Modern books that can fully engross the reader are a rare and beautiful commodity. Even MORE so when large, equal doses of humor and science are added. Well, that is exactly what Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is.
In probably one of the quickest turn-arounds for novel-to-film, four days after author Weir signed the deal with Crown Publishing Group (subsidiary of Random House) for the book, 20th Century Fox called with their movie rights offer. Needless to say, things went even quicker after that with Matt Damon showing interest in the project, Ridley Scott coming on board to direct, and the rest of the cast taking a (reported) pay cut when signing on. The studio was so impressed by how well the trailer was received, they moved the release date up a full month from November of 2015 to October. How cool is that? It honestly couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy or a better story.
The novel centers around botanist-engineer Mark Watney on the Ares III mission to Mars. Everything goes according to plan….until it doesn’t. There is a major sandstorm. I’m talking like that scene in The Mummy with the face kind of storm, and Watney is forcibly (by a large steel antenna through the gut) separated from the rest of the crew. Following procedure, the crew evacuates the planet, leaving Mark behind, as they believe him to be dead. Through a process of SCIENCE, potatoes, duct tape and disco, things progress for The King Of Mars (Watney). I don’t want to ruin too much for you guys who haven’t read the book, or want to see the film without too much information.
My interview with Andy happened on Friday morning, and we started to talk about the NASA panel the day before which talked about “The Martian” as if it were a real mission. It was amazingly cool, and both the official trailer for the film and ‘viral’ crew log video were shown. Andy talked a little bit about his impressions after seeing the crew vlog:
Andy: There was something that bothered me actually, the presence of gravity on that part of the Ares. It’s ok to have gravity in the centripetal section, but not on the bridge, which isn’t spinning. The other thing that bothered me was I’m more emotionally invested in Commander Lewis than people think. There is the scene in the viral video where they ask her why she took the mission, and she rattled off the names of the female astronauts. Lewis isn’t motivated by gender equality like that, this story takes place 20 years in the future where it’s not nearly so big of an issue. She’s motivated by duty, she’s a US Navy Officer. I had this long list in mind of things I don’t care for in fiction, and one of them is the very narrow list of things Hollywood seems to think female characters can be motivated by; their children, their boyfriend, their father, feminist, or a few other extremely small list of things. And I’m over here like ‘why not duty, honor, revenge’. This is a United States Submarine commander we’re talking about, you know? *laughs*
Mab: I read the book in about a day, and I don’t think I’ve ever had such a physical reaction to a story like this in a long time, if ever. I mean while reading it, I was yelling out “OH FUCK” “OH GODDAMNIT” with Watney. And I love the humor that you gave him. It’s refreshing in a way to have that in a book that is such heavy science. I mean, scientists make jokes, they have senses of humor too, but so often writers and Hollywood forgets that, so thank you again for that part too.
Andy: Oh thanks, I’m glad you liked it.
Mab: I was at the NASA panel yesterday, and oh my god, they talk about the mission-
Andy: Like it’s real!
Mab: Like it’s canon!
Andy: *assuming the voice of one of the scientists on the panel* ‘On Ares III which was over here’ *mimes pointing at the map of Mars shown*…
Mab: What was that like for you? To be in that room with the NASA guys talking about your story.
Andy: Well it was cool. Its so awesome. The response from NASA and the space industry in general has been so much more than I could have imagined. I was surprised they took notice of it at all, let alone this overwhelming reaction. It’s just awesome. I guess especially with NASA they’re really happy with it because they feel it will reinvigorate the American public with the Space Program. And also I don’t think they mind that the book portrays them in this incredibly positive light.
Mab: You had an interesting quote about Watney, that he is you, but all the good/best parts.
Andy: Yeah, Watney is based on my own personality. He is everything I wish I were. Well, he’s all the parts of me that I like but magnified, and none of the parts I don’t like. He’s really just this idealized version of who I wish I were.
Mab: You talked a little bit about it at the panel, but what are you writing next?
Andy: Yeah I’m working on my next book now, I’m about 3/4s through the first draft. It’s a more traditional sci fi, it has aliens and faster-than-light travel and stuff like that, but done my own way. Like I spent a month working up a physics model that allows faster-than-light travel without violating any of the existing laws of physics. Well, I mean, other than that one law that says you CAN’T travel faster than light. *laughs*
Andy: Yeah, yet! But yeah, working from there, and trying to come up with a really plausible, well, as plausible as possible when you’re working with aliens.
Mab: Oh come on, they’re totally plausible! While reading The Martian, I was half expecting something like the aliens on Mars where watching Watney like the ones in that old Coca Cola commercial with the Rover. I’m glad it didn’t but it was there.
Andy: *laughs* I didn’t want to muddy it up with ‘Oh and he discovers life on Mars too’. I considered it, it would have been something I could have put in. And I don’t think anyone would have faulted me for having him find evidence of a small bacteria or some kind of native lifeform. But, it [the book] doesn’t need it. And the audience will forgive one huge coincidence, one big thing, because you wouldn’t be telling the story if something interesting hadn’t happened. A guy getting stranded on Mars by himself, ok, that’s the big unusal thing. If that also, by SHEER coincidence happens to be the guy who discovers life on Mars, well, that’s too much.
