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Ad Astra

Is James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’ The Last Hope For Original, Grown-Up Sci-Fi In The Franchise Era? – Venice Q&A

When James Gray set out on the path that would lead him to Ad Astra, he couldn’t have foreseen the importance his film would take on, with Fox’s first releases under new ownership at Disney facing added scrutiny as observers wonder about the fate of the storied studio.

First, Ad Astra proved a complicated film to get through the post process. Originally set to release in January, the date was pushed to May and a potential Cannes slot, before finally settling on a late-September global rollout after a premiere at Venice Film Festival, which will happen Thursday on the Lido. That was, Gray says, because he was still tinkering with the picture right up until a week ago—“I would still be mixing now if I could”—with the process behind the movie’s effects work proving especially challenging to wrangle.

Venice Film Festival 2019 Lineup: Polanski, 'Joker', 'The Laundromat', 'Ad Astra', 'Marriage Story' In Competition - Full List

But Ad Astra also represents a huge anomaly in the current studio moviemaking climate, with few filmmakers in the franchise era afforded the kind of budget Gray worked with to produce a cerebral sci-fi movie for grown-ups. Alfonso Cuarón’s Best Picture-nominated Gravity, released in 2013, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, released a year later, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian from 2015 might be the last to truly hit.

With Fox’s biggest franchise play of the year, the X-Men movie Dark Phoenix, opening to the series’ lowest ever box office, and the year’s top 10 releases thus far offering only one original release—Jordan Peele’s Us—there simply may no longer be a viable home for movies like Ad Astra in the studio system of today.

Ad Astra, though, has the qualitative chops to find its audience. On top of Gray’s critical cache, the movie stars and is produced by Brad Pitt—fresh off the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood earlier in the summer—as an astronaut who journeys to the far reaches of the solar system when he discovers that the father (Tommy Lee Jones) he thought had been dead for years might in fact be alive, and also responsible for deliberately targeting Earth with a series of radioactive bursts emanating from his research station near Neptune.

James Gray“By all intents and purposes, we are alone in the universe. What does that mean for the species? It is, I think, almost a metaphysical question.”

For lovers of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now, Ad Astra hits an essential spot. Gray’s movie will grapple with existential questions about our purpose in a universe that may be devoid of life away from our planet. And the director presents a wholly unique take on a near-future, in which, among other things, humankind has populated and commercially exploited the Moon, with bands of lunar roving pirates fighting over its natural resources.

On the eve of his film’s Venice premiere, I find Gray on the terrace of the Hotel Cipriani, as his cast, which also includes Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler, fly in. As he reflects on his own history with this festival—which premiered his debut film Little Odessa back in 1994—and delves deep into his new movie and its cinematic and literary references, a waiter delivers a tray of bar snacks and, all of a sudden, a dozen pigeons descend to claim them. As they fight over the scraps, Gray considers this an optimistic sign. “You couldn’t get more Alfred Hitchcock,” he laughs.

Ad Astra
James Gray directs Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride in “Ad Astra” Fox

DEADLINE: What are your memories of being in Venice?

JAMES GRAY: Well, I’ve been here several times, though never under such lovely circumstances. I’ve been here as a tourist, when I was a boy, but the first time I came here professionally was also the first time I was showing anything I’d ever made publicly. This was 1994.

DEADLINE: Little Odessa, right?

GRAY: That’s right. They put me at the Grand Hotel des Bains, which is no longer.

DEADLINE: It’s where Dirk Bogarde stays in Death in Venice.

GRAY: Yes, and I was very excited because I was very pretentious. I am very pretentious. It was this Visconti flair that got me really excited, and then the next thing I know, it’s gone. It should be a landmark or something. I remember, I was 24 years old and I felt I was walking in hallowed halls, you know.

