Your film is set in the near future, which makes sense given that there are currently plans being formed to transport humans to Mars. What did you learn in your research about such efforts?
James Gray: I’m a little skeptical that they’d make it, but that is their dream. Mars can be either 80 or 160 million miles away from Earth, depending on the orbits of the two planets. Four people would have to be in a capsule that’s half the size of this room for about two years. They were looking for people who were on the spectrum. Schizoid personality disorder. People who were actually happy not to talk to others. To me that’s very strange. These people were going to be the first human beings on another planet, and they’re not going to be able to talk about it in any philosophical, emotional, or spiritual terms. I saw Neil Armstrong’s press conference right after he was released from quarantine. The most amazing thing ever: they ask him about seeing another planet from another celestial body and he says, “the thruster on the left side had 6 liters of oxygen left…” and so on. He was totally ill-equipped. He was the perfect guy for that job, but my point is that I started to see that as a weird vulnerability. This is because we talk all the time about the “math genius.” I hear it all the time. I’ve met a lot of math geniuses in my life. I’ve never heard anyone say he or she is an “emotional genius.” Not once. Emotional intelligence is what’s going to matter. Because your phone and other electronics are going to get rid of the math genius need. But emotional genius…what makes us human… that’s critical. Nobody talks about it. The film started that way. My co-writer and I decided that we would try to do The Odyssey, but from Telemachus’s point of view. That was the idea, the thought of a son searching for their father. That was the impetus of the film a long time ago.
Who is going to divide up the moon?
Could you talk about the decision to use voice over so heavily?
JG: The voiceover was originally an idea which was simply an output for the psychological evaluations he had to take. It was supposed to be that you were hearing continuing psych evaluations narrated. Brad and I recorded a version of that early on. What was weird was that it did not play as sincere. This was because you did not know if he was lying to the computer or not. Very quickly, we made it straight voice over. It was contemporaneous, not like Apocalypse Now, which was reminiscence. We decided to go present: why am I feeling like this in this moment? We did this because we wanted to be as intimate as possible. I put Brad in a very challenging position. I think he is great in the movie, but he does not have any other actors to act with. He needed something to play with and some way in, so the voiceover was key for us. We got a lot of help on it. There was this brilliant poet name Tracy K. Smith, who wrote a book called Life on Mars, which won a Pulitzer. She helped with the language of it. Kazuo Ishiguro, the famous novelist, also helped with it. Your internal voice is different from your external voice. I wanted a slightly different feel to it than the script had.
Could you talk about crafting the character of Roy with Brad Pitt?
JG: It’s weird because you wonder if the character is cold. I actually don’t think he’s cold. I think he is bottled up, and then what happens is that vulnerability makes him almost like a coward. What I was trying to say was, “here’s this guy, whose pulse does not go above 80.” But the fact is that it’s easy for him and therefore an easy form of bravery. The hard form of bravery is having a conversation that’s open to someone other than a computer. That is what he is really not well equipped to do. Brad and I talked about this every night, in lengthy emails, and it was Kazan who really talked about the core. Every scene would have to have a core. I would do a version of that for Brad. I would say here is what the scene is for me. I would try to be as open, vulnerable, and honest as I could in the emails. Then in the morning, Brad and I would talk about it. He would improv something often, and a lot of times it ended up in the film. Then sometimes he would do exactly as the script did. So it became a bit of a free process. I think it had to be, because I wanted him to reveal part of himself, which I think he does. The Brad that we see, who does a brilliant job of it, as the easy going, confident, smiling guy, has more to him than that. I was anxious to expose that other side, because I’ve know him for a long time and I’ve seen that other side in a major way.
Can you talk about your vision of the near future? For example you had an Applebee’s on the moon…!
JG: If you look at the facts for the ground versus the moon, you will see the moon is 1/6th the gravitational pull of the earth. So the idea that you have to go to the moon to go to Mars is correct. There is less gravitational pull so you are going to need less thrust, which is why almost all deep space rockets are going to launch or orbit around the moon. We would have to stop on the moon, because that is how we would be able to get to Mars. Then you ask yourself what does it look like 50 to 70 years after. You would have to set up some kind of base, because you are going to have to launch from there. What are you going to eat? You can’t have grass-fed beef on the moon, right? Growing vegetables in 1/6th gravity is also challenging, believe it or not. Processed food is basically going to be the way to go. And who is the best at processed food? Fast food chains. They are already spending a lot of time and energy with what they call artificial meat. This is what they are going to have as space food. I love when I talk to these guys in Dallas who are focused on artificial food. They say it tastes almost like the real thing and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. So then that became the food chain thing. Then the piracy thing is a very obvious fact. White Europeans made over 400 treaties with the ingenious people of the Americas and have adhered to zero. So the idea, that we are going to have space treaties, where if one nation state group finds out there is more helium 3 in one part of the moon than they got, do we really think this unenforceable treaty is going to be adhered to? I don’t think so. So if you look at the facts on the ground, where some parts of the world are unbelievably rich in resources and other parts have nothing, who is going to make those decisions on how to divide it up? The facts on the ground tell you that unless the human species undergoes some massive come to Jesus moment, things will not change. I don’t have total optimism about what that is going to mean as an outpost. There will be some great things, but I’m not a dystopian person. I think there will be some great things and there will be some terrible things. I don’t know how you solve that one I just laid out. Who is going to divide up the moon?