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'The Martian' Screenwriter Drew Goddard Learned A Huge Lesson From 'The Cabin In The Woods'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/10/2015 Matthew Jacobs
THE MARTIAN © 20th Century Fox THE MARTIAN

"The Martian" is expected to rocket to No. 1 at the box office this weekend, possibly overtaking the October opening record set by "Gravity" in 2013. Fox snatched up the rights to Andy Weir's debut novel just months before the Sandra Bullock spectacle hit theaters, with "The Cabin in the Woods" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" scribe Drew Goddard set to write the script and direct. But when Goddard stepped down from the director's seat to write the now-delayed "Spider-Man" spin-off "Sinister Six," Ridley Scott laced up his spacesuit instead. Goddard, who has since created Netflix's "Daredevil" and begun work on a "Cloverfield" sequel, promises that's for the best. The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with him to discuss "The Martian," his appreciation for "Galaxy Quest" and one big lesson he learned from "Cabin in the Woods."

Do you feel like you've lived in the world of "The Martian" for a long time at this point?

I think I first read the book in March of 2013, so it’s been about two and a half years, which in Hollywood terms is a pretty short time, actually. But it’s still two and a half years of your life to be living with this, so it’s fun to see it finally get out there, for sure.

After "Gravity" and "Interstellar," this is the third consecutive year a big space movie has transcended the sci-fi genre and become an Oscar contender. Is it better to avoid those movies in case they seep into yours, or do you see them to make sure you're not doing the same thing?

I got a really good piece of advice when I first started out in this business. A friend of mine said, “Whatever you’re writing at any given time, don’t read the trades, because you will read about four other projects that will sound exactly the same, and if you let that in, you’ll never get anything done. Your job is just to concentrate on making yours unique. That’s all you have to do and things will tend to work out for the best.” With "The Martian,” we started long before “Gravity” had even come out. I turned in the first draft the day “Gravity” came out and I had that sinking feeling in my stomach, like, “Uh-oh.” So we went to the movies and, of course, I loved “Gravity” -- I thought it was spectacular -- but we’re very different. It’s just a very different movie, so we felt like we were going to be fine. Then the same thing happened the next year. “Interstellar,” I think, came out our first day of shooting, and so we all went to see that. I remember I loved that movie, but ours was just very different. So we felt like the unique quality of the book would shine through and I think it has. I hope it has.

Would you have been as inclined toward "The Martian" had it not had been so humorous?

No, definitely not. I think that was one of the things about the book that I was very much drawn to. And it’s not just the humor, it’s the optimism. I felt like the humor and the optimism were two things we don’t see in sci-fi a lot. You just don’t. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t tend to shine through. Or when it does, it shines through as just a comedy. Something like “Galaxy Quest,” which I love, is clearly meant to be a comedy. I just felt like, no, we could do a drama and have comedic moments. I’ve always felt that way. I think that’s what attracted me to “Buffy” and why it was my favorite show. I never got the sense that Joss Whedon saw a difference between comedy and drama. It was not one or the other; it was both, and I feel strongly that that’s just what I enjoy doing. It’s sort of my aesthetic. 

How different would this movie be had you directed it?

It would have been worse. Ridley Scott is just a much better director, but I’m not saying anything surprising there. No, look: He got a level of scope and scale that I never could have gotten. He’s so good at that stuff. I look at this movie now and I freely feel like the best possible version of this movie is what made it to the screen and I’m just so thankful that I got a chance to work with Ridley, without question.

All due respect to Ridley Scott, who is a Hollywood god, but after "Sinister Six" was delayed, did part of you think, "Well, shit, I could have directed this movie after all"?

No, because the truth is, that’s Hollywood. It’s a pretty volatile business and things come together and things fall apart. That’s what happens, so you make the best decisions you can at the time and you don’t regret ‘em. I tend to think very hard about the decisions beforehand, and then once I’ve made them, it’s time to move on. And the truth is, it was a dream to get to work with Ridley. At the time, that was beyond my wildest dreams that a director of Ridley’s caliber would say yes, and then when he said yes, it made the decision really easy, quite frankly. I want to work with people who inspire me in whatever capacity, and then you keep moving forward. The truth is, in Hollywood you never know what’s going to come together. You just put your head down and try to get things made as fast as you can.

