Ad Astra’s Editors Talk Space Pirates, Murderous Monkeys & More
James Gray’s Ad Astra travels as far as the icy colossus Neptune, an achingly gorgeous planet, as blue as our own, but, alas, utterly lifeless. Only that’s not entirely true in Gray’s space epic, which finds Brad Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride traveling to the distant giant planet to find his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). It seems Cliff’s been out there, hovering just above Neptune, for years. The reason he’s become something of an interstellar Colonel Kurtz and what he’s been up to in deep space are of grave importance to both Roy, who has missed his father, and to Earth, whose inhabitants are dealing with a series of energy surges that have cost more than 40,000 lives. Those bursts are emanating from Neptune, and Cliff McBride, who Roy thought died years ago during a mission for NASA, is alive (if not well) and the main suspect.
There’s a lot more going on in Gray’s film than just a space mission to save the universe. Ad Astra balances some truly spectacular sequences with quieter scenes of contemplative beauty. The film is seriously gorgeous to look at (it’s not for nothing that Pitt is in nearly every shot, often in close-up), and often breathtaking, but it’s after more than just beauty and thrills. The taciturn Roy, whose heartbeat is said to never go above 80 beats-per-minute no matter how much danger he’s in, is lost in space long before he leaves for Neptune. He’s estranged from his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler) and has built his life around codes of conduct and manner that put the mission above all else—much like his father did. He’s undeniably competent, excellent at what he does, and entirely miserable. Once he’s given a new mission to make contact with his father, Roy’s life hurtles towards a confrontation not only with the man who abandoned him but also a reckoning with his own abandonment of anything resembling a life.
I got a chance to speak to the film’s editors, John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, after a recent screening of the film. What follows is a moonwalk (apologies) through some of the film’s most breathtaking sequences. Ad Astra is really one of those movies that you absolutely should see on the biggest screen possible. After you go and have absorbed this moving epic, come back and let Axelrad and Haugen take you through some of the film’s most astonishing scenes.
In the opening sequence of the film, Roy’s working on a massive space antenna when the first energy burst hits the planet. Soon enough he’s in mortal danger. Walk me through constructing this scene.
Lee: That opening sequence was quite masterful in the script and what a great way to get the audience hooked. Cutting it was a feat in itself, as you can tell most of it was done on a blue screen. Brad’s performance was fantastic, and we also had a practical skydiver who performed the actual stunt and was flailing around and out of control. The closer shots as he gets halfway down the attennae and he’s starting to stabilize, that’s a real person. Getting those types of elements and seeing someone go through that is scary and breathtaking.
John: It required a lot of imagination because it was so VFX heavy. We didn’t have the tower or the earth below [when we were cutting it]. What makes it so special is seeing the Earth approaching. We had limited footage of the skydiver, obviously, because you can only do so many jumps. When we cut it together and the VFX came in, it was so powerful and people wanted more, so we sent the skydiver back out to shoot more footage.
The rover chase, or what many people are calling ‘the Space Pirate scene,’ feels like it’s going to be a classic. It’s just so riveting and unusual. How’d you put it together?
John: This scene was shot in Death Valley, and it was shot in the summer. So it was close to 120-degrees when they were filming. I was sent out to be there on location. They put me in an air-conditioned trailer, which cooled it down to a nice 86-degrees. These poor guys in the second team unit were out in this heat, while the first unit continued shooting in LA on the sound stage. The footage came in—first performed by all these stunt doubles—and from there I assembled it the best I could. Then we went and had the principal actors, Donald [Sutherland], Brad [Pitt], and Sean [Blakemore] shoot their parts, the close-ups. I incorporated that, and we realized we needed more stunts, so we shot them on a sound stage. Then we shot a couple more inserts of the main actors. Then we said we need some VFX for wide shots because it was too claustrophobic.
We’re essentially seeing most of the scene from Roy’s perspective, but when it pans out and gives us that overhead shot, it almost feels like Mad Max with less gravity…
John: I’ve heard people say it’s like a Mad Max sequence. I loved that film, the editing was phenomenal, but it’s not anything we really referenced here. It was really all about the footage we had and what it dictated to us. The whole time we kept thinking that a scene like this has never been done before. A lunar rover chase on the moon? So at the time, I thought there’s nothing we can really reference, dealing with 1/6th gravity, and the VFX, and the atmosphere. For this scene, we just went with the flow, and it was a slow-motion edit over a four-month period. It just took a lot of time and elbow grease. It was James’ direction ultimately, his sensibility on how he wanted to the scene to develop, that really puts it over the top.
When Roy is traveling from the moon to Mars on the Cepheus, they get a distress call from another ship. When he and the captain board the ship, they encounter murderous space monkeys.
Lee: This scene was put in place because James really wanted to show how dangerous space travel is, whether it’s a hole in your suit or you’re going to help people on a vessel who have sent out an SOS signal. You don’t know what’s happened, it could be a lab in space in which monkeys have gone crazy. All of these disasters make us ask ourselves, ‘Should we really be this far out? Should we be doing this?’ The idea was we wanted to build up that he was exploring a ship he’d never been on and he doesn’t know what’s around every corner. So we had him keep going around these curves and turns, seeing this evidence of trouble like scratch marks on the wall. So we put a floating box in front of him obscuring his view. It was executed brilliantly to have the captain’s body shaking there, confusing both Brad and the audience as to what’s going on, then comes the close-up and the monkey face comes out from behind the mask and screams at Brad. We wanted to get the maximum of threat, so when the monkey attacks they fight hand-to-hand.
John: These are test subject baboons. When they get the SOS, there was a mention made about research animals on board. In a way, it was kind of a statement about animal testing, and more so it was the fact that these baboons were in isolation with the whole crew either deceased or having abandoned ship. The baboons kind of went crazy in space, and it’s a little bit of foreshadowing of what happens to the human mind when you’re in isolation out in space. It’s a very existential film. The two most mysterious things are the human mind and outer space. So the film is really a dive into the subconscious. The baboons represent that primal component of us. So that was the intent of the scene. Yes, it was obviously intended to scare and alarm. But there’s depth behind the shock and the scare. The baboons were all done by Weta Digital, by the way. They’re just amazing at creatures. The baboons are entirely VFX. We added confusion with the shaking body, which made it very eerie. His face is being eaten. There’s a lot of symbolism in that. These baboons represent our primal instincts when we strip away humanity.
Ad Astra is in theaters now.
Featured image: A scene from ‘Ad Astra.’ Credit: Francois Duhamel. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox