"This is the ultimate survival story," says director Ridley Scott. "Mark
Watney is placed under unimaginable duress and isolation, and the movie is about
how he responds. Mark's fate will be determined by whether he succumbs to panic
and despair and accepts death as inevitable - or chooses to rely on his
training, resourcefulness and sense of humor to stay calm and solve problems."
Watney's humor becomes a coping device, enabling him to stave off
hopelessness and keep his mind from fixating on the dire circumstances. His
penchant to remain upbeat and optimistic is vital to the story, and one of the
character traits that attracted Matt Damon to the role.
"I loved the humor, not only from Watney, but from other characters as well,"
says Damon. "The comedic tone is never glib and it complements the intense drama
of the situation, which is not often something associated with the sci-fi
Damon received the screenplay from producer Simon Kinberg, with whom he
worked on Elysium. He sent it to Damon on a Friday and received an enthusiastic
response by Sunday.
"Matt responded to the story in the same manner that the studio and I did,"
recalls Kinberg. "He thought it was original, funny, exciting, and with a
uniquely different take on a survival story. We couldn't imagine anyone else as
The screenplay is based on an original novel by computer
programmer-turned-writer Andy Weir. Aditya Sood was the first producer to read
Weir's eBook, prior to its 2014 hardcover publication by Random House, when it
existed only online in series form and then as a eBook on Amazon.
Says Sood, "I thought it was one of the best sci-fi stories I've read.
Everything that can go wrong for Watney does, and yet he keeps going. It has a
very hopeful quality that makes it more than an exciting adventure movie."
Kinberg was hooked after thirty pages, and Fox optioned the book on behalf of
Kinberg's Genre Films, which has a first-look deal at the studio. The book was
then sent to red-hot screenwriter Drew Goddard, with an eye toward having him
write and direct. Kinberg says Goddard turned in an exceptional draft within
several months, despite, the producer says, the challenges of adapting a book
with rigorous scientific and mathematical problem solving, numerous characters
and layered storylines.
Goddard says, "I couldn't put Andy's book down. I grew up around scientists
in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and I had never seen anyone capture the delightful
oddity that is the modern scientist until I read Andy's work. My approach to the
adaption was to protect the vibrant soul of the book at all costs. "
With Goddard's script and Damon's interest, the project went into fast-track
development, coming to a pause when Goddard accepted a directing assignment.
This left the director's chair ready to be filled by, according to Kinberg, "not
just a great director, but a master director." Several A-list helmers familiar
with the project were circling when the producers received some unexpected news:
Ridley Scott was available.
"Ridley is my favorite film director, and perfect for this story, but he was
busy developing another film," Kinberg recalls. "When we learned it was delayed,
we immediately got the script to him."
Says Scott: "I was fascinated by the near impossibility of Watney's task and
the team effort required, not only from NASA, but also international partners.
Geopolitical rivals must overcome their differences and work together for the
common goal of saving an astronaut's life, and the entire world becomes
transfixed by the size and complexity of that challenge."
Goddard himself was elated to see his script in Scott's hands, commenting, "I
can still remember where I was sitting when I first saw the character of Roy
Batty [portrayed by Rutger Hauer] reflect on c-beams glittering off the
Tannhauser Gate in Blade Runner. (I was sitting third row back, left side of
the White Roxy Theater. I was seven years old.) Everything I have ever written
has been influenced by Ridley Scott; his films are embedded in my creative DNA.
To have this opportunity to work with him has been a genuine dream come true."
For novelist Andy Weir, the whirlwind progression from a serialized internet
piece to a major film production was a dream hard to believe. So he didn't.
"I live in Northern California, and had never met my agent in New York, nor
the movie producer and the Fox executives in L.A. So when they told me Ridley
Scott was going to direct it I became convinced it had all been an elaborate
Weir had intended his novel, which he meticulously researched and loaded with
science and math, to be a "technical book for technical people. I had no idea
mainstream readers would be interested at all, let alone like it."
He began by simply imagining a manned mission to Mars, and then became
consumed by the endless possibility of failure scenarios. "As a computer
programmer for 25 years, I've learned the importance of a good backup," he says.
Weir posted new chapters every six to eight weeks for a growing word-of-mouth
audience, completing the story in three years, at which point he put the book up
for sale - for 99 cents - on Amazon, and was contacted by an agent. This led to
communication with Genre Films and the beginning of what Weir calls "every
writer's fantasy come true."
Weir's story is set in the near future, roughly 12-15 years ahead, and
virtually every scientific aspect of the book is plausible and supported by
current theory. With one exception: given Mars' low atmospheric pressure (less
than one percent of Earth's), a windstorm of the severity depicted by Weir is
"I needed a way to force the astronauts off the planet, so I allowed myself
some leeway," Weir confides. "Plus, I thought the storm would be pretty cool."
