Writer-director James Gray is not bashful about calling himself a movie nut. Growing up in Queens, long before he started making gritty urban dramas such as The Yards and We Own the Night, or his newest film, the historical adventure drama The Lost City of Z, he spent as much time as possible watching and loving everything from Star Wars to the Bond films, from Jaws to the Dino De Laurentiis version of King Kong. Sitting at a couch in a Boston hotel room to talk about The Lost City of Z, Gray, 48, mentioned that he remembered the moment, when he was 10, that first made him want to direct films.
Q: You were 10 in 1979. There were a lot of good movies that year.
A: It was in August, and it was Apocalypse Now. I had seen many movies before it, but it was totally unlike any of them. I remember thinking, Well, thats something interesting. Now, at that time, directing films, was kind of like saying you wanted to be an astronaut. I didnt think I had a realistic shot at doing it. But I started making films when I was 12 and it became an obsession all through my teenage years. I said this is what I want to do. I was a very driven person, in that way.
Q: Youve developed a certain style in most of what youve done so far thats very different from Lost City. Its about someone setting off on multiple explorations in the jungles of South America instead of having trouble with cops in New York. How did this happen?
A: I got the book from Brad Pitt and his producing partners Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner. Paramount had purchased the rights before it was published, and Brad was originally going to star (Charlie Hunnam is now in the lead). But to this day, I have no idea why they sent it to me. Theres nothing in my previous work thats shown that I could even leave Brooklyn, let alone go to the Amazon.
Q: The story is true, and pretty amazing, and the protagonist, Percy Fawcett, is a fascinating guy. What made you say yes to doing it, the story or Fawcett?
A: I guess it always comes down to character. He was a very troubled person and in real life considerably darker and more racist than he is in the movie. But you have to make those sacrifices for a greater truth. If you were to really make him the way that he was, youd have to have a lengthy bit of exposition to lay the groundwork for what the tenor of the times were. I was struck by how his need to explore was about filling up this hole inside of him. Certainly, to explore is often a noble quality. But sometimes its just a way of trying to escape from all of lifes great indignities. There was a passage in the book where it talked about how Fawcetts father was an alcoholic and a gambler who had ruined not one, but two family fortunes, and had taken the family name into the trash. Fawcett himself had had a very strict education in Victorian England. And even the way he married his wife was enough for a whole Bronte novel. I felt, well, this is an interesting guy. He wanted to escape from what was a pretty crummy and difficult world order, at least the one he was in, and he wanted to achieve glory. But I think a lot of it also had to do with the fact that he felt he didnt fit in. He was 36-years-old when he first went to Amazonia in 1914, and I know that in 1914, the life expectancy of an average male was 51. So that should give you some kind of idea that if youre 36-years-old and thats the first time youre going into the jungle, thats pretty old. You found your calling late in life.
Q: Back when you were doing press for We Own the Night, which was set in Brooklyn, you said that there was an autobiographical element in your script. Did you see any of yourself in Fawcett?
A: I didnt think so at all (laughs). But about midway through the picture, my wife said, You know, the movies about you. I said, It is? She said, Fawcett goes off on these obsessions for years at a clip -- like making movies; you have me -- your wife; and we have three children -- two boys and a girl -- back home, just like Fawcett. And the conversations we had at home ... one of them sort of wound up on the screen in a discussion between Fawcett and his wife, where she was saying, Id like to come with you, and he was saying, You cant possibly. So, yes, of course (Im in it).
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.