Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Sebastian Stan
Director: Ridley Scott
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Running Time: 135 minutes
Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.
Release Date: October 1st, 2015
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring 'The Martian" home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney's safe return. Based on a best-selling novel, and helmed by master director Ridley Scott, The Martian features a star studded cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and Chiwetel Ejiofor
We've all had the feeling of being alone in the world. Only Mark Watney knows the feeling of being alone on Mars.
Presumed killed by a devastating windstorm that forced an emergency evacuation, Watney awakens, injured, and to stay alive he must react immediately. If he can maintain his resolve to not become Mars' first human casualty, help is only a few years and a few million miles away.
'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 Matt 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 genre."
Matt Damon received the screenplay from producer Simon Kinberg, with whom he worked on Elysium. He sent it to Matt Damon on a Friday and received an enthusiastic response by Sunday.
'Matt Damon responded to the story in the same manner that the studio and I did," recalls Simon 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 Mark Watney."
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 Aditya 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."
Simon Kinberg was hooked after thirty pages, and Fox optioned the book on behalf of Simon 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. Simon Kinberg says Drew 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.
Drew 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 Drew Goddard's script and Matt Damon's interest, the project went into fast-track development, coming to a pause when Drew Goddard accepted a directing assignment. This left the director's chair ready to be filled by, according to Simon 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 Scott is my favorite film director, and perfect for this story, but he was busy developing another film," Simon Kinberg recalls. 'When we learned it was delayed, we immediately got the script to him. '
Says Ridley 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."
Drew Goddard himself was elated to see his script in Ridley 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 hoax."
Andy 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. Andy 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 Andy Weir calls 'every writer's fantasy come true."
Andy 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 unfeasible.
'I needed a way to force the astronauts off the planet, so I allowed myself some leeway," Andy 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 Matt 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 become critical."
In Drew Goddard's script, the astronauts and NASA personnel are equal parts of an ensemble. Ridley 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 Scott'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 Peña), 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 Michael Peña. '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 Kate Mara: 'I had a chance to meet with Ridley Scott 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 Scott 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 Chastain and respect the projects and choices she's made in her career."
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," Chris 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 teeth into.
'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," Kristen 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 Purnell's theory.
Says Jeff 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 room."
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 JPL.
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 rescue effort.
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 response mode.
Chiwetel 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," Chiwetel 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 ¾ 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 of them.
'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 personal consequence."
Mitch 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 Mitch 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 Mackenzie 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?
Life On Mars
Mars is unwelcoming. Its wide temperature range – from -153°C to around 22°C on a summer day – makes for tricky wardrobe choices. (Layering can only take you so far.) Breathing is even more problematic. The air is 95 percent carbon dioxide. The soil lacks bacteria needed to grow food. Water exists, but only as ice.
Even its reddish color acts as a warning sign: Nothing for you here – except death by asphyxiation and hypothermia.
But humans have never been deterred from going where we are not wanted. So we go to Mars.
Creating an artificial living habitat (Hab) is necessary to facilitate human exploration of the planet. In The Martian, NASA/JPL has for four years been using unmanned probes to airdrop pre-fabricated parts for assembling a Hab, along with various supplies, food and equipment. The Ares III crew will arrive to such amenities as computers, fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner and a badass ATV known as the Rover. A Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) stands by to return them to the Hermes after their 31-sol mission.
The story begins on sol 18, after the crew has already assembled its Hab: a pressurized canvas structure with 90 square meters of floor space. Significant amounts of solar and neutron radiation penetrate Mars' thin atmosphere, requiring the Hab to be paneled on the outside with filtering layers of Kevlar and Mylar foils and upholstered foam material.
The Hab's interior provides sparse sleeping quarters, a shared work area, pressurizing airlocks for entry and exit, and compact storage for equipment – as well as such life-sustaining appliances as an oxygenator, atmospheric regulator and water reclaimer. It's stocked with enough rations to last six astronauts a precautionary 68 sols. With just Watney remaining, that will stretch to 400 sols. It's enough to buy time, but likely not enough to last until a rescue mission can arrive.
Watney, a botanist, has a few potatoes in the Hab and devises a way to provide the necessary bacteria to make Martian soil fertile for growing more spuds. The humble potato, which once saved an entire civilization from starvation, will again be called upon to sustain human life, on another planet. One problem solved.
