When Andy Weir unleashed his second novel The Martian, it was for a small crowd of people who visited his website. It was offered, a chapter at a time, for free. A few short years later, and his book is a studio picture from 20th Century Fox with a budget north of $100m and the director of Alien, Ridley Scott, at the helm. Matt Damon plays the titular astronaut, stranded on the red planet for more than a year after his crew leave him for dead. And the man responsible for bringing the in-depth astrophysical science of Weir’s book to the big screen in a manageable way is Drew Goddard, who got his start on television, working with the likes of Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams. Here, Goddard explains how he did it.
It’s rare for a movie of this scale to have a sole screenwriter credit.
I think that’s right. So much of this was unique in the sense that I don’t know if we’ll ever repeat how this came together. A friend of mine, who was a producer at Fox, said, “I’ve just read this e-book that I think you should look at.” I said, “An e-book? What are you talking about?” He said, “This author’s been giving away a chapter a month for three years on his website.” I said, “Are you saying you want me to adapt a blog?” (Laughs.) He sent it over to me and it was great; I just couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with it. And then I was like, “What is this? Is it coming out?” He said, “He’s trying to get a publishing deal, but we came up with a movie rights deal and we just think it’s special.” I agreed with him, but I thought it would be impossible to get made because there’s no version of doing space for cheap. We’d have to go to a studio and say, “Give us $100 million to make this blog into a movie.”
But that clearly wasn’t the case, was it? This movie came together super fast.
To Fox’s credit, they really got it. We went in and pitched it and said, “We think there’s a chance to do something special here.” We tried to be as honest as we could about the challenges of the movie. It’s based on science, and hard science—not easy science. There’s no superheroes in it; it’s a straight drama about scientists. But, that being said, my take on it was to think about it like a religious movie, like The Ten Commandments, where the religion in question was science. It very much fits the classic paradigms of movies we’ve seen before, where man gets lost in wilderness and has to rely on his faith to get him out of it. That made sense to the studio and they said, “If you can get a movie star, we’ll make this movie.”
Ridley Scott immediately brings an enormous boost in scale. What was it like watching him work?
It was amazing. He shot The Martian in 70 days and I think for most directors it would have taken 100, at least. For me, it would have taken 110. I cannot imagine how he did it. I watched it happen and I still don’t know.
How much of a challenge was it to communicate the hard science to an audience in the space you had to tell the story?
It’s really hard because so much of the book is first-person past-tense diary entries. That’s not really the thing that screenwriting is based on. We had to figure out how we were going to get this across without dumbing it down. I said to the studio, “I don’t want you guys to come to me after we’ve shot this and say, ‘We need to take all this science stuff out of it for a general audience.’” I didn’t think we’d have anything if we did that. Part of what makes this project special is the science, and if we stripped that out it would just be a B-movie. And I love B-movies; I don’t say that as a derisive term. But it wouldn’t have connected in the way I wanted this movie to connect.
How did you find the balance?
Once we realized that Matt (Damon) could talk to the camera in a way that had an emotional and thematic reason behind it, that helped. I never wanted just to add a bunch of voiceover because I thought that would be bad. I didn’t even really want him to talk to the camera too much. But once you got the sense that he was doing it for a reason… He was doing his job. His job is to document what’s happening and that fits the theme of what he’s trying to do. Once we cracked that part of it, that made things easy because it became about keeping him alive. Continuing the job he believes in is what he’s living for at this point.
In the end, the science isn’t all that complicated to understand. Do you think Hollywood, generally speaking, is a little unambitious when it comes to how much credit they give the audience?
I think there is a degree of that. It’s not a malicious instinct; they’re just trying to appeal and broaden as much as possible. I understand why it happens. There’s so much money riding on the line that they want to appeal. But the trick is that people like to learn; I really believe that. People are OK with not understanding something. We worked really hard to make the emotional side of this work; I think that’s the secret. You don’t have to understand hydrazine to understand that he needs water. You don’t have to understand the ration calculus to understand that he’s hungry. If we just kept the need of what he was going through clear and relatable, the rest of it you’re going to enjoy watching. So much of it is, “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m cold.” That just buys you the ability to have these lengthy scenes about things like water synthesis.