The Lost City of Z: Q&A with Doug Torres

Doug Torres answers audience questions at the County Theater in Doylestown

Doug Torres, assistant director and co-producer of The Lost City of Z, visited the County Theater on April 22. The film, based on the book of the same name by David Grann, tells the story of Col. Percival Fawcett, who took numerous expeditions to the Amazon in search of evidence of a lost ancient civilization, disappearing in the jungle in the 1920s. We appreciate all the time he spent with the audience that evening, sharing his experience and perspective during a post-screening Q&A.

Mr. Torres was asked if there were any ‘happy accidents’ during filming: “We were doing makeup tests on Charlie Hunnam (who starred as Fawcett), and we were doing them on the location where that set was [the family dining room]. The first things we shot were out in Ireland so that piece, even though it’s in the very end of the movie, is in one of the first couple days of photography….You know, that’s kind of a happy accident, it’s not in the script, there’s nothing like that, it’s just an idea that James [Gray] had.”

He continued with another story saying, “I wouldn’t call it a happy accident, it’s an accident that actually happened…in the aerial photography where the horses trip up, that was never an intended thing. And they tripped and fell as we’re following them in the helicopter as they’re chasing the stag. Everyone was, ‘Oh my god!’ for the animals. The animals were fine, but two of the stuntmen broke their arms. But that shot made it into the movie, and everyone is like, ‘wow, that’s an amazing thing you staged’, you’re like, ‘no, that was…’. Sometimes when an accident like that happens, you’re not with the camera in the right place to find it, but there we were and it looks pretty epic in the movie.”

Mr. Torres responded to several questions about some of the difficulties encountered during filming. The night photography for the film posed certain issues. “We were not in a position to bring lights into the jungle,” he said. (The scenes set in South America were filmed on location in Colombia.) “We had a crane with one light on it that first time around [for a particular scene], but then everything else…was just all firelight.”

Director James Gray and Chralie Hunnam (Photo by Aidan Monaghan © 2016 LCOZ Holdings, LLC)

A young audience member was curious about one thing that posed problems for the production: the piranhas. “Real piranhas would have been dicey there. We did have to test a bunch of methods because certain sequences, you’re gonna have to augment with visual effects.” Mr. Torres continued, “The piranhas were entirely a CG mechanism…[but] CG can always give itself away. You know it’s interesting, you look at it and you think it could be real because what we did was purposefully kept it dark and murky, and the way you photograph and decide to shoot those things and rely upon CG, in my opinion, is the make or break of how real it can be.”

Another audience member inquired about the indigenous tribe that appears in the film. “It’s an interesting story,” Mr. Torres replied, “because the indigenous group, it’s a real indigenous, singular tribe, and we made them be all our tribes. There was a lot of advance work with the equivalent of a social worker, who essentially went out with the help of some government officials to communicate months and months before we were down there, to secure a tribe that would be willing and interested. A lot of them weren’t…It’s really a great thing for us ’cause we got people who knew how to handle bows and arrows, and knew different indigenous languages.”

The casting did lead to some difficulties as well. “There would be one or two people within that group that spoke Spanish, kind of, and then the rest of them spoke another indigenous language. So it was like a four-way battle of communication, that at all of the times [the indigenous language is spoken and subtitled on screen], I’m not really sure that what we said they were saying they really said, but it was our intent that that’s [the subtitled text] what they would be talking about. And sometimes they just kind of went on tangents for a while talking, and they might have been talking about the weather.”

Mr. Torres offered some advice for aspiring filmmakers and insight into how to work effectively in the industry. “You have to make sure you love what you’re doing, because there is no A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C-leads-to-D. It’s just about trying to create things, being around people, moving forward with those people…filmmaking’s a team game. And it’s always wrong, especially when you’re young, coming out to think that, ‘No, it’s about me and the way I want to do it.’ It’s all about creating a team around you, just like anything else, and moving forward with that team, ’cause you’ll get the most success that way.”

