Indiana Jones, El Dorado and The Lost City of Z

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST
Brad Pitt, here in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will star in The Lost City of Z.

Looking for a mythological adventure that doesn't end up with space aliens? Want to learn something about history from a really handsome teacher? Perhaps The Lost City of Z is the answer to our collectively unsatisfied Indiana Jones fix.

Director James Gray is a developing a film based on the life of Percy Harrison Fawcett, inspired by David Grann's book, to star Brad Pitt. Fawcett was on an assignment to establish the border between Bolivia and Brazil when he heard the legends of El Dorado, the lost city of gold, and quit his day job to go adventuring. In the movies, that's called heroism. In real life, not so much.

"People don't realize what recent history the mapping of the world is," Gray said in a group interview on Feb. 3 in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he was promoting his latest film, Two Lovers. "He went down there and rather quickly lost his appetite for mapping, which he did with wonderful success. He became obsessed with archaeological issues and, to be direct about it, went quite mad."

Gray added that he is three-fourths of the way through his first draft of the script and expects to present it to Pitt in two months. The following Q&A features edited excerpts from the rest of the interview.

Is your approach more of a real-world history than the fantasy of El Dorado?

Gray: Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do. You know, Indiana Jones was based on him. Of course, it's the Republic B serials approach to the character and doesn't bear any resemblance, finally, but he sort of was the basis for Indiana Jones. The stuff in the book is unbelievable. Falling off the raft and starting to get eaten by piranhas. He literally was the first person in Western civilization to discover the anaconda. They didn't believe him. He said, "I saw a 30-foot snake that was eating deer." People thought he was making it up.

Would it be kind of an update on Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God?

Gray: That's true, wandering through the jungle, suddenly hearing opera and thinking you've gone mad. Then, guess what, you've reached a clearing and there's a f--king opera house in the middle of the jungle that the Portuguese had built 150 years before. It's madness, but it's great. Aguirre is a masterpiece, I think, and I'm going to try my hardest not to rip it off. It is really hard, because it is a masterpiece. I don't think I will rip it off, because it involves a lot of European history as well, in a way that is not really connected to Aguirre. Aguirre is, in its enclosed, beautiful way, quite different. The big set piece in this movie will be the Battle of the Somme, which I'm hoping I can do in a way that other people have not. I've been doing research on it: It's like hell on earth. It's awful.

How does World War I fit in with the El Dorado quest?

Gray: He went back to fight in World War I, where he was injured in the Battle of the Somme. Basically he was attacked with chlorine gas. Eventually went back to the Amazon and brought his son with him to finish the exploration, to find this lost city. He disappeared, they were never seen again. It's a fantastic story. I mean, it's unbelievable. I think it has the potential to be something really quite powerful. He was almost like Forrest Gump. He ran into everybody, like Winston Churchill ... and Archduke Ferdinand, [whom] he was in contact with in Sri Lanka. He was one of those guys who was always connected somehow to major figures.

Would Brad be disfigured after that point in the movie?

Gray: Well, no, he was not disfigured. He was a crazy person. He finally was ordered not to try and take a particular territory. He said, "F--k it, I'm going to be brave," and he led these 700 guys. He wasn't directly physically injured, except that he inhaled chlorine gas and scarred his lungs, and he began to have this horrible cough, which became progressively worse. The Battle of the Somme is literally like the end of the civilized world. It's the thing that made the Geneva Convention, because the British had brought two regiments of troops from India, on horseback, cavalry. They would fit gas masks on the heads of the horses to gallop out of the trenches to get machine gunned. It's insanity. This is all going to be in the movie, of course.

Do you have to stop and figure out what you can bring visually to it?

Gray: I didn't, because the story meant a lot to me. I'm very interested in history, and I'm very interested in an economic approach to history. The idea itself of civilization and the civilized world is almost ridiculous, the idea that everyone had called the indigenous populations of the Amazon savages. Well, they were basically savages, because the Spanish and English and everybody else went down there and essentially forced them into slave trade and treated them horribly. So when they saw white men, they quite reasonably had a violent response. It was self-preservation. So what interested me was not even the visual aspect at first. What interested me entirely was a narrative idea about a person who is, at a certain quest for a lost civilization, fueled at least in part with his disappointment about what his civilization had produced. So I loved the story. The story itself was great. The story itself is what drove me, and the kind of Oedipal, bizarre twist that he brought his 18-year-old son with him in the end, and they were never seen again.