Brad Pitt made the first move with James Gray.
In 1995, he saw Gray's debut "Little Odessa" and decided to call up the young filmmaker behind the grim Brooklyn crime drama. They've been talking ever since — about films, life and working together. But it would take almost 25 years for the stars to finally align, fittingly, for an ambitious, original space odyssey called "Ad Astra" that opens in theaters nationwide Friday.
"It's a gutsy film," Pitt said last month. The 55-year-old both produced and stars in the story about an astronaut who ventures almost entirely alone into the outer reaches of space to investigate a disturbance that may be tied to his missing father. It's something Gray had been working on for years.
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Pitt's choice of the word "gutsy" is appropriate, not just as a description of the film and its exploration of big themes like masculinity with the grand canvas of space as its backdrop, but in talking about the fact that it exists at all. Not many studios and production companies are handing over $80 million for original ideas anymore. That Pitt's Plan B, New Regency and 20th Century Fox banded together to make "Ad Astra" happen is, Gray said, "Beyond rare...It's a big risk."
Pitt, sitting next to his director, chimed in: "It's why studios have veered away from them. They're a big gamble: The cost, the prints and advertising. It's why they have to take safer bets."
The business has changed so much that Gray doubts that "Ad Astra" would even be made today. But three years ago the two decided to take a leap on this big idea to make an epic set in the near future that Gray likes to call "science-fact-fiction." Gray was fascinated by the type of personality that's required for space travel and that Neil Armstrong, upon returning to Earth from the Apollo 11 mission talked only about the logistics and facts — nothing metaphysical or contemplative.
"Deflection," Pitt said. "I do it all the time."
Not that Pitt isn't introspective about his work. He said he was drawn to the idea of the "dark night of the soul. When one is really forced to address their self and the things we carry and most likely bury, congenital griefs, regrets, those personal pains and to come out the other side, hopefully, embracing those is the way to becoming whole."
"It was something on my mind as well," Pitt said.
And his performance is a standout that critics and awards observers have taken note of, on top of his acclaimed work earlier this summer in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."
"He is a fabulous actor," Gray said. "And there aren't that many fabulous actors with mucho charisma in the world."
Pitt disagrees with his friend, but he is happy to keep working.
"I so believe in being creative and want to be creative till it's all said and done, until someone pulls the plug on me," Pitt said.
Part of that involves throwing his production company's weight behind ambitious, original projects, some of which work out and go on to win Oscars and steer the cultural conversation ("12 Years a Slave," ''Moonlight"), and some that don't. Plan B produced Gray's last film, "The Lost City of Z," a period adventure film about explorer Percy Fawcett, which never played on more than 1,000 theaters, nor made back its $30 million production budget.
"Ad Astra" has already seen a bit of turbulence before its release. It was one the Fox films that is now being released by Disney after it acquired the rival studio, causing "Ad Astra's" release date to shift a few times.
"It's like worrying about the alignment of the planets. It's so past your pay grade," said Gray, who was finishing the film when the deal was happening. "Was I worried? No, because I can't do anything about it. I just thought, 'Well that's weird.' But I will say in one small respect I disagree with Brad on this. I do think that one company controlling 40% of the theatrical market in the world is a dangerous proposition. That's almost a monopoly. So to the degree that means fewer films, fewer, fewer chances to make this kind of film, that's a source of some concern."
Pitt has also been asking big questions like if "film as an art form is going to last" when the two start riffing about whether they have the same staying power today.
"If I say to you 'I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,' you know what I just did, right?" Gray asked. "Can you quote me a line from 'Avatar?'"
Pitt's response? He loves "Avatar."
But Gray has a bigger argument: "It's visually spectacular, but it's a different form of the medium. And if we lose 'I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,' then we lose something big."
By this point, Pitt had wandered over to the massive window in the room and was snapping photos of the beach and water outside when he started to laugh to himself. He said he was thinking about the lasting quotes that have come from his own career and spit-balled a few, like "What's in the box?" from "Seven," and "Don't condescend me, man," from "True Romance."
Nothing, he concluded, had the weight of Marlon Brando's line from "The Godfather."
"Well you know what Francois Truffaut said," Gray asked. "He said cinema has to be part truth, part spectacle."
Pitt paused and thought about it: "Now we either have all spectacle or all truth."
The hope is that "Ad Astra" is a bit of both.