20th Century Fox’s sci-fi film The Martian was a surprise hit at this year’s box office, bringing in over $488 million worldwide so far in its theatrical outing. People might point to the fact that The Martian was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Matt Damon to account for the film’s success, but I’d point right back to Scott’s Prometheus and Damon’s Elysium, two films that had a similar budget to The Martian but only a fraction of the ticket sales. So while its financial success came as a surprise, the bigger shock was that the film got made at all.
THR recently spoke with screenwriter Drew Goddard, who adapted Andy Weir’s story for The Martian, who readily admits that the picture probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, so to speak, if it weren’t for Damon signing on. With no disrespect to Duncan Jones or Sam Rockwell, The Martian might have ended up with as barren a box office as Moon were it not for Damon’s star-power. It sounds like one of those rare cases where everything came together just right behind the scenes, a serendipity that then played out on screen.
Here’s what Goddard said about Damon when he was asked about casting:
In general, I don’t when I’m writing because I like to just think about the characters. But once we got the first draft done, then real casting discussions started, and Matt Damon was always at the top of our list. Honestly, if he hadn’t said yes, I don’t know what we would have done. We may not have had a movie, quite frankly.
Damon certainly formed the core of the story as astronaut/botanist Mark Watney who was stranded on Mars after a powerful storm forced his team to make an emergency departure. Tom Hanks earned an Oscar nomination for his own performance as a man forced to survive on a deserted island in 2000’s Cast Away, and his character had ready access to breathable atmosphere. Then again, Damon’s Watney doesn’t quite delve as deeply into despair and psychological trauma as Hanks’ Chuck Noland did; perhaps this is why The Martian is being entered as a Comedy for the Golden Globes, but it could be just enough to at least earn an Oscar nomination.
Goddard, too, might find himself in Oscar contention for his screenwriting work which spun Weir’s science-filled collection of blog entries into a 144-minute thriller that sees Damon as a Martian MacGyver while the techies back at NASA attempt to troubleshoot for him. Here’s what Goddard had to say about his first interaction with Weir and his first crack at the script:
“A lot. I talked to him early on to just tell him how much I loved the book and how much I loved his writing. And to let him know I didn’t want to do this without his blessing and his involvement. Then I said, “Now, having said all that, I think the best thing to do is I should go in my cave and write this first draft. I’m going to do everything I can to protect this book, but there’s going to be a part of making the sausage that’s not going to be fun for you as an author.
As I was writing it, I was calling him constantly with science questions and logic questions because he’s a genius, and I’m pretty dim when it comes to the science. Those conversations were the best because he had not quit his job yet; he was still working as a computer programmer. He was still doing that even after Matt Damon had signed on. I kept saying, “Andy, I promise you, you can quit now.”
THR’s write-up with Goddard has much more on his process of adapting Weir’s book and making the film affordable for the producers, but, in my humble opinion, the more interesting story is Weir’s perseverance well before he received Goddard’s comforting advice. THR also reports on the process of Weir’s story turning into one of the year’s biggest surprise hits. What debuted in the 12th spot on the New York Times hardcover fiction list, stayed atop Amazon’s digital list, and has remained on the New York Times paperback fiction best-sellers list for over a year actually started as a series of free entries on the unrepresented writer’s blog.
Weir decided to take a crack at writing after AOL laid him off from his computer programming job, though success did not come immediately:
“It was the standard story of woe that you get from any author. I couldn’t get an agent, no publishers were interested. So after three years, I went back into computer programming, and I decided writing would just be a hobby.”
Then, after spending three years researching the science behind his story of an astronaut stranded on Mars, The Martian developed a fan following, which necessitated a self-published version of the collected works on Amazon. This led to a Random House call and a six-figure deal for the book, followed by the movie deal with Fox for the film adaptation. That’s certainly not the standard story for struggling writers out there, but it is most definitely an inspiring one. So the next time you’re feeling like giving up on your own project, remember The Martian.