Months after The Martian launched at the Toronto Film Festival and grossed $589 million worldwide to become the biggest film in 78-year-old director Ridley Scott’s career, Matt Damon still hasn’t tired of talking about the film. For Damon—who shared the 1998 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck when he was just 27 years old—there is just one piece of unfinished business for the blockbuster space rescue tale.
“It feels like a lot of people don’t realize this, but Ridley Scott does not have an Academy Award,” Damon says. “It’s incredible to me. Gladiator won Best Picture but he wasn’t a producer on it. I am really hoping this is his year. He just has done so much for cinema, and I felt like I got a full film school education just sitting next to him for four months and henpecking him all day with questions.”
Just as the science and notion of manned space trips to Mars seems inevitable, Damon’s sentiment doesn’t feel like a pipe dream this late in the Oscar race. Even though it was among the first of the Oscar-contending films to launch, and even though cutting-edge science fiction films like this one usually accumulate awards hardware in technical achievement categories, The Martian hasn’t lost its luster. The film was named a Golden Globes Best Picture candidate in the comedy category, and Damon and Scott also received nominations.
Maybe it’s because a number of highly anticipated Oscar-bait films have either underwhelmed or depressed the hell out of voters with bleak story lines. The Martian, with its crowd-pleasing Apollo 13-like story of a global effort to retrieve Damon’s marooned space botanist Mark Watney, has left a lingering memory as the feel-good 3D space blockbuster of the fall season, even with Star Wars: The Force Awakens looming.
Scott accepts that designation and suspects that with all of the recent problems in the world, the film has proved to be a welcome respite for global audiences. “The film works on many levels without getting too sentimental, and that is something I usually resist since I am British and was brought up in a drizzly landscape, waiting for the double-decker bus to come take me to school,” he says. “The feel-good aspect is earned and not artificial.”
Making the Cut
While Scott’s outer-space résumé is defined first and foremost by the dark, solitary visuals of Alien, which informed how space films got shot for the next few decades, The Martian was a visual 180-degree turn. It was also different in that, while Scott had to beg the 20th Century Fox brass back in 1979 to allow Alien to unfold at its own pace—before John Hurt’s character comes down with history’s worst case of indigestion and the roller coaster ride begins—Watney’s dilemma was spelled out right after the opening credits, when a vicious storm on Mars convinced his crewmates he was dead, thereby leaving him behind.
“With Alien the studio said, ‘Nothing happens for 46 minutes.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but when it happens, it really happens.’ They were always fighting it,” Scott says. “As soon as you see it twice, it’s like telling a joke that isn’t as funny the second time. When studio executives have to see the film five, six or 10 times, it gets exhausting and they say, ‘Are we too long?’ ”
The experience forged a resolve in Scott that fueled The Martian—to hang on to that first impression made either by the script or the first screening. “You have to remember those are most important in defining how you really feel,” he says. “When I get a script now, I sit and read it, and God forbid anyone interrupts me for the next two-and-a-half hours. That reading becomes the Bible, and it has to sustain you during dangerous periods, like when you are editing and agonizing over every bloody frame and people are saying, ‘Cut here, cut there.’ You have to be like the artist who steps back to look at the canvas as they are painting. I step back and come back fresh and go, ‘OK, I need that, that, that and that.’ I learned to turn myself into the creative director of the cut, and then I do the same thing for the mix and the music. That became my method.”
Scott develops many projects, but like Gladiator, The Martian fell into his lap. Drew Goddard’s scripted adaptation of the Andy Weir novel was written and ready to go, and Damon already was fitted for the space helmet with Goddard at the helm.
“I was going to do it with Drew directing,” Damon recalls. “I read and loved his script, watched his other work and I was sold. Then, Drew gets the chance to direct Sinister Six, which he’d been dying to do. It was a seminal career moment for him. So he bowed out and I thought I was going to wait and we’d put (The Martian) on the back burner for a year. And then, about a week later, we got word that Ridley wanted to do it.”
It was the kind of love-at-first-sight reaction that Bradley Cooper described Clint Eastwood having when Steven Spielberg dropped out of a fully developed American Sniper script. “Ridley is a lot like Clint and a few other guys who have been making movies a long time,” Damon says. “They don’t screw things up by thinking about them too much. If they respond on an intuitive level, they go. And so Ridley hopped on quickly; he read the script once or twice, and was willing to put Alien: Covenant on hold.”
Scott acknowledges the Goddard script hit him like a thunderbolt: “It was so good I didn’t read the book, because I didn’t want to be tempted to meddle,” he says. But Scott also recalls feeling that he had to audition for Damon. It wasn’t a difficult conversation, even though it was the first the pair ever had.
