When an established award-winning director like Ridley Scott makes a space movie — something associated with serious drama — humor isn’t expected from its star. Yet in The Martian, where Matt Damon stars as American astronaut Mark Watney who’s been accidentally left behind on Mars after a mission disaster, humor humanizes the situation.
At first, no one knows he’s alive so what would seem to be a totally despairing situation is relieved by Watney’s incredibly determined instincts to survive until he can let them know back on Earth he’s alive.
So from the moment this film screened, first at The Toronto International Film Festival and then debuting in the USA at the 2015 New York Film Festival, it made an impact, proving to be more than a proto-documentary.
Based on 2011's eponymous novel by Andy Weir, the film -- scripted by Drew Goddard (who at first wanted to direct it himself) -- is the ultimate survivalist story conceived by the smartest science nerds in the world.
As helmed by this veteran director -- who established himself as a master of sci-fi by doing both Blade Runner and Alien -- authenticity was at the heart of this feature. If audiences didn't buy it, then the film would never succeed.
To insure that, the cast is loaded with Hollywood's A-list of thoughtful movie stars such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and Jeff Daniels; and it was shot on one of the largest sets ever built.
In rooting for the hero, one has to believe in human intelligence and ingenuity -- as the most “uplifting” film of the year, it defied expectations of an award worthy film. Yet it culled an enormous list of nominations including various Oscars.
The Martian is sort of radical for a Hollywood film where the only antagonist is the environment itself -- there are no real bad guys -- so audiences see the conditions he fights as obstacles we can survive with the right knowledge.
Sir Ridley discussed the film several times in NYC and this Q&A is culled from several of those conversations.
Q: What went into the decision to make this survival movie feel like something so effortless even though so much effort went into it?
RS: That’s what we do. [It’s from] experience. Effortless? When you get a screenplay from a gentleman like Drew [Goddard] it’s like [having] the blueprint of a building or the architecture of what I’m going to do, so I can trust it and get on with everything else.
It’s trust in the script which was so good. My only significant question to Drew was, “This is pretty comedic, right?” I hoped he wouldn’t look at me and say, “No, it’s a drama.” But it is a drama that’s actually pretty funny. But it’s organically funny because it comes out of the cause and effect of the situation.
Q: You must get offered a lot of space movies after having done Alien. What made yo cast those aside to work on this one?
RS: I don’t get offered a lot, actually. And they stopped offering them to me because early on I realized a good script isn’t going to land on your desk because you have to develop your own material. So if you go off and develop your own material people kind of get used to being turned down, so they say, “Fuck you” and never send you anything.
So you’ve got to make sure you don’t run out of work. This one actually landed on the desk because--you tell the story better. It landed on my desk, I read it and went, wow. My first question to him was, “Why aren’t you doing this?”
Q: Matt Damon was already attached to it when you got into it?
RS: I auditioned for Matt.
Q: How does Sir Ridley Scott audition for anyone, let alone Matt Damon?
RS: He says, “How many takes do you do?” I said, “Two.” He goes, “That makes you twice as better as the guy I worked with recently.” I can’t repeat that one. When I repeated it, Clint got really pissed off!
Q: You told Matt Damon how much work he was going to have to do?
RS: Well, Clint gives one take, and Matt said, “Can I do another one?” and he said, “Well, if you really must waste everybody’s time…” So, I give him two.
Q: When did you realize that you only had to do one or two takes as a director? You’re known as a director who moves incredibly fast. This was shot in something like 72 days. That’s really quick for a movie like this.
RS: Tell that to Fox. It could’ve been 130 and I would’ve gotten paid twice as much. No, we’re really fast, and it’s to do with the superlative team I’ve got. It’s probably one of the best teams in the business. You find them out over the years, and the great thing is that they come back for more punishment, which means they’re vaguely enjoying themselves in the process.
On top of that, you’ve got a really great cast that worked most certainly on track because it was an ensemble cast, which means there’s no one with a particularly big part in it — except for Matt Damon. And everyone else -- this cast is fabulous — and they came in to play these individual roles as an ensemble, which is really nice, as a nod to the screenplay.
Q: As a working director, you must trust your instincts more than ever at this point.
RS: You better, or I should’ve given up 10 years ago.
Q: Was there ever a time where you didn’t?
RS: No. I did, I think, 2,023 commercials, both in New York, France, Los Angeles, et cetera. In those days, I could do -- on a good year — 150 commercials personally. So, today they think they’re busy if they 20 commercials -- any commercial makers in the room? If you’re only 12, go find another job.
We learned. It’s the best school I could possibly had, because there was no film school when I was 20. There’s no film school at that point. i found my way almost accidentally into doing advertising, and was lucky enough to catch the wave, the beginning of serious advertising in the UK. At that moment, they’re completely enamored by the Madison Avenue Mad Men era.
We started to do it pretty well, and so I enjoyed the actual wave of some of the best advertising ever. I did Steve Jobs’ commercial in 1984, that was one of the 2,000 I’ve done. By the time I’d do a movie, it was pretty easy.
Q: Many have commented that this is a more upbeat, humorous movie for you, done in the style of films you make. Even some of your darkest work, like The Counselor, can be humorous at times.
RS: That’s because you’re intelligent. There are so many silly people out there that actually, you look for humor in everything you possibly do. Even in Alien there’s humor. When he said, “Stop complaining,” “I like complaining.” There’s a lot of humor. I’m always looking for humor, If you can, because that’s part of life, of people, who they are.
Q: Did this feel different when you finished your cut and screened it for the first time? Did this feel like it was landing differently than everything else you’ve made before?
RS: No. Funnily enough, this landed better than anything I made before. So I think it’s partly due to the screenplay.
The cast did enjoy themselves, so everybody was enjoying themselves doing it. It’s a danger, because if you’ve got a comedy, and everybody’s laughing their ass off thinking it’s funny, the danger is that when you get the cut, it’s awful because everybody thinks you’re doing this great piece of work. You’ve got to always have that position in the back of the room, looking at it with a cold eye, saying, “Is this right? is this wrong?” You learn to do that.
Q: It felt like Matt Damon and the crew were like a band of filmmakers trying to make a movie -- solving problems along the way. Did it feel that was the case — kind of metaphor for filmmaking?
RS: It’s a metaphor for good filmmaking. There’s a lot of guesswork and confusion. Everyone has their job on the floor, and if you’re a director, that’s what you are. You walk on the floor in the morning, you’ve got to have anywhere from 50 people — and in my case — 500 people to 700 people, all turn and say, “What are we going to do?” You better know what you’re going to do. And you’d better be running by nine o’clock with five to 11 cameras.
Q: You’re making two movies a year — two very large-scale movies in a year.
RS: I wish. I cross over more in prepping now in Sydney.
Q: You’re already prepping. What does prepping look like in terms of getting to the day? What does the crew get from you — from prep to start shooting on the day?
RS: There’s key personnel. Lighting, camera is very important to me. Design is very important. Set dressing is incredibly important as well and so is wardrobe — incredibly important. Makeup and hair become extremely important in certain kinds of movies. They’re all keys. Oh, and head of construction. I run a film like a company, like a corporation.
And when I begin, I always have Monday morning meetings. Everyone’s sitting around the table, all the key heads with their few bits, it’s about 40 people around the table. And I’ve got, “Okay, page one, problem? Page two, problem? Page three. You’ve got a problem. What’s the problem? Have you talked to engineering?” “No.” “Well, bloody do so. Page four.”
Q: You’re a boss.
RS: You have to be. So, by the time you’re through the third week, you should be running like silk because people don’t talk to people for help, because either ego gets in the way, or something’s not being constructed, which case you gotta have his head slapped. And by the time you’re running, everything’s flying.
Q: You're a nuts-and-bolts sort of boss -- it’s a business. At the same time, you’re known as a maker of the most beautifully composed shots with incredible art direction. With Blade Runner, Alien, and The Martian — you’re an artist leading the set, not a nuts-and-bolts boss who’s just making sure everybody’s doing their jobs.
RS: You hide that, you don’t let that out. I never talk to an actor about what shots I’m going to do. Never. I used to do that when I was doing live TV; and I once caught an actor rolling his eyes. Never talk about what you do, talk about what they do, what they’re gonna do. You are a boss, that’s the very terminology, you better be a boss.
