One particularly volatile night shoot brought home how quickly the situation can change in the jungle. As Gray recalls, "we were filming a campfire scene between Charlie and Robert near the river when I started to hear people in the dark screaming, saying the river was about to rise. It didn't seem that big a deal to me; I figured fine, let the river rise, we'll be out of here in a few hours anyway. Six minutes later we were about to do close-ups when all of a sudden the river flooded the entire set in about 45 seconds. Everybody ran for the hills grabbing the camera, the film. Within two minutes, the area where we'd just been shooting was totally under water. Fortunately, everyone was okay and I got what I needed. We were dealing with that kind of disruption on a daily basis."
The decision to shoot on 35mm may have been the film's saving grace, as the production team's computers proved no match for the oppressive jungle conditions. "The humidity got to my Mac to the point where it wouldn't turn on anymore," Gray recalls. "Looking back on it now, the film format worked out pretty well because it's a mechanical process. If I'd relied on digital, the machines might have conked out completely and then I'd be in real trouble."
While filming in the jungle, Hunnam remembers a particularly nerve-wracking encounter one Saturday night following an exhausting six-day shooting week. "I was staying in this little shack on this hill and woke up at three in the morning to this ungodly noise, like there was a pneumatic drill in my ear. An insect had burrowed into my ear and hit my eardrum so it couldn't go any further. It was a long beetle with wings. When it couldn't get back out, it kept trying to burrow further in and flapping its wings. That's what woke me up."
When it came to filming in the jungle, "It felt pretty sketchy at times," admits Pattinson. "There were enormous spiders and snakes everywhere. And giant, gorgeous, bright blue frogs that will kill you. We were worried about Arbor Vipers that drop from trees and bite you in the face. After someone in the crew got bitten in the neck by a snake, they asked me and Charlie to go into virgin jungle with blunt machetes, and all the Colombians were telling us, 'There's a reason you don't go off the path. The animals will leave you alone until you start smashing the jungle.'"
Although Fawcett vanished from view in 1925, his legend endured in fictional form, beginning with the character of Professor Challenger in The Lost World. Sir Conan Doyle modeled the intrepid hero of his 1912 novel on Fawcett, with whom he was close friends.
If shooting on 35mm film made perfect sense aesthetically, it posed significant logistical challenges in the middle of the Colombian jungle. "It was an act of absolute hubris to shoot this picture on film," says Gray, who set up an elaborate routine in order to ship, process and review the film during production. "First, we had to teach a young guy from Bogota how to load the film, because nobody really knows how to do that anymore," Gray recalls. "Then, every day after we finished our shoot, they'd put this film into a torn-up crappy cardboard box and load it onto a single-engine crop duster that would take off from this little runway." After a series of plane changes, the film canisters eventually made their way to London. "You're talking three flights every day just to get your film processed," Gray says. "The next morning, there was always this sense of dread when the satellite phone rang and you'd be thinking: 'I really hope the film arrived.'"
According to James Gray, the story is less about adventure as it is about the characters. Percy Fawcett's father who had high social standing was basically a gambling addict who lost not one, but two family fortunes. Percy spends the better part of his adult life trying to answer for his father's misdeeds.
According to director James Gray, the relationship between Fawcett and Nina could be a whole movie in itself. They first met at a gala and were set to be married when Fawcett's mother told him that Nina was impure. Fawcett rejected the marriage and Nina married somebody else who three years later on his deathbed told her to go marry Percy Fawcett, which she did. Gray wanted to cover that in the film but was unable to make it fit in the time frame he wanted.
Holland went swimming with the largest predators in the Amazon basin - inadvertently. "I got in the river one day with the local kids and had the best day ever, but I didn't realize the water was filled with black caimans, which are like giant alligators," he says. "The next day we were filming on the boat when I saw this big crocodile-looking thing in the river. Apparently they are very docile and don't really attack people, but to me this thing looked as mean as could be."
Most of Pattinson's scenes took place in uncomfortable situations in the jungle, where he forged a close rapport with Hunnam. "Charlie and I would be an hour up river from the base camp basically covered in sand fleas all day," Pattinson says. "It's definitely a bonding experience when there's no way to hide from extreme conditions. I remember we pushed a wooden raft with horses on it upstream. After just one day of that, you're completely done, yet the real guys did this for three years every single day, going against the river. It's complete madness."
According to director James Gray, "This idea of the intrepid explorer seems foreign to us now but people like Fawcett and Shackleton were the superheroes of their day," explains Gray. "When I was growing up as a kid, Neil Armstrong made you slack-jawed with awe because he was willing to take unbelievable risks so he could walk on another celestial body. Well, back in the day, Fawcett and these other guys were like the astronauts in the sixties."
The role of Percy Fawcett was originally supposed to be played by Brad Pitt. However after discussions, both Brad and the director felt the role should be played by a British actor. This allowed Brad Pitt the opportunity to take the lead role in World War Z while they went on to sign Benedict Cumberbatch. Benedict was all set to go when his wife became pregnant and preferred not to give birth in the middle of the Amazon. This eventually led them to sign on with Charlie Hunnam.
James Gray worked closely with Sienna Miller to ensure Nina was given full dimension and her own arc instead of being a passive wife character that Miller herself has often admitted she ends up playing.
Fascinated in part by Percy Fawcett's conflicted relationships with his son and wife, Gray also embraced the saga as a way of addressing issues still bedeviling the world today. "The Lost City of Z involves politics in a way," Gray explains. "The upper crust in Britain looked down on Fawcett because his father was an alcoholic who wasted the family fortune. They all looked down on the indigenous people. And even the indigenous people warred amongst each other. There was something powerful in this sad truth about human beings, that we feel the need to put each other in separate boxes of class and race and gender."
Principal photography on Lost City of Z began in August 2015, in Northern Ireland's breathtaking countryside. By October, however, Gray and his team had decamped for Santa Marta, Colombia, where cast and crew would endure a string of mishaps from flash floods and poisonous snakes to sweltering heat and humidity. The inhospitable rainforest environment helped cast and crew to channel Fawcett's adventure. "It was hot, it was buggy, it was uncomfortable and I actually think that was a blessing," recalls Grann, who visited the set in Colombia. "I think it was important to have some sense of what Fawcett actually experienced when they were performing these scenes."
Gray cast Robert Pattinson to play Henry Costin, Fawcett's steadfast right-hand man and surveying partner. The Twilight star has admired Gray's filmmaking ever since he saw the director's 2007 gritty crime caper We Own the Night. "I remember thinking that was one of the best pieces of filmmaking I'd ever seen," Pattinson says. "Then I saw Two Lovers, which is one of my favorite films. I love the performances James gets out of his actors. He shoots in this very kind of classical way so I really wanted to work with him."
According to Sienna Miller, Nina was fluent in German and a committed suffragette, she represented a transitional feminist of sorts, confident in her own abilities yet totally committed to her husband's dream. "They were Buddhists, which was relatively unheard of in that era, and very forward-thinking, progressive people."
Several other Europeans attempted to explore the Amazon before Fawcett ever set foot in the South American rainforest. For example, Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt assembled a massive collection of botanical and zoological specimens from the Brazilian Amazon in 1820. Englishman Henry Walter Bates spent 11 years in Amazonia throughout the 1850s, when he amassed an enormous collection of insects. Pre-dating these scientific ventures, Portuguese explorers colonized the territory in the 16th century and popularized the legend of El Dorado, City of Gold.
To capture the dramatically varied settings of the Amazonian rainforest, proper English life and horrific World War I battles, Gray asked cinematographer Khondji to shoot on film stock. "I wanted the movie to be almost like a throwback visually to the complexity of characterization you might see in the 'New Hollywood' films of the 1970s," he says. "I wanted to couple that with the epic sense of adventure David Lean brought to his films in the early '60s. Of course, I should be so lucky, but that was the ambition."
James Gray, known for such critically-hailed dramas as Little Odessa, The Yards, and Two Lovers, was excited at the prospect of turning Grann's narrative into a film, but he knew it would be an extremely ambitious undertaking. "When I read the book, it seemed almost impossible to make," he said. "The story involved the United Kingdom, World War I and, of course, the jungle. I thought, "Any movie that's going to be worth anything has to cover all three of those big things, and that sounds impossible - so I'd like to try."
Intent on capturing the reality faced by the actual explorers a century earlier, Gray committed to shooting in remote rainforest locations, which presented challenges from all directions - including the trees. "The weird thing about the jungle is that it's verdant and lush and beautiful," he says. "But people call the Amazon a counterfeit paradise. It's a tough environment and making a film there was no picnic."
The movie does technically follow the story of Fawcett's real-life expedition, but it is not historically accurate, especially when it comes to the portrayal of Fawcett himself and his motivations for the journey.
Although reports have never been officially confirmed, the publishers of the Indiana Jones children's book series did seek to make a seemingly self-referential connection between the two adventurers. In the 1991 book Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils, published after the release of Spielberg's Indiana Jones original trilogy, the bullwhip-wielding archaeologist travels to the Amazon after he discovers secret writings by Fawcett recounting his quest for a lost city.
According to director James Gray, the hardest thing in making a movie is the first 30 minutes, because in the first 30 minutes, every single aspect of the story needs to be established in great detail.
At the end, before the credits, is the following statement: "Fawcett's belief in a lost civilization met with ridicule for almost a hundred years. But early in the 21st century, archaeologists uncovered an astonishing network of ancient roads, bridges, and agricultural settlements throughout the Amazon jungle. Among these sites was Fawcett's proposed location for the city of Z."
