“The Martian” may seem like an expansive space-action flick, but the actual stakes in the Ridley Scott film are fairly small. There’s no evil robot or invading alien race threatening to destroy the planet.
The whole film is centered around the survival of just one person: stranded astronaut Mark Watney (played by actor Matt Damon). Narrowing the scope of the film down to the question of whether Watney lived or died, says screenwriter Drew Goddard, allowed “The Martian” to connect with the audience on a much larger scale.
Comprehensible stakes is just one of Goddard’s self-described “rants.” Plots and villians can get him going, too.
If you like smart, trope-busting science fiction and superhero stories, you’ve seen Goddard’s work. He cut his teeth in the writer’s room for Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” wrote “Cloverfield,” created and directed “Cabin in the Woods,” and has worked on “Lost,” “Angel,” “Alias” and the recent Marvel Netflix series “Daredevil.” So he knows a thing or two about the old end-of-the-world plot pressure. And he’s not having it.
The first line from author Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian” is what hooked Goddard. Stuck on the red planet, with no hope of rescue and little hope of survival, Watney lays it all out in the first sentence, landing with an f-bomb. “I’m pretty much …” You can fill in the blank. While some folks might be blinded by the language, Goddard was attracted to the courage behind the curse.
“That first sentence,” Goddard told the L.A. Times, “the whole spirit of the book is in those four words. There’s optimism to it… There’s hope. I think I responded to that right away. It just spoke to me. I read it and I read it again the next day. I think it was the third day that I found myself still haunted by it, so that was a good sign.”
Goddard wanted to help bring Watney home.
QUESTION: There’s so much math exposition in this book. Did you think about portraying the science like “A Beautiful Mind,” putting an algorithm in the air, or on the wall, so we’d see his thoughts?
Drew Goddard: You try, you play with it. I don’t think Andy gets enough credit for it, [but] in the book, obviously, the science is really well thought-out. It’s funny because I’ve talked to Andy, and I’m not even sure he realized it, but I find the book very soulful as well. The repetition of the science becomes the point, if that makes sense. I really saw these connections between the act of the scientific process and the act of trying to stay alive. I saw those two connections early and I just felt, “Ok, we’re going to build around that and we’re going to trust that the science is going to come through.”
We [got] the science right, but I didn’t want the movie to be a instruction manual. I didn’t want it to feel like you’re reading a scientific treatise, even though it is. I wanted it to connect on a deeper level. I feel like that was my job. Clearly the science Andy’s done is amazing, so it’s just all about realizing it.
Mark Watney could have been deeply unlikable. He could have been a know-it-all. Instead he kind of champions his knowledge.
He’s a little apologetic.
How did you walk that balance?
I think part of it is that optimism carries him through. I think optimism is just a likable quality, and to me it was very much the soul of the book. He doesn’t want to give up and you just relate. Even if you don’t understand what’s going on, you relate to, “I need water. I need food. I’m alone. I’m lonely.” I trust that you could have empathy. Even if you don’t know what it’s like to be on Mars, you know what it’s like to be alone. I sort of hinged it on that. Then his sense of humor. If he can make you laugh, that’s half the battle.
How do you make the scientists and the math seem realistic while still making the characters seem like full people? How do you let the audience know what’s going on in the commander’s head?
We talked a lot about it with the actors because there isn’t a lot of [dialogue] about how upset [the astronauts] are. You want that to feel real. Ridley and I talked a lot about that too; you let the actors play it. You just trust that we don’t need to say it out loud. Part of what I liked about [the script] is that they don’t. You get the sense that they’re not allowing themselves to say it because then the realities are terrifying.
[Watney’s] not allowing himself to talk about it, how the despair, once you let it in, it just feels like it’s going to come barreling through that door. It’s all about finding those moments. We just let them come out. There’s a point where Mark finally does crack. You just sort of let it feel. Matt, that was his instinct as an actor. That’s where it felt, “Oh, it’s going to come out because I’m finally hearing their voices for the first time.” It just felt right to him.
Those are those special moments that you’re looking for in filmmaking where the collaboration becomes greater than the sum of its parts. “Oh, we’ve set all this up,” and Ridley designs a beautiful set and we’re all there and then Matt reacts to it. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
What was the moment that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck?
When Matt talks to commander Lewis, and he just breaks. You just go, “Oh, that’s right. He’s been waiting this whole time to hear another person’s voice.” The second he heard it, he actually broke. [Matt] came to Ridley afterward and apologized. [Ridley] said, “What are you talking about? That’s magnificent. That’s going in the movie. Don’t apologize for that.”
The scene where the habitat breaks and Watney puts it back together with a tarp and masking tape really stressed me out, with the wind blowing and all he’s trying to do is count potatoes. He doesn’t break, but he’s breaking. There are no words, but it’s so stressful. How did you write that?
The more you do this, the more you realize how little dialogue you actually need. You’re constantly looking for ways to pull out. I think when you’re younger or more inexperienced, you just cram it full of words. You do it long enough and you’re pulling it out.
