In the Making: The Lost City of Z

Aidan Monaghan / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

Director James Gray talks about the perils of filming his epic, new project about an explorer’s search for a secret civilization.

The jungle exerts lethal sway over ambitious filmmakers: the promise of visual splendor at the price of madness-inducing pain. It drove Werner Herzog to pull a gun on Klaus Kinski and Francis Ford Coppola to mortgage his house to save Apocalypse Now. The latest victim of this siren call is James Gray whose adaptation of real-life Indiana Jones story Lost City of Z drove the director better known for meticulous framing and lavish attention to performance into the chaotic heart of the Colombian Jungle.

“You hear about disastrous things that happen and you think I’m smarter and I can plan better; but you’re not and you can’t,” Gray remembers, describing an ordeal that required throwing away every plan he made just to survive. The tribulations were legion over a two-month production filled with twelve-hour days, 100-degree heat, and 100-percent humidity. Lead Charlie Hunnam had an insect burrow into his ear and eat his ear drum. Rivers flooded the production when rainstorms arrived daily each afternoon. Lightning would strike 90 feet away from cast and crew.

Courtesy Alexandra Dickson Gray

However, the punishment yielded striking, unusual results: raw performances married to Gray’s painterly visuals. You can see the pain and starvation on the actor’s faces because they truly were starving. “It does inform the mood and a kind of madness does settle in. There’s a wounded, haunted quality that is not an element of performance,” he says. “[In editing] I had a hard time looking at the Columbia footage; I had PTSD about it.” The final film oozes with the palpable torment of the jungle and the ecstasy of discovery heightened by the arduous journey before it. Gray’s hero may never have found his mythical Amazonian civilization, but Grey hasn’t come back empty handed. Is this the start of a new obsession? No, Gray insists: “We’re thrilled that we did it, we’re proud of the film, and we would never do it again.”

The Lost City of Z premieres in April 2017;