'Ad Astra': Director James Gray Talks Space Movies, Doing Fellini For Trump & Much More [Interview]

This week, 20th Century Fox, and by extension, Disney, put up a significant gamble, especially one from this new Fox/Disney era, James Gray’s “Ad Astra.” Yes, “Ad Astra” a grand space movie in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick with one of the biggest stars on the planet, Brad Pitt, in the lead role. But as epic and interstellar the movie can be, it’s also, intimate, reflective, melancholy; a father’s and son art movie set in outer space, that also borrows much of its Joseph Campbell-ian structure from “Hearts Of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now.” And one that reportedly cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $80-$100 million.

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“Ad Astra” stars Brad Pitt as kind of superhuman, elite astronaut. He’s calm and cool under pressure—this is gross an understatement—which makes him the perfect subject to undergo impossible feats of peril, but it also makes him detached, distant, estranged from his wife and his humanity.

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The two aspects of his life, the practical and the emotional, are unexpectedly tethered together when Pitt’s space voyager is tasked to go on a secret mission to Neptune to discover the mystery of space flares that are threatening life on Earth. The catch, the mysterious danger appears to be connected to a space project led by his father that went missing and hasn’t been heard from in twenty years. But something, on the edge of our solar system, someone, might be behind responsible for it all.

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“Ad Astra” is thrilling and full of scale, but it also makes the audience contend with their place in the university, who we are and the notion that—no matter what’s really out there—we are all we have. I ran the first part of my lengthy interview with filmmaker James Gray—where we tackled subjects such as working with Brad Pitt, the emotional qualities of the movie, its aims and much more—here. The second half of this interview, is below.

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The timing. There’s a lot of space movies right now. Last year, we had “First Man,” which arguably tackles some of the ideas— American men, masculinity, the inability to connect emotional, nostalgia for American exceptionalism— this year, you have “Lucy In The Sky,” “Proxima,” and “Ad Astra.”
It worked out that way. I started writing the script in 2011, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it has to do with a tremendous sense of loss we have as a country and artists want to explore that loss. And I believe that when you look back on it now, the Apollo achievements are a high watermark or who we were. It doesn’t mean we can’t get there again, but we’re not there. I think there’s a degree of nostalgia, to be honest. I’m guilty of it too, and maybe there’s also that melancholy to last great achievement. Look at what we are now? There’s a collective sense of loss in this country.

I was doing this Q&A at a French cinematic and the guy who was moderating; he asked me right before we went on stage, “You’re American.” I said, “well, yes.” He looks at me and says, “you’ve lost something.”

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And this was a few years ago! Bush was in the White House, right before Obama, but it still applies. Isn’t that creepy? But you know what? He wasn’t wrong then, he’s not wrong now. At the same time, the world has gotten better. If you’re gay, if you’re black, if you’re a woman, the world is much better for you than it was in 1969 when we were trying to go to the moon. Even if we still have such a long way to go, and we’ve regressed, it’s .still better now than it was then. So, the world is better in many ways, but in other ways, that sense of aspiration, it’s gone. The idea of who we could be at our best, that’s changed.

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The heart rate thing—his pulse rarely ever raises above a certain threshold even under some enormous pressures and stresses—it’s one of those details I love because it instantly tells you everything you need to know about a character. So much with so little.
Well, the whole heart rate doesn’t go above 80— that was a Neil Armstrong thing. He was landing that practice lunar module, he crashed, and he ejected with 0.6 seconds left. Alan Bean, another one of the astronauts, came to see him 20 minutes afterward, and he was seated at his desk working as nothing had happened. They said, why did you eject so late??  He said, “I wanted them to get all the data they needed.”

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Perfect. That says so much.
We wanted to say that, in some sense, that’s the easy part for this person. The hard part is opening up emotionally. You hear it all the time. Every day people say, “oh, that person is a math genius.” OK, he’s brilliant, got it. Have you ever heard anyone described as an emotional genius? Not ever. One day, a future iteration of your smartphone will make math geniuses obsolete. Emotionally? It’ll never figure that out. So, what we’re trying to communicate with the film is that’s kind of underrated: what it means to be open and vulnerable, to listen and be listened, to interact with other human beings. That’s what’s rare, the rare achievement, not this other thing.

You were talking about fear and beauty, earlier.

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But also, inherent in beauty is the melancholy.

If you watch a Fred Astaire musical or Busby Berkeley musical, something— it’s the greatest thing ever, that’s better than anything we could do. Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing together— they’re beautiful, totally graceful, transcendent and even strange and irretrievably perfect. Footage or pictures from the Hubble telescope— they looked like paintings. They looked like Helen Frankenthaler watercolors. They’re incredible. And yet what the fuck is going on up there? I mean, we don’t know what makes 70% of the universe is. 70% of the universe is dark matter. You’d get the greatest mind from MIT or Harvard. What is dark matter exactly? They don’t know. What subject is someone considered an expert in and doesn’t know 70% about it? That’s scary, that’s terrifying.

Also scary? As much as we want to subvert what an audience might expect, “Rambo,” comes out on Friday against my movie and I bet you it’s going to be a really big hit. So who knows what people want or expect? Subversion can be a scary place to be.