Ad Astra – James Gray’s seventh feature film and first since 2016’s brilliant The Lost City of Z – feels like a culmination for the 50-year-old director. On paper, it looks like his most accessible film to the mainstream. It’s Brad Pitt in space! That’s not a terrible five-word synopsis to pique one’s interest. But there’s so, so much more going on here. With shades of 2001 and, let’s say, more direct rays from Apocalypse Now, Ad Astra is a haunting movie about loss, grief, duty, and finding the courage to let go. (Frankly, I saw an unfinished version of Ad Astra where the effects weren’t completed, and it still knocked me on my ass.)
Pitt plays Roy McBride, a stoic, clinical astronaut who is recruited to lead a top-secret mission in an effort to make contact with his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who not only poses a current threat to Earth, but who Roy assumed was long dead after a space mission gone wrong 30 years earlier. Roy then departs on a journey to find what may be left of a father, who very well may have gone mad. The cornerstone of Ad Astra is the relationship between fathers and sons. It’s a movie I haven’t stopped thinking about since I saw it.
But it’s also a movie plagued with rumors about its delays, which, as Gray explains, had nothing to do with the movie and were out of his control due to the acquisition of Fox by Disney. Gray’s quote, “My movie is a pimple on the ass of a $71 billion elephant deal,” is quite a description. Ahead, Gray takes us through, in detail, his inspirations for Ad Astra and why he’s trying to hone in on the most primal of universal emotions.
So I saw an unfinished version of this movie a little over a month ago…
I will say that if you saw it a month ago, then you saw it quite unfinished. I don’t know what you saw.
The effects weren’t done.
Oh my god. I can’t believe they showed the movie in that state.
Well, it didn’t matter because I can’t stop thinking about it.
Well, even so. Anyway, who cares? You saw it, you can’t stop thinking about it. That’s good.
It’s not like I was asking why Brad Pitt was wearing a harness.
Well, I mean, you joke about that – and basically you should be joking about it – but I’m going to tell you that, because it resists this kind of movie. There’s no way that does not take you out of a movie, because I would watch the visual effects come in and I would be like, “Oh, wait a minute. That’s what that is? That’s amazing.” And I’m the director! I’m the person that ordered it up! You must have looked at that movie and thought, “What the hell’s going on?”
Well, no, it didn’t take me out of it. I lost my dad to a heart attack not long ago, so this story of a father just disappearing one day and the themes of letting go hit me pretty hard.
I’m sorry about that.
So, effects not being done certainly did not take me out of this, because I was pretty emotional during this movie.
Oh, that’s good. That’s sort of the point of it, right? In a way you try to do these things to be, dare I use the dirty word, cathartic.
That’s an accurate word.
You want catharsis, you know? It’s about the most primal of our relationships: Father and son, mother and daughter, father and mother. I don’t want to use the word universal, but you want it to be able to communicate. The specifics of technology are, they’re self-limiting. In other words, you watch something, even if it’s 2001 – and that movie is the greatest thing ever – you watch it and you say, “That’s Facetime.” So, even 2001, which is obsessed with technology, really succeeds only when you see the Star Child and the man watching his own life cycle. That’s the thing that matters. The thing that dates most easily about 2001 is the Stargate stuff, which is, you know, out of some hippie light show. Which again is not to denigrate the movie. It’s just to say that the entire point of the escapade is never to adhere to just the superficial.
Right, but with 2001, the technology in the first act is pretty great. He even predicts televisions on the back of airplane seats. And you have a similar flight to the moon where it’s 200 dollars for a pillow, or something like that.
Yeah, the Pillow and blanket pack. The thing is, Kubrik was so great. There’s something totally hilarious in that movie, at least for me, something that literally breaks me into hysterics. Which is when they find the Monolith on the moon. And all the astronauts decide, let’s take a picture! And the guy starts corralling them together so that they all can get in the picture. It’s such the thing that lasts in that movie, the astonishing degree to which he understood human behavior. And that was an unchanging thing through time. Our movie is about evolution. I can’t believe we’re talking about 2001, but it’s about a very different thing. The thing is you steal from 2001, but you steal that attention to human behavior. The rest of the movie I don’t picture as having any real similarities plot-wise to 2001.
I agree. And I think there will be a lot of 2001 comparisons, but your film reminded me more of Apocalypse Now. And then after I saw it I read that you said it was influenced by Heart of Darkness.
Yeah, there were a bunch of influences. I was very also obsessed with literary ideas about people with, what you might call, schizoid personality, which is being severely uncomfortable with emotion and displays of emotion. And the uncomfortable feeling of when the person is touched, the person has to resist. I had read about the Martian trip, which I guess they’re now aiming for 2033. They’re going to have to try to find people who are extremely emotionally repressed, who are fine with being on their own for extended periods of time, they don’t need anybody else. You look at Neil Armstrong, he was the perfect guy for the job, and yet, when you hear an interview with him, he’s not particularly effusive and he’s certainly not in touch with the metaphysical. The irony is you have the perfect person for the job, but he’s sitting there talking to you about thrust and the amount of O2, and this sort of thing. I thought that’s a great opportunity, a perfect vessel for which you can discuss a father-son relationship about schizoid personality tendencies. The Heart of Darkness thing was simply a guy going deeper and deeper into space to reconnect with a father figure.
Sure, but there are also a few side missions that get him distracted before he gets to his goal.
