The hardest scene to write in ‘The Martian’ involved a ‘Lord of the Rings’ joke

Part of the Hermes crew from "The Martian," from left, Matt Damon as Mark Watney, Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, Sebastian Stan as Chris Beck, Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen, and Aksel Hennie as Alex Vogel.

Part of the Hermes crew from “The Martian,” from left, Matt Damon as Mark Watney, Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, Sebastian Stan as Chris Beck, Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen, and Aksel Hennie as Alex Vogel.

(Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox / AP)

Forget the giant, rotating spaceships or gargantuan red mountains of Mars. The hardest scene to write in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” was set inside a conference room, on Earth.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard (“Daredevil,” “Cabin in the Woods”) who adapted this movie from Andy Weir’s novel, had an eye for detail while turning the sci-fi story into on-screen reality. In fact he was so hellbent on getting everything just right that he took a trip to to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to get their offices just right. And what inspired him the most at JPL, something very simple that almost made the movie.

But the hardest scene to write actually pivoted on a J.R.R. Tolkien joke. When NASA finally devises a way to get the marooned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) home, they name the endeavor, Project Elrond, after the council assembled to destroy the One Ring in the Tolkein epic, proving that all good heroes read Tolkien.

Here’s Part Two of our interview with Drew Goddard, minor movie spoilers ahead:


Question: NASA is not usually super open about everything they’re working on, or lending their names to projects without their approval. How difficult was it to get their OK for “The Martian?”

Drew Goddard: It’s a big deal. They’re very protective about that. Rightfully so. We knew we really need their support for this movie. So much of the movie celebrates what they do that it felt, if they said, “No, we don’t care for this movie,” it felt like we were doing something wrong.

That’s not what this movie should be. We involved them. ....As soon as Ridley got the script to where he was happy, he sent it to NASA right away and they were really happy. They got on board very quickly. They saw it for what we wanted them to see it as, which is a celebration of them. I think they’re really happy with it. From that point forward it was easy. Their only big note when they saw the movie was that the offices are way too nice for NASA people. It was funny.

One of the things I’m sad we couldn’t get in the movie, just because we couldn’t find it, but the thing that’s cool about JPL is that there are just deer running around all outside. It’s in Pasadena; they’re just all eating lunch and deer are running by. That’s bizarre. That’s weird. Those are the things that I get excited about. The geniuses of the world have deer grazing in their lunchroom. That’s crazy. If we put that on the screen everyone would be like, “What?”

It would be CG deer?

That’s’ what it came down to. Ridley was like, “I’m not putting a CG deer.” No, I wrote it in the script that there are deer, because I really wanted it to be on screen, but in Budapest [Hungary] we couldn’t find the right deer, I guess. It just became a whole thing.

You just said, “Let’s do CG deer”?

I said, “Yeah, I don’t care!” Ridley said, “Drew, I’m sorry. There’s going to be no deer.”

What was the hardest scene to write?

What was the hardest scene? The one that we went over and over several times was the Donald Glover “Council of Elrond” scene, because it’s an eight-page scene. It’s a really long scene, which is something you don’t normally want to do in screenwriting. You want to keep your scenes around three pages, so this was pretty long, especially for this type of movie. A lot of the movie is go, go, go, but there’s so much exposition that has to come out. It’s also the argument between everyone, so that one took some doing. I think even in the first couple of drafts Donald Glover wasn’t even in that scene. He had to, the way it is in the book, where you find out over the course of a couple of pages, we had to figure out how to simplify it.

In that scene you do my favorite thing that action movies do, the layman’s explanation of science, like “The Core” with the apple and they light it on fire.

I love “The Core”! I looked at “The Core” a lot. John Rogers is great. “The Core” is really good…. Yeah, it was also because the scene was so long. We were always looking for things to cut, it’s a credit to Steve Asbell at Fox. Ridley kept wanting to cut the “Lord of the Rings” stuff because he didn’t think it was going to play, and then I started to agree with him, even though I really liked it. And then at a certain point we were all going to cut it, and then Steve Asbell walks in with “Absolutely not.”

Now, it gets the biggest laughs in the movie.

It gets huge laughs!

But that’s what happens in movie-making is you start to second-guess yourself. It just happens.


And there you have it, “The Core” love, aspirations for CG deer, and a “Lord of the Rings” joke that probably took up entirely too much time to craft, but was worth it. “The Martian” truly is a geek’s dream.

Read the rest of the interview with Drew Goddard.