What the Hell Is Going on in Ad Astra? James Gray Explains Himself

“I can cite exactly what mistakes I’ve made,” says Ad Astra director James Gray. “I’ll give you an example.” Photo: Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

James Gray has been trying to get Ad Astra made for nearly a decade. He first wrote it back in 2011, as a break from attempts to get financing for The Lost City of Z, his period epic about exploring the Amazon. At the time, he was jonesing to make a new movie — he had released the crime epic We Own the Night in 2007 and the romantic drama Two Lovers in 2008, both starring Joaquin Phoenix. “I tried to write an exploration movie in space, just trying to do something personal,” Gray recalls. That “something personal” eventually wound up becoming the most ambitious and difficult film of the director’s career: a space epic starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut sent to Neptune to find his long-lost father, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

After premiering in Venice last month and coming out in theaters this past weekend, the movie has become the topic of raging debates among moviegoers, many of whom argue both about What It All Means, and whether it’s any good. (Our David Edelstein called it “eerily, transfixingly beautiful.” I would agree.) Throughout the film, Gray contrasts his protagonist’s subdued, emotionally constipated behavior with a voiceover that speaks to his regrets and resentments. Sometimes subtle and sometimes painfully earnest, the movie is a portrait of a deeply conflicted man — that’s perhaps not always satisfying in conventionally dramatic ways.

Gray himself is among the sincerest of interview subjects, a man who will openly discuss what he was trying to accomplish with certain scenes in his pictures, as well as whether he thinks he achieved it or not. He’s also kind of like the world’s most entertaining film professor, a constant fount of movie references who will happily break down some of the classics to explain how they work. Over the course of our conversation, he did both, opening up about his career, his mistakes, his favorite movies, and the challenges of making Ad Astra.

With space movies these days, we hear a lot about all the scientific research that goes into them. Was that the case for you?
Oh, yes, a huge amount. I had dinners with astronauts at my house. I’m really in awe of those people. They have incredible bravery. I met a woman who hopefully is going to be one of the first female astronauts to walk on the moon in 2024, which is when we’re going back. I was talking to her and she said, “Well, I flew on the shuttle a couple of times, and I was on ISS for like 179 days.” I’m like, “What? If I don’t have access to my type of dry pasta for, like, a week, I get rabies.”

I really enjoyed the research. When we shot the Rover sequence on the moon and also the Rover on Mars, we shot them in the desert, but when I saw the footage, I had a heart attack, because the desert has a lot more vegetation and life than you realize. It doesn’t look like the moon, or Mars. So I said, “Well what do we do?” JPL [the Jet Propulsion Lab] gave us their high-res images of the moon and of Mars. So in the movie, the surfaces of the ground are moon and Mars. So you’re basically watching the first movie shot “on location” on Mars!

But I did get things wrong, usually because the science got updated. For example, the idea is correct that you have to stop on the moon to go to Mars. Why? Because the gravitational pull of the moon is one-sixth of Earth. In order to leave orbit on the moon, you need much less thrust. Your rocket doesn’t have to be as big. You don’t need as much fuel. So when they go to Mars, they’re going to use something called the Gateway that’s in loose orbit on the moon. I got that right. What I didn’t get right was that they’re going to launch it from the orbit of the moon as opposed to the surface of the moon, which is what they thought they were going to do in 2017.

This film took a long time to finally come to theaters. Why was that?
A couple of things. One, the picture edit itself was difficult. I was asked yesterday, how different is my first cut from this? Not very. The structure is pretty straightforward. The thing that was difficult is a lot of the world creation with visual effects. You’re having to create a lot of those shots from scratch. You’re having to sign off on animation, which then gets rendered, and then you have to cut it into the stuff you’ve already shot. And if it doesn’t fit, you have to redo it. It is endless.