To achieve the lush look he wanted for The Lost City of Z, Gray enlisted French cinematographer Darius Khondji, an Academy Award nominee whose résumé includes such diverse projects as Amour, Se7en, Evita, and Gray's own The Immigrant.
Fawcett's passion for archaeological adventure coincided with the British Empire's avid interest in scientific exploration. Eager to investigate the farthest reaches of the planet in the early 20th century, the white establishment in Europe and the United States enthusiastically backed expeditions that promised to document previously uncharted territories.
Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett) and Tom Holland (Jack Fawcett) have all worked with actor Tom Hiddleston in one project or another. Charlie worked with him in the movie, Crimson Peak (2015), playing Dr. Alan McMichael and Thomas Sharpe respectively; Sienna worked with him in the movie High-Rise (2015), playing Charlotte and Laing respectively; Tom worked with him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (specifically the movie Avengers: Infinity War (2018)), playing Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Loki respectively.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The movie does technically follow the story of Fawcett's life and expeditions, but it is not historically accurate, especially when it comes to the portrayal of Fawcett himself and his motivations for the journey. Namely, Fawcett, who grew up in British India, was heavily influenced by mysticism and the occult teachings of Theosophists, a European pseudo-religious group whose fantastical ideas about the secret history of the world were highly popular and influential among the European and American elite at the turn of the 20th century. Although the movie shows Fawcett passionately defending his idea that the indigenous people of South America could have had a lost ancient civilization of their own that was as developed as, for instance, the Ancient Greece in Europe, this is not what the real Fawcett believed at all. Inspired by theosophical teachings, he thought that the lost jungle city in the Amazon might actually be one of the mythical lost cities hidden around the world, where the survivors of the apocalyptic event that destroyed the original, highly developed human society likened to Atlantis, hid away, and that this lost Amazonian city was inhabited by the so-called "white Indians" that were their descendants. This is also the reason why Fawcett named this city The Lost City of Z, since he believed that once the city is found, the mystical inhabitants will finally share their ancient secrets with the rest of the world and possibly change the human history forever. In other words, just like the letter Z is the final letter of the English alphabet, in Fawcett's mind, this lost Amazonian city symbolized the finality of human conquest for knowledge. All these beliefs directly led to Fawcett's decision to take his young son, who in Fawcett's mind was literally destined to help him find the lost city, and his son's best friend with him on his final journey despite the fact that the boys were not experienced explorers and that the expedition itself was ill prepared for the journey to begin with. Documentaries such as Secrets of the Dead: Lost in the Amazon (2011) cover these aspects of his life story. Another misconception is that he was probably killed by the Kalapalo tribe or some other hostile indigenous tribe from the area. This theory was especially promoted by George M. Dyott, an adventurer sent by the British Royal Society to look for Fawcett several years after Fawcett's disappearance. He decided to continue Fawcett's journey from Fawcett's last known location and ended up in the territory of a hostile indigenous tribe. He concluded that Fawcett must have run into them on his journey as well and got killed. Dyott survived the encounter with the hostile tribe and returned home to, based on his beliefs and findings, write a novel about Fawcett and his doomed expedition. The novel became popular and was later adapted into a movie called Manhunt in the Jungle (1958). Throughout the 20th century many people tried to find traces of Fawcett and his expedition but they either got killed as well or found absolutely nothing. However, eventually, some of the items Fawcett had with him on the journey began to resurface, primarily his compass and his family ring. The compass was found in the jungle, but the ring was found in a store in the same Brazilian state where Fawcett and his team went missing. The store owner claimed that Fawcett himself gave him the ring as payment on his previous failed expedition in 1920, but Fawcett's wife claimed that Fawcett brought the ring home with him after that journey. This strange inconstancy, the fact that all tribes from the area where Fawcett went missing keep denying to this very day that their people killed him, Fawcett's own reports from the doomed journey, which he regularly sent through local messengers to the Western press, claiming that he had established a good rapport with the local tribes, as well as the fact that everyone in the small Brazilian town which Fawcett last visited before heading off into the jungle knew exactly where he was going led to a more probable theory that the bandits who plagued the area in the 1920s killed Fawcett and stole his belongings, selling the ring to some local. Interestingly, in the 21st century, archaeologists have discovered traces of a possible indigenous civilization they named Kuhikugu that may have covered a vast area centuries ago, including the border regions between Bolivia and Brazil that Fawcett was hired to map. This is probably the source of the stories that Fawcett heard about a lost city in the Amazon. However, this civilization was closer to the typical South American tribal states of its era than anything that existed in Europe at the time.
Amazonian indigenous native Antonio Bolivar who played Old Karamakate in Academy Award Nominee film Embrace of the Serpent (2015), plays a minor role as an indigenous chief on the last tribe Colonel Fawcett and Jack encounter.