The Martian, a science-fiction movie, isn’t about mind-bending quantum cosmology or the intergalactic origins of human life. Nor does it reference this week’s revelation that NASA has strong proof it has discovered water on the red planet. There are no bureaucrats or chief executives with hidden agendas who could sabotage a space mission. There’s no backstory about parental issues between a wistful astronaut and a child peering into the night sky.Instead, The Martian is the story of an enterprising scientist who is stranded on a planet and must use his wits and limited resources to survive and be rescued. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott, is based on a book that Andy Weir, then a computer programmer, published chapter-by-chapter on the web.
“No one would ever accuse The Martian of being literature,” says Weir of his book. “I’ll be the first to admit it. There is very little character depth at all. There’s no character growth. It’s a story about events, not people.”
In the film, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a crew sent to Mars. (Other members are Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara.) A storm hits and Watney is struck by debris that appears to kill him. The crew reluctantly aborts and blasts off. Then Watney wakes up amid the rusty red dust of Mars and wonders where everybody went. The NASA brass in Houston (boss Jeff Daniels and scientist Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrange a funeral — there’s no grieving family — before receiving word from Watney that he isn’t dead after all.
The driving force of the film is Watney’s Popular Mechanics-style approach to surviving on Mars for almost two years. He measures, calculates, builds, experiments and blows thing up. He adapts communications devices and mulches Mars dirt with his own waste to create soil for growing food. He’s like the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters guys in space, joking darkly, with little time for brooding about his plight.
Six years ago, Weir was a programmer working on mobile apps who had gained a modest following for the comics and sci-fi stories he published as a hobby on his website. A space nerd, he plotted missions in his head and wrote software to calculate orbital trajectories. He figured a Mars mission gone awry would make a thrilling tale, which he started posting online in 2009. The science, he says, became the drama.
But I didn’t know anyone in aerospace, so I was on my own. I googled a lot.”
Fans encouraged him to compile the tale into a downloadable e-book, then a US99c Kindle book in 2012. Soon it was selling tens of thousands of copies and appearing in Amazon’s
“I’d do a chapter maybe once every two months,” he says. “I knew more about space than a layman because it’s my hobby. I’ve watched many documentaries about it. But I didn’t “you might also like” recommendations. A literary agent called about publishing it in hardcover, and Hollywood producers and studios circled.
“Because it was a self-published e-book at the time, it wasn’t wildly expensive to get the rights,” says Simon Kinberg, a producer (Cinderella and Fantastic Four) and writer (Sherlock Holmes) whose company took the project to Twentieth Century Fox. (Fox parent 21st Century Fox and The Australian’s owner News Corp were part of the same company until mid-2013.)
Editors at Random House helped Weir tweak the ending of his novel, which became a bestseller. Drew Goddard, who co-wrote and directed the horror spoof The Cabin in the Woods, was brought in to adapt a screenplay and direct The Martian.
Goddard says he saw in Weir’s Mark Watney character the sort of real-life scientist he knew growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a town filled with researchers at the national laboratory.
“Scientists are much more casual, laidback and brilliant people than they’re usually portrayed [as] on film. They’re sort of like, ‘We’re gonna solve the problem or we’re gonna blow ourselves up. But both of those things will lead us toward the greater goal,’ ” Goddard says. “Before they hired me to adapt it, I went into Fox and I said, ‘If you want a movie that’s not based in the science, I genuinely don’t know how to give you that.’ If you strip the science out of The Martian, I don’t know what the movie is. I wanted to meet it head on.”
The Martian got a boost when Damon came on board to play the wisecracking Watney. He had starred in Elysium, which Kinberg produced. When Goddard left to direct another project, Ridley Scott, whose sci-fi portfolio includes Alien and Blade Runner, stepped in.
Weir is pleased by what the filmmakers didn’t add.
“I’m really glad they didn’t put in a love plot,” he says. Two minor crew members flirt, but Watney is strictly about the science. There’s also no villain, apart from the cold and uncaring universe.
“The antagonist in the movie is circumstance,” Goddard says. “One thing in Hollywood that’s hard is the amount of energy coming up with bad guys and bad-guy plans.” It was refreshing not to have to do so, he says. (His other projects at the time were the Daredevil television show and a Spider-Man movie called The Sinister Six.)
Weir, now 43, continued working as a programmer while the movie and book deals were happening. He quit his day job about 1½ years ago. “Typing away in my cubicle. I’m fixing bugs, taking a call to talk about my movie deal, going back to fixing bugs,” he recalls.
“The two deals came together four days apart. That was an eventful week. I had to take a day off to lie down.”
As the film went into production he received updates, photos, and videos from afar, like the NASA team in his story. He never went to the set in Hungary or Jordan.
“They invited me, but I didn’t go,” he admits. “I’m afraid of flying.”
By Don Steinberg
With many thanks to The Australian
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