Drew Goddard Writes Life on Mars by Focusing on Character

Oct 1, 2015 | Interviews

Nominated for an Emmy for his work writing and producing Lost, Drew Goddard has also written great genre films like World War Z and The Cabin in the Woods, the latter of which he also directed. We sat down with him to find out what making an epic space opera was like.

According to Goddard, The Martian should never have been made as a big, Hollywood blockbuster – it just had too much going against it. Lucky for us, the story about a lonely human abandoned on the red planet beat the odds and got made.

Goddard says the producers found The Martian when it was only an eBook, being published one chapter a month on author Andy Weir’s website. “When I read it, I thought, this is special, this one feels unique. I was attracted to it because of my love for science and the optimism of it. Then I had to go to the studio and say, ‘I want you to give me millions and millions of dollars to make a movie based on a blog.’ But to their credit they did.”

Originally, Goddard was slated to direct the film as well, not just write the screenplay. But a positive turn of events happened when three other projects he was committed to directing all got the green light at the same time. Goddard admits that kind of situation is pretty rare.  “I had to make some hard decisions.  Fox and I sat down and they said, ‘Listen, we don’t want to wait. It just feels like this movie is special and it feels very current.’  If we pushed it two years because of my schedule, we’re going to get into trouble. I could see that happening, especially given how complicated The Martian was to make.”

Number one on both Goddard and Fox’s list of possible directors was Ridley Scott. “We sent it to him and he said yes that night. Suddenly a hard decision got real easy.”

In terms of adapting the blog/book into a Hollywood movie, Goddard says that the property already had a great structure. “It sort of laid out nicely into three acts in my mind. It was less about inventing new things and more about protecting what’s there and realizing the book, itself.”

With a book chock full of great story, Goddard says the biggest challenge was trying to figure out what to cut. “If I put every scene I loved from the book into the movie, it would be about eight hours long.” The one thing he really wishes he could have included in the screenplay, however, was a sequence in the third act. “It’s when Mark Watney has left the HAB and he’s traveling toward the MAV. That part of the book is about 100 pages long. It gets really existential and beautiful but it was just hard. At that point in the movie though, we really wanted to get going.”

As any good screenwriter knows, the third act of a screenplay is about taking action.

“The good news is that Ridley does a really great job telling it in imagery. We had to lose the plot but I don’t think we lost the soul. He lets his camera do the work. That part of the book I found delightful, but there were some twists and turns in that section we just couldn’t keep.”

Instead of focusing on what life on the Mars might be like, Goddard said he mostly focused on character. “For me, it’s always about the characters, especially once Ridley got involved. I knew he’d make it look beautiful and real. It’s funny, when I watch the movie, I forget sometimes that we didn’t actually shoot it on Mars – that’s how much those vistas speak to me.”

The desert location used for the Mars landscape was actually Wadi Rum in Jordan.

Goddard says he did enjoy visiting the set in Budapest, Hungary, where all the indoor locations were shot, but admits he was only there for fun. “Ridley really didn’t need me there. He was pretty happy with the script before shooting, so there weren’t really a lot of problems to solve.”

Getting to watch Ridley Scott work was a real joy for Goddard, but there were two main things he took away from the experience. The first was preparation. “I’ve never seen a director prepare as much as Ridley. He really does not like leaving things to chance. Everyone knows exactly what they’re doing way before they get to set.”

The second lesson had to do with how Scott worked with his actors. “I was shocked how protective he was with his actors. He was constantly worried about making sure they had everything they needed for the scene. I sort of had this idea of Ridley as this cold task-master before I met him, but he’s so warm, protective and caring. It was fun to see him in action looking out for the actors.”

According to Goddard, having Matt Damon play Watney was a revelation. He claims he worried that the character would seem overly optimistic, even a Pollyanna. “We live in cynical times and Matt grounds the character in a way that makes it feel human and real, and not too sweet, I suppose. The struggle to survive is an optimistic struggle, not a pessimistic one, because the fact is, we’re all going to fail at it. We’re all going to die sooner or later, but we keep trying.”

In terms of advice for any writers trying to break into the sci-fi genre, Goddard said, “Whatever it is about sci-fi you love, lean into that. Don’t worry if your story is commercial or not. There was nothing less commercial at the time we started The Martian. For instance, Mars was notorious to being home for box office bombs. This was about a man by himself, farming in his own feces. That shouldn’t have worked, but we loved it. I think that’s the lesson I keep learning over and over, don’t worry about anything other than what you love and try to put that on the screen.”

The Martian was written on Final Draft.