“He didn’t have to impress me, and my biggest concern was telling him I’d just done a small role as a stranded astronaut in Interstellar,” Damon says, “but he told me these were such different stories that we were going to be fine. What I was thinking about was movies like Alien and Blade Runner, which are two films that people should watch once a year, along with Gladiator, Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down. Ridley has made so many fantastic movies that are so different. He’s one of the few directors who hasn’t found it difficult to jump from genre to genre and make wonderful movies in all of them.”
Scott helped Damon with the daunting prospect of diving into Watney’s dilemma—there are long stretches where the stranded botanist holds the screen alone, much the same way Tom Hanks did in Cast Away and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. “I was nervous about it, and certainly felt the challenge of the piece, but I had Ridley with me and that mitigated all of the risk,” Damon says. “In terms of Sandy (Bullock) and Tom (Hanks), there were these two other great storylines in The Martian. There was the whole NASA part, and all the bells and whistles of that, and then there was Jessica (Chastain)’s storyline with the rest of my team. So Ridley had stuff to cut back to. The degree of difficulty in what Tom and Sandy did was way harder than what I did. If I got too boring, Ridley was able to cut to one of those other storylines before people got sick of me.”
Scott says he always has been attracted to movies about loners. He once planned to make I Am Legend and, in his mind, Alien also was a solitary survival story even if its survivor, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, became the last-standing human by default. What Scott most admired in Goddard’s script was the intricate puzzle that was part Mars survival tale, part rescue tale, and the big dose of humor that kept it all together.
“You always have to have conflict, even in a comedy,” he says. “I started with The Duellists, which had conflict between two characters who eventually forget what their original argument was about, and so it became a definitive essay on mindless violence. Alien, of course, is that survival story where it’s finally one person up against it. What I liked here is that I could get away with that storyline because the humor would be such a surprising element in the film, the last thing you would expect. It’s not a comedy in my mind, but some of it is pretty funny.”
And what about the tour de force performance by Damon as the stranded space botanist? It’s the only thing Damon doesn’t want to talk about. He says he always has taken a hands-off approach to the Oscar race, content with the surreal memory of him and Affleck exuberantly thanking and high-fiving everyone short of Nomar Garciaparra as the fresh-faced twentysomething Boston pals accepted their Oscars.
“I felt really lucky to have had this taken care of a long time ago, and so I’ve never really felt the need to chase it,” Damon says. “And also, there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t complain about anything if I’m able to keep working with these incredible directors and keep making the movies I want to make. That’s what I can control, and the rest of this stuff I can’t get too caught up in.” Damon says that winning so early in his career freed him from a burden, and the one big takeaway that he and Affleck got out of it was a resolve to stand their ground. After all, there were numerous iterations of Good Will Hunting—some that required Damon and Affleck to step aside for bigger stars. They rightly stood their ground.
“I vividly remember feeling this sense of peace, and just sitting there that night, staring at this Academy Award and going, ‘Thank God I didn’t fuck anybody over for that,’ ” Damon says. “Ben and I always said, ‘Look, even if (Good Will Hunting) just amounts to a videocassette on our mantel that we like and nobody else sees, that’s going to be good enough.’ It made every decision after that really easy. Every time we said yes or no, it was about trying to make the movie we really wanted to see. With the Oscars, I definitely don’t feel any need beyond the idea that Ben now has two of them, and what the fuck is that about?”
Damon is kidding, but he is serious about his hope that this is Scott’s year. The director is in a boat similar to the one Spielberg found himself in before Schindler’s List, and Martin Scorsese before The Departed. But here’s hoping he escapes the fate of his idol, Stanley Kubrik, who never won a directing Oscar, but did for visual effects.
“His eye is his and his alone,” Damon says. “There was this shot he was doing of me, just a simple close-up. They were setting the lights around my stand-in and I was sitting there with Ridley, looking at the monitor. It was a simple close-up shot, three quarters from behind, focusing on my helmet and a little piece of my face. And I realized immediately that this was, unmistakably, a Ridley Scott frame. I peppered him with questions all the way through and he was so generous in answering every one of them. I said to him, ‘Why is it that I know this simple close-up is a Ridley Scott frame?’ He said, ‘I know what you’re talking about. All I was thinking about when I set that shot up was for it to be simple, and truthful.’ It was a big takeaway moment for me. When Ridley is being simple and honest, the result is singularly him.
“He shot with four cameras at a time, all the time,” Damon continues. “If you’d told me before this movie that a director could find four good frames at once, I’d never have believed it. But he finds four good shots, every time, and then has to choose. I went into the tent one day where he was sitting with his monitors, and found myself puzzling over these four beautiful shots. I finally said, ‘All four of these are perfect.’And he looked up at me, smiled, and barked, ‘They’ve been perfect for a long time.’ ”
To see an exclusive clip of Matt Damon in The Martian, click play below: