The Ad Astra director on how Brad Pitt helped him to make the sprawling sci-fi opus he had inside his head.
James Gray ought to be a household name by now. He already is in France. One of the American cinema’s most distinctive auteurs, with a personal filmography hiding in plain sight – he’s an auteurist filmmaker working with A-list stars, his films playing mainstream multiplexes. The leading proponent of mid-budget studio fare, Gray’s are the kind of pictures that would turn up five-a-week in the 1970s. From his four pictures with Joaquin Phoenix – The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant – to his classical epic The Lost City of Z, Gray turns out the kind of picture that was once the New Hollywood movement’s bread and butter.
The lack of name-recognition may well be set to change this week, as Gray looks to the stars with his biggest production to date, the Brad Pitt-starring existential space odyssey Ad Astra. As the film opened worldwide, we took a call from the filmmaker to talk the disappearance of mid-budget fare and why compromise is an essential part of the directing gig.
LWLies: I’m not sure exactly how much Ad Astra cost, but it’s certainly nothing like the $250m studio behemoths we get these days. It’s operating in a creative space that’s largely ignored.
Gray: Yeah, you can’t really make movies of this budget size any more, because it’s neither fish nor fowl. It’s not $2 million, but it’s not $300 million or whatever the hell they spend now. When you’re dealing with something that you might call mid-budget, it’s in some sense a dinosaur because there’s a lot of risk involved and not much reward. From a financial perspective, I suppose it’s a risk for the studios, but for me it’s where the most beautiful work was always done. The filmmakers were able to pursue a little bit of subversion and a little bit of what moved them, coupled with scale. I miss that segment of the business.
You mentioned risks for the studio, but what are the risks for you as a filmmaker working at that budget and in an idiosyncratic register?
There’s always the risk of compromise and I had to make a few. But what you gain, I think outstrips any compromise that you have to make. You have the ability to work on a large canvas and the ability to express yourself in ways that you haven’t before if you haven’t done this kind of movie, and I had not. I welcome that challenge.
Do you think there are budgetary limits to a personal cinema like yours, where after a certain point you have to cede too much control and it’s just not worth it?
It’s a very good question. It really comes down to a very fine line. The problem is that a movie is not a fixed creation. You don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘This is what the movie is going to be!’ What happens is that you work on it and it becomes something. You just don’t know what kind of compromises you’ll have to make before you make it. If it were easy to do it, it would become a more mechanised process. The studio system tried to do it, they tried to make the system very predictable, but it’s not like you’re making Palmolive soap, and then next week ‘New and Improved’ Palmolive soap where you just change the emulsifier slightly. It’s a whole new kettle of fish every time you make a film. The level of compromise is never fully clear to you until you make a movie.
Now, there’s enforced compromise – when you have to listen to other people’s opinions – and most of the time that leads to very poor quality of work. Most American studio pictures are made for mercenary reasons. It’s a depressing notion but it’s a fact. It doesn’t mean that all of them are, and it also doesn’t mean that the craftspeople don’t care, they almost always do. Everyone is almost always trying to do their best work, but the system is very powerful, so if you’re working at the level I am and trying to do a personal film, you’re really struggling to maintain your voice. I don’t know what the cut-off point would be. I think it has to do with the people you’re involved with, what their level of commitment is to what you’re doing and if you’re clear, as the filmmaker, as to where you want to go. All these things have to be in alignment, and if they’re not, then you’re in trouble.
Did your experience with Harvey Weinstein on The Immigrant lead you to pursue any creative safeguards? Is that even possible?
I’ve had final cut on my films since The Yards, so I’ve had it since 2000. I had final cut on The Immigrant too. The problem wasn’t that the movie itself got changed, the problem was simply that he didn’t like the film and tried to get me to change it. Then when I wouldn’t, he abandoned the film. That was not an issue of the creative process, that was an issue with the release of the film. With Ad Astra, I did not have final cut, because the budget was much bigger. Almost nobody gets final cut any more when your budget is over $20 million. I knew that in some ways the cut would be a collaboration. It couldn’t just be me making demands and that would be it.
Having said that, 90 per cent of the movie is certainly mine, but there are elements of collaboration in the film. You know that going in, and if you’re working with an actor with Brad Pitt’s level of impact on the film, you know that you have him there, either to debate and bounce ideas off, or to help enhance your situation. There is compromise in the film, but very little considering the size of it. That’s good fortune, making a movie with people who are going to the same place you are, so you have a common language. The Harvey Weinstein situation was very specific, and awful, but a very different set of circumstances. The source of the misery was his own desire for what he wanted out of the movies he was releasing.
So how does it work, with a producer-star of Brad Pitt’s status? If there were a hypothetical disagreement over something, does the director get the final say?
You discuss it and try to see the other person’s point of view. You have to remain open and try to decide if it enlarges the scope of the film or gets in the way. That’s a judgment for the director to make and then press his or her case, which is exactly what I did. Now, you’re not going to win every dispute like that, but if you win practically all of them it’s still your film and still feels like your film. I have to say that this feels very much like a film I would make, I didn’t lose the film.
