Interview: Screenwriter Ethan Gross on New Film ‘Ad Astra’ Starring Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra” | 20th Century Fox

Interviewed by Nikki Fowler | Intro by Heather Riccio

Screenwriters, Ethan Gross, and James Gray penned the blockbuster hit, Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt, which explores life outside our atmosphere, and the psychology of what can happen the closer you get to the truth.

Ad Astra | 20th Century Fox

Glitter was able to sit down with one of the film’s screenwriters, Ethan Gross, to discuss the film, his background, where the idea for the Ad Astra screenplay came from, and what’s up next for him. Read on to find out more about this amazing screenwriter who has just gotten started.

GLITTER: Hi Ethan. Nice to meet you. How are you?

ETHAN: Good. Nice to meet you.

GLITTER: First, I just want to congratulate you on an amazing film. I loved it. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got your start in writing?

ETHAN: Yes. I went to USC film school and that’s where I met James, about 30 years ago. So, we knew each other from film school and we were friends and we wrote a script together right out of college. It was a movie that James almost directed and he didn’t end up directing it. Shortly after, the movie, Boogie Nights, came out. It was sort of similar and sort of made James not want to revisit that movie, but then all these years we wanted to do another project together. We sort of discussed what we would like to see in the science fiction film. I’m sort of skipping over things between those 30 years, which are some things I’ve done with other collaborators or on the TV show, Fringe, which was a fun experience, and that is probably the closest thing science fiction wise. Although I did work on a remake of Logan’s Run that was never made. I worked on a lot of things that were never made. It’s fun to actually have something that’s been made from a movie standpoint. I’ve collaborated with different co-writers. I think I’m going to try to do something on my own next, which is a big challenge because I’m not a very good boss. I’m too easy on myself and I procrastinate unless I have somebody telling you to hurry up. Sorry if that’s a little circuitous way to answer that question.

Ad Astra | 20th Century Fox

GLITTER: No, it’s fine. How did you come up with the idea for the Ad Astra screenplay?

ETHAN: James and I sort of have different views on how it came to be. With James, it really came to be something he really thought of when he was hearing about the astronauts that will be going to Mars and what kind of journey would be on them psychologically. That’s sort of the psychological origin of that part of the story, but, for me, it was thinking about when I read about when the atomic bomb was developed, there was like some subsection of scientists who feared that technology could inadvertently incinerate a great portion of the United States. They thought it was a risk worth taking and I thought what if you put that on a bigger scale and it had to be something going on in outer space with some experiments that could threaten to destroy humanity.

So, James came at it from a much more emotional lofty sense and I came from more of a sci-fi heavy angle. Even then it wasn’t really an idea until we started and sat around and just talked about mythic storytelling and some of the movies we love. The obvious ones that you can see in there are 2001 and Apocalypse Now, but there’s a bunch of other things. James put a lot of his personal story in, even though it’s an outer space movie, it’s very personal. I’m not going to talk for James…because it’s his relationship with his family and it’s something that he wants to explore, but that’s very Googlable, if that’s a word. It’s his personal account and I have some of it with mine too. My dad died when I was very young so he didn’t disappear to Neptune, but he might as well have, it leaves a big void in your life and it’s always something you’re searching for. The idea of having this great big sci-fi journey in order to find something big but really what you’re doing is finding something big within yourself. You know it sounds kind of new agey. It was very inspiring to both of us ultimately.

GLITTER: Can you expound on the theme of Brad’s character Roy having to journey to this unknown place both mentally, and you know with the memory of his father and then physically into this unknown you know deep space, you kind of touched on it a little bit but can you just kind of expound on that part of the story?

ETHAN: It was an interesting way to go about it. The script was more geared towards exploring Brad’s psychology and with the idea of the further out he went with all the experiences that he had, the more out of his comfort zone he got and he became more alone and was forced to come to terms with things that were buried, repressed within him, and ultimately he comes to direct face-to-face with the thing that’s at the core of his psychology, which was his absent father. But I won’t say anything more because I’ll give things away. It’s just the idea of being the bigger it got for him in terms of location and the more distance he got, the closer he got to what really makes him who he is.

GLITTER: The film has some amazing cinematography. I have my favorite scenes. Without giving away too much, do you have a favorite visual aspect of seeing your story come to life?

ETHAN: There is so much of it that I love, but what I probably love the most: Mars. It was kind of a shame in a way. I would love to have had with each location the moon, Mars, and other things….a whole movie just for them, and especially with Mars. There was a lot of stuff that was cut out. It had to be cut out even though it was great, but it just didn’t fit. It went away from the story, Brad’s journey psychologically, even though we had this great stuff, like this cool hedonistic club scene sort of out on Mars that I thought was really great and we had a stand-up comic who was telling jokes as if he was from Mars and it was just hilarious, but it just distracted from the narrative. Despite all that, I love the way Mars looks.  I love that the pinkish purplish glow of everything and that really makes me feel like I’m in another place. So that was my favorite. What was your favorite?

GLITTER: Oh Mars. I love space movies and visually, it was just so amazing. I really loved that scene.

ETHAN: Thank you. I don’t know why I’m thanking you. I didn’t do anything with the cinematography but thank you anyway.

GLITTER: Well the story. (smiling).

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”. | 20th Century Fox

GLITTER: You worked with NASA quite a bit. Did you learn anything about space that resonated with you that you maybe didn’t know before after working on this film?

ETHAN:  I mean I’m always learning new things about the details about it and then I’m forgetting them because I don’t have a big capacity for this kind of left-brain stuff. But I just learned, I guess talking to the people who are involved, how just genuinely enthusiastic and passionate they are about it. I’ve never met anybody from NASA or any of the related entities who don’t do it because they love it. They just love it and they’re infectious and they really look to cooperate with you and answer questions and I love to see science fiction, but on-screen. I know that’s not something like a knowledge base thing, but I know that’s not an answer to the question but that really surprised me in a good way.

GLITTER: No that’s perfectly fine. Two more quick questions. Do you personally believe there’s life outside of our atmosphere?

ETHAN: I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of life, but intelligent life, probably. Also, just because there’s so many stars and planets out there, so the chances are yes. The question is how do you define intelligent life? Is it a squirrel and above? Or is it…what is it? But I think so. But I also believe that I will never know. I hope I do. The only way we will know is if they are much smarter than us and they contact us, but I don’t know if they would necessarily consider us intelligent and worth the time of saying hello to us. I can answer that question for like 10 hours so that’s the sort of it. 

GLITTER: And what’s next for you? A final question. Anything in the near future that we should look for. Anything you’re working on?

ETHAN: Yeah, I’m working on something on my own which is rare for me because I do like to collaborate with people and I might do some collaboration. But I’m working on a kind of another science fiction thing, but it’s also a love story and it’s just in the beginning stages so it deals with…it’s hard to say without sounding pretentious, but quantum physics. Right now, I’m outlining the story and I like it.

GLITTER:  Everyone can check out Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt in theaters now. Well, thank you so much for taking time out and good luck with your projects.

ETHAN: Thanks so much for your time and for your nice words.