Jonathan Rado

NATIVE SON

Written by Jason Buhrmester | Photographed by Jonathan Chu

“A really pathetic L.A. is much more interesting to me than actual California sunshine,” says Jonathan Rado, sitting in Dream Star Studios, the garage studio of his Woodland Hills home. The 27-year-old Rado, one half of Los Angeles band Foxygen, is a devotee of the city’s ’70s music scene, and the influence of that era is the sheen that covers Hang, the band’s fifth and most grandiose album. From the old Hollywood horns and piano tinkering of “Avalon” to the throbbing balladry of “America” on which Foxygen singer Sam France croons “And the movie girl said, ‘You’re wanted on set’/But you only play yourself when you’re in Hollywood,” this is the album on which Foxygen spit-shined the wild noise of its previous work to reveal the Warren Zevon-worship that has always lurked beneath Rado’s writing.

“Los Angeles is such a positive place. I love that. I love driving into Hollywood and seeing palm trees. I still get off on that L.A. shit,” Rado says. “But the things that are really interesting to me are not upbeat in any way. Like Charlie Manson—just the dark underbelly of L.A. is really interesting to me. And I love the Valley. I love Valley imagery.”

A native of Westlake Village, Rado, along with France, formed Foxygen in high school, recording songs with a single microphone and a mixer plugged into Rado’s PC. The band’s early days also marked the beginning of Rado’s production career. (“In high school, I was always the guy who would tell bands, ‘Hey! Come record at my house,’” he says. “I always had a drum set, and not everybody had a drum set.”) The duo slipped a demo to Richard Swift, producer of The Shins, Damien Jurado and others, at the Mercury Lounge in New York and found themselves with a record deal soon after. The band’s album, Take The Kids Off Broadway, appeared on Jagjaguwar in 2012, and its 2013 follow-up, We Are The Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, produced by Swift, earned rave reviews from Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly. Thrust into indie-scene stardom, the duo, barely into their 20s, found themselves on the road with a growing reputation for being out of control after a string of canceled performances and a couple of public meltdowns. Rado and France pulled themselves together for ...And Star Power, a 24-track concept album about a band named Star Power, which the duo recorded across L.A. in locations such as the Chateau Marmont and the Beverly Hilton, before delivering their L.A. opus Hang in January of this year.

These days, Rado runs Foxygen and Dream Star Studios from his Woodland Hills home. A beat-up van in the driveway stands as the only telltale sign that the nondescript home is the headquarters of an exciting reimagining of the Los Angeles sound as Rado leads through the house and into a small but efficient garage studio.

“Foxygen’s Star Power was the first record that I did in this space,” Rado says, glancing around the studio overflowing with microphones, keyboards, cables, various instruments and a weathered paperback copy of The Big Beat: Conversations With Rock’s Greatest Drummers by Bruce Springsteen’s drummer Max Weinberg. “That album was a huge learning experience. I didn’t have any recording gear before that. With that record, we bought some proper recording gear, but I didn’t know how to use anything.”

Recording the hundreds of songs that Foxygen wrote during Star Power gave Rado a crash course in producing and helped him hone his own signature sound. “There was a lot of trial and error with things until it got to a point where I felt like I had developed a sound,” Rado says. “I always had a style of playing instruments, but I wanted to have a style of how to record, and I didn’t want to copy anybody. I think over the last three or four years I kind of honed in on something.”

That honed-in sound is the reason why Rado’s growing reputation as a producer has attracted work with rising artists ranging from the Lemon Twigs and Whitney to the Tim & Eric Awesome Show’s Tim Heidecker. The sound Rado has developed working on Foxygen and his own 2013 solo album Law & Order is bright, multilayered and sweeping, a glossy L.A. sound from classic AM radio updated for the BandCamp age. The fingerprints of this sound are evident in Rado’s production work on the Laurel Canyon-country-tinged Chicago act Whitney, whose album Light
Upon The Lake opens with the lines, “I gave up drinking on the city train/To spend some time on the road/Then one morning I woke up in L.A./Caught my breath on the coast,” and the synth-pop of the Lemon Twigs, a Long Island duo, whose Rado- produced debut album is aptly titled Do Hollywood. It’s obvious that a new California sound is emerging—or at least a growing fascination with creating one.

“I like the idea that bands can go to a place and get a little bit of that place,” Rado says while discussing the growth of Dream Star Studios and his producing career. He is currently at work on his first major- label production, co-producing the new Houndstooth album for Warner Bros. with Grammy Award-winning producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius).

“We both just attack it in a very free way but from two totally different angles,” says Rado of the collaboration. “He’s handling a lot more of the engineering and shaping of the sound, where I’m involved more in the actual playing of the instruments and getting the right tones out of the instruments.”

Many of the artists who Rado wants to work with arrive via email. As an artist who got his start after handing off a demo, he feels compelled to listen to the demos that clog his inbox. “I owe my whole career to listening to other people’s music,” he says, mentioning Jungle Green and Cut Worms as artists he found via an incoming message and whom he plans to collaborate with. While Rado figures out how to navigate the world of bigger artists, budgets—and presumably egos—he is also still formulating his personal definition of success.

“There are things that are monetarily successful,” he says, before stopping himself. “That’s a weird, shitty thing to say, but there are things that are monetarily successful—like, that record did really well or I actually got paid for that. But I feel like I’m mainly in it for the creative satisfaction of things. I’ve worked on projects where I didn’t feel 100 percent in the game, and it didn’t feel as good as when I’m totally creatively invested. So, I’m trying to really only work on the things that I want to work on.”

Later this year, he plans to work on a new Foxygen album, which he claims is already “80 percent” written. “Foxygen is such a conceptual group in my mind that there really isn’t anything that we’re bound to,” says Rado. “There’s no sound that we are bound to. We could easily go and make a really high- fi, like a Daft Punk-sounding record, or we could make an instrumental noise record. In my mind, both things could happen. I really don’t have the interest in being in another band outside of Foxygen. For me, it’s the perfect vessel for making records that don’t have to sound like what came before it.”

So, if a major label arrives with a sack full of money, a super producer and a plan to turn Foxygen into the next arena rock band?

“I feel like artistic integrity is not actually that real anymore,” Rado says, laughing. “It was really easy for Neil Young in the ’70s to say ‘I’m not selling no more songs to movies or commercials’ because he had millions of dollars. If I was a millionaire, maybe I’d be ... I don’t know. I’m always going back and forth on myself with these things. It’s so situational. If [Katy Perry/Taylor Swift producer] Max Martin writes me an email and says he wants to write and produce a song for Foxygen, I’d at least consider that. That’s at least interesting—as long as it’s interesting in some way. Where I never want to go is boring. Middle of the road does not interest me in any way. I don’t ever want to work on anything that doesn’t challenge me in some way. I don’t ever want to make an album that is for the sake of making more music. It needs to be inspiring in some way.”

Somewhere behind us a set of chimes topples over, ringing through the studio, and Rado stands up to retrieve them.

