'Ad Astra' Won't Be the Next 'Interstellar' — Editors Say It's So Much More

"Epic, intimate journey."

It’s easy to see trailers for Ad Astra and assume it’ll be this year’s Interstellar, a mind-bending and cerebral modern sci-fi drama that takes place in a universe that peers just slightly into our future. Concerns of climate change run rampant in both, and the hero goes on a dramatic journey to save his species — but the similarities stop there, according to Ad Astra editors John Axelrad and Lee Haugen.

“As a film, I think we’re very different,” Axelrad tells Inverse. “What we do share in common: It’s definitely a thinking person’s movie with multiple, rich layers of subtext, but ultimately the message is very different.”

In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with tracking down his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a renegade astronaut who’s been missing for years in the outer reaches of the solar system. He unravels a mystery that threatens the survival of mankind — and the entire planet.

Inverse spoke with Axelrad and his co-editor Lee Haugen about working with director James Gray, how it compares to other space-faring films in its genre, and what the unique challenges were editing Ad Astra.

Inverse: In terms of Ad Astra’s overall “message” being different, what can you say to expand upon that?

Axelrad: Let’s just say that they’re different filmmakers. James Gray has his own voice. I wouldn’t say the message is different per se so much as the voice behind it is different.

What kind of direction did you get from James Gray?

Axelrad: I’ve now done five films with James Gray. Lee is now on his second. We edited together The Lost City of Z. James understands the subtlety and power of editing more than a lot of directors that I’ve worked with.

From the script stage, it will change and morph as we get into and through the production. Then the final rewrite is in the editing. To James’s credit, he’s not precious about holding on to the original concepts from the script. When we work together, we will reshape the story through removing things, moving things around, additional dialogue recording, etc. Nothing was ever set in stone.

Haugen: His focus, as you can see in his other films, is always on character-driven stories. To make sure we never lose the character through editing, to make sure it’s always present, and to know what is going on in our main characters’ minds — how he’s processing different situations throughout the film — is really the goal to editing to make sure that is foremost present in front for audience.

'Ad Astra' includes some kind of moon rover chase sequence.

Walt Disney Motion Pictures

It seems like this is the first sci-fi spacefaring film that you’ve both worked on. What sort of unique challenges came with that?

Axelrad: I like to joke quickly that I drew the short straw and was sent out to Death Valley, where they shot the moon rover chase. In the trailer, you’ll see this lunar rover action sequence. That takes place on the moon, so we went to Death Valley to film it. They shot with infrared cameras, which helped give the sky this very dark color that visual effects was able to enhance and make it look like the surface of the moon.

The challenge with that, not just being there in 120 degree heat in September, was the labor-intensive process. The first shot was six days of stunt action in Death Valley without any main actors as it was storyboarded. From that, we had to cut together something that was incomplete. Then the principal actors performed the scene with close-ups. Then we needed the stunt actors back. Then finally, the visual effects had to complete any other missing holes, like wide shots from above.

That scene alone took three months or more to really come together. It’s important to be patient and have an open mind about how the scene evolves and changes, deviating away from the storyboarding.

Haugen: I think the audiences are going to really love that sequence. This is our first sci-fi film with heavy visual effects. Having to deal with the imagination and creation with temporary visual effects and blue screen is a new challenge.

In the trailer, there’s also a big tower sequence where Roy falls. A lot of that was done in green screen, so we had a lot of temporary effects from our VFX companies. The visual effects team did an amazing job helping us create the environment that could make the audience feel like they’re all the way up on top of this giant tower — and also to allow them to feel like they’re falling off it.

Brad Pitt falling from a tower in space.

Walt Disney Motion Pictures

Axelrad: Another challenge was to make sure the science is right, in the script stage and in post-production. This is not a film where we can take creative liberties with the science. In places, we had to. But we really did try to be truthful to what the future holds and what’s possible.

If each of you had to describe Ad Astra in around three words, what would they be?

Haugen: I would say … epic, intimate journey.

Axelrad: Oooh that’s really good. I will say that it’s both a journey of space — an outward journey — but it’s also an inward journey that’s deeply personal. … More than three words, but I like Lee’s answer best.

Are there any other films in this genre you might compare Ad Astra to?

Axelrad: The film is pretty singular. I remember when we were editing with James, and he would say, ‘Have you seen another film like this?’ The answer was no. I do think it stands apart from others in terms of its approach, in terms of its message, in terms of its narrative. It’s very powerful.

There are elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so you also get a little bit of Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I know James was striving for realism in the science and not anything so fantastical that it would seem impossible. Taking a journey all the way out to the edge of the solar system isn’t something we can do right now, but the ideas of future propulsion technologies make it seem likely.

Haugen: You could compare it to other things, but it’s definitely an original film with an original idea.

Axelrad: It definitely stands apart as a very different movie.

Haugen: This is a film that’s going to blow people away. It’s amazing and original — definitely an experience for as large a screen as possible.

Axelrad: You know, lot of people don’t fully understand the role of an editor, but in this case, it’s to make it so people are absorbed into the movie and not taken out of the experience by getting distracted by things. I think we’ve all done a good job of immersing the viewer into the world of space travel in a new and original way.

Ad Astra will release theaters September 20, 2019.

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