Kubrick. It’s, “Stanley Kubrick saw what was wrong with the world and turned it into art.” Which is so magnificent; and, in some ways, that’s what we’re all hoping to do. So you can’t say, “That’s only one corner of the world.” Now, having said that, there are directors who stay in only one corner of the world and are incredible. Federico Fellini very rarely ventured away from himself. I guess you could say Satyricon, but it’s weird: I think that’s, in some ways, his weakest film. But there’s the rest of his filmography — Amarcord, I Vitelloni, 8½ — they’re about him. So maybe I should stick with myself, rip him off.

I wanted to bring up the pretty explicit visual reference to I Vitelloni in this movie.

[Smiles] That’s right. Totally cribbed. Totally cribbed. Which, I don’t care. I’m totally fine with it.

As soon as it popped up, I just kind of went, “Oh, there it is.” I haven’t seen anybody bring it up, which I take as a sign that you did that properly.

Oh, thank you, but I was trying to communicate… of  course it takes on — always, because context is everything — a slightly different meaning, but I remembered that moment from that movie being so powerful because what it said was that he’s leaving it all behind, and he’s leaving that stage of his life behind. There’s something both beautiful and, also, very sad about it. And I thought I would use that thing that he did, but except apply it directly. Because there, it’s his friends, although I think one of the shots it’s his parents — I can’t remember now; it’s been a few years — but the idea here is that it’s his wife and children that he’s leaving behind, so it has a different feel about it, I think, but it is totally ripped off.

It’s funny: I’m not the slightest bit embarrassed about it. In fact, if you were to watch Nights of Cabiria and Giulietta Masina’s performance, and, right after that, watch anything by Charlie Chaplin, I think you would laugh hysterically at how much he and she stole from Mr. Chaplin. So everybody steals from everybody. Just because Sister Rosetta Tharpe was playing guitar the way she was and singing the way she was doesn’t diminish Chuck Berry. I’m always trying to steal from the best; that’s the idea.

And I think you did it well.

Oh, thank you. I think it works well. It’s my favorite part of the movie, the last 30 minutes, because what I was trying to do was have the movie moving towards this idea of transcendence and build in a certain wistfulness — and to not do what the other “jungle movies” do, if you want to call them that. You know, “white man goes to the jungle,” which is always, they descend with monkeys on a raft or everybody going crazy. Or [Whispers] “The horror, the horror.” That’s the southeast Asian jungle, but the point is: I didn’t want to end it with the horror. I know that what happens to him is horrible, but I want it to be different. Maybe it doesn’t work; maybe it does. I don’t know. But that was my intent.

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It’s funny for me, because I actually didn’t know the story really at all.

Well, I took a lot of liberties. The book is magnificent, and obviously completely factually, unbelievably well-researched and thorough — David Grann is a brilliant investigative reporter — but, for a movie, you can’t do that. It can’t be a recitation of facts. In documentary, you can do it, but a film requires something, dare I say, more poetic. Because the whole thing acts as a kind of metaphor, if I may use a dirty word, because you’re already taking somebody’s life — already impossible — and you’re going like this [contracts hands] into two hours. It’s impossible. So what you do is show sequences, and, in a kind of pop-psychology, armchair-psychology way, hope that a greater truth emerges. You know what I’m saying?

Absolutely. So is “metaphor” usually a dirty word for you?

Not for me. Are you kidding? The whole thing is about metaphor. But I say “dirty word” because you’re not allowed to be pretentious or sententious; you’re just supposed to say, “I don’t know…” and have everybody else write about it. And I’m bad at that. I talk too much, and also joke too much. A lot of times, when I joke, it’s not relayed in print as a joke, so it can get you into trouble — which is why I’m not very good at these things, generally. Interviews, I mean. But that’s why I prefaced it that way.

I found it interesting how there is a use of makeup to communicate the characters’ advancing age — a really common cinematic tool that, as far as I can recall, you’ve never employed, at least to age an actor. If it is, in fact, new, how was it going into that terrain? Was there a need to get your bearings?

You’ve got me wondering now. I have never done it — you’re right. Well, I did it with huge concern. We had to do a lot of testing and see what the limits were of what we can do, and how much to age him. That’s Nana Fischer. I thought she wound up doing a wonderful job, because what you want is to be subtle and make the point, but you don’t want it to be that the person looks exactly the same. That’s not an easy thing to do, to age properly. We added a mustache on Tom Holland and all that.

It just was a source of frustration and terror for me because, you know, you live in fear of, like, the mustache coming off or hair looking wrong, whatever. And we did have photographs of these people to go by, to see how they aged, and that’s kind of what we based it on. But it’s a good question. You’re right: I’ve never done aging before. This was the first I ever did it in. We just had to test a whole lot. Then there are these things called prosthetics, where they basically put, like, plastic under the skin — they make fake skin and all that — and we didn’t do that because we just thought the face would melt in the heat of the jungle. So we tried to keep the makeup simple.

