THE LAST DAYS ON MARS
Look and Feel
For the crew of The Last Days on Mars, creating something new in a landscape in which many other stories have taken place on the Red Planet was essential. Reference photographs from the recent unmanned Mars landers offered a vision of the planet that wasn't the orange-tinted monochrome often witnessed in Mars movies, and Robinson says that, anyway, he doesn't like color-coded cinema.
"I wanted to shoot on cinemascope and it's one of the last films shot on film, too," he explains. "The camera work starts stately and elegant but it slowly destabilizes until, at a certain point, it's all handheld. In terms of the colors, I wanted it to look natural, cinematic and unforced."
The one color missing from the movie is blue, says Robinson, which becomes a beacon of home for Vincent's character. "He has a sense of there being something missing on Earth and he hums this track, Blue Skies Are Around The Corner, because he's missing that color."
To expand his United 93 in space idea, Robinson worked with DP Robbie Ryan, who is best known for naturalistic visuals like Fish Tank and Red Road. "We didn't want to make it look over-lit," says Robinson. "The lighting comes from where lights should be. It's interesting to marry that with visual effects because that kind of naturalistic handheld look in an effects movie is fairly unusual."
Williams describes Ryan as a "camera warrior" who fought the elements -- which included 44-degree heat in the deserts of Jordan -- to capture the action. "He is such an artist in terms of finding shots."
In a genre weighed down by the slickly-designed interfaces of futuristic technology, The Last Days on Mars bucks the trend in its production design too, settling on a simple, practical look to the film's human technology. "It had to look plausible," Robinson insists. "It's built to be durable and not delicate. Most of the vehicles are white with splashes of black, so they stick out against the red sand."
Production designer Jon Henson says he designed the sets to be grounded in the reality of space exploration. "We didn't want it to be a fantastical environment: it had to be a real scenario. We looked at how they live on the ISS and worked back from that."
In fact, that cramped, uncomfortable habitat formed the backbone of the art department's brief. "We weren't going to be building spacious environments," reveals art director Stephen Lawrence. "This is only the second manned mission to Mars, and everything had to have a very small feel to it. We wanted to create tension with the size of airlocks and the tight spaces they have to work in. The tendency with science fiction is to make everything big and bold, but we intentionally kept things small, and that allowed us to focus on the small detail."
The film is set in 2036, and Henson says that real-world missions to Mars are being designed for that timeframe right now. The technology on board, then, was always intended to look similar to what is available today. "Our computer screens are deliberately not very futuristic," he explains. "If you look at the ISS it's all very practical and they don't have lots of touchscreen stuff, because it all goes wrong. Their priorities are reliability and practicality, not aesthetics."
Of course, the challenge of any science fiction film is that everything has to be designed, drawn and made. "Even if you use switches or buttons that exist, you still have to put them into a different combination to have them look like they'll do what they're meant to do," says Lawrence.
Of the many environments the art department created, one of the most challenging was the Mars rover, which exists mostly inside the computer. Only the cockpit was built practically and shipped to the location. "We had to cantilever it off the back of a truck and then drive the truck in reverse," Lawrence reveals. "It was a little tricky. It took a lot of engineering to sort out."
It had originally been intended that the Mars modules would have a slightly grungier feel, as though they'd occupied the landscape for years. But it was decided that, instead, it would have been the crew's protocol to maintain the sterile cleanliness of a laboratory, which is exactly what their installations are.
This aesthetic choice ends up offering a metaphor for what happens to the crew. "When the sand starts getting over everything it's like alien antibodies invading the base," Robinson enthuses. This kind of artistic revelation is exactly what production design is all about, says Henson. "It's about getting to the core of the script and working from there. What this needed was the sensation of dusty, large open spaces on the planet -- and what that does for you and how it makes you feel -- and then these tight, clean, sterile living spaces. It becomes a direct representation of what is happening to them."
And what is happening to them is a unique twist on another of cinema's most popular subgenres: the zombie movie. "They face bacteria that are lying dormant in the permafrost," explains Schreiber. "Presumably, at one point, when there was water there was life on Mars, and then without water that bacteria has gone into a kind of hibernation. The minute a foreign element is introduced, and reintroduces moisture into the atmosphere, the bacteria are reanimated. The bacteria are using the human bodies as hosts to multiply. The only source of moisture that exists in that environment is the human bodies themselves."
Though what happens to the crew doesn't exactly turn them into zombies, he laughs. "They're not entirely dead once the bacteria take control of their motor functions. They're just very, very sick."
Williams thinks the film takes on the best traits of that subgenre in devising its particular brand of horror. "Zombie stories deal with such fantastic human fears," she explains, what you fear looks like someone you love. "That's what happens with our bacteria in this film, and it's a brilliant way of scaring the shit out of people!"
