For location manager Andrew Wilson, the toughest part about working on director James Gray’s biopic of explorer Percy Fawcett in “The Lost City of Z” was finding early-20th-century aesthetics in modern-day Northern Ireland.
“It’s exciting when you see the 1800s or 1900s in a script, but it’s always a challenge when it comes to finding the right locations,” admits Wilson, who was shooting “Morgan,” starring Kate Mara — also in Northern Ireland — when he learned he’d gotten the Amazon Studios’ project as well.
With just days to prepare, Wilson scouted Belfast and the surrounding countryside to fulfill the unique settings of “Lost City.” “On a practical level the script is fine, but it doesn’t give you the mood or the style or the emotion of the piece,” he observes. Wilson got a better idea of what was needed when he confabbed with production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos, who arrived shortly before shooting started. “Traveling with Jean-Vincent, who’s a very vocal and descriptive person, I was able to tap into the type of tone, the feeling, and the character — the complete backstory — so when James came we could scout right away.”
The Northern Ireland part of the shoot illustrated the life of the British solider-turned-explorer played by Charlie Hunnam. “Being a period film, we had to change everything — the color, the décor — anything modern had to be removed and redressed,” explains Wilson. Gray’s decisiveness made things easier. “He had one of the clearest visions of any director I’ve worked with,” says the location manager.
Gray grounded the narrative using very little CGI, so Wilson had to hit upon a place to re-create the French battlefields of the Somme, one of the bloodiest clashes of WWI. “It was a difficult location to find because we needed an area where the camera could move 360 degrees,” Wilson says. They settled on the rolling valley of Antrim Hills, and dug trenches.
When the story journeys into the Amazon, the action takes place deep in the jungle near Santa Marta, a city in northern Colombia. Gray and his team filmed on the Don Diego River of the Tayrona National Park. Producer Anthony Katagas, part of the team overseeing the Colombia locations, says the tight budget required a quick turnaround. “When we landed from Belfast, we started shooting six days later,” he notes.
The crew, including many locals, traveled by foot and by boat. At times the water rose to 12 feet, washing away sets. But the location — and casting of three ingenious tribes — lent the story authenticity.
“Important to us besides the jungle and the river and the great locations were the people,” says Katagas. “I think we did a really good job casting actors who played a significant role in a picture that keeps the exploration of Percy Fawcett real.”