To delve deep into Brad Pitt's soul, the new movie Ad Astra sends him hurtling to the very edge of the solar system. Pitt is winning acclaim for his performance as a troubled astronaut. But before Pitt could blast off, Ad Astra writer and director James Gray had to contend with a new ending, an unexpected sale to Disney, and President Donald Trump's space plans.
I caught up with Gray in London shortly after the film's debut at the Venice Film Festival, which wrapped up earlier this month. He explained why Ad Astra sends Pitt's emotionally closed-off spaceman to Neptune to search for his missing father. "If you're gonna do something that's so internal, to go to the edge of the solar system is the contrast you need," Gray says. "If you do a mythic journey, you gotta go as far out as you can go."
Ad Astra's production has been something of a journey, too. Produced by Fox, the release date was delayed twice including after Disney bought Fox in March and Gray's film was pushed back so it wouldn't clash with the Aladdin remake. Still, Ad Astra has at least made it to theaters: The Disney takeover saw several of Fox's projects brutally culled.
"I was vaguely terrified," Gray acknowledges about showing his adult sci-fi opus to his new family-friendly parent company. "But they loved it and they've been incredibly supportive of the film."
Ad Astra presents a vision of the future that's more of a warning than a celebration of space tourism and cosmic capitalism. "If we were having this conversation in 1960, we could talk about the counterweight of the communist or socialist dictatorship bloc. But today there's not really a counterweight to market capitalism," Gray says. "It's an unstoppable force. In the developed nations, the gap between the richest and the poorest is growing ever larger. And why would we project that space would be any different?"
The film portrays the moon, for example, in a satirical way as a new wild west, a sort of space Vegas.
"It's very, very rich in natural resources, and you have treaties that will govern it to some degree, but how the fuck do you enforce them? You have a part of the moon, the far side, that's always facing away from us. When there's a lot of resources and nothing to govern, there's obviously gonna be a degree of lawlessness," Gray says.
"I hope I'm wrong," the director adds. But some of his predictions have proved chillingly accurate. While Ad Astra was in development, real-life events overtook the film's satire. Just a few days before I met Gray, Trump officially established the new military branch called US Space Command and called space the "next warfighting domain."
"It's idiotic," says Gray of Trump's militarized vision of space. There's also the bizarre coincidence that Pitt's character, Major Roy McBride, is part of Space Command. "Unfortunately, [the film] has come completely true, even the same name. Which is really depressing."
This is the end
Reports of a late change to the film's ending prompted me to ask whether Disney interfered with the movie. But in fact it was Pitt who pushed Gray to make the film's final minute slightly less ambiguous.
"Brad is very smart about these things," Gray says. "A lot of actors aren't filmmakers and they don't really understand, but he has a very strong view of things and he will also listen to you. So I felt if he listens to me, I should listen to him."
After his winning turn in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt has had a good summer. His performance in Ad Astra may even be recognized at Oscar time. And as a producer of Ad Astra, he helped Gray steer the movie's final moments to a satisfying landing.
"When you make a movie of this size, one cannot just completely say 'fuck you' to the audience," Gray concedes, "so the ending became a sort of collaboration and compromise point. I was okay with it. The last thing on Earth I want is to reject the audience and have them think the movie is totally downbeat at the end... After a whole series of discussion over a four-month period, finally I just said 'OK, fine.' My idea for the ending is still there. And if you want to see it, you just have to stop your TV 40 or 50 seconds early!"
When he first announced Ad Astra in 2016, Gray said he wanted to make the "most realistic sci-fi film ever." When I mention that quote, the director rolls his eyes ruefully at his own hubris. He's now modified the goal from "realistic" to "plausible."
"What color is the lunar surface, would you say?" Gray asks me as an example of compromise between realism and audience expectations. I reply that the moon is light gray, but I smell a trick question.
