James Gray (left) directing The Lost City Of Z (Photo: Amazon Studios)

A master of filmic idiom and conflicted characterization, writer-director James Gray has long stood apart from both the mainstream and the indie demimonde of American film—a true original who is also steeped in movie history. His latest film, the tremendous The Lost City Of Z, has been a passion project of the filmmaker for close to a decade. Adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same title, it tells of the early-20th-century British explorer and amateur archeologist Col. Percival “Percy” Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam); his relationship to his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and son, Jack (Tom Holland); and his self-destructive search for a ruined civilization in the Amazon—a complex, decades-spanning narrative of obsessions, personal failures, and hallucinatory quests. As lyrical as it is richly conceived, Gray’s take on the adventure epic is as much about the social mores and longings of the age of the gentleman explorer as it is about the visionary promise of exploration.

Gray spoke to The A.V. Club by phone from Los Angeles the week before The Lost City Of Z opened in limited release.

The AV Club: You spent a long time trying to get this project off the ground. In fact, Jordan Mintzer’s book Conversations With James Gray devotes a section to The Lost City Of Z that more or less implies that it would never get made.

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James Gray: I want to say it was 2010 that Jordan came to interview me, and I was feeling very down about it because the project had fallen apart. I couldn’t get an actor to do it. It’s hard to get people to come to the jungle. There’s a certain madness involved. So I put it aside, forgot about it, and went to work on the The Immigrant, which also became an obsession and a passion project for me. But the people at Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, they did not give up. While I was in post on The Immigrant, they called me and said they had been working with an actor they quite liked on 12 Years A Slave. His name was Benedict Cumberbatch. They asked if I’d meet with him. And I didn’t know who he was, because I’m a loser. I watch a movie every single night, but it’s usually from before 1960. I didn’t even know about Sherlock.

When I met him, I liked him a lot. He had this [Adopts spot-on Benedict Cumberbatch impression.] very commanding baritone. And he’s a very strange-looking guy in a great way. But the movie didn’t come to pass, because his wife was pregnant and was scheduled to give birth when we were going to be in the jungle.

Now, this was two weeks before I was scheduled to leave for the Amazon, and I was really depressed about it. But at the last minute before, Plan B called me again and said that they had been working with this actor named Charlie Hunnam. And I said, “No, I’m not going to cast Charlie Hunnam.” The only thing I knew him from was Sons Of Anarchy, because my wife had watched a few episodes. I thought he was American. And they said, “No, no, no, he’s from Newcastle.” So I invited him over for dinner. He’s the handsomest man of all time. My wife falls in love with him. And I found him charming and really funny and unbelievably dedicated, and I began to see something in him that could be terrific, which was this swashbuckler who was not yet a star. That inadequacy could gnaw at him. I thought that was totally applicable to Fawcett.

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And that’s really how the movie came to pass. It was a strange birth, and, as you put it correctly, a very long one. I think I started writing the script in late 2008.

AVC: Having seen the film, I find it very hard to imagine Benedict Cumberbatch as Percy Fawcett.

JG: I hope that’s true. The movie would have been different—I’m not sure whether it would have been worse or better, but it would have been different.

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Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, and Edward Ashley as expedition members Percy Fawcett, Henry Costin, and Arthur Manley (Photo: Amazon Studios)

AVC: Hunnam’s performance is a revelation, the best acting he’s done. He brings a dignity to the character that’s very important. In your conception, Fawcett is an artist, isn’t he?

JG: I didn’t think about it at the time. Certainly not while writing the script. But then when you delve into production, you’re always trying to find a way to personalize as much as possible. On a day-to-day basis, when you’re directing a scene, you’re trying to find a way into the scene that you can relate to and that you can then communicate to the actors. So I’m sitting there on set, and I realize: Here’s this guy who spends years of his life on these obsessions and they usually meet with failure, and he neglects people around him, whom he loves, and misses huge sections of their lives. And I think, “What the hell am I doing? This guy is a movie director!” And Sienna Miller apparently based the character that she plays on my wife, which is very weird. And [the Fawcetts] have two boys and a girl, which is my children setup. You realize that the thing becomes very personal to you.

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AVC: One important aspect of his character is his implied self-identification with the indigenous tribes.

JG: I really wanted to make a movie about the hierarchy, and the fact that class, ethnicity, gender—all of these play such a major role in our place in life. Because in real life, Fawcett was much more racist, a very complicated character. But I’m not making a documentary, and you have to take liberties to express what you need to. What I found amazing in his story was that his father—this well-heeled guy, an equerry to Edward VII, who was Prince Edward in Victorian England—was in the right social circles, but he basically drank himself into the grave and gambled away not one, but two family fortunes. And Fawcett, as the son, was the product of that. That feeling of inadequacy, and in some ways his rejection by the social order in England, was what drew him to Amazonia. It was a noble experience for him to explore a new place, but it was also a form of escape. And in some weird way, he related more to the indigenous peoples, who were looked down upon by the slave owners and by the Spanish and the Portuguese.

