'Ad Astra's action-packed lunar chase puts you right in Brad Pitt's seat
There’s an action sequence in director James Gray’s sci-fi thriller “Ad Astra” that’s packed with thrills but also rife with nuance. Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, an astronaut who finds himself saving mankind from a threat deep in outer space. U.S. intelligence has asked him to send a message from Mars to a long-forgotten mission captained by his father (Tommy Lee Jones). To get to the Red Planet he must first travel to the moon, and while on it, he’s chased down by rover-driving vigilante pirates.
Here, the filmmakers reveal how the death-defying pursuit came together, along with script excerpts by James Gray and Ethan Gross.
EXT. LUNAR BASE
The lunar roving vehicle (LRV) departs, bursting forward with ferocity.
Production traveled to the Dumont Dunes of the Mojave Desert for six days to shoot with stunt doubles driving rovers that would be blended with close-ups of Pitt and the other actors shot in studio. “James wanted this movie to be informed by science where every detail had a purpose,” says production designer Kevin Thompson. “For the moon, we wanted it to feel conquered by contractors, the private industry and national projects. To have a real mix of things that feels slightly familiar.”
In the desert, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema used a 3-D rig to mount two cameras; one capturing 35-millimeter film, the other digital, recording infrared. Instead of configuring the cameras side-by-side they were overlaid so each camera captured an identical image. “With Hoyte shooting infrared it turned the desert blue skies dark and the sandy terrain a grayish white,” says visual effects supervisor Allen Maris. “It gave us something great to start with. Then we extracted the color information from the film camera to composite the infrared footage to create the high-contrast look of the moon.” Visual effects then removed the sand dunes and hills in the image and replaced them with the correct geography and texture found on the lunar rock.
EXT. THE MOON – MOMENTS LATER
A caravan of rovers appear on the horizon, coming toward our GUYS.
They open fire on our LRV.
Boom! The first shot just misses Roy, and the team led by Willie Levant (Sean Blakemore) calls in a mayday that they’re under attack. More shots are fired and two of the rovers go down. Another shot punctures Roy’s oxygen supply. He must close it before he dies. The Max Richter score magnifies the intensity.
“We made sure we stayed within Roy’s point-of-view as much as we could as it all unfolds,” says co-editor Lee Haugen, who worked alongside co-editor John Axelrad. “Whether it was visuals or sound, we felt the action was built better around his perspective.”
Supervising sound editor Gary Rydstrom says, “One of the keys to it all is that you’re hearing things from what Roy would hear and what would resonate in his suit or through his microphone.” In creating the sound palette, Rydstrom aurally detailed feedback and distortion. “It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit as a sound designer because there’s nothing easier to create than feedback and distortion, but the scene is almost completely made up of all the sounds I tried to avoid in my career,” he says.
The driver can’t react in time. SLAMS INTO THE BARRICADE.
A pirate rover drives straight toward Roy’s vehicle. Roy pumps the brakes and the pirate rover zips by, slamming into a concrete structure. It flips into the air, shredding into pieces. To replicate the atmosphere, filmmakers referenced the Al Reinert documentary “For All Mankind,” which follows the true story of the moon landing.
“The moon is about one-sixth the gravity of Earth, and we took that into consideration,” Maris says. “We wanted to re-create the real thing so the rovers are moving the way they should on the moon’s surface.” Van Hoytema detailed the look further by shooting the entire sequence with a slightly higher frame rate to subtly add slow motion to the accelerating vehicles and impacts.
The picture editors intercut shots of Roy’s visor that reflected the destruction. “It was storyboarded that way and added to the perspective. Even the voices that were not Roy’s were filtered so that only his was left clean,” Haugen notes.
It took several months to finish cutting the sequence, and the editors admit it felt claustrophobic when they first put it together. It wasn’t until the addition of sound, music and overhead angles, which added to the geography and tension, that they started feeling the shape of the scene.
“The whole movie was challenging and a test in how to get internally into a character,” Axelrad says. “The further Roy goes out into space, the deeper we dive into the conscious mind. But even with the action sequences, we wanted to find a balance between making it entertaining and finding the emotion.”