The Lost City of Z
by writer/director James Gray
In the fall of 2008, I got a call out of the blue from Plan B, Brad Pitt’s film production company. They had just bought the rights to a wonderful book, they said, and would I have any interest in making it into a movie?
It was called The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, and it concerned a British explorer from the turn of the last century. His name was Percy Fawcett. The span of his life contained multitudes: he’d gone treasure hunting in Ceylon; he’d been a spy in Morocco; he’d fought in World War One and been injured by chemical weapons. And he’d ventured to the Amazon jungle—eight times, for years at a clip, in search of a lost city. On his final journey, he took his son and disappeared without a trace. Fawcett was brave and obsessed and slightly crazy. In that way, he sounded to me like a typical movie director.
Adapting such a story, with all of its twists and turns, presented an enormous challenge. Surely I’d have to lose some of his story and make tough choices about what to feature. But actually making a film like this seemed all but impossible. I thought about this enormous challenge, and one thing kept repeating itself in my mind: You’ve got to try... You’ve got to try… You’ve got to try….
Try, I did. The film became my own deadly obsession. I scouted in Brazil and Argentina and Colombia. The project went through various iterations, and came close to happening three separate times. At one point, I gave up. I grew dispirited. It would never happen. But my producers would not give up or in. They had faith in me.
So, all of a sudden, I found myself in the United Kingdom, and months later, in Amazonia. What a miserable hell, and what a total joy! The odyssey swallowed me whole. The obsession overtook others, too. Charlie Hunnam lost fifty pounds in eight weeks and consumed Fawcett whole; Sienna Miller became a committed Edwardian-era suffragette; Robert Pattinson disappeared behind his beard and gave the film his inner life; and Tom Holland bequeathed his grace. There was also my valiant and dedicated crew. I am forever in their debt.
As we toiled on under difficult circumstances, I often worried that I would lose the thread of the film and forget why we were there. Fortunately, I never did. The forces that divide us are indeed powerful, and sometimes, they can overwhelm. But in the end, a more potent truth endures: we are all made of the same clay.
The film is dedicated to this understanding.