But also, let’s be honest, the studio got purchased by another studio. Disney bought the studio, and they they couldn’t release two movies of their own on the same day. By the way, I was thrilled, because I thought the film was much more of a fall movie, and I got more time to work on the effects … But it is also true that you now have one studio controlling 40 percent of the marketplace, and I don’t know what that means. So when people say, “Where’s your movie?” I’m like, “Have you read the newspaper?”

This is your first film with a lot of effects. Did that change your working methods?
In order to trick the eye — for zero-gravity scenes and things like that — just the amount of effects work, and how you have to shoot the scenes, is very irritating. You can’t create a continuity if you have to shoot the close-ups and then two weeks later you go into the vertical set and you shoot the wide shots. You have Brad by himself up on wires, 40 feet up. I do think the film has consistency, because, of all the things I might’ve screwed up, I was able to keep my eye on the ball of what the film was going to be. But it turned out to be much more arduous.

Sometimes, it seems that the stuff you worry about a lot in advance turns out to be the stuff that’s actually okay. And then the stuff that you don’t worry about — that’s what actually gets you.
I wish that were true in my case, because then the whole movie would be okay. I’m just constantly worried about everything! But it is true in some sense. This is one of the brutalities of context: You’ll be making a film and you’ll shoot a scene and think, “This is going to be a throwaway scene.” Obviously, you always try to do your best, but you think it’s not an important scene. And, then, there are other days you go, “Geez, the scene is so critical.” And then you get into the editing room and you find that the scene which didn’t really mean very much is of paramount importance in the film, and the one that seemed critical — cutting-room floor. You have 10,000 decisions to make, basically. And you can make 9,998 correct. But if you make two wrong decisions on two scenes you really need, the film could be destroyed.

Can you think of times when that’s happened to you?
I can cite exactly what mistakes I’ve made. I’ll give you an example, and it’s in the film that’s my favorite (I say “my favorite” not because I think it’s the best, but because of the experience I had, and the actors I loved, and where I was shooting it): I made a big mistake on The Immigrant, dramatically, which I think we kind of fixed, but we had to do it with sound, with looping and cutting around it. Jeremy Renner gets killed and [Marion Cotillard’s character] doesn’t immediately go to him. If you watch the film, she goes like this [lurches forward]. So we were able to cut it in a way that sort of implies that she does go to him. But that was a big dramatic mistake I made for her character, and I had to fix it in the editing room. You really want to go through with this?

I love this. Filmmakers always see the mistakes, it seems.
Okay. Huge dramatic mistake in Two Lovers: Joaquin is with Vinessa Shaw’s character at her brother’s bar mitzvah, and he gets a phone call from Gwyneth, which in the movie, he doesn’t take. And then later, he calls her up to find out she’s in trouble. But the way I shot it, he left the bar mitzvah right then and there, which made him into a creep. That almost wrecked the film. Once I saw the film cut together, I knew I had to fix that.

But no movie is flawless. What you hope is that the force of the film, the through line, is strong enough that you can accept the inevitable flaws. So for example … [Federico Fellini’s] La Strada is one of my favorite movies ever, and weirdly, [Giulietta Masina’s character] dies off screen, and there’s this awkward thing where Anthony Quinn just happens to hear the news in some random place, where a woman knows that Giulietta Masina has died. It’s narratively awkward, but you don’t care.

It’s a really powerful moment!
It’s incredible. We’re not talking about real flaws, we’re saying “flaws.” [Laughs] Here’s something that’s a flaw that works brilliantly for one of my favorite movies of all time: If you look at Raging Bull, it’s very elliptical in how it plays. And his first wife … ding … out of the movie! Right? And that’s never resolved. Now, that’s a “flaw.” But it’s not. The movie succeeds because of the power of the idea, and De Niro’s performance, and the personal commitment that Scorsese had. But also because the film feels like episodes out of Jake LaMotta’s life. And those ellipses are bold and brilliant.

I have no idea if this is at all intentional, but I noticed that Ad Astra opens with almost a reversal of the ending of 2001. First image, you have Brad Pitt’s face, in a helmet, almost in the same configuration as the Star Child in the final shot in 2001. And then you pan to Earth, which is the opposite of what Kubrick does. It made me think, “Am I watching the promise of the Star Child transformed into the figure of a sad, middle-aged man?”
That is totally unintended! I never thought about that. Wow, that’s so weird. No, Brad’s image is in that opening shot because I wanted to imply that it was almost like a dream that he was having. And also to allow the audience to understand that it was a myth of man, not a myth of the gods.

So in that sense, it actually does kind of work as a reverse of 2001, no?
I’ve been asked about 2001 a lot over the last six weeks. It’s one of the top five movies of my life, and I always was intrigued by how it operated because it was called “A Space Odyssey.” I’ve spoken to this before, but it doesn’t play as a myth of man, because you don’t know Keir Dullea really at all. You have an affinity for Hal [the computer], actually, much as you kind of feel bad for the Cyclops in The Odyssey. Even though you could tell Kubrick was trying to adhere to the idea of myth — as many filmmakers were in the ’60s, sort of discovering Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces — one gets the sense that he wasn’t totally successful in that realm, and then decided to push the film into a more abstract myth of the gods. It works genius in that way; again, a flaw becomes a strength. Consciously, we were trying to make the opposite — to make The Odyssey, but from Telemachus’s point of view; Odysseus goes off for 20 years, and the son is left to wonder. I mean, it ends differently. But that was the impetus of the idea.

It’s also kind of the opposite of The Lost City of Z, which ends with a son going off with his father in search of the lost city, and they vanish. 
You kind of make the same movie over and over again, but in a different guise, because you change. I’m a different person than I was when I made my first film. And so that takes care of the films feeling different. You just try to focus on what it is you care about. I was very interested in fathers and sons. I’m not estranged from my father, thank heavens. But all relationships between father and son are very complicated relationships. Of course, with mother and son, and mother and daughter, and father and daughter … it’s all fraught, no matter how good we think it is. That makes drama. And it’s a shorthand. If I say to you, “Tommy and his friend, Bob …,” well, I have to go through hoops to explain to you that relationship. Why are they friends? When did they meet? What’s the nature? Does one look up to the other? But in a movie, if I say “fathers and sons,” you know exactly what I’m saying. There is a baggage.

I’ll give you an example. In The Godfather, you have no scene between Brando and Pacino until the end. There’s a moment where he says, “I’m with you, Pop” in the hospital, but Brando doesn’t talk back to him, right? He barely sees him at the wedding, and then at the end, in the garden. But you don’t need more. Why? Because we make a basic series of culturally coded assumptions about what it means to be a father and what it means to be a son.

Maybe that’s also why, when De Niro and Pacino — who played father and son in The Godfather Part II in separate timelines, so they didn’t actually share any screen time together — finally were onscreen together in Heat, they already had so much baggage?
Oh, I never thought about that. That gives it a weird kind of unity, doesn’t it? Because Heat in some ways owes a great deal in structure to The French Connection. But The French Connection gets dramatic unity because it becomes about class: Gene Hackman in this porkpie hat, eating the pizza outside, while Charnier (Fernando Rey), with his beard, is elegantly eating in this fabulous French restaurant. Heat doesn’t have that. But it still does have some kind of unity, and maybe it’s the myth. Maybe it’s the iconography of those two actors.

Watching Ad Astra, I’m also reminded of the car chase from We Own the Night, where Joaquin Phoenix has to watch from one car as his father is killed in the other. The idea of watching your all-powerful father become helpless and small in your eyes.
I hadn’t thought of We Own the Night very much, but it makes perfect sense. I mean, in some ways, Ad Astra is also the opposite of that movie, because I always felt that We Own the Night was way more tragic than people perceived. It wasn’t about Joaquin Phoenix becoming a cop and how terrific that was. It was about how he could not step out from under the shadow of his father and brother, and how he wound up becoming the same thing that they were. Ad Astra I think is much more optimistic, in a sense, because Brad is able to cut the umbilical, and transcend.

