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James Gray Reveals Details About His Developing Sci-Fi Thriller & The “Conceptual Brilliance” Of ‘2001’

James Gray Reveals Details About His Developing Sci-Fi Thriller & The "Conceptual Brilliance" Of '2001'

Following the premiere of The Immigrant” in competition late last week (our review is here), we got to talk to director James Gray in Cannes. We’ll have more of his thoughts on the shaping of that film, on working with Marion Cotillard for the first time, and a few minor updates on some other upcoming projects later on, but one topic we spoke about in greater depth was his recently announced sci-fi film. Plot outlines have been scarce so far, but Gray revealed some exciting details about what he has in mind, and the learnings he is taking from his own favorite sci-fi film, Stanley Kubrick’s exceptional and influential “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (Check out the rare 1970 Book ‘The Making Of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001’).

“I want to try and do something specific and rather different, and the intention is to make a film which is almost science fact, and it takes place entirely in space,” said the director. “I had read about NASA trying to find ‘emotionally — what’s the right word — undeveloped’ people to travel to Mars, because being cooped up for a year and a half is very difficult. So the idea that I had was to sort of mix a kind of Conrad-ian story, a ‘Heart of Darkness,’ with the idea in which NASA has made a miscalculation about one of its astronauts, who cannot handle deep space. So the idea is a kind of mental breakdown in space, and to do it almost like Apollo footage: incredibly realistic — so no sound in space, obviously — and to do it distinguishing itself with the idea that, in a way, human beings need the earth.”

“If you read about the astronauts who went to the moon — the 12 who walked on it, and the others who orbited — all suffered serious mental trauma of one kind or another,” he continued. “It was almost unbearable to see the earth as a small…looking like a marble. Edgar Mitchell started to talk about aliens and Area 51; Neil Armstrong basically went to his farm in Lebanon, Ohio and never left it again; Buzz Aldrin has been open about his alcoholism and depression. So part of the story is that the infinite is unbearable, the idea of deep space is unbearable, and we need terra firma.”

Gray went to expand on the challenges he sees in the project: “ ‘2001’ which is my favorite film in the genre and one of my favorite films ever, is about man’s confrontation with the idea of the infinite and then evolving into a new species when in contact with an alien force,” he said. “So in a perverse way the Kubrick film has optimism — the star child is an optimistic conception. I’m not planning on a bummer movie at all because what happens is the astronaut basically falls in love with someone on Mars, and the rest of the crew find this out. And of course that’s a problem, because they’ve all been chosen to be incapable of that because they have a mission to execute on Saturn, so as a consequence they have to eliminate him.”

However he is aware of the pitfalls of a genre in which oftentimes story and theme end up sacrificed for spectacle. “It’s a challenge to create an ending… The problem is that most science fiction films — certainly the Kubrick film does not do this, but it comes close, I would argue, to making this mistake, which is to awe us with some kind of visual spectacle and size. But you can’t really do that, it has to be conceptual, the awe has to come from a conceptual place,” he explained. “What is awesome now in a Kubrick film when you see it, is not the stargate — which I think ages somewhat poorly — what ages brilliantly is HAL’s takeover of the spacecraft and seeing the starchild in that white room, because that is a conceptual brilliance. He’s not trying to awe us with a ‘Look at the size of the ship!’ thing — that doesn’t ever work. So it’s incumbent on me to come up with something that is conceptually awe-inspiring.”

As to casting this film, it’s too early to say as, contrary to some earlier reports, the script is not, in fact, ready yet. “No I haven’t even written it yet, I have about 400 pages of research and thoughts and conversations with people at JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and so forth. But the script is coming very soon because I’ve done the legwork. I have the treatment and I’ve done the grunt work so to speak,” Gray said. “And now it’s about… I have the structure of the story but now I have to write it. Which should take me about four weeks and then I have to rewrite it. So hopefully by early fall I’ll have a script for that and I’ll be trying to get it made…”

With Brazil-based RT Features already attached to produce the project, and “Fringe” writer Ethan Gross on co-scripting duties, and with other potential films experiencing delays due to casting or logistics issues (more on those later), it definitely seems like once the promotional rounds for “The Immigrant” are done, this will be Gray’s focus in the near future. In the meantime, we’ll have more from this interview shortly, and will keep on eye out for The Weinstein Company to announce a release date for “The Immigrant” soon.

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