Not a lot of American movies deal directly with the idea of class. They did, but they stopped doing that. You watch Vertigo. It would be impossible to conceive a story more about class and its connection to desire, right? [James Stewart’s character] loves Kim Novak as Madeleine, but as Judy, the working-class woman, he disdains her, and wants her remade as an upper-crust woman. It’s a genius idea. American movies used to tackle it. But there’s no more questioning of the market anymore. And there are many problems with that, one of which is that you cannot monetize integrity. Or at least they haven’t figured out how to do that. These ideas of social class become swept under the rug, because there is no solution to the fractures that class distinctions cause. Market economics is not about to solve class distinctions.

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AVC: That sense of a socioeconomic milieu, you only seem to get nowadays in period pieces. Your films with more contemporary settings feel like period pieces in that respect. They have this 19th-century awareness of class difference.

JG: I think it comes from being a striver myself. I’m from a crappy working-class neighborhood in Queens. I grew up in a semi-attached row house and dreamed of living in Manhattan, but of course never did. I think it did damage to my brain. [Laughs.] It does take on the shape of a preoccupation with expatiating the world order and how social order presents itself—how it affects us, how it affects behavior, how it affects our position in the world. It seems to me that this is what filmmakers should concern themselves with. It’s such an incredible medium. It has unbelievable emotional potential, and the narrative structure in cinema is such a weapon to utilize—to express these metaphoric concepts. It’s very hard to find a better locus for primary identification. You go into that movie theater, it’s like a womb. The relationship with the screen is so intimate.

I have a feeling that’s why straight-up tragedies in movies don’t really work commercially. I think it’s because it’s too close to us. You read a great, monumental novel like Anna Karenina or Moby Dick. They wander a lot. There’s a level of distance you have from the book, right? You can put it down. With a movie, it’s like a bullet. You can’t really wander. And you are so invested in such a primal way that it’s hard to accept something so disastrous.

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Sienna Miller as Nina Fawcett (Photo: Amazon Studios)

AVC: This is your most narratively ambitious film, but it shares something with the others. It zeroes in on what dissatisfies the protagonist, and it ends on a note of dissatisfaction. It’s not a happy ending, but it finds some kind of meaning.

JG: It’s not a happy ending. But, on the other hand, I didn’t think that Fawcett’s story—as disastrously as it ended for him—was a tragedy. Because he did see a part of the world that so few white Europeans or white North Americans had ever witnessed, and seemed to come to at least some measure of understanding that, as he puts it in the film, “we’re all made of the same clay.” I tried to structure the film so that it would start in a very literal way and, as it progresses, got more poetic and toward the end, with the heavy use of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis Et Chloé, would be almost lyrical.

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But he’s the one who’s remembered—there’s a whole cult of people who still want to retrace his footsteps—but [Nina Fawcett] is not. And she was very progressive for the time, a suffragette very committed to her independence. I felt that it was her tragedy. She was the one left behind, she was the one who didn’t experience what he did, and, in the end, the jungle swallows her up in a way that is more terrifying than what happens to him. Now, I don’t know if the film actually does communicate that, but I wanted to create the idea of two different realities for these people. One which was uncertain and transcendent, and one which was considerably less optimistic.

AVC: The Lost City Of Z devotes a lot of time to Europe—to scenes at home with the Fawcetts, and later to the trenches and aftermath of World War I—and that’s integral to the Amazonia sections. You’ve taken an adventure story, which is something that’s seen as very masculine and individualist, and refused to treat it that way. There’s a cut in the film that brings to mind Lawrence Of Arabia, which is well-known for having no women.

JG: Look, there are no women [in Lawrence Of Arabia] and there are no women in Apocalypse Now, apart from Playboy playmates. Look, I can’t match David Lean or Francis Coppola. Forget my lack of talent—I can’t match them even in way they made their films, their means of production, their scale. They shot for a year. This film was made in 47 days. I didn’t have the entire Philippine air force’s helicopter force to help me out for a sequence. But knowing that I can’t match them that way, I tried to bring to it a more progressive politics. Obviously I have a great admiration for Lean—I should be so lucky as to have his talent—but Alec Guinness is playing an Arab in that movie. What I felt that I could bring to the story was a more evolved attitude—at least acknowledging this woman’s position, her need to feel validated, her need to be listened to as a person. And of course, that extends to the indigenous peoples of Amazonia.

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You know, it’s not Lean’s fault. He was so restricted by the social and political mores of his time. He couldn’t really treat [Lawrence Of Arabia’s] homosexuality at all, so the film feels very strange in that respect. I didn’t have those restrictions. So what I could bring to my film—even if I couldn’t match him in terms of scope—was an evolved sense of politics.