That storm, occurring on the 18th sol of a planned 31 sol mission, sends a
piece of antenna through Watney's suit, rendering him and his sensors
inoperable. (A sol is the duration of a solar day on Mars, roughly 24 hours and
40 minutes.). From the moment of this freak accident, his ingenuity, resolve and
courage will be tested to the upmost.
Says Damon: "Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer, and is sent on the
Mars mission to study and take samples of the soil, hopefully to learn more
about its composition and the feasibility of growing crops. He has the knowledge
and training to find ways to survive, but time is working against him. He
believes it will likely be three to four years before the possibility of rescue.
In man versus nature scenarios, the smart money is usually on nature."
The most important battle Watney must fight is with his own will. Despair
would be as detrimental as the hostile Martian environment. He keeps a video log
of his activities, suspecting it may likely serve as his final testament,
injecting it with scientific methodology and a fair dose of wit.
Andy Weir adds, "I based Mark on my own personality, though he's smarter and
braver than I am, and doesn't have my flaws. I guess he's what I wish I were
like. He's Matt Damon."
Once of the most pleasant surprises Weir experienced while writing the story
is the "how the minor characters grew in prominence throughout the story to
In Goddard's script, the astronauts and NASA personnel are equal parts of an
ensemble. Scott fleshed out some of the action sequences and made Commander
Melissa Lewis' arc even more active, creating another of the strong female roles
that have marked many of his previous films.
As leader of the third Mars mission, known as Ares III, Commander Lewis heads
a crew of six, including Watney, and is in charge of the surface mission and the
spacecraft that carried them there, the Hermes. The journey from Earth's orbit
to Mars required nine months, giving Lewis ample time to establish authority
with her team, and for the astronauts to bond.
Jessica Chastain, who portrays Lewis says, "She is such a well-written
character, another in the legacy of Ridley's remarkable women characters. Lewis
came from the Navy, and has to lead a team of specialists who are very smart and
have very specific tasks to perform. She is friendly and personable with her
crew, but wants to leave no doubt as to who is in charge."
Having made the decision to leave Watney behind, believing him to be dead,
Lewis feels an enormous measure of regret and guilt that will later affect her
actions and the integrity of her command.
At Lewis' side, as the Hermes' pilot, is Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), who,
in typical fly-boy fashion, is a wisecracking, highly confident military
veteran. He exchanges humorous verbal jabs with Mark Watney during their initial
days on Mars - before the storm and the ensuing disaster.
"I had done [the 2014 World War II action film] Fury prior to this and picked
up on the ways that military guys joke around," says Pena. "It's kind of crass,
but it helps keep everyone on their toes and pretending they're not afraid of
the danger they may be facing."
Lewis, while occasionally allowing a smile to seep through, finds Watney and
Martinez's banter a bit tedious, as does fellow crewmember Beth Johanssen (Kate
Mara), the mission's techno wiz and cyber expert. The reserved Johanssen is
essentially responsible for anything "computer nerdy."
Says Mara: "I had a chance to meet with Ridley and discuss the role before I
was even given the script. I had named one of my dogs after a character from
Gladiator ("Lucious") and have been a Ridley fan forever, so I of course I
wanted to work with him."
Mara was equally keen to work alongside Jessica Chastain, and "loved that
she's playing the commander. Johanssen looks up to Lewis, which is fitting for
me, as I admire Jessica and respect the projects and choices she's made in her
Rounding out the crew of the Hermes is German chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel
Hennie) and American flight surgeon Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan). Hennie, a
popular actor in his native Norway for such films as Headhunters and Pioneer,
says THE MARTIAN is "about both solitude and teamwork. It expresses some of the
highest ideals of our humanity. It's a wonderfully uplifting narrative which, on
a personal level, I eagerly want and choose to believe in."
In addition to his medical background, Beck, like the other astronauts, has
been educated in other fields of science and is highly trained for numerous
fail-safe scenarios. But they are well aware that every space journey has two
possible destinations - the objective, and the unknown.
"I view these incredibly brave Martian explorers as our generation's Lewis and
Clark," Beck says. "Exploration is part of the human DNA."
At NASA, rattled administrators and engineers are still trying to comprehend
that they sent six astronauts to Mars, and only five are returning. The best
minds at NASA and its California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory are now
scrambling to find a way to get Watney home. It is the media event of the
century. NASA and JPL executives and scientists find themselves in the eye of
the storm - and the whole world is watching. Think your job is a pressure
cooker? Step into the shoes of Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), NASA's media
relations director. Along with the challenge of extracting meaningful
information from preoccupied NASA personnel, she is charged with facing down a
gallery of frenzied press, starved for any bit of information to sink their
"Annie must manage how a lot of important people want to address the
situation, and has to make the decisions on exactly how and what to tell the
public," Wiig states. "She has to walk a fine line between keeping the world
informed and protecting the reputation of NASA."
Montrose works in a male dominated environment, but she has earned the
respect of her boss, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Director of NASA, who bears
an almost unfathomable responsibility. Life and death decisions stop at his
desk. Some of the top minds in the world await his judgments, and Teddy must
effectively guide a few planet-sized egos. He is, after all, literally working
with rocket scientists.