When I was 18, the USC Film School, which is my alma mater, had a Burt Lancaster film festival, and they showed everything that Burt Lancaster was ever in. The Killers, The Crimson Pirate, Come Back, Little Sheba, Run Silent Run Deep. All of them. And then of course, toward the end of his career, really starting in the early ’60s, when he did The Leopard, and then he started doing some European productions, he did Conversation Piece at the end of his career with Visconti, and that’s how I got into Visconti. I saw The Leopard, and then I saw Death in Venice after that, of course, and that was awesome. It is a magnificent movie.

I kind of am… an apologist is the wrong word, although some people think Visconti’s work is uneven. I don’t agree. I’m a huge fan, even, of Ludwig. I just luxuriate in Ludwig. I don’t care how long it is, or what’s going on. Five hours of Helmut Berger, and I’m in. There’s an incredible moment where he’s bankrupted Bavaria, building Neuschwanstein. Romy Schneider walks into the castle and it’s all filled with mirrors and gilded, and she looks at it, a beat of silence, looking around, what’s her reaction going to be? She just breaks into laughter, and it’s beautiful. Why are we talking about Visconti? What are we supposed to talk about?

DEADLINE: Well, we’re supposed to talk about this little movie that you’ve created. I feel that many filmmakers—and filmmakers revere Kubrick perhaps more than any other group—set out at some point to make their own 2001; is this movie your attempt?

GRAY: I love 2001 like nothing else, really. I mean, it’s top five for me.

The thing is though, it’s interesting, because if you look at the science fiction genre, there’s Steven Spielberg science fiction movies, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s, they’re very different, but they both often deal with aliens.

In 2001, Kubrick beats the trap of false gods, because they’re not good aliens and bad aliens, they’re sort of like this black slab, monolith probe thing, and you can project anything you want on it. You don’t really see them, and what does it all mean? So, he beats that trap. Spielberg, I would argue, also beats the trap, because the movies play almost like fables. And they are beautiful fables. I don’t really think you should watch E.T. with an eye towards a deep dive into alien life. What it is, is it’s really about this kid dealing with a divorce, and his loneliness, which is why it’s beautiful.

So, knowing all of this, what I wanted to do was to do the opposite of what had come before, not because I don’t love those movies—I do—but that’s the point. You love them, so you don’t want to rip them off and copy them.

What I was trying to do was to say, OK, well, what if there’s nothing? What if you can’t rely on the potential beauty of a furry little man to help you out in a moment of need, or some horrible goblin that will destroy you? What if, really, the only thing that matters is human beings? Because the truth is, that’s probably right. I mean, if there is intelligent alien life, we know we can’t communicate with it, because we’ve been sending signals since the 1960s, when SETI first started.

So, they’re not going to respond, which means they can’t communicate with us. We can’t communicate with them. They’re probably so far away we’ll never reach them, so then by all intents and purposes, we are alone in the universe. What does that mean for the species? It is, I think, almost a metaphysical question.

Ad Astra
Major McBride (Brad Pitt) attempts to contact his father in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” Fox

There was that question, coupled with the very real thing that we plan on going to Mars in 2033. And they’re going to have to find a crew of people who will be able to tolerate themselves and each other for a year and a half, in very close quarters. They’re almost assuredly going to be seeking out people with schizoid personality disorder, or something much like that.

I thought, Well, that’s interesting to me, that these people are all assembled for that very loner quality. And what does that mean, if they’re confronted with the fact that we’re all alone? Well, it’s one thing to have schizoid personality disorder and choose to be alone, but that’s not the same thing. That’s a very different thing, in being forced to be alone; essentially solitary confinement. That’s a very cruel form of punishment, and the mind starts playing terrible tricks.

DEADLINE: I can’t remember who it was that said it was terrifying to consider the prospect of extra-terrestrial life in our universe, but that it was just as terrifying to consider the absence of it.

GRAY: It was Arthur C. Clarke. He said, “Either we’re not alone in the universe, or we are, and both are equally terrifying.” It’s amazing, and it’s true. That is a horrifying prospect. That was actually a quote that I had read early on in the development process of the movie, which I thought was really great. Really interesting. I forget when, exactly, because I’ve been working on this thing since 2011.

