A slice of damn fine classic filmmaking.
Director James Gray has quietly been building himself a towering resume. His biggest success came with 2007’s We Own the Night, but the most important thing for Gray is making the films he wants to make. The Lost City of Z is a testament to his abilities and proof that his convictions are worthwhile. Lost City of Z is the kind of film you wish more studios would be making in 2017; there should be more artists being able to craft in this way, but so many are pigeonholed into giant tentpole adaptations.
The film is based on the 2009 non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann and tells the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett made it his life’s journey to find the mystery of a secret, highly advanced civilization in the Amazon. It would become what he would call the Lost City of Z (pronounced Zed in the film). What makes Fawcett’s story even more fascinating is that he disappeared with his son while searching for the lost city. Countless search parties were sent to locate the two of them, but they were never heard from again. Fawcett is played by Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), who does his career best work. Joining him in rounding out the cast is Sienna Miller as his wife Nina, and Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin, a British corporal who joins Fawcett on his search for an indigenous society and Tom Holland (Spider-Man) who plays Fawcett’s son Jack.
An adventure story to find a lost city? Isn’t that the story of just about every adventure of this nature? Well, that might be because Fawcett’s adventure was an inspiration for Indiana Jones and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the 1912 novel The Lost World. Obviously, this also inspired Gray to tackle his most ambitious film yet.
Gray started the production by going to South America to integrate real indigenous people of the Amazon into his film. He was adamant about getting everything just right. The film covers the Edwardian England era, the deadly wildlife of the Amazon and the carnage of World War I. It was a ton of ground to cover made even more difficult by the locations needed for Lost City of Z.
The film begins with costumes and production reminiscent of films such as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Fawcett lives in a world where achievements in combat and medals are far more valuable than any wealth or family he may have. These early sequences were shot in Northern Ireland and everything had to be made just right. According to location manager Andrew Wilson (via Variety), “Being a period film, we had to change everything — the color, the décor — anything modern had to be removed and redressed,” explains Wilson.
There was very little CGI used in the production, so the WWI sequence needed to showcase the French battlefields of the Somme with all of its extreme bloodsheds. Then, of course, was the Amazon that provided its own set of trials and tribulations. The crew had to work very fast on location in Colombia. They often traveled by foot or boat and the environment didn’t make things easy for the cast and crew. Whereas some of the earlier segments bring to mind films such as Barry Lyndon, much of the trip to the Amazon feels closer to Apocalypse Now than Kong: Skull Island ever got.
There is an extremely cinematic look to it, most likely due to Gray’s instance of shooting on 35mm. Even though it cost the production an additional $750,000, he believes there is nothing better than shooting on film. After seeing Lost City of Z, it is hard to argue with that. The film was lensed by Darius Khondji, who worked with Gray on The Immigrants. His ability behind the camera only adds to beautiful style and look of the film.
The Lost City of Z feels as feels like a relic that has just recently been discovered, but yet, it exists in the here and now. James Gray was particular about how he wanted to shoot his grand exploration epic and it turned out to be something truly special because of it. Add The Immigrant to the list and Gray is one of the few filmmakers making new classic-era films. The types of films that big studios are afraid to take a risk on. Lost City of Z feels as like one of the films that will only grow in stature as audiences take in the grand visuals and classic story. James Gray doesn’t have all the answers to what exactly happened to Percy Fawcett, but we can always imagine that he found his Zed.