By Ray Pride
James Gray has come to the end of it.
After screening what may be the only 35mm print of his new film, “The Lost City of Z,” at the Music Box Theatre, the forty-eight-year-old writer-director of six features, including “The Immigrant” and “Two Lovers,” said it was his last day of publicity for his dreamy, elusive, even spectral spectacle of lives haunted by what jungle exploration could reveal about man and civilization. Based on David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller, “The Lost City of Z” follows British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) into the Amazon, where he finds traces of an advanced civilization that may have once lived there. Resisting attitudes of the time, including racism toward the indigenous as “savages,” Fawcett, with the support of his equally curious wife (a stalwart Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland) and right-hand man (bearded and watchful Robert Pattinson), makes trip after trip to make his case, until his ultimate disappearance. Gray’s approach is more muted than say, Herzog’s in “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” or Coppola’s in “Apocalypse Now,” but there are nods toward those missions of madness in his imagery as his cooly-hotheaded men move upriver.
Gray began discoursing about “Z” at the New York Film festival premiere in September 2016, and now it was midday, his last interview, with the movie set to open across the country at the end of the week. The discursive, devotedly cinephilic Gray and I have talked a few times, and I hoped at this meeting at a Michigan Avenue hotel to draw him out on serious subjects about filmmaking, which he aired in many rewarding, earlier conversations about the movie. (Plus an undying love for Italian cinema.)
I’m heartened by something you said in an earlier interview: “As you get older, you start realizing it’s not what people think of you, it’s that people really don’t think of you. So then you just decide to do what you want.”
It’s kind of true, isn’t it? One of the problems we have with the way we educate ourselves and each other and our children is that we think things like fame or money mean anything. And then in the end, of course, it’s better to live more well than not, it’s better to be able to get a table at a restaurant you like than not, I suppose, but nobody knows who anybody is, right? Nobody remembers anybody! We remember Shakespeare, we remember Homer, we remember… We may not even remember Adolf Hitler. Worst person in the history of the world. And we might not remember him! We might think of him in the centuries to come like Genghis Khan. You see the name Genghis Khan, people go, ohhh, terrible, all they know about him was he was some bad guy. They don’t know anything else about him politically. That might be Hitler’s fate. So knowing this is the case, knowing that no matter what you do, your personal imprint on the world is nonexistent, or very small at best, you just try to be the best person you can be and contribute the best and most positive things you can. And let the chips fall where they may. You contribute more positively than negatively, and that’s all you got. It took me a while to get to that position, I have to tell you. I think it’s healthier. I’m still not there one-hundred percent. I get nervous when a film comes out, I want people to like it, all that stuff still stresses me out, because why wouldn’t it? There’s a basic survival aspect to that. But on the other hand, it bothers me much less than when I made my first two or three movies.
Among many weighty lines in your script, Fawcett says, “There is nothing that will happen to us that is not part of our destiny.”
Right. Well, which, in some ways encapsulates my philosophy, I guess! [Gray laughs.] I don’t know about destiny as some sort of religious concept, but certainly I believe that so much of the unfolding of our lives is totally out of our control. We’re products of our culture, and a moment in time, and products of our gender and class and ethnicity. None of that is in our control. So we do the best we can within the limits of who we are. And I just felt that he, Fawcett, believed, of course, very much in the idea of destiny. So, yes, I felt that the line was right for him, but also an expansion of my own beliefs.
Peter Bogdanovich tells a story, and let me take the chance to do a terrible impression of Bogdanovich doing a terrible impression of Orson Welles: “So Orson, this story you just told me, that means that a director takes advantage of accidents?” And Welles draws himself up and he goes, “No! My boy, a director presides over accidents.”
Aw, that’s great. That is so great.
And that’s the old ideal, you set up the camera, you allow, you encourage, behavior to occur.