But there’s that little moment near the end of Ad Astra where we see things from the father’s point of view — after we’ve spent the entire movie inside the son’s perspective. The father is the one who tells him to cut the cord. He’s the one who’s like, “Let me go.” 
Because the whole movie is so Brad’s point of view, we thought for that one moment, he becomes a child again. It’s why I staged it where he’s looking up. He has to look up to the father, in both literal and figurative terms. And then you’re quite right, out in space, there’s a strange power dynamic that happens there. But that was also very mythic, the atonement with the father. That the father wasn’t just the ogre — that there was also something beautiful about his dream, as insane as it is. And how lost he was. If you’ve ever had to deal with a parent who is addled in some way, with Alzheimer’s or some illness like that, it’s so heartbreaking because there’s a dance you have to do where you are the child, and then you are the parent to the child, and it’s very painful. I was hoping that it would come out in Brad’s performance.

His performance, which is excellent, seems like it was quite a challenge. The character is so closed off. Outwardly, he’s so professional, calm. But you have to get across that he has this pent-up rage, and this weird contempt for the people around him. All the while he maintains the veneer of this classic, soft-spoken, professional astronaut played by Brad Pitt. 
You do have moments where you get signs that he’s fucked up. When they tell him his father may be out there, there’s a look of serious panic on his face. Kind of like, “What the hell?” And from that moment on, we wanted to have this debate where he would be in denial, “That’s not my father. He’s not alive.” And internally, “Is he alive?” Externally, “I have a mission.”

Now, is it enough? It is for me. It is for Brad. It is for people who connect with the film. It isn’t for people who don’t. You always take some measure of risk. With enough context, you can get away with — not underplaying, but playing it softly, if that makes sense.

Is that where the art lies? In giving us just enough, but not so much that we feel like we’re just being lectured to?
That’s the challenge, because sometimes you are lectured to and people like it, and sometimes you aren’t and people like it. There’s no right way to approach it. It’s funny, my wife had bought, before I even knew her, Pauline Kael’s book, For Keeps, which is a collection of her reviews. I picked it up at random … I was reading her review of Raging Bull, which is very negative. For her, the clearly overt characterization, his whole kind of persona, was too much. I don’t agree, obviously. I think it’s brilliant. But for her, it was too much. So it’s such a taste issue. And I’m sure there’ll be some people who see Ad Astra and say, “Where’s the acting?” I just felt it was honest, and we gave enough moments where you see the other side of that. When he gives the message to his dad, on Mars, he’s clearly troubled by it and punching a wall.

How do you work with an actor to get vulnerable moments like that? 
You try to create the space where the actor feels free, and is okay with being vulnerable. And then you do a bunch of takes and you see where it lies and you try to push him or her. You try to use triggers.

What kind of triggers?
Well, I’m not really comfortable talking about the triggers I used with Brad. That’s personal. But it depends on how the actor works. It’s a good question. Some actors work in a very [Lee] Strasberg sort of way, which is substitution. In other words, “I’m playing Joan of Arc, I’ve never actually burned to death, but if I put my hand on the candle and I feel what that feels like for 30 seconds, and how painful that is, I can use that.” So some actors work that way. Other actors use total make-believe. Other actors work from the outside in; the costume becomes the person. So it’s incumbent on you to recognize what kind of actor you’re working with, what their strategy is, and then to help them. It’s why the first week of shooting is so hard, because you’re just sussing out how the actor works. How do you trigger a performance? That’s also why — I’m about to say something controversial, maybe you should stop me.

No, no. Go for it.
It’s why good work sometimes is ugly. Francis Coppola is giving Martin Sheen triggers [in Apocalypse Now], and some people would say he’s torturing him, goading him, so when he punches that mirror, his actual blood, his real blood, is all over his fist and face. Social media would have torn Francis apart now. But to do good work, sometimes that’s demanded. Or what [John] Cassavetes did to Lynn Carlin on Faces and Gena Rowlands. I don’t know if that would survive today. I’m not arguing that we should all beat each other up and torture each other and punch mirrors and all that. The set is a sacred place, because you are going to confront some demons. You’re going to have to reveal the private moment, the most vulnerable moment, and in order to trigger the performance you want, you have to take those kinds of risks. I don’t know if that’ll survive the social media explosion.

