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One of the most accomplished movie stars of his generation, Brad Pitt has been entertaining audiences as an actor and a producer since his screen debut in the late 1980s. Few can forget the indelible mark Pitt has left on films as diverse as THELMA & LOUISE, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, FIGHT CLUB, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and 12 YEARS A SLAVE, to name only a handful.
In two acting roles on release this year, Pitt shows the full gamut of his range. In Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, Pitt played stuntman Cliff Booth, who ekes a living in 1960s Los Angeles as the career of his friend, movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), feeling like he’s wilting on the vine.
And now, in James Gray’s AD ASTRA, Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut burdened by the disappearance of his father when Roy was just 16. When the US government contacts Roy to explain that not only might his father still be alive, but he might be responsible for a series of energy bursts emanating from the far reaches of our solar system, and causing untold damage on Earth, Roy must journey to find him and reckon with the ideas he has held since he was a boy. Among them, perhaps the most existential question of all: are we alone in the universe?
Pitt also serves as a producer on the film, through his company Plan B, which also produced James Gray’s previous movie THE LOST CITY OF Z. From the Venice Film Festival world premiere of AD ASTRA, Pitt explains what drew him to the project, and opens up about the challenging but fulfilling journey he took with Gray to land the film.
You first met James Gray at Sundance in 1995, right?
That’s right. I had called him up after seeing LITTLE ODESSA. We just became immediate friends, as you see with James. He’s great for conversation, and we had been friends ever since. We always talked about doing something together. AD ASTRA was the one that finally lined up for us.
You were able to produce THE LOST CITY OF Z with James before this. What are your memories of working with him on that?
I remember, we were at the final edit stage for THE LOST CITY OF Z, which I thought was just a gorgeous film. I could see something in James. He is so well versed in film history and what’s come before. But I could feel, in this one, a real personal film. It was something I had started to see it in THE IMMIGRANT.
To back up, James and I both love the late ’60s early ’70s films. It’s probably the bar for both of us. When we were finishing LOST CITY, I could see his growth. Inasmuch as he knows the masters, in this movie I could see him really, really getting his hand on the reins of his own personal story, and that’s when it’s best.
Did the conversations about AD ASTRA begin during that process?
They did. He said, “I got this thing I’ve been bouncing around…” It was AD ASTRA, and it just felt like the original idea he had was contrary to most sci-fi films. It came from a quote that’s attributed to Arthur C. Clarke. “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” In other words, either aliens exist, or we are completely and utterly alone, and either one is equally scary. This was a really unique jumping-off point.
The other thing was our early conversations – or what was emerging from the film – were about this difficulty to connect, and these questions of masculinity. What are the things that hold us back, in our training as men, from having deeper, more fulfilling relationships, not only with the people we love but with ourselves?
Those two ideas were enough for me. It felt right. It was my old friend James. I thought, Let’s go see what this thing is.
Were you drawn at all to the idea of the mystery of this character’s journey? Was piecing together that puzzle part of the appeal?
Definitely. You have to know that you don’t know. One does not know what the film is going to be when you jump off. It’s always a gamble.
Now, for example, with Quentin [Tarantino] it’s OK; his dialogue is so specific, and I know his vernacular, so I have a really good idea of where we’re going to land. But with this particular film, I didn’t at all. These were big ideas; very difficult ideas to get across in two hours, in a film format. I had no idea how we were going to get there. I’m not sure James even knew, but it was worthy of the journey.
How did that manifest in the process?
James and I have always talked more personally and more openly about our own foibles, and we usually have a good laugh over that. We kept developing the script, right up until shooting, and what James did while were in production was, in the morning I would receive these texts from him for the day’s shoot. They would always be about something very personal in his life. Something that was very exposing of himself.
That would kick off our day’s conversation. And then, that would instruct the scenes we were shooting. We would re-hone the scenes that day according to our conversations. So, the shape of the thing was always in flux.
When we got to editing this film, I would call this the hardest film I’ve ever been a part of. That was surprising to me, but it was also joyful to me because I feel like if you think you know exactly how everything should be done, you are done.