Mr. Torres was asked about what it cost to make a film like this, and his response offered some lessons regarding budgeting. “This movie was made for about $23 million, which in the scope of what movies are made for these days [is not much] when you have, you know, five people in a room telling fart jokes and that costs $35 million…The same group — the cinematographer, the producer, the director, myself — we did The Immigrant…for $12 million…before that we did a movie called Two Lovers, that we did for $13 million. And then before that that we did a movie called We Own the Night, which is a big period action cop movie — we did that for $19 million in New York City…that was shot twelve years ago.” To manage a budget like this, Mr. Torres said, “It requires a team that knows how to function that way [working with what you have], because it’s really easy in the production process to waste money, really easy. And I see it all the time…So, it really has to do with the team around it [the film] that understands that, if you’re given responsibility and x amount of dollars to do a movie, that you stick to that…It’s making the best possible product you can…It’s not a guessing game, it’s really understanding what are your shots, what are your sets, what do you want to look at, what do you really want to spend money on, because money can really start to fly out the window if the creative team is…trying to fly by the seat of their pants.”

In answering a question regarding the message of The Lost City of Z, Mr. Torres expressed that he is “always a firm believer that the message people take from movies doesn’t necessarily have to be what the filmmaker intended…As filmmakers, there are basic human emotions and stories…but the way that maybe things are visualized, or strung together visually, or emotionally connected via music and the visuals, audience members in this day and age take idea and understanding from that…That’s one thing I always say about message, because there’s never a direct intent to be like, ‘This is the message of this movie’ — message is what you take from it. We hope to put something out there that people can read into and connect with emotionally”.

Director James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s book focuses on the part of Fawcett’s story that most intrigued him. “If you’ve read the book you know that it’s different than the script in the way that the book is more informational and one man’s [Grann] journey trying to…trace Percy’s journey throughout,” Mr. Torres explained. “Whereas James, who is writer first and foremost, before being a director…the idea was extracting the [film’s] story from that, which is the story of Percy Fawcett, which is more so the story about his single dedicated vision of trying to find the ‘lost city of Z,’ and what it does to a family.” In order to focus on the personal and interpersonal effect Percy’s exploration had on himself and his family, Gray had to trim back on Fawcett’s trips, which also helped create a more manageable film. “We only really make [the story] about 3 journeys,” he said, “but in real life, [Percy] did about 8 or 9 trips down there over a long period of time.”

Mr. Torres was asked about the sentimentality of this film compared to some other films depicting the Amazon, including Werner Hertzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, and whether there had been any iterations of The Lost City of Z that were less sentimental. “It was always geared that way,” Mr. Torres replied, “it’s always a story, at the end of the day, it’s a story about family and one man’s obsession…What…makes this different than other just straight, you know, Amazon-type movies is understanding the backbone of the family, to understand what it’s like as a human, as an individual, to make these decisions, and…how they weigh on the people around you. That’s what helps create emotional content. Without that then it just becomes some type of movie about being up and down the river…Without the emotional content, the character has no value.”

(Photo by Aidan Monaghan © 2016 LCOZ Holdings, LLC)

Before the screening began, Mr. Torres had given a quick intro in which he mentioned that it took three separate attempts to get this film made. We circled back to that topic later: “This happens a lot, that’s why a lot of times when you see a movie there’s all kinds of entities and tentacles and people involved, because along the way somebody who’s owned a piece of it…hoping for it to get made, it gets passed along and bought by somebody else…that’s why there’s so many production entities in the end of it. This story in particular was James’ commission by Plan B, which is Brad Pitt’s production company…to write the script for Brad to star in. So, the original incarnation of this movie was a $100 million movie with Brad Pitt…But that fell apart as Brad moved on to another project…so it kind of went on the back burner.” But, as Torres explained, “Plan B always owned the rights and the project, always wanted to get it done…Plan B, in my opinion, they are the most creative force out there right now…I worked with them on Twelve Years a Slave, they also just won the Academy Award [for Best Picture] for Moonlight. So, they’re a really powerful group that gets good stories done.” Torres continued, “It was going to go a second time with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role…right around the same time he got a huge gazillion dollar contract to be Dr. Strange, so I think that became a little bit more enticing than leaving his pregnant wife for a few hundred thousand dollars for 7 months. So, then it fell apart because of that…Amazon is the final piece of the puzzle. They essentially bought the North American distribution rights…This is what Amazon is doing — they’re buying good product and they’re getting it out in the movie theaters and then it becomes content on Amazon.”

