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James Gray goes to the jungle for 1970s-inspired ‘Lost City’

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Director James Gray (left) and actor Charlie Hunnam (second from left) work on location for “The Lost City of Z.” (Courtesy Aidan Monaghan/Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street)

Acclaimed filmmaker James Gray admits to the possibility of being a “fuddy-duddy,” but the truth is that he was raised on the movies of the 1970s and early ‘80s, and only likes to watch movies made before that time.

Like his previous movies “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant,” Gray’s new movie “The Lost City of Z,” which opens Friday, is heavily inspired by that era of filmmaking.

Gray, recently in town for San Francisco Film Festival, especially took inspiration from Werner Herzog to tell his story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a real-life, early 20th century explorer seeking a mythical city deep in the Amazon (and the subject of a book by David Grann).

Preparing to shoot for weeks in the jungle, Gray says he watched the 1982 documentary “Burden of Dreams,” which depicts the problematic shoot of Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” “I don’t know if that was such a good idea,” Gray says.

“You think you can plan better than, or you’re smarter than, Herzog or Coppola. You get down there and you realize that you can’t and you’re not,” says Gray.

“The jungle is its own animal. You’re an invader in a world that’s run by the insects. There’s nothing you can do to conquer them. You just have to co-exist. I put on my Avon Skin-So-Soft and hoped for the best.”

But didn’t Gray realize how difficult the shoot would be when he was writing the script?

“I pushed it out of my mind,” he says. “If I contemplate how difficult something is to shoot, I’d never leave my house.”

He persevered, however, focusing on the character of Fawcett, attempting to understand his motivations. He perhaps became an explorer as a way of getting away from the tarnished legacy of his father, who drunkenly squandered a family fortune.

“Exploration is noble, but it’s also a form of escape,” he says. “I thought Fawcett was escaping the structures of a class system that had oppressed him.”

Gray also simplified the character. “He was much more conflicted and screwed up… he was obsessed with the occult. He went off the deep end,” he says. “But you don’t want to watch a movie where the protagonist is a crazed loser. So you have to create a greater truth out of it.”

All of this springs from Gray’s love of 1970s cinema. He asserts that today’s mainstream Hollywood studio system simply isn’t making anything quite as great as “Raging Bull” or “Apocalypse Now.”

“I think there was a moment in time where the inmates ran the asylum, and there was such a clarity of expression,” he says. “There’s something so beautiful about that.”

The Lost City of Z
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Written and directed by James Gray
Directed by James Gray
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours, 21 minutes

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