"That's what everyone would say and let me tell you that's not true," Gray continues. "The lunar surface is almost black. But the sunlight is without any filter as there's no atmosphere, so it's so bright that to the eye it looks light gray while the sky is blacker than black." So when viewers are used to the timeless footage captured by Neil Armstrong and his fellow NASA astronauts, filmmakers have to weigh up whether realism will distract the audience.
"You have to make it correspond to people's media idea because if you don't, it'll look fake," says Gray, who admits to cheating with the amount of light he shone on the moon and Neptune.
One of the plausible technologies in the film is a gun specially designed to work in space called a stiletto. But unlike the pew-pew laser guns of Star Wars and Star Trek, the weapon is grounded in realistic, contemporary ideas as it fires molten metal pellets.
Gray also stayed away from sci-fi staples like robots and artificial intelligence such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Mother in Alien. "If Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick have done it already, you're screwed," he says.
In fact, the filmmakers looked at the modern world and decided that the future would actually look less futuristic. "Today you see people walking down the streets talking to themselves and you can't really see what the device is," Gray points out. "So we thought technology would become more invisible."
Gray also points out that despite living in an age when new, flashy gizmos seem to have taken over our lives, some things remain unchanged -- especially in space travel, where equipment has to be completely reliable.
"When we researched this stuff we realized there's a military-grade level you have to hit because it's such a perilous trip," says Gray. "And a lot of things created in our economy today are not manufactured for maximum reliability, but for aesthetics and marketability, and that can't do for space."
He points out that the Orion spacecraft planned to go to Mars in 2033 is essentially similar to the original space rockets developed back in the early 1960s.
"You can't change physics," he says. So in the film's somewhat timeless aesthetic, astronauts use Sharpie pens and use chunky analogue machinery that could have come from a sci-fi film of yesteryear or even from decades-old NASA footage.
Less green screen
Grounding the technology in the near future cut down on the need for flashy visual effects, but some effects are inevitable for a film that involves impossible environments like lunar landscapes and floating spacewalks. Gray tried to avoid green screen, putting Pitt and the cast in real sets and locations such as an abandoned power station or the famous Death Valley desert so they could react to their surroundings and to one another.
Shooting the actors in a way that allows visual effects to be added later can be a slow and laborious process. And if the actors don't have something to interact with, Gray says, then filming "becomes a brutal challenge."
Even with real sets, the process could be tough. For zero gravity and spacewalk scenes, actors were dangled on wires to perform the floating movements.
"You're not going to get more than three takes or four takes because it's very stressful on the body," says Gray, who filmed the cast on sets that were built both horizontally and vertically so they could film different angles. The director is keen to stress that Pitt didn't complain but adds, "You're not gonna get the best work from your actor if he's in a state of constant physical torture."
That said, digital visual effects are inevitable in most studio films these days, from sci-fi extravaganzas to period dramas. Gray estimates 12 percent of shots in the film were completely untouched, with the other 88 percent digitally enhanced in some way.
Whether it was adding a smattering of stars to a blacked-out set, transforming the California desert into the surface of the moon, or adding Tommy Lee Jones' face to a digital spacesuit, the complex visual effects ate up the extra time after the release date was pushed back. Just a month before we met, the visual effects supervisor told Gray there were 304 effects shots left to sign off.
Ultimately, Gray didn't let on-screen or off-screen technology get in the way of the story. "We couldn't tackle the gravity on the moon," he says with a smile, "so we have a line in the background which said 'Lunar gravity boots should be set to 76', or whatever. At some point you can't ask the audience to pay attention to that stuff."
And besides, as Gray admits, "it's a fool's errand to try and predict the future."
Gray was born in 1969, the year of the Apollo moon landing, although perhaps fittingly his first memory of real space travel was seeing the final manned moon mission in 1972. He laments that the "tremendous aspirational power" of humankind's quest for space has been lost, but sees a renewed enthusiasm in his children's generation.
"The lunar landing is the greatest achievement in the history of the human race," he says. "I think we take it for granted now... What was lost was the will because the whole vision of space exploration was essentially motivated by the desire to beat the Russians to the moon. And once the United States did that, we stopped caring."
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Originally published Sept. 18.