adapted from Andy Weir’s best-selling book
“Alone on Mars” is the first published novel by author Andy Weir. After a contract with publishers that brought him no profit, the writer decided to put his book online in 2011. In view of its success, it has attracted the attention of other publishers, such as the Crown Publishing Group. In March 2013, the rights to adapt his work to the cinema were purchased by the 20th Century Fox franchise.
To create Mark Watney’s character, Andy Weir was inspired by his own personality. The author explains:”Even if he’s smarter and braver than me, and he doesn’t have my faults! It’s basically who I’d like to be.”
The choice Ridley Scott
For Alone on Mars, screenwriter Drew Goddard was immediately hired to write and direct the film. In March 2014, Ridley Scott entered into negotiations with the production company for the position of director when he was already scheduled to work on the suites of Blade Runner and Prometheus. However, he did not abandon these projects.
The advanced release date
Only on Mars was initially planned for November 25 in the United States and December 2 in France. But, surprise, Fox decided to bring forward its release for October 2 in the USA and therefore October 21 in our country! The feature film was actually to be released at the same time as the next Pixar, Arlo’s Journey, and Hunger Games- The Revolt: Part 2, but Fox wanted to make the adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel the first feature film of the end of the year.
From Interstellar to Alone on Mars, a return to space
Matt Damon’s appearance at the Interstellar casting was a huge surprise. Remember, the actor played the role of an abandoned man on a planet… Matt Damon immediately loved the concept of the film, but before accepting this lead role, he had some hesitations. Indeed, after a year and a half of absence on the screens, he found it strange to play an astronaut lost in space again. He still agreed to play Mark Watney two days after receiving the script.
A coveted female lead role
As soon as he joined the project in May 2014, Ridley Scott immediately said he wanted Matt Damon to be the headliner. However, for the female lead role, several candidates were considered, such as Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig and Kate Mara. In order not to make jealous, the three actresses finally joined the cast of Alone on Mars, in different roles.
Ridley Scott has partly chosen to shoot Alone on Mars in the Korda studio, the largest in Europe, located in Etyek, Hungary, where a dozen sets (including the Hermes spacecraft and the astronauts’ living base on Mars) have been built. The other part of the shooting was done in Jordan, for the outdoor shots, because its desert landscapes are a little closer to the authenticity of the planet Mars. In addition, some buildings in Budapest were used to simulate NASA’s premises.
The actors’ headsets are equipped with six lights managed by a remote control. They were modified to make them lighter because they became too heavy on the set. A fan, located at the back of the suit, was sending air into the helmet through a pipe.
Other than helmets, the orange and white suits were aerodynamic and extensible, which allowed the actors to perform their movements. As for the extravehicular activity suits, i. e. to go outside the ship, they were made from carbon fibre plates and include eight steel rings. Needless to say, these costumes weighed quite a lot, and Matt Damon sometimes had to carry more than 45 kilos on his back.
To better prepare the scenery, Arthur Max, the chief decorator of Alone on Mars, visited the former mission control centres of the Mercury and Apollo programs, as well as the control centre that manages NASA’s current missions and monitors the International Space Station. He then integrated elements he saw at NASA and opted for a futuristic design. The Agency helped him a lot by providing him with advice and approving the sets.
The next generation of NASA
In addition to the Korda studios, Ridley Scott’s feature film was shot in a building called The Whale, because of its shape, also located in Budapest. Inside were filmed the sequences taking place at NASA, including in the offices, conference rooms, cafeteria, rest room, main entrance and mission control center. The film crew also redesigned this building by adding false concrete walls mounted on casters to create different types of offices. As for the rounded glass exterior of the Whale, it represents in Alone on Mars the headquarters of NASA new generation according to Arthur Max, the head decorator.
In addition to the Whale, the film crew moved to a huge complex, the Hungarian Expo, where the sets for the offices, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory garage and the laboratory were built. Shooting at this location ended at the end of November, which also marked the end of the adventure for Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
A planet Mars truer than nature
The planet Mars was partly recreated in a gigantic hangar. For the ground, polystyrene mimicking the appearance of the sand was used, some ochre-coloured rocks were placed here and there and the film crew brought in 1,000 tons of red soil. Steam also invaded the hangar to make fog to make Mars’ scenery even more real.
