How the stars aligned for 'Ad Astra' director James Gray

The director speaks to us about ending his long wait to work with his friend Brad Pitt, and his bleak predictions for the film industry

VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 29: Director: James Gray attends the "Ad Astra" photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on August 29, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
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James Gray is not a director known for big-scale spectacles. Since his 1994 debut Little Odessa, which won the American filmmaker the Silver Lion award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival that year, he has made intense human stories – crime films such as The Yards and We Own The Night, and romantic dramas such as Two Lovers and The Immigrant. But he has never tackled a visual effects-­heavy blockbuster. Until now, with the seventh film of his career, Ad Astra.

Gray says he thought the time was right to try his hand at a different kind of feature. "I'm 50 years old," he says, shrugging. "If I don't try it now, when will I try it? When I'm 73? This was the time."

His career journey arguably mirrors that of the film's leading character, astronaut Roy McBride, who similarly plunges into the unknown when he goes on a mission to Mars, seeking his pioneer father, long since thought dead and now possibly a danger to humanity.

In the beginning, Gray says he didn't believe Ad Astra would be a struggle to make. After all, his previous film, 2016's The Lost City of Z, which tells the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, took the filmmaker to the Amazon. By comparison, Ad Astra was to be shot on a sound stage, a controlled environment where the complex visual effects could be managed. Despite the help of renowned cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Gray says that "technically, it was unbelievably difficult".  

"I do not understand how people [such as Anthony and Joe Russo] do Avengers movies back-to-back," he says. "The level of commitment and technical difficulty is through the roof."

Fortunately, he had Brad Pitt by his side. Having been friends since 1995, Gray and Pitt had tried to work together previously, but with no luck. The actor almost took the lead in The Lost City of Z, which his company Plan B produced, but the role was eventually given to Charlie Hunnam. But when it came to Ad Astra, Pitt leapt at the chance to play McBride, a heroic astronaut who nevertheless exhibits psychological torment.

"It's a restrained performance. It's not showy," says Gray. "That's hard to do … it's hard to act with nobody, which is really what he's doing."

Hanging from wires in a studio while wearing a space suit is about as restrictive as it gets when it comes to delivering a performance. "He was nonetheless able to channel some beautiful things, some real vulnerability," says Gray.

This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Brad Pitt in a scene from "Ad Astra," in theaters on Sept. 20. (Francois Duhamel/20th Century Fox via AP)
Brad Pitt in a scene from 'Ad Astra'. AP

As a father, the director wanted to explore issues of modern masculinity. McBride's pulse never rises above 80 beats per minute, but is that a positive? "I see it with my sons … the social pressure that's on them, as young as they are, to be men, not to be open," says Gray. "But my daughter is encouraged to be openly emotional. I think this has devastating effects for the culture. I was trying to hit it head on."

Given the anti-heroic themes, Gray is all too aware of how difficult it was getting Ad Astra to the launch pad. "This movie is a real rarity. The studios do not make them."

He praises Pitt, who is also credited as a producer, along with businessman and film producer Arnon Milchan, whose company, New Regency, backed the film.

Ad Astra is an increasingly unusual project in Hollywood as it is not based on existing property, such as a comic book, movie or TV show. Gray says there has been a move towards major Hollywood films being based on something instantly recogniseable as releases have become bigger and the financial pressure that entails has grown.

“That put a premium on a kind of marketability for a concept and I don’t know how you reverse that. Maybe if the business gets smaller somehow.”

Ad Astra is predicted to make about $20 million (Dh73.5m) in the US this weekend when it opens – a solid if unspectacular debut. The film is also the first major release for 20th Century Fox since it was bought by the Walt Disney Company in March this year. Given Disney already owned Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, and knows a thing or two about selling recognisable intellectual property, Ad Astra does not seem like the sort of movie Disney would support.

Gray is gloomy about the future of cinema and equates it with the decline of opera in the early 20th century. "After the death of Puccini in 1925, opera became more and more concerned with fewer and fewer productions, greater cost, more spectacle," he says. "Within a 15-year period, the medium all but died. So does that mean that's what's going to happen with the cinema? It could well be."

It’s a bold, but worrying prediction.