A sci-fi thriller set in the future, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as an elite astronaut who travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father. His journey helps unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet.
Directed by James Gray (Lost City of Z), Ad Astra also stars Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones (Jason Bourne), Ruth Negga (Loving), Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings), and Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games).
While most space movies pit humans and aliens against each other, director Gray hopes this film will offer a different perspective.
“There have been so many great films made in the science fiction genre, but how many are there that move you? I wanted to do something that was the opposite of most space travel movies, to offer a somewhat positive view which results in meeting aliens, or intelligent life, that are benevolent – or at least interesting enough to involve us,” he says.
Writer Ethan Gross says the film doesn’t attempt to predict the future, but rather offers one version of it.
“This story is not necessarily the future we think is going to happen ... It’s just a film about what could happen if space exploration continued and we populated the moon and Mars and beyond,” he says.
Surprisingly, for a film that mostly takes place in outer space, Ad Astra involved very little green screen or CGI work.
For most of the sets depicting the Earth, the moon, Mars and Neptune, the filmmakers chose to shoot in real locations rather than on stages.
For production designer Kevin Thompson and the rest of the location team, this meant driving all over Los Angeles County in search of environments that would match Gray’s vision.
Location manager Chris Kusiak admits that finding locations was a real challenge. He scouted places that he had never been to before, including an abandoned department store in downtown Los Angeles. Underneath the building was an old subway station where trains used to terminate.
“We needed a lot of underground sites, and Los Angeles is not a city for that – that’s more New York or Pennsylvania,” says Kusiak.
“[Thompson] did a brilliant job, but we shot in such cramped quarters, which was the goal because that’s what it is really like on a spacecraft,” Gray adds. “And we had to build the sets twice, because we had to have both horizontal and vertical versions.
“There were times when Brad would be in a harness hanging 30 feet up and the camera would be looking up at him as he was hanging. It looked like zero gravity, but it was very arduous.”
To give the film a timeless look, Thompson decided to eschew any futuristic-looking gadgets and weapons, and calls the props used an “extension of the 60s and 70s space technology”.
“We’re taking a little step backwards,” says Thompson, “with people still using paper, still using old systems of communication.”
“We didn’t want to distract with futuristic technology. The most futuristic item we have is a little, clear scanner because the screens will be transparent and project information on them. We use those, but we also used tablets and flat screens for video imagery. It feels minimal enough that it won’t appear too dated,” he explains.