Matt Damon is Stranded on Our Set Visit to Ridley Scott’s The Martian

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Matt Damon is Stranded on Our Set Visit to Ridley Scott's The Martian

“Biggest movie I’ve ever been on.” -Matt Damon 

It’s a foggy December morning at Budapest’s Korda Studios, and now we know why: Ridley Scott is making a movie here. On one of the world’s largest soundstages the legendary director of Alien, Blade Runner and, yes, Legend is currently lensing a new science fiction film titled The Martian, and as we step inside we’re greeted by a fogbank. On video assist the planet is enshrouded in fog. Does Mars even have fog?

The ground in this vast studio space is covered with red sand, about four thousand tons of the stuff. There are a few rocks and a wind machine pumping dust at the actors. There is a tall communications satellite near the NASA habitat set. The scene is illuminated by big lighting balloons.

Ridley mostly stays put in the video village tent and directs remotely, his performance notes piped into the actors’ helmets like the voice of God, coming outside occasionally to pow wow with cast and crew. They’re here at Korda instead of Scott’s typical stomping grounds in England partly because of lack of soundstage space due to other big blockbusters like Star Wars.

Right now, four of the astronauts are filming a scene in high tech space suits that look very similar to those in Scott’s 2012 blockbuster Prometheus: Jessica Chastain (Interstellar), Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Kate Mara (Fantastic Four) and Aksel Hennie (Hercules). They’ve just come out of the habitat through a tunnel and into a dust storm, somehow pushing their way through this insane weather. There’s a random moving red light in the background, which represents the beacon of their shuttle where Michael Peña’s character Rick Martinez waits to pilot them to safety. Most pressing, they have just lost their botanist Mark Watney, played by leading man Matt Damon.

“Watch out! What happened? Report! How long can he survive decompression?” says Chastain into her helmet intercom. 

This is a key moment that will set the plot of The Martian forward, ultimately leading to the rest of the crew abandoning Damon’s character on the planet after he’s (wrongly) presumed dead. By the time the crew realizes their mistake, they are YEARS away from a u-turn to pick their castaway back up.

“It’s not this sort of existential movie about desolation,” Damon says of The Martian. “This character is this incredibly resourceful, optimistic person who doesn’t bother whining about things, he just tries to figure out, ‘What’s the next problem?’ He’s on the very edge of death the whole time. If the oxygen tank breaks, he’s gonna die. If the water re-claimer breaks, he’s gonna die of thirst. If there’s a breach in the hatch, he’s gonna implode. If all that works, he’s gonna starve to death. There’s so many things to do that his days are full. The writer of the book, Andy Weir, is a scientist so he let the science dictate. ‘What would happen if this were me?’ It was like a thought exercise. It’s a very smart person procedurally doing what they need to do to stay alive on mars. Hopefully people want to see that! (laughs)” Martian2

Ridley has three angles going all at once: A wide shot, medium and close-up, all on Kate. He uses multiple cameras to avoid extensive retakes while still getting the required coverage. There are also Go-Pros on set, in helmets and other places. 

“I don’t know where he is, I can’t see anything,” Kate shouts.

Jessica Chasten, who is very energetic and laughs heartily between takes, lets out a yelp as soon as the simulated debris hits her helmet. What is the dust made out of? Vermiculite, a lightweight material almost sponge-like to the touch that is not harmful when being whipped at the cast, but is making life hell inside their helmets. A lot of the crew members are wearing face masks and goggles. Even Ridley has a little cloth mask. After a take, Jessica complains of air coming into her suit.

“Did you guys see the thing where it was either rocks inside the helmet or not breathing?” laughs Chastain once she’s out of her bubble helmet in our nicely lit, non-foggy conference room. “There’s air that comes into the suit, but in order for it to come in you have the vents on the side to circulate, but rocks go in and it’s like a whirlwind inside where your face is. So we closed up all the vents so there was no air. It’s a different experience for me!”

