In space no one can hear you scream—nor when you’re stranded on a planet millions of miles from Earth. That’s what Mark
Watney (Matt Damon) faces after being abandoned on Mars when his crew mistakenly concludes he has died during a storm that forces them to evacuate. Watney is left with no way to communicate, not nearly enough food to survive beyond a few weeks, and nothing to keep him company except endless miles of desolate red terrain. It’s a nightmare scenario, but The Martian—much like the best-selling Andy Weir novel it’s adapted from—tiptoes the line between sci-fi thriller and laugh-out-loud adventure saga. “It feels like it held on to what everybody loved about the book,” Damon says. “At the end of the day it’s a really entertaining story.”
Damon loved the script by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), who had planned to direct the film. But when Goddard had to bow out for another movie, the producers went to a man who knows his way around a space thriller: Alien director Ridley Scott. Amazingly, Damon and Scott had never crossed paths. “Never even at a cocktail party,” Damon says. When the two finally did meet, the actor says the exchange went something like this: “Ridley said, ‘This script is great.’ I said, ‘Yeah it is.’ He goes, ‘Why the f— aren’t we doing this?’ ” Damon laughs. “That was it. I said, ‘Okay!’ ”
Production began in Budapest in November 2014 and lasted a mere 72 days. That was enough for Scott, who has a reputation for working at maximum speed. (“If you’re doing 90 takes it means you don’t really know what you want,” the director says.) Shoots were split between Damon’s “Mars” scenes; “Earth,” with NASA staffers played by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig; and “Space,” with members of Watney’s crew (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, et al.). The actors became close quickly. “We had a lot of fun,” Chastain says. “Many long dinners and bottles of red wine.”
For Interstellar last year, Chastain had been stuck on terra firma, so she was thrilled to do wire work simulating zero gravity. Before she said yes to the role of Comdr. Melissa Lewis, she had one request: She wanted to go to space camp. But even spending time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and shadowing an astronaut in Houston didn’t prepare her for the realities of working in a heavy space suit. “I felt like a 2-year-old,” she says. “People would have to help me get dressed and take my helmet off and scratch my nose for me.”
Filming the storm that traps Watney on Mars also proved to be tricky. “They brought in so much dirt and really whacked us around with wind turbines,” Chastain says. “It’s probably the most difficult scene I’ve ever filmed. I was happy to leave Mars, but Matt was there for the long haul.” Indeed, for much of his filming, Damon had to go it alone. “It was one of the reasons why I wanted to do the movie,” he says. “I had never tried to do anything by myself in that way.” Well, not entirely by himself. “I had a ball with Ridley,” he says. “Even if I wasn’t working, I’d want to make movies with him.”
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