Note: This interview contains minor spoilers for the film — continue at your own risk, or read on with fresh eyes after seeing the movie for yourself!
James Gray brings family into every genre piece, whether it’s his early crime films (We Own the Night, The Yards, Little Odessa), a love triangle (Two Lovers), or his two recent period films (The Immigrant, Lost City of Z). And I’m not talking the Fast & Furious sense of “family” being a word to describe a group of people who have to work together — Gray brings crushing familial expectations and insecurities to every genre film, and it’s the emotional resonance of his cinema that sets him apart. So when he has a sizable studio budget to send Brad Pitt to space in a visually thrilling and emotional rollercoaster, of course it's rooted in family and abandonment.
Ad Astra is a Heart of Darkness-esque space movie, with Tommy Lee Jones playing Pitt’s astronaut father who’s been missing for 20 years but might’ve just made contact from Neptune. Pitt goes on a mission not just to find his father, but also stop an electrical surge from an outpost near the distant planet, which has caused thousands of deaths on Earth. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival with high accolades for the thrilling sequences, Pitt’s performances and the astounding visual effects. Ahead of Ad Astra’s nationwide release, we sat down with Gray to discuss his process in making the film, something he wasn’t able to include, and how the Fox-Disney merger granted Gray a few more months of fine-tuning while the studio deal was finalizing.
Fandango: Something that's constant through your work is family expectations and the suffocating weight of that. So I'm wondering, with Ad Astra, did you start with a father-son story in space, or did you want to make a movie in space and have these big set pieces, but then it became more natural to tether it to a father-son relationship?
An excellent question. I wish I could tell you that I came up with the story first, but it's not how it happened. I was thinking very seriously about a childhood memory that I had. I grew up in New York, and you couldn't see the stars. The sky had this kind of dull orange color at night, because the city was so lit up. I remember there was a blackout that hit the city, this was 1977, in the summer of 1977, and I remember, as all the lights went out you could see the stars for the first time.
All of a sudden I had this weird memory back to that feeling, it was, like, 2011 and I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to make a movie about what is out there?" I talked about it a lot with my friend and co-writer, Ethan (Gross), and I asked, "What does it mean to be out there, and are there aliens — or are we alone?" Well, there are a lot of movies about aliens — and good aliens and bad aliens. (Steven) Spielberg's done incredible work about that, but his movies are — they play like fables. E.T. is like a fable; Close Encounters, like a fable. Beautiful, beautiful films. (Stanley) Kubrick made a beautiful film, of course (in 2001). The alien is a black slab of granite, whatever it appears to look like. Is that a good alien? A bad alien? What does that mean? You can project anything you want on it. So he beats the trap of false gods, you know?
But we thought, "Well, what does it mean if you find that there's really nothing out there?" And if there's nothing out there, that poses its own set of existential questions. So it started from that, really, and that was the chain of events. Then I tried to start getting the story as personal as I could and we wanted to steal from — as pretentious as this sounds — we wanted to steal from The Odyssey, and tell the story, really, from Telemachus' point of view. His father, Odysseus, goes away for 20 years, and he doesn't know what happened to him. What that would mean, and that sense of abandonment that Telemachus must have...
Now, of course, Homer’s story ends very differently. But that's where that came from — a kind of mythic idea. Then, of course, you start to personalize it, you start to include things in your own life, and before you know it, you've got this tiny little story about a father and a son against the huge canvas, where you're going out there, it's the vast infinite. That's, really, how it formed.
Fandango: You talk about that memory that makes me think of, so, my wife and I talk about this because we had a similar thing when we were younger, that when we looked up at the stars and realized how massive everything is, and how small we were, that that actually comforted us instead of freaked us out, because there is something comforting knowing that you don't mean that much and that’s not actually nihilistic, but weirdly comforting.
Gray: Absolutely. Of course, I mean, do you know who Hokusai is? Japanese painter, he died about 1830, I think. Van Gogh was a huge fan of his. Hokusai said something really beautiful, and he talked about his aging process and he had hoped by the time he's 130, he could have the ability to breathe and, basically, look at a leaf and find the whole universe in a leaf.
In some ways, the beauty of human existence is more internal. My son shows me a praying mantis. Maybe 20 years ago I would have been like, "Who cares? I got to go in there and make a deal." Now it's the greatest thing, you know? I want to cry.
I don't know if I would use the word wisdom, but it is — the stages you go through in your life, and certainly, you begin to understand that the intimate, that the personal history and myth begin in the microcosm of a person. That, in some ways, the more intimate we are, the more in touch we are with the vastness.