DEADLINE: Did Ad Astra take longer to develop than your other movies?

GRAY: No, they all take a pretty long time. The only one that didn’t was a film I made called Two Lovers, which came together very quickly. That’s the only one.

I created a folder with all these things in it. I had read first about the Mars Mission, whom they were going to try and recruit, so that’s why that schizoid personality disorder thing started to come into play. I was researching all of this stuff, and you know, you always wonder, is somebody going to say the character or the movie or whatever is cold? To me, that was sort of the point. To explore what that means.

When you listen to the first press conference that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins did after their release from quarantine, it’s fascinating, because you’re talking about the first human beings to walk on another celestial body, which is something of profound metaphysical implications for the species. And really, Armstrong was just talking about oxygen pressure, and the switch breaking. He was very much an engineer. It’s weird. It’s a paradox. You need that type of person to go and do that, and yet that type of person is ill-equipped to really discuss and unpack what it means.

DEADLINE: In Brad Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, there are shades of Martin Sheen as Willard in Apocalypse Now. You are left to wonder if it’s the journey that unpicks his mind, or if he started from a place of insanity.

GRAY: That movie, obviously, was very important to me. I always felt that the journey for Martin Sheen’s character in that film is quite different though, because there, he wants to get back in the jungle. The very beginning of the movie, he’s punching the mirror—and he famously did it for real and got blood all over his hand. Willard was already deeply damaged, and quite aware of a certain level of trauma. Here, Roy is not aware of it at all. He’s completely in denial, and he’s pushed it all down.

And in that film, he has to confront the horror. And here, I think Roy has to go through something quite different, because he’s confronting his actual father, it’s not a metaphorical father. And what does that mean? To me, it’s ultimately optimistic. He wanted to be an astronaut. He went out there, and there’s nothing. What does that mean? Part of it was to return home. Try and build something here with other human beings.

DEADLINE: He feels the weight of his father’s legacy. H. Clifford McBride is revered on Earth as an astronaut, but he’s been absent from his son’s life since his Roy was 16. Meanwhile, Roy’s dreams of becoming an astronaut don’t get much further than a sub-orbital array.

GRAY: Yeah. I mean, it implies he’s been to the moon a couple of times, but the moon is like a mall.

It’s very interesting, because they have found that it’s a very different thing for the astronauts that go up 200 miles up in the ISS, where the Earth is still most of your vision when you look out the window.

DEADLINE: Right. They say that the Apollo astronauts are the only people that ever saw the Earth as a globe.

GRAY: And it’s a very different psychological effect, apparently. They don’t know for sure what would happen the further you go out, but they’re anticipating that it has potentially serious consequences. When the Earth is just a blue dot, what does that mean?

So, this certainly went into the kind of thought process that Brad and I had discussed about the character. It became very important to us, this idea that the Earth all of a sudden gets smaller and smaller, and the sun gets smaller and smaller. All the things that we know—all the things that are tangible and beautiful—seem further and further away. We thought this was an excellent context for something.

We did want to put some very red-meat things into it. I mean, I had never, obviously, seen a Lunar Rover sequence before. It’s only recently that the technology enables you to do that. I had also seen Felix Baumgartner perform this jump, and so I’d wanted to put a guy tumbling back down to the Earth at the opening of the movie. It was a real attempt to be both broad and subtle about it, and about what that meant.

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A band of lunar pirates attacks McBride’s rover in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” Fox

DEADLINE: McBride’s rover is attacked by lunar pirates, because the moon has become a mess of different factions fighting over resources. It’s like a moment out of Mad Max, but with a strange soundtrack because it takes place on a celestial body with no atmosphere. Were you referencing those movies there?