I did feel that I lost the film on The Yards, because Harvey insisted on things and I had to do them. I lost control of the film. I lost what the story was. I lost what I wanted to do. Not because I didn’t know what I was doing, but because I was no longer in control. It is what it is, and my director’s cut does exist on DVD, so it’s all good now. Thankfully I didn’t face anything like that on this because, like I said, I was armed with the 800lb gorilla which was the movie star, who was dedicated to almost exactly the same movie that I was.
What’s so great about Ad Astra is that it while it’s a $100m Brad Pitt movie and a $100m sci-fi movie, more than anything else it really feels like a $100m James Gray movie. Some of the greatest filmmakers of yesteryear were able to carve out their own personal cinema from within the studio system. Do you think that kind of studio auteurism is still possible today, for anyone who isn’t Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan?
First of all, I wish I made a $100m movie. It’s somewhere around $20m less than that. I don’t really know exactly where the budget wound up, and that’s not because I’m being cheeky, I just stopped asked those questions when I was in post. We finished on time, and I don’t know where we ended up, but we had about $80m to make this.
Having said that, your point is still the same. I don’t feel great about the chances of maintaining a voice when costs are $100m or over. There’s a big psychological difference between $80m and $100m. When you start spending $150m, $200m, $250m… I believe The Revenant was $175m, and was very much a personal film, very much an auteur’s movie. I think those are going to be the exception to the rule. They’ll be an accident that wasn’t intended, some weird unicorn out there. Part of the problem is that the level of risk becomes so enormous. Not just the cost of the film, but the cost of the movie coupled with the marketing.
When you’re spending $200-250m on a movie, you know you’re going to have to spend that again to market it, so you’re gonna have to make $700m to earn out. That’s a lot of people seeing your film, and can something personal exist in that realm? I’m a little cynical about that. So I pushed the envelope to about as far as I felt we could go with this kind of movie.
By some complex twist of fate, Ad Astra went from being a Regency/Fox picture to being a Disney movie by the time it came out. If this makes all the money and wins all the awards we hope it does, could you ever be tempted into the for-hire franchise game, or is cinema an inherently personal pursuit for you?
I don’t see how I could ever push the envelope further than I just did. If I’m spending that kind of money… Look, you have to find pleasure in the doing. The result you can’t predict. Who knows how a movie will do at the box office, whether it’ll break even? Or even if people will like it and get what you’re trying to do. The level of risk would be so great on a movie like that, that the pressure while making it would make the endeavour so intensely unpleasant that there would actually be no reason to make the film. You can’t predict outcomes, so you have to find your joy in the making of it. I have to tell you, it sounds like a terrifying and miserable prospect.
Ad Astra certainly feels like a companion piece to The Lost City of Z, or perhaps the flip side to it. Where Fawcett’s character in the earlier film romanticises exploration, this seems to do the opposite. Are these thematic through-lines, or motifs, that run through your body of work – and there are plenty more – something that is actively cultivated, or are they simply by-products of the internal creative process?
I don’t think about it on a conscious level. You’re completely right, but if I think about it, it makes me very self-conscious. For this movie the inspiration was really very simple. 2001: A Space Odyssey exists, it’s my favourite movie in the science fiction genre. There are great ones that we’ve talked about and ones we haven’t – Blade Runner, that’s a masterpiece – so what do all those movies have in common? Well, a lot of them, not all of them, are obsessed with the existence of alien life, or are talking about dystopian or utopian futures. So you think, ‘What can I do that’s different?’
Even though it’s called 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s not really like The Odyssey. It’s not a myth of man, it’s a myth of the gods. You don’t really know anything about Keir Dullea, you care more about the computer. So I tried very consciously to do something that was a myth of man science fiction film, which I didn’t think we’d seen a lot of. So let’s do something that’s from Telemachus’ point of view, because you can’t really do The Odyssey from Odysseus’ point of view unless you want to make like a 17 hour movie or something. So we thought about Telemachus, and his father Odysseus going away for 20 years, and how he would feel about that. Then all of a sudden the story took shape, and it wound up having huge similarities to The Lost City of Z and a couple of other films I’ve made. It wasn’t like I was trying to amplify themes from previous films, that would mean I was suffering from grandiosity or something.
I was watching Casino for the first time in years last night, and it got me wondering, when Scorsese does his fast push into a Pesci close-up, that he must know that he’s doing ‘The Scorsese Shot.’ Is there an element of self-consciousness there, I wonder?
It’s a great question, and I know exactly what you mean. Obviously I can’t answer for Martin Scorsese, but there are a number of thematic and stylistic touchstones in his films. I never think about style. Probably to my detriment, may I say. I always just think that whatever I wanna do should suit the film, suit the story and try to suit the scene. If there are similarities, then great, and if there aren’t, well maybe that’s great too. I try to think about what’s truthful in the scene and try not to be self-conscious about the style. I bet Scorsese isn’t self-conscious either. I bet he just does those shots because that’s the way he feels. It’s like asking, ‘Did Picasso paint Dora Maar over and over again that way because that was his style?’ Was he self-conscious? I don’t think so, I just think it was an instinctual part of his process. It’s what makes him who he is.
Ad Astra is in cinemas now
Published 21 Sep 2019
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By Matt Thrift
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