“The Lost City of Z,” opening Friday, centers on early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett (played by “Sons of Anarchy” alum Charlie Hunnam), whose quest to uncover remnants of an ancient civilization hidden deep within the Amazonian jungle escalated into a lifelong, all-consuming, and ultimately tragic obsession.
Given that subject matter, perhaps it’s only fair that, for director James Gray, making the adventure epic — an adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction book — proved a painful, protracted odyssey in and of itself. After first becoming attached to the project back in 2009, Gray hung on through myriad casting complications and logistical nightmares until cameras finally rolled in the summer and fall of 2015.
Ahead of “Z” opening, Gray sat down with the Globe to talk about the film and the evolution of adventure cinema. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. You’ve had your head in “The Lost City of Z” for years. What is it like to be finally sending the film out into theaters?
A. It’s coming to the end. I have incredible stress, because I want it to be received well, but I also want it to be over. I’m tired. I want to move onto another thing — you know, I finished the film 9 months ago now. I finished it in late September of 2016, so it’s spent a long time in mothballs since it screened at the New York Film Festival in the middle of October, and I want to move on. Talking about it has helped me crystallize my feelings about the film, and about why I did it, and from whence it comes. But, being at the end of it, I just want it to be over now. The world is going to judge it. “Is it ugly? Is it pretty? Does your baby look beautiful, or does your baby need a little [something]? And that’s coming. And who wants that?
Q. Have you been reading reviews? From what I’ve seen, they’re overwhelmingly positive.
A. I’ve read one, so far. I wasn’t too happy with it. It was a positive review, but I still felt that what it was that I was trying to do was not understood. That doesn’t mean it’s the reviewer’s fault — it could be my fault. The movie didn’t communicate what I wanted it to communicate, so now I’m wondering if I got it wrong. It’s a frustration, an insecurity. The only reason I read it, by the way, is that it’s in a magazine I often read, and I just saw it there.
Q. In terms of the themes you play with in “The Lost City of Z” — obsession, legacy, and madness among them — is there a central idea you hoped people would take away?
A. There’s not one message I’m trying to send — you want the film to be alive in a way, that it can convey many different things and be a bit of an open book. But just because you want it to be ambiguous, that doesn’t mean you want it to be unclear, vague, or something where you can project anything onto it. You hope people don’t project silly things onto it, or offensive things onto it. You’re trying to do something open to multiple interpretations that still isn’t open to all interpretations. It’s a fine line, really. If you’re pushing a statement, usually, it means you’re in a bit of artistic trouble. The thing doesn’t live — it dies. You watch it, it tells you what it thinks — it’s like agitprop, and it’s not a film where the complexities live and breathe for years to come. That’s what the dream is.
Q. How does “The Lost City of Z” fit in, if it does, in the overall exploration/adventure subgenre?
A. If you look at the history of the adventure movie in the sound era, and you start with Errol Flynn and then “Gunga Din” in 1939, a whole bunch of these people were making movies. And then the ultimate adventure movies turned into the David Lean pictures of the early ’60s and late ’50s, with “The Bridge on the River Kwai” first and then “Lawrence of Arabia” after that. I look at those movies and see they definitely have ambition and scope; they have real complexity. And then Francis Ford Coppola comes along and makes “Apocalypse Now,” and that has scope, and complexity, and a real darkness we didn’t see from those other pictures. And then comes [Steven] Spielberg, who makes “Raiders,” which is the best-made homage to the serials, to the point where it’s so well-done that it becomes something else. So then you say, “OK, well, what is it that I can bring to the table?”
Q. How did you proceed through that thought process?
A. I tried to look backward; if I look at Lean, if I look at Coppola, what did they do? Well, I can’t match their talent, but that’s another issue completely — I can’t think about that. I can’t match the time they had to take on those movies. “Apocalypse” shot for a year and used the entire Philippine air force’s helicopter supply for sequences, and Lean shot for a year in the desert, which was crazy. So I asked what I could bring to it, and my attitude became that I should bring to it an increased and added complexity that 2015 could afford us — a permissiveness and inclusiveness. There are no women in “Lawrence of Arabia” and no women apart from Playboy models in “Apocalypse,” and I had a woman here, so I did my best to take time with her . . . Similarly, here was a responsibility to entreat the indigenous people as independent actors not relying on the white guy to save them — I didn’t want it to be a white savior movie. I tried to bring to it an increased and ever more complex view of the world as I see it.
Q. “The Lost City of Z” is about Fawcett but feels more broadly to be about obsession as a human vice.
A. It’s very dangerous. It’s like making a movie. Midway through production, my wife was like, “This is about you.” I’m off for years at a clip making a film, and maybe your wife and children — I have two boys and a girl, Fawcett had two boys and a girl — are left behind while you go off for three years on this obsession, come back, go away, and come back. There’s a cost ... When great directors make a movie, you feel their soul and spirit in every frame. It’s about their personal investment, I think, how much they’re able to substitute, no matter what the subject, and put themselves into the film in a way. There’s a great quote from the writer George Eliot; she said, “The purpose of all art is the extension of our sympathies.” That’s a beautiful notion, and what we’re talking about.
Isaac Feldberg can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org