We stay away from major spoilers in this story to a minor one in the very last part, so stop reading there if you haven’t read the book yet!
To get this out of the way right away, we’re excited about Ridley Scott’s upcoming October release The Martian. Based on The New York Times Bestselling novel of the same name from first author Andy Weir, the story follows astronaut Mark Watney as he tries to survive being left alone on Mars after a freak accident. The book has become a favorite here at Ars Orbiting HQ – its mix of accurate science, humor and solid storytelling has resonated with a wide audience, and judging by the trailers, the movie might just be so rare: a book- to movie adaptation that’s as good as the source.
Matt Damon was chosen to play Mark Watney, putting him in much the same situation as Tom Hanks in the 2000s. Cast away: a person who is completely, completely alone. Some fans of the book expressed trepidation when Damon donned Watney’s space suit on the big screen, but author Andy Weir was excited about the idea when Ars interviewed Weir last November. “A lot of people forget how good an actor Matt Damon is!” Weir explained. “Don’t forget he can do ‘smartass’ really well, as we saw Good Will Hunting!…and I see him saying clever things in my mind, kind of with that crooked smile, you know?’
No one is an island
While we haven’t seen the film yet (although we’re on the press list!), we had the opportunity earlier this week to chat with Matt Damon about how he approached the role and what he thought of Mark Watney and life on Mars.
Just as Weir had praise for Damon, Damon had great things to say about Weir right out of the gate. When I asked if the role of Mark Watney was easy to inhabit, Damon was quick to agree. “Oh yeah,” he said, “because it was so well written. And then when the script that Drew Goddard wrote — the adaptation — I thought it really had the best parts of the book. It just felt like I was wearing an old pair of shoes. — it really was all on the page.
One particularly interesting aspect of Mark Watney’s character is that he seems strangely immune to the crippling depression that would grip just about every other person stranded on Mars. Stuck alone on the red planet, Watney is literally the most isolated person who ever lived – about a thousand times further away from any other human being than the Apollo astronauts were when they visited the moon.
Weir has deliberately chosen not to make much of it. “I didn’t want the book to be an in-depth character study of crippling loneliness and depression,” he explained to Ars. “I just said, ‘No, that’s not how Mark Watney rolls.'”
Damon explained that director Ridley Scott wanted to take a slightly different approach to the book, embracing the imagery of the lone human on a huge empty stage. “That was one of the big conversations Ridley and I had in the very beginning – how do we keep all the humor and the fun in the book and keep the movie really entertaining, without losing the reality of the predicament this man is in?” located.” Damon said. “And how do we keep that tension and keep that stakes as high as possible? So that was really kind of the tonal dance of the film and what we were really focused on.”
He highlighted the 2003 film Touch the void as an example of a movie that handled existential dread and crushing loneliness well – he and Ridley Scott both wanted some of that movie’s flavor, but without losing sight of it The Martianhumor and cheerful tone.
“So Ridley added these moments of, you know, sitting there and just listening to the wind rattling through the hab one night,” Damon said. “And also a lot of the big vistas, where my character or the rover I’m in is just really small in frame, against a gigantic backdrop of this really inhospitable planet. Moments like that to keep that fear and that terror alive, without losing the fun.”
How do you like those potatoes best?
If there is a costar in the movie along with Mark Watney, then there is science. Author Andy Weir spent months painstakingly researching possible ways Watney might survive on Mars, working out detailed math and procedures on how and what to do. Damon was quick to assure us that Weir’s efforts had not been in vain and that science remains the star of the film as well.
“When we made the movie, we had to go through it step by step,” he said. “He [Watney] is very logical and practical and methodical in how he deals with survival. He’s essentially saying, “I need air, water, and food, and what should I do to make sure I have those things?” And then let science kind of take you there.”
When asked if there were any of Watney’s scientific survival experiments that were hard to get on screen, Damon paused. “Well, I mean, of course we had to grow potatoes on the soundstage while we were shooting…”
I interrupted him with laughter. “You actually grew potatoes?”
“Yeah Yea!” he responded enthusiastically. “Because there are all these scenes with potatoes in different stages of growth. The only way we could do that was to actually grow potatoes.”
The potatoes are another important element in the story – Watney ultimately lives off potatoes grown on Mars, and the struggle to grow them makes up much of the first half of the story. I jokingly asked if Ridley Scott’s commitment to truthfulness extended to getting the potatoes fertilized the same way Watney had to do it – it’s pretty much exactly as you’d imagine – and Damon started laughing.
“No! That was some kind of chocolate reduction I used on screen, thank goodness!”
Even though the movie isn’t out yet, it’s already been called a massive PR coup for NASA. As the book did, it casually paints a picture of a hugely powerful future version of the agency with the financial and technical resources to launch a slew of manned Mars missions without the need for co-funding from international partnerships. Weir explained that he had written it this way primarily for convenience, so that he could show decision-making on Earth without having to invent some kind of international governing council; however, it shows NASA as many space enthusiasts wish it existed, rather than the agency we actually have.
In the film, Damon’s character is part of the third manned mission to Mars, and when I asked Damon what he thought about the feasibility and desirability of a real Ares-like mission to Mars, he became pensive. “I can’t really speak to feasibility — I know they plan to do it in 20 years,” he said, referring to NASA’s proposed SLS-based Mars landing.
“It certainly seems like a worthwhile endeavor,” he continued. “I think we need to recognize that we need to remove some of our species from this planet so we’re not one catastrophic event away from the fact that humanity never existed. So I think it’s worth it. Money well spent .”
Here are spoilers!
As the conversation drew to a close, I had one last question for the man who brought Mark Watney to life. Andy Weir told me that many readers emailed him after finishing the book asking what happened to Mark Watney after his rescue. analyst who first discovers that Watney lives on Mars and is assigned to watch over him.
Weir told me he had no plans for a sequel, but that if he writes one, “Mark and Mindy” will definitely be a couple. Damon had never heard of this before, and he started laughing.
“Love Mark and Mindy!” he said. “When I signed up for this, I had no intention of doing a sequel, but now that I’ve heard about Mark and Mindy, I think maybe I should.”
The Martian will hit theaters across the US on October 2. It hasn’t been rated yet (but we’re betting on PG-13).