GRAY: You’re not the first person to say that to me. I didn’t intend it to be a Mad Max thing, although I can see that. By the way, I’m huge admirer of George Miller. I love George Miller’s work so much. You know what I think is a great movie that’s really underrated? I’ll fight with anybody on this. Lorenzo’s Oil, which I think is really beautiful. It was derided. And I just think it’s a beautiful movie.

But no, there was something kind of chaotic about it that felt like Mad Max. It’s a weird sequence, because when we mixed it, I realized that you can only mix the sound that he would hear or feel. You find yourself having to mix it a totally subjective track, which is weird.

The guy who did it, Gary Rydstrom, is a really brilliant sound designer. I didn’t want to violate the no sound in space thing at all. But he said, “Well, you would hear something. You would feel the vibration, and you would hear the static of radio… you would hear all that stuff through the tubes in your suit.” I found that interesting. So, every sound effect used was in some way processed as it would be through a suit. And it makes the scene very strange.

The way the buggies move and everything, that’s all CG. That was a pain in the ass that I have to do it, but that was not possible five years ago, which is cool.

DEADLINE: There are also a lot of zero gravity sequences in the movie.

GRAY: Yeah. Huge pain in the ass, by the way. It’s a huge drag. You know, I have huge admiration for Alfonso Cuarón, because I don’t know how he made that movie Gravity, knowing now what it is. What we tried to do, as much as we could, was go old school. We built two sets; a horizontal set, and then a vertical one. On the horizontal set, you would put the actor on a moving rig. And then the vertical, you’re shooting from the bottom looking up, and you hang the actor on wires. Usually, they’re blocking the wires. When they’re not, you paint them out. It’s a very effective effect when you combine the two sets, and the wides and the close-ups.

But it was not a pleasant thing for the actors. I felt very bad for Brad and for the others who had to do it, because they’re in a harness, and they have to be either upside down or sideways. It demands tremendous core strength and they would be very sore. You would get only three or four shots in a day, doing that, in the vertical sets. But it is, I think, pretty convincing.

The thing is, I didn’t play no gravity on the moon, which of course, is not right anyway, the moon has one-sixth gravity. But what we kind of thought was maybe there would be weighted shoes that would give you the same feeling. Mars is one-third gravity. Mars has an atmosphere. Mars has sound. That’s, in some ways, like the Earth with climate change gone awry. So that, in a way, is the much more plausible Earth-like conditions.

Now we tried to study the whole plan, where they talk about these underground tunnels, the lava tunnels, on Mars. So, everything is set in these weird, seemingly endless tunnels that are sort of preformed for us. That’s where they would probably have some kind of habitat. We tried to put thought into all that stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off, but sometimes I hope it does.

DEADLINE: You say it was a drag to do the more technical stuff. Was it too much of a drag to want to ever go back?

GRAY: No, I mean, it was also kid in the candy store stuff. It was not a drag to make, but I think the zero-gravity stuff was a drag, and the digi-double stuff—which is not very much, by the way. Hanging Brad on wires on a 50-foot line. He was great about it, but it wasn’t easy.

Plus, I get nervous when I see the actors up there. I don’t like looking at them in what looks like a pretty perilous position. You can tell it’s unpleasant. And you can’t do many takes before you destroy the actor’s ability to emote. And again, I want to be clear, there was no complaining from anybody, but it’s not about that. You don’t want to have Tommy Lee [Jones] in a rig, doing 25 takes. You can’t do it.

So, that part of it was a bit painstaking. The post process was also painstaking for me, because it’s important that the stuff look good and all that, and a lot of times, you have to create the shot entirely from scratch, and that’s very weird.

It’s basically like making a kind of semi 3D painting. You have pre- and post-vis, but it doesn’t really approximate what the thing is going to look like, and you have to get it right. If you make a mistake in judging the animation, they turn to you and they say, “What are you talking about? That’s rendered. You did that with the animation you chose.” So, I realize I really have to be so specific about the animation on a very basic level. And that was painstaking. That took forever.

Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” Fox

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not complaining. I loved it. But it doesn’t arrive fully formed. If you’re directing a scene with two actors, for example, in a room, actors are dependent on what they can perceive, listening to the other actor, using the set.

I mean, I’m always thinking of that very famous thing where Eva Marie Saint drops her glove in On the Waterfront, and Brando picks it up and starts playing with it. That’s the tactile thing that actors do. And when you put them in a black box hanging from a harness with CG stuff, it robs the actors of that. So then, as the director, you have to fill it up. It’s a lot to consider, and I made a lot of mistakes, and then I had to redo them. I was just lucky enough to have a group of people that supported me doing that.

DEADLINE: Your films have always seemed to have a particular fascination for what you can capture in a moment. For all the development on a project, and for all the work you do later in the editing room, for you, is it all about the magic that happens in the moment you point a camera at good performers?

GRAY: Absolutely, there’s no way around it.

If you’re a cinephile, you’re going to know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that the movies have gone through a particularly interesting history, and they’re still not that old. For full sound, you’re talking about, what, 1929? Jazz Singer is not full sound. It’s just songs with a little bit of talking. So, you’re talking 90 years. And in that period, you’ve gone through a history where there was the pre-code cinema, then the studio system comes in and makes its own stamp, using filmic representational acting. And in that style, Hitchcock could storyboard every shot. He could tell Cary Grant, or Jimmy Stewart, or Tippi Hedren, or whomever, “Hit that mark. Go over here. Do that.” And it would somehow fit into a scheme. You would accept bad process shots while driving, for example.

But then, when the style of acting became method, when Brando came in, and Montgomery Clift before him, actually, the style of directing had to change. You couldn’t do it in that storyboarded way. You couldn’t fit Brando or Clift into that box. They started picking up the glove. In Streetcar Named Desire, he started to pick at the feathers as they were floating in the air. So, you had to adapt, and that was [Elia] Kazan’s gift.

So, what does that mean? That means where the director puts the camera invariably has to become a compromise between where the director thinks the shot is best, and where the actor feels motivated to move, and that’s a trickier proposition. That’s when it becomes about capturing moments. So the style of directing really followed the style of acting, not the other way around.

It’s why Hitchcock, who is obviously one of my favorites, towards the end, if you look at Family Plot or Topaz or Frenzy, there’s a stiffness to them that you can’t put your finger on why it doesn’t work. I think it’s for this reason. He was unable to shoehorn into his style the looseness that came with the new Hollywood, post Cassavetes.

Now the irony is, the movies in some ways have taken a step back toward the original style. You act in a green box now, which is all computer-generated later. And it even is reflected in the style of scores. Max Steiner could write a score that would be scoring every individual moment. They’re in love, and you hear romantic music. And then Bonnie and Clyde came along, with scoring that was ironic. The use of Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” that’s ironic score.

Again, Hollywood used to score movies in that Max Steiner way, but now it’s come back again, and there’s more music in movies. If I were making this film 40 years ago, I might use less music. I think that the style, too, has come back around a little bit.

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Major Roy McBride takes a walk on the surface of Mars in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” Fox

DEADLINE: Your use of effect shots in this movie is as sparing as it can be, considering the story you’re telling. But where do you think Hollywood is going with this increased reliance on computer-generated images?

GRAY: Well, I’m alarmed about what I see. Because for me, the cinema—at least the mainstream commercial cinema—is in an utterly parlous state. It’s very frightening. Now, you’ll talk to somebody who writes stuff for cinema with probably great eloquence, and they’ll mention Lav Diaz, or somebody like that, and that’s great. And I would encourage anyone to see those films. I would encourage everyone to see every movie that they could by Elia Suleiman, who’s a great director. But that’s a somewhat unfair thing to talk about, because if I’m living in Tucson, Arizona, there’s no chance I can see a movie directed Elia Suleiman. I mean, maybe I can go five years after it comes out to some museum, you know, in Phoenix, or something, but that’s not really an option.

