Here’s why ’The Martian’ screenwriter thinks of the space drama as ‘a religious movie’

“The Martian” has been called “‘Cast Away” on Mars” in various corners of the Internet, but it”s actually quite a different movie than the 2000 Tom Hanks film. Yes, Matt Damon”s astronaut is stranded in a place where he has little hope of surviving, but he approaches the extremely treacherous situation very differently from Hanks” character. Damon”s character remains rather humorous, upbeat and optimistic in his time persevering to survive on the Red Planet.

That optimism is largely what spoke to “The Martian” screenwriter Drew Goddard when he read the novel by Andy Weir that”s the basis for the film, which opened in theaters yesterday.

Goddard (whose past credits include “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Lost” and “Buffy”) spoke to HitFix about the challenges of adapting a book with a lot of technical language, why he considers “The Martian” a “religious movie,” and which book moment that didn”t make the movie might still show up on the DVD.

SPOILER WARNING: There are some plot details of Weir”s book and the movie adaptation in the interview below.

HitFix: What was it about Andy Weir”s book that struck you and made you want to write the movie?

Drew Goddard: You”re either haunted by something, or you're not. I either can”t stop reading, or I get bored, and I”ve learned to just trust that instinct. ‘The Martian,” I read it all in one sitting. I could not put it down. Then I went to bed and woke up and read it again the next day and couldn”t put it down. And then I did it again – and I thought, “Okay, this is a good sign.” A lot of times, I”ll get through a book once to find out what the plot is, but then the second time you're bored “cause you already know what happens, and with ‘The Martian,” I did not find that happening. I kept coming back to the theme and spirit of the book. It just felt unique, the optimism and humor in this sci-fi setting just felt like something I hadn't seen. It just felt like the right time. It just felt like, “Let's do this.”

Mark Watney”s humor and optimism in the book really struck me too, though I was also surprised that he maintained that humor throughout his time on Mars. Did you want to stay true to that quality of his in the book, or did you consider showing him broken by the experience at all?

If you look at all the stuff I”ve done, I like to balance comedy and drama. I just do. It spoke to me, and I felt like it was a crucial part of his character. And you have those questions of “how does he not give up in the face of this?” And you start to understand as you watch the movie or read the book, “Oh, this optimism and this humor is saving him right now.” It”s not cause it”s a funny joke. It”s actually that thing that's keeping him going “cause if he gave into the fear, he would die. He would give up. And he”s not allowing himself to do that. 

So the so-called “Mars movie curse” didn”t deter you from making this movie at all?

Oh, it totally did! I was terrified. I went to the studio, and I said, “Listen, I”m gonna tell you all the reasons you're not gonna want to make this movie. Let”s have this discussion before I agree to devote two years of my life to this. It needs to be called ‘The Martian.” It”s going to take place on Mars. I”m not going to change that. So if you guys have a problem with that, let's talk about it right now “cause I don't want to spend all this time on a script and come back to you and have you say, ‘Well, we tested the word 'Mars,” and it doesn”t test well with women.' I don't want to hear it.” [Laughs] And to the studio”s credit, I think they were happy we were having that conversation, and they sort of said, “Look, we get it. We believe in what you”re talking about. We believe in this optimistic soul of this book, and I think we can make this feel different.” But you”re always worried about it. It was always there for sure.

You went from being worried about the Mars movie curse to getting some Oscar buzz out of Toronto. What do you think of all this talk about the movie”s Oscar chances, especially given sci-fi”s spotty presence in the Academys big categories?

It”s hard because on one hand I”m way too Catholic to even have these conversations. I”m just positive that no good comes of discussing these things. I”ll leave it to the rest of the world to decide. But on the other hand I look at the movie, and I think Ridley f—ing deserves that Oscar. I think he did an extraordinary job with this movie. I wanna be his loudest champion. And Matt [Damon]. No disrespect to any other movie out there, but they”re certainly my two favorites. But the truth is, we like the movie. We”re happy with it. We don”t really care about the rest of it. We”re happy that it's connecting with an audience. Other things are all bonus.

You mentioned being Catholic – did that impact how you approached the character Rick Martinez, who”s Catholic? Did you bring yourself to writing that character at all?

It was more the approach to the whole movie. One of the things I said in my first meeting with Fox is, “Think of this movie as a religious movie. The religion in question is science.” It”s structured very much about a man being lost in the wilderness and trusting his faith to get him through it. In that regard it harkens back to a lot of the religious movies of old, and I thought that was a good way to approach this, a good way to structure it. Because it is about science. It was important to touch on it. I like characters having these different points of view and still supporting one another. One character's religious, one character's not — they still believe in each other. They can still come together. That was very much in the book.

How did you figure out just how much to go into detail about all the math Watney”s calculating, all the technical language?

It was sort of trial and error. I sort of equate it to sculpting: You carve a little bit out of the clay and then you step back and go, “Okay, it still doesn”t make sense. Let”s add a little more here. Oh, we took off too much here.” And at a certain point you step back and the scene feels right. And every scene was different. You struggle with “how much do we need to explain what hydrazine is? Is it okay if the audience doesn't understand?” “Cause I don”t understand. I”m a screenwriter. But is that okay? To me, the mission statement was you don't need to understand it but you do need to relate to what's going on. You don't need to understand hydrazine but you do need to understand that he needs water to grow crops. If you can understand that part, the rest of it can sort of blow by you. I'm a screenwriter. I still don't quite know what hydrazine is made out of. But that”s okay cause it's not what”s important for the movie. For me, at least. 

