James Gray has won the affection of international film critics with New Hollywood throwback offerings like Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z, but with Brad Pitt suited up for space in Ad Astra, Gray gets his first major studio project off the ground. Like many of Gray’s films, there is a family story at the heart of his Heart of Darkness-esque space movie, with Tommy Lee Jones playing Pitt’s astronaut father who’s been missing for 20 years but might have just made contact from Neptune. Pitt embarks on a mission not just to find his father, but also to stop the electrical surge from an outpost near the distant planet, which has caused thousands of deaths on Earth.
The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival with high accolades for its thrilling sequences, Pitt’s performance, and the astounding visual effects (which the Fox-Disney merger granted Gray a few more months to fine-tune). Ahead of Ad Astra’s nationwide release — it’s Certified Fresh at 81% on the Tomatometer — Gray told us his Five Favorite Films and spoke about the gestation of his current film. That his choices come from Russian, Austrian, and Italian filmmakers, in addition to Hollywood, should surprise no one familiar with his work as a filmmaker who’s keeping the ’70s maverick spirit alive in modern American cinema.
Well, let’s go one, La Strada, which is Federico Fellini’s movie with Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina. When was the first time I saw it? Oh, my God, I was in high school. To me, it felt like a fable, and it was beautiful and so moving, and I cry every time I see it. I’m almost crying thinking about it. How both broadly drawn and subtle the characters are, and how much sympathy Fellini has for the people in the movie. Have you ever seen it?
I have. I haven’t seen that one in years, also probably since my first time in high school. Around the same year as La Strada, I really like Nights of Cabiria from Fellini, which I’ve seen multiple times.
Also right up there. I mean, I have to say, I’m very, very pleased that you know both films, because if had to pick, it would be either one or the other, and I kind of can’t stand picking one or the other, but it’s almost like a random choice, which it was either La Strada or Nights of Cabiria. By the way, the middle one that he did — between the two — which is much less famous, called Il Bidone, with Broderick Crawford, is also a really good movie. Much darker than the other two. It’s got a great ending.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a film with more love in it than the ending of Nights of Cabiria — oh, my God. And the ending of La Strada, he does that perfect thing where Anthony Quinn looks up to the heavens. Fellini knew what to do.
Number two would be, let’s say, I Am Cuba. Ever see that movie?
Yes. It’s one of the most beautifully shot movies ever.
Oh God, yes. Cheers. It teaches you that the camera is a weapon that can be deployed brilliantly. What is beautiful about I Am Cuba is that, as showy as it is, it’s not style for no point. It’s an expansive vision of the rot that we brought to Cuba. Whether you agree with its politics or not, it’s not really the issue; it’s really human, and you understand… Well, a poet wrote it. Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote it. You understand the humanity of the people in it. Whether they are subject to humiliation, or to the humiliation of capitalism, well, that’s almost secondary to their own inner lives. The movie validates their inner lives, and the camera is a weapon in doing so. Beautiful.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 1932. This is excellent. It was pre-Code. Ferocious movie. Paul Muni, incredibly intense. It was really the best picture I think Mervyn LeRoy ever did, by far. Maybe the production code got in the way after that. He made another movie called They Won’t Forget, which is supposed to be great, but I don’t love it. I think it’s probably because the production code got in the way and it sort of neutered him a little bit. No spoilers, but the ending of Chain Gang, I couldn’t forget about it for days.
This one I also saw way back when I was in high school. I didn’t even know what the Production Code and pre-Code cinema was then; now I know it and find the distinction fascinating, but for this title, I can’t place what LeRoy did that he wouldn’t have been able to do after Fugitive…
I just think it’s so hard-hitting. I don’t know if you remember — I mean, he’s got this scene with this woman who’s blackmailing Muni, and the sexually frank conversations they have, and the toughness, the brutality of the film. I mean, it’s something they really scrubbed cleaner, 1934 onward.
