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AD ASTRA

About The Production
According to Gray, "The job of the director is to set the context through which other people can create and do wonderful things. Our production designer Kevin Thompson's design is always rooted in something tangible that we could understand. We looked a lot at Skylab and the ISS in terms of space stations, the interior of a space shuttle and then tried to update them. Again, the idea of science-future-fact.

"Kevin did a brilliant job, but his brilliance also was a challenge for me because we shot in such very cramped quarters, which was the goal because that's what it is really like. 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 thirty 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."

The appeal for Thompson was that "the script was very existential and not your typical sci-fi outer space movie," recalls the designer.

"James liked the details of the International Space Station and people living in tight claustrophobic spaces. The human aspect was very important to him. He was against a cruise ship fantasy vision of the future.

"He was curious about early American projects that were part of NASA history. He really had the spaceships down; he understood the feeling of man being alone when outside of the spaceship and how miniscule he is in relation to the galaxy."

One of the strongest references Gray gave Thompson was the documentary For All Mankind with its extremely high contrast. "James is very visual," says Thompson.

For a film that takes place mostly in outer space, AD ASTRA has very little green screen and CGI work.

"It was a deliberate attempt to do as much practically as possible," explains Thompson. "All the monitors, the cockpits, and the backings are practical, which fit James' aesthetic and feel for the movie. We did have to use some green screen when we filmed the exterior scenes in space."

Relates Gray, "We tried to approach this with an eye towards as much authenticity as we could. We saw the Moon as more or less a very highly developed series of outposts. Then on Mars, which is sort of the last manned outpost for our film, we looked at images of a scientific outpost in Antarctica today."

"When you do a period movie," explains Thompson, "not everything should be from that moment in time. Early on we had an expression: look to the past to see the future. We included things from different time periods to represent the idea of new technology colliding with things from the past. We wanted it to feel fairly classic and timeless."

What you won't see in AD ASTRA are futuristic gadgets and weapons. "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. I think those screens and tablets are going to be around for a long time."

FINDING EARTH, MOON, MARS AND NEPTUNE IN THE CITY OF ANGELS

For most of the sets representing the Earth, the Moon, Mars and Neptune, the filmmakers chose to shoot on practical locations rather than on stages. This entailed a search that covered miles and miles of Los Angeles County. Thompson, Von Hoytema and the location team searched high and low looking for environments that would match Gray's vision.

Location manager Chris Kusiak admits that finding locations for AD ASTRA was challenging and that he actually scouted places that he had never been to before.

"We needed a lot of underground sites, and Los Angeles is not a city for that - that's more New York or Pennsylvania.

Locations included an abandoned department store in downtown Los Angeles, which housed the former Red Line train station that used to terminal underneath the building. A giant tunnel there was the main attraction to the filmmakers as it would represent below ground on Mars and be the path Roy would take to sneak into the Cepheus on the next step of his journey toward The Lima. Additional downtown Los Angeles locations included the Hall of Records and the city's iconic Union Station.

A former Los Angeles Times printing facility in Orange County stood in for the launchpad for the trip to the Moon. For the pirate attack on the Moon sequence, they travelled to Dumont Dunes in the Mojave Desert.

"Earth, which is only a quick moment in the film, was the only area where we have natural daylight, windows, a glimpse of the outdoors," says Thompson. "Aside from the race across the Moon's surface to SpaceCom, the only place where they're above ground on the Moon is the hotel room with a window looking out over the complex. Then we start going underground.

"The Moon, the main lunar concourse and tunnels were all polished concrete and rough-faced concrete. It had a fairly neutral clean palette with tones of gray and brown, because we wanted to reserve color for Mars."

"It was a real evolution defining what Mars was. We went to a number of older, odd-shaped buildings. We didn't know what it was but we knew that it was also going to be underground. We didn't want it to be cliche, or like anything anyone had seen before. We ended up in an unoccupied power plant. We wanted the lighting to make it feel and look like being in a humid incubator."

LIGHTING THE FUTURE

Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) joined the production for his second foray into space.

"Hoyte goes in and is the floor commander," says Gray. "And I was very grateful for that on this movie because there was a lot of technical things that he had done already on Interstellar that I just didn't know at all - things to do with filming zero gravity, shooting on horizontal and vertical sets and doing it effectively and efficiently.

"He has a crew that always works with him and are dedicated to him and to the movie. They're amazing."

Production designer Kevin Thompson acknowledges he felt that the decision to shoot on film rather in a digital format was an enormous help in capturing the various planets' atmospheres.

"With film you capture so much more of the image, and you get details that you don't with digital. The Mars communication center, the rotunda and Shunga Parlor took on an atmospheric color that was sort of an orangey-gray light with some fog to enhance the sense that it was humid and damp."

DRESSING THE FUTURE

"When you think about costumes for a science fiction movie," relates Gray, "it's one of the great challenges because the clothing gets dated instantly, no matter how artistic you get with a zipper or pocket. I wanted to have someone who was not typically regarded as a science fiction designer, someone totally out of the box.

"When I contacted Albert, I brought a book I have called Moon Fire, which has all these images of Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins at home, basically showing how engineers dress, with simple turtlenecks and plaid short-sleeved shirts."

Costume designer Albert Wolsky, winner of two Academy Awards (All That Jazz, Bugsy) and five additional Oscar nominations, says, "James wanted the look to be banal, almost ordinary. I knew exactly what he meant. The job was finding a way to make it banal and ordinary yet 100 years in the future, which was difficult because I knew the results had to be totally invisible. He was very clear that it was important to him that the wardrobe not be 'costumey.'"

One of Gray's requests to Wolsky was that the space suits be very close to what the Apollo team wore, which is why they are completely different from those in current space movies where they have been totally invented.

"We went as close as possible to the original ones, which weigh 30 pounds. We cut that down to 15 pounds, and they are still authentic looking. Space suits come complete with a cooling system, materials that expand and contract from pressure, and of course a computer. There's an entire world inside that space suit. We actually had the same cooling systems that are used in space installed in ours to keep the actors from dying from the heat."

Gray says, "What I most love about the work is that you don't notice the costumes at all. People are wearing what they should be wearing, which is hard in a science fiction movie."

Summing up the experience of making AD ASTRA, Gray says, "It's been a fantastic journey."

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