“The chimes fell over. That’ll sound good on the tape though.” MM

Marissa A. Ross

LIQUID SUNSHINE

Written by Augustus Britton | Photographed by Olivia McManus

Hair & Makeup Danni Katz for Exclusive Artists Management using Amike Haircare, Beachwaver and Anastasia Beverly Hills Location Casa Perfect

I arrived at the house very professional, very sober, very wide-eyed. I left elated, wildly drunk, wildly inspired, bright-eyed—also wondering what the word professional actually meant. Wine does these things; it makes you wonder.

And what does Marissa A. Ross, wine editor at Bon Appétit and author of Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking (Plume), do so well? She makes wine comfortable. She makes it accessible. She makes you laugh. She kicks off the dust. Read her writing about the subject, it’s damn good. She exes out the crabs, the old-guys (not necessarily old, but cranky, uninviting, pretentious—)she exes all that shit out, she exes out the bullies. Who has time when the wine tastes this good and the smiles are this big and stained purple, and the jokes go on and on—all the while feeling our anxieties drip away, quite literally?

Ross generously pours me three exceptional glasses of wine upon being seated: a white, a sparkling and dancing one, and a red one that smelled like a really precise, dense, wet wood chip—or, if you’re a novice like me and haphazardly open your mouth, “It’s like a really subtle, brilliant dog food.” Yes, that’s what hit my nose in a very peculiar, singular way. But, truly, all of them tasted incredible, fresh, enlivening.

Ross even let me drink from her $60 Zaltos, these superb wine glasses that break seemingly on cue and crack on cushioned chairs, but, once you try drinking from one, I’m not sure you’ll wanna go back, that is, to the IKEA  glasses. But, in true Ross fashion, we did also drink from her IKEA glasses. We were quickly high-fiving, quickly good friends. I let her call me Gus. She let me pour and pour, let my tongue get heavy, my eyes get wet, my speech relax.

Ross clues me in on the subjectivity of all of it, the fun to be had, the curiosity to be cultivated. She says a lot you might want to listen to if you enjoy the good life, or if you’re in the happy pursuit.

Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking by Marissa A. Ross is out now from Plume.

MM What’s your take on collecting wine?

MR I believe that wine is to drink and be enjoyed. But there are some bottles that are special, and the cool thing about collecting wine these days, especially in the natural wine world, is that you can buy bottles that are under a hundred dollars that you can age and open them in five to 10 years, and they’ll be a very, very special bottle of wine. You can actually start collecting now at a much lower price point than previously. But it’s hard to collect wine. I have to write notes on some, like: Don’t fucking open this! This is for something special. Because sometimes you start drinking, and you’re just like, screw it! I wanna open this bottle that I’ve been saving for years!

MM Where do you get your wine?

MR I shop primarily at Domaine LA and Lou Wine Shop and Silver Lake Wine (all in Los Angeles)—locally. I also now try to get stuff straight from importers. There is some stuff in New York that I can’t get out here, and hopefully if I start drinking it out here shops will start picking it up.

MM When you write about wine, you often compare it to music—From Françoise Hardy to ABBA. What’s the deal with wine and music?

MR Before I wrote about wine, I wrote about music for a long time. That was my hobby. To me, they’re kind of the same. When you’re listening to an album that you really love or a song, it’s that same energy thing, it’s that same story. And for me, I’m kind of self-centered, so I’m like: Every song is about me, obviously. But, when I was a kid, I remember my favorite thing was listening to music and telling myself these stories about what this song means to me, and I feel that I treat wine the same way. I find them both to be very personal experiences.


"I know that people try to be objective when they’re reviewing music or wine, but I don’t believe that’s possible. I think they’re both extremely subjective and sentimental."


And when I write about wines, they do remind me of music. There is something about them. There are notes.

MM Have you worked in a vineyard? Does that interest you?

MR [Laughs.] I have soft, dainty writer’s hands. I’m very, very, very interested in what goes on in a vineyard. I’m not particularly interested in working a vineyard.

MM What do you think is the most underrated kind of wine?

MR I think the most underrated wines are light red wines. They have a different kind of drunk than whites that I prefer. Most people think about red wines, and they immediately go to these big, bold dinner wines. But there are so many delicious, beautiful, really light red wines that drink like red wines. Those are my favorite.

MM What’s your last supper?

MR Oh, man. My last supper? It would be the best salami and really well-dressed farmer’s market greens. You know how they dress them so well, where it feels like every leaf is perfectly basted on its own? With probably all the wine. I’d say, bring me my fridge. Actually, I forgo the meal. Just bring me all the wine, and I will drink it all! But if I only had to pick one wine, I would probably pick a Jean Foillard Côte du Py, and that’s a Morgon, so it’s a Beaujolais, and I love it. That’s like my favorite wine ever.

MM Is wine as vast a subject as I think it is?

MR Yes. I think it’s impossible to know everything about wine. The wine world is extremely vast. Also, it’s constantly changing. To say that you know everything is also to say that there is no progress, which I think is absolute insanity, considering we’re drinking a Grüner Veltliner from the fucking Czech Republic. Like, that’s not something that’s really happened in the past.

MM Who is your book written for?

MR I wrote my book for [someone like] me five years ago when I needed a starting point. It’s not everything, and I didn’t want it to be everything. I wanted it to be something where you could read it and know about wine. ... It’s for someone who wants to drink well right now: You don’t have to know everything; this is all you need to know, and you have all the tools. It is for people who are beginners. Although, my friend Adam [Vourvoulis, who has stopped by during the interview] ... who’s a sommelier—he loved the book, and he’s been a full-time somm guy.

MM Who makes the best wine? California? Italy? Spain? France?

MR I think that that’s a loaded question. We can’t answer that. (Vourvoulis jumps in on this question, he has arrived carrying a case of new wines for Ross to try out. Everyone is mildly or not so mildly inebriated at this point; everyone is sagacious and a little red-cheeked). That’s not fair, that question. Adam Vourvoulis That’s an easy answer: France.

MR (laughs) I know!

AV I guess it’s loaded, but it’s true.

MM Why is it loaded?

MR Because there are great wines coming out of everywhere. I’m drinking amazing wines from Italy right now that I love so much.

AV And you don’t want to take away from everyone else. But, bar none, if you talk to any wine professional, and you said he had to pick one country, it would almost always be France, sometimes Italy.

MR Well, I think if you’re into natural wine, the French just crush it in terms of high-acid, light, really beautiful wines that are so elegant. I think that France runs the gamut. Also, I love California wines, but if I had to pick one reason, ya know, I’m sorry, but California has not been doing it nearly as long.

MM Is it the farming practices? Is it the grapes?

MR I think it’s the wine-making in general.


"The wine-making in France is so ancient. Let’s be real, it’s France’s shit."


Wine is France’s game that everyone else is trying to play, and that’s a bummer to admit, and I love wines from across the world—like today we have things from Czech Republic, Spain ...

MM I guess it’s like [American] football, right? You wouldn’t say something like Sweden plays the best football. America does.

AV Or I was going to say rock ’n’ roll. It’s inherently American.

MR And wine is inherently French.

MM That escalated quickly.

AV There are arguments to why it’s maybe not France, but...

