Source: SoFilm (France) - October 2015
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“The Art of War”
On set of The Lost City of Z
It could have been his great movie cursed, and then not. After The Immigrant, James Gray prepared his great adventure movie: The
Lost City of Z. And yet, before going to sink his boots into the Colombian jungle, the New Yorker is planted in the mud, in the
green Irish countryside, to reconstitute the battle of the Somme with Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson. An adventure movie, it
does more. The story:
…on this Sunday morning, September: on a surface that seems to cover a whole farm estate, green pastures have all been trashed,
mangled, massacred by a bulldozer. A network of trenches, heaps of debris and a maze of mud and barbed wire is what remains. On
sections of the meadow, one that tilts toward the sky and brand the horizon, vaguely distinguishable helmets can be seen, typical
of German soldiers, through the smoke. On the other, in the quagmire of the trenches, dozens of British troops waiting for their
commanding officer to give them the signal to charge no man’s land, towards a likely death.
It is the 25th day of filming of The Lost City of Z, the sixth feature film by James Gray and from what one can see, his most
ambitious film to date: an impressive production, ”independent,” that today requires 240 technicians, 10 actors and 100 extras. All
have the same goal: restore the horrors of the Battle of the Somme during the First World War, where more than a million men died
within five months.
Electricians, gunsmiths, stunt, the teams sound, machinists, assistants and at least three cameramen continually come and go in the
mud, gathered around a huge 35 mm camera to watch the Brits rushing on arid lands that separate the two armies, then fall back when
the ‘Pan! Pan! Pan! “enemy fire the mowing on the spot. Amid the widespread chaos and the strong smell of smoke, Gray (in gray
sweater, black scarf to the neck and too big thigh high fisherman boots already smeared with mud) passes from one group to another:
he gives specific guidance to each team before returning to the most important plateau where the main team and players are preparing
for the next scene.
At the time where the soldiers are ready for filming, an assistant calls Gray: he must return to “A“ camera, they are ready to shoot
the Hunnam/Pattinson scene from a different angle. Frustrated at not being able to watch all at the same time, he hurries back to
the bunker, trying to avoid deep holes and piles of debris that litter the muddy ground. And then it starts to rain. “This is like a
meeting between fucking Barry Lyndon and Apocalypse Now.” Everything, this incredible expenditure of energy, all these men for
probably, at best, between five and ten minutes of film in the final cut. In many respects, however, the Battle of the Somme is a
key sequence in the film, to understand both the life and times of Percy Fawcett, and why Gray wanted to bring them to the screen.
Regarding the removal of the modern day narrator in the adaptation of the book to film, Gray says,“Deconstruction as a method of
implementation has been fashionable over the past twenty or thirty years. But I wanted to try another route, because there is
nothing more difficult than to succeed with a linear narrative that is both elegant and moving.”
In 2010, Gray completed the scenario and spent two weeks tracking the Amazon in Brazil, to find the ”density and variety”of the
jungle that would account for the places crossed by Fawcett. With Pitt in the lead role and a budget of $ 80 million, The Lost City
of Z looks like a blockbuster “arthouse” – the kind of epic films that Hollywood produced in arm circumference in the 1970s. Except
that Pitt withdrew from the role, and financiers also withdrew. They managed to find other sources of funding… and they choose
Charlie Hunnam (from the series Sons of Anarchy), an actor who Gray says has “the intensity and the savagery” of the real Percy
Fawcett, with Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller in their roles, respectively, right arm and wife of explorer. The budget is revised
downward, to $30 million for ten weeks of shooting, first in Belfast (for the scenes in England and those of the First World War)
and then in Colombia. After six years of false starts, the laborious birth of the book to film is about to be accomplished.
As for complicating things for himself, Gray refuses to use synthetic images if it is not absolutely required, so everything must
unfold ‘live’ before the camera. He also refuses to shoot digitally – which delights Khondji, one of the few cinematographers to
work in 35 mm. Why this requirement to shoot on film? For Gray, the answer is simple: “it would look like crap on video.”
“I want you to feel the heat”, he said as he inspected the explosive charges that day… as three teams worked simultaneously on the
battlefield. Around “camera A,” Gray directs stars Hunnam and Pattinson for a long very, uninterrupted sequence inside a crowded
bunker. The “camera B,” a 2nd team, shoots various action scenes, with the stuntmen and extras that assault this no man’s land. And
the 3rd team, ‘camera C,’ ensures that they will catch what the others do not have time to do.
The filmmaker begins to run through the trenches and then goes back on the field of battle and joins the team ready to shoot Fawcett
and his men charging the Germans. The smoke is already thick, however this plan requires the use of explosives, lots of blood, and
in addition, real flame-throwers.
“Fawcett sought where to shelter his men, but it was impossible to protect these soldiers advancing under a hail of bullets, shells
of nine pounds and jets of liquids by a flamethrower… The injured slipped in the shell holes screaming. This time, Fawcett called
"Armageddon,” said the book’s author, David Grann.
Gray acknowledged that there are not so many movies that describe the first world war with the level of realism without concessions
that he wants for The Lost City of Z. This is why the team looked rather two very different war films: Ran by Akira Kurosawa, and
Requiem for a Massacre by Elem Klimov.
Even if Gray spent months, if not years, to design the sequence of the battle of the Somme, he has only a few days to get what he
wants. When the rain begins to fall, the cast and crew scurried under tents- many which were marked Game of Thrones (the HBO series
shot in Belfast for six months) - while background performers embodying the German and British soldiers tried to protect themselves
however they could. Some are forced to stay down in the mud for a long time, “playing” corpses filmed shamelessly by the B and C
Back in the bunker, Gray remains glued to the monitor… watching another angle of the long dialogue scene. After another take, they
are ready to move on to the next scene. Hunnam and Pattinson get out of the bunker to take the air. Assistants hold an umbrella over
their heads: the downpour is stronger than before. After giving a few instructions, Gray returned on the battlefield to inspect
every detail before filming the next shot. Authenticity, as it concerns location, acting or the underlying emotional tone, is the
cornerstone of his cinema.
In the car that drives us back to Belfast, Gray sprawls in his seat and long keep eyes closed. “I have the impression of having
conducted eight rounds against Muhammad Ali”, he said, half laughing, half seriously, before he closes his eyes again, leaving
silence. If the first part of the filming of The Lost City of Z is akin to Kubrick or Fuller production, the Colombian part will be
rather Coppola or Herzog.
“I thought, what brought me back to Fawcett and this generation of men who had gone to war, or for other reasons, and who returned
home two or three years later. Maybe if they had spent more time with their sons, well, their sons might not have grown up and
committed the mass destruction that marked the 20th century. Perhaps a bloodbath of the first world war would not have taken place.
Who can ever say?”
This will be his last comment after what has been a very long (maybe longer) day, referring us to a recurring motifs in his films:
dangerous, often deadly, links between fathers and sons. The Lost City of Z will also be a story of fathers and sons. Given what
finally happened to Percy Fawcett and his child, Jack (played here by Tom Holland, the next Spiderman star), it is difficult to
imagine how this film could have with a happy ending.
Gray headed for his hotel by sketching what might resemble a smile, and it looks like he momentarily forgot the journey that awaits
him: a trip that will take them, him and his team, into the heart of darkness that have defied many directors in the past. Seen in
this light, the war has not even begun.