“Obviously you can’t make everything work perfectly,” Mara also says of the suits, which were a problem point on the set of Scott’s last space epic Prometheus as well. “We need to be able to take the helmets off quickly and put them on. They’re lit perfectly, which is insane, but because of that we have problems with all the dust and everything getting in our eyes, not being able to breathe. There’s a lot of panic involved when you can’t breathe, when you can’t see but you’re trying to stay in it, but that’s all sort of helping with the scene. We can only hear each other. At first it’s a little jarring, but it helps you stay in the zone.”

Don’t mistake Jessica’s mild grumbling for lack of commitment, as the two-time Oscar nominee was the only member of the cast to actually travel to the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the Space Center in Houston for several days in order to immerse herself in all things astronaut.

“To be honest I didn’t really understand the difference between JPL and Houston,” Chastain admits. “I thought NASA was just one big thing, which they’re very quick to tell you is not the case. I learned all about the unmanned missions, so the Curiosity rover, got to do virtual reality where it felt like I was actually walking on Mars based on pictures Curiosity had taken, and I got to shadow people. Then I went to Houston and worked with this astronaut named Tracy and got to work through everything, including a mock-up of the space station. I asked about food, if every once in awhile you get a packet with M&Ms in it, things that make you feel connected to a world. Then I asked silly questions like, ‘Do you wear jewelry?’ I’m wearing a wedding ring.”

“I play Chris Beck, he’s a doctor which is kind of funny for me to think I would ever be a doctor,” Stan exclaims. “I don’t know if anyone should eve trust me with their life, to be honest. These are all very specifically trained astronauts, and my character’s background is in medicine but they all sort of trade off different tasks throughout the day. Cover all the bases.”

Martian3“I play Beth Johanssen,” says Mara. “She’s basically the hacker of the group. She’s much smarter than I am. They’re all the brains of the operation, but she’s definitely the computer whiz of the group. I really knew nothing of NASA or space, so I’ve been trying every day to go on their website and read about women in space and the history there. I know NASA’s really involved and supportive of the whole thing.”

“Right now a little less than 10% of astronauts are women, and on our crew there are six of us and two are women, so already the odds are better for women in the future,” Chastain beams. “My character Melissa Lewis is the commander of the mission, which is already pretty extraordinary. She has a military background. They’re the first mission to be on Mars and collect the samples. Having to leave early is a decision she doesn’t want to make, but she makes it because she is in charge of everyone’s life and they’re trying to get her to stay. They leave Mars thinking Watney’s dead, and there’s a huge sense of guilt there. Ridley has changed some aspects of the screenplay from the novel to give her more of an arc, which I’m very appreciative of.”

Damon says of Ridley Scott, “He reminds me already of Soderbergh or Spielberg in the way they’re cutting the movie as they go. You can’t get lost as an actor, you know the movie that you’re in at all times. There’s no hocus pocus, there’s no, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll know in a few months.’ He’ll tell you exactly what this shot is and what the next shot’s going to be, he gives you the storyboard so you can flip through it like a comic book. In terms of graphing where you’re at he makes it a lot easier.”

As Damon goes on to explain, his first teaming with Scott almost didn’t happen, as the screenwriter of The Martian, Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), was originally slated to take the director’s chair.

“The first iteration of this was with Drew Goddard, so I met and talked to him,” Damon remembers. “He described it as a love letter to science. I was just about to make the decision to go with this newer director, I really got along with him so I was gonna do it. Suddenly he got ‘Sinister Six’ and was just like, ‘This is my dream!’ He’s a comic book guy so he took that and I figured this movie was dead. Then I got the call from Ridley, and I’d never met him even in passing. I went in to meet him and the first thing I said was, ‘I love this script but I just did ‘Interstellar’ playing a dude stranded on a planet.’ (laughs) I explained that movie to him and he was like, ‘The movies are totally f**kin’ different, this is gonna be f**kin’ fun, let’s do this!’ I couldn’t really say no.”

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The shoot schedule will last around 70 days. It’s day 3 with this cast, although Ridley has already shot all his NASA command center scenes, which include actors Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Donald Glover. Ridley came onto the project in March, so only seven months prior to this shooting day. As a result, there’s a certain rushed element to much of this production, as we would learn during a tour of the set given by Scott’s longtime production designer Arthur Max.

