Director/Producer/Writer James Gray found his inspiration for Ad Astra when he was reading about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, known as the architect of the Nuclear Age, who believed there was a 90 percent chance that the southwestern part of the United States would be destroyed when they split the atom for the first time.
“They weren’t completely sure that the chain reaction wouldn’t keep continuing,” explains Gray. “I found that extremely alarming and I thought, how would that be if you had nothing to lose and you were in deep space? There’s no end to what experiments you might be willing to undergo or to perform.
“Then I started thinking about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the movie Apocalypse Now. The idea came from there. It was Heart of Darkness and an attempt to embrace the imagery and the mood of the Apollo and Mercury missions.
In the film, Brad Pitt plays an elite astronaut who travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.
Born in New York City, Gray grew up in Queens and attended the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. He made his directorial debut in 1994 at the age of 25 with Little Odessa, a widely acclaimed film which received the Critics Award at the Deauville Film Festival as well as the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. That same year, he received nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay. In 2000, Gray wrote and directed The Yards, followed by the crime drama We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), The Immigrant (2013), and The Lost City of Z (2016).
Per aspera ad astra: Latin for “Through hardship to the stars.”
Gray’s writing partner on Ad Astra was Ethan Gross, his fellow classmate at USC film school and a creative collaborator on many of his films.
In addition to writing Ad Astra with James Gray, Ethan Gross has written for the Fox TV science fiction show “Fringe” and has collaborated on screenplays for directors such as Guy Ritchie, Todd Field, and Bryan Singer. Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, he graduated from USC’s Cinema-TV program. Before becoming a screenwriter, he worked in development for Joel Silver, the Hughes Brothers, and other filmmakers.
“The idea was to have a character on a transformative journey. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey which has the Homeric Odyssey sort of imbued within it,” Says Gross. “And Apocalypse Now, which obviously adheres to Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, The Hero’s Journey.
Gray says, “There have been so many great films made in the science fiction genre, but how many of them are there that move you? I wanted to do something that was the opposite of most space travel movies that offer a somewhat positive view which results in meeting aliens, intelligent life that are benevolent or at least interesting enough to involve us. I tried to do the opposite of that and say, what if there’s nothing? What if there’s a kind of emptiness out there that we can’t even grapple with?
“I was anxious to explore the fact that as human beings, we’re not really meant to be in space. We’re not designed to be floating around 250 miles outside the atmosphere. We’re not built for that, and we’re never going to be built for that. And that is going to have a cost.”
Recalls Gray, “I’d read this quote of
Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote 2001),
“Either we’re not alone in the universe, or we are, and both are equally terrifying.” And I thought, well, I’ve never seen a movie about us being alone. So, I thought combining that with this person out there doing experiments, which are very hazardous and that’s sort of the way the story began to take shape, and who they would send to try and negotiate with that guy, maybe it’s a father/son story, that’s very mythic, and that’s kind of how it began to come together in my mind.”
Gray, who considers Ad Astra more science-future-fact says, “I thought that this idea of space travel is both beautiful and horrifying at the same time. I’m hugely in favor of space exploration and missions to Mars. But sometimes exploration is also a means of escape. I hope people understand that at some point it is incumbent on us to both cherish exploration and to cherish the Earth. The Earth and the human connection are worth preserving at all costs.”
Gross says, “This movie isn’t the future, it’s a future. This story is not necessarily the future we think is going to happen, it’s not a predictive movie. It’s just a film about what could happen if space exploration continued and we populated the Moon and Mars and beyond.
“This movie is almost an extension of the ‘60s and ‘70s space technology, as if it had progressed, jumped into the future without most of the things that I think most of today’s science fiction movies are made of.”
Gray allows that he tends to view progress in a mostly optimistic way and is resistant to making films that present a dystopian future in which everything is terrible. Neither does he want to make a movie that says in the future everything will be incredible and great.
“I actually think it will be more or less like we live now,” he says “but with a few more gadgets.
“We did a lot of research to make it as believable and scientifically accurate as possible. But we always let the story be the main impetus to drive the movie.”
They drew from their own experiences in creating their protagonist, Roy.
Says Gray, “I viewed Roy as an extension of practically everybody I know, including myself, who is headed somewhere, but not exactly sure where. Roy is thinking he knows what he wanted and even got a little of it, but there’s something seriously lacking. There’s a hole that needs to be filled inside and he can’t verbalize it yet.”
‘So, the whole point of the movie is, how to fill that hole. It’s really about his solitude, about how alone he is, about how he has all this information he can’t communicate to these other people, about how he doesn’t know them, and about how that’s how everybody wants it. The more connection there is, the more risk there is, the more risk to the mission, the more risk there is to him personally. And so, he meets these other people, but doesn’t care about their reality.”
Explains Gross, “Roy feels fully alive when he’s up on top of the Earth’s atmosphere, when he’s away, when he’s exploring. That’s when he feels alive. And he has a relationship with this woman, Eve, who cares about him and he seemed to care about her but he’s got something, a block in him, that makes him push her away.
“And it’s caused by his father–his father’s abandoning him years ago led to his inability to have intimacy in his life, just like his father.”
Gray says, “So he’s not just alone, but a loner. Someone who, in a way, prefers it. At least it in the first half of the movie, and has to deal with his own issues, and actually, if you can’t express things to people, if you have to keep things a secret, that’s a huge cause of anxiety, not being able to reveal yourself to anyone or anything.”
All through his assignment, Roy is monitored, and not only for his vitals.
Says Gray, “The idea was to chart his psychological state, and let’s be honest, in such a circumstance, there’s this potential catastrophe, there’s this struggle to get to know who your father was, and of course, all this is against the back drop of having to leave the Earth, having to leave terra firma. So, that’s a whole lot for a person to try to absorb, and I think he kind of breaks a little bit.
The risk to his psychological state was even greater than his physical state.”
Gross adds, “Along the way, Roy realizes that he’s sort of turning into his father, and he has to stop that. He doesn’t want to be his father– somebody that escapes his humanity. And he finally is determined to return to Earth and become a father and a caring, connected human being, a man who is not afraid of intimacy with other people.”
The inspiration for Clifford came from not only Conrad but Melville.
Gray says, “I’m a big fan of Moby Dick, and I always felt that McBride was sort of an Ahab figure. That he had become obsessed with his ‘white whale’ of trying to find all the cute little aliens that were going to bail us out and provide us with answers.”
Gross explains, “Roy’s father, Clifford, wanted to be the first person to discover meaningful life outside of our planet and years and years have gone by and most of the people in the Lima project had become disillusioned thinking that there’s no signs of life.
“But Clifford is a vain man, and he’s determined, he’s not going to give up. He’s going to stay there even after the last member of his team is dead and is going to keep looking for life outside of Earth.
“He clearly doesn’t care about anything on Earth. He doesn’t care about the lives of his own fellow scientists aboard the Lima project nor anything else.”
Roy’s meeting Helen Lantos, who’s spent her entire life on Mars in an underground dwelling, represents a turning point for him.
Gross explains, “She is sort of a flip side of him. She represents somebody who has also been orphaned by people on the Lima project. She was orphaned on Mars and left there at a young age when her parents enlisted to go on Clifford McBride’s expedition. And she had a lot of hurt and anger about that, but unlike Roy, she didn’t really bury it. She’s been dealing with it and living with it throughout every day of her life and Roy sees that in her.”
Gray says, “She’s concerned for the other people there. Nobody tells her anything. Roy is the only person that’s ever been honest with her. She, in turn, is actually honest with him. I mean, he doesn’t have many of those people in his life.
“But there is this bond between them, and although it’s not romantic, that’s what leads him to acts of desperation, and it’s what leads her to help him board The Cepheus to Neptune, even though it will undoubtedly cost her her job and perhaps worse.”
To provide insight and information to Roy about Clifford’s real nature and intentions, Gray and Gross created the character of Col. Pruitt, an old friend of Clifford’s who’s assigned to accompany him on his mission. Pruitt knows what has happened to Roy’s father and what SpaceCom really intends to do, and represents the kind of human connection Roy has learned to live without.
Says Gray about Pruitt, “He can’t go on the journey with Roy. You want him to go, you want him to be a kind of protector for Roy in some way, but he’s weak, he can’t do it. “
Ad Astra had a long gestation period, not unusual for a James Gray project. Sometime between the director’s productions Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2012), Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross began talking about writing a film set in outer space. They worked on the script off-an-on over the years, then Rodrigo Teixeira’s RT Features stepped into develop the script.
In 2016, once Brad Pitt agreed to both star and produce, things moved quickly. His production company Plan B’s deal with New Regency provided financing and distribution through Twentieth Century Fox, with Bona Film Group co-financing with distribution rights in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
Gray was “very pleasantly surprised” when Brad Pitt agreed to play Roy McBride.
Recalls Gray, “Several times over the years Brad Pitt and I had tried to work together on a film but between scheduling and timing, it never happened. I was absolutely thrilled when he was able to commit to this shooting schedule.
Pitt says, “I’ve always loved James’ filmmaking. It comes from a deep knowledge of the history of film. There’s always a classic element to his storytelling, very elegant, and really, really points towards the greats.
“Our first conversations were about what is connection, especially for a man. And what if we’re dealing with a human being where connecting with others is not necessarily in his skillset. He’s quite capable, you know, on a tower and in outer space when it gets dangerous. But when it becomes intimate, he’s challenged.”
Pitt continues, “We see Roy at this point in his life where this is no longer working for him, and he’s becoming aware of it. And that is set against finding out that his father may still be alive. And so for James and I, it was really a discussion of vulnerability. What is vulnerability? What is strength in a man? Where does strength really come from? And out conclusion, what we were striving for, is that our strength comes from actually being vulnerable.
“True confidence comes from we as individuals being able to acknowledge our foibles, our shortcomings, our insecurities, and instead of hiding or trying to cover that to actually be very open. And I’ve certainly found that in life that a great peace and I will say, strength, comes from that very thing, which is antithetical to certainly how my Dad would’ve grown up.
Of Ad Astra, Pitt says, “It’s a film I think that has its roots in ‘70’s films, as James’ vernacular seems to be born from. Meaning that it’s contemplative. It unfolds. And we have big moments of action and spectacle that on the big screen is pretty jaw-dropping.”