Martian, The: Behind the Scenes of Scott’s Sci-Fi

Shooting in Budapest

Principal photography on The Martian began November 8, 2014 in Budapest. The gorgeous Central European capital has become known for hosting big budget Hollywood movies because of its beautiful locales and experienced crews. But what particularly drew filmmakers to the city for this project are the soundstages at nearby Korda Studios.

Korda’s Stage 6, the largest in the world, was ideal for constructing a Martian landscape that would include the Hab and the launch pad for the MAV. The set was used primarily for dialogue scenes, Hab interiors, and the giant sandstorm sequence. Matching wide-scope vistas were later filmed in Jordan.

Says producer Mark Huffam: “We had scouted the Australian Outback as a possible landscape for the Martian surface. That didn’t work out, and we decided to shoot most of the Martian sequences as interiors, giving us greater control of the environment, and then matching those with exteriors at Wadi Rum in Jordan.”

During production, Korda was a bustling hub of activity, as all six soundstages were being utilized for constructing and revamping a dozen major sets, including the spacecraft Hermes and the astronauts’ Hab on Mars. The art department was constantly racing to stay a step in front of Scott, who works quickly and has been known to get ahead of schedule.

In addition to Korda Studios, Budapest delivered another bonus in the form of a dazzling building known as The Whale (due to its profile and its proximity along the Danube River). The Whale played host to the sequences involving NASA personnel, including the offices of Teddy Sanders and Annie Montrose, as well as conference rooms, a break area and coffee shop, a main entrance, and a flight control room.

Production designer Arthur Max describes the building as “sophisticated, cutting-edge architecture on a world-class level. It’s a geodesic structure with enormous scale, loads of glass and concrete, and wonderful louvered blinds that open and close with motors. We can fully control the light levels. This building was a godsend. It would cost a fortune to construct a composite of sets like these on a soundstage.”

To maximize flexibility, simulated concrete walls were mounted on wheels in order to quickly configure any number of office designs in the buildings open spaces. The Whale’s gleaming, futuristic, curvilinear glass exterior also served as NASA’s “next generation” headquarters.

The showpiece set, however, is the Mission Control Room, NASA’s communications hub. A huge central screen, surrounded by more than a dozen other screens, displays vital data and images NASA is monitoring at any given time. These images are being sent from satellites, reconnaissance orbiters, probes, and the International Space Station. It is in Mission Control where Mindy Park learns Watney is still alive – and where NASA leaders will months later command and monitor the launch of the rocket intended to save him.

Rather than having greenscreen appear on the control room monitors and then adding imagery in post, Ridley Scott prefers to see the graphics “in shot,” using them as light sources and allowing the actors to react to the images in real time. The UK company Territory (Spy, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation) was brought onboard to work with graphics artist Felicity Hickson in utilizing a substantial amount of graphics, high resolution satellite imagery and video footage from NASA.

NASA was a key collaborator, consultant and advisor on the entire project, from script through principal photography.

Producer Mark Huffam remembers calling NASA during the first production meeting with Ridley Scott and being “very pleased to learn that they knew the book and were enthusiastic about an open-door relationship and free exchange of ideas.”

Production was allowed to film rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, including the December 2014 liftoff of the Orion, a next-generation spacecraft designed to take humans deep into space as a first step toward human exploration of Mars. The Orion was sent into orbit containing a Ridley Scott tribute: the first sketch the director made of Mark Watney, on the script’s cover page, with the astronaut’s bold declaration, “I’m going to science the shit out of this planet.”

The partnership with NASA initiated with Bert Ulrich, the agency’s film and television liaison, and then expanded to include, among others, Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, and Dave Lavery, from the Mars office, who acted as technical consultants on the script and the production.

Ulrich says Andy Weir’s novel, which is now unofficial recommended reading at Johnson Space Center, and Ridley Scott’s acclaimed body of work resonated deeply within the agency as it prepares its journey to Mars.

“Science fiction, especially in films, is continually an influence on real science,” Ulrich states. “I think both art and science draw from similar aspects of creativity, curiosity and vision.”

