Ridley Scott has been working in film and television for 40 years, but he says there have only been two times when a “really great” script landed on his desk.
“The first one was Alien,” Scott says. “Five other directors had passed on it because of the violence and the creature popping out of the guy’s chest. But I read it, and I knew how to do it. Sometimes it just comes down to how you see things.”
The second ready-to-go screenplay? The Martian. Drew Goddard, who wrote Cloverfield and directed The Cabin in the Woods, had already spent months adapting Andy Weir’s best-selling novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars into a film that he intended to direct himself.
But then came the opportunity to direct The Sinister Six, a Spider-Man spin-off that would eventually implode. Still, Goddard, a comic-book fan who was the executive producer on the Netflix series Daredevil, opted for the opportunity to get into the Marvel Comics business and sent his script for The Martian into the Hollywood pipeline, hoping it would find a good home.
“Ridley was the perfect person,” Goddard says. “Before I met him, I had the impression he’d be this sort of stern Brit. But he’s just a lovely human being, so optimistic and warm and funny. In a way, The Martian is the truest representation of his personality he’s ever put on the screen.”
Much like Weir’s novel, The Martian is an unlikely mix of gearhead sci-fi and rousing adventure. Matt Damon stars as an astronaut left behind on Mars after a failed mission who manages to make contact with NASA on Earth, alerting the world that he’s still alive and would like to come home as soon as possible.
The problem is how to get him there. One of the pleasures of Weir’s novel, which was self-published in 2011 and then sold to Crown Publishing two years later for more than $100,000, is that the book was grounded in precise physics, orbital mechanics and computer science, which don’t necessarily translate to the movie screen.
While writing the screenplay, Goddard was attracted by the challenge of how to transform the technical jargon into cinematic images without losing their MacGyver-esque kick.
“My first responsibility is to make a good movie,” he says. “You treat the book as a resource. Andy’s brain is so massive, and he’s so good with the science, that I trusted him blindly. I would craft the scenes, and then I would give them to Andy, and he would tell me where I screwed up. Any time I would press the bounds of scientific reality, he would pull me back.”
The same thing happened after Goddard began collaborating with Scott.
“My biggest worry on this movie is that it wouldn’t make sense to the average viewer,” Goddard says. “But then you see what Ridley can do visually, and it all works. We just pulled big chunks of dialogue out of the script and just let Ridley tell the story. It made more sense to see this stuff than to hear people talking about it.”
None of the science in The Martian would have worked if the film wasn’t anchored by an actor whom the audience would instinctively care about. The casting of Damon was the stroke of genius that completed the puzzle: He was the human face to Scott’s formidable special-effects wizardry.
The actor says the role presented him with a new sort of challenge.
“It’s one thing to be easygoing and charming and likable on-screen, but it’s a whole other thing to do all that by yourself,” Damon says. “That’s one of the things that scared me about the project but also excited me about it. It felt like a risk. But that risk gets mitigated by the fact that one of the five great directors of all time is standing five feet away from me the whole time. Also we had other stories we cut away to, like NASA on Earth or Jessica Chastain on another mission. When Tom Hanks did Cast Away, there was nothing to cut to. It was just him on the island.”
The Martian marks the first time Damon has worked with Scott, and he says there’s one thing that distinguishes the creator of Blade Runner and Gladiator from all the other filmmakers he’s worked with.
“Ridley is similar to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and Francis Coppola in the important ways: He’s really collaborative and welcomes everyone’s ideas. His ego isn’t tied to the work; it’s all about the best idea winning.
“But he’s different in that he shoots four cameras at a time, which is crazy for a guy who is as visual as he is. It’s amazing that he can get four beautiful Ridley Scott frames simultaneously. I’ve never seen anyone do that. And what that means for an actor is that if you get the scene right once, you’ve got it covered from four different angles, so you’re done. It’s a treat.”