Inside The Martian: Empire Meets NASA

Martian, The

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With the second trailer now online, you’re probably aware that The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s bestselling book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, is on its way to our screens within a few weeks. Empire was given the chance to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the home of some of the best minds in space science, and of the Curiosity Rover currently trundling around the Red Planet.

The Martian is set in the near future, at a time when humanity has already begun to take research trips to the place, and chronicles what happens when something goes terribly wrong. Damon plays Mark Watney, the mission’s botanist, who is struck by flying debris and thought dead by his crewmates when a storm hits the Ares 3 mission during their time on Mars. But Watney has survived, and must now face the seemingly impossible task of both staying alive on a planet not suitable for humans (with dwindling supplies) and trying to find some way to tell NASA that he’s still breathing. Soon, his botanical skills and his astronaut survival training are kicking in, along with his endlessly witty and sarcastic sense of humour. But will it be enough?

Weir’s book was first published for free on his website back in 2011. “The initial audience for the story were all hardcore sci-fi geeks, because I'd been writing science-based humour stuff for about 10 years before The Martian,” he recalls. “So my mailing list was full of stories where you show your work. It never occurred to me it would have mainstream appeal. But I think what people really like is the snarky, smartass attitude of the main character. And that came as a total surprise to me, because I thought it would this niche thing that very few people would be interested in. My favourite thing is when I get fan mail that starts, 'I don't usually read science fiction but...' And then goes on to say nice things about the book.” Readers, though, did complain that they hated the way it was formatted as a series of web pages. The Martian evolved into a free electronic publishing title and then an Amazon Kindle tome before a publishing company and a book agent took an interest, resulting in a hugely successful physical copy. Weir talks about the book and the resulting movie in the interview below.

Fox came calling, picking up the rights to the book, and Drew Goddard made a deal to adapt it and direct. But when other work got in the way of his ability to stay on as director, Ridley Scott, a man with a little bit of experience in science fiction, saw the potential. He was attracted by the potential to make a science fiction film with the emphasis on the science. “Without being negative here, it's always art against commerce,” he says. “And the studio has to make money, otherwise it can't make movies, so it has to put bums on seats. And there's this rule that audiences don't particularly want to turn up to cinemas with a large popcorn and a drink and be educated, they just want to be entertained. So there's always that discussion between the smarter studio heads, who are aware that it's great when you walk out learning something, but that doesn't have to be every movie.” The Martian, however, had the potential to walk that line.

For Damon, it was a combination of the source material, the script and the director that got him to sign on and be fitted for a space suit, despite having been previously lost in space for Interstellar. “I read the script, I thought it was great, I read the book and thought it was great, but when I heard that Ridley wanted to do it, that was it. It's a director's medium, and when you get one of the best directors, it's a very quick phone call. And yes, it was a chance to say, 'well, it's going to be me in a lot of these scenes. But it's going to be me and Ridley Scott! And that's an easy decision to make.”

To help keep things as accurate as possible (while extrapolating some of the technology and letting drama dictate a few of the fictional details), Scott reached out to the NASA, and specifically to Dr. Jim Green, a planetary scientist who oversees the department at the organisation’s HQ. “When you read a book, you imagine what the story will look. As a film producer, you have to paint that picture, and he wanted to make it realistic and I've appreciated pulling together teams of people and answering questions that he asked. And the more that happened, the more I got excited about that, because the film does indeed look very realistic. It has a lot of real elements on it and that's appreciated from a NASA perspective.” For Dr. Green, it was a thrill in another way, since he’s a massive fan of Alien. “I was coming back from the cafeteria when our public affairs official ran up looking for me and says, 'can you take a call from Ridley Scott at 2pm this afternoon?' I said, 'THE Ridley Scott?' And he said, 'yeah!' I cleared my calendar. It was that easy.” “Studios don’t take my call that quickly,” laughs the director.

We had the chance to talk to Dr. Green about his conversation with Scott and his thoughts on science fiction in general…

Damon and Scott, working from Goddard’s script, pushed to maintain Watney’s humour from the book, and overcame the challenge of a character that spends a big chunk of screen time on their own. “That's the relationship between what I do and the actor,” explains the director. “We discussed, quite in depth, the fact that the story would have to be told, to a large extent, with a lot of voice-over, and that's a challenge for Matt, because voice-over can easily become elongated and boring, but I think in this he's succeeded brilliantly by incorporating humour. The GoPro cameras became his only companion. The GoPro would be everywhere in that habitat, to act as a sort of black box, recording everything if something goes wrong.”

“It's an illusion that I'm carrying the movie,” adds Damon. “It's actually all down to Ridley, it really is. I'll get a lot of the credit for what he did, because he's got to keep the audience with just one actor up there, he's got to keep you involved and keep the story going. It really was the reason I wanted to do it.”

“He was never that generous on the set,” snarks Scott.

They faced another challenge when the film’s release date was brought forward. But according to Damon, the typically fast-working Scott didn’t worry. “Ridley was done with the movie about two weeks after we shot!” he smiles. “I was already on to my next movie!” adds Scott. “I was starting to look for locations for my next movie, which is Prometheus 2.” Back to space so soon?

With the movie now close to completion and readying for a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, there’s time to reflect on what Damon in particular hopes it might do for science and education. “When I sat and talked with Drew Goddard, it was the first thing he said. 'I want this to be a love letter to science.' We had a long conversation about that, and how that's a wonderful thing to put out into the world right now. And I don't have any lofty expectations, but I do hope some kids see it and geek out on the science and enjoy it, and maybe it becomes one thing in their life that pushes them in that direction.”

And another Drew, Feustel, who has been part of two shuttle crews in his career, thinks it will be a good thing. “The challenge that we have at NASA, even as astronauts is that part of our job is to go out and educate the public, talk to kids and inspire people, but unfortunately, we do that with boring things that we do very well. The challenge is that if we do our job well, we do it right, we try to keep the drama out of it. But that's what makes the movies great, even though the last thing we want is for something like that to go wrong. What I think is special about the story for myself, and I think it's true of a lot of astronauts is the relevant topics in there, things that are very real for us. We all have visions of exploring space and eventually going to Mars and beyond, and so for me, what was great about the movie is that it brings those things to life in a very relevant way for us. We're not as smooth and cool as we look in the film.”

And one final thing. We got to see the twin of the Curiosity Rover, which sits in a facility known at JPL as Mars Yard. It’s used to test commands that will be sent to its distant duplicate and is also a part of the research into the next rover, due to depart in 2020. It’s the future of Mars missions, designed to start collecting samples of Martian soil and rock that can be returned to Earth for testing as NASA prepares the next generation of rockets to eventually take mankind where only robots have dared to tread. But the Curiosity’s arrival, for all its excitement back in 2012, created one big thorn for Weir, and the filmmakers have decided to leave the idea intact. “I'd written the book and it was set and I couldn't make any changes around the time Curiosity landed. And you see Mark Watney do all this stuff to generate water on Mars, this huge hassle that he goes through, blowing himself up,” he says. “Then along comes Curiosity, this little pain in the ass, goes down on Mars, samples the soil and finds out that for every cubic metre of Martian soil there's about 35 litres of water trapped in it. So all he had to do was bring some dirt inside and heat it up!” Mars: it might not have war machines, but it can still cause problems.

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