The vastness, you can't understand, it's an abstract concept. Infinite — what does that even mean? We don't know. We're born, and we die. We have that framework. We can't understand living forever. We can't understand forever, endless; we can't understand that. All we can understand is finding something very small and very beautiful, and that is what exposes the interior of our soul. Am I making any sense?
Fandango: Yeah, it makes perfect sense to me. In speaking of getting in touch with the internal, Brad Pitt was originally going to be in The Lost City of Z, and ended up producing, but he's in this one. So, that's eight years in between. How do you think he changed between when you were talking about City of Z to Ad Astra? And do you think that also benefited the movie that you ended up making?
Gray: What I would say is, from my own perception ... I don't want to talk about this too much because it's his business and not mine, but he's gone though something that's been very public, and probably very trying, and he was just good enough and smart enough and really talented enough to use it in the work. A certain vulnerability. And that's a great thing.
I'm sorry he had to go through all of that, but he certainly used it for good, I think. The rest of it I can't really speak to because it's like you're asking me a great question, but you're asking me something that is more about him and his interiority and the way that he feels in the world. What I perceive, I would say, he has a total willingness to be vulnerable, and did he use to have that? Maybe he did — but I can only speak to what's happening now, and that's a beautiful thing that he has now.
Fandango: Yeah. It does seem to be like Tree of Life, Moneyball onward, that he's able to be more of an internal actor, and he's very, very, very good at that and something he’s kind of been able to ease into this decade.
Gray: He's really good.
Fandango: Something that is very interesting in watching this film now is you're watching someone struggle to be open with human beings, but psychology tests, or I guess, the AI that’s administering the psychology tests after each mission unfortunately removes human interactions of discussing emotions. Could you talk a little bit about the creation of the psychology tests for this film?
Gray: Yeah. I mean, it's easy to talk to a computer. It is — there's no push back, there's no debate, there's no discourse, there's no risk. So, he's probably, I would think, in the movie he's really honest with the computer. I think you're hearing him be totally honest. By the same token, it's a computer, and there's no risk involved in that, and there's no reward, really.
I like being married very much, I really do. It's also because, thankfully, I both love and like my wife, but one of the things I love about being with her is that even if I am vulnerable, if I say things that are unpleasant, I can have the interaction with her that I need to make me fulfilled as a person, and make her, hopefully, feel fulfilled as a person. That's how it should be, I think. It's not always perfect. At times, I offend her, she offends me, whatever, we get upset, but for the most part it's a beautiful thing. I don't think that character has that. We were trying to say that that's a horrible thing.
It's one thing to say, "I like to be alone," "Oh, I want to go to dinner by myself," "I want to go to the movies by myself," but that's a choice you make. When being alone is forced on you, that's a much tougher thing. That's like solitary confinement, and by all accounts, solitary confinement is deadly.
Fandango: When he does open about, about his father, in the psychology test, because he's being pushed to give more he ends up unraveling a lot and then the response from the computer is like, "Okay you're done, you're complete with this because you said enough," it’s just filed away, but for him, he still has to live with what he's admitting out loud.
Gray: Right, right. It's horrible, right? I always felt that was rather punishing for that character.
Fandango: Speaking of emotional isolation, you have a brief, beautiful section on Mars, but one thing that struck me is, when he first checks in there, there's a sign in the background that says something like, "There is hope. Call for help," or something that seems like a suicide hotline—
Gray: Suicide, yeah, absolutely.
Fandango: I think that is something that people don't think about that much when they talk about colonizing Mars. That it will be horribly depressing and isolating—
Gray: Well, I mean, you don't have anything tangible. It's like you have to live underground in a lava tunnel, and you always are basically quarantined. It's going to be very difficult to survive emotionally. The technological challenges of Mars are vast. It basically has an atmosphere that's very thin. There is an atmosphere, but it's only about five percent of the Earth's atmosphere. So, if it had no atmosphere, we'd know how to land. If it had our atmosphere, we'd know how to land. The problem is it has just a tiny bit, so, how do you slow down the craft? But they'll be able to figure that stuff out. The harder question is, close quarters, a two-year trip, four people, and then if you colonize it, what do we do? You live underground, you can never go outside ever again, you never go to the beach, you never go to the park.
Gray: What does that mean? Everybody starts living like what?
Fandango: That's like my cat.
Gray: Like your cat. I don't know about how well your cat lives, but I think it's a scary prospect. It's a scary prospect, isn't it? That's not how we're designed. So, I think that unless we evolve past our current state, which I suppose we will, but that'll take a couple million years, maybe, maybe less. Seems like it's going to be pretty tough to tolerate that kind of condition.
Fandango: We can get morose for the whole interview, but this movie has a lot of very fun, thrilling sequences.
Gray: I hope so.