"Teddy manages highly intelligent, MIT-educated people, but his approach is
that he's herding cats," Jeff Daniels quips. "Smart cats, but cats. They love to
come up with theories and ideas and have their brilliance on display in
meetings, but shirk from making decisions. Suddenly it's, 'Oh, that's someone
else's call. I'm just, you know, a rocket scientist.' So Teddy rather enjoys the
power he has over these remarkable minds and even toys with them at times. Keep
the geniuses humble."
One such genius, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), an "orbital dynamicist" at
JPL, waltzes into a meeting with the grown-ups and confidently proceeds to
demonstrate the solution to getting Watney back. Unaware of Sanders' lofty
title, he recruits him to help out during an impromptu demonstration of
Says Daniels: "Teddy feels Purnell's irreverence is akin to saying to the
Queen of England, 'Hey, nice dress.' So the wunderkind is quickly swept from the
Purnell's lack of deference to superiors reflects a larger cultural
distinction between the more buttoned-down environment of NASA, which is
responsible for humans in space, and the more relaxed, California vibe of the
The offices of Purnell and JPL director Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) are messy,
litter-strewn cubbyholes, indicative of their exhausting round-the-clock
habitation. Watney isn't the only one who's stranded. The JPL team, tasked with
designing a probe in improbably abbreviated time, is essentially marooned on
"JPL island," sacrificing personal time and home life in dedication to the
Their herculean efforts seem to be paying off. Sanders senses the validity of
Purnell's theory, which is affirmed by NASA's Director of Mars missions, Dr.
Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Kapoor bears the most direct responsibility
in handling the Watney crisis, and has placed his entire team into full-scale
Ejiofor comments: "I was fascinated by the story's look at the space
community. These are some of the most mentally gifted people on the planet, and
yet we see that their interactions and office politics are similar to most any
work environment. I was moved by the effort of this community to rally around
one man and commit every last bit of available equipment, energy and resources
to save him.
"I spoke to some of the people at JPL and NASA to get an appreciation of the
sort of pressure they operate under," Ejiofor continues. "Astronauts place their
ultimate trust in these agencies, and everyone who works there knows a single
mistake will be uncovered at the worst possible time. Vincent epitomizes that
dedication and professionalism, but what's most interesting about him is that,
as he begins to more deeply connect with the man who's marooned on Mars, he no
longer sees his mission as rescuing an astronaut he's rescuing Mark Watney."
The resources of NASA and JPL, however, are not going to be enough.
Fortunately, the agency's counterparts (Eddy Ko, Chen Shu) at the Chinese
National Space Agency (CNSA) make a remarkable overture that could either create
a new sense of harmony and cooperation in international relations and diplomacy
- or add some major new wrinkles in this delicate balance. CNSA initiates
contact with Sanders to offer the services of a prototype Chinese rocket that
could undertake a resupply mission to Mars. Here we see professional courtesy in
action: men and women who share common ground, or rather "space," seeking a way
around government bureaucracy. It speaks to the common bond highly trained
professionals share in any industry, regardless of location or nationality.
Once he has secured the assistance of China, Sanders has to worry about
challenges to his authority from one of his own team - Ares III flight director
Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean). Unlike Sanders, who must look after the interests
of both Mark Watney and NASA, and not necessarily in that order, Henderson
doesn't have dual loyalties. He couldn't give a damn about NASA's public
relations problems. His one and only concern is getting his astronauts home. All
"Mitch is not as conventional as the other members of the team, but he's
highly focused and no-nonsense," describes Sean Bean. "He's one of those rare
people who's not content to pass the buck and is willing to stand up to
superiors. He's furious that the Hermes crew has not been informed of Watney's
survival. He's going to do what he thinks needs to be done, regardless of
Henderson will set in motion an exceedingly risky chain of events that may
jeopardize his job and force the crew of Hermes to make a profound decision that
could result in charges of mutiny.
Neither Henderson nor anyone else at NASA would even be aware of Watney's
survival if not for the curiosity of lower-level employee Mindy Park (Mackenzie
Davis), who works the night shift at the Satellite Communications desk. In the
middle of the night, she's fulfilling orders from Dr. Kapoor to view satellite
images of the Ares III site to determine if its supplies are intact and
available for a subsequent mission. It's been a month since Watney's presumed
death and Mindy cannot resist the temptation to look for the body. She is
stunned by what she sees.
"Mindy's discovery sends a shockwave through NASA, and suddenly thrusts her
into a higher weight class," explains Davis. "Now she sits at the grownups table
in meetings with the brass, and it's intimidating. She has to learn quickly and
gain a sense of confidence because her new responsibilities mean people will be
looking to her for answers."
For Mark Watney, the questions he needs answered are clear: How to devise a
way to grow food once the crew rations are exhausted? How to establish
communications with NASA? What about dwindling oxygen supplies?
And how does he sustain the will to live with only Commander Lewis' disco
playlist for entertainment?
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