James Gray Talks About Directing Brad Pitt in Sci-Fi Epic 'Ad Astra' (Q&A)

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James Gray

The helmer hopes to premiere the film at Cannes, but effects work and Fox-Disney fallout might be a challenge. Next up, L.A. Opera's 'The Marriage of Figaro.'

From space opera to classical opera, that's the trajectory of filmmaker James Gray over the next 12 months. His new sci-fi epic, Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt as a man who travels through the solar system in search of his father, is currently slated to open May 24  — and, he hopes, could be preceded by a premiere at Cannes — and then he will step behind the scenes at Los Angeles Opera to direct a new version of the Mozart classic, The Marriage of Figaro, which will bow in June, 2020.

"My job, I think, honestly, is to do as little harm as possible to this magnificent creation, get my ego out of the way and not have it be me rethinking Mozart. To me, that's folly," Gray tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It’s my job to build on what is magical and great about Mozart and not screw it up."

Gray has competed for Cannes' Palme d’Or on four consecutive films dating to his sophomore effort, The Yards, through his 2013 film, The Immigrant. Will he get to the Cote d'Azur again this spring? 

So, will Ad Astra bow at Cannes?

We're trying, we're certainly hopeful. The issue is a little bit out of our hands because the shots come in from the VFX houses and right now our delivery date is late April, early May, which is really, really cutting it close. You want your visual effects to be so good that nobody thinks about them, that people don't think of them as visual effects. We have hopes, but the whole team, Plan B and Brad [Pitt] and, thankfully, New Regency, have been fantastic through this. We're all just anxious to put out the very best movie, and whether we actually get to make Cannes on May 18 — or whatever the hell the day is — is of secondary concern to getting the film to look exactly right. And I've been wonderfully blessed with great support from them. That's where the focus is now and we’re just sort of keeping our fingers crossed.

Were there concerns with the transition from Fox to Disney?

I don't deal with Fox people on the movie at all, whom I really liked, by the way. I really liked Emma [Watts] and I thought Stacey [Snider] was great. But I only met them a handful of times on the film. So, my exposure to the Disney-Fox thing has been very, very minimal. In fact, I'm sure it’s affecting things and maybe they'll wind up moving the release date as a consequence — by the way, I don't know anything about that, I'm just positing a guess. Who knows what will happen?

How does your star, Brad Pitt, also being producer make a difference?

I've been very lucky because Brad and I are very, very aligned creatively. And I don't think I would have entered into this if that weren't the case. So, he's been very supportive in a great way, which is why I've had the freedom and the time, really, to focus on getting this right. And he's been a major reason for that.

What are some of the sequences that are still being finalized?

There's a lot of spacewalk stuff. The word "acrobatic" doesn't really apply, but some very complicated rig work and that stuff is going to look amazing. And there's also a lunar rover sequence, which is also basically CG-built, which is going to look terrific, I think. But to make it look perfect doesn't happen overnight.

Judging by the log-line, you have the potential to explore some profound themes.

We did the deep dive, and what I've tried to do is shake up the genre a little bit. It’s all of a piece where you want the film to be dramatically fulfilling and to tackle some profound stuff, because that's the genre that enables you to do so. The weird thing is the movie has become quite personal for me, which I think is always where you want to go if you want to do work that matters.

Personal how?

A father-son story is always something that has moved me and motivated me in anything I've done, and that is abundantly obvious in this movie, let's put it that way. I don't want to say much more about it because it would be revealing a lot of the plot.

And next season you’ll be behind the scenes at L.A. Opera, directing a production of The Marriage of Figaro.

I’m not going to treat it any differently. I’m going to try to make sure singers can essentially maximize the drama in the work, or in this case the comedy of the work. I'm not going to focus on what's different about opera. Am I scared? Of course I am. That's part of what any creative endeavor is worth anything. If you're doing things that aren't scary to you, then you're not working hard enough.