James Gray is a filmmaker known for his work with actors who, like “Ad Astra” star Brad Pitt, go out of their way to work with the celebrated writer/director. Yet with his latest film about an astronaut (Pitt) embarking on secret mission to Neptune, Gray found himself at a loss when it came to directing Pitt during a sequence in which the actor hung from a wire in black box, one that the visual effects team would later convert into outer space. In discussing the difficulty he had directing in this environment, Gray recalled a lesson he learned at USC film school from successful actress-turned-legendary professor Nina Foch.
“She used to say, ‘The essence of a scene was what does one person want from the other,'” said Gray, while a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit. “And here I certainly found myself, with one actor, not two, in an environment where the actor couldn’t really interact. And actors are very sensory creatures, they need to listen to the other actor, or if they don’t, they should be reminded to do so, and they also need the environment.”
Pointing to one of the seminal films about loneliness, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Gray highlighted how even Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character related, albeit in a primitive manner, to other characters in the film. In the process of making “Ad Astra,” Gray would often reflect on “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which he called the genre’s greatest accomplishment, in part because of the way director Stanley Kubrick used the isolation of space to tell a very different story.
“Recognizing the weaknesses in most of those genre films, Kubrick turned that to his advantage,” said Gray. “I wasn’t able to do that, one, because Kubrick is Kubrick; two, you can’t make the same film that he did when your film is about human connection, you can’t rely on the same things that Kubrick was relying on for his narrative.”
Gray formed a different type of working relationship with Pitt, and the two engaged in a near-constant conversation in an attempt to fill up the empty black box. “You have to tell the actor every last thing and that’s really hard,” said Gray. “I would fill it up by saying, ‘This is what you’re thinking, this is the external conflict, this is the internal conflict,’ before every take, before every scene and that becomes very wearying.”
Pitt’s journey became an internal one. Together the two collaborators created an internal monologue for every scene, one that Gray compared to a constant series of soliloquies, some of which would take the form of voiceover in the film. “He was up for the challenge, he was very willing and anxious to reveal himself,” said Gray. “But it was not something I understood how to direct right off the bat, I have to confess.”
Gray said he also struggled with where to put the camera. For the filmmaker, the normal first order of business every morning is to work with his actors on the staging as he first tries to establish his master shot. Yet, like an actor, he found himself lost without the ability to interact with a real location or set.
“The actor’s going to up there 30 feet up on wires and you’re going to have to imagine where Neptune would be behind, because there’s nothing there, it’s all created after the fact,” said Gray. “You find yourself in an internal debate about mise-en-scène, about where the camera would be best, and trying to imagine, and project later on, what it’ll look like. I found myself drawing pictures every day to try to accommodate when Brad would say, ‘Well, I’m comfortable doing this and maybe I should go down here,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh that’s good, but then where’s the camera go?'”
Creating a scene completely from the ground up was disarming for Gray, who joked that the L.A. soundstage just miles from his house made him miss the hellish, hot jungle location of his previous film “Lost City of Z.” He described himself as being adrift every morning until he eventually cracked the master shot, and from there the rest of the scene would often fall into place.
Yet, his struggles creating in a virtual space continued throughout post-production, and right up until days before the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere, where “Ad Astra” was met with near-universal praise. Gray compared editing the film with Pitt on a wire in near empty pre-visual effects compositions to painting, which he studied as a kid.
“Even when you paint, in you head you have an image of what you want to paint, it almost never comes out that way on the canvas, so it’s sort of that translation that becomes a very difficult process, mediating the difference between what you have in your head and what winds up in the film,” said Gray. “I have such admiration for people that do this all the time and I don’t know how they do it. I really don’t.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.