The Martian is coming

Abandoned-on-Mars-a-lone-astronaut-awaits-rescue--Fox-Films

British director Ridley Scott gives an interview (below) on his latest film The Martian ahead of a feature in next month’s Spaceflight. Scheduled to premiere in Canada tomorrow (11 September), it will be on general release in the UK from 30 September and in the US from 2 October.

The film has taken NASA by storm, managers and administrators eulogising over the degree of realism and technical excellence, although there is one caveat regarding a super-sandstorm which overwhelms a Mars crew. In reality the low pressure of the atmosphere on Mars would have no such effect.

That aside, the film is considered to be one of the most accurate in its depictions of deep-space exploration yet produced. And a lot of that comes from the director’s personal enthusiasm for the story.

When Ridley Scott first read the script for The Martian his reaction was instant. Quite simply, it jumped to the very top of his long list of priorities and within months he was shooting in Hungary and Budapest.

With a screenplay by Drew Goddard – who at one point was pencilled in to direct – The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel about the first manned mission to Mars which goes horribly wrong. Scott, like millions of others, is a fan of Weir’s book and in particular of the never-say-die attitude of Watney, a botanist who calls on all of his wit and ingenuity to try and survive.

‘I think the book was amazingly practical and entertaining and challenging in every shape and form’, says Scott. ‘It wasn’t just another space movie. It was ‘you can survive.’ If you read this book carefully it will help you survive.

And I think it’s really amusing as well. So a good lesson for us all – if you apply this to life you’ll come out in one piece’.

‘It’s a challenge and I can’t shake the designer out of me. I’ve always loved that side of making films. I love to create other worlds. I don’t care whether its period, like Kingdom of Heaven, with the crusades or it’s futuristic, the challenge is the same. In a funny kind of way, futuristic is more difficult than period because period you have lots of references to go to and with futuristic you try not to repeat yourself so you are constantly having to re-think [space] suits, re-think ships, re-think technology and what it’s going to look like and that in itself is fascinating’.

The Martian is set in the near future and Commander Melissa Lewis [Jessica Chastain] and her crew are the first humans to land on Mars after an epic space voyage lasting months.

But when a fierce sandstorm strikes their base camp, Watney is badly injured and presumed dead and left behind as Lewis is forced to abort their mission. Alone on a remote planet, Watney must use all his scientific knowledge to eke out his meagre supplies – including planting and then harvesting his own potatoe crop.

When he finally works out a way to let NASA know that he has survived, a team of international scientists work round the clock – and against all the odds – to try to bring ‘The Martian’ home. And when Lewis and her colleagues find out that he is alive, they defy orders and risk their own lives to try to rescue him.

Weir’s book has become a publishing phenomenon. First released in episodes on his website, fans clamoured for it to be released as an eBook and after that became a huge success, it was released in traditional print form.

The book has been praised by NASA for its accuracy and the space agency has also supported Scott’s film, working with his production team on the design of space suits and the ‘Rover’ a vehicle designed for use on the rugged terrain on Mars. Scott and his costume designer, Academy Award winner Janty Yates, showed NASA their own space suit designs – and the scientists were impressed.

‘NASA showed us what they were thinking about for the future in terms of suits and vehicles, things like that, and we look at it and it was quite amusing because I said, ‘hmm, don’t like the suits, dude..’.  And they said ‘no, nor do we! What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I’ll show you..’ So we did the suits and then they looked at them and said ‘oh, that’s cool…’ ‘

Working with Matt Damon, who plays the stranded astronaut, was a joy, and Damon brought his own sense of humour to the character, says his director. It was, he adds, a very challenging role for the actor, not least because, for most of the film, he is, of course, alone.

‘You are all on your own and you are holding down the stage by yourself and you’ve got to keep it alive and keep it amusing’, says Scott. ‘I think people know that Matt has a great sense of humour and he enabled himself to tap into that humour, which I would call laconic humour or gallows humour’.

For Ms Chastain, and the other actors who played the crew of the Ares 3, filming The Martian was a tough physical challenge, he says. ‘I think it’s a great part for Jessica and perhaps unlikely because she’s not thought of as being a physical actress. But I saw a film she did called The Debt in which she played a spy and I was surprised and I was convinced she could do anything at that point. And there are strong performances throughout the film – Jeff (Daniels) and there’s Sean (Bean), Chiwetel (Ejiofor), Kristen (Wiig), the guys on the Ares 3. I’m really pleased with them all’.

Q & A follows:

You’re always very busy, so what was it that hooked you into this story?
I think the book was amazingly practical and entertaining and challenging in every shape and form – it wasn’t just another space movie. It was ‘you can survive.’ If you read this book carefully it will help you survive. And I think it’s really amusing as well. So a good lesson for us all – if you apply this to life you’ll come out in one piece.

Andy Weir, the author of the book, obviously went to great lengths to make the science accurate. Was that important for your film too?
I was never very good at mathematics so I had to get my head round ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Exchange). And eventually I actually worked it out with the help of the art department who explained it to me so many times, as if they were explaining two and two makes four. But ASCII is quite complex and in its simplest form it’s about letters in relations to numbers and the penny eventually dropped. But I like to do things visually so I would have (Matt as Mark Watney) do things like walk in a circle with a string to his nose and you think ‘what the hell is doing?’ Because I like the idea of combining state of the art technology – things like the Habitat, and his space suit, which are keeping him alive – and yet he is also using a bit of string and some gaffer tape to save his life.

You mentioned his humour and a different movie about a man stranded on Mars would have had him wallowing in loneliness. And yet Watney has this determination to survive and the humour to keep himself buoyant..
He’s funny and Matt and I talked at length about this because he said ‘there’s a lot of voice over..’ And I said yes, but the voice over is divided into three categories. And we are going to give you a ‘buddy’ – what we call a GoPro [high definition camera] – in almost every space. It will be in the Hab (Habitat) and in the Rover [surface vehicle]. There will be maybe 50 in the Habitat, in the laboratories and even in the shower room because if anything goes wrong, the GoPro is like a Black Box on an aircraft, it will be capturing information and NASA will want to see what happened. So suddenly Watney is being recorded every inch of the way and that becomes a companion for him, because he can talk into the camera. He frequently changes tone and talks to the camera as if it’s a friend because, in effect, that is his buddy. So that takes care of 40 per cent of it because it’s almost like he has a friend with him and the rest is straight forward voice over, rumination, him working things out.

What was the central theme for you? The desire not to leave somebody behind no matter what?
Absolutely and that is NASA and JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and who they are. JPL is a community of scientists in California where they create instruments and robots and put them in space to do things. NASA is about vehicles that are man driven and they have their different dress codes [laughs]. In NASA they are in the suits and ties and at JPL they are like a relaxed bunch of hippies [laughs]. But they work together and they never leave anyone behind. And that’s what happens in our story – they will do anything to bring Watney home. And that’s a very powerful narrative – will Watney be able to survive long enough to be rescued? I like the way Teddy [Sanders] played by Jeff Daniels at first seems like a pretty tough head of NASA. But what else are you going to do? You have to be tough to be kind.

You must have been very excited about creating the Mars landscapes. How did you approach that?
Well, I’d been to Wadi Rum [in southern Jordan] where I shot part of the Hittite battle for Exodus: Gods and Kings but the rest of the landscapes for that were in Fuerteventura [in the Canary Islands] so I had never really put a big unit on the ground in Jordan and I felt this was the moment to do it. And before we set foot in the studio in Budapest we had to choose the nestling rocks (in Wadi Rum) that the Habitat would be sheltered by and cover it, 360 degrees, with digital cameras, and then when I got back to the studio in Budapest – which is a huge studio, bigger than the Bond stage in Pinewood – I could dovetail them together. And you can’t spot was is effect and what isn’t; you can’t tell what is studio and what was Wadi Rum.

Why was 3D right for The Martian?
Well, I love 3D. I’ve taken to it like a duck to water. I just love the idea that once you step into a theatre and put the glasses on it takes you into that world. Actually, every modern TV set is compatible to 3D. For me it gives the audience an added dimension and particularly for this kind of film it takes you into the landscape – it brings you in, draws you in, and I love it.

You said recently that you adore the science fiction genre. What is it that you love about creating these other worlds?
Well, it’s a challenge and I can’t shake the designer out of me. I’ve always loved that side of making films. I love to create other worlds. I don’t care whether it’s period, like Kingdom of Heaven, with the crusades or it’s futuristic, the challenge is the same. In a funny kind of way, futuristic is more difficult than period because period you have lots of references to go to and with futuristic you try not to repeat yourself so you are constantly having to re-think [space] suits, re-think ships, re-think technology and what it’s going to look like and that in itself is fascinating.

And I understand that you had a lot of cooperation from NASA in that regard for The Martian. How important was that?
Well, first of all it’s great to get their support and enthusiasm. And they have seen the film – 14 representatives of NASA saw the film a couple of weeks ago and that went very well, they went nuts over it. They went, ‘Jesus Christ, this will help us get funding!’. So that was nice. So NASA showed us what they were thinking about for the future in terms of suits and vehicles, things like that, and we look at it and it was quite amusing because I said, ‘hmm, don’t like the suits, dude.. And they said ‘no, nor do we! What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I’ll show you..’ So we did the suits and then they looked at them and said ‘oh, that’s cool…’ With NASA, if you go way back to Stanley Kubrick, he used a guy called Robert McCall [conceptual designer on 2001: A Space Odyssey and an artist commissioned by NASA] and one of McCall’s beautiful murals is on the wall at the entrance to [the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center] in Houston, I believe, and it’s very beautifully done. And on it is the white doughboy suits from 2001 and a montage of other space objects painted in the luminous light. He was a genius and he helped Stanley design a lot of the interiors on 2001. I think Stanley was paranoid that NASA was going to beat him to it and he wanted to be ahead of them. So all of that stuff is brilliantly designed and the threshold of all space films, I really believe, is 2001.