Proving once and for all that one agency's trash is another man's treasure, Watney uses the Rover to track down the defunct Pathfinder probe, last heard from in 1997. He uses its camera to rig up a way to communicate with NASA and JPL. Problem two solved. He even figures out how to create more oxygen.
That leaves Lewis' disco music as his remaining major issue.
Things are looking up. Watney has pressurized shelter and oxygen. Food, and a way to grow more. Water, and the knowledge to make more. He can communicate with NASA, with whom he exchanges both jokes and choice words when disagreeing with their directives.
If nothing else goes wrong, the odds of his survival have increased dramatically since he pulled the piece of antenna out of his abdomen.
But Murphy's Law is universal. And something does go wrong.
A terrifying incident destroys Watney's hard work and much of his optimism. Now the clock is ticking, and NASA's rescue timeline is blown to pieces. A sense of urgency is replaced by the feeling of pending disaster. This is now a 24/7 operation. A man in peril. A world transfixed by the drama. And only a handful of scientists and astronauts burdened with the decisions that could save him.
From Houston to Beijing, Melbourne to Moscow, people are spellbound by Mark Watney's plight because he is more than an astronaut; he is a symbol. His crisis is testing some of our planet's best thinkers, who are not just trying to rescue a human; they're trying to rescue the aspirations of humanity. It's Mars versus Earthlings and the world is rooting for the home team.
About The Production
Principal photography on The Martian began November 8, 2014 in Budapest. The gorgeous Central European capital has become known for hosting a litany of big budget Hollywood movies because of its beautiful locales and experienced local crews. But what particularly drew filmmakers to the city for this project are the soundstages at nearby Korda Studios.
Korda's Stage 6, said to be the largest in the world, was ideal for constructing a Martian landscape that would include the Hab and the launch pad for the MAV. The set was used primarily for dialogue scenes, Hab interiors, and the giant sandstorm sequence. Matching wide-scope vistas were later filmed in Jordan.
Says producer Mark Huffam: 'We had scouted the Australian Outback as a possible landscape for the Martian surface. That didn't work out, and we decided to shoot most of the Martian sequences as interiors, giving us greater control of the environment, and then matching those with exteriors at Wadi Rum in Jordan."
During production, Korda was a bustling hub of activity, as all six soundstages were being utilized for constructing and revamping a dozen major sets, including the spacecraft Hermes and the astronauts' Hab on Mars. The art department was constantly racing to stay a step in front of Scott, who works quickly and has been known to get ahead of schedule.
In addition to Korda Studios, Budapest delivered another bonus in the form of a dazzling building known as The Whale (due to its profile and its proximity along the Danube River). The Whale played host to the sequences involving NASA personnel, including the offices of Teddy Sanders and Annie Montrose, as well as conference rooms, a break area and coffee shop, a main entrance, and a flight control room.
Production designer Arthur Max describes the building as 'sophisticated, cutting-edge architecture on a world-class level. It's a geodesic structure with enormous scale, loads of glass and concrete, and wonderful louvered blinds that open and close with motors. We can fully control the light levels. This building was a godsend. It would cost a fortune to construct a composite of sets like these on a soundstage."
To maximize flexibility, simulated concrete walls were mounted on wheels in order to quickly configure any number of office designs in the buildings open spaces. The Whale's gleaming, futuristic, curvilinear glass exterior also served as NASA's 'next generation" headquarters.
The showpiece set, however, is the Mission Control Room, NASA's communications hub. A huge central screen, surrounded by more than a dozen other screens, displays vital data and images NASA is monitoring at any given time. These images are being sent from satellites, reconnaissance orbiters, probes, and the International Space Station. It is in Mission Control where Mindy Park learns Watney is still alive – and where NASA leaders will months later command and monitor the launch of the rocket intended to save him.
Rather than having greenscreen appear on the control room monitors and then adding imagery in post, Ridley Scott prefers to see the graphics 'in shot," using them as light sources and allowing the actors to react to the images in real time. The UK company Territory (Spy, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation) was brought onboard to work with graphics artist Felicity Hickson in utilizing a substantial amount of graphics, high resolution satellite imagery and video footage from NASA.