Scarlet Empress, with Marlene Dietrich, directed by Josef von Sternberg. That’s also pre-Code, just barely, I think, and it’s the greatest of their collaborations. Morocco is amazing, too, and I love Blue Angel. Morocco has that incredible ending where she can’t resist but follows him off, and you hear the wind sound and all that. Anyway, Scarlet Empress is so singular; there’s nothing like it. It’s almost like a new cinema is being created; he’s creating a new language for cinema. Not just the way that it looks, but the light, the use of light, and the use of production design becomes, almost, a sensory part of the experience and informs her character. It’s all about her character’s sensuality, and he uses all these other elements beyond just herself to sell that. The way the film looks, the way the film feels, and it’s where the style completely informs her identity, which is an amazing idea.
One more. Let’s go with Clint Eastwood’s movie Unforgiven. I think that’s a brilliant movie. The acting in it is totally brilliant. I’ve always been a big Gene Hackman fan, but who isn’t? I love Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in it. Richard Harris is hilarious. I think the movie has an unbelievable sense of myth, and a great sense of undoing that myth. I’ve never been in a movie theater where I had that experience where the end of the movie, you have the hero say, “Yeah, I’ve killed women and children. I’m gonna kill you.”
Yeah, it was before the anti-hero truly became chic.
Oh, he kills everybody, and he shoots the man who’s moaning on the ground that presents no threat as he’s walking out. He pumps the guy full of lead, and the audience was applauding when I saw that in theaters. And you get the sense that’s like, “I’m not sure Eastwood was endorsing that behavior.” It kind of says the character goes to hell, and I love the subversiveness of it. He got away with it, because the myth, his myth, is so powerful.
You made your first film, Little Odessa, soon after that?
I did, actually. Maybe six months later, I started working on it. It did have an impact on me; I’m sure it did. I hadn’t thought about it consciously, until now, until you just said it, but I had also seen Lorenzo’s Oil, which I thought was beautiful. George Miller movie. I thought it was just beautiful and very emotional, and I remember both of those films coming out while I was writing my first screenplay. Then, a year after that, there was a Merchant/Ivory movie, Remains of the Day, where I thought Anthony Hopkins’ performance was just incredible. I remember being very excited about this group of films, and they informed a lot of what I’ve being trying to do ever since.
I can see that as a little bit of a trinity within your filmography, when you were cultivating your voice, since there’s parenting in Lorenzo’s Oil, the character violence of Unforgiven, and the prestige sheen of Merchant Ivory.
You’re right. I had never focused on it before, but now that we’re talking about it, that period, I remember seeing some really interesting movies around that time, in the early ’90s, and it was a great time to make independent film after. The Eastwood movie, I mean, I just am aghast at what he accomplished. “I ain’t like that no more.” Just a very powerful idea about what it means to maintain order, and what’s the price of maintaining order. You don’t know how to feel about that sheriff. He’s awful, but he does what he needs to do, and that’s pretty complex. That’s a great screenplay.
Brian Formo for Rotten Tomatoes: Something that’s constant through your work is family expectations and the suffocating weight of that. So I’m wondering, with Ad Astra, did you start with a father-son story in space, or did you want to make a movie in space and have these big set pieces, but then it became more natural to tether it to a father-son relationship?
An excellent question. I wish I could tell you that I came up with the story first, but it’s not how it happened. I was thinking very seriously about a childhood memory that I had. I grew up in New York, and you couldn’t see the stars. The sky had this kind of dull orange at night, because the city was so lit up. I remember there was a blackout that hit the city — this was 1977, in the summer of 1977 — and I remember, as all the lights went out, you could see the stars for the first time.
All of a sudden I had this weird memory back to that feeling — it was, like, 2011 and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a movie about what is out there?” I talked about it a lot with my friend and co-writer, Ethan (Gross), and I asked, “What it means to be out there, and are there aliens, or are we alone?” Well, there are a lot of movies about aliens, and good aliens and bad aliens. (Steven) Spielberg’s done incredible work about that, but his movies, they play like fables. E.T. is like a fable; Close Encounters, like a fable. Beautiful, beautiful films. (Stanley) Kubrick made a beautiful film, of course (in 2001). The alien is a black slab of granite, whatever it appears to look like. Is that a good alien? A bad alien? What does that mean? You can project anything you want on it. So he beats the trap of false gods, you know?