Mab: But the King of Mars should totally discover life.
Andy: *laughs* King of Mars. Well, you could also argue that a guy on Mars for 20 times longer than anyone else makes it more likely.
Mab: Why does Lewis like Disco so much?
Andy: I don’t know, I just decided that she does. She and her husband both, like it is something they bond about. In the trailer, you can see in the background a brief moment of Lewis and her husband in what is obviously their house. They’re drinking coffee and watching TV and in the background, you can see like framed disco albums.
Mab: I’m honestly holding out for the Great Martian Potato Migration T-shirts. I want those right now, with tour dates on the back like “left the Hab to reclaim the reactor”, and “didn’t die, again”.
Andy: *laughs* Yeah, that was another one of those things in the book that was ‘wrong’, because of course the pressure of the atmosphere.
Mab: One of the things you’ve said before about things being ‘wrong’, about posting the early chapters on your website and having your ‘beta readers’ would point things out and help with the editing process. Had to have been a little weird.
Andy: Oh no, it was great. I’m a computer programer, and I’m used to having every mistake I make exposed, so, it wasn’t weird at all. It’s really easy for me to ‘handle it’ when people point out a factual inaccuracy, that’s easy. It’s the “well, I didn’t like this part” with the subjectiveness, if I don’t know how to fix it. You have to accept you’re not going to please everybody, you just have to take your best shot at it.
Mab: This isn’t your first ComicCon, right?
Andy: No, I was here last year.
Mab: How has your experience changed from previous years to this year, or has it changed?
Andy: Oh definitely changed. Because the film, right, I have a lot more events and stuff to do. I haven’t really had time to go explore the floor and see things. After this, I’m going to the Random House booth to do some interviews and such.
Mab: Are you a fan of the sci-fi genre? What are some of your favorite books, movies?
Andy: Oh yeah, you bet. I grew up reading Baby Boomer sci-fi, stuff that my dad read, literally the same books my dad read because he had this inexhaustible supply. My favorite author is probably Isaac Asimov, and if I have to pick a favorite book, I’d have to say “I, Robot”. There are a bunch of Heinlein books I liked to, like “Have Spacesuit Will Travel”, “Tunnel In The Sky”, stuff like that, these old 50’s juveniles as they’re called. As far as films, I think I’m going to have to go with Empire Strikes Back, kinda hard to beat that, but I did really like Independence Day.
Mab: I will forever love Brent Spiner in that movie, Dr. Okham.
Andy: ‘They don’t let us out much’.
Mab: Ok then, do you believe in life on other planets?
Andy: Um, uh, well, yes I believe it’s out there. But uh-
Mab: Ok, sentient intelligent life.
Andy: Well, first off, I would be very surprised if there was any kind of life on Mars, any native bacteria. There may be some fossilized evidence, of life that maybe existed back when it had liquid water and oceans, but I don’t think it’s very likely. Unless there was some cross contamination from Earth. There is that great quote from Arthur C Clarke, “either we’re alone in the universe or we’re not, either way, the implications are staggering.” If we are alone in the universe, the good news is it’s all ours, the entire universe, we can just go and get it. And if we’re not, it’s like whoa, really?
Mab: I’m curious to see what happens with the future Europa missions.
Andy: Yeah, the presence of water. But, it’s not like the presence of water is the absolute evidence of life. If we were living on Europa, if we were Europans, and we were looking at Earth thinking ‘hey, I wonder if Earth has life’, we could tell. We could tell from Europa, blatantly obvious.
Mab: How do you feel about the casting?
Andy: Oh yes, very much. It all kind of started with Damon, and he said he was interested in playing Watney, and it kind of all fell into place after that. The studio, everyone else, took the project seriously after that, to have a huge star attached is a big deal. And then Ridley Scott came on as director, it was just like, ok, this is actually happening.
Mab: He’s made some of my favorite space films.
Andy: Well yeah, some of the best science fiction movies of all time, right? He’s known for it. Also, he’s a huge fan of big sweeping panoramas, and I’m looking forward to seeing his sweeping shots of Mars .
Mab: I’m looking forward to his Martian storms, the one that hits the crew, and then the one Watney has to drive through.
Andy: Yeah, yeah! Kinda like the dust storm in Exodus, coming in like this wall, I imagine something like that would work rather well. And going back to Damon, people think of him often as an action star, with the Bourne movies. But thinking back to Goodwill Hunting, he plays smartass really well. In Rounders, the kind of understated thing. And also The Informant, this kind of dorky not attractive guy.
At this point, my time with Andy had come to a close, and he had to rush off for his author signing at the Random House booth. I was left with a sense of joy, because it isn’t every day (even for me) that someone who’s work you admire is actually a really cool person. Not just in the “wow, you wrote a cool thing” way either (but that’s what was going through my head the entire time, not gonna lie). If you haven’t read The Martian, you should. And don’t forget to hit theaters on October 2nd for the film!