The 54th New York Film Festival ended Saturday evening with the world premiere of The Lost City of Z, an old fashioned epic set in the early part of the 20th Century about English explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his expeditions in the Amazon jungle on behalf of the British Empire. The explorer came to respect and revere the indigenous people and met with derision when he reported that their culture pre-dated that of the British.
Written and directed by James Gray (“The Immigrant,” “Little Odessa”), the 140-minute movie was shot on 35mm film, and the images have a warmth and lushness that is rare on screen these days.
“The Lost City of Z” is especially a pleasant throwback since the previous evening the NYFF celebrated the world premiere of Ang Lee’s new film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a 4K resolution, 3-D and 120 frames per second extravaganza, which has a hyper-kinetic-real quality that slams you into every scene.
“He shoots (movies) like people don’t really shoot anymore,” Robert Pattinson told a reporter about Gray’s style. “Films are just not as pretty as James’ movies.”
Pattinson plays a fellow explorer and comrade of Percy’s, who is unrecognizable in the film in round spectacles and a bushy, shapeless beard. On the red carpet, Pattinson wore a beautifully cut suit. and his facial hair was trimmed neatly. (Journalists speculated whether he’d run into ex-girlfriend Kristen Stewart, who had three films in the festival and had just participated that afternoon in a press conference for her new film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”)
Hunnam was on location shooting a film, but co-stars Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man), Angus Macfadyen and Edward Ashley, turned up at the premiere and spoke to reporters on the red carpet outside Alice Tully Hall.
Miller, who plays Percy’s independent and outspoken wife, Nina, told me of her character, “This woman was incredible. She was a suffragette. She was raising children on her own while her husband was away for years at a time. She supported him and she understood him. She was incredibly brave and stoic and forthcoming, and I have huge respect for her, so it was a real pleasure to play somebody who had so much substance.
She added, “I also wanted to work with James Gray, who I think is an amazing talent and has a real sensitivity and understanding of women and worked tirelessly to make this more than just a wife at home, which is important to me.”
Tom Holland plays Percy’s oldest son Jack, who chastises his father for his long absences into the jungle, but later talks his father into taking him on an expedition in which they both disappear. Holland said working in Colombia was a dream but challenging.
“It was tough,” said Holland. “There were lots of bugs. It was a hot location but when you make a movie about real characters, you have a duty to do justice to those characters and they truly went through that. And we went through not even a tenth of what they went through, so whenever anything was uncomfortable, you just have to remind yourself that these are real people. They really went through this, so you just have to suck it up and get on with it.”
Last day on location, the 20-year-old British actor did have a mishap, although it didn’t happen while they were shooting a scene. “James dared me to do a back flip, which I can do by the way. I used to be a gymnast when I was a kid. And I just got it completely wrong and smashed my face in the floor and broke my nose.” The gymnast past should serve him well as Spidey, in which the actor hinted another installment was already being planned.
I asked the director where he got the inspiration for the film. “It was originally a story in the New Yorker written by a man named David Grann. The story was great, but I never thought of a movie. He expanded it into a book and it was sent to me by Brad Pitt and he said, ‘I think this would be interesting for you. I think it would be something you’d like.’ I read it and thought, ‘This is fantastic. There’s no way I could make that movie. Let’s go.’ And eight years later here I am.” Originally set to star, Pitt and his production company Plan B, have a producing credit.
Gray grew up in Queens, and most of his movies have urban settings, so I asked how he adjusted to shooting in the Amazon jungle. “The Colombian people were spectacular. The indigenous people that we worked with were spectacular. The environment is brutally difficult. I am not engineered for the jungle, so I walked around looking like a beekeeper in my mosquito outfit. I did the best I could. My mantra was, ‘Win the day. Win the day.’ That was what I said in my mind.”
Amazon/Bleecker Street will release “The Lost City of Z” in April 2017.