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Speaking of your time in the jungle: I read in a recent interview, I believe with The Telegraph

[Winces] Oh.

What?

Every time someone repeats my words to me, I’m like, “Did I say that? Jesus, that’s so stupid.” Go ahead.

You said how, out of necessity, the jungle shoot didn’t have anything in the way of setting up lighting.

That’s true.

Lighting can take an unbelievable amount of time, so I wonder how cutting this process out of the filmmaking scheme changes your rhythm and tempo.

That’s an excellent question. The answer is: it didn’t change it at all. Even though there’s no lights, you have to do a tremendous amount of lighting. The jungle is so hard to shoot in. Forget all the other elements. Cinematographers have a very difficult time in the jungle because it’s about balancing the light and it’s about exposure — and you have the light that streams through the trees that’s very hot, and the darkness. So you have to find a place where you’re exposing to. If you’re exposed to the white light, then all the areas in the dark fall into nothing. So your exposure has to be a kind of… you have to modulate the light in the jungle. A huge number of black flags and reflector boards and so on.

So just because we didn’t have electricity or bring in lights, there is still a shaping that has to be done, and that was a really arduous, miserable process because you think we would move fast, but we didn’t. Also, the way the sun peeks through the trees changes so rapidly during the day because of the way the sun moves. If you and I were on the Great Lawn in Central Park and the sun went from 10 a.m. to now, 5 p.m., you could shoot the whole time. In the jungle, with tree cover, whether the sun is here, where there’s a lot of tree cover; and then here, where there’s no tree cover; and then there, where there’s some tree cover… in other words, the differential is huge. So, you know, there’s a film that William Friedkin directed called Sorcerer, and he hired a man named Dick Bush to shoot the film; then he had to go somebody else named John Stevens, because Dick Bush, the jungle just killed him. He could not balance the light. So we had those issues for sure.

It makes me think of something that your friend, Steven Soderbergh, tweeted. By the way, have you seen his account?

You know, I know this is going to open me up for ridicule: I don’t go on Twitter. I don’t know Twitter. I don’t tweet.

That’s probably for the best.

Is it?

Just for your own well-being.

Oh, really? What do they all say, that I’m a jerk?

No, no. I see good things. I’m only talking about the general…

I’m sorry. It’s not out of ego or thinking I’m better than Twitter. It really has to do with when you have three young children running around in the house, and you make dinner and take them to school and you want to do the work… I don’t have time to go on Twitter. I’m amazed that people do it, like, every twenty minutes. They’re tweeting something and I’m like… [Slack-jawed] My wife does. Not a lot, but she goes on every now and then and, a lot of times, she’ll tell me something really funny.

There was a recent Pepsi ad which a lot of people were very offended by. I haven’t seen it, but someone must have tweeted that I directed it, because I got a whole host of angry emails and phone calls about how could I make this commercial and what a jerk I am. Of course, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about; I was like, “What?” And apparently some film-critic guy tweeted it, so shows you what I know. I don’t know.

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I didn’t expect things to go in that direction. Anyway, he said that anybody he knows “who’s any good is always stealing from Sorcerer.”

He said that? [Pause] That’s awesome! You know, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about Sorcerer with him. Is he a big fan? I’ve never talked about it with him.

He must be.

He must be, right? I think he’s kind of a big Friedkin guy. Well, you know, about that movie: it’s such a tremendously… not just gutsy, but the power and the force of what it is he was trying to pull off there. I mean, that sequence with the two trucks on the rickety rope bridge — the Sorcerer and the Lazaro, or whatever it is, on that bridge — that’s no CG. How the hell do you do that? There are other sequences I really love in the movie, too, like that thing that Amidou makes with the sack of the sand, so that it slides down and the rock hits the nitroglycerin and the tree blows up.

Friedkin really understands how process works in cinema. You see that montage in To Live and Die in L.A. [Blows] where you see the money appear for a second on the sheet of metal, and all that. He really understands that movies, sometimes, are just an incredible chronicle of events. But, yeah, you have to steal from that. I did talk to him in candor before; I went off and he talked to me about the jungle and the difficulties that way, and what it does to cinematographers. But I’m telling you: it does not really change your rhythm. It’s so funny: you can have all the money and all the time — or so they say; I’ve never… — or you can have no time and no money and, for some reason, the situation is the same. You’re always under stress, there’s always pressure, you don’t get enough shots… it doesn’t matter. It’s always ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag, no matter what you’re trying to do.

Perhaps that’s a good title for this interview.

Well…

Although I think your movie is better than that.

Oh, I certainly hope it is. My God. Ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. Can you imagine if that was the descriptor of the movie?

The Lost City of Z opens in NY/LA on Friday, April 14 and expands wide a week later on April 21.


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