Are we going to get a manned mission to Mars in the not too distant future?
Oh yes, I believe that we’ll have a manned mission to Mars. NASA was thrilled with the book and the film because it more or less accurately portrays what in terms of technology will happen. The union between JPL and NASA is very accurately portrayed and they were thrilled about that. I think they would love to be on Mars in 10 years, not 20. It’s their biggest challenge. With the Moon they could be there in four days now. Now Mars varies according to where we are in the trajectories – it can be as far away as 95 million miles but you could still get there in five months, which is not five years. So I think they would love to get up there. The problem is you will have to send ahead assets. So when the rocket gets there it unhooks from the spacecraft, leaves the spacecraft in orbit, to return to Earth, while it lands on Mars and deposits a Habitat – the same as we have in the film – so that there is somewhere for the astronauts to live. It would have to be built by robotics before humans get there. In the film, there’s another site prepped ready for the next Mars landing but its 3,500 kilometres away. And he knows that all the assets are there, in good condition, because nothing rots. And the thing that could save his life is that he figures that there is got to be a device, which will enable him to communicate with Earth. And he works out that it’s 13 days from where he is and he risks his life because he knows that if he can get that device, power it up, he has half a shot of communicating with Earth.

How thrilled were you when the front page of The Martian script, with one of your drawings, went up into space on Orion?
Well, the guys at NASA knew I drew, so they said ‘can you do a drawing for us?’ And I said, ‘yes..’ And I did it and then I kind of forgot about it [laughs]. And it came back framed with a stamp and seal to say that it has been up in space and come back, which is wonderful.

And where have you hung that?
It’s now in my office in LA.

You talked about the science in Andy Weir’s book and in the film. Tell us about the potatoes because they’re key to Watney’s survival aren’t they? And that too is based on real science..
Yes, it is. If you take half a spud, fertilise it – and that’s a polite way of putting it – dollop water on it and within 42 days you’ll have a fully grown potato plant on which you can have anything up to six to eight spuds. That’s pretty good. And you keep the big ones to eat and plant the small ones again and you doubling up your crop and re-planting and you have a food supply.

That must have been the first of your sets on which you’ve actually grown potatoes?
It was absolutely the first time we’ve grown potatoes on a set [laughs]. It sounds really boring but it came off really well.

OK, let’s talk about your cast. You have Matt Damon as Mark Watney. Did you both come to the project around the same time?
No, Matt was ahead of me. The script had been written with Matt in mind and Drew [Goddard, screenwriter] was meant to direct it. And someone said to me ‘you should read this script, because Drew is maybe going to do something else..’ And so I read it and I flipped. I said ‘bloody hell, I’ll do this – I’ll do this next!’ Because I was still struggling with Prometheus 2 at the time and my first question to Drew was ‘why aren’t you doing this?’ And he said ‘I don’t know really..’ But away we went. I met with Matt and we made the film.

It’s a very challenging role for Matt because for most of the film he’s on his own….
Exactly. You are all on your own and you are holding down the stage by yourself and you’ve got to keep it alive and keep it amusing. I think people know that Matt has a great sense of humour and he enabled himself to tap into that humour, which I would call laconic humour or gallows humour.  But you know, all these elements mean that it comes down to a good film. And I loved working with Matt.

You also have Jessica Chastain who is playing Melissa Lewis, who is commander of the Ares 3 mission to Mars.
I think it’s a great part for Jessica and perhaps unlikely because she’s not thought of as being a physical actress. But I saw a film she did called The Debt in which she played a spy and I was surprised and I was convinced she could do anything at that point.

We know that you prefer to build sets and props and keep CGI to a minimum. What was the approach on The Martian?
We built the interior of the spacecraft; we had some small parts of the exterior itself, which meant we could expand that digitally. If I can afford it, I’ll build it and it’s really for the actors. They love it.

You also build the Rover vehicle didn’t you?
Yes, and that’s now Wadi Rum, we gave it to the King of Jordan. He has a tank museum and he was very happy to have it – I’m sure he’s driving it right now.

So did you enjoy making The Martian?
Yes, I did but then I enjoy everything. I’m reading the finished version of Prometheus 2 now and we’ll probably start shooting at the end of January beginning of February and I may do that in Vancouver. The Blade Runner sequel is written, and I really kind of co-wrote that one with Hampton Fancher and Mike Green, and the director is Denis Villeneuve. And I think he’s a good choice.

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