'Ad Astra' Director Says Cosmic Sounds Helped Create Celestial World

14 hours ago
Originally published on September 19, 2019 9:55 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The new movie "Ad Astra" stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut traveling to Neptune in search of his missing father, who is played by Tommy Lee Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")

BRAD PITT: (As Roy McBride) He was a hero. He gave his life for the pursuit of knowledge.

GREENE: The director, James Gray, simulated zero gravity with his actors floating on wires. And he set the mood based on what was playing in his head. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: For the opening shots of "Ad Astra," James Gray included an unusual audio loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")

TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Clifford McBride, unintelligible).

JAMES GRAY: Ba-ba-bom, ba-ba-bom (ph). That's actually Tommy Lee Jones saying I love you, my son; I love you, my son - over and over because we wanted it to be almost unconscious. It almost sounds like an ultrasound for an unborn baby. It's very weird.

DEL BARCO: As he directed the movie he also co-wrote, Gray wore headphones to listen to his own playlist. It included cosmic sounds he downloaded off the Internet.

GRAY: They can convert the electromagnetic waves that are emitted in space to some version of what you might call a sound wave, and it sounds very creepy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERTED ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES)

GRAY: Tommy Lee Jones was on set. And he said - the music in your headphones? - you're not listening to the scene? I said, no, of course I'm listening to the scene. What are you talking about? He went, oh, OK. I said no, no - what I'm hearing, Tommy Lee, is actually sounds of Jupiter. You want to hear it? And he was fascinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERTED ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES)

DEL BARCO: Gray says listening to those sounds helped him create the lonely, celestial world of the film's main character as he made his way to Neptune.

GRAY: It helped me visualize, really, what we can't visualize - the void, the endless void, the infinite - the frightening aspect of that. Because we can't really understand the indifference of that void. And I just found that was very powerful to hear, the electromagnetic waves of the planets themselves. It helped me sort of get inside of that idea of the void, if you will.

I mean, this all sounds pretentious as heck, but you do the best you can to try and internalize. In this case, it's space. It's not so easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIANE RADIGUE'S "L'ILE RE-SONANTE")

DEL BARCO: Gray listened to the electronic drones by French composer Eliane Radigue and sitar music by Ravi Shankar.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAVI SHANKAR COMPOSITION)

DEL BARCO: Sometimes Gray even played music for the cast and crew when they didn't have to record sound.

GRAY: I mean, that's a tradition that went back to the silent films. They used to play music on the set, of course, for the actors who didn't have to worry about dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS")

DEL BARCO: Gustav Holst's "The Planets" was on Gray's playlist and Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suite.

GRAY: Which of course is famous for the kind of wake-up music in cartoons. (Singing "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1). But it's not just that. There are other things that - in the "Peer Gynt" suite which are very operatic, very dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF EDVARD GRIEG'S "PEER GYNT" SUITE)

GRAY: In the confrontation with his father, I was playing the fourth movement of the "Rothko Chapel" by Morton Feldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MORTON FELDMAN'S "ROTHKO CHAPEL")

GRAY: And Krzysztof Penderecki, who's a modern classical composer of Eastern European - really from the '60s, I was playing him during the baboon attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI COMPOSITION)

GRAY: I played a lot of musique concrete, they call it. I played a lot of very strange stuff to try and address the unfathomable, I guess.

DEL BARCO: You won't hear the music that inspired James Gray in his film. But the sounds in "Ad Astra" will take you out of this world.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.