Q: When you get on set and are working with Matt Damon every day, and he’s the only actor there, does he really need that much work at this point?
RS: Well, he’s on set with only 500 people that could actually get him a cup of coffee. The only asshole he’s got to talk to is the guy on the other end of the walkie-talkie who wants to give him two takes. He’s sitting there, sweating it out in this space suit, the temperature on the set is about 40, so he’s the only warm guy in the room, he’s doing all right.
But I always work with many cameras and this instance, I didn’t need more than four. I learned way back when that an actor, when he comes in, if he’s worth his salt, her salt, have come fully prepped with their own ideas.
The key thing is to let them run the ball initially, to show you what is in their mind. So, I’ll come in with the geometry of the scene saying we’ve got to hit this, that, and that, and we’ve got to hit this point right.
And I say, “you want to do it?”
At a point, I noticed that way back when, you always got the best takes in take one or two. Any actor worth his salt comes in prepped, so locked and loaded, that when you talk to him or them, they’re going to say, “For fuck’s sake, shut up, let me do my take. “
Don’t get in my head. “I’ve got a plan!”
There’s nothing worse than a wedding speech. Don’t talk to me before I do a wedding speech, I’ll try and change it. So, it’s very important to just let the actors fly. I sometimes will go, wow, because what you’re looking for as a director, in parentheses, I never thought of that, I’m sitting there waiting to get surprised. If the surprise is great I’ll go out and give them a big, fat kiss and ask them if they want one more take.
Q: When it comes to the actors doing a scene that’s mainly dialogue or actors just working -- say it’s Matt Damon alone -- do you see how he blocks it out in his head and then you think about how you’re going to shoot it? Or do you have your setups and then he’s going to play in that?
RS: I don’t do formal rehearsal anymore, and my formal rehearsal is, well first of all, The Counselor, it was all about dialogue. The whole thing is dialogue. Therefore, it was essential [to] sit down and group them into their groups in the scenes that they’re doing and separate them. So, I spend all day with Javier Bardem’s and Cameron Diaz’s scene, and Javier Bardem with Michael Fassbender.
And you sit at the table with a cup of coffee and just chat and they start talking about who they are. Once that starts to evolve, talk the scene inside out. And in the scene there are targets, milestones, emotion, funny, real emotion, tears maybe. And I say, “You’re happy, want to move on?”
Never read it. Never read it. I know what they’re going to give me. I never say, “Right, do you want to read it?” or Michael might say “I just want to try something, can I read it?”
“Yeah, read it.”
[We’ve] gone through this tactic, [we’ve] talked our way through the movie, so that the actor is a virtuoso of themselves. He’s the best violinist of himself, better than me. And therefore, the key is to cast really, really well. I’m a very good caster. If you can cast well, that’s going to come with a whole bundle of stuff, both emotional, technical, creative. They’re going to do a lot of work on my behalf, having talked about it at the table.
Q: Sir Ridley Scott knows his shit. You are an incredible multi-tasker. While making this movie, were you in preproduction, working on scripts for several other movies?
RS: Well, yeah. You have to keep things moving, and you keep things going in the background. There’s a lot of television. I do four TV shows. “The Good Wife” is not mine, it’s Julianna Margulies', but it’s our show, she’ll have seven years of that. “The Man in the High Castle” has just gone out, we’re doing “Mercy Street” which has just gone out.
I’m doing a show right now with Tom Hardy about the East India Company in 1813, when slavery was an industry. So, we do a lot of that, and they ask me to read stuff occasionally or say, “Here’s the cast, what do you think?” I get in that far…
Q: You do these things while you’re in production or while you’re in production on a movie like The Martian, do you just have to laser in?
RS: No, I have to. I get up early and I sit there and I’ll talk with London, I’ll talk with LA. You know, if you keep up to speed every day, it’s only 15 minutes. If you let it go for a week, it’s a nightmare. So, I just keep it up and go on set. I believe the key is to be prepped for what you’re doing so I can walk out that door. My prep is an old friend of mine I knew in England, and he always had the brains at school, and I was seriously non-academic, and I saw him like, 20 years later, 30 years later, he said to me, “Hey Ridley, are you still pushing a pencil?”