MR Yeah. I’m glad Adam was here to help keep it real. I was trying to be diplomatic. But I don’t really know anyone that wouldn’t pick France.

MM Lastly, if you have to give up one thing, Marissa: wine or your husband. Which is it?

MR [Laughs.] That’s the most fucked-up question I’ve ever been asked in my life! MM

Noomi Rapace

SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi Shirt, pants and belt

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi Shirt, pants and belt

Written by Felicity Martin | Photographed by Jessie Craig | Styled by Lorna McGee

Noomi Rapace is scrolling through her iPhone to show me a gift she’s buying her friend, the French musician Woodkid. “Do you know this artist, Nancy Fouts? She lives in a church. I’m going around there tomorrow. You gotta look her up.” The gift in question—one of Fouts’ surrealist pieces called “Key Ring”—is a key and lock linked with a piece of string (like a key ring) so that they’re together but the lock can never be opened. It’s a thoughtful present, given that Woodkid’s artistic symbol is the crossed keys of Saint Peter.

Tibi Shirt

Tibi Shirt

The Swedish actress shows me another piece—an antique clock with about 10 hands pointing to different numbers. “This is how I live,” she laughs, “I have Noomi time. It doesn’t match anyone else’s.” Yesterday she was in Paris, at the end of a punishing press regimen that had her holed up in hotel rooms, “talking, talking, talking.” But somehow Rapace is full of life today. She arrives wearing a baby pink suit, Coco Chanel brooch and earrings to match, topped by a shock of peach-pink hair. She didn’t have to travel far; our Notting Hill shoot location (the impossibly beautiful flat of a ballet dancer) is 10 minutes from her house. We sit outside in the huge, leafy gardens of the apartment as she sighs, wishing all her interviews were conducted here rather than French hotel suites.

Best known for her lead in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) (she played Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), Rapace has played Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in the Ridley Scott science fiction film Prometheus (2012) and Nadia in 2014’s The Drop—to name just a few. She seems to favor tough, dangerous and moody characters who can wield a weapon without breaking a sweat. “I like real characters,” she says, explaining what appeals to her in a role, “you know, when they feel complex, have layers. Because in real life there’s no one who’s just sweet and sexy. In films sometimes, a lot of female characters are just functions. They’re there to spice up the movie or add some sexiness, a little bit of smile and sunshine. That doesn’t really interest me.”

She might favor tough, resilient characters on screen, but in person Rapace is all smiles and laughter. Yet as our conversation turns to the recent tragedy of her neighborhood—the fire in Kensington’s Grenfell Tower, which she can see from her house. She dabs at her eyes, which are turning red and watering. “I was driving past the other day. It looked like a tall black skeleton. I just broke down and started crying.”

Rapace has had a fairly nomadic existence, flitting between Sweden, Iceland and L.A. before settling in London. Born in Stockholm to an actress and a Spanish flamenco singer, her approach to Hollywood acting is somewhat unconventional. She’s been involved in the world of theater since the age of 19 (though she made her debut as an extra in a film at age 7) and has always taken a wide-angle approach to the business. “I’ve always been really involved in all areas,” she nods. “You know, like I went to the prop guy and was like, ‘What if we had this on stage? Could you find something?’ It’s not an ego thing, it’s not about me—I want every performance to be amazing. The more I can do to get it there, you know?”

Jil Sander Jacket and pants

Jil Sander Jacket and pants

The film she’s just been promoting across the Channel is What Happened To Monday?, a sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian world with an extreme one- child policy. Where normally you’d just play the one character, Rapace plays seven—a set of identical septuplets.

“It was insanely hard,” she gasps, explaining how it took three days to shoot a dinner scene at the start, something that would normally take four hours. “It’s never been done before. ...” Using six girls as her doubles, plus markers to guide her movements, the film proved hugely demanding. “For six months I couldn’t go for dinners, I didn’t see any friends. I was up at 4 in the morning, went to the gym, prepped lines—just to learn the lines for several voices in a scene is completely different. I had to respond to myself ... It’s a bit cuckoo,” she laughs.

“It was so weird, and I got really quite upset sometimes,” she continues, on the difficulty of being her own co-star. “There was one scene where one sister dies, and we did the death scene. Then, during the day, I was reacting to my own death.”

Developing a ritual, Rapace switched between the siblings by wearing different perfumes and tailoring music playlists to suit each individual personality. “Between characters, I had to be alone and lock myself in my dressing room to wash my makeup off, wash the smell off and reset myself,” she says. “I normally have a lot of energy, but that was extreme. At the end of each day, I was so empty I couldn’t even speak to anyone.” It even caused her a recurring nightmare: “I was having this dream where I see rows and rows of shoes, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, who am I today?’ I start calling people, and no one picks up, and I’m panicking more and more, and end up walking outside barefoot.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 2.07.08 PM.png

The film, she explains, was actually written for seven brothers rather than a female lead. “Tommy [Wirkola] called me, like, ‘Noomi, I have this project—but I can only imagine you doing it. Read it, and if you like it, we can change it to seven sisters.’ And I loved it, but I was also terrified. I couldn’t even imagine how to approach it, like how do we even shoot it?” She worked directly with Wirkola to change the script and wrote in a twist at the end that added an entirely new layer to the plot.

“I adjusted it and made it more complex, more interesting.”

When Rapace returned to London after shooting What Happened To Monday? she declined roles in nine other films. “I was very ... not lost but empty. I felt like I gave everything I had. It was very emotional.” However drained she felt, her work ethic didn’t stop. She stars in the upcoming fantasy genre movie Bright alongside Will Smith, in which she plays a “villain—really evil. I’m playing an elf, so I have big elf ears and elf teeth.

"It was amazing. I have some incredible fight sequences too.”

Filming Bright allowed her to explore the dark side of human nature. “It’s weird how when I’m stepping into that side of myself I start to see the world in a different way. My character wants to create a better world, she wants to clean up the dirtiness and ugliness, and she had very brutal methods. When you look at villains, it’s easy to think that they are just cold-hearted revenge machines; they just kill people for fun. But I realized that she’s so passionate, and she’s fighting a fight. She’s on a mission.”

Paul Smith Suit

Paul Smith Suit

It’s not just the world of acting that Rapace is conquering. She’s just designed a clothing collection for a brand (“It’s very street, very hip-hop.”) She’s also launching a perfume later this year (“I’m doing a lot of stuff for fun,” she says). What I really want to know, however, is about the rumors she’s playing Amy Winehouse in an upcoming biopic. “Maybe ... We’ll see. I’m involved in it, and I’m working on it, but all the components need to be right.” She smiles, explaining how, when they asked her to play Winehouse, she initially refused to read the script.

