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Outer Visions: Leo Goldsmith and Gregory Zinman on Serving as Ad Astra‘s Experimental Film Consultants

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra

It’s a rare thing for scholars to be asked to serve as advisors on studio films of any size, no matter the topic. (Hell, we’re usually not even asked to authenticate representations of academia itself.) So, it came as a pleasant surprise indeed for Brooklyn-based scholar and curator Leo Goldsmith and Georgia Tech film and media professor Gregory Zinman when they were asked by director James Gray to serve as advisors on his latest film, Ad Astra, scheduled for a September release by 20th Century Fox. Said to be a moody, existential science fiction film (Zinman and Goldsmith have read the script but are sworn to secrecy, and the film hasn’t screened at press time), Ad Astra posed certain challenges for Gray that, in the director’s mind, could possibly be addressed by exploring the world of avant-garde media. So, he turned to two experts in the field.

For all its relative marginality, the world of experimental film and video has often served as a kind of research and development arm of the film industry. Legend has it that executives at the ad agency BBDO routinely screened prints of Bruce Conner films in the boardroom to poach his complex montage techniques. David Fincher quite graciously acknowledged that the Kyle Cooper–designed credits sequence of Se7en was a deliberate homage to Stan Brakhage, while a certain 1999 Oscar winner infamously ganked an image of a floating plastic bag from Nathaniel Dorsky’s film Variations, completed a year earlier.

But perhaps the most well-known instance of experimental film serving as a launchpad (of sorts) for a big-budget studio production was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In particular, Kubrick and his visual effects specialist, Douglas Trumbull, took both technical and thematic inspiration from a number of avant-garde abstractionists—brothers John and James Whitney, Jordan Belson and Scott Bartlett, in particular—in designing 2001’s penultimate movement, the psychedelic “Stargate Corridor.” 

This was a moment when “expanded cinema” was a burgeoning field, with various filmmakers trying out experiments with double projection, split-screen, projecting onto moving objects, water, or fog, and various environmental formats, practices that evolved into what we now know as video installation work. (Avant-garde film scholar Scott MacDonald has claimed that these psychedelic productions also led quite directly to “Laser Floyd” and other popular planetarium shows.) In Michael Benson’s book Space Odyssey, he details how Trumbull, while working on a slit-scan sequence for the Stargate Corridor, decided to incorporate an animation sequence made by his collaborator Colin Cantwell by layering the two projections together in a “live mix.”

While Kubrick and company did take some direct influence from specific films in the making of 2001, it’s probably better to adopt a cultural studies approach to understand how that big studio film ended up, to some extent, speaking the same cinematic language as some mystical hippies from San Francisco. These were visual ideas that pertained to the zeitgeist of the late 1960s, involving a broad-scale quest to explore the limits of the material world and the capacity of the arts to engage with questions of consciousness and ontology. And those ideas were finding expression in various realms of the culture industry, from the most well-heeled industrial directors to artisanal image-cobblers working in near penury.

This might be a way to understand Gray’s interest in contemporary experimental film, particularly computer animation and other forms of nonobjective cinema. To hear Goldsmith and Zinman explain it, Gray was in part inspired by Kubrick’s turn to the avant-garde to solve certain conceptual problems. But he didn’t want to merely repeat Kubrick’s gesture. Rather, Gray wanted to subject his own ideas about space, identity and isolation to the broader cultural conversation going on in contemporary experimental media. How were others taking on these questions?

As you’ll see, this involved a deep dive into some highly specialized territory. Prepare to open a browser window and Google some filmmakers’ names while you read our conversation. You’ll be glad you did.

Filmmaker: How did the two of you get involved with the Ad Astra project? 

Zinman: Back in 2016, Leo and I put together a program called Computer Films of the 1960s for the Museum of the Moving Image as part of an exhibition called “The Moon and Beyond: Graphic Films and the Inception of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” It opened March 25th, and we received an email from James Gray on March 28th. So, he had obviously been eager to see the exhibition. I don’t know whether he knew about the screening program or not, but he saw it and reached out to us. Leo and I certainly knew James’s work, but we’d never talked to him. You can imagine [we] were surprised. 

In that email, James introduced himself and said he was in production on a science-fiction film, that he was eager to expand his knowledge of avant-garde cinema from the past 20 years or so, and that he was specifically trying to develop a visual grammar distinct from that of Kubrick and 2001. He was struck by the films that we had been showing [at MoMI], which included work by James and John Whitney, Stan VanDerBeek, A. Michael Noll and some other folks. He said he was looking for visual ideas and wondered if we could help him. 

Goldsmith: I think that James was interested partly in how Kubrick was in dialogue with the contemporary avant-garde when he was making 2001 and curious to see whether there were more contemporary analogues. That may sound like he’s following Kubrick’s footsteps in a way, but he was interested in responding to more recent work. I think from his own film school education, and his own cinephilia, he was aware of the major figures of the post-war avant-garde, people like Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage. But he didn’t really know much about recent work, so that’s why he called us. 

Filmmaker: Obviously, this came about because of the programming that the two of you put together. In working with James, did it take your own work in this area further? Did you end up doing additional research and finding things that were new to you in this genre? 

Goldsmith: I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think so. Greg and I are always educating each other and looking for new things. This was an opportunity, in a way, stemming from our experiences as teachers of experimental films, and a lot of the films we had already been familiar with from teaching courses on the subject. But also, the additional prompt from James encouraged us to think in a more direct capacity about what might be useful for him. 

They brought us in as consultants, and we read the screenplay. It wasn’t really like we were responding directly to specific things in the screenplay. Some of the films we showed James, for example, are space related, let’s say, but some of the films really are not. And that wasn’t actually a concern to him. He was just interested in getting a wide visual landscape to draw upon, which is very common for filmmakers. 

Zinman: Leo and I got our master’s at the same time at NYU starting back in—and here I am dating us pretty severely—2004. We’d been hanging out and sharing film enthusiasms for a really long time. So, when James said to us, “Can you recommend some avant-garde work having to do with themes of space?,” and [when] later he was interested in films having to do with themes of isolation, we said, “We can! We are actually the nerds who can do that for you.” I do think we sought out things for sure, but —

Goldsmith: We had some picks, in our back pocket, a dozen things that we wanted to show. 

Filmmaker: As you came to James with certain films, did the brief evolve? Did he say, “Yes, more like this, this and this,” or was it more kind of like, “Hit me with whatever you’ve got?”

Goldsmith: He did give us specific prompts about what he was looking for, but really he was interested in learning and being open to things he had never heard of. Sometimes, he would respond to specific things and would ask specific questions, or maybe make specific requests, but mostly what we got back in feedback was his own enthusiasm and interest; certain things he liked or didn’t like. Honestly, this work can be challenging, but there were things he responded to in various different ways. And sometimes he didn’t respond specifically because he was hard at work making a damn film! But that was mostly what we got, if I’m remembering that correctly. 

Zinman: I think that’s right. We spoke with James and Anthony Katagas, the producer, in December 2016. I remember being struck by a couple things. One was the sort of aesthetic polarities that James wanted to pursue, which were, on the one hand, very hard sci-fi—very technically and scientifically based images and mechanics—and then, on the other hand, pretty out-there, other-worldly visuals. We were definitely responsible for providing things in the second camp. At one point, Anthony told us the people that they were talking to—and I have no idea how this panned out—were us, engineers from NASA and Elon Musk! Leo and I were like, “Yeah, sure, that’s the usual company that we keep.” But that was the wide range that James was looking at. He wanted the film to be grounded in a sort of reality, but there were going to be parts of the film that would deal with things beyond science, and how to visualize that. 

Filmmaker: So, what were some of the specific films you showed him? 

Goldsmith: We covered an enormous amount of ground. As I said, not everything was space related, but we did try to find things that touched on similar issues. There’s Larry Jordan’s Solar Sight, from 2011, a film working in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be something you could insert into a commercial science-fiction film. But obviously, it was something that created a different visual sense and dealt with similar themes. There was Jeanne Liotta’s Eclipse from 2005; it also addresses those themes but from a more oblique direction. Even more abstract work that doesn’t necessarily specifically point to space travel or space exploration, like Jodie Mack’s Let Your Light Shine from 2013. Of course, there were lots of other things, like Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky [1999], which was a kind of cheeky suggestion. And filmmakers who were working in other mediums like digital and video. 

Zinman: Leo and I sent James around 40 different films over the course of half a year. Our understanding is that he showed all the work to [cinematographer Hoyte] van Hoytema and they watched everything together, and then I believe he watched everything again once the crew was assembled and held weekly screenings at his apartment, where they would watch whatever we had sent and have discussions about it. So, he was doing mini-cinematheques around these movies. 

We showed him Sightings, a very interesting geometric abstraction by Sabrina Ratté from 2014 that gives you a sense of corridors or mazes. We sent Takeshi Murata’s data-moshing film Monster Movie from 2005, just to show what a different kind of psychedelia might look like. He was familiar with Brakhage, but we wanted to make sure he was familiar with Stellar [1993], which was a hand-painted film Brakhage called a “visual envisioning of outer space.” We sent him work by Pierre Hubert, Ken Jacobs, Peggy Ahwesh, Storm de Hirsch, Jacob Ciocci… I mean, we tried to kind of push it. As we mentioned earlier, James was receptive to pretty much everything, whether it was older video art like John Sanborn and Dean Winkler’s Luminare from 1985 to much more current stuff. I think we even sent him Ron Hays’s music video for Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove,” which James said his son really liked [laughs]. We tried to cover a lot of ground. 

Goldsmith: The “Let’s Groove”  is a good example of experimental work that also serves a commercial purpose. And it’s a space movie! Even though his initial interest was more contemporary work, we also suggested things that were contemporary with things Kubrick was doing but that wouldn’t have necessarily been on his radar. Things like UFOs [1971] by Lillian Schwartz, and Moon 1969 by Scott Bartlett—older films that I think James hadn’t seen. 