And I said, “Frankly, I am.” My whole life is drawing. I draw everything. Once I’ve gotten a script, I draw everything about the way the film’s going to be, so I’m filming it on paper. It won’t be stick figures, it’s really is--I studied art school, so I’m a very good draftsman, I can draw really fast, and I’ll be going through it, and if I get stuck on a scene, it’s a bit like having a blank sheet of paper in the Olivetti typewriter. I’ll just draw the room, draw the thing within where you’ve got to be, and then I’m already moving, and I’ve started to film it on paper. I walk in in the morning, and I’m set.
Q: If you’re drawing the script as you’re reading and get to a scene where you’re stuck, and don’t know how to draw it, does that indicate a problem with the scene itself? Sidney Lumet always said that when he was shooting, if something bored him or if he didn’t know where to go while watching the actors, that meant that there was something wrong with the writing and he had to fix that.
RS: I’m glad that you picked Sidney Lumet, because I think he’s one of the great unsung directors in American cinema history. Remarkable, and not ever acknowledged enough in my opinion.
Q: So understated...
RS: He’s incredible. I always admired everything he did. So, he would plan location hunts, walk around a few months prior, say, “Right. The chair’s going to be there, mic’s going to be there. Going to walk in there. Next!” It’d already been in his head. Two months later he’s got the chairs there, lights there. But I still think he was special with actors. Something happens and I think that some actors...
I thought you were going to say “doesn’t it not leave any room for your actor to come and make suggestions?” which is a good question, it’s a good question. Be sure that you know what you’re going to do, because i have done that with actors. Any actors in the room? So, I have enough actors, and they say, “Let’s show you what we’re going to do,” so I go, “Okay, action,” [humming noise] and it usually ends up with two people standing at either end of the room talking to each other.
And I say, “Cut,” and the star said to me, “That was fuckin’ boring,” I said, “That’s right.” So, I’ve got a good intuition about geometry and leave the performances to them.
Q: Geometry is in the momentum, essentially.
RS: Movement, if it’s required. No movement if it’s not required. That only comes from experience.
Q: Besides Sidney Lumet what other filmmakers are you inspired by?
RS: Oh, you know, a little bit of the best of them. Kubrick, Kurosawa, interesting Scandinavian director, The Seventh Seal. All of his social stuff later was incredible. They were all in the days when I was trying to get-- I couldn’t get going.
I didn’t make a film until I was 40. So, those filmmakers out there who are still 30 have got a long way to go. I hadn’t made a film until I was 40. But, I saw a lot of cinema. And it was nearly always visually-oriented.
Orson Welles was a master of everything. As a director, he was interested in the lights, in the suits, as well as the words and the lighting...the whole thing. I always thought that those are the best films, that live longest.
Same with David Lean. David Lean was a kind of master. Kubrick was that, Kurosawa was that, Ingmar Bergman was that, and if you can get that and take that all on board because you love it, love the details, I love the details. God’s in the details, as well as the performances.
Q: If you could ever travel to Mars, would you do it?
RS: Are you kidding? No way. I think the beauty about filmmaking is you get to go where it takes you. The 16th century, or you know, the future, or the present. I think that’s the journey. Yeah, I don’t need to do it.
Q: We see Damon’s character has lost some weight and there's a reference to his family. Did you write more of that and decide to pull back a bit, to not go that far into the depths of his despair?
RS: No. I got in more on the fact that once the guy was into a self-learning curve which I sort of relate to The Right Stuff. The Right Stuff is fundamentally the definition for courage under pressure, courage under fire, courage when you’re in a steel tube and you’ve got cobblestoning…
He’s talking really cool, he’s about to break up...and that’s where the Chuck Yeager Right Stuff came out, because I think every air traffic controller’s cadence was super cool, any pilot was super cool, and I think it’s partly to control your emotions when you’re against the gun. And the Matt Damon character could have taken the pill and killed himself. There is a pill, they don’t let you hang out there and say, “Oh, God, what am I going to do?”
You could always walk outside, and it would be horrible. But you could take the pill, it would just put you to sleep. But then he realized he had to stay alive and do his job. By doing it, as he finds the inspiration to stay with it, that takes over and that takes over for the fear. I always think the guy who’s not brave, who’s terrified, does the job. The guy who’s not terrified is just fuckin’ crazy.
