How pleased are you with how The Martian turned out?
Oh boy, it’s a dream. It’s hard for me to grapple with the fact that it’s all going to be downhill from here! [laughs] This one really came together in a way… I like to say that filmmaking is alchemy, and most of the times you come back with lead. This one we came back with gold. It’s been special.
Even though it’s set in space, it seems like one on of your most grounded films. Was that the intention?
That’s good to hear! I don’t know if that’s the intention, but I never like to repeat myself, even though I find myself attracted to the same themes over and over, but I did want to do something different. I try to keep my characters grounded – it’s the outside world that goes insane – if you look at a lot of stuff I do, that’s sort of a common theme. It’s still just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary events. That just tends to be what I move towards the most. But yeah, it was attractive to try something different.
What was the collaboration process with Ridley Scott like? There aren’t many names in film that loom larger.
I know! It was so hard for me to not just spend every day asking Blade Runner questions! Honestly, and he’s so lovely that sometimes I would just say, ‘Can I just pepper you with questions today about Thelma & Louise?’ And he’d be like, ‘Alright, we’re talking about Thelma & Louise today!’ And just let me go! He really loved the script, and that made my life easy, because then we can just focus on just making the best version of the script. I think if he had just read the script and said ‘I don’t care for this’ then that might have been challenging, but he got it, he got what we were trying to do, and then my job was ‘What do you need Rid? How can I help you?’ We never had to battle because of that, which can happen, sometimes between writers and directors. For this it was just me sitting back watching one of the great filmmakers of our time work and trying to learn everything I could from him.
How were NASA to work with? What sort of challenges and opportunities did that present for you?
We knew early on that we wanted/needed their approval for this movie. They are very picky about what they allow their logo to be put on. They don’t just give that away, and we wanted it to feel like it was NASA, it was crucial to this story. If we had to make up some other space agency that would be strange. We sent them copies of the scripts very early and said, ‘We want you involved, here’s what we’re trying to do,’ And luckily they got it. They saw this movie was very much a celebration of what they do and a love letter to them, and they gave us their full support right away. They’ve been amazing partners.
There’s a few additional scenes that weren’t in the book, like the epilogue. What was your thinking behind that particular scene?
When you’re writing the first draft you try things. You step back, and 90 % of the things you say ‘That’s no good’, and then you cut it. I was writing the script when Andy [Weir, author] still hadn’t finished the book, he was on a different chapter of the book at the time, this lovely coda when somehow comes up to him and says ‘Hey, aren’t you Mark Watney?’ He says ‘Yes’, and it’s this sweet moment – I always liked this idea, seeing him on Earth.
Then a couple of months after I finished the first draft Andy released a different version of the book, and I said, ‘I get why you’ve changed it, but I still like it here, can we keep it?’ Andy’s great, he was very supportive about that. And then there’s so much talk about Ares 5 in the movie, I thought, ‘What would Ares 5 look like?’ Maybe if we just show that mission, it might work as a coda, to see all these people five years from now and what they’re doing,’ and it would fit the theme of the movie. This idea that we fail, but we keep going is science to me, we screw up, but every time we go a little bit further and do a little bit better. It was the right thing to tack on, and once you put ‘Love Train’ on top of it, it makes it all connect.
For the Project Elrond scene, was Sean Bean’s presence a complete coincidence, or intentional?
It was absolute coincidence. We debated cutting it because we thought, ‘Are we being too cute here?’ That wasn’t the intent, we didn’t want to be to pull people out of the movie and be too meta, lord knows I’ve done that before! That felt wrong though for this movie, but it’s so funny. The moment that Sean Beans says, ‘Because it’s a secret meeting,’ with a deadpan look on his face. When you’re watching it with an audience, there’s about four people in the audience that laugh, but those four people are my people, you know! I just wanted to grab them in the theatre and be like, ‘I did it for you guys!’
Were there any moments from the book that you regret not being able to include?
Yeah, the big one that stands out is Mark’s journey from his hab to the mav. It’s much longer book – I think it’s over 100 pages of journey – and by that point in the movie we’re at the two-hour mark. It’s really hard to truncate that, and it just becomes a montage in the movie, but there’s this lovely sequence where Mark gets caught in a storm and is sort of left to his own devices, and has to figure out how to save his life. It was one of the things that attracted me right away to the project, because it really gets to the heart of the existential crisis that he’s facing, where it’s like, ‘I’m lost in the wilderness with nothing but my face to get me out of this, and the world is watching that happen,’ and I loved it.
There were two problems: one, it was really hard to dramatise it, because I never bought that he’d be talking to his camera while it was happening. We had firm guidelines about when we could film him talking to his camera and when we could not, I didn’t buy that when his life was in danger like that he would stop to talk, it just felt weird to me. And then visualising the story without being able to talk about it and visualising the math problem, because so much of it is just him doing a math problem, it was really hard to figure out how to get that across to an audience, and then more importantly if we did that the movie would have been three hours long. That’s the hardest one for me, because I still love it in the book.
What was your favourite scene?
There’s a lot, but the one that stands out is the ‘Starman’ montage, and you sort of see everything coming together. I just feel like that it’s the distillation of everything I love about The Martian in a three-minute piece of… you see everyone working, you see the spirit of what they’re trying to do, you see the sacrifice of what these people are trying to do, and you’ve got Bowie singing, which always helps. That gets me every time, and the other thing that gets me is the moment that the first potato leaf breaks through the ground and Matt says ‘Hey there’. There’s something about that that breaks my heart, the way Matt says it – it’s such a small victory, but it feels so big in the moment.
You are involved in a lot of big projects at the moment. How exciting is it for you personally to be involved in these things?
I’m very lucky that so much of the types of movies that I’m involved in these days are types of things that I dreamed about as a child, be it superheroes or science fiction like The Martian. These are all of the things that made me want to do this, and to actually be realising this dream is pretty special.