Filmmaker: You hear some of these titles, and it seems like there’s an understanding that there’s a kind of conjuncture between space—outer space, NASA, etc.—and cinematic space. And I presume that was part of your understanding of the assignment?

Zinman: Yeah, we got to thinking about other kinds of space—not just outer space, but spaces of isolation and boundaries. That’s when we started sending him things like James Benning’s 13 Lakes [2004], and Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea from 2011, which obviously are not about outer space at all, but they’re ways of imagining space and landscape. This carried over to late last year, when we got a call from James where he was stuck on a visual effects problem. This was in December 2018, well after we had stopped sending films along. But he had been working on visual effects and was frustrated trying to visualize something that is not a visual thing. “How do you visualize the invisible” was basically his question, and he didn’t want to go the route of CGI. That’s when Leo and I sent him some Jennifer West, who makes wonderful handmade films out of everything from candy to paint to bodily fluids, to create this mottled or deteriorated and beautiful technicolor abstraction. That was a much more specific question, whereas a lot of the time we were able to pursue our own ideas. 

Goldsmith: I want to say, did we also send him Thorsten Fleisch at that point? 

Zinman: Yeah, Energie! [2007], right? 

Goldsmith: Yeah. Greg’s PhD research was on handmade film, and we both have an interest in early computer films and early forms of animation and experimental, non-camera-based work. So, there was a lot of work that leaned in that direction. Without knowing what Ad Astra would look like eventually—in fact, we still don’t because we haven’t seen it—we were thinking about how to create these effects or images that could suggest the experience of space travel or various altered states might be visualized on screen in whatever capacity, getting as wide of a selection as possible was obviously the remit there. 

Filmmaker: Did you end up discussing the films as you communicated back and forth at all? 

Goldsmith: A little bit, for sure. He was always very responsive. He’s a busy guy, but he continues to be pretty responsive. A couple times he called on us out of the blue with some questions, but for the most part I think he was having conversations with his set team. Unless I’m misremembering, I don’t think there were any instances of him drawing on us too deeply.

Zinman: I would also like to mention that with everything that Leo and I sent, we wrote up notes to give a little background, or quotes from the filmmakers, or sometimes our own short interpretations of what they were and why they might be beneficial. But it’s a delicate balance to strike. Both Leo and I love and support and work with experimental media artists, and here we are consulting on a commercial film for 20th Century Fox, now [part of] Disney. 

Goldsmith: This is something he understood, and something we talked about in our first conversation. He was very aware that the kind of work that he was doing was a commercial film, and the work we were showing to him came from a very different context—productionwise and also aesthetically, politically, economically. From our first conversation, he was very sensitive to this issue. I should also say that we mostly sent him things readily available online or pointed him to where these things could be ordered. He was working with very different resources and constraints, and obviously, he is aware of the difference between his process and his work and, for the most part, that of the artists that we were sending his way. He is keenly aware of the issues and ethical questions involved here. Something that Greg and I have been very interested in stems back to our work with ’60s computer films—a lot of this work is actually created under a much more mixed context. I mean, Lillian Schwartz was working at Bell Labs. The computer films that James initially saw at the Museum of the Moving Image were in many cases films that were created for, let’s say, NASA or for other more institutional contexts. Stan VanDerBeek and Ken Knowlton’s Poem Field series [1967] were also Bell Labs films. Obviously, there is, in some ways, contrast between a lot of the work that we were showing to James and work that he was doing, but there are muddier examples as well. 

Zinman: I found James’ openness and almost student-like enthusiasm for stuff he didn’t know about or hadn’t seen really refreshing. That’s the best kind of student. You expect someone working at that level and at that scale—obviously, you have to be very confident and sure of one’s self—but it was interesting to see how far afield he wanted to go in order to try and think of new ways of doing things. I think that sort of buoyed Leo and me along. Again, who knows what the film ends up being? But we never ran into anything like interference or being told “No, this is strange” or “This is too wild; this simply won’t do” with any of the studio folks. Everything was “green light,” which was great—and odd, really. I think it took us both a little while to adjust to the idea that the two of us, academics studying experimental media, were going to be consulting on a Hollywood film. 

Goldsmith: And on this film. Before he contacted us, his most recently released film was The Immigrant [2013]. The Lost City of Z [2016] hadn’t actually come out yet. I think maybe I had heard somewhere that James Gray was working on a film that was about space travel. So, thinking about the scope of the film was interesting as well—thinking of his work as a filmmaker addressing something bigger in scope, bigger in budget, certainly, something that relied on special effects much more than The Immigrant did. When Lost City of Z came out, that was maybe a sort of step on that road. But as people probably said about Claire Denis, James is not necessarily the person you would imagine taking on this kind of work or these kinds of images or genre. 

Zinman: It was clear from the outset he was interested in challenging himself. I remember that’s one of the things that he talked about, that he really wanted to change up the way he made films. I guess this was the opportunity to really do that. 

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