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How Screenwriter Drew Goddard Made ‘The Martian’ Smart, and Why It Needed Two F-Words

How Screenwriter Drew Goddard Made 'The Martian' Smart, and Why It Needed Two F-Words

One of the secrets of good writing is to listen to your inner muse and write what gives you intense pleasure. The most successful screenwriters in Hollywood happen to have passions and taste that dovetail with pleasing audiences. They can ride the studio collaborative process to a happy conclusion. 

But that often involves dumbing things down. The studios are all too prone to underestimate the intelligence of the American moviegoing public. Especially on big-budget movies where they don’t want to take too much risk, they soften, shape, try to please everyone, go vanilla. 

One reason why some of the best movies are adaptations is that when presented with tangible evidence of something that works with consumers, the studios will back off–see “The Lord of the Rings,” “the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series.

And in the case of “The Martian,” which is hitting several sweet spots–there were turnaway crowds at the PGA and Academy screenings this weekend, as well as the box office–a bestselling novel by computer programmer Andy Weir helped to keep the moviemakers on track. So did 40-year-old University of Colorado grad Drew Goddard, who has thrived in Hollywood by keeping in touch with his inner muse.

When he was a hot TV writer after working with Joss Whedon on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Goddard signed up with JJ Abrams on “Alias,” not one of the hit police procedurals his agents wanted him to go with at the time. Why? He preferred to write “Alias.” Which lead to “Cloverfield” and rewriting the end of “World War Z” and the hilariously scary “The Cabin the Woods,” which he directed. And a bevy of writing assignments created such a crunch that Goddard had to let go the directing reins on “The Martian” in order to concentrate on writing Marvel series “Daredevil” and “Spider-Man” spin-off “Sinister Six.” That’s when Ridley Scott took over. And then the Sony hack put Goddard’s take on “Sinister Six” on ice.

What happens, he told Sneak Previews after a screening of “The Martian” (see our podcast Q & A below), is that writers like Whedon and Abrams don’t chase fashionable; fashionable came to them. “If I had wanted to worry about my career I would not have done ‘The Martian,’ it was an E-book,” he said. 

A friend, producer Aditya Sood, brought “The Martian” to Goddard back in 2013 as a series of monthly blog posts from Weir, one chapter at a time. “He was giving his blog away on his blog for three years,” said Goddard. “He was crowdsourcing his research.” This was way before Weir had a publishing deal. “I read a chapter, it was pretty great, I read the whole book in one sitting, which is usually a good sign. I slept on it. I get sent stuff a lot. I have learned only to do things that I am passionate about that speak to you and haunt you. I read it again and liked it even more. I waited. On the third day I said to my wife, ‘I’m really thinking about this.’

She asked, ‘What makes it special to you?’

‘It’s about a guy trapped on Mars by himself, farming in his own feces… It’s really about scientists and the scientific process as a metaphor for life.’ She said, ‘No wonder it speaks to you, you grew up around science.'”

Goddard grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the home of rocket scientists who gave us the atomic bomb, and still boasts the highest IQ per capita in America. Weir captured the humor of scientists, said Goddard, “which comes from intelligent people screwing up a lot. Science is about screwing up. You try things you don’t know, mess up, get it right, mess it up again and do it right.” He compares the humor in the book to “The Far Side” by Gary Larson. “It’s a specific kind of deadpan humor that comes from scientists; Andy captures that vibe, that’s the kind of humor I wanted here.”

Sood made a deal with Simon Kinberg at Fox for the rights, and Goddard went in and argued for his vision for the movie, and stated strongly from the start that the science had to be front and center or the movie would never work. “I don’t know how to dumb this down,” he told them. “The science is crucial, it’s like a religious movie. In this case his faith is science, not religion.”

He says that Fox got it–and so did Fox’s own science expert James Cameron–who did point out that the Mars dust storm would never happen. Otherwise, though, the science checks out. “When I watch this movie I forget we didn’t shoot this on Mars,” Goddard said. Ridley Scott shot exteriors in Jordan matching sets on a huge soundstage in Budapest, Hungary. 

The duct taping of the helmet was was not in the book, but “the spirit of it was there,” Goddard said. “I wanted it to be threadbare, you can feel the rough edges, you can feel the cracks and the rips. Most science-fiction tends to be chrome and white, it has that clean feel. The reality is different, these things are like tin cans, it’s terrifying, you can’t believe we went up in space with these things!”
“I’m going to have the science the shit out of this,” was Goddard’s line–and it’s heading out to Mars on a doodle by Ridley Scott on the first page of the script. 
Goddard had to make the film work with a long 20-minute section with Damon alone, until he could finally cross-cut with NASA and the crew that had left Mark Watney behind on Mars. Somehow he had to make a movie about Mars commercial –it’s considered death at the box office. “The audience becomes a character,” Goddard points out, as Watney is talking to them.
Goddard explains how Scott moved the storm that comes in the middle of the book to the beginning. “Of course he was right, it was visceral.” He also explains how the filmmakers fought over the number and timing of the swear words in the movie, as the MPAA only allows two “fucks” for an PG-13 rating. And he explains the insider Elrond “The Lord of the Rings” Sean Bean joke. 
And yes, the ending was all his. 

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