Indeed, NASA was a key collaborator, consultant and advisor on the entire project, from script through principal photography. Producer Mark Huffam remembers calling NASA during the first production meeting with Ridley Scott and being 'very pleased to learn that they knew the book and were enthusiastic about an open-door relationship and free exchange of ideas."
Production was allowed to film rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, including the December 2014 liftoff of the Orion, a next-generation spacecraft designed to take humans deep into space as a first step toward human exploration of Mars. The Orion was sent into orbit containing a Ridley Scott tribute: the first sketch the director made of Mark Watney, on the script's cover page, with the astronaut's bold declaration, 'I'm going to science the shit out of this planet."
The partnership with NASA initiated with Bert Ulrich, the agency's film and television liaison, and then expanded to include, among others, Dr. James Green, NASA's Director of Planetary Sciences, and Dave Lavery, from the Mars office, who acted as technical consultants on the script and the production.
Ulrich says Andy Weir's novel, which is now unofficial recommended reading at Johnson Space Center, and Ridley Scott's acclaimed body of work resonated deeply within the agency as it prepares its journey to Mars.
'Science fiction, especially in films, is continually an influence on real science," Ulrich states. 'I think both art and science draw from similar aspects of creativity, curiosity and vision."
Arthur Max's production designs began to take root during an extensive tour of Houston's Johnson Space Center, led by Dr. Green, providing deep immersion into the requirements of getting a human on Mars. Max also viewed the old Mercury and Apollo mission control centers, as well as the current Center, which handled the Space Shuttle missions and tracks the International Space Station.
'I combined some of the elements we saw at NASA and then pushed out into the future with the design – what we think their next control room may look like," says Max. 'NASA was remarkably helpful in not only giving us great resources and input, but approving all of our designs."
After filming at Max's NASA sets at the Whale, the company moved to a 100-acre complex of buildings called the Hungarian Expo, where sets for the JPL offices, lab, and garage were constructed.
Filming at the Hungarian Expo concluded at the end of November, marking the picture wrap of cast members Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig and Sebastian Stan. After a short hiatus, filming began on 'Mars" at Korda Studios, taking up the separate storylines of Watney and the astronauts.
Says Matt Damon: 'I think 54 actors had wrapped before I even arrived at Korda." Reflective of the characters' storylines, Matt Damon's schedule only overlapped with those of Jessica Chastain and the other astronauts during three days in mid-December, and then again with only Jessica Chastain for a couple of additional days in February.
'Matt Damon and I have now done two movies together [Interstellar was the other], and have only worked with each other on set for about a week," says Jessica Chastain.
The entire crew of Hermes appears together in the harrowing Martian sandstorm that sets the story in motion. Eschewing reliance on visual effects, Ridley Scott wanted the storm to look and feel real, both to the cast and audience. Shot on the gargantuan Stage 6 Martian exterior set, the sequence was filmed over a period of three days, involving giant fans, thick dust, poor visibility, and lots of dirt. Day one of the storm pushed everyone to the limit.
'Hardest day of my career," remarks costume designer Janty Yates. Adds Matt Damon: 'Like walking in a hurricane."
Even facemasks failed to prevent dirt and dust getting into eyes, ears and mouths. The particles worked their way into the air vents of the cast's space helmets, causing inhalation issues. Between takes, wardrobe assistants would rush in and help remove the helmets to enable the actors to breathe easier.
'Come to Mars, have a few laughs," jokes Michael Peña between mouthfuls of dust. 'I came to set wearing this suit for the first time, thinking, -This is so cool. I'm an astronaut. It's a huge scene. This is what it means to be in a Ridley Scott movie. I'm gonna crush this!' And then suddenly I'm fighting the wind, trying to breathe and not fall over, and it's more, like, 'Oh, shit, I just hope I don't mess up this shot.'"
'Baptism by fire," agrees Jessica Chastain. 'We shot the storm on one of our very first days together, and weren't yet familiar with each other. We were literally and figuratively trying to find our characters' footing while huge turbines are chucking dirt and little rocks at us."
While the cast was often disoriented and could scarcely see each other at times, they had each other's voices in their heads – and Ridley Scott's. The sound department rigged each astronaut's helmet with small intercom speakers and mics for communication with each other and the director. It made for a surreal bonding experience, relates Kate Mara.