Fandango: Like the moon pirates, the underground lake, or, even just the opening, falling from space, et cetera. What were the most difficult film sequences for you to shoot? Were there any moonshot ideas you had but weren’t able to do or had to rein in?
Gray: There was one, and only one. It was always our dream to have them, in the underground lake, confront some kind of Homeric Cyclops robot guardian. So, we had thought of a single-eyed robot, or Hydra, or something like that, and we built something and we started to shoot it, but it never worked properly, it never looked great, and ultimately, we just had to scrap the idea.
I suppose we could have spent a lot more time developing a CG-Hydra, and all that, but it seemed unnecessary for the film. It's a disappointment I have, that we were never able to really think it through enough.
Fandango: But you do get ... confrontations.
Gray: Yeah. That's true. That happens. That was supposed to be thematically relevant, more than narratively relevant. The idea that, basically, unexpected horror is around every turn when you're that far away. So we felt that it had thematic unity, if not narrative unity.
Fandango: Or just say every organism will have rage in isolation.
Gray: Absolutely. Anything earthbound is not meant for out there. It's not meant to be there. That's not our friend, it's different to us. We felt that was an important sequence. Do people want to know about it beforehand? No? Probably not, right?
Fandango: I think, where we're at, people just want to know that there's blood, there's a confrontation, there's an excitement, yeah.
Gray: Well, there is blood. There is blood. We tried to do that, we wanted to deliver that stuff. The fall from the tower, the lunar-rover sequence, the [mayday] thing, the underground lake, certainly, he climbs up a rocket, he has a zero G fight, he flies through the rings of a planet. I mean, we wanted to deliver some red meat. We absolutely did. By the way, there is no shame in that. Shakespeare was broad and subtle, that's good stuff. So, we tried, and we tried to do it in our own way, of course. Make it weird, unique, strange, lunar-rover you can only hear what's inside his helmet — it's very weird.
Fandango: Yeah, you have meat and potatoes, but you also have some asparagus.
Gray: That's what we're trying to do.
Fandango: Four-course meal. So, I know that visual effects added a lot of time to finish the film, but there has to be something that's very exciting about the fact that you're working with your original script. You're not tied into a must-have release date, like if you're doing a Superman movie or something—
Gray: Oh, that's true. That's true.
Fandango: So you’re afforded all this time to get it right, and I think you actually see the results of that, because a lot of these giant movies, they look very fake, and yours does not.
Gray: I see four shots in the film that I wish we could have gotten a little better, just four. But that's a pretty low number. We were at around 300, maybe four months ago. Two months ago we were at 195. Then when I got for four shots I didn't like, they said, "We're done, got to go to Venice." If it were up to me I would've worked on maybe four more shots and some, but you're right the release date was originally supposed to be May, but then the studio (Fox) got bought (by Disney) and I had all this time. I mean, that really was kind of crazy. They couldn't have it come out the same day that Aladdin came out. Then they pushed it forward, which I was thrilled about because it's more of a fall movie, it's not a summer movie, it's a fall movie, and it also gave me more time to work on visual effects, which was fantastic. If we were doing May, it would have been 190 shots that would make me squirm, as opposed to four.
Fandango: I mean, it looks seamless. So, we're getting in the thrilling, expansive talk now. That's great, but there is also a little bit of humor, particularly on Mars.
Gray: I'm so happy you said that, because I've had some people say, "No jokes." I said, "No, what are you talking about? There are a few jokes?"
Fandango: Oh. Everyone laughed at the ride to the moon, the absurd price of purchasing the blanket.
Gray: It’s absurd. Yeah. The pillow and blanket pack. By the way, it's a cheat, you don't really need a pillow in space, but it's okay.
I would love to do a comedy, but I don't have a story idea yet, for one. If I did, I would do it in a second. And I'm also concerned, to be honest with you, because when I make films I think there are a huge number of things that I think are hilarious that nobody thinks are funny at all.
I made a film called Two Lovers, that Joaquin Phoenix and I were laughing and laughing and laughing throughout filming. We kind of felt we were making a comedy. When we screened the film the first time, I'll never forget this: 25 people, the film ended and this young woman came to me and she said, "That's one of the saddest movies I've ever seen in my life." "What? I thought it was hilarious... He's acting like a fool every time he’s around Gwyneth (Paltrow)." I don't know, it just seemed absurd to me, you know? Anyway, nobody laughed, so I realize I'm not funny but people do react to the tragic in a very positive way.
Fandango: There were a few chuckles.
Gray: Oh, there was? Oh, okay. Good, good.
Fandango: What was your process of working with NASA on this?