The infection meant that some of the crew ended up playing two versions of the same character -- pre- and post-infection. "That's the exciting thing," enthuses Kostic. "Working under the make-up after infection helps come up with that different character. It's in the way he walks, the way he communicates and his actions."
There are many sequences shot on the surface of Mars, for which the deserts of Jordan provided an Earthbound cypher, which for many of the cast meant they would be required to engage in strenuous action sequences whilst wearing thick spacesuits in temperatures of up to 44 degrees celsius. "It's a real desert," says Cornwell, making it just like the surface of Mars. "It's hard. It's slow. It's heavy and tough to get anywhere. They know that now, because they were in Jordan." The portion of the shoot in the desert took place at the beginning of the schedule, and the production arranged for the actors to share a hotel separate from the rest of the crew. "It forced them to get a sense of living together," Cornwell explains. "From day one on set they knew each other and I think that'll come through in the film."
"Working together in relatively harsh conditions certainly bonds you together more," laughs Schreiber. "There was some comfort in the fact that the crew was going through it as well. They may not have been in spacesuits, but they were certainly out there in the dust storms lugging equipment. You had to have some perspective on it."
Adds Williams: "When the dust started you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Filming there was an endurance test, which I think some people passed and some probably didn't! You really did come face to face with your demons -- if you suffer from claustrophobia, if you don't react well to the heat, if you wear contact lenses in a dust storm, you found out about pain! Actors are top class whiners, but I think this cast put their best foot forward on this film."
The location presented challenges elsewhere, too, given the infrequency with which Jordan is used for filming. "Building a set in a country that has only had a limited amount of experience in building sets was very hard," says Henson. "We built the rover front here and had to ship it over. We missed the deadline on the first plane, so there was this whole period where the thing was in transit and had to arrive on a certain day and we were literally finishing it on the morning of the day we shot the first scenes."
For Garai, the temperature might have been manageable had they not been wearing the thick spacesuits designed by Richard Sale and his costume team. "The combination of the two was pretty hardcore," she remembers. "But had we waited an extra couple of weeks, we wouldn't have been able to do it at all because it got even hotter there."
Sale says he had to consider the environment they planned to shoot in when building the suits, but found himself often apologizing for the laws of physics, because there was only so much he could do to make the experience more comfortable. "We used a Swedish technology that is used underneath firefighters' uniforms, "he explains, "which draws heat out and keeps your core cool. It seems to have worked quite well. And we blew air through the helmet to provide some cooling and prevent condensation once we were back on the cold soundstages."
The helmets of the suits were, in fact, 'grown' by a company that specializes in 3D printing, in which three-dimensional objects are designed in the computer and literally printed out, layer by layer, until they're physical props. "The one thing I said was that we should treat the helmets like a set," says Sale. "The actors occupy it like they would any other set, and it impacts lighting, camera and sound."
The suits themselves occupied a middle ground between the bulky pressurized creations used by NASA on the Apollo missions and the slimline sci-fi suits seen in recent films of the genre. "We slimmed down the silhouette of the Apollo suits, because Ruairi was adamant that we avoid that kind of bulk," says Sale. "But there's still a suggestion of space for life support, while allowing room to move, because they've got to run and fight and all those things."
Nevertheless, says Williams, physicality was a challenge. "They look so cool but it's impossible to describe to you how much they hamper your movement and how exhausting it is to wear them," she laughs.
For all the trials of shooting in Jordan, Garai agrees that watching playback of the actors, in spacesuits, in this barren desert, creates an easy illusion of being on the surface of another planet, even without the post-production tweaks required to change the color of the sky to a more Martian tone. "The advantages of shooting in Jordan are completely spectacular," she concedes. "There's nowhere else on earth that's quite so inherently Martian."
Agrees Henson: "Any angle you shoot in that desert -- and we selected ours quite carefully -- would be otherworldly. It was an amazing place, and with the anamorphic aspect we're shooting it, it'll look epic."
And while the budget of the film is modest by the standards of the biggest Hollywood epics, there are, Robinson says, more than 400 effects shots in the piece to sell the environment even better. "Screen Scene in Dublin did most of them and they've done an amazing job. "Ireland doesn't necessarily have the best track record for visual effects, but it's incredible work and once people have seen Screen Scene's work in the film they'll be blown away. I've seen movies with twenty times the budget that don't look as good in the effects."
Completing the picture is one of Robinson's favorite elements: the score. The production called on Max Richter, whose work includes Shutter Island and Disconnect, to provide the film's music. "I'm thrilled with his score," enthuses Robinson. "The one thing we talked about with the score was that when the movie starts the music is asking questions, and as we go on we start getting the answers, but they're not answers we want to hear. Musically it's curious, optimistic and hopeful at the start, and that sours after time and gets very oppressive and scary. It gets very big at the end in a way that was thrilling to me."
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