So, you read, sometimes, very eloquent people saying, with great authority, that cinema’s not dead, that it’s as alive as ever, because you have all these new voices, and all of that is true. That’s not to deny though, the fact that most people can’t get that.

DEADLINE: It feels like cinema has splintered. There is the cinema of commerce and the cinema of art, and while they both compete for the same screens and talent, very little crossover is possible between the two. Both absolutely serve their purpose, and they’re both great, but do you think a director stepping into a franchise movie is creating something that will define who they are in their filmography?

GRAY: It’s a total business decision. And the irony is, of course, that George Lucas, for example, had incredible talent, and a genius for story.

I think Empire Strikes Back is a beautiful movie. I know that’s Irvin Kershner, and it was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, but there’s no doubt George Lucas came up with the idea of, “Luke, I am your father.” I remember seeing my son’s reaction when he first heard that line.

He made a ton of money, but George Lucas, I think he wanted to make one of those Saturday morning Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon-type movies, and succeeded beyond his dreams.

Steven Spielberg also succeeded beyond his dreams. But Spielberg’s work is very heartfelt. On the flight over here, I watched Jaws, which of course I’ve seen a billion times. I’ve always been a huge fan of it. It’s a very influential movie for me. But I hadn’t seen it in a while, and I couldn’t fall asleep, so I started watching it. I love it.

I was struck by how almost Altman-esque some of the direction was at times. I don’t mean that he stole from Robert Altman. It’s totally Spielberg’s style. But there’s a lot of overlapping dialogue. And Roy Scheider goes to get paint brushes to make the signs, and the brushes fall. The little improvisatory thing. He’ll throw a rock at the window to try and get the other cop’s attention. The kid who copies his dad at the dinner table at night, you know?  I mean, there’s beautiful direction there. Real attention to detail. And a tenderness.

And what I worry with the current generation—frankly my generation, and there are some fantastic directors working today—is that if we look at it as a business, we lose what I’m talking about, that Spielberg had. That thing you’re talking about, where it’s just a business decision, versus a movie that’s successful, but that also endeavors to be a work of art, that’s really what we’re talking about. There’s a big difference.

DEADLINE: I believe it’s still possible, but even successful actors and directors will tell me that they struggle to make a living without submitting to the odd business-decision movies.

GRAY: 100%. There’s no doubt about it. I could not support myself making $2 million or $3 million movies.

I think it has to do with the concentration of corporate power. I think it has to do with the terror of risk. I think that the cost of marketing is very high, so they become leery. Although, having said that, you contemplate certain facts. 2001 was $8 million in 1965, ’66. That was MGM’s entire production budget. That’s like spending $400 million on a movie today. So, I think they’re just sort of crying wolf to a small degree.

I do think that the numbers are not there anymore, because of the ancillaries. But I mean, it’s all business. And I think that it has to do with how expensive it is to market the movie. But you know, it’s interesting how these things shift, right? Because years ago, they said, “Well, a lot of it goes into prints. If we don’t have to make prints anymore…” And now you don’t have to make prints and it’s cheaper. But now they have to spend it on the marketing. Maybe someday, something will come along where you don’t have to spend it on the marketing. It can be word of mouth driven again.

You know, that’s another thing that changed. I think it was The Godfather and Love Story, where they started to release them the way they did B-movies, which was to release them very wide as opposed to releasing them in one or two theaters and allowing the word of mouth to carry. So, it changes the dynamic, because the audience can’t find the film anymore. Then you have to know about it… They call it IP, where you have to know about what it is beforehand.

That’s why, really, the company that financed this film, New Regency, and Arnon Milchan, and Yariv Milchan, and I’m not just saying this for the benefit of the tape, but they deserve huge credit for making this movie. And so does Brad for having the courage to do it, because this is not a cookie-cutter Marvel thing.

