“I was sent the book in late 2008 by Brad Pitt,” director James Gray explains, “which is a strange sentence.” Cut to 2016. Gray’s big-screen adaptation of David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction debut, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, has just screened for press. The writer/director is seated on stage at the Walter Reade Theater surrounded by some of his film’s principals. To his immediate right is Sienna Miller, then Robert Pattinson, then Tom Holland. In a few hours, the entire road show will gussy up and do it all over again in Alice Tully Hall as the film world premieres, closing out the fifty-fourth edition of The New York Film Festival.
But even with this embarrassment of riches before him, including his uniformly excellent cast, Gray goes cup-half-empty and informs the audience that his lead, Charlie Hunnam, who plays the British explorer Percy Fawcett who in 1925 became lost in the Amazon searching with his son for the ancient, titular city, is back in the jungle. The “Sons of Anarchy” star, who replaced Benedict Cumberbatch in this film, is in a Montenegro backwater remaking the 1973 prison break film “Papillon” in the lead role Steve McQueen made famous. Gray glances sideways at his cast and then launches into his Brad Pitt impersonation. “Jimmy-Jam,” he begins in a raspy growl, “take a look at this book. I just bought it.”
Gray lets us sit with this proximity to Pitt for a moment. He was hired by Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, along with Paramount Pictures, to adapt and direct the film. His first thoughts were, “This is fantastic. I’ll never be able to make it, so let’s go!” Gray credits the execs with being “very nice to me,” which engendered a feeling of “okay, I’m going to take this on and it blossomed. And here we are.” Indeed, Gray lets it slip that he only delivered the film three weeks ago and most of his cast onstage will only see the film for the first time later tonight.
For Pattinson, who plays Fawcett’s heavily bearded compatriot Henry Costin, the uncharted nature of the project was what drew him to it. “There’s a part in the movie where they look at a map,” Pattinson remembers of darkest Amazon, “and an entire continent is basically unexplored.” Ditto the lower half of Pattison’s face, which is covered in thick scruff for most of the film. “Half the pople who see the movie won’t even recognize me,” he laughs, explaining he couldn’t wait to shave it off after the shoot, describing the whole process of growing the beard “laborious” and “disgusting.” He also needed to put back on some of the thirty-five pounds he lost while shooting.
“I never told Rob this,” Gray pipes up, “and thank God we’re months passed, but – close your ears, Robby.” Gray goes on to detail a scene wherein the explorers push farther into the rainforest by dragging a raft up the shallow waters of Colombia’s Don Diego River. “At one point,” Gray remembers, “I see this thing run up the side so I call over one of the guides and say, ‘There aren’t crocodiles in this river?'” The guide responded no, nothing like that, so Gray moved onto the next take. “I see it again,” Gray says, “and I’m like, ‘That’s a crododile!’ So I call the guy over again and he says, ‘No, no, no, that’s not a crodidile. It’s a black caiman.” Gray takes a moment to punch this new information into the production’s SAT phone and “it’s like a larger crocodile! It was the worst news I ever had.”
“There were no crocodiles in Ireland,” Sienna Miller deadpans after being bruskly told to speak by her director (“You’re up, start talking!”). Miller plays Fawcett’s wife, who keeps the home fires burning while her husband is gone for years at a time, but for her it was paramount “to find a way of making her not just the wife.” Miller takes us back a century and to how her character “really was struggling against the confines of a very male, misogynist society. Their relationship was completely specific and unique in that they were Buddhists and he was completely supportive of her being a Suffragette. She was very radical.”
“I didn’t want it to be a biopic.” Gray again. He’s already detailed parsing writer David Grann’s modern-day trips to the Amazon, which take up about half of the book’s 352 pages, to essentially fact-check Fawcett out of his script. But when left with only the explorer’s turn-of-the-century travels, Gray says, “I didn’t want it to only be about Fawcett, either. That’s why it’s great that everybody is here on stage with me because I wanted it to be a comment on an age, not only on who we were then, but who we are now.”
“In a weird way, I feel like we fight the same battles,” Gray continues. “Obviously, one look at the front page of the newspaper tells you that the patriarchy is in full force. And I thought that Sienna’s character was extremely important because the extension of our sympathies is crucial to making a film that makes a lasting impact. That is ultimately what you’re going for so I tried to give her character as much importance and humanity in the story.”
And then Gray begins to detail his absent lead, who was meticulous about being on time to set, turning up two hours late one day. Miller’s eyes widen in horror and she seems quite content to have her work limited to its Belfast location. “Charlie had an insect crawl into his ear,” Gray explains, “and it started to eat part of his eardrum. That was week two. It all went downhill from there. It was funny because you think about those filmmakers who came before, Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola. You think you’re smarter and better prepared. Well you’re not. And you can’t be down there. It’s brutal.”
“There were lots of bugs,” Tom Holland agrees, but how is this a problem for next year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” lead? The new Spidey, here playing Hunnan’s son Jack, whom he takes on his final trek into the Amazon, counters, “It was a hot location, too. But when you make a movie about real characters, you have a duty to do justice to those characters. They truly went through that. And we went through not even a tenth of what they went through, so whenever anything was uncomfortable, you just have to remind yourself that these are real people. They really went through this, so you just have to suck it up and get on with it.”
“I broke my nose on this movie, but not in a very heroic way,” the twenty-year-old actor adds. “It was my last day of shooting, it was my last shot, in fact. I had a fake moustache because, obviously, I’m a child and can’t grow a moustache yet.” He recalls Gray asking to peruse his phone so he could get a sense of the young actor’s impressions of Colombia. “So I give him my phone,” Holland continues, “and there’s a video of me doing a backflip on the beach. And James says, There’s no way that’s you!”
“I just wanted to make it clear that I didn’t dare you,” Gray interrupts. “I just said, ‘You didn’t do that. It’s CGI, a camera trick. And I was joking. But you kept saying, No, no no! I can do it! And then it was sort of like in slow motion trying to stop you.” It’s the same wise-assery Gray demonstrates in spades when asked about the internet giant who’ll distribute his film in theaters on April 21 of next year. “I have an excellent relationsip with Amazon,” Gray deadpans. “It started when I needed paper towels. He then launches into a rant about how his is a film the studios should be making, but instead they’ve become neurotic and only want to make movies about superheroes. His “no offense, Tom” caveat is barely audible over the smattering of applause.
“I’m not the type of person to challenge,” Holland continues, “so I said, Just watch me! I stood up. I had these huge leather boots on and I tried to do a blackflip and I just broke my face. I’ve been a gymnast since I was a little kid, but it’s been years. I picked my face off the floor. I stood up and thought I knocked my teeth out. The makeup artist was laughing at me and then when she saw my face, she began screaming, “Medic! Medic!” Blood was pouring out of my nose and there was a big gash across the top. I was like, It’s over, I’m done. And then James comes up to me and says, ‘I hate to say this, but you need to finish your last shot.'”