Without special effects
Ridley Scott wanted the scene of the sandstorm on Mars to be as realistic as possible. So he didn’t use any special effects. The sequence was shot for three days in one of the sets of the Korda studio, redecorated in a desert Martian landscape. Giant fans and a lot of dust, which reduced the visibility of the actors, were used. Despite the wearing of masks, this did not prevent dust from infiltrating the eyes, ears and mouths of the technicians. Between each take, the actors had to remove their headphones, in which were integrated speakers and microphones so that they could communicate with each other and with Ridley Scott, in order to catch their breath.
Beware of tremors
Most of the Alone on Mars plateaus were equipped with huge machinery to allow them to tilt 180 degrees to better reproduce the disturbances present during a space travel.
Construction of the ship
The Hermes ship was built according to the plans of the International Space Station in Earth orbit. The exterior is composed of solar panels, water oxygen storage compartments, heat dissipation fins and communication modules. The Hermes is powered by a plasma ion engine powered by nuclear energy. For scenes that take place in areas of the ship where gravity is zero, the actors have been suspended from cables that give the impression that they are floating.
“Mark Watney’s rovers, all-terrain vehicles, were reproduced with NASA’s help and used on part of the filming in Jordan. Two full-scale versions were produced by 22 technicians and were manufactured with tractor parts. The film production also obtained authorization to film in NASA several rocket launches and also the takeoff of Orion in December 2014.
For the Mission Control Center, instead of embedding images that scroll across the post-production screens, Ridley Scott preferred to broadcast them during shooting in order to use the screens as a light source and allow actors to react in real time to the images.
Real potatoes in space?
In the first part of Andy Weir’s book, Mark Watney tries to grow potatoes using seeds brought by the crew and Martian soil. The scriptwriters decided to include this passage in the film. The decorators didn’t do things halfway, since they used real potato plans. They were placed in a dark room covered with transparent tarpaulins and humid air. The landscape gardener, Roger Holden, has managed to grow 1200 potatoes.
One on one, one on one
Matt Damon’s presence on the set only coincided with that of Jessica Chastain and the mission’s astronauts for three days in mid-December. All the other actors had already returned home when he arrived at the Korda studio in Budapest. Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain then met for a few days in February 2015 and towards the end of the shooting, the actor shot completely alone in front of the camera for five weeks.
Meeting with astronauts
For the sequences in the middle of the Jordanian desert with heavy equipment on his back, Matt Damon had to physically prepare to play the role of Mark Watney. As for Jessica Chastain, the actress met astronauts and visited several NASA sites to better get into the shoes of her character. She also had the opportunity to spend time with chemist and astronaut Tracey Caldwell Dyson. She explained to him the technical and human aspects of an astronaut.
A different end
If you’ve read Andy Weir’s novel “Alone on Mars”, you know how it ends. However, you will have to start from scratch since the end of the film will be different from the end of the book. Surprise! Surprise!
Ridley Scott’s script sent into space
During the shooting of Alone on Mars, Ridley Scott decided to give a little gift to the… Martians! When NASA’s Orion spacecraft left for space, the director attached a self-made drawing accompanied by the first page of Drew Goddard’s script. An original idea to leave your mark.
Let’s talk money!
With an estimated budget of $109 million, Alone on Mars is not Ridley Scott’s most expensive film. On the other hand, it is almost Matt Damon’s most expensive film behind Ocean’s Twelve (110 million) and Elysium (115 million), and only on Mars did it achieve the pretty score of $640 million in revenues worldwide just with its release in theatres.
References to “Alien”
More than 35 years after Alien (and three years after Prometheus), Ridley Scott returned to SF. It is therefore no surprise that Alone on Mars makes several references to the cult film of 1979. Thus, the opening credits of Matt Damon’s film are reminiscent of Alien’s with its spatial shots, its very characteristic music and the way the letters of the title fade (referring to the way the letters appear in Alien). Some fans will also have understood the reference when, in a scene at the end, Beth (Kate Mara) tells Beck (Sebastian Stan) to be careful “Because in space… “, thus repeating the tagline of the 1979 movie “In space, nobody hears you scream”. Finally, the alarm sounding when the Hermes door explodes at the end is identical to the sound of the Nostromo alarm, Alien’s ship.
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