James Gray used to love Disneyland—until he didn’t.
“I went a lot as a kid. And certainly into my late 20s,” the director says. But these days, he laments, “Now I feel like there’s a bit of damage done. Disneyland used to have a slight World’s Fair feeling to it. And now it’s just corporate tie-ins. It’s franchised.”
Needless to say, today’s big-budget, four-quadrant blockbusters continue to drive that trend. In fact, it’s the landscape of supersized sequels and cinematic universes that makes Gray’s modest, adult-oriented approach stick out among his contemporaries, even nearly a decade and a half into his career. From his melancholy debut Little Odessa to 2013’s period piece The Immigrant, his body of work trades in spectacle and special effects for mood and human drama.
That’s what makes his most recent, The Lost City of Z, so simultaneously in line yet out of step with everything else he’s done. On one hand, it may be Gray’s biggest film to date, at least in terms of scale: The film spends a great deal of time in the South American jungles, shifting between scenes of Amazonian natives and World War I battles as it follows British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) on a 20-year search for an ancient civilization. Moreover, it’s his first story set outside his native New York, settling instead in London for the non-jungle scenes.
On the other hand, many elements—an alienated protagonist, class tensions, era-specific atmosphere—are touchstones of Gray’s, and serve as throughlines across his six works. His fascination with humanity—“Every human being has the potential for beauty and majesty,” he says—shines through some of the more action-adventure aspects of the film. And it’s the introspection and groundedness that ultimately keep Lost City of Z from too closely resembling a tentpole release in the vein of, say, Indiana Jones.
That being said, there are days when Gray laments not being part of “the club,” which he defines as the group of filmmakers behind the Captain Americas and Luke Skywalkers of the multiplex. It’s a feeling mirrored in his central character, but one that doesn’t ever linger for too long. “There’s a natural tendency to want to belong, and sometimes I don’t feel like I belong,” he concedes. But he’s quick to add, “But I’m far in the direction of enjoying what I’m doing and making my personal statements.”
After earning glowing reviews from its premiere at the New York Film Festival, The Lost City of Z is now playing nationwide. Fast Company had a chance to speak with Gray himself about his creative process and overcoming the fear of being different.
Dare To Do Something Different
“It’s weird when you make movies, because you’re trying to do the same movie over and over again—just in a different costume or something. And so you’re trying to express the same themes, but you’re trying to make them richer, more complex. And I think that I just felt I didn’t want to get stuck. I didn’t want to do just New York over and over again, much as I love it. I needed to break it up.”
Take Creative Liberties In Film
“One’s approach to history has to be open when it comes to this artform. When you’re doing a narrative feature, you’re allowed a greater exploration of a different kind of truth. Which is not to say you approach it like fiction. But you approach it without too much of an obsession with the facts on the ground, because that’s not the point of why we’re doing it. So somebody could watch the movie and say, ‘Fawcett didn’t have that kind of hat,’ but in the end, it’s a silly criticism because that’s not why this artform exists. And if that’s what you’re looking for, there’s plenty of history books you can pick up.”
Identify With Your Characters
“I felt that Fawcett’s character and I are exactly the same. We both have felt a certain lack of respect, like you’re shut out of the exclusive place in the club. And his obsession [with the lost city of Z] is a bit like making a film: You go off, you make a film, you neglect your family, then you go off and make another movie, and then you neglect your family again. Sooner or later, you wind up realizing that art imitates life and life imitates art. My wife had said to me, ‘This is kind of like the story of you.’ Plus, Fawcett had a wife and three children—two boys and a girl—and I also have two boys and a girl. You realize it’s the same damn story.”
Each Movie Should Have A Goal
“All of my efforts when I make a film are a removal of the wall of irony and cynicism. It’s a huge wall, a high wall. So each film is an attempt to break down that wall just a little more, and to express ourselves clearer and more straightforwardly and more sincerely. The closer we get to that, I think the greater the film. I think Stanley Kubrick put it perfectly, as he usually did, saying movies should always be more daring and more sincere.”
Focus On The Process, Not The Result
“You cannot guarantee result. If you say you’re going to make a film that 200 million people see, you can’t guarantee that. But even if you could, what kind of goal is that? For the biggest directors like Steven Spielberg, I bet you that’s not his goal. Look at ET. It’s actually quite a heartfelt movie, not some sellout movie. And it happened to connect to other people because it was heartfelt, not because he was selling out. So you can never predict results. The only thing you’ve got is your attempt.”
Challenge Society, Especially Now
“This film was made before Trump. But the idea was always in my mind that human beings have this terrible desire and capacity to rank along ethnicity, gender, religion, or class. And this tendency to put us in categories is among the most noxious qualities that the human race has nurtured. So that was very much in my mind in the film. It looks down on that. Challenging assumptions is important, and the closer we get to the acceptance of human beings, the better off we will be.”
Find Confidence In Standing Alone
“It can feel alienating at some times, to not be in the club of doing superheroes or sequels or anything like that. And it can be a struggle to get films like this made. And then even if you get the film made, people might not see it. And even though it’s not what you’re supposed to be working towards, there is a natural tendency to want to become a member of that club. Now, obviously, that part of me is still much less than the part of me that wants to do my own thing and make my own statements. Because if wanting to be in the club overtook me, I wouldn’t be doing this.”