Inside Max’s production art room we see computer paintings of several key sets: Habitat, Mars Ascent Vehicle, Escape Capsule, Landing Capsule, Airlocks, NASA, Rover Test Garage, JPL Office, Astronaut Training Classroom and all the astronaut houses. We see images of Watney injured/wounded after the storm has passed. His eyes open, he rises and walks, grips an antenna and approaches the airlock.

Martian4There is also art of another rocket Watney will need to escape Mars in order to be rescued by The Hermes, a massive ship with big solar panels and a hoop-shaped middle (a gravity wheel). It houses a nuclear reactor to power its atomic pulse engine, as well as required radiation shielding. It is more-than-slightly inspired by the ship from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“This is a different situation where this film is in the future where we create gravity, usually when we’re flying,” Chastain confirms. “There will be times when we don’t have gravity, but most of the living habitat will have gravity.”

Max then takes us to the hydroponic potato habitat, which is how Matt’s character will sustain himself over his extended stay at casa del Mars. From seedling to maturity these potatoes need at least 6 weeks, and they’re currently racing against the clock to match up with the production’s speedy schedule. On the wall of this botanical wonderland are Ridleygrams (the nickname for Scott’s hand-drawn storyboards) which depict Matt’s character lifting boxes of soil into a machine inside an airlock, surrounded by compost bins and manure. He’s drawn using surgical gloves.

Inside a large garage space is the Mars Rover. The rover actually drives. It has a multi-plane trapezoid cab, BIG tires, solar panels, etc. Like the space suits, audiences will probably be reminded of the transport vehicles from Prometheus, which makes sense since it’s based on an actual discarded design from that film, although the color scheme is all NASA.

There are two vehicles, one of which is destroyed in the storm and cannibalized by Matt’s character to build a super-rover to take him on a journey across Mars. Max shows us a video of the full-size vehicle (set to a Chemical Brothers soundtrack) going 30 mph, and it is impressive. This super-rover design has a crane on it as well as a communication device, utilizing similar details as previous Mars rovers. Watney will need this vehicle not only to transmit crucial information to NASA but to travel an immense distance across the planet to get to a cache of supplies that have been sent.

Off in the welding room/heavy engineering workshop in the background we hear them building the airlock, where there will be a decompression explosion at some point. One gets the sense that a great deal of The Martian‘s production is laying down tracks in front of the train as it’s moving, so to speak.

Finally, in a film geek moment, we enter Ridley Scott’s actual office, which has pictures from the Jordan location mounted on the wall. They will be picking up stakes and moving the crew to Jordan next because its deserts match the color of Mars. There are Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings posters up as well, along with pictures of Scott’s four dogs. A script with heavy notation rests on his desk.

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The frenzied production pace glimpsed here will not end once shooting has wrapped. Gravity, the film The Martian will no doubt be most compared to, had two years to complete post-production, whereas Scott and his team will only have nine months to get the job done.

On set, a visual effects supervisor holds up a geometric cube with colors on its corners. Little purple lights on the actor’s backpacks are turned on. The feed from the Red Dragon cameras on set show that the five actors, including Damon, are now connected to wires designed to simulate wind tension without having them fall over. These wires will be removed in post.

Fifty pages of the script were shot in the weeks before Damon came to set, and now we finally see the movie star in action, getting walloped by wind and (to be added later) copious debris. He looks slightly distressed but brave in the face of mounting obstacles… much like the cast and crew of The Martian. Hopefully, with a little luck and a lot of ingenuity, both the character Mark Watney and the filmmakers led by Ridley Scott will emerge victorious.

“There’s a similar story to films that we all love, like Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’ or Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away,'” Chastain opines of the movie. “There’s a character that is lost at sea and trying to find their way back home. For all of us in some part of our imaginations we can imagine being lost somewhere and trying to get back.”

“One of the biggest differences between this and ‘Gravity’ is it’s primarily me on my own for a lot of it and that’s the big challenge,” Damon insists. “It’s got all the bells and whistles of NASA and the B-side of the story is the whole rest of the world trying to get this guy back. The other half of the movie is me and Ridley on Mars.”

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