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At the Academy: AD ASTRA

“The further away he goes from Earth, it enables him to get into touch with what he should have been in touch with on the Earth. Only by leaving everything does he really see it for the first time.”

That’s the mission statement behind the science fiction film Ad Astra as explained by writer Ethan Gross during a September 22, 2019, appearance at the Academy that also included writer-director-producer James Gray, producer Jeremy Kleiner, editor John Axelrad and visual effects supervisor Allen Maris. Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut in the near future whose father (Tommy Lee Jones) disappeared during an expedition to Neptune in search of intelligent life; however, deadly pulses emanating from that planet send him on a voyage of discovery that turns out to be both internal and external.

The perils of outer space have been depicted vividly in films like First Man (2018), The Martian (2015), Interstellar (2014) and Gravity (2013), but this one takes a very different approach by focusing on the emotional and psychological cost of going into unexplored regions of our galaxy. Gray compared the experience of lengthy travel to Neptune as a kind of solitary confinement: “If you think about it, some guy or woman going to Neptune for that length of time, you’re ready for a mental breakdown. There’s no doubt about it. So, we were just trying to say, really, we’re not built to be there. It’s not hospitable, and the inevitable outcome is that kind of breakdown.”

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra (20th Century Fox)

Gray continued, “We have the ISS and we have the space shuttle missions. That’s about 200 miles up. In the ISS, your field of vision is still essentially mostly planet Earth. Huge difference, apparently, psychologically when you’re standing on the moon’s surface, and you see the Earth as a separate, fairly small blue dot. In fact, we made it a little larger than it should be in the movie when Donald Sutherland points it out because it was too small to make any impact.”

“What’s interesting is if you look at what happened to the 12 guys who walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong basically retreated to his farm in Lebanon, Ohio. You never heard from him again. Buzz Aldrin very publicly dealt with real problems of depression and substance abuse. Charlie Duke became a born-again Christian minister. Edgar Mitchell started talking about aliens and magic men who had fixed his pancreas. Something happened.”

As for Pitt’s character retracing his father’s steps, Gross explained, “He’d be alone a lot of the time, and we’ll have to check in with his feelings, and the only way we can really know it would be through the psychological evaluation. This was before we decided to do voiceover, obviously the technique for that… It’s almost like the converse of the profile of the astronaut who might’ve gone to space. He almost was broken already. So, the opposite thing happened to him. The same trait that makes somebody willing to leave Earth for years and years shows a great deal of courage, but it also might show a big flaw or a big pain that needs to be reconciled.”

Tommy Lee Jones in Ad Astra (20th Century Fox)

Science fiction seems to be a dramatic change for Gray after his more earthbound films like The Lost City of Z (2016) and The Immigrant (2013), but as Axelrad noted, “We often joked about this is Lost City of Z set in space, but James has mentioned that it’s such a wonderful opportunity to keep the same themes from film to film but have a different envelope in which they can be conveyed. Ethan was touching on some of those, but to me, I feel it’s very dreamlike, that we’re really diving into a subconscious mind, especially the further out we go.”

The ongoing partnership between Axelrad and Gray has also fine-tuned their creative communication. “I am so in tune with his themes,” Axelrad said, “and they’re just a pleasure to edit. James is one of those directors that really, really understands the editing process… Dialogue scenes, drama scenes are more challenging. I find action scenes to be fun. You know if it’s working or not working. Dialogue scenes have so much in nuance and subtext.”

Kleiner added about a pivotal early scene in which Pitt is briefed about his mission: “It’s a disaster movie situation, right? Someone’s threatening the world. Someone’s got to do something about it. It’s this guy, but it doesn’t present in that form. It presents in some other form. There are other things going on. I think that’s an example of the fine kind of alchemy that this film was able to achieve where it has scale, it has scope, but it doesn’t feel like it’s one of those. It feels like its own film. I think it was brilliantly handled by James and his team.”

Maris revealed that Gray originally intended to shoot the film in 16mm, but ultimately they decided 35mm would be the more rational option. “We always strive to shoot some sort of elements so that it’s not a full digital shot, and we try and reserve those for the ones we actually have to do. It always lends a sense of realism to the shots, and I think that the more you do it and the more elements you composite together, the better the final result will be.”

Maris also had some revelations about the film’s heart-stopping opening sequence with Pitt plummeting to Earth and nearly meeting his maker: “All the close-ups of Brad obviously are real shots. I shot him on stage, and then shot him in the parking lot when he’s hanging on the parachute. All the interim stuff, from the time he falls off the tower all the way till we’re into kind of lower atmosphere where we see the close-up with a guy tumbling out of control, all those shots before that were digital, so it’s full digital environment, a digi-double CG tower. Then we went out to San Luis Obispo, and we shot a real jumper, and we shot him tumbling through the sky.”

Ultimately, the grounded, “mundane” approach to the subject matter helped Gray realize his intentions for the film, as well as having a very enthusiastic leading man who also happened to be a producer on the film and took a very personal interest. “There is something about having Brad Pitt hang on wires 30 feet up in a vertical set where you got maybe five shots in a day, and he was a trooper. He never complained. It’s like, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘I’m ready, James. Let’s go.’ The stuntmen themselves are throwing up after a lot of twists and turns!”

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