“I have a strong connection to Amy. She was really present, her music, in the most critical moments of my life.” Rapace’s quest for perfection is particularly crucial on this project. “I can’t compromise on that one,” she urges. “The script needs to be amazing. It needs to be 100 percent. She is too important to me; my respect and love for her is just too important. It needs to be really brave and really honest and raw—and from my heart.” Rapace pours herself into all aspects of her career and life, from roles as villains or identical septuplets to perfume and key ring gifts for friends. There is no halfway. All considered, if Rapace eventually does tackle the role of Amy Winehouse, you can bet she’ll do it justice. MM

Kevin Morby

GO WEST YOUNG MAN,
AND GROW UP WITH THE CITY

Untitled-1.jpg

Written by Augustus Britton | Photographed by James Bernal

Kevin Morby is standing in Chinatown in Los Angeles, right next to the Bruce Lee statue and a couple of guys putting gold foil onto a newly renovated Chinese palace-type structure with a minimalistic art gallery inside of it. The sky is so blue. It’s one of those days you wish you could
pull out of your pocket whenever you needed to.

Morby is in a green trench coat. His hair is curly. His face is shaven. His eyes are crisp. His hands are clean. He is not smoking a cigarette nor is he drinking a beer. “I feel like no matter what I say, it feels cheesy.” No, sir, you are wise, I muddled to myself in my head while looking at the sky. He continues, “Well, I was just flying back from Europe the other day, and I sat down next to this woman who was asking me what kind of music I played, and I think my go-to [is] either, I’ll say rock ’n’ roll or I’ll say folk rock, and that’s when I feel like a real asshole—saying folk rock—but
especially on this album I feel comfortable saying rock ’n’ roll.”

Morby is referring to his latest record, City Music, a benignly sad, important take on urban culture, more specifically 20-something urban culture. Lots of tears, lots of drying them up, lots of lifting ourselves up from lonely and exhausted beds, once again opening the door to excessive horn honking and hope and sunshine—a dilemma, to be sure.

“This record is a lot more ’70s-era punk bands or pre-punk bands in New York,” Morby says. “I feel like there’s two different schools of influence going on in my head: One is represented on Singing Saw (his 2016 album), and one is represented on City Music. Singing Saw is more ’60s and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Neil Young—stuff like that—but with this, it’s way more Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Television, Jim Carroll, sort of the Lower Manhattan scene from that time period.”

Morby seems to draw from wherever the wind takes him, from growing up in Kansas City to formative years in Brooklyn to a cabin-style crib in Los Angeles. Yes, it all adds up, bound for glory, keeping his head on the proverbial swivel. “I have a landscape, for sure,” nods Morby, looking down, “and I think I kind of look at the future of how I put out music almost as if I was reading the Wikipedia of me at the end of my life,” he says, while I laugh from the funny, meta, Philip K. Dick-style quip. “I want to have a record like this, and I want to have a record like that … a
record that touches on this part of my psyche, and a record that is about this thing. Yeah, I wanna have a long career and a long life, and at the end of it [I] have put out a bunch of different types of things.”

Amen.


"I think I kind of look at the future of how I put out music
almost as if I was reading the Wikipedia of me at the end of my life.”


Then he continues after a silence, “As an artist, as a musician, when you do these things, when you put out an album, you’re basically exploring that for a year or two years, and it becomes such a part of your life, and then it ends and you’re onto the next thing. My life is broken up into these
chapters of these records.”

I think of interviews I’ve read with a young Neil Young, I think of interviews with a young James Taylor, and there is this common thing, this common thread of placidity in all of them, this thread of consciously staying chill, and I see it in Mr. Morby, as well.

And I wonder about the difficulties of being
a musician, what’s that like. “I can answer
that pretty well,” Morby answers, “and I feel
confident saying that, because I’ve been around for a long time, through a bunch of different platforms: I was in Woods, and I was in The Babies, and now I’m doing what I do, where, you know, people that I knew from the era of The Babies aren’t doing music or their band didn’t work out or whatever, and you see patterns, you see what type of band is filling a certain type of void for some time, and then they go away and a younger and fresher band comes along and …” he stops momentarily, not quite as dramatically as it
may seem, but still cool, “I think that I do feel like a fighter, in a way, but only because it comes naturally. I will say I’ve gone through the shit with it. I’ve been as broke as can be and as tired and as exhausted as can be.”

Whatever you want to call it, you can be sure Morby’s music will take you somewhere. For me, it’s apparently Chinatown. Morby and I shake hands. I walk through a swarm of city music, a cloud of Chinatown underground smoke. On the other side, when the light shines again, I see Dodger Stadium, I see the mountains I think, some snow-capped things I’d love to visit. MM

gravidy's rainbow

 

Photographed by: Daria Kobayashi Ritch | Styled by: Santa Bevacqua |
Model: Rhiannon McConnell

A.W.A.K.E. Dress | Christian Louboutin Boots

A.W.A.K.E. Dress | Christian Louboutin Boots

Stella McCartney Dress | Pierre Hardy Shoes | Jennifer Fisher Earrings

Stella McCartney Dress | Pierre Hardy Shoes | Jennifer Fisher Earrings

Kaelen Dress

Kaelen Dress

Damir Doma Top, necklace and skirt

Damir Doma Top, necklace and skirt

Jill Sander Dress | Céline Sunglasses

Jill Sander Dress | Céline Sunglasses

Jill Sander Dress | Eric Javits Hat

Jill Sander Dress | Eric Javits Hat

Bally Shirt and skirt | Jennifer Fisher Necklace

Bally Shirt and skirt | Jennifer Fisher Necklace

A.W.A.K.E Dress | Stella McCartney Earrings

A.W.A.K.E Dress | Stella McCartney Earrings

Céline Dress | Jacquemus Hat | Damir Doma Shoes | Stance Socks

Céline Dress | Jacquemus Hat | Damir Doma Shoes | Stance Socks

Paul Theroux

The Mother Land

Written by Jamie Brisick | Photographed by Dave Homcy

It’s hard for me to be objective when it comes to Paul Theroux. He is the author of some of the world’s most excellent travel books, among them The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania. He was awarded the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast, which was adapted for the 1986 movie of the same name. His short stories and essays run the whole gamut of human experience.

But for me, he is a companion who helped me survive my late teens and early 20s. Not Theroux, exactly, but his books: specifically The Family Arsenal and Chicago Loop. I was a surfer kid who ran in philistine circles. The characters in Theroux’s fiction got at the depths of what it feels like to be human in a way that no one in my world had the faculty to address. There was the testosterone-fueled, knuckle-dragging milieu that I inhabited, and then there was that literary, interior, sentient place that I found in Theroux’s books.

I have been reading Paul Theroux’s work for more than 30 years, and he continues to educate and enlarge me. His most recent novel, Mother Land, explores a family held together and torn apart by its narcissistic matriarch. The book is by turns hilarious and horrifying, and I couldn’t help but wonder how closely the characters resemble his actual family. I called him on the phone and asked him exactly that.