You started writing for "Buffy" and "Lost" well after they'd begun, so you had to dive into pre-existing mythologies. The same goes for a superhero movie, of course. Even though you were adopting a book, was "The Martian" easier to do because you didn't have to deal with a deep fictional universe?

The approach is still the same, because I always start with character. I start with "What are the people going through?" and "How can we relate to it?" In some ways, it’s very similar, whether it’s hard science or made-up mythology. It’s just there to serve as the story you’re telling about the characters, and if you flip it and make the mythology the point or the science the point, you’re going to end up with a very boring product, quite honestly. Or it’s certainly not what I’m that interested in. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I know rocket scientists and I gave them the script and said, "How does this sound?" "Does this sound right?” and they would tell me where I made mistakes and we’d fix it.

It was our approach on “Daredevil,” too, because I always felt like as soon as it becomes about the mythology, we’re fucked. I’m not interested in mythology. I think it’s important and you want to respect it, but it’s all about the characters. I grew up reading comics, but it’s not like comics started when I was 8. When I started picking up “X-Men,” there had already been years and years of stories that I didn’t know about, and I didn’t care because I liked the characters. I feel like the reason we like "Spider-Man" is because of the character; it’s not because of all the other stuff that’s happened and, oh, this is what happened in Issue 393. No, I like Spidey interacting with other people. Certainly there’s a place for mythology-driven storytelling. I’m just not that guy. But the other thing is, every comic-book movie has its own rules. You have to be clear about what story you’re telling and what the rules are of that particular movie and trust that. 

The supporting characters in "The Martian" feel more fleshed out than they did in the book. Did you feel like you needed to do more with them?

I don’t know that I had to do a whole lot more. I think what happens is you have to crystallize each character as quickly as you can because you just don’t have a lot of screen time, whereas in the novel you have more time. Some of these characters only have three scenes, but you learn you can do a lot in three scenes. One of the best lessons in my career happened in “Cabin in the Woods." We had this merman story where Bradley Whitford’s character has never seen a merman, and he talks about it for two scenes and then he sees the merman in the third scene. It’s just a tiny part of the movie and yet when we test-screened it, it was everyone’s favorite part. I realized, "Oh, you can really tell a story with three beats." You can get away with it very quickly. So for a lot of the smaller roles, I said, "Look, if they only need three beats, we’re going to work to tell a story with each of these supporting characters so that everyone gets a chance to shine." And I think that was the approach that got us the cast that we needed. 

What's impressive about "The Martian" is how crystal clear the science is. Even when you don't understand the minutiae, you know the goal of every scene. Did test-screening help you figure out what audiences grasped?

The thing I was most worried about, even though I never voiced it to my collaborators, was that at some point in this process, I was going to have to simplify the science. I just thought, at some point, this is going to be too dense and we’re going to show it to an audience and they’re going to hate that it’s so complicated. But when we showed it the first time, it tested really well, and the first thing out of the audience’s mouths were, “We loved how smart it was.” They loved the science, even when they didn’t understand it, which was crucial. There’s such a worry in Hollywood about everyone having to understand everything all the time, and I don’t know that that’s true. It’s OK for you to not understand the intricacies of the science as long as you can understand the story. It was really gratifying to see the audience respond so strongly to it. It rallied all of us after that first test screening to say, we trust that the movie can be what it is not, which is nice.

Have you started rewriting "Sinister Six" now that Andrew Garfield's "Spider-Man" is out of the picture?

No, here’s the thing: “Sinister Six” got put on hold indefinitely, so one day I’ll go back to it. But the truth is I designed that movie so that it didn’t have to be tied into any mythology. Not on purpose, but because that’s the kind of stories I like. I like them to have a clear beginning, middle and end. I get bored with mythology very quickly, so it was designed so that it could just be its own thing. I’m sure I could revisit it one day, but right now it’s on hold indefinitely and I’ve got other things to write.

 "The Martian" is now in theaters. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

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