Well, who knows if the social media explosion itself will survive?
Who knows if the human race will survive?

Speaking of which, I like the little hints you give about the dystopian world in Ad Astra. Like the fact that Brad Pitt is a veteran of the War in the Arctic Circle. 
The whole moon sequence was meant to be about that. And the baboon, too. There are a few essential truths, it seems, about human nature. I’m a believer in progress, but if you had to chart it, it would sort of go like this [makes an up-and-down zigzagging motion with his hand]. It’s not a steady line upwards. It’s like … the telephone! And then … Hitler! The problem is that we do live better than we did in 1300, when you worried about Black Plague and the average person lived until he or she was like probably what, 28 years old? So, life is better. But there is at any given time over a hundred wars in the world still. What does that tell you? There are core aspects to our nature which are not ideal. And we carry that with us.

So we colonize the moon and, sure enough, there are now moon pirates?
If you think about the logic of that: You’re going to need to eat when you get up there, right? You can’t have grass-fed beef, there’s no grazing. Can you grow vegetables and fruits in one-sixth gravity? So then ask yourself, what would be on the moon? It would probably be processed food, artificial meat. It would be fast food, because they’re the pros of processed food and artificial meats. That’s why Subway is there. And then huge parts of the moon might be very rich in natural resources, but what country, what nation-state, gets what region? And then, what do you do when you find huge natural resources in one region that you didn’t in another on the moon? You may have international treaties, but how do you enforce them? So there are basic core truths to the moon’s situation and core truths to who we are. How do you bridge that gap? I don’t think we do. We tried to communicate that inevitability.

This is also communicated in Roy’s journey, right? There’s a body count wherever he goes.
He’s an angel of death! The whole crew dies under his watch.

But all throughout, everybody tells him, “You’re Clifford McBride’s son? It’s an honor to meet you.” And finally we get to Ruth Negga, on Mars, who’s like, “You’re Clifford McBride’s son? That fucking guy killed my parents.” It’s like all that propriety has finally been stripped away. Here’s this person who’s lived her whole life on Mars, and has only seen Earth once in her life, and she does not have time for any of these niceties.
She bestows upon him a kind of wisdom and clarity, and the myth of the benevolent father is stripped away for good, and the ogre father takes its place. She’s a very wonderful actress, Ruth Negga. She was always saying to me, “Darling, tell me what it is, why I’m telling him this bad news?” And I said, “You are the oracle. You are the person of wisdom talking to this man-child, educating him.” If I may be pretentious, yet again, that was our attempt to do a Campbellian thing. In his book he has a chapter on meeting with the goddess. But we also wanted to give her her own humanity. Because this is a very tragic element of her life: She’s born in that place where you have to live underground, which is awful. She has this terribly unresolved thing herself.

But if Tommy Lee Jones had discovered alien life, it would all seem justified. We’d think, He did what he had to do to get to this moment. 
Well, let me ask you a question. If you were searching for something your whole life and you finally found it, what does that mean? That’s its own trouble, isn’t it? It’s partly what I was trying to express with Lost City of Z as well, this idea that finding the city was not really what the movie was about at all. The movie is ultimately about the search, and how you dedicate your life to the idea of a goal. It’s the same way with filmmaking. You find pleasure in the doing.

One time, if I may drop his name, I had this fantastic conversation with Martin Scorsese, and he was talking about La Strada and he said, “I wish I could make a movie like that.” I’m like, “You’ve made incredible movies, maestro.” And he said, “I never made anything like that.” I think the tragedy of Tommy Lee’s character is that he never found a pleasure in the beauties that he discovered. He never found beauty in the idea that human beings are what matter. The idea of striving is what matters.

James Gray Walks Us Through His Ad Astra Mistakes