In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s Roy not only goes on a physical journey to space, but he goes on a mental and emotional space, getting in touch with the uncertainty of his father who went missing many years ago.
James Gray teamed with screenwriter Ethan Gross to pen the script to explore that emotion and focus on the character-driven narrative while giving us the Visual Effects action of a space movie. To craft the story both Gross and Gray delved into documentaries and researched space travel. Once that came together, Gross focused on the emotional heart of the narrative.
I caught up with Gross to talk about the evolution of the Ad Astra screenplay:
How did Ad Astra evolve for you?
James and I have known each other for a long time and have often discussed what we like and don’t like in movies, science fiction and otherwise. Once we realized that we’d like to shape a science fiction story together, Ad Astra evolved gradually, with different aspects coming into focus at different times. Inspirations such as Heart of Darkness and 2001 helped grow the idea. The anecdote concerning the development of the atom bomb in which there was some fear that this technology might result in the incineration of much of the Earth’s atmosphere helped inspire the threat facing mankind in our movie. Our main character came into focus when we contemplated the type of person who might willingly go on an extended, possibly one-way journey into deep space. Why would someone give their life to seek meaning in the void of space? What strengths of character would this person have, and what psychological faults? A huge part of the mix is the father-son storyline – it’s a potent one for James, and also for me, as I’ve greatly felt my father’s absence since he died when I was barely into my 20s.
There’s much more to this than a space movie, there’s a lot of emotional heart to this journey – how early was that crafted into the story?
We knew early on that we wanted to tell a personal, emotional story for our astronaut, Roy. We thought an intimate inner journey could coincide nicely with an epic outer journey. At one point we thought the Tommy Lee Jones character would be an old professor of Roy’s or some other kind of mentor figure, but not until he became the literal father figure did we really see what the movie would become. The emotional heart of the journey began to develop when we considered what would make our astronaut tick, what kind of person he would be, how he would feel about the mission and how it would utterly change him.
What was the collaboration like with James?
The collaboration with James was great. It was very exciting for me because I think he’s a great, uncompromising artist who is just getting better with time. I’ve long thought it would be fascinating to see what he could do with a sci-fi movie – and it was fun to bat around ideas with him. We’re longtime friends and the process began in an easygoing, conversational, informal manner. But it was challenging too because James is very discriminating about what he wants – and about what he doesn’t want. And so you end up having to go through a lot of rejected ideas and pages before you get a spark.
We’re looking at space, travel and life years from now, can you talk about your research and working with scientists on this?
We did a lot of research into the science of space travel and other concepts that relate to science fiction. We also looked back at documentaries about the Apollo program. We looked to the past and to the future. In my mind, the movie sort of takes place in an alternate future, one in which the space race continued unabated well past the 60s and 70s, and the moon and Mars got developed and sort of got corrupted and became complicated by gaudy tourism, and made dangerous by lawlessness and militarism. As the story of the film presented itself to us, we consulted with people expert in the sciences to make sure the material could be as plausible as we could make it while still fitting into a scope that is rather mythic and epic. It was gratifying to find brilliant people who were enthusiastic to share their knowledge.
Prior to this, you had worked on Fringe, how was the TV process different to a film script?
While writing TV is generally very different from writing a feature script, the process of creating Fringe stories was somewhat similar to the process of developing Ad Astra because they both involved lots of lively collaboration. And I really love to collaborate with good people. The writer’s room at Fringe was filled with talented, creative mind, and it was a true thrill to be a part of that group energy. Likewise, working with James was a thrill. He’s a source of true inspiration.
What was your relationship with space, travel and the universe before you started on Ad Astra?
Before Ad Astra, I thought that space travel would be something I’d like to experience. It seemed fun. “Ad astra” means “to the stars” which sure sounds fun, but the full phrase is “ad astra per aspera” which means “to the stars, through hardships” – and the hardships are great indeed. I couldn’t deal with the long distances, loneliness, confinement, with nowhere to walk my dogs. So I’m happy to experience space travel from the comfort of a movie theater. But I’m left with even more admiration for the people of NASA and for anyone leading the way to making us a spacefaring species because I firmly believe that it’s a noble and important endeavor.
Ad Astra is on general release