So, the surprising thing on this one was just how delicate it was in the editing process. One line of voiceover, or a music cue, could so easily tip the cart over, and we would have to pick it back up and start back again. This was consistent through the whole film; it was really challenging in that way.
There are definite influences in AD ASTRA from Joseph Conrad; especially in the novel HEART OF DARKNESS, which became the movie APOCALYPSE NOW. That movie had a famously challenging shoot, but the finished film is widely considered to be a masterpiece.
We had to keep reminding ourselves, they didn’t have that thing figured out. They had to even reach out for help from others. And that’s OK.
I mean, there are literally stories about how many times Martin Sheen had to redo the voiceover, and how they had to reach out to others that helped hone that voiceover. Of course, in the documentary HEARTS OF DARKNESS, about the making of the movie, you see it’s his wife that sees the ceremony that becomes the metaphor for the final scene in APOCALYPSE NOW. They didn’t even know how to end it until then. We weren’t sure how to end ours. There were definite parallels in the making of this movie.
At the same time, the character’s journey is very different. While Willard in APOCALYPSE NOW slowly descends, it seems like Roy, in AD ASTRA, actually warms up as he reckons with the ideas that he’s held all his life. Did that strike you?
I never was able to define it that way when he did it, but I think that’s the truth. In retrospect, I think we were originally heading towards that dark night of the soul, where our character has to go to the furthest reaches of our solar system to find himself utterly alone, to not have anyone else to rely on, or any TV to distract, or any drugs to escape with. So, he’s really left having to confront the self. The self with all of its griefs, all its buried pain and regrets.
Going back to those ideas about masculinity, I think we’ve grown up with these ideas: that we must be strong at all times, that we must not show weakness, that we must be capable. And we must not let anyone disrespect us, which is the one that always makes me laugh. Talk about a fool’s errand.
So, it’s having to fully acknowledge and get your arms around those things within, instead of denying them, because that idea of perceived strength and denying self-doubts and vulnerability… Having to deny those things is actually denying a part of one’s self.
In my life, I’ve come to believe that it’s being open – for your kids, for your loved ones, your friends, and yourself – that you have to look at. You have to be able to fully acknowledge yourself. Really, what we’re talking about is really knowing yourself. Or constantly trying to know yourself. And being open about that with others.
To me, that’s what makes true confidence. That’s what I’ve found, is a real confidence, and a true competence comes from that. That is much more stable and stronger than any perceived idea of, “Just do it.”
You say that was something you’ve learned on your journey. Did it take a while to come to that realization?
Yes, and I think it was why I was even drawn to this film at that time. It’s something I certainly was focused on, looking at, and questioning at that time. I think James was in the same place. Then, we all get out of it what we get out of it.
Do you think that there’s an end to that road, or do you think it’s an ongoing thing?
I think it’s ongoing. I think it’s always something you’re striving for. I’ve failed multiple times since then. This morning, probably. But then you get back on the horse faster and you can redirect.
You spent much of your other movie this year, Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, driving around the sun-kissed streets of Los Angeles. Is it fair to say that being dispatched into the dark of space, with so much zero gravity wire work, represented a slightly more complicated technical challenge?
Slightly [laughs]. But I would say, if we’re talking about the individual, I believe the individual would have to go through some sort of raw experience to get to the place of inner peace that the Cliff character [in ONCE UPON A TIME] exudes.
Doing the zero-gravity stuff on AD ASTRA was a bit like putting on a PETER PAN stage production. You’re strung up on wires and, in this one, we’re in tight, confined spaces and it’s not like you’re just hanging, because only bits of your body are hanging. And so, you’re being pulled in all sorts of uncomfortable areas, and yet you have to project the calm and relaxed state of zero gravity.
You do get used to that. So, then you can get to the place where emotions can still come out and you’re not just sitting there strained, trying to hold your skull up while the blood is rushing to your head and you’re feeling literal pressure. Meanwhile, wearing the spacesuit was like putting on a garbage bag, and then putting a snowmobile suit over the top of it.
But I don’t know, on every film we do, there’s a relative degree of discomfort. Even with Cliff, every morning I had to put on the scar prosthetics. It comes with the territory. We’ve grown to expect that.