Life Goes On: Drew Goddard on The Martian
Drew Goddard discusses the challenges of adapting a scientifically-detailed novel, what he loves about collaborating with others on screenwriting, and why something that seems like a setback might be the best possible thing to happen to a film.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Drew Goddard’s career as a screenwriter started in television, where he worked with Joss Whedon as a staff writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He later joined J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, working as a staff writer on Alias and Lost. In time, Goddard’s collaborations with Abrams and Whedon extended beyond television. Goddard’s first produced film screenplay, the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield, was produced by Abrams, and Goddard co-wrote his directorial debut, the critically acclaimed 2012 horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, with Whedon. In addition, Goddard was hired to rewrite much of the screenplay for the 2013 Brad Pitt zombie movie World War Z with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof midway through the film’s shooting schedule.
Though The Martian is Goddard’s first produced screenplay since his contributions to World War Z, he has been involved with two projects that have yet to be realized. Goddard adapted the 2011 sci-fi novel Robopocalypse for Steven Spielberg to direct, but Spielberg shelved the project to direct other movies. Goddard was also selected by Sony to write and direct the Spider-Man spinoff movie The Sinister Six, but that project was also put on hold once Sony decided to reboot the Spider-Man franchise in conjunction with Marvel Studios. In the meantime, Goddard wrote episodes of the well-received Daredevil Netflix series for Marvel Studios.
Goddard adapted The Martian from the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, who initially serialized The Martian for free on his website before accepting a publishing deal. In the near future, a group of astronauts conducting experiments on Mars discover that because of an approaching storm they have to abandon their base on the planet. During the storm, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is thought to have been killed by debris and Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the decision to leave the planet. However, Watney has survived, and despite being the only lifeform on Mars he is determined to stay alive until the next Mars mission arrives in four years. When NASA discovers that Watney is alive, they frantically work on a way to bring him home as soon as possible. Mixing elements of a survival thriller and a surprising amount of comedy, The Martian screenplay has won several nominations and awards, including the National Board of Review Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Goddard about the challenges of adapting a scientifically-detailed novel, what he loves about collaborating with others on screenwriting, and why something that seems like a setback might be the best possible thing to happen to a film.
The first act of The Martian is dominated by scenes featuring Watney on his own, and you had to balance periods of silence and Watney’s narration. Obviously there are limits to what a character can say in narration before it comes off as too wordy or too technical, especially in this movie. What was the biggest challenge with writing that act?
I think it’s exactly what you’re saying. You want to make sure there’s a reason for any time he’s talking to the camera and that’s challenging. But that was the rules we set out for ourselves. We didn’t want it to just be “Here I am to explain the movie to the audience,” which is a trap you can fall into with narration. It was much more about the scientific experiments that is the Ares mission and Mark Watney’s decision to say “You know, even though I’m stuck here I’m going to continue my work.” In that case his work was documenting how he’s trying to survive so that once they found him they would understand what happened. That’s what sets up the prism in which we’re viewing the whole movie. Once you do that, it allows you to open up outward and get more existential in the back half of the movie. That was the challenge – committing to our structure.
On Mars, The Martian is a “Man vs. Nature” survival story, albeit in a very different natural setting. However, on Earth the narrative is more “Man vs. Public Relations.” Teddy Sanders has a great line – “Every time something goes wrong, the world forgets why we fly” that really highlights why Watney’s survival is such a hurdle for NASA. Could you talk about writing the PR conflict?
One of the things I liked that Andy showed in the book was the human side of science. He shows that NASA is a company and has to worry about things like budgets and PR, and that’s not something you normally have to think about in space movies [Laughs]. I really wanted to show these people as being human beings in the struggles they have to go through to get to the idealistic place that we get to in the movie. So what would the problems be? When there’s an accident, that’s all people focus on and then people question the entire reason for having this program. I felt it was important to raise that question early in the movie so we could spend the rest of the movie answering that question.
What sets The Martian apart from similar “survival” stories is Watney’s confident attitude. Although there are scenes where he doubts his ability to survive, his “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this” attitude carries the film. How important was this attitude in making the audience connect with Watney?
It was certainly one of the things that attracted me to the book right away. The optimism in the face of despair felt special, like something I hadn’t quite seen before. The despair is there, but we’re just not overtly talking about it. The hope was always that the audience would start to see that his optimism is what’s keeping him alive because if he allowed fear and despair to creep in it would be overwhelming. It is a desperate situation and he’s using humor to save himself. Matt did a beautiful job of finding that balance and letting the quiet moments tell that side of the story.