Mr. Torres had much praise and many fascinating insights to share about Director James Gray. Regarding whether the studios ever have an issue with Mr. Gray’s preference for film over digital, Mr. Torres offered, “They always do, but James Gray has never shot a movie on digital, nor will he. We’re actually preparing right now to do a large space movie and we’re shooting it on film…There’s him, there’s Christopher Nolan, there’s P.T. Anderson, and essentially those three directors, everybody knows, if you want to hire them, they’re going to shoot film…Film is battle tested…Going into the jungle and doing what we had to do with digital hardware, at the end of the day, we would have had more problems.”

“James Gray’s the writer/director, so in being part of James’ team, we wait for him to write a script, and that’s how it goes…I read scripts all the time and I consider his scripts to be some of the…best and well-written scripts that kick around Hollywood on any given day…For him it’s all about character, and story — character and story. Everything is point-of-view driven…You want the audience to know who the movie’s about and why it’s about them. And once you start straying with a camera into different places, it’s easy for the audience to get distracted and lose the personal connection with your character.”

For every project, the team would turn to certain favorites for inspiration. “In the pantheon of James Gray, it’s 2001, it’s Godfather, Godfather II, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull,” Mr. Torres said. “If you watch any of James Gray’s movies you will find linkage to every one of those movies…Every time we are preparing a movie and discussing the next project, we always re-watch those movies from an aspect of understanding character, lighting, emotional content, intent, shot design…there’s nothing wrong stealing from the best.”

An audience member asked about James Gray’s process during a shoot, and whether he works quickly or not. (The Lost City of Z was a 56-day shoot.) Mr. Torres gave the audience several examples of how efficiently Mr. Gray works. “There’s a couple of secrets to [how James works]. One is not over-covering any scene, because every time you move the camera and redo something else, that takes time…In lit interiors, I would say [we] do a maximum of 9 or 10 setups in a day, which in the filmmaking world, you know, people consider anemic…most of these action movies strive to get 40–50 setups in a day…But the old-school way of filmmaking is ‘let’s paint 9 beautiful pictures’ for the course of this day and we’ll string them together after many days of shooting, and you’ve got something nice.” Regarding the number of takes per scene, Mr. Torres said, “For the most part…he doesn’t do a lot of takes…It’s the quality of the shots that we set up. So I’d say, the most we do is maybe 6 or 7 takes. Like for example, Angus Macfadyen, who did a great job as Murray…Angus was fretting about [a particular scene] the whole day before. He literally stayed up all night…and he had rewritten his whole lines, he was going to say this whole other speech. And James was like, ‘You say the words I wrote first, then you can go off-book.’ And it was literally like an hour back and forth, butting heads, the whole thing. And he did take 1, James turned to me, said, ‘I got what I need, but I’m going to let him do a second take.’ And at take 2, he said, ‘Angus, do your thing, go off-book.’ [Angus] was like, ‘Well, I only did one take of your words.’ [James] is like, ‘That’s all I need. Do you want to go off-book for take two?’ [Angus] is like, ‘You think you have it?’ [James] is like, ‘I got what I need. Do you want to go off-book for take two?’ [Angus] goes, ‘Uh, no, not if you have it.’ So that was one take and we moved on.”

Mr. Torres thanked his wife and mother, who were both in the audience that evening, for all of their support. He offered a wonderful acknowledgement in his thanks to his mother that could be said for any film: “Without mothers and fathers that tell us it’s absolutely ok to dream, reach for the stars, and do what you want to do, projects like this could never be made.”