PT Mother Land is a novel based on my life, and it bears very strong resemblance to my family, but in the book the narrator is at his wit’s end. His career is kind of over; he’s had a girlfriend, a possible fiancée, she dumps him; his books aren’t doing particularly well; he’s been kind of sabotaged by the family; he lives in a rented house on the Cape. Compare that with my life: I’m happily married, my books are doing very well, I own a house in Hawaii and one on the Cape. The big difference is that it’s a book about a guy who’s the victim of his family, and failing, and only at the end of the book do you think, well, maybe he’ll be OK. Well, I like to think I am OK now. There are significant correspondences with my life and my family, but there are also big differences. I always wanted to write something about my family, but I never really understood it. I didn’t really understand it until I was much older. Most young writers setting off really have no material except the life that he or she has lived up to that point, so very often the first novel is about childhood and family life, probably the great example is Thomas Mann writing Buddenbrooks. I didn’t write that book. My early writing is all about the experiences that I had after I left the bosom of my family, and it was going to Africa, living in Southeast Asia, living in England. My first six or seven books were all based on the travels that I had done, and none of them mentioned my family. But when you turn 70, it’s kind of vantage point for looking back. I had the sense that I wanted to write about the way a family operates as an independent unit. A family is like a nation in a distant land with its own language, its own rules, its own customs, and no one understands it, but if you grew up in it, you understand it. People who come from a big family will relate to the book.

MM Did writing it help you to understand your family better?

PT Yeah. The way that all writing does. Writing is a way of making sense of your world, of your life. It doesn’t solve problems, but it shows things in a peculiar light. Writing makes you examine a situation, makes you examine a relationship. And if you’re scrupulously truthful about what happened, and you write it the way it happened, the puzzle begins to be solved, and you begin to see connections in relationships that you hadn’t seen before. You can go all day inventing characters, but some of the oddest, greatest characters are people who are living with you, they are there in your life. And they are the real people; you see them in the round. And that’s the other revelation: The raw material is all there, but it takes a degree of maturity to write about it.


"The raw material is all there, but it takes a degree of maturity to write about it."


MM From a young age, travel has been a huge part of your life. How much does that feed your fiction writing?

PT There are two mechanisms that trigger it. One is reading. Reading made me a traveler. And traveling made me read more and turned me into a writer. If I hadn’t left home, I would never have become a writer. I know that I consciously sought experience; I went as far away from home as possible. And when you insert yourself into another country, another life, another culture, things happen to you. You’re very conspicuous, so you become a kind of magnet for experience—people want to know you, people want to borrow money from you, people want to use you. All of that becomes the kind of experience that you then transform into the drama of fiction. Things happen to you, and you try to understand it through fiction.

MM You’ve written 50-odd books—a pretty massive output by any standard. What is your writing routine like?

PT My first novel was published exactly 50 years ago this month. It was called Waldo. For 50 years, my day has been the same. I get up in the morning, I read the paper (used to read the paper, now I look at the news on the Internet), I sit down at my desk—not bright and early, but say 9 or 9:30—and I write. I’m usually done by one o’clock. I very rarely work in any dedicated way in the afternoon. But I sometimes work in the evening. In Hawaii, wild horses couldn’t keep me home on a sunny day, so I often go to the beach and sit in a beach chair, and I either read or write something, you know, woolgathering. I’m not writing with the same dedication that I would in the morning. So, my days are taken up like that. I very rarely take a vacation. I don’t find writing arduous. It’s slow going, but it’s steady-going for me. And I’ve always had something to write.

MM Has your writing changed in the last, say, couple of decades?

PT I think so. For example, my early travel books were very personal, very subjective: I’m having a good time, I’m not having a good time, I had a good meal, this funny thing happened to me. They were very autobiographical. I would account for every day, every strange day that I had. I think that they’ve changed. I thought, I’m really not that interesting, but other people are interesting, and other cultures are. So they’re different now. The focus is different. My travel is now less on me than the places I’m in. In terms of fiction, I’m determined not to repeat myself, although it’s inevitable that you do. You write for 50 years, and you’re going to repeat yourself. But I’ve tried not to. I’ve tried to come up with something new. I suppose, to examine motives more clearly. So, to that extent, my writing has changed. But I can say honestly, candidly, a writer is not the best judge of his or her book. We can’t be our own reader.

MM A writer friend once told me that she feels she can get at the truth better through fiction than nonfiction. Do you find this to be the case?

PT I think that fiction is the way to the truth. Not me but someone once said you feel intimate with a fictional character, you feel you know a fictional character better than a member of your own family. The classic portrait, Madame Bovary or Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield or Ishmael or Hamlet—compare what you know about these characters and how you respond to them with what you know of a friend or a member of your own family. That’s where the truth comes from. In fiction you can get inside a character’s head in a way that is not possible, generally speaking, with the people we know in real life. And maybe this is why, instead of writing an autobiography or a memoir, I chose to take my experience, my family, and treat them as fictional characters—and my life, too—to use them to write a book and understand them better, and to understand myself better. A lot of my writing is done to give me pleasure. I write actually to stimulate my imagination and think, hey, I wrote this thing. What do you think of it? Did you like it? That’s the whole thing. First I’m trying to please myself, then I’m hoping that I can please somebody else.

Edgar Wright

The Great Escape

Written by Valentina Valentini | Photographed by Myles Pettengill

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder sits on Edgar Wright’s coffee table. It’s the infamous how-to-be-a-screenwriter book that half of Hollywood hates and the other half lives by. “I find [those types of books] fascinating even if you don't agree with them,” says Wright, sitting in his under-utilized backyard at his Los Feliz home.

The other books and DVDs, records and posters that haphazardly mark Wright’s Spanish revival home are exactly what you’d want in a director’s home: Cult Movies by Danny Peary, the vinyl soundtrack of Aliens, A Chorus Line DVD still with it’s orange $4.99 sticker slapped on, a mini Taschen on Stanley Kubrick and a VHS of Shaun of the Dead (2004). That last one is his. As in, he made it.

Wright was only 20 when he made his first film, A Fistful of Fingers (1995), a quirky comedic western set in southwestern England. Since then he’s given us Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (2007), The World’s End (2013) all part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy co-written with Simon Pegg Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and more. This August, he’s bringing Baby Driver to the screen; his first departure from his comedic chops in the form of a thriller- heist-getaway starring Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx and Lily James.

Malibu Magazine sat with the 43-year-old British director to talk about his process as a filmmaker, his challenges he hopes are yet to come and why film criticism is important to him.

MM What was it like writing on your own for the first time since your first film?

EW Perhaps it’s because Baby Driver is a departure from the other movies that I felt like it was something I wanted to do solo. And also because it isn't specifically a comedy; writing comedies is always more fun in a pair because you're bouncing off each other. I was forging some new ground writing on my own, and there was just so much more research scouring the L.A. Times crime section and such and meeting experts on this one, like ex- cons and police officers. That was a really interesting experience. So after having this idea in my head for the better part of 22 years, I didn't really know how to start writing it. It was probably the most difficult thing I have written because I could see the movie so clearly I even remember telling a producer friend that I could draw the whole movie and shoot it tomorrow but writing it down was proving to be really tough.

MM What was the writing process like?

EW That’s an interesting thing with an action film—it's an odd process to write visuals because usually what happens is a screenwriter writes for a director. I mean, if you're a writer and somebody else is directing, you're also trying to get across what it might look and feel like in the script, but if you're writing for yourself to direct, there is an element of wondering who you are trying to communicate to. This screenplay is probably an interesting read because what I’m trying to get across in words is what eventually will be action and sound.

MM Do you have an audience in mind when you're writing?