I think you have to step back when you’re looking at a screenplay and ask, “Well, what is this really about?” The optimism in the face of despair is such a key part of the soul of the movie, not just for Watney but for everyone. Refusing to give in to despair becomes bigger than Matt Damon making jokes. It becomes the point of why we’re here.
Another scene that stuck out to me is when Martinez writes the crew’s first message to Watney. It would be very easy to make that melodramatic considering the circumstances. However, Martinez jumps right into goofing on Watney. Why was that tone important?
I feel like that’s just how I am with my closest friends. Whenever we’re in a particularly bad situation you tend to seek normalcy. You try to treat people the way they’re used to be treated in a way of saying that everything is going to be okay. I think I get that from my dad, who’s a doctor. If you watch doctors, they very rarely say, “Oh God, you’re going to die.” They usually walk in and tell you a joke. They try to calm you down and make you feel like everything is going to be okay. I think what’s really happening in that scene is that Martinez is telling his friend, “Hey, we got you,” and Watney is telling his friends, “Hey, I’m going to be okay.” The two of them are actually saying those things without overtly saying them.
Watney and Lewis clearly have a strong bond even though the characters only share two scenes together at the beginning of the film and at the end. Why was it so important to establish their friendship?
Honestly, it was one of the things that attracted me to the project – showing a friendship and mutual respect for one another through their actions rather than their words. Giving them the moment together at the end was one of the things we changed from the book because it felt like the movie was building toward this idea of her catching him at the end. It wasn’t really challenging in that sense, it was more exciting. The challenge was not allowing it to veer into romance [Laughs]. That is everyone’s go-to place, “Well, we’ll make them in love.” We really didn’t want to do that; we really wanted them to be colleagues who care about each other. It felt more appropriate for this movie.
Especially because it’s a female character and a male character other movies would go right for romance.
I think that’s right. It’s not that I don’t like love stories, but it just felt like for this movie if we made it about a love story then the whole movie would be just about that. It would be about saving somebody for love. That theme would overpower the rest of the movie. As Andy is fond of saying, “You don’t have to be in love with someone to want to save their life.”
Another one of your additions to the narrative is the film’s ending and credits sequences, which depict a “life goes on” message for the principal characters and the space program. Why did you decide to add this?
It was one of those things that just happened over the course of writing it. We were never quite sure exactly what we wanted to end on when we were outlining, but I always feel that the right ending will reveal itself to you as you’re writing.
Somewhere in the middle I really started to care about the characters in a way that you can only really care about them once you’re in the middle of a script. I just wanted to see what happened to them. That’s really where it came from because there’s something that’s lovely thematically about the machine rolling along. Plus, they talk so much about the next Ares mission in the movie it just felt logical to me to show the next one and show people continuing their jobs.
It fit the theme of taking another step and going a little further each time, which is the basic idea of what they’re trying to do scientifically. It just felt right, and sometimes it’s not an intellectual thing it’s your gut reaction to what you’re working on.
You came up as a writer through writing for television, so you’re used to collaborating with others. You were in contact with Andy Weir while adapting his novel, and obviously Ridley Scott had his own thoughts on the screenplay during production. Do you feel more comfortable writing when it involves collaborating with others?
Yeah, certainly. I believe if you’re not interested in collaborating, you should pick a different career. The nature of screenwriting is collaboration. I suppose there are times people write a script, send it to the world, and then never do anything else, though I have not seen it work. Usually even then somebody is handling scripting duties and problems that happen on set.
Writing can be so solitary, which I also like, but you shift gears and get into the trenches and deal with people whose work you admire. Quite frankly, that’s the most exciting part. When it’s Ridley Scott, collaboration is easy because I just revere him. Every day I would just look around and think, “Is that really Ridley Scott sitting there at the table? This is exciting!” [Laughs]. That’s the fun part of the job.
You’ve said Scott’s Blade Runner is one of your favorite movies. What are some of your favorite screenplays?
Miller’s Crossing is an extraordinary screenplay, and it’s one of those screenplays that every time I read it or watch the movie again I find new things to love every single time. Really, we could put every screenplay that the Coen brothers have.