But we thought, “Well, what does it mean if you find that there’s really nothing out there? And if there’s nothing out there, that poses its own set of existential questions.” So it started from that, really, and that was the chain of events. Then I tried to start getting the story as personal as I could, and we wanted to steal from — as pretentious as this sounds — we wanted to steal from The Odyssey, and tell the story, really, from Telemachus’ point of view. His father, Odysseus, goes away for 20 years; he doesn’t know what happened to him. What that would mean, and that sense of abandonment that Telemachus must have…
Now, of course, Homer’s story ends very differently. But that’s where that came from, a kind of mythic idea. Then, of course, you start to personalize it, you start to include things in your own life, and before you know it, you’ve got this tiny little story about a father and a son against the huge canvas, where you’re going out there, it’s the vast infinite. That’s really how it formed.
So, the opening in the film, and I’m not a take-a-notepad-to-the-film person, mostly because High Fidelity scarred me for life…
Oh when his girlfriend clicks her pen throughout the movie to take notes?
Ha, what a nice aside.
So I’m not sure if I got the two words correct, but the movie opens with something like, in the near future, there’s hope and fear about humanity’s future. In presenting the future, what is something that you discovered in your research that gives you hope about the future, and what is something that terrifies you?
It’s an easy question to answer. Easy. Hope: the mapping of the human genome, hospital cures for diseases, the specialized treatment of things like different kinds of cancer, that’s fantastic. And fear, I think, is obvious. The fear is climate change and the end of civilization, the civilized world.
If you look at Mars… By the way, the NASA people I’ve worked with on this film, who are great, their hair’s on fire. The f—ing world is ending and, I mean, I understand that it’s a slow burn, but it’s not that slow. In fact, the permafrost is going worse up there than we think, you know? Greenland, large sheets are melting faster than we think, or we thought — now we know. Already parts of New York are uninsurable.
And lots of Los Angeles, for fires.
Yeah. I’m extremely concerned. So, I think progress is a beautiful thing. I think that we’ll be able to do things that we couldn’t imagine in terms of human longevity. Maybe we’ll figure out what it means in the future, to maybe find an answer to not just longevity, but market economics, where five people don’t control all the wealth on the planet. That’s a problem.
If we could solve that, that would be great, but I have hope that we do, because the world moves in cycles, strange cycles. I feel like we’re itching for a new path forward on how to handle some of our problems. But climate change, that’s a tough one. That’s a tough one. There are things like taking CO² and making it into oxygen. Apparently, technologically, there are ways to do it, but it’s ridiculously expensive. But we’re going to have to do it. I don’t see any other way around it. I hope I’m completely wrong.
[Note: Mild spoilers below]
We can get morose for the whole interview, but this movie has a lot of very fun, thrilling sequences.
I hope so.
Like the moon pirates, the underground lake, or even just the opening, falling from space, et cetera. The mayday call for help and where that goes…
All of that was supposed to be thematically relevant, more than narratively relevant. The idea that, basically, unexpected horror is around every turn when you’re that far away from Earth. So we felt that it had thematic unity, if not narrative unity. Anything earthbound, it’s not meant to live out there. It’s not meant to be there. That’s not our friend, it’s different to us. We felt that the mayday response was an important sequence. Do people want to know about that beforehand?
I loved the surprise, so I think, where we’re at for filmgoers is people just want to know that there’s blood, there’s a confrontation, there’s excitement.
Well, there is blood. There is blood.
There are deaths and surprises.
We tried to do that. We wanted to deliver that stuff. The fall from the tower, the lunar-rover sequence, the [mayday] thing, the underground lake, certainly; he climbs up a rocket, he has a zero G fight, he flies through the rings of a planet. I mean, we wanted to deliver some red meat. We absolutely did. By the way, there is no shame in that. Shakespeare was broad and subtle; that’s good stuff. So, we tried, and we tried to do it in our own way, of course, make it weird, unique, strange; in the lunar rover you can only hear what’s inside his helmet. It’s very weird for a chase sequence.
Yeah, you have meat and potatoes, but you also have some asparagus.
Exactly. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Ad Astra is in theaters September 20.
Thumbnail image: (c) Warner Bros.