Yeah, y’know, on the first film [“Little Odessa,” 1994], the only mistake I made, in terms of the mechanics of production, as a very young person and not knowing them, the only mistake I made, because the rest of it—I’m talking technically, I’m not talking artistically, I made tons of mistakes—but I’m talking, mechanically, the mistake I made was not running film through the camera—always run film through for rehearsal. Now I shoot every rehearsal, because mistakes happen, accidents happen, disasters happen, and sometimes, amazing things happen. And I find myself using in the movie the rehearsal takes so many times. Because you don’t know when that accident is going to be beautiful. And I’ve talked about this many times, and I even think with you before, about how I really have no interest in this idea of my “vision.” It’s not even that it’s overrated, it’s that it shouldn’t even be rated. It’s a collaborative medium. It’s not like painting, where it’s you and your relationship with the canvas and the palette, right? There’s a one-to-one correspondence there. In movies, you have a cinematographer and an editor and a production designer and actors, all this team, the sound recordist, this team of people all of whom, conceivably, should be better at their jobs than you are at their jobs. And your job is [like] the conductor of an orchestra. You try to coax beauty out of the cello section, or the woodwinds, the first violinist. You’re trying to get beauty, inspire, to make the orchestra soar to a place past that you had in mind. That’s the same for movie direction. So this idea of moving past your original vision does include disasters and accidents. And it forces a constant reevaluation of the work, you want it to grow. Now sometimes, by the way, it’s the job of the director, it’s very challenging, to perceive accidents and disasters and embrace the ones that enhance the original scope of your idea. And get rid of the ones that get in the way. And there are some that get in the way.
At one lovely moment in the film, when Fawcett and his men think they are on the scent of a lost civilization, a black panther confronts them. The scene… is about a gorgeous black panther showing up from nowhere. It’s just… there.
[laughs] We squirted it with water to get it to howl!
Your brain could traffic in symbolism, look for references, I don’t know, there are some Rousseau paintings that flashed, but in those brief seconds, it’s just beauty. This black panther. And then the movie moves along. You also keep it fleet in other instances, you’re saying, “Here’s a thing, take it.”
Well, yeah. But isn’t that—Isn’t the alternative a kind of show-offy, oh I’m going to show you how great I can be, and do this amazing effect or whatever, which feels very undemocratic? As well as against the spirit of what I think a movie should be. I don’t think you should try and curry favor with the audience through a degree of difficulty, or through a kind of indulgent style, either. My feeling is that it’s up to the audience to catch these things that you give them. If they do, great, if they don’t, maybe a second or third viewing, if they ever get to it, will achieve that. That’s about the best you can do. Plus, the nature of art, if I may use that dirty word, is all about… While there’s certainly a melancholy aspect to the idea of beauty in art, it does come down to very simple—now, I don’t mean simplistic—but very simple concepts, the way that the light hits the forehead of the actor, or the way that half the set is in shadow or not, the slight move of a camera to the right when the actor moves in this direction gives you such-and-such an emotional response. It’s the small gestures, and the small touches that actually matter, not the big ones. And small doesn’t mean insignificant. Small means—
Modest in scale?
Modest in scale. And it becomes an endeavor to try—Okay, there’s a very famous story, a beautiful story, which I’ve always loved, where Visconti did tens of takes of Alain Delon in the shower [in “Rocco and His Brothers”], close-ups of him, and finally, he says, “Okay, I got it,” and nobody really understood what he wanted. Until later, he talked about the drop of water on the edge of his ear, looking like a diamond, like a jewel, because he was trying to communicate that Rocco was like a jewel. And you see the movie, and there’s that little drop of water on the edge of his ear, he got it. And it’s that kind of touch.
Gossamer, fleeting poetry. That word you used, “beauty”: sublime, unforgivable, indelible, necessary. But elusive. If you can grab hold of it, it’s not a dream anymore.
If you could grab hold of it, it wouldn’t be beautiful! Part of beauty is its ephemerality. You’re also trying to convey, and I’m risking sounding corny here, you’re trying to convey real love, a greater truth and a sense of love, compassion, an extension of our sympathies, as I’ve said, which is from George Eliot, the purpose of art is the extension of our sympathies. Also, beauty is often mistaken for what is pretty. By beauty, we also mean the ephemeral embrace of all of life’s complexities, darknesses and light, in a monumental moment that is both huge and small. It’s how you feel, it’s how I’m struck when I look at Mark Rothko, for example. There’s something—or Jackson Pollock. There’s something angry and messy in its beauty.
