Venice: 'Ad Astra' Director James Gray on Breaking Down "All-American Astronaut" Myth With Brad Pitt

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The indie stalwart chats about his new space epic, navigating the Fox-Disney merger and why he’s not afraid to take on Trump in his next movie.

Back in 2011, director James Gray happened upon two science articles that provided the seedling for his latest film, Ad Astra. The first chronicled an experiment to split the atom that posed a small, but real, risk that all known matter in the universe would be destroyed. The second dealt with NASA's quest to enlist astronauts with schizoid personality disorder, who would be ideal for deep-space missions because they wouldn't have to interact socially. Enter Brad Pitt as the space thriller's protagonist, and suddenly Gray, who is best known for indies like The Immigrant and Two Lovers, was working with a budget much bigger — $87.5 million — than any of his previous outings. Ahead of Ad Astra's world premiere in Venice, Gray, 50, talked with The Hollywood Reporter about whether he's gone mainstream, how the film landed in the crosshairs of Disney's acquisition of Fox, and why he's bringing Donald Trump's father to the big screen.

What was the mind-set behind casting Pitt as your lead?

I thought about a very retro, almost 1960s idea of the all-American astronaut. The idea was to break down the myth of what it means to be traditionally masculine, macho. And the only way you can really break down the myth is to start with the myth. There's this whole mythology that comes along with [Pitt], and that's what you can play with.

Ad Astra was a Fox film, but Disney is releasing it. Have there been any notable changes to the marketing/decision-making?

That's a very good question, but I don't know that answer simply because the Disney merger became a possibility while I was still in post, and the marketing machine of Fox hadn't revved up yet. So everyone was sort of tentative with what would happen with Fox and who would still be employed there. This is way past my pay grade, and way past the movie. My movie is a tiny pimple on the rear end of a $71 billion elephant. But it was very sad. At a certain point you'd have meetings with Fox marketing people, and they all knew they were going to lose their jobs in a few months. The whole Fox slate was thrown into chaos. Having said that, [Disney] loves the movie and they’ve been really cool about it.

You once said you didn’t consider yourself mainstream. Is Ad Astra a mainstream movie?

I'm not trying to do just cookie-cutter, generic stuff that everybody sees. But I think that that is a mainstream approach right now because to get [people] off the couch — away from Netflix and away from streaming — I don't think that you're gonna be able to just do the same old junk. You need to give them something that is different and weird but at least motivates them to see it in a theater. In some perverse way, that is the mainstream approach now for theatrical. In that sense, I do view this very much as a mainstream attempt at a theatrical release.

What space-set film were you most inspired by?

It's impossible to not think of 2001 when you're talking about a space movie. I love Spielberg’s work, but E.T. plays almost like a fable. It's really about the parents’ divorce and the kid’s loneliness and how he basically needs companionship. That's what makes the film very moving. In terms of space travel, Star Wars — particularly The Empire Strikes Back, which I think is a magnificent movie — plays very much not as science fiction but as fantasy. So, in order to look at movies with any kind of semi-plausible idea of space travel, you have to look at 2001. Now, Chris Nolan’s [Interstellar] and [Alfonso Cuaron’s] Gravity beat me to the punch, but I had been conceiving the story in 2011 before I had seen either film. But the movie that really motivated a lot of this was 2001. That doesn’t mean I think it's as good. That doesn’t mean I'm trying to rip it off.

Is Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, going to be a character in your semi-autobiographical film Armageddon Time?

How did you know that? (Laughs.) Yeah, he's going to have a role in it. He was the head of the board of trustees of [Kew-Forest School], a small school I went to for high school. At this prep school, all of a sudden there was Fred Trump walking the halls.

Any concern about the inevitable backlash from Trump trolls or Trump himself?

No, I have no fears at all, because first of all, you've got to take some risks as a creative person. You can't just make something without any risk at all because, dare I use a dirty word, there's no art without risk. So, backlash I'm sure there will be, but who cares? Sometimes you're defined by making enemies that you want to make enemies of. I mean, I'm not a fan of what's going on in the world right now. I think it's very frightening. And, I don't mind making that enemy because the world is really in a perilous state.

What’s your next project?

I'm directing an opera for the Theatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris that then comes to the L.A opera, The Marriage of Figaro. That goes into rehearsals the first week of October and premieres after Thanksgiving.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.