Director James Gray talks LOST CITY OF Z

     February 8, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Sometimes real life can be as exciting as a movie. At least if your name was Percy Fawcett.

You see, back in the early 1900’s, Fawcett traveled to South America working as a cartographer for the British government. His goal was to settle some land disputes as an impartial third party. But soon after completing his work, he became obsessed with some of the local legends like the existence of El Dorado. He also spent a lot of time in the jungles where he discovered creatures never before seen in the western world…such as giant anacondas. In fact, so unbelievable were his findings that when he eventually returned home and reported them, he was ridiculed by the scientific community.

Not only did Fawcett work as a cartographer, he fought in the Battle of the Sum in World War I and interacted with the leaders of his time, like Winston Churchill and Archduke Ferdinand. He was a sort of real life “Forrest Gump” – except he lived in the early 1900’s. And wasn’t retarded.

His story is fascinating and he’s actually one of the real life inspirations for “Indiana Jones” so it should be no surprise that his life story might also be made into a movie, with Brad Pitt, who has played larger-than-life characters like Achilles and Jesse James, possibly playing the part.

At the recent “Two Lovers” press day, director James Gray said in a roundtable interview that Brad had sent him an article in The New Yorker about Fawcett’s story. James is currently writing his first draft and when he’s done, he’ll be sending it to Brad. The way James was talking, if Brad likes the script, they would make the movie together.

Of course this is Hollywood, things change as frequently as the wind blows, which means until they start filming, don’t count on anything.

For more on Percy’s story, *here’s the Wikipedia* link. Below is what James had to say about the project. Look for the full transcript in the next day or two. As always, you can either the transcript or listen to the audio by clicking here.

Images in this article are from James Gray’snew movie “Two Lovers.”

Question: And you’re attached to a film called “The Legend of Z”?

James Gray: Oh, the “Lost City of Z”. Yeah, yeah, yeah. With Brad Pitt, yeah.

What can you tell us about that?

James Gray: It’s totally different from anything I’ve done. It’s of unbelievable ambition. I love Brad for that reason. He does not lack for ambition. And he had sent me the article from The New Yorker by a guy named David Graham, about a guy named Percy Fawcett who was sent to South America to….you know people don’t realize what recent history….the mapping of the world is recent history. The last hundred years or so, or at least the accurate mapping of the world obviously. So, the British had sent this man down to South America to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil because the rubber trade was huge back then. 1905-1906. Because BF Goodrich and the invent of the automobile. So the borders were not clearly delineated.

They needed somebody—a 3rd party—to chart the borders correctly so that Bolivia and Brazil wouldn’t argue anymore about who had what. And he went down there and rather quickly lost his appetite for mapping, which he did with wonderful success, but he quickly became aware of the possible existence of El Dorado, the city of gold and a lost civilization in the jungle and he became obsessed with archeological issues and to be direct about it went quite mad. The story is quite sprawling. He went back to fight in WWI where he was injured in the Battle of the Sum. Basically he was attacked with chlorine gas and eventually went back to the Amazon and brought his son with him to finish the exploration to find this lost city. They disappeared. They were never seen again. It’s a fantastic story. I mean, it’s unbelievable. And I think it has the potential to be something really quite powerful. I’m about ¾ of the way through the 1st draft of the script now and I’m going to give it to Brad when I’m done in probably about another 2 months I’d say.

When Brad came to you, did you have to kind of stop and say and figure out what you visually could bring to it because it’s so different from what you’ve done?

