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James Gray talks Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s face, and battling Harvey Weinstein

Having made the sci-fi odyssey everyone’s talking about, the director discusses the joy of human beings and losing Joaquin Phoenix

At the end of James Gray’s searing 2008 drama Two Lovers, Joaquin Phoenix trudges to the beach in a fit of despair. Fleeing from his family, Phoenix gazes up at the pitch-black sky and yearns to disappear. 11 years on, Gray has literalised that fantasy with Ad Astra, an expensive, expansive sci-fi odyssey that’s also an intimate tale about escaping Earth and everything on it. For some astronauts, the loneliness of outer space is the greatest perk of the job.

Set in 2033, Ad Astra revolves around the search for an astronaut who doesn’t want to be found. Decades earlier, the Lima Project was sent to Neptune to scout for intelligent life in the solar system. The spaceship went AWOL after 16 years and now its electrical surges are instigating explosions on Earth. Whoever’s still alive on the Lima Project needs to be told to stop. As it turns out, the person best positioned to pass on that message is Roy, a depressed space traveller played by Brad Pitt.

The reasoning behind Roy’s selection is twofold: he’s renowned for a pulse-rate that doesn’t exceed 80, and it’s his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who’s manning the Lima Project. In a futuristic spin on Apocalypse Now, Clifford executed his fellow passengers and has since been hiding like Colonel Kurtz in a spacesuit. So Roy, really, is traversing into an intergalactic heart of darkness to reckon with the father who abandoned him. If Roy can save his home planet in the process, well, that’s a bonus.

If Ad Astra does have a “the horror, the horror” moment, it’s the suggestion that mankind truly is alone in this universe. In Gray’s space opera, there are no extra-terrestrials, just humans reaching out to them, and it’s this realisation that tips Clifford over the edge. “It’s not scary to me,” Gray counters. “The famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke is: ‘Either we are alone in this universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.’ I guess people think it’s terrifying because there’s no little green men to bail us out of our problems, or for us to unify and battle against.

“But I think it’s great to have to rely on other human beings. I have an incredible wife and three beautiful children. That makes me connected to the world. That’s what gives me joy. What doesn’t give me joy is the idea of some fucking alien.”

“I have an incredible wife and three beautiful children. That makes me connected to the world. That’s what gives me joy. What doesn’t give me joy is the idea of some fucking alien” – James Gray

When I meet Gray in Soho Hotel, it’s a few days after Ad Astra’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Upbeat and loquacious, the American director has the demeanour of someone aware that his movie is a critical hit. A lot is resting on Ad Astra. It’s an intelligent, adult-oriented sci-fi movie, not based on any IP, with a budget of nearly $90 million. It was shot on 35mm and will play on IMAX screens. In an age where the dominance of superhero movies spells a disconcerting endgame for originality, Ad Astra is a film every cinemagoer should be hoping succeeds.

Gray made his name at the age of 25 with the 1994 crime saga Little Odessa. The father-son drama – set in New York, not Neptune – won the Silver Lion at Venice. His next four films – The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant – competed for the Palme d’Or and starred Phoenix. As Ad Astra was written in 2011, presumably Phoenix was intended for the role of Roy? “Joaquin had gotten into Paul Thomas Anderson’s orbit,” Gray laughs. “I always felt like Paul – of course, I mean this in a sporting way – took Joaquin. Which is OK. Paul’s great.”

After Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Twitter raved about Pitt taking his shirt off. In Ad Astra, Pitt’s face takes centre stage. There are supporting roles from Ruth Negga, Natasha Lyonne, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland. But Pitt is the focus of nearly every frame, and the weary wrinkles of his cheeks and forehead communicate years of anguish.

“Brad has an amazing face,” Gray notes. “But it’s not a face without history. He’s been through a lot. I’ll leave it to him to talk about that as much as he wants, or doesn’t want. But he wanted to be open and vulnerable. You see it on his face. All the money in the world can’t ensure you a magnetic and interesting person like that. Two or three people on Earth can do that.”

“Brad has an amazing face. But it’s not a face without history. He’s been through a lot” – James Gray

In a New York Times profile, Pitt, whose marriage to Angelina Jolie ended in 2016, alludes to “family stuff” that fuelled his depiction of Roy. “The close-up is the greatest weapon of cinema,” Gray continues. “The camera sees more than we see. You put a camera on an actor: if the actor isn’t thinking, you know it instantly. If the actor is thinking, you get great rewards. The theatre has no equivalent. The best seat in a theatre is 25ft away. It’s a wide-shot. But in the cinema, we get up really close. Our idea was to reveal the state of his soul.”

In the end credits, only one name is thanked: Tracy K. Smith. The author won the Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars, a collection of poems about grieving her father and gazing into the midnight sky. In “My God, It’s Full of Stars”, the wordsmith writes, “Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent / Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics / Of an outmoded design.”