I think the audience needs something where there’s an attempt. Whether this is successful or not is for you to decide, artistically, I mean. But, certainly, something that delivers thrills in an interesting way, and we were certainly making it our business to do that. You know, zero gravity fights, and climbing up rockets, and flying through the rings of a planet. All that’s there, and that’s great. But it’s just not immediate IP, you know? And that’s a huge risk now. That’s unfortunate.

DEADLINE: When you look at the filmography of a company like Plan B, as an example, the risks they’re taking—even if they shouldn’t really be risks—are paying dividends, both artistically and commercially.

GRAY: I mean, you can’t help but feel thankful for people in the industry who will commit to something like this. It’s funny, it doesn’t seem like something that would demand what we might call courage, dare I say it. It shouldn’t be. But it is. It is. And that’s both unfortunate, but also for me, fortunate.

Ad Astra
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) heads into space in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” Fox

The truth is, is that Brad Pitt could use his oomph to do junk, but he doesn’t. Many do. But he doesn’t. How can you not be grateful for that?

Plan B did also my previous film, which is called The Lost City of Z. Zed.

DEADLINE: Do you say Zed?

GRAY: Well, I have to, because that’s the correct… that’s what [Percy Fawcett] said. I mean, it’s correct. It’s funny, I don’t even think of it as an American movie, because I made it in the UK and then the Amazon.

Anyway, I had worked with Plan B already, making that movie. And the fact that they gave me Z as a piece of material should tell you something. It’s just very literary in some ways. I don’t mean that in a stodgy way, or pretentious way, but it’s very narratively adventurous. And there actually aren’t a lot of those kinds of people left. I think their work speaks for itself.

DEADLINE: You mentioned earlier that you worked through the ideas for this movie and this character with Brad. How collaborative was the relationship even before cameras rolled?

GRAY: It was very collaborative. I had written the script in 2011. I couldn’t get the money and the timing for Z; I couldn’t get it together. You forget these things now, exactly why, or what happened. I think it was Brad’s availability, and then that got clouded. And then the company that was going to finance it fell apart. All those things in making movies that can possibly come up.

So, then I went off to make a movie, which was called The Immigrant. I kind of put this on the shelf while I did that. And then the money came together for Z, so I went off and did that, and this was still on the shelf. When I finished that, Brad was a big fan of the movie, and he just said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “Would you do this?”

It certainly evolved with his participation quite a bit, and that’s OK, because that’s kind of the way it has to be. Like I’ve explained to you before, this whole idea where the director just puts the actor into a set and moves him or her around, that’s over. It’s been over since the ’50s. I’ve never heard really in detail, what kind of collaboration Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have had, for example. They’ve made a million movies together. I can only speak to my relationship, for example, with Joaquin Phoenix, who I’ve made four movies with, and it’s very collaborative. You cannot order the actor around anymore. I mean, you could, but it’ll be bad. You know what I mean? They’ll look like mannequins or something.

So no, Brad had his ideas, absolutely. And he has great taste for all that stuff. His thoughts and his ideas are definitely up there on the screen in the movie, without question.

You know, there’s this thing where he does the psychological evaluation. It’s about mid-way through the movie. I set up two cameras. I think I did 12 takes. And they were all improvisational. One very different from the other. And the work was beautiful in all of them. I could have chosen any one of them. But that’s an example of how… It’s not like, “Here’s the dialogue, you say it.” It’s not like theater.

DEADLINE: Do you know yet where you want to go next?

GRAY: You mean, having been to the jungle and then outer space? Yeah, I don’t know where I want to go. I just finished this a week and a half ago. I’m also going to go off and do an opera mid-October and start rehearsals. That’s in Paris. Marriage of Figaro. So, my attention is actually a little bit dedicated to that.

There are a couple of movies that I’m circling for sure, but I’m tired. I mean, when I tell you that we finished this a week and a half ago, I’m not exaggerating. They pulled the plug on the mixing. “James, that’s it, you have no more time.” I would still be mixing now, if I could.




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