Gray: Yeah. They were very good, they were great about that. I mean, I took liberties anyway, with the science, because you have to — it's a movie. So you have to do what's plausible, not what's realistic, really. I just felt that the most plausible I could make it the better off I would be. There's always going to be someone who says, "That's not possible if this happened, and that happened." True, but what are you going to do? It's a movie.
So I just did the very best I could, consulting with NASA, consulting with JPL, to get the science to where it at least made some shred of sense. Can we get to Neptune in 79 days? It's 2.7 billion miles, of course we can't. Are there forms of propulsion that are in the works that may be able to get us there in 150 days? Yeah. Nuclear fusion, for example. So you kind of just stick to the realm of the plausible.
Fandango: Well, in that way, since that's just overhead from the system saying the journey time, why did you need to make it 79 instead of 150, story-wise?
Gray: Oh, that's a wonderful question, actually. Well, we just felt that 150 was too long, given the threat back on Earth, and anything shorter than 79 didn't seem realistic. It was the magic number to not make scientists roll their eyes but also sell the urgency of the situation and not make the audience think Earth is completely doomed. Also, what damage it would do to his body if he were there for more than 80 days — what damage it would do to his mind? Solitary confinement. They say, after one month they say you have serious psychological difficulties. Imagine three months, four months in space.
Fandango: Your career has had a lot of great films, but a lot of behind-the-scene things have made it not as easy for people to see in theaters.
Gray: You're talking about distribution problems.
Fandango: Yes. Distribution problems. Talent availability problems.
Gray: Yeah, that's true.
Fandango: So, when Fox was getting bought, I was like, "Ugh. It happened to him again and on his biggest film," but there’s billboards everywhere, ads on every movie site, Pitt magazine covers. It’s getting a big push!
Gray: They've been great. Disney's been great. I just hope people show up because Disney's been great. They've been great. They've said such nice things, like, "You know we would never make this, but that's why we want it. We bought Fox because there's stuff we wouldn't do, and we can't do." They say they love the movie and they've shown it expansively and I hope their faith is rewarded.
You just don't know, though. The movie opens against Rambo and Downton Abbey, which are properties everybody knows already. So, here you are trying to have your voice be heard when there are already known entities. Will people say, "This seems interesting." Or will they say, "Don't know what that is, Rambo's cool."
Fandango: Which is so strange for this film, because for all of Hollywood’s history, just saying, you’ve got one of the biggest movie stars in the world in Brad Pitt and he’s in space and that would have put butts in seats for decades, but now people are like, "Tell me more." Which is so bizarre to me.
Gray: I know. I agree with you. I get asked, "What's the story actually?" Brad Pitt looks for his dad in space. "Yeah, but what is it really about?" The world might end, Brad Pitt looks for his dad in space. "Yeah, but what else?"
Fandango: Whereas Rambo, it's just like, "Rambo fights back." No-one's like, "fights who?"
Gray: It's so weird. It's because we've been trained to want the IP, as they call it. It's interesting, there are some beautiful films made within that structure. I'm going to probably invite terrible mockery here with your readers, but I watched the first two Captain America movies with my kids, and I think they're terrific. They're really entertaining movies.
So, my beef is not, for example, with that kind of movie. My beef is that's the only kind of movie that they're now making. Those movies can be beautiful. I think what Chris Nolan did with the Joker and Heath Ledger was great. I haven't seen the new Joker with Joaquin yet, but there’s something about Chris Nolan as a filmmaker, I think he's fantastic at identifying a personal angle... The Dark Knight has this current in it which feels personal to Chris, which is pretty cool, actually. I have to give him massive props for that.
I like a number of this films because you can stay within what is mythic. But like I said, if you're only speaking with one language, that’s where I take issue. In other words, you'll go to the museum and--choose any artist you love, now you only see only that when you go to the museum. In every museum you would be like, "Is somebody doing something else, in some other style?" I mentioned Hokusai, who's a great artist, of course. But if I see Hokusai in every museum, I'd be like, "Can I get some Velascos there? Can I get some Picasso?" That's the issue we face as moviegoers, and we either embrace what is new and interesting, or we don't. If we don't, we get more of the same. It's pretty simple, really.
Fandango: Now that you’ve made your first big studio film with a sizeable budget, would like to stay there for your next film, or do you want to go smaller?
Gray: No, I would go more personal. I would go more character-oriented. Even if it is a studio film, or in that kind of context, even to work on something which has tangible sets that you can work on. You don't have to hang your actor from wires 30 feet up. I mean, he was a real trooper about it, Pitt, he was. Physically, this was very difficult for him. I mean, he never complained to me once. He would be hanging 30 feet up in the air with a harness, upside down, pretty unpleasant stuff. I would love to work with actors where they don't have to be under such duress. That's what I would like to do next.
Ad Astra is in theaters nationwide this Friday. Get tickets now!