EW First and foremost you have to make a movie that you would want to go and see. Maybe that's clear from the kind of movies I make? I'm making something I would want to see and hope that other people would want that too. I don’t write in terms of, “This is what people want or this is what’s hip right now.” Usually I start by thinking about what kind of movie do I miss; what would I like to see that hasn't been done for a while or a different take on something? I’m trying to make somebody's favorite movie. It might not be the biggest grossing movie of all time, but if it touches somebody else in a way that the movies I loved when I was little did, [then I’ve done well].

MM Do you ever change aspects of the film once you’re shooting?

EW I don't really do a lot of that. Once I’m making the movie, it's pretty much locked down. I'm not a big improv guy, and even on the comedies I think people always just assume that they were semi-improvised. But I really don’t know what gives that impression—all the lines are really tight.


"I’m trying to make somebody's favorite movie. It might not be the biggest grossing movie of all time, but if it touches somebody else in a way that the movies I loved when I was little did, [then I’ve done well]."


MM When making your movies, is there anything that you’re obsessive over?

EW If I've seen it in my head a certain way, I can't really imagine it another way [he laughs]. That is probably a blessing and a curse. It’s good in terms of being absolutely laser-focused on [your vision]. I'm definitely obsessive in terms of the way it's shot and how many shots we need to make it work. We did three extra days of close-ups of hands and gear sticks and tachometers and steering wheels on Baby Driver, and then we did another three days of reshoots after that. I think the thing is, when I made that movie [A Fistful of Fingers] when I was 20, straight out of art college, zero- budget, the first time I’d shot on Super 16, I really gave myself over to the professionals. Because I was so young I submitted to their way of doing things, which was totally fine and more traditional, but one thing that haunted me about that movie is that I never really got enough coverage— not enough angles or shots. That has been the biggest motivator in the rest of my work visually, having been in that situation with my first film of not being able to do anything with the footage because there was nothing to cut to.

MM Is there something you want to accomplish as a filmmaker that you haven't already?

EW Always challenging myself is the important thing. There are lots of genres I haven't done before that I’d like to do—a true story or a drama or a straight horror film, not a comedy, that would be a real challenge. I was challenging myself with this one, because my inspiration for the movie stemmed from having done musical sequences in my other work. I’d always really loved doing them and I guess was me saying, “How can I do that for an entire movie? How do I come up with a premise whereby the entire movie is like a musical sequence?”

MM What is your relationship to music?

EW It’s similar to the lead character [Baby, played by Elgort] in a way—I did have tinnitus as a kid, and [music] is a way to get inspired or get motivated. I use music as a kind of audio caffeine, a soundtrack to my life. I usually can't write without the right kind of music playing – nothing with too many lyrics because they can be distracting—I’ve got endless playlists of instrumentals and scores: Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone and John Barry... I can listen to John Barry scores forever. For Baby Driver I made a heist playlist that was like 200 tracks.

MM What is your take on film criticism?

EW I would be sad if it was gone. I mean, I think it's great. It’s a necessary thing and really it’s how I got interested in films in the first place, through film writing. I used to memorize like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. I remember finding Danny Peary’s books in the library at art college, pre- Internet days. I used to make little lists of all these movies I wanted to see. Also, Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide was a great influence. In this day and age though, it’s interesting with Twitter—there's a real rush to write a review 60-seconds after leaving the cinema. And I do that myself sometimes, but also maybe you need to let things stew a little bit before you have a response. After [the premiere at] South by Southwest, there were some reviews. My favorite one said: “Gone in 60 Seconds directed by Busby Berkeley” and I was like, “That sounds like my kind of movie!” And I made it. It is my kind of movie.

MM That must feel so amazing...

EW It was great. That quote is too esoteric for the poster, but I love that writer for it, so that's why I love film criticism, he said into the mic very loudly [laughs].

MM Baby Driver had its challenges—driving stunts, action sequences, a big cast – but what was the most challenging thing for you personally?

EW I feel very fortunate having a movie out this summer that’s an original movie. I was at the Arclight and they have all of the summer posters up. Baby Driver was the odd one out among those posters because it was the only original screenplay. Every other one was a sequel or a reboot or an adaptation of a comic or an adaptation of some pre-existing material. So for me, the biggest challenge is making an original movie in this climate, and one that’s backed by a studio as well. I feel extremely fortunate that I got to make this movie right now. MM

American Beauties

In his latest documentary, Amir Bar-Lev turns his lens on the Grateful Dead

Sofia Boutella

WILD AT HEART

 

Written by Zan Romanoff | Photographed by Zoey Grossman | Styled by Sean Knight

 

“That’s so dark!”

Sofia Boutella is riding shotgun in my car, perhaps the filthiest vehicle currently on the road in West Hollywood, when she spots a stroller sitting on the sidewalk, abandoned in the dazzling Los Angeles sun. We’re on our way to her dentist, running 20 minutes late for an appointment to get her teeth cleaned. “That’s so dark,” she repeats. “What a weird vision. What a weird sight. There are some things it feels like you’re not supposed to see.”

This is not how the afternoon was meant to go.

The plan was pretty standard: I would meet Boutella on the rooftop of a hip Hollywood hotel. We would sip cocktails and take in the view. I would ask her questions about working opposite Tom Cruise in The Mummy, in which she plays the title role, as well as her part alongside Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, both of which release this summer. She would tell me some mild Hollywood gossip, repeat a bunch of platitudes about hard work and keeping her head on straight, and send me on my way to write A Celebrity Profile: a greased-lens look at her and her life, constructed in order to give the public a relatable Sofia Boutella character to imagine floating from rooftop to red carpet and set to set.

Altuzarra Bra | Simone Rocha Skirt | Christion Dior Briefs | Christian Louboutin Shoes

Altuzarra Bra | Simone Rocha Skirt | Christion Dior Briefs | Christian Louboutin Shoes

And in fact, though our time together was replete with lifestyle details—our French fries were sprinkled with truffle oil and Parmesan—it was also dotted with pedestrian inconveniences, the kind of humdrum low-key annoyances that are hallmarks of recognizably civilian life. For instance, the rooftop bar didn’t serve French fries, or any food for that matter, and we were both starving, so we ended up in the dark, loud downstairs restaurant instead. A series of scheduling snafus had accidentally sent Boutella to a different hotel before she met me, so we only had a brief window to eat and talk, which is how I ended up steering her through pre-rush hour traffic while I fired off questions and she finished the last of her fries in the passenger seat. It was an intense afternoon—not dreamy, not “relatable,” but mostly very ordinary: two slightly harried early-30s women trying to do their jobs. Which makes sense: Boutella has never been that into the glamorizing softness of a neatly turned narrative anyway.

She was born into upheaval: She spent her early years in the midst of a violent civil war in her native Algeria. Her family fled to France when she was 10; they moved around the country until Boutella left to tour as a dancer when she was 18. She did that for more than a decade before leaving (a gig backing up no less a performer than Madonna) in order to focus on acting.

