How the best movie of the year so far, 'The Lost City of Z,' almost fell apart

Jason Guerrasio
The Lost City of Z Amazon

Amazon

Director James Gray has a high tolerance for pain. Not necessarily physical, but definitely mental.

Over the two decades he's been making movies, Gray has dealt with everything from battles with Harvey Weinstein over two of his movies ("The Yards" and "The Immigrant") to navigating the media circus created when the star of his movie "Two Lovers," Joaquin Phoenix, suddenly decided to quit acting and become a hip-hop artist (Phoenix later admitted the whole thing was a hoax).

So going into the jungle to make a movie about an explorer's obsession with finding a lost city wasn't exactly something that intimidated the 47-year-old director, at least in theory.

But then the toils of making "The Lost City of Z," out Friday (it's based on the nonfiction book), almost did break Gray over the nine-year period of putting it together, plagued with one crisis after another.

Movies set in the jungle include some of cinema's most memorable works — Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo." They've also been the sources of legendary stories about the grueling efforts to pull them off.

apocalypse now united artists

United ArtistsHerzog, the poster child of the jungle movie, once said on the set of "Fitzcarraldo," "Taking a close look at what's around us there is some sort of harmony — it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" was plagued with typhoon, the need for millions of dollars to complete it, and the star, Martin Sheen, suffering a heart attack during production.

Gray was aware of what the jungle can do to filmmaking when Brad Pitt's production company Plan B called him in 2008 offering him the job to adapt "The Lost City of Z." Though he agreed to make the movie, even his friends tried to talk him out of it.

A friend, director Matt Reeves ("Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), gave Gray a warning after seeing the script.

"He calls me and says, 'Why do you want to make this movie? I don't understand.' So I said, 'What do you mean, it's that bad?' And he said, 'It's not bad — I just don't understand why you would ever want to do that.' He was talking about the craziness of pulling off the shoot," Gray recently told Business Insider.

But then he had a conversation with Coppola.

"I found out that Francis went to Roger Corman before shooting 'Apocalypse Now' and asked him what it was like shooting in the jungle and Corman wrote back, 'Don't go,'" Gray said. "But Francis is the last person to tell you don't go. He was the opposite with me. He not only told me to do it, he said, 'You know, I have this place in Belize.' And I was thinking maybe I go shoot at Coppola's resort in Belize, but that was totally impractical."

But Coppola's urging gave Gray the comfort he needed.

"The Lost City of Z" is Gray's most ambitious work yet. It follows British explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 went into the Amazon jungle with his son to find an ancient lost city he believed existed and never returned.

To build up to the drama of Fawcett's final journey to find Z, Gray recounts the years before, which included exciting attempts to find clues to the city as well as fighting in World War I.

Charlie Hunnam gives an incredible performance as Fawcett with Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, and Sienna Miller rounding out the cast.

Though the casting seems spot-on — especially Hunnam in the lead — it was the challenge of finding the star after Brad Pitt backed out that almost caused Gray to walk away from the movie.

Brad Pitt James Gray Getty

GettyFor over a year, Gray talked to Pitt about playing Fawcett while Gray was scouting locations in Brazil, but things quickly didn't work out as planned.

"Brad bought the book and I don't know how much thought he did give originally of him playing [Fawcett] but he knew it was something of interest," Gray said. "Then he went to make 'World War Z' and the movie fell apart." (Pitt is still a producer on the film.)

Gray forgot about the project and made "The Immigrant." Then while in postproduction on the movie he got a call from Plan B about having Benedict Cumberbatch play Fawcett.

"He has this great face and voice so I said, 'Great, let's make it,'" Gray said.

But two weeks before production was supposed to start, Gray got a call from a very sad Cumberbatch.

"He called and said he couldn't do the shoot. His wife was pregnant and would have given birth when we were in Amazonia," Gray said. "I couldn't be angry about it. So then I gave up. I said this is not going to happen."

The jungle delivered its wrath even before shooting started. But then Gray got a call from Plan B again a few months later.

"They asked about Charlie Hunnam and I said, 'Unacceptable. I will not cast some California biker dude to do a British accent,'" Gray said.

Having known Hunnam only from the FX show "Sons of Anarchy," he was shocked when the producers informed him that Hunnam was actually from Newcastle, England.

"I thought he was from Newport Beach," Gray said.

The two had dinner and Gray was instantly sold. Not just on his looks, which Gray compares to a 1930s movie star, but also on the actor's desire.

"He needed to prove himself," Gray said. "He felt inadequate on a creative level, that he hasn't gotten the chance to do the quality of work that he wants to do. So next thing I knew I was on a raft in the jungle with the guy."

Principal photography lasted from August to October 2015. Filming took place in Northern Ireland and in the jungles of Colombia. And shooting in the jungle had its fair share of injuries and sicknesses. Hunnam woke up late one night to find that a beetle had crawled into his ear, one of the grips was bitten by a viper, another crew member got malaria, and two people in the AD department got dengue fever.

The Lost City of Z Amazon

AmazonGray, however, survived the shoot unscathed. He wore long-sleeve shirts and pants that had permethrin in the clothing, which kept him from any disease-carrying bugs, though he admits he looked like a beekeeper. He also brought along a suitcase full of San Marzano tomatoes to make pasta every night for himself and the crew, which he said kept him away from stomach problems.

"It's a very high-class problem," Gray said of the stories about jungle shoots. "You have all these people working for you to realize your dream and that pain goes away and all you remember is the glorious time of making it. The pain has gone away for me."

Gray admits that after wrapping "The Lost City of Z" he vowed he would never make a movie in the jungle again. He even ignored editing the jungle footage until that was all that was left to edit. But now he has a deep affection for the jungle.

"I used to not understand people like Herzog who keep coming back to the jungle, but now I understand," Gray said. "It's the most heightened form of your existence, much more than the cold or the desert. I've been to Everest, there's nothing there other than the goddamn mountain. The jungle is exploding with life. You cannot fall to sleep at night, that's how loud the insects and animal life is. Would I ever go back? If the material was right, I would. Yeah, I would."

"The Lost City of Z" opens in select theaters on Friday and goes nationwide April 21. It will be available to stream on Amazon later this year.

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