'We bonded quickly because with the helmets on we couldn't hear the crew around us – only each other," Kate Mara says. 'We started teasing and telling jokes, and it brought us closer together. Some of it got kind of racy. Once in awhile we would forget ourselves, and then ask, -Hang on, can Ridley Scott hear this?'"
The weight of the helmets and surface suits, a combined 40 pounds, added to the cast's exertion to stumble through sand and fight 65 mile-per-hour winds.
Both helmets and suits were the work of costume designer Jany Yates and space suit specialist Michael Mooney. The helmets contain six lights, separately operated by a small, two-channel battery-powered remote. A fan inside the life support backpack of the suit sends air via a hose into the helmet. Ranging from one to four millimeters in thickness, the helmets were manufactured by a vacuum casting process by FBFX.
Michael Mooney modified them to be as light as possible, around nine pounds, but 'because out of necessity they weren't supported by the shoulders," he says, 'the helmets became quite heavy for some of the cast over the course of a 10-hour shooting day."
Below the helmets, the orange-and-white surface suits are worn by the astronauts when exploring the planet's surface, and are streamlined and close-fitting, yet sufficiently malleable to allow full movement.
Jany Yates took an initial prototype surface suit design to Matt Damon early in pre-production, and the actor says the final result was 'exactly as she designed it. While reading the script I was thinking, -This story is great, and it probably means 80 days in some really cumbersome outfits.' But the surface suit was actually pretty comfortable, given that it was as skintight as a wetsuit."
Prior to designing the costumes, Yates met with a curator of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., which houses a fascinating collection of spacesuits dating back to the beginnings of the Mercury program, and conducted research at Johnson Space Center and JPL. The experience left her 'mesmerized."
Adds Jany Yates: 'I saw the rovers, I saw them building satellites…It felt like I was already in a science fiction film. They sent me so many images that were incredibly useful. We saw the designs of the suits that they are planning for missions extending beyond even 2030.
'From the start, Ridley said he wanted the surface suits to be slender and allow for movement, yet still offer a nice silhouette. NASA's suits have the helmet built in, which wouldn't work for our purposes, so we had to change that design. We also needed to make some changes for aesthetics and practical needs of filming, and I think we hit the mark between function and form."
Form is much less a consideration with what's known as the 'EVA" (Extra Vehicular Activity) costume – what's commonly recognised as an -outer space' suit. (Or what Ridley Scott refers to as the 'doughboy.") Worn when conducting zero gravity activities outside the Hermes, the EVA is bulky and heavy. The core is made of carbon fiber backplates, with eight bolted 3mm steel rings that attach to stunt wires. Matt Damon's stunt rig alone weighed 55 pounds, which, when added to the weight of the suit and helmet, required him at times to support 100 extra pounds.
More than a dozen vendors were employed in creating the helmets and 15 surface/EVA suits.
Jany Yates designed a third look for the astronauts that she describes as 'like a track suit. It's for their day-to-day activities aboard the Hermes. They're sleek, formfitting and comfortable, and, as they are only worn inside the pressurized space ship, don't require life support systems."
The Hermes provides its own life support, sustaining the Ares III crew during its nine-month journey to Mars. (The length of the trip can vary, based on the orbits of the respective planets.) The Hermes was constructed on Stages 2 and 3 at Korda Studios, based on design properties of the International Space Station, which utilizes a series of interlocking modules. The exterior of the craft is equipped with solar panels, oxygen and water storage cells, heat dissipation fins, communications modules, and other vital life support mechanisms.
Based on NASA advanced design plans, the Hermes is powered by a nuclear powered ion plasma propulsion engine, which Arthur Max says has yet to be depicted in a movie because the technology is so new. The design incorporates a large telescopic arm that places the heat-emitting reactor a safe distance from the ship.
'We've tried to stay close to practical reality and cutting-edge technology while creating an eye-catching aesthetic," he says.
Max grew up in the Sputnik era during the intense space race between the U.S. and the USSR, and had a childhood obsession with science. 'I was in the rocketry club, and we used to make fuel on the kitchen stove, with sometimes near disastrous results," he recalls. 'The Martian was a chance to rekindle my interest in space exploration while being part of the telling of a classic adventure story about a trip into the unknown."
The Hermes' gleaming white interior, a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, extends from the flight deck down a long corridor that stretches hundreds of feet.