You borrow or allude to other films, but in your movies, the impulses from other work seem to be incorporated into your own tangle. There’s a moment where you have reverse angles of Fawcett and his wife Nina, and for two shots, their background is no longer their dining room, but an imagined scape. It’s like a famous moment in Nicolas Roeg’s “Eureka,” where the passenger side of a car shows an arctic landscape, and the other a tropical paradise. But that also foreshadows your final image.
It’s visible when you’re briefly lifting a sequence of shots from a great scene in Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” , where a character is leaving town on a train, and we see sleeping figures in their beds as if they were in front of him, but at the same time, the actual effect feels like it belongs to “Lost City.” It’s integrated as much as it is appropriated.
I hope so! The lifting from “I Vitelloni,” I felt that in stealing from it… in some sense, in “I Vitelloni” there’s positivity to it. He’s going off to become a famous movie director, right? He’s going to leave them behind. Here, I felt Fawcett is leaving them behind and he’s never going to see them again and that was not a positive thing. There was real sadness there, that he left his wife behind, his children behind, so there’s darkness to it. There’s wistfulness, of course, in the Fellini. But I felt here that I could make a revision of it in an ever-so-slightly different vein.
[Spoiler alert for two paragraphs]
I had a physical reaction to your last image. It’s similar in its content and beauty to the closing image of “The Immigrant,” but here, Nina leaves a meeting with the man at the Geographical Society about finding Fawcett, and as she’s about to leave the building, you start a fire roaring in a fireplace, and as she steps through the open door, we see that instead of London beyond the door, it’s a bustling, bristling green jungle she’s stepping into. It’s rich with implication after a succession of implications through similar imagery.
The idea of Nina walking off into the jungle was just my way of trying to make a visual objective correlative to the idea that this obsession that destroyed that family, that swallowed them up, was going to swallow her up, even if she had never been to the jungle. The jungle of the mind was going to swallow her up. It also felt elemental. It felt weirdly reverse-evolution. Leaving what is technically civilization—even though World War I basically proved that was nonsense—and retreating back into some kind of weird birthplace of the human being. You don’t want to romanticize this notion of the “primitive.” That’s its own form of racism. But having said that, I felt that all the trappings of civilized existence, the social class, and the war later, for example, I don’t know, is that [the jungle was] more civilized. It seems to me hopelessly cruel in many ways. All of this went into the thinking of it. And in some ways the film takes on a strange feel, it becomes increasingly, I don’t know if you could use the word “surreal,” but it becomes increasingly… poetic?
Spectral is a word I’ve used about your earlier films, from the hallways of “The Immigrant,” even back to the finite confines of the tenement corridors in “Little Odessa,” the histories of the walls seem to emanate into your stories, there’s this weight, it’s practical in “Little Odessa,” then constructed in “The Immigrant,” but still they’re both suggesting, there are histories here. You’re walking amid them.
I’m thrilled that you get that. I’m obsessed with the idea of history, and how history—I don’t mean the facts of history—but the weight of history and the weight of economics and politics in history. How that weighs on us and how it changes our behavior and how it makes us who we are, both good and bad. Did I tell the Hitler story last night? I can’t remember, I’m so tired. Hitler was a trench-runner in World War I. Which meant he went from the back lines to the front to deliver news. Trench-runners had the highest mortality rate of anybody in the army. And he was wounded in battle. The amount of trauma, the PTSD that he suffered, must have been immense. This is not to let Mr. Hitler off the hook as the worst person in the history of the world, probably. But history shaped him. What happened to him, shaped him a lot. And as a consequence, he shaped history. I think that that sense, that who we are, is so much out of our control, and so much part of us as we talk about this continuum. It seems a more interesting approach, not just to characterization, but to narrative itself. That the unfolding of our lives is the product of many, many forces. Not just our ability to act or not act. So this idea, this sense of layers, layers of the past encroaching upon us, encroaching upon our behavior, it seems to me, is immensely important in any complex presentation of a character. I don’t know.
The spaces in “The Immigrant” prompt that for me, at some point, everyone moving through domestic or common spaces, is spectral, or part of a repetition of crowds, as in the lining up at Ellis Island as the many immigrants had lined up before.
I’m going to say something that may not be completely related, but it’s personal, and it comes to mind when you bring this up, people walking like ghosts through a space. I remember when my mother died, right after she died, she died at home, and we got the undertaker to take away her body. And I was with her when she died. And it wasn’t like seeing her zipped up in a body bag was particularly pleasant. It was quite horrendous. But the reality of her death was not apparent to me, in a weird way, until about two days later, in the empty space, I saw her walking shoes, with these gum soles, in the garbage, that the housekeeper had put her shoes in the trash. Now, of course she would, why wouldn’t she? But it was a very powerful and awful reminder of our ephemerality. Seeing those shoes in the trash. I suppose, it’s not a particularly commercial idea, is it? We’re temporary inhabitants on this planet. But that is nonetheless the truth, isn’t it? I don’t think we should shy away from that, I think we have to kind of embrace it. That’s something I’m learning later in life, to embrace that ephemerality.
There’s a paragraph in Peter Handke’s “The Weight of the World” where he notes that an old man in the grocery may have just bought his last box of salt. [“The old man in the shop today, who wanted to buy salt. They were out of the small-size box he usually bought, so he took a large one, remarking that the small box had lasted him three years. Eerie silence in the shop. Everyone realized that the old man had just bought his last box of salt.”]
[Sirens sound outside along Michigan Avenue] Wow, that’s awesome. Such a powerful image. Christ.
Just noting enough of the small gestures of others. Those modest gestures you spoke of. To keep with Handke for a second, it also reminds me of “Wings of Desire.” The angelic empathy of hearing everything and the voices drive you to distraction.
I remember once— this is totally off the subject. But I remember once I was in a supermarket, very late at night and the woman in front of me is an elderly woman, and she took out food stamps to buy the food. And she kept saying to the woman at the counter, “I want c-c-c.” She said, “What?” and the woman said, “I want cola.” I don’t know why, I think of that woman once every two weeks. And this was maybe twenty years ago. I don’t know who she was. And I think of that woman all the time. I can’t even put my finger on why, I’m sorry I’m bringing this up now, because it doesn’t have any real relevance, but the sadness of that woman. She didn’t have any self-pity. It wasn’t like she was sitting there asking for me, and then I said to her, can I help you with your bags? And she said, no, I have a car coming. And I remember that made me feel better, but it’s weird how many times that woman has come into my mind. Maybe it’s because of this notion we’re talking about, I don’t know.
Gesture indicating thought, but you can’t pin down the thought.
You cannot, there’s no way to film the interior workings of the mind. What you have to do is use context and action. I don’t mean action like a car blows up, I mean action, meaning what the character does, as a way of explaining motive and a way of amplifying motive. The cinema, it’s not, in a book you can talk about motive, unless there’s voiceover narration, in which case the actual dependability of the narrator is in question anyway. Motive is not really something that, it’s such an interior thing, that you have to have the action of the character and the behavior of the character stand in for motive. Things that we can actually see. It’s a visual medium! It’s not like a novel. Context bails you out. Action determines what the motive is, not the spoken motive.
It’s gesture, it’s behavior, it’s not text.
Fitzgerald, I think, said action is character. In movies I think it’s truer than in books. Obviously, you know Visconti’s work in “The Leopard,” where Burt Lancaster pretty much doesn’t say anything for the last hour of that movie, walking through that banquet, he looks at a painting. He goes, he dances. He goes into the bathroom, looks in the mirror, he sheds a tear, that means something. He doesn’t say what it is. He looks over to the stacked chamberpots to the ceiling. And yet we understand.
Not just minutes passing, but decades, an era.
He’s facing his own death in a way that’s both dignified and horrifying. It’s incredible. So in that sense, that’s what the cinema can do, the cinema can do gesture brilliantly well.
“The Lost City Of Z” is now playing.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.