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How James Gray Broke Blockbuster Rules to Redefine the Hero’s Journey in ‘Ad Astra’

At a time when people are wondering if big-screen epics can still afford to tell personal stories, Gray has told a personal story that demanded to be a big-screen epic.

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”.

“Ad Astra”

Francois Duhamel

Eight hours before the world premiere of James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” the writer-director was enjoying a quiet catnap on the bed of his Venice hotel room. And yet, for all the jet-lag he felt after flying in from Los Angeles the previous day, Gray sprang into action without missing a step. He popped to his feet, splashed a few drops of cold water in his face, and detailed the ups and downs of a rough night’s sleep with all the gravitas of a Greek tragedy. He’d only been awake for about 30 seconds and he was already hot with the kind of amiable Jewish agita that lets you know that everything is totally fine.

If not for the anxious publicist who was pacing around the hallway outside, you wouldn’t have guessed that Gray was about to unveil the biggest film he’s ever made. An intimate blockbuster that he’s worked on for the better part of a decade, “Ad Astra” represents a critical moment in Gray’s career. It cost as much to produce as all of his previous films combined, and is without a doubt the most daring space movie that a major studio has released since “Interstellar” or Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” before that. The beauty of “Ad Astra” — and there’s plenty of it — is how Gray uses the film’s intergalactic scale to distill his characters down to their smallest essence. At a time when people are wondering if big-screen epics can still afford to tell personal stories, Gray has told a personal story that demanded to be a big-screen epic.

But it didn’t look easy. “Ad Astra” had been delayed twice, devoured by the Disney monolith as part of its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, and then saddled with the burden of singlehandedly making original sci-fi movies seem worth the investment. I was anxious just thinking about what awaited Gray at the end of the red carpet, but he couldn’t have looked more comfortable. He didn’t seem at all like someone who was just starting one of the biggest days of his life.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t. He recalled taking his debut, “Little Odessa,” to Venice in 1994 at the age of 24. “I remember very well that I was consumed with becoming a success and really trying to make my name in the world,” he said. “And now that’s gone. It’s just gone. I don’t mean that I don’t still have the ambition to make a film that I think will be good, but the traditional markers of success? They don’t have any meaning to me anymore.”

Gray sipped his coffee. “You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when your son is born.”

There had been some errant chatter early in our conversation, including wives (we both have one) and children (he has three, my first is on the way). But even those breezy starting points were reminders of how much Gray injects his projects of all sizes with a personal touch.

“Ad Astra” is nothing if not a movie about how difficult it can be for people — especially men — to recalibrate their ambitions and realize what’s truly meaningful in their lives. Kids are by no means a magic bullet.

Astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was so frightened by his vulnerability that he chose to abandon his family in order to search for other intelligent life in the universe. After 16 years, Clifford’s presumed dead somewhere along Neptune’s orbit. His son Roy (Brad Pitt), already an emotionally isolated adult by the time “Ad Astra” begins, has also spent his life hiding among the stars; he’s been conditioned to conflate bravery with distance (astral or otherwise), to confuse masculinity with absence, and to think of his father as a hero for leaving the world behind.

It’s that last part that haunts Gray the most. “We don’t quite understand what the word ‘hero’ means, anymore,” he said. “We associate it with invincible superheroes who have unlimited magical powers — nothing bad can ever happen to them. But that’s not what Joseph Campbell really meant with the monomyth. In fact, the hero in Campbellian terms is conflicted and flawed. Maybe they’re successful, but always at a cost.”

Over the course of its grand and mesmeric trip through the cosmos, “Ad Astra” pushes to restore a certain perspective to the hero’s journey — to make people step back and see themselves with the same terrifying smallness that confronted NASA astronauts when they first looked at our planet from another world.

Gray likes to quote an excerpt from the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan:” “The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.” The filmmaker is still gobsmacked that someone wrote those words before Sputnik had even launched. “He was talking about man throwing himself ever outward into the stars not finding anything new,” Gray said. “The true terra incognita is the human soul. In order to assess the Earth with any kind of meaning, it basically has to come from us.” For Gray, a hero isn’t someone who transcends their humanity, but rather someone who fulfills it. Roy is calm because he’s afraid of his own vulnerability — but Gray is calm because he’s totally comfortable with it.

From a certain distance, it might be hard to make sense of how that happened. For one thing, Gray worships Francis Ford Coppola — a man who almost disappeared into his art — with almost fetishistic enthusiasm; he cites moments from “The Godfather” the way that a devout Christian might reference a verse from the Bible, and recounts the demented production of “Apocalypse Now” like it was the Labors of Hercules.

For another, Gray’s career has followed the skyward trajectory of a tech start-up, his movies scaling larger and larger at a seemingly exponential rate. It seems like a counterintuitive trend for someone who claims not to care about the size of his footprint, and doesn’t appear determined to grow his bank accounts along with his film budgets.

James Gray and Brad Pitt on the set of “Ad Astra”

Twentieth Century Fox

But “Ad Astra” helps to clarify things. In hindsight, it’s impossible to overlook that all of Gray’s recent features have been about people who risk everything in order to reach a mythic place that will supposedly make them whole. In “The Immigrant,” a Polish woman comes to America with hopes of finding a fresh start. In “The Lost City of Z,” a British explorer drags his son into an obsessive search for a legendary Amazonian land, eventually referring to the gold-coated paradise as “the ultimate piece of the human puzzle.” Gray paints each of these movies with a classic veneer that obscures how contrapuntal they feel when you put them all together: The bigger his films get, the deeper they drill into the most basic crevices of the human experience.

“Ad Astra” is a logical destination for someone who’s always believed that existential questions can only be answered by intimate understanding; that mind-blowing spectacle can only be conveyed in the most personal terms.

Gray, who was born three months before man first walked on the Moon, is still perplexed by how Neil Armstrong talked about the experience. “I’ve seen the press conference that he gave when he was released from quarantine, and the first thing he does is thank the thousands of people who worked on the Saturn V and the Apollo and the Gemini,” Gray said. “He doesn’t turn to himself at all, which is terrific. But then he starts talking about what it was actually like up there, and it’s all in this mechanical language. ‘The thruster had six liters of oxygen…’ That kind of thing. But he was on the fucking Moon! It’s another celestial body! There was a big psychological disconnect there.”

So Gray made a movie set in a near future where going to the Moon isn’t special anymore; where you can fly to the lunar surface on Virgin America, and eat a Yoshinoya beef bowl when you land. And he built that movie around a guy who’s so closed off that he makes Armstrong seem like an insufferable reality TV star by comparison. Roy McBride is the Platonic ideal of contemporary masculinity — a sexy and self-sufficient space cowboy who’s tortured by daddy issues so extreme that he’d sooner die than have to deal with them  — and he’ll see things that Armstrong could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. But Gray doesn’t really care about the bravery it takes for Roy to blast himself into the heart of darkness; he’s more interested in the bravery it takes for Roy to accept how little there is to find out there. Roy isn’t a hero for going to Neptune, he’s a hero for wanting to come back down to Earth.

In between, he’s a bit unformed. Roy looks the part of a hero, but he wears the disguise like a cheap suit. That discrepancy is what made Gray want to cast such an iconic actor in the role. “The whole idea of being ice cold under pressure is such bullshit,” the filmmaker told me a few weeks after our initial interview. “Roy is incredibly vulnerable. He’s like a boy — totally unformed. But with Brad you get this movie star mythology, and he makes that vulnerability feel a little subversive, because people just want him to take his shirt off.”

Pitt does take his shirt off in the film, by the way, albeit not in the sexiest conditions. “If I’d gone out and cast, you know, Wallace Shawn as the astronaut, it would have been funny,” Gray said before imitating what the “My Dinner with Andre” star might sound like boarding a spaceship. “That’s a good idea for a comedy, actually. But it wouldn’t have been subverting any idea we have of masculinity.”

“Ad Astra”

But Gray wanted to cast someone who could help him pierce the extant surface of manliness. “It takes courage to fling yourself into space like a stone as far as you can. But it takes a different kind of courage to confront your inner conflict and embrace certain parts of yourself that men are trained to ignore.”

Gray confessed that “Ad Astra” was partially inspired by a personal story of abandonment that has haunted him his entire life. The filmmaker didn’t want to share the details, but he emphasized how crucial it was to express courage not only through self-discovery, but also through the damage that men find along the way. “We’re taught to minimize loss. To buck up. Get over it. ‘You have a job to do.’ And yeah, on some level that’s good advice. But that kind of machismo has done huge damage to our societies.”