The decision had been a long time coming: She’d been acting since she was a teenager and always felt drawn toward the discipline. But she kept getting paid gigs as a dancer, and she loved it—until she wasn’t sure she did anymore. “I asked myself the question [am I ready to stop dancing] for about two years,” she explains. “For me, it felt like a question of life or death. I asked random people. I never do what people tell me, but I need to understand. I want to know how people behave in context. When I feel compelled, what do I do?” Ultimately, though, her answer came when it was ready. “I woke up one morning and [the desire to dance] was gone,” she says. “I cannot explain. Nothing happened. It was just gone!”


“I asked myself the question [am I ready to stop dancing] for about two years. For me, it felt like a question of life or death."


But then there was the matter of finding work. Boutella spent the next two years taking acting classes with a teacher named Arthur Mendoza, who previously had been a disciple of the legendary Stella Adler. Boutella studied the nuts and bolts, the technique and history of the craft—and did not get cast at all, in anything. “I did not make a paycheck in two years. I was broke.”

She considered go-go dancing to make ends meet, but discarded both options when she thought they might start to affect her emotionally. She wanted to save herself for what she considered her real work. She decided that she was going to be a housekeeper.

And then she got cast as an assassin named Gazelle in Kinsgman: The Secret Service (2014) in a cast that included Colin Firth, Mark Hamill and Samuel L. Jackson. Gazelle is a walking weapon; her prosthetic legs have been sharpened into lethal blades. It was an ideal role for Boutella, something that benefited from the physicality of her background in dance without pigeonholing her as an actress who had to be limited to crossover films. “I did not want to play a dancer in a movie,” Boutella explains. “I did not want to do a Nike commercial with words. I thought if I was doing a dance movie, I was going in through the exit door, trying to shimmy in in a slick way.”

Rodarte Dress

Rodarte Dress

“I did not want to do a Nike commercial with words. I thought if I was doing a dance movie, I was going in through the exit door, trying to shimmy in in a slick way.”

Even after the scare of those lean years, she remains insistently thoughtful about what roles she takes and why. She actually turned down her part in The Mummy when it was initially offered to her: In the first place, she’d just spent months doing four-plus hours a day in makeup chairs as the alien Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond (2016), and she was wary of putting herself in a similar position again so soon. But she also had questions about the role itself: “I was afraid to play a monster. I was afraid it would stick to me, as a woman, and [I would] not work again. Who are the women who played monsters who did anything after? I didn’t see any examples,” she says.

Boutella spoke with the director and told him that her mummy needed to have “a strong, solid back story.” He delivered, giving Boutella not “just the usual: the girlfriend who’s jealous,” but instead a princess betrayed, a pharaoh’s daughter who’d spent her whole life preparing to rule, only to have the throne stolen from her when her widowed father remarries, and his new wife bears him a son whom he names as his heir.

Boutella’s approach to her characters is characteristic of her intensely cerebral nature—though, as with her dancing, ultimately the performance lives in her body, not her brain. “I read the script a lot, and I do a lot of research until I feel like I know what’s happening,” she says of her preparation. “And then I let it go and see what’s in my back pocket.”

For The Mummy, she ultimately found on-screen role models in Kathy Bates’ turn in Misery as well as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Not monsters, exactly, but women who were dark and intense—evil but ultimately human.

When I ask Boutella if she feels that being a woman of color has limited her range of roles, she answers emphatically that she doesn’t. “I never want to victimize myself in that regard,” she explains. “Even if it happens to be true, I’m happier being oblivious to it. This is not what’s
going to drive my life, and I don’t want to let it. I want to see these characters as assets.” She attributes this spirit to her upbringing: “I was picked on massively when I arrived in France. The only way to survive that is to take ownership of who you are and what you’re about. That confidence never left me.”


“I was picked on massively when I arrived in France. The only way to survive that is to take ownership of who you are and what you’re about." 


That said, she’s generally wary of taking political stances: “I want to be educated far more profoundly than I’ve ever been before I do anything” in terms of advocacy, she says. “Someone asked me recently, ‘What advice would you give to some little kid who lives in Syria?’ Look, I got lucky. I got lucky to get out of [Algeria] when I was little. Tell me to give advice to someone in America or France, and I would say, ‘Keep believing in your dreams.’ I’m not going to tell someone in Syria ‘keep believing in your dreams!’ It broke my heart, that question.”

Boutella seems mystified by the 360-ness that people demand from their celebrities, the need for them to dissect their lives and work (“My mom is an architect. Very valuable job. She’s never asked, ‘So, how did you come up with that wall? Why did you decide to put a tree on that rooftop? Tell us!’”), the way that the public asks famous folks to tell stories about themselves and then uses them to imagine that they know the person and not just their persona. Boutella’s personal policy is: “If artists are great at what they do, if I meet them and they’re dickheads orassholes, if I meet them and they’re not nice—I’m like, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. What you do on that level is far more profound. You don’t have to be nice.”

She says she’s always felt this way, but it’s been reinforced over the course of a career spent working with her idols. “I think it’s a protection to dissociate,” she says. Like a Virgin and Bad were the first two cassettes she owned, and she listened to them until they broke; both Madonna and Michael Jackson went on to hire her to work for them. She dealt with this with characteristic sangfroid: “I was honored. I mean, I was honored. A lot of respect. But I just don’t fucking lose it.”

Simone Rocha Dress

Simone Rocha Dress

Her detachment had been a survival strategy during a turbulent youth and remains a professional asset as she continues to move into ever more rarified circles as an actress. But it does also come with certain costs. We’re still cruising down Fountain, a few miles past the abandoned stroller that so unnerved Boutella, when I ask her about languages (she learned English on tour in her late teens and early 20s) and about where she lives. After so many years of touring, does she consider any place in particular home?

This is the thing about having stories: they can help other people turn us into digestible, comprehensible soundbites, but they can also help us better understand ourselves. Boutella is at peace with her past, but she isn’t quite ready to start predicting a future for herself yet, in part because the only constant in that past was its chaos and unpredictability. “I’ve never done anything that I should have done,” she says. “I never knew anything I should have known when I should have known it.” She knows where her things are, but that doesn’t mean she knows where she wants home to be just yet. She knows what works she wants to do, but not how she’s going to spin it into the Sofia Boutella character the public is, increasingly, demanding of her.

Boutella isn’t fazed, though. “I’ve decided to just embrace it,” she says of her vagabond tendencies, and all of the things she doesn’t know. “It gave me strength in the sense that I can go anywhere. I’m always a suitcase away from anything.” MM

James Gray

GET LOST

Written by E. Ryan Ellis | Photography by Sandro Baebler

Percy Fawcett is more famous than he ever could’ve imagined. The 20th-century explorer made several trips to Amazonia, seeking to find the ancient ruins of a city he named “Z,” a sort of extension of El Dorado but based on Fawcett’s very real findings in the South American jungles. Fawcett made many treacherous expeditions to Amazonia, making the acquaintance of natives but never finding his lost city. He fought in WWI, and afterward, on his final expedition, he went missing, never to be found again. Fawcett’s story was written and published in 2005 as The Lost City of Z by David Grann. The film adaptation of the book stars Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson, and was adapted and directed by James Gray. It’s set for release April 21.