Roughly halfway down the corridor is a right-angle connection tunnel referred to as the knuckle, which leads to the Rec Room. Inside, a rotating drum known as the gravity wheel spins at a sufficient speed to generate a centrifugal force that simulates the effects of gravity.
Rudi Schmidt, a scientist with the European Space Agency and an on-set technical advisor, says the gravity wheel was first experimented with on the Skylab missions in the 1970s, a forerunner to the current International Space Station.
'It's highly desirable for the astronauts to be exposed to these gravitational effects to keep bone mass and the muscular system intact," says Rudi Schmidt. 'The gravity wheel theoretically can generate roughly half the force of gravity on Earth, which is sufficient for health purposes."
The Rec Room is equipped with exercise bikes, treadmills, and other fitness equipment. Constructed as a separate set on Korda's Stage 4, it was mounted on hydraulic lifts that tilt the contained gravity wheel a full 30 degrees to each side.
Depicting the astronauts' movement aboard the Hermes' zero gravity environment required cast members to be harnessed to wire rigs that lend the impression they are floating from one spot to another. Stunt coordinator Rob Inch and his team designed a massive square 2D winch system, suspended from above the Hermes roofless set, allowing them to fly the actors anywhere within a squared spatial area. The wires connect to a spin rig attached at the waist, and also to leg and shoulder cuffs. The system was computerized and mechanized, but also required stunt team members to pull harness ropes to create vertical movement and 'puppeteer" the actors. The use of winches and aluminum heads enabled movement in all directions, as well as 360-degree turns.
'We had to work out a lot of rather complicated shots getting our cast down the corridor and into other rooms," Inch states. 'For instance, in one shot we have to travel Jessica Chastain and Michael down the main (fuselage) and then right-angle turn them down a corridor leading to the gravity wheel. And it had to be a fluid motion. It was a complex and tricky thing to pull off."
According to stunt rigger Leonard Woodcock, 150 meters of truss, 90 meters of track, 70 pulleys and some 400 meters of Tech-12 rope were required to construct the rig. 'I don't even know how much scaffolding," he says. 'More than I can count."
Jessica Chastain prepared for the zero gravity work by drawing on her days as a dancer to mimic the physical movements of weightlessness. Well known for her meticulous preparation, Jessica Chastain also spent several days visiting NASA facilities, and read up on the lives of astronauts, such as Sally Ride.
'In [the 2014 motion picture] Interstellar my character was Earthbound, and I remember at the screening thinking how much fun it must have been for [co-stars] Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to do the space stuff," Chastain recalls. 'I thought it would be really cool to play an astronaut. A couple of weeks later I learned Ridley wanted me to play one in The Martian. So I went all in. I visited JPL and the Johnson Space Center, and saw some amazing things. I went inside a MAV and a mockup of the space shuttle.
Jessica Chastain says she was fortunate in being able to spend some time with astronaut-chemist Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a Mission Specialist on Space Shuttle Endeavour flight STS-118 in August 2007, and who was part of the Expedition 24 crew on the International Space Station in 2010.
Tracey Caldwell Dyson briefed Jessica Chastain on both the technical and human elements of being an astronaut. Jessica Chastain says Tracey Caldwell Dyson and other female astronauts are true role models. 'They inspire women everywhere to pursue careers in science and mathematics," the actress notes.
Another favorite part of Jessica Chastain's preparation was donning Oculus 3D glasses and experiencing panoramic images of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover. 'It made it feel as if I were actually there," she says.
The Curiosity rover served as the model for the Rover in The Martian, although the latter is even larger and more stylized. Based on designs by Arthur Max and overseen by Oliver Hodge, the six-wheeled, high-clearance Rover features a trapezoidal cab and chassis built by Szalay Dakar, a Hungarian outfit that builds racecars for the grueling Dakar Rally.
Two full-scale versions of the Rover were made by a team of 22 crew technicians, along with the 15 members of Szalay. Essentially a very advanced all-terrain agricultural vehicle, the Rover is equipped with huge industrial tires designed to travel rough, rocky landscapes. The design includes hydraulic gull-wing doors and running gear, and a two-liter diesel engine, although the exterior is dressed with solar panels to make it appear as though it runs on solar energy.