Q: What happened when NASA read the script?
RS: I discovered also the book had become a bit of a secret reader in NASA, I called up and said, “Can I talk to somebody?” I got the head of NASA. “Are you guy from the movies?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Oh, we like your science fiction movies. We really like the space suits, what are you doing next?” I said, “Well, we’re doing this thing…” They were right into it. They showed me everything. Their habitat, their new space suits, which almost look like Teletubbies. I said, “We can’t do that,” He said, “We don’t like them either,” but they shared everything.
I would go to Pasadena and walk around the back lot, it’s pretty casual, a lot of flip flops and long hair. As opposed to NASA’s dress code, ties...because they’re putting human beings in space. These guys in Pasadena are putting machines into spaces. So I walked around the back and what’s that thing. The land...the crawler… Pathfinder. There’s a Pathfinder lying in a garage...
The doors opened and I fully expect to see a ratty old Volkswagen, but it’s a bloody Pathfinder lying in there, amongst Coca-Cola cans and rubble. That’s it? “That’s it.” We copied that. Everything you see is absolutely copied.
Q: How important are awards to your filmmaking?
RS: That’s a big question. Well, everything’s a war, really. People say “you like Westerns?” but I’ve never done one. Almost everything’s a Western isn’t it? Man against the environment, man against, you know. Who is it that said there’s only seven stories? Is that true? No. But war to me is not--it’s only interesting because you’re taking human beings into a situation that’s entirely unrealistic, and you’re dealing with that, and you’re dealing with how they’re going to function in that environment.
One of the things I did in war is obviously something I did called Black Hawk Down, because I’d done The Duellists, and I’ve done -- The Duellists was interesting because it was about mindless--the great thing about The Duellists is they’d forgotten at the end of it what the argument was about, which is kind of wonderful, really. But Black Hawk Down was a real thing, no more than celebrating a certain kind of soldier, who will go in there, for the right reasons, not oil, none of this, it was actually fundamentally to stop genocide.
And that’s why they were put in there, and Bill Clinton came in two weeks later and yanked them, because he did not want to get stuck with a Vietnam. We got stuck in northeast Africa. And he pulled the guy out and the army was furious. But I just love the dilemma. It’s a pocket war, and for a good reason. There’s never a good reason for war, that’s one of the best reasons.
There was a good reason for the second World War, it’s a bloody good reason, because this lunatic called Adolf Hitler doing shit. And you do look at these people in history and think, MI5 or MI6 went to Wilt Chamberlain in 1936, don’t quote me on the date, and had said, “This Chancellor is going to be a huge problem. We think we should do something about it.” He says, “What do you mean?” He says, “You know what I mean,” He said, “That wouldn’t be gentlemanly, would it?”
Three years later, he walks into Poland. You know what I’m saying? That’s an extreme way of looking at things, but sometimes you can save the world a lot of problems.
Q: Except for possibly dying on Mars, there’s no villain in the film and that’s refreshing. No one at NASA is slowing things down for his own bureaucratic reasons. The closest to that is Jeff Daniels' character, who is doing things for the right reasons, to a degree. In the beginning there’s a line, a guy says, “I just lost my best friend, I don’t want to lose my commander,” which is a great way of setting up who he is, and how human he is.
RS: He says it’s not about one person, and the other guy says, “Yes, it is.” That’s the key, that one guy.
Q: You never succumb to having a corporate villain or a villain on the ship in the narratives going on within the film. Were you tempted towards that? It was not in the novel so you could stay away from it?
DG: Yeah, and consciously I made a decision to push it even further, because Jeff Daniels’s character in the novel is more as you described, to give an antagonistic relationship... one of the things that excited me about the book was the aspirational quality of the piece. I kept saying early on, the villain circumstance. Everyone else gets to be a protagonist.
RS: Mars is the beautiful monster, killing you 16 different ways in three seconds. He almost falls in love with Mars. That’s why we used the music at the end, it was Bowie, going off on his long drive, a kind of ode to Mars, in a way, because of its beauty. Would he go back there? No bloody way.