And that”s part of what makes the movie work is you have me, you have Andy Weir, the author, and you have Ridley and you have Matt, and all four of us are interested in slightly different aspects of the story, so between the four of us, we”ve got all these different bases covered.

I was happy to see the movie captured Watney”s dry, smart-ass humor from the book. What was the key to getting that humor right for the movie?

Truthfully, just being a smart-ass myself. And look, it's in Andy's book – that humor. And it's very much Andy when you talk to him. So much of it was just protecting it. The optimism is the other key part. If he was pessimistic and a smart-ass, at a certain point, you'd just want to punch him. He may be a smart-ass, but it's not mean-spirited. 

Making the movie PG-13, you couldn”t have quite so many instances of cussing in the movie. How did you decide just where you”d put in the few f-bombs you were allowed?

We only thought we'd have one, “cause that's usually what the rule is. When I first wrote the script, the storm is in the middle the way it is in the book. I wanted to start with Mark waking up on Mars, and I wanted the first word of the movie to be ‘f—.” It”s sort of the spirit of the first sentence of the book – “I”m pretty much f—ed.” i love the comedy of it. In a weird way those four words represent the movie: “I”m pretty much f—ed.” It's not “I”m  f—ed.” “I”m not giving up hope” is really what it's implying. And I like that. I wanted that first “f-” to convey that. You can't say “I”m pretty much f—ed”  “cause it”s sort of past tense, and movies are much more about present tense, if that makes sense. So I wanted to sort of visually get that, which is why we put such an intense sort of self-surgery scene right there. And then to balance it, have him just go “F—.” It just felt right.

And then there was another one later where Matt says “F— you, Mars,” and it was very much an ad-lib, and we just liked it so much that we fought to keep it.

In the moment when Watney is first able to type messages back and forth with JPL, Venkat has to tell him to watch his language – in the movie we don”t actually get to see his response to that, but in the book he responds with an adolescent boob joke. Why did you decide to change that part for the movie?

One of the challenging things about movie-making is you need scenes to do double-duty. Or triple-duty or quadruple-duty. “Cause you just don”t have a lot of time. You have to get a lot of stuff in at once, and you don't have the luxury of just letting the movie be nine hours long. 

To me, it was important that we had a joke there, but what was more important was to get across how protective Mark was of his crew. He”s upset that they haven”t told them yet [that he”s alive]. That”s the soul of the movie, people looking out for one another. I tried to make every scene, as best I could, about that. It was crucial to play that, and if you undercut it with boobs, as much as I like undercutting things with boobs in general, it just felt wrong. But look, when it comes to making text boob jokes, there's not an exact science. 

The movie does stay rather true to the book. But of the cuts and changes you had to make, were there any parts from the book you wish you could have kept in?

All the cuts, I was on board making. But some were harder than others. The two places in the book that I loved – there”s a flashback that explains how they make Hab canvas, and it flashes back to four years earlier, right before cutting to when it rips. You see the process of how JPL makes these things. I just found it fascinating. I love the idea of showing that and showing the rip. The hard part was it was too expensive. And Ridley felt – rightly so – that it wasn”t the movie we were making. We weren”t making a movie that jumped around in time. I was sad to see it go, but I totally understood why.

The other one was in the back half of the book, when Mark gets caught in a storm by himself. Using the religious theme of the movie, it”s such a perfect religious movie moment. He”s stuck by himself, cut off from everyone. Can he save himself? At the time I thought I was gonna direct him, and I could not figure out how to visualize it. Storms are hard. And the other challenge was I didn”t buy that he”d be talking into the camera then. I didn”t buy it. In the book, he”s telling you everything past tense after it's already happened, but in the movie, it has to happen as it”s happening. I felt like he'd be trying to save himself. He would not be stopping to talk at that time. But it made me sad, “cause it”s probably my favorite part of the book. It”s where the book gets its most existential.

Andy Weir told me he fought to keep the Aquaman moment in.

Yeah. I think part of it was the double duty that I was talking about. You needed to start to establish disco because that becomes so important, and we just don't have a lot of space. The things that got squeezed are jokes that aren't already setting up other things. But we also knew it could really stand on its own. We shot it with Matt. It exists out there. 

DVD maybe?

DVD maybe, yeah.

So could you not resist actually having Mark Watney fly around like Iron Man?

[Laughs] Kind of, yeah. I read it in the book and went, “It's such a good idea. Why don”t we just do that?” And we didn”t want our protagonist to be passive for the third act. It”s tricky. “Cause logically that is what would happen. But in a movie you want to continue with the theme of “he is never gonna stop fighting.” It just felt right to me.

If you were stranded on Mars, would you make it?

No, God no. I think I would do well for a little while cause I'm a writer so I'm inherently introverted and happy to be alone in a quiet room for a while. But at a certain point I'd just miss my loved ones. It would be tough.

Photos (from top): 1. Matt Damon in “The Martian” (credit: Giles Keyte/20th Century Fox), 2. “The Martian” screenwriter Drew Goddard at the 2012 Saturn Awards (credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP) 3. Matt Damon in “The Martian” (credit: 20th Century Fox) 4. Kristen Wiig and Chiewetel Ejiofor in “The Martian” (credit: Peter Mountain/20th Century Fox)