Says vehicle FX technician Glenn Marsh: 'The solar powered engine plays an important role in the story, as it limits the vehicle's operation to 40 kilometers at a time. This poses yet another challenge to Mark Watney when he has to make an epic journey to get to his point of departure for a possible rescue attempt."
The panels and hatches on the Rover were designed for quick and easy removal to facilitate the insertion of 4K cameras on spigots, which capture Watney's communication with NASA, and provide interior images of him driving the vehicle.
As Marsh mentions, the Rover was designed to travel over rough terrain, and was put through its paces in a Hungarian quarry prior to filming in Jordan.
Before that, the Rover was used in several scenes shot on the Stage 6 Martian landscape. Four thousand tons of soil and other materials went into creating a topographical palette that would match that of Jordan's Wadi Rum desert. Arthur Max notes that Wadi Rum is uncannily similar to Mars in its reddish orange hues, and that the goal is to achieve a seamless integration of the stage and location visuals.
Greensman Roger Holden mixed three types of Hungarian soil by machine and by hand to find just the right color. And while the surface of the Martian set was being perfected over a period of two months, Holden was also growing the potatoes that Watney raises and tends to in the Hab. Holden grew half-cut potatoes following the same procedures seen in the film.
'We built a nursery at the studio with a completely artificial environment, including lighting, heating, and fertilizing," Greensman Roger Holden says. 'Our fertilization process was, however, far less challenging than Watney's." Altogether, Holden grew some 1,200 potatoes, at an average of about eight spuds per plant.
Surrounding Greensman Roger Holden's well-tended Martian landscape on Stage 6 was perhaps the largest greenscreen ever assembled. Measuring 312 feet in length and 65 feet in height, it encompassed about 21,000 square feet of greenscreen surface. Visual effects supervisor Matt Sloan explains, 'Ridley likes a lot of scope, and we have a full 360 degrees of backdrop on this stage, where we can add plate shots from Wadi Rum, as well as above-the-horizon sky and moons."
To help match the stage shots with subsequent shooting in Jordan, Sloan and his team studied solar path charts in Wadi Rum so that he and director of photography Dariusz Wolski, ASC would always know the proper lighting direction. Wolski employed a mounted portable key light source that extended upward up to 65 feet, allowing him to match the appropriate angle of the sun.
Both the camera and VFX departments utilized an innovative visual reference tool that projects onto a portable screen the precise background that will be seen from any particular shot, which helps enormously in framing. Says Sloan: 'If Ridley or Dariusz wanted to widen or extend a shot on the soundstage onto the greenscreen, they could see exactly what VFX elements will exist in the shot, as well as what particular landscape features in Jordan will be visible from that angle, such as bushes, rock formations, small sand dunes, etc."
Alone On 'Mars"
Sitting among the rocks and dirt on Stage 6, Matt Damon is about to complete the final days of shooting at Korda. It's late February, and every other cast member wrapped two weeks ago. 'It's just been me and Ridley Scott on Mars," Matt Damon jokes.
The unusual dynamic of working alone in nearly all of his scenes was a new experience for Matt Damon, who comments, 'This movie is essentially three separate but connected storylines. Watney is a Robinson Crusoe figure. I really like the character and admire the way the story celebrates the courage and ingenuity of these astronauts. As Drew (Goddard) said to me, it's a love letter to science."
Working in the gravitational orbit of Ridley Scott was another irresistible lure for Matt Damon, who says Ridley Scott has elicited performances from actors that are 'too good to be an accident. He's willing to break a rule if it buys a bigger emotional connection from the audience. He paints on a much bigger canvas than most people, and it's exciting to do things on that scale."
Matt Damon mentions that Ridley Scott essentially had the movie in his head before shooting began, so was able to walk him though specific camera shots, coverage and setups. 'He allows his actors to see the movie as he envisions it, which is incredibly useful for performance."
Throughout nearly five weeks of solo acting, Matt Damon had been asked to not only carry the story but at times a substantial amount of astronaut gear on his back. His unfailing high spirits and good humor buoyed the entire crew during some intense and strenuous moments.
Through much of shooting he says his mind would reflect on the touching lengths that people go to save Mark Watney.
'He represents more than just one life. He embodies humanity's pioneering instincts and our hopes for the future. It's been a privilege to play this character."
Release Date: October 1st, 2015