I think that was one of the big challenges, because at least a third of the book was first-person narration after the fact, in past-tense as though it’s already happened. That is not film-friendly. That’s really hard. The studio wanted to know, “How are we going to do this?” I said, “It’s OK. A lot of it, we’re just going to watch and we’re going to trust that we don’t need to explain. There will be times when he talks to the camera.” To me it was much more of an emotional reason than an exposition reason, where it’s like you get the sense that he’s lonely and he’s just trying to tell NASA what happened because he wants NASA to know. He’s trying to do the mission still. He’s trying to just keep doing science.
I think part of him thinks that he’s going to die. There was an emotional reason for it. I said, “Other than that, we’re just going to get Matt Damon and we’re going to point the camera at him and it’s going to work.”
This is also on the heels of “Gravity,” which is a fairly positive movie, but still focuses on scary space. “The Martian” is much more like “Apollo 13.” It’s thumping the drum for discovery. How important was that to you and how hard was it to push that? You could have easily vilified the Jeff Daniels character.
Yeah, I think he comes across a little more severe in the book. I said to Andy, “One of the things that I like about the story is that there is no antagonist. The antagonist is circumstance. I think it’s important. We need to flesh out Jeff Daniels’ character a little more so that you understand why he has to make these decisions because I have empathy for this.” Even though it’s not what you want, it’s not the audience-pleasing thing, you understand where he’s coming from. You understand that he’s a guy trusted to make the hard decisions and if I was in that position and I was trusted with that, I probably would make those hard decisions. It’s better to protect the people that we’ve got. You sometimes have to do that. It was important to me to understand his point of view.
I feel like there are no “bad” people in “The Martian.”
That was sort of the goal. I think part of me might have just gotten tired of writing villains. I like villains, don’t get me wrong.
Even though the movie is set in the future, was it a relief to write something very grounded in reality?
That was really important to me. One of the main reasons I loved the book so much is that I grew up around scientists. I grew up in this town, Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the only reason for the town is it’s a scientific lab. It’s a company town, in the industry of science. I felt like Andy really captured scientists in a way that I wasn’t used to seeing on screen, or at least my experience of scientists. It just felt right to me. Yes, this is a book about space, and it’s about Mars. But it’s really a book about people struggling to do their best for a noble purpose.
What do you mean when you say, “You haven’t seen on screen before?” What are you tired of seeing?
Look, I’ve written some of these, but usually what happens is the scientist is never the main character. The scientist shows up and delivers exposition and then leaves. Or they’re the person we make fun of. I felt like there’s a fallibility to these scientists in Andy’s book, and a kind of human quality where it just feels like they don’t know. They’re just trying. They’re pretty smart, but the nature of science is that you fail a lot. That’s the part that I don’t think comes across all the time in Hollywood. The nature of the scientific process is, “We try something. We think it might work. It doesn’t, and we learn from that and we try again.”
There was very much a metaphor for life in there.... I think scientists have a sense of humor because they’re so used to messing up. It’s a very sort of dead-pan, “Well, let’s try it again.” I definitely saw that with all my friends’ fathers who all worked for the lab. I liked that. That just felt, “Okay, we can run with that. We can explore that a little more.”
It was fun to watch everyone put the pressure on the JPL guy… We’ve all been in that room in some way.
One of the things that was important to me, because it just felt that, when he’s told to do something impossible, his response is, “I need to go get a change of clothes.” His basic idea of, “OK, we’re going to do it. We’re going to be here all night, but we’re going to give it our best.” That’s the sort of spirit I see in scientists a lot.
After so many blockbuster movies where you blew up the Earth, the stakes are smaller for most of the characters in this movie, and “Daredevil,” too. You don’t want Daredevil’s identity to be discovered, and you just want the stranded Mark Watney to survive.
Mark, yeah. No, it’s true. I have a couple of rants.
Let’s hear them.
I get called in a lot to offer my opinion on scripts and rewriting and things like that. Ninety-five percent of the time, the note is, “We don’t understand the villain’s plan and we don’t understand the stakes.” The thing I say is, “I don’t care.” They laugh, and I go, “I’m not kidding. Let me tell you why you shouldn’t hire me to do this job: because I don’t care. The things that you think you care about, I don’t care about. I would never care about it in a movie. You want the bad guy; I want to understand the bad guy’s emotions. I want to understand where he’s coming from. I don’t care how well thought-out his plan is, and I don’t really care if the world’s going to get destroyed, because I don’t relate to that at all.” I can relate to a guy just needs water. Even if I’ve never been a superhero, I can relate to a guy who wants to keep his corner clean.
Not even all of New York, just Hell’s Kitchen.
It’s just Hell’s Kitchen. I kept saying that: “We’re not trying to save the world.” That’s why I fought so hard for the second episode, Matt’s big fight, to just be a hallway. I just want it to be he just wants to get from point A to point B. I don’t want it to be about anything bigger than that. He’s just trying to get to the other end of the hall and we’re going to make it really hard to get to the other end of that hall. That’s it. It’s the same thing with Mark. It’s funny, I hadn’t really thought about that, but I was writing the two things at the same time, “Daredevil” and “The Martian.” It is an A to B movie as well: “I’m just trying to get home.” [And] it’s really, really hard to get home.
“The Martian” is out in theaters now.
Follow me on Twitter: @MdellW