Yeah, there are. I was trying to do a kind of Campbellian – again pretentious! – a mythic hero where he has a series of trials. George Lucas was supposed to direct Apocalypse Now. Did you know that?
I did know that, yes.
I think those guys were all much aware of Joseph Campbell, of myth. Obviously, Coppola was and obviously George Lucas was. He talks about Campbell openly. If you watch Apocalypse Now or Star Wars through the Campbell filter, it becomes wonderfully obvious that that’s what they were trying to do. The hero was a thousand faces. The hero goes through a series of trials and finally reaches a position where he either has the opportunity or not to atone with the father figure. When you say hero today, usually people think you’re talking about a superhero. A superhero is quite different from a hero. The hero can be deeply flawed and very conflicted. Now, ultimately, succeeds at the task, but usually there is some kind of compromise, something that forms a troubled interior. The superhero succeeds at all odds because of powers well beyond man.
You mentioned earlier the primal relationship between fathers and sons. What’s your relationship with your father?
My own relationship with my father is okay. Every relationship like that is complex. I don’t care whether it’s Ward Cleaver. Everybody has a complicated, difficult, interesting, involved relationship with their parents. It’s almost necessary. I have three children of my own. You’re going to make mistakes as a parent. You just are. That’s not the point. The point is not to be the perfect parent — that does not exist, it never will exist. My father is an interesting guy. My father certainly has certain qualities that Brad and Tommy Lee have in the movie. I have a lot of qualities that Tommy Lee has. I have a lot of qualities that Brad has. Not autobiographical. There’s a difference between making a movie personal and making it autobiographical. You involve yourself in an issue that seems personal to you, that you can connect with, but it’s not my story. My father didn’t go off to space when I was 16 and abandoned me like that. What you’re doing, it’s all a form of metaphor. Do you know what I’m saying?
I do. I got a phone call out of the blue one morning that my father was gone, there wouldn’t be a funeral, and he was being cremated. So I have no visual proof this ever happened. So, the idea of someone coming to me down the line going, “You know what, he’s in space,” actually makes more sense than you might realize.
What an awful, awful, awful thing. No, I understand. It’s like he disappeared or something.
Which is why the themes of this movie and finding a way to let go hit me so hard. And this movie helps, if that make sense.
Oh, sure it does. Look, I don’t think you’re the only one. I mean, how could you be? This is a very primal, basic core relationship that we have in our lives to our fathers. It’s why Joseph Campbell wrote about it. It’s why The Godfather has such power. The reaction when my child saw The Empire Strikes Back, my son, when Vader says, “No, I am your father.” It was like my son’s world was rocked. There’s something very direct about that relationship that’s very mythic. It was why we certainly pursued it.
This movie also has moon pirates, which is pretty great. As the moon becomes more and more colonized, there are unincorporated areas filled with scavengers. That probably would happen.
I mean that’s common sense, isn’t it? The moon has an enormous amount of natural resources. If the moon is colonized in the future, there will be treaties, but they will be violated all the time. Then what does that mean? That means you’re going to have these lunar bases. You’re going to have nation-states, which are going to give safe harbor. I just thought shopping malls and piracy are the two givens of what’s going to be there. So, we thought why not put a lunar rover sequence like this on the moon because that’s kind of what we’re facing. I don’t want to bore you with the science…
You cannot bore me with science.
The Moon has one-sixth the gravity that Earth does, so the thrust that’s necessary to go to Mars is one-sixth. It’s much easier to leave the lunar gravitational pull than the Earth’s. Of course, they’ll take off from the far side, especially classified missions, because they’re out of the reach of Earth. You would have to go to the far side, which means you would have to traverse all this land. Certain patches would be unclaimed, or at least in question. That’s what we thought was almost common sense, that that’s what we would be facing as a civilization.
This movie got delayed a few times, then there were rumors about why. So what happened?
There’s a very simple answer to that. The technology involved in making a film like this is very complicated. The amount of work that goes into that is nuts. Also, you can’t forget the fact that this movie was made by a company called New Regency for release by 20th Century Fox, which really is no longer. My movie is a pimple on the ass of a $71 billion elephant deal. A lot of other movies were subjected to this craziness. It’s had nothing to do with this movie. It’s not connected to my film, that’s connected to the absolute madness of the business deal that is way beyond my pay grade.
I’ll give you an example: The original date we didn’t make because of the effects work. Then, the Fox date was supposed to be Memorial Day, I believe. Then, when Disney bought Fox, it was all of a sudden then coming out the same day as Aladdin, which is a Disney movie. Then, Disney said, “Well, we can’t cannibalize our own movie, so we then need to reschedule Ad Astra because obviously it can’t conflict with our own movie.” We had no problems. That was actually the thing that bummed me out most, was that people thought, “Oh, what’s wrong with the movie?” Nothing’s wrong with the movie.
I’ve seen it. So I know that.
We don’t have problems with the movie. It was a technical issue combined with the studio being bought. I don’t think people really understand the implications of that. You’re talking about, now, one company that nearly owns 40 percent of all the films that are released. They monopolized that. That’s fine. Disney’s been great to me. They really love the movie and they’ve been really supportive so far. For a moment, it definitely threw things into, “Wait, what are we doing?” That’s the whole story. It’s not more dramatic than that.
Actually, that’s pretty dramatic.
It’s not about my movie, really. It’s about a shifting business that I don’t know what it means for us. I really don’t. In some ways it’s quite scary because there are fewer studios, but who knows.
‘Ad Astra’ opens in theaters on September 20th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.