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Why Ridley Scott made ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon, from left, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie in "The Martian."

Matt Damon, from left, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie in “The Martian.”

(20th Century Fox)

Filmgoers who see “The Martian” this weekend will be struck by its many antecedents. There is, of course, the bestseller by Andy Weir. There’s the science that undergirds book and movie. And there’s a history of fictional tales about the stranded, beginning with Robinson Crusoe and continuing through “Cast Away” and “Gravity.”

But hovering behind it all is Ridley Scott. The veteran director has tackled a number of interstellar stories, including “Alien” and “Prometheus.” But in all his big-budget epics, he’s arguably never taken on something as grounded and specific —as humanist and emotional — as “The Martian,” which follows botanist-astronaut Mark Watney after he’s inadvertently left behind by crewmates such as Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) on the Red Planet.

Scott came aboard the movie in spring 2014 (screenwriter Drew Goddard was initially slated to direct). Front of mind in his film is the question of leaving a man behind, and the urgency of saving that person no matter the risk, as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor mobilizes a global effort on behalf of Watney to, well, bring him home.

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In the film’s emphasis on the importance and value of a single man’s life —a brother, really, to Lewis and the rest of the crew — it’s hard not to sense an echo of Scott’s own past. The director lost his brother Tony to suicide in August 2012, and Scott has understandably been grappling with that death in the years since (he also decided to dedicate his previous two movies to him).

Asked if he was thinking of loss or grief in his own life when he made the movie, Scott gave an oblique but heartfelt answer.

“I think the film is about how no one is ever alone,” he said in a phone interview. “When you see an earthquake in Nepal and people coming to help, you realize that. When you see any tragedy around the world and all the efforts to do something, you realize that. That’s what I think the movie is about.”

It’s a misperception that directors take on films because they hope to keenly parallel the searching and stories of their own lives (the “Hannah Montana effect,” an old colleague used to call it). But it’s also inaccurate to say that their experience plays no role, even subconsciously. Certainly that experience can affect how we process that movie; knowing the facts of Scott’s personal circumstance couldn’t help but deepen the poignancy of what I was watching.

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Ultimately, there may be way to know why Scott or any other filmmaker chose to make the movie they did. Even directors themselves often can’t fully understand, much less predict, their choices.

“I said [after ‘Alien’] I’d never do sci-fi again, and then I did ‘Prometheus,’ and then ‘The ‘Martian.’ And now I’m sitting here working on previs[ualization] for ‘Prometheus 2,’ ” Scott said. “Gotta keep ‘em guessing, dude.” Then he added, “Gotta keep myself guessing.”

Sometimes the only thing you can do in challenging times is sit in solitude and heed what an internal voice tells you to do. Which, needless to say, is very Mark Watney.

@ZeitchikLAT

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MORE:

Review: Ridley Scott’s geek respect pays off in ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon gets down to earth about taking on ‘The Martian’ role

Heady days for Jessica Chastain as ‘The Martian’ and ‘Crimson Peak’ loom

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