James Gray: I didn’t because the story meant a lot to me. I’m very interested in history and I’m very interested in an economic approach to history. I don’t want to say Marxist because obviously Marxism is absurd in the way to organize the world. It’s ridiculous. But in the way of looking at the world as a form as historical analysis, it bears some scrutiny. I mean, it’s certainly interesting. And the idea itself of civilization—the civilized world—is almost ridiculous. And the idea that everyone had called the….or the indigenous population…I almost don’t want to use the word Indian because of what that really means…and the indigenous population of the Amazon….they’re savages, they’re savages. Well, they’re basically savages because the Spanish and the English and everybody else went down there and essentially forced them into slave trade and treated them horribly. So when they saw a white man they quite reasonably had a violent response. It’s self-preservation. And the only time that this man really got injured was in WWI and the Battle of the Sum. I don’t know if you know about this. It’s literally like the end of the civilized world. It’s the thing that made the Geneva Convention because the British had brought 2 regiments of Indian troops from India on horseback—Calvary. And they would fit gas masks on the heads of the…this will all be in the movie of course, on the heads of the horses to gallop out of the trenches to get machine gunned. It’s was insanity. So what interested me was not even the visual aspect at first. What interested me entirely was a narrative idea about a person who was at a certain quest about a lost civilization.

It fueled, at least in part, with his disappoint about what his civilization had produced. A certain obsession with class distinction anyway. So I loved the story. The story itself was great and the visual aspect of it, that comes for me 2nd or even 3rd. It’s not the primary thing I think about…which is maybe a flaw, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not what I think about initially. What I think about initially because I feel like if you want to be a narrative filmmaker, which is what my dream is, the narrative muscle needs to be engaged first. The storytelling. I think that story is a wonderful and lost art. Somebody told me last night that MIT was literally creating a program to teach story because they thought respect for story had become degraded, which I found really interesting and weird. I’m majoring in story. What does that mean? But story is transformative and quite beautiful and so that’s the story itself is what drove me in kind of the edible bizarre twist that he brought his 18 year old son with him in the end. And they were never seen again.

Sounds like you’re thinking about a real-world history approach.

James Gray: That’s what I’m trying to do. You know, Indiana Jones was based him. Of course it’s a totally different Republic B serial’s approach to the character and doesn’t bear any resemblance finally, but that’s who he sort of was the basis for Indiana Jones. And the stuff in the book is unbelievable, like I mean falling off the raft and starting to get eaten by piranhas. And he literally was the first person in western civilization to discover the Anaconda. They didn’t believe him. He said I saw a 30-foot snake that was eating deer. People thought he was making it up.

Sounds like Herzog.

James Gray: The Wrath of God. You know wandering through the desert…the jungle and all of a sudden hearing opera and thinking you’ve gone mad, and guess what you’ve reached the clearing and there’s a fucking opera house in the middle of the jungle that the Portuguese have built 150 years before. I mean, it’s madness but it’s great. Aguirre is a masterpiece I think and I’m going to try my hardest not to rip it off. It is really hard because it is a masterpiece. And I don’t think I will rip it off because it involves a lot of European history as well in a way that is not really connected to Ageara. Ageara is in it’s enclosed, oneric, beautiful way. Quite different. I mean a big set piece in this movie about 2/3 of the way through will be the Battle of the Sum , which I’m hoping I can do in a way that other people have not. I don’t know, I’ve been doing research on it. It’s just like hell on Earth. It’s awful.

I assume he will be disfigured for part of this film too, right?

James Gray: No, he was not disfigured. What happened was he was a crazy person. He literally began to….he was put in charge of 700 men and the generals came….and he was almost like Forrest Gump….everybody he ran…..and Winston Churchill he came in contact with and Archduke Ferdinand he was in contact with in Sri Lanka. He was one of those guys who was always connected somehow to major figures and Churchill came down to the trenches and said “a major problem—all of you have your hands in your pockets and as soldiers you should be behaving for the King” and everybody’s like “what are you talking about? We’re getting like mustard gas dumped on us” So anyway he finally was ordered not to try to take a particular territory. He said, fuck it. I’m going to be brave and he led these 700 guys and he wasn’t directly, physically injured except that he inhaled chlorine gas and scarred his lungs. And he began to have this horrible cough which became progressively worse.

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