“Tracy has an incredible turn of phrase,” says Gray, somewhat staggered that someone sat through ten minutes of credits. “We wanted her help with the language of the voiceover. I wanted a different voice than my own. At the beginning of Mean Streets, there’s this narration on black before you see Harvey Keitel get out of bed. It’s Scorsese’s voice, not Keitel’s. Scorsese said it’s because your inner voice is different from your outer voice.”

On paper, Roy’s narration can read like LiveJournal entries. But with the film’s Malick-style inner monologue, the tremendously sad voiceover conveys a stoic man afraid to express his emotions. “But we’re trying to do something that, weirdly, has an optimism to it,” Gray adds. “Roy does transcend. He doesn’t stay a closed-down person. He begins to understand himself, and his relationship with his father, and that allows him to open up.”

To underline that transcendence, an additional scene was shot earlier this year and stuck onto the end like an epilogue. “That last 40 seconds was very much a collaboration and a compromise,” Gray explains. “But I was OK with it, because if the movie felt like a downer, I was going to get very upset. The point of the movie isn’t that he goes to Neptune, confronts his father, and then becomes a miserable guy. The degree to which that was clear to the audience, I was OK with it. And besides, my ending is in the movie (before those 40 seconds).”

“Harvey was trying to destroy the movie...then the reviews came out, and they said the ending was terrible. They blame you. They don’t blame Harvey” – James Gray

Gray’s willingness to alter the closing moments may be surprising given his public feud with Harvey Weinstein over 2000’s The Yards. “But Harvey was trying to destroy the movie,” Gray quickly points out. When the director turned in a cut, Weinstein forced him to shoot a new conclusion. “Then the reviews came out, and they said the ending was terrible. They blame you. They don’t blame Harvey. They say, ‘The idiot screenwriter and director did that.’ You sit there and say, ‘If I’m going to be blamed, can it at least be for my own ineptitude?’”

Gray describes to me his original ending, and why it works, versus the Weinstein edit that reached theatres. Evidently, the director’s still bitter. “So I fought with him on that because it wrecked the movie. [The upbeat ending] was against everything that had come before.” Weinstein retaliated by botching the film’s release.

That said, Gray’s films are typically accompanied with off-screen drama. At Cannes, We Own the Night was booed by crowds. The press cycle for Two Lovers was derailed when Phoenix, without telling Gray, adopted a hip-hop persona. Again, at Cannes, The Immigrant split audiences (in a 2013 interview, Gray complained about UK journalists and labelled the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw a “failure as a critic” and “not only dumb, but lazy”) and, after another feud with Weinstein, it didn’t receive UK distribution.

Two Lovers was the happiest I’ve ever been making a film,” Gray admits. “It was small enough and the logistics weren’t torturous.” For the 2016 exploration epic The Lost City of Z, Gray took Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson to the Amazon. “When I did The Lost City of Z in the jungle, that damn near killed me. I’m not talking about the people involved. I’m talking about how you literally had scorpions on your legs.”

Although Ad Astra was presumably scorpion-free, the postproduction process was its own journey into the wilderness. Originally pencilled for a January 2019 release (to qualify for March’s Oscars), the film wasn’t completed in time. Once shifted to May, the date was pushed again – Disney, who purchased Fox, didn’t want competition for Aladdin. But now the film is finished, the majesty of the visuals justifies the delay: the CGI, the lighting, the colour palette, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s 35mm cinematography are all textures layered like a painting on the screen. You feel the weight of the bulky machinery, and the weightlessness of the astronauts in zero gravity.

Yet Ad Astra is still very much a James Gray movie. When Roy’s moon buggy is hijacked by pirates, one instantly remembers the car shootout of We Own the Night. And as for that ending of Two Lovers? “Joaquin looks up to the heavens. That’s stolen from Fellini’s La Strada. Anthony Quinn looks up to the sky and cries.” Gray recreates this cinematic breakdown in front of me in our hotel room. The director is quite a performer – Wes Anderson and Luca Guadagnino have tried, and failed, to get him to act in their films. “It’s one of the most magnificent moments in the history of movies. It’s incredible when movies can conjure up the cosmic.”

But it was a few days after viewing Ad Astra that it struck me how personal this 2033-set space odyssey really is. The father-son material, by now, is a staple for Gray. However, it’s the selection of Roy to read out a letter that could be transmitted to Neptune. Like a filmmaker, Roy is sending out a personal message for a loved one to hear. It’s noted that Roy is emotional enough to risk everything for the mission, but can detach himself at the right moments to save the day. Surely these are the qualities a filmmaker needs to survive this business?

“You’re completely right,” Gray sighs. “I was conscious that The Lost City of Z is like the exploring in a movie that you do. You go off, and you leave your wife and children for a year to make a movie. You delve into it. What does that feel like? And here, it’s the same thing. This trip to Neptune is like doing the biggest movie you’ve ever done.”

The director compares writing the screenplay to Ad Astra with method acting. “I’ve never been to space,” he continues, “but you substitute the filmmaking experience for it. The endeavour of making a film is an adventure. It’s an adventure where the end is not known to you. And it’s a risk. You have to put yourself in it.”

Ad Astra will release in UK cinemas on September 18 2019