Gray, who directed We Own the Night (2007) and The Immigrant (2013), was fascinated by the internal and external conflict of Fawcett’s story. We spoke at length with Gray over the phone and discussed the beginnings of the film, the difficulty in filming on location in South America and the problematic nature of Fawcett himself.

MM Can you talk about the genesis of wanting to direct The Lost City of Z, personally?

JG I had gotten the books sent to me by Brad Pitt and his producers. This was before it was published, and I was very excited after I read it because to me it was an excellent exposé. It didn’t start out that he was an explorer and that was interesting; what got me excited was that he was a person struggling against his family history. Percy Fawcett was a person of great internal conflict as well as external conflict. It was an excellent way of exploring the roots of the creation of an obsession and what that does to a man.

MM Do you ever have moral views of those characters in the beginning?

JG There is no way that you don’t, because that is who we are. But what I will say is that I try to remove judgments and try to express the film in a way that has total sympathy, if not empathy, toward the character. Even if you wouldn’t do what he does, it is not even the same thing. It is like you’re essentially making a movie that extends people’s sympathy and breaks down the wall between the movie and the character and the viewer and the character. We can then understand exactly what he is going through, so we are impassioned through our support of his endeavors. It doesn’t mean we don’t judge him morally; we judge people morally anyway, even when we don’t want to. He makes decisions I wouldn’t have made, but it does not mean I don’t like him. I personally love him.

MM In some ways, Fawcett is a man of his time, but in other ways he’s quite progressive.

JG That was the idea—that he was a very conflicted, screwed-up character because he was in some ways exactly a product of his times and in other ways he was ahead. It’s hard to know, but that is what makes it interesting to me. Abraham Lincoln was like that, as much as we whitewash the history of Lincoln; he said racist things but that does not mean we dislike him. What it means was, for his day, he was as good as we could’ve hoped for.

MM Fawcett was interested, in some ways, in the equality of the native South Americans but not necessarily the equality of his own wife. Can you speak about that?

JG The whole idea was that I was trying to make a film that had many different levels. I was trying to say that human beings have a brutal and violent sense of the hierarchy. The upper class looks down on Fawcett. Fawcett keeps his wife in a box. He may see the indigenous people of South America, in some ways, in a better light than the upper class does, but we don’t know if it was part of his experience or also an experience mixed with a need for glory that makes his desire complicated. The indigenous people also, even in their case, have some battling between groups, as you see in the end of the film when one throws a spear at another. I was trying to say this is the way the world is, not the way I want the world to be—but I do not think that is my job, that is fantasy. This is what I think the world has done and is doing to human beings, and I don’t think it is much different at all even though it is hundreds of years later. Fawcett is more familiar with his wife, and, in some ways, you can understand—not sympathize—why he feels the way he does toward her. The indigenous people have a certain idealism for him, and, in some ways, he has idealized them in a way that is not helpful to him by the end.

MM I like to think of this film and Fawcett’s story as a microcosm of life. It’s interesting you were filming this before the election in 2016. It has strangely become even more relevant.

JG Yeah. I am actually not proud of that fact.

MM It doesn’t seem like it’s on purpose, just serendipitous.

JG There is no way it could’ve been on purpose. What is creepy and kind of horrible about it is it speaks more to the unpleasant aspect of our lack of progress over the span of hundreds of years. I do believe in progress, but progress is a tricky and complex thing because it doesn’t work like you think. Progress is an ever growing, burgeoning thing, and every year you have better and better societies, and everything is better. It moves and starts, and sometimes you take three steps back to take one step forward. It is very uneven. For example, in the early 20th century you get the polio vaccine and you also get Hitler, so it is a very complicated thing. I think that when I read the story I thought it was relevant even in 2015 or 2014. When I wrote the story in 2009, not to get too political, I didn’t feel that Obama was getting a fair shake in a white male Congress. It was on my mind, I think. Trump is not a surprise. He is just a lack of progress, lack of forward movement.


"What got me excited was that he was a person struggling against his family history"


MM Can you talk about how important it was for you to develop Sienna Miller’s character, because often I think those “left behind” characters are marginalized.

JG We felt it was very important to convey a complex idea about who that person was. [In film] it is always about the extension of our sympathies. It is critical when we look at a character like this that we say, “it seems to me, that she was the one with the tragedy.” He achieved a level of transcendence because... he died in the jungle and became remembered forever. She was just swallowed up by the same expression, but nobody knows who she is. She is the one who really suffered. He got killed, which is true, but he was the one who saw part of the world that most white Europeans will never understand at all. To me, that made the story beautiful for him. That gave him and his son, even though they died, a level of transcendence. She was the one who wound up having to suffer. She was owed something by the movie; the movie owed her a moment.

MM The Amazon almost acts as a character in the film. Like a character that Fawcett continues to miss and revisit. Can you speak on that a little?

JG It is impossible to go down there and not have it be a character. It is so unforgiving, and you go down there, expect to have a tough time and hope you can plan enough of it to make it manageable. There is no plan you can take down there, and it dictates exactly what it wants to do. You realize very quickly that we are essentially a world populated by insects occasionally invaded by humans, and that is kind of how it feels. It is so harsh. You say to people 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity, and people don’t understand how horrible that is.

MM Not to give too much away, but the ending was beautiful. There is a transcendental beauty to it.

JG We wanted it be like a religious service and that he was given to the gods. When you see the footage of ISIS killing the reporters, or whomever they are about to murder, the imagery or the videos are strangely calming. It is not the panic/weeping thing that you’d expect. The video evidence is something quite different. It is a lack of belief that it will actually happen. My instincts tell me I would be panicked. [You] see a grace, which is really weird. We talked about that very specifically when we were shooting. Not that they were happy about that, but that there was an awareness that the story is not necessarily over for them in the spiritual terms. That is the way we treated it and also the idea that we would go back to [Sienna Miller’s character] who was alive with the tidbit about the compass, which I didn’t make up, but I do find very weird. I found it quite haunting that it would bail me out of what was a dark ending, and I didn’t want it to feel like an oblique ending.

MM It very easily could’ve been.

JG Well, yeah. He was probably eaten, and with a story like that, you don’t want it to end with a super bummer. Maybe it does now, but I did not intend for that. I think he achieved a measure of his dreams, and, ultimately, he turned out to be right. He made a miscalculation; he believed—wrongly— that he would find big stone temples and so forth. That part is absurd, but what isn’t is the idea of pre-Columbian settlements all over Amazonia, and he was 100 percent right about that. The one part that is a tragedy, scientifically, is that he was probably walking on top of Z all the time and did not realize it. The cities weren’t made of stone. They were working with organic materials, which dissolved into the jungles, which is why they found all the pottery, roads and bridges ... but not buildings. I wanted to shoot where Fawcett really was, which was the Pantanal region of Brazil, but so much of the area is cleared for soybean farming that it looks like Nebraska. It doesn’t look like it did when he was there.

MM The only question I have left is what will you be working on next?

JG I have an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum: I will be doing a science fiction film, believe it or not. It is exciting to me going to the end of our universe. And I’m going to try to do it in a way that is not too hackneyed, the type of that you don’t see. It is like science-future fact. MM