I learn more about writing from studying David Chase than anyone. I look at those Sopranos scripts and they’re just a master class in screenwriting. I go back to those over and over. Also, John Logan, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon are the writers right now that I look around and say “These guys are playing with a whole different deck of cards.” [Laughs]
You’ve been credited as the writer who “saved” World War Z when you and Damon Lindelof rewrote much of the film while it was filming. You stepped into a unique situation with that film. What was the biggest challenge there?
Well, I’m uncomfortable being credited as someone who saved anything, but at the end of the day I was very lucky I got to come in with my good friend Damon Lindelof and we got to help.
You show up, you give your opinion, try to be helpful, and try to make movies better. It’s really fun in that regard, especially if you weren’t there in the beginning. You have fresh eyes and you don’t have the emotional baggage that you have after working on a project for years. Sometimes it’s good to just drop in and say, “Have you thought about this?” Usually people are very excited to see you in those situations.
To me the big lesson of World War Z was that Paramount, Plan B and Brad Pitt simply said, “Let’s take the time to make this movie the best version of the movie before we put it on the screen for audience.” That doesn’t happen a lot. A lot of times they just throw the movie out there and say, “We’ll make all our money opening weekend and then the movie will go away.”
I came away from it thinking, “Why don’t we do this on more movies?” [Laughs] It’s really hard, but if you can take the time to stop and step back for a second it can really help the quality of a movie.
You mentioned dropping in on a script with a pair of fresh eyes. Can you give an example of when someone dropped in on one of your scripts with a pair of fresh eyes that helped you?
It happens all the time. I’ve got a great crew. Simon Kinberg, who was a producer on The Martian and is also one of the best screenwriters I know, gave me invaluable insight. I show everything I do to Whedon and he can always hone in on what’s important and what I don’t need. Joss is always great at telling you what to cut and how to make it simpler to focus on the moment and on the emotions. I always hear his voice in the back of my head when I’m writing telling me to keep it emotional and not worry about plot. My wife [Caroline Williams] is a screenwriter as well who works in comedy, and all the funny moments in the movie is just her punching up jokes.
Your Sinister Six project has obviously been put on hold because of Sony’s new plans for the Spider-Man franchise, and you also adapted Robopocalypse for Steven Spielberg, which is also another project that’s on hold. Obviously all successful screenwriters have frustrating stories about projects that are on hiatus for one reason or another. Is there anything positive that you have gotten out of experiences like that?
It’s always positive. You know going in with screenwriting that it’s a volatile business and you have to take the long view rather than the short view. There are so many times when projects don’t go at a certain release date but find a better home later. It’s all about timing. You never want a movie to get made when it’s the wrong time, and these things have a way of working themselves out.
I try to only take projects that I love and that I’m in love with. When you’re in love with it, you don’t really care because you get to write them. I got to work with Steven Spielberg for a year. That’s a dream of mine! [Laughs] It was just a joy to see him in action and learn from him. You’re never going to hear me complain about working with Steven Spielberg.
Especially as a director now, I get it. You never want to start shooting until the project feels right, so you take your time to get it right. I think when you look at it in the short term they can seem like setbacks, but the more I do this the more I realize that what seems like a setback in the moment can also be the best possible thing that happens for a film.
That happened with Cabin in the Woods. We shot the whole movie and then the studio went bankrupt. At the time everyone thought, “Oh this is terrible news!”
We just believed in our movie and knew it would work itself out, though it would take a little more time. Lionsgate came along and they were the best possible home for that movie. Had the bankruptcy not happened, we wouldn’t have been in the right fit with the right people.
Yes, it took two years longer than we wish it would’ve taken, but Lionsgate didn’t make us change a frame and believed in what we were trying to do. If I had complained too much when MGM went bankrupt, we could have hurt ourselves. We just held firm that we believed in the movie and that we would find the right home and time, and it did. It’s hard, but you have to be very patient in Hollywood.
Finally, how proud are you that you also managed to work a Lord of the Rings joke into a scene featuring Sean Bean?
That’s the alchemy of moviemaking, where sometimes things come together that you just don’t expect. There were many times when we debated, “Do we need the Lord of the Rings joke?” because that scene was really long and that was before Sean Bean even came aboard the movie. It just delighted all of us, but then Sean got cast and then we thought that we have to leave it in.
Every time it happens in a theater with people who haven’t seen the movie before there’s that cut to Sean sitting at the table and you can hear four or five people in the theater laughing ahead of time. I always think, “Oh, these are my people. This is who I’m actually writing for.” [Laughs]
Featured image by Aidan Monaghan.
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