In “Ad Astra,” strength isn’t the opposite of weakness — strength is the acceptance of weakness. It’s easier to build a wall than it is to construct a bridge, but only the latter will ever get you anywhere. Gray took that idea and expanded it into a vaguely Oedipal space-age myth about the fait accompli of a man becoming his own father, and the heroism required to set coordinates for a new destination. “That’s the biggest struggle we have,” he said. “What do we embrace, and what do we leave behind? I watch my sons and I know that on a conscious level I don’t want to repeat some of the things that happened between my dad and me. And there are also some things of great value that I do want to repeat. But you feel like you fail at both. The only thing you can do as a father is say: ‘I’m going to make terrible mistakes — it’s an inevitability. But can I raise boys who are able to tell me that I screwed up? And when they do that, will I be able to admit that I did?’”

Those are profound ideas for a Hollywood blockbuster, which is key to understanding the depth of Gray’s accomplishment. “I don’t think it’s necessarily bad business sense to make a medium-sized movie that really goes for it,” he said. “The budget for ‘Ad Astra’ was big, but it wasn’t that big. I mean, movies cost $250 million these days, and crazy amounts of money like that. So if you spend $60-70 million on something… I hate to call it ‘medium-sized,’ but it is.”

Still, Gray knows he only got away with it because Israeli billionaire and Regency Enterprises founder Arnon Milchan is one of the last major benefactors who supports making art on a multiplex scale. “Arnon’s first movie was Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America,’” Gray said. “His second movie was ‘The King of Comedy.’ His third was ‘Brazil.’ This is a guy who understands what it means to take risks. They didn’t make me throw in stupid random things to make this more commercial; Brad and I tried to stay true to ourselves every step of the way.”

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”.

“Ad Astra”

Francois Duhamel

But just because “Ad Astra” isn’t “Gravity” doesn’t mean that it’s dry or impenetrable. Gray pushed back against the idea that the movie could prove too introspective for mainstream audiences. “I certainly tried to put some red meat in there,” he said. “You’ve got Brad Pitt falling off a space antenna and getting mixed up in a lunar rover chase and climbing up the outside of a rocket and getting into zero-G fight… there’s a lot of that! But if the studios want to get people off the couch, they’re going to have to offer them something a little different. Otherwise, it will leave the business totally about Marvel.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with Marvel, of course. “I have no problem with Marvel,” Gray said. “I’ve taken my children to Marvel movies and it’s a great experience — a bonding experience. It’s beautiful, and those films are brilliantly made. I loved the first ‘Captain America.’ Terrific movie. So it’s not about shitting on them. The problem is not that — the problem is only that. It’s like if you went to the supermarket and you saw only one brand of cereal. Special K is all they had. Special K is not a bad-tasting cereal, but if that’s the only one you could get it would be awfully frustrating.”

Gray used his brother — a 53-year-old physician in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — as an example of someone who’s starved for appealing options at the multiplex: “If the movie business starts catering to smaller and smaller groups, it’s going to start hurting itself in a major way. I would argue that it already has. It’s my job as a director to try and push back against that a little bit.”

It’s no secret that Gray pines for those Hollywood maverick years when major studios would give Coppola and his ilk free rein to shoot for the moon, but “Ad Astra” is not the work of a man who’s given up on the future, on screen or off. A rich vein of optimism flows under the film, and it starts from somewhere within its director. “It’s always been a terrible place,” he said, either talking about the world or the movie business. “So I don’t want to say that it’s bad specifically now. But the temptation to search for the answers outside of ourselves usually reveals that we’re looking for false gods.”

Gray’s reflective words recall the moment in “Little Odessa” when Arkady Shapira (Maximilian Schell), the patriarch of a decaying Russian-American family living in Brighton Beach, takes stock of his relationship with his sons. “There’s a saying: When a child is six years old, it says, ‘the father can do everything.’ When he’s 12, he says, ‘the father can almost do everything.’ When he’s 16, he says, ‘the father is an idiot’. When he’s 24, he says, ‘the father wasn’t maybe such an idiot,’ and then, when he’s 40, he says, ‘if I could only ask my father.’ But I’m afraid my sons will never ask themselves that.”

At 50, Gray has become the father, and he’s finally ready to answer the questions that have been dogging him for his entire life. Reaching this point has taken him into the deepest jungles and out to the furthest reaches of the solar system, but after 25 years in the wilderness he was back in Venice where it all began, and totally unafraid to make himself more vulnerable than ever before. It was hard not to find something heroic about that.

“Ad Astra” is now playing in theaters.

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