Arthur Max’s production designs began to take root during an extensive tour of Houston’s Johnson Space Center, led by Dr. Green, providing deep immersion into the requirements of getting a human on Mars. Max also viewed the old Mercury and Apollo mission control centers, as well as the current Center, which handled the Space Shuttle missions and tracks the International Space Station.

“I combined some of the elements we saw at NASA and then pushed out into the future with the design – what we think their next control room may look like,” says Max. “NASA was remarkably helpful in not only giving us great resources and input, but approving all of our designs.”

After filming at Max’s NASA sets at the Whale, the company moved to a 100-acre complex of buildings called the Hungarian Expo, where sets for the JPL offices, lab, and garage were constructed.

Shooting at the Hungarian Expo concluded at the end of November, marking the picture wrap of cast members Ejiofor, Daniels, Wiig, Bean, Davis, Wong and Glover. After a short hiatus, filming began on “Mars” at Korda Studios, taking up the separate storylines of Watney and the astronauts.

Says Damon: “I think 54 actors had wrapped before I even arrived at Korda.”

Reflective of the characters’ storylines, Damon’s schedule only overlapped with those of Chastain and the other astronauts during three days in mid-December, and then again with only Chastain for a couple of additional days in February.

“Matt and I have now done two movies together [Interstellar was the other], and have only worked with each other on set for about a week,” says Chastain.

The entire crew of Hermes appears together in the harrowing Martian sandstorm that sets the story in motion. Eschewing reliance on visual effects, Ridley Scott wanted the storm to look and feel real, both to the cast and audience. Shot on the gargantuan Stage 6 Martian exterior set, the sequence was filmed over a period of three days, involving giant fans, thick dust, poor visibility, and lots of dirt. Day one of the storm pushed everyone to the limit.

“Hardest day of my career,” remarks costume designer Janty Yates. Adds Damon: “Like walking in a hurricane.”

Even facemasks failed to prevent dirt and dust getting into eyes, ears and mouths. The particles worked their way into the air vents of the cast’s space helmets, causing inhalation issues. Between takes, wardrobe assistants would rush in and help remove the helmets to enable the actors to breathe easier.

“Come to Mars, have a few laughs,” jokes Michael Peña between mouthfuls of dust. “I came to set wearing this suit for the first time, thinking, ‘This is so cool. I’m an astronaut. It’s a huge scene. This is what it means to be in a Ridley Scott movie. I’m gonna crush this!’ And then suddenly I’m fighting the wind, trying to breathe and not fall over, and it’s more, like, ’Oh, shit, I just hope I don’t mess up this shot.’”

“Baptism by fire,” agrees Jessica Chastain. “We shot the storm on one of our very first days together, and weren’t yet familiar with other. We were literally and figuratively trying to find our characters’ footing while huge turbines are chucking dirt and little rocks at us.”

While the cast was often disoriented and could scarcely see each other at times, they had each other’s voices in their heads – and Ridley’s.  The sound department rigged each astronaut’s helmet with small intercom speakers and mics for communication with each other and the director. It made for a surreal bonding experience, relates Kate Mara.

“We bonded quickly because with the helmets on we couldn’t hear the crew around us – only each other,” Mara says. “We started teasing and telling jokes, and it brought us closer together. Some of it got kind of racy. Once in awhile we would forget ourselves, and then ask, ‘Hang on, can Ridley hear this?’”

The weight of the helmets and surface suits, a combined 40 pounds, added to the cast’s exertion to stumble through sand and fight 65 mile-per-hour winds.

Both helmets and suits were the work of costume designer Jany Yates and space suit specialist Michael Mooney. The helmets contain six lights, separately operated by a small, two-channel battery-powered remote. A fan inside the life support backpack of the suit sends air via a hose into the helmet. Ranging from one to four millimeters in thickness, the helmets were manufactured by a vacuum casting process by FBFX.  Mooney modified them to be as light as possible, around nine pounds, but “because out of necessity they weren’t supported by the shoulders,” he says, “the helmets became quite heavy for some of the cast over the course of a 10-hour shooting day.”

Below the helmets, the orange-and-white surface suits are worn by the astronauts when exploring the planet’s surface, and are streamlined and close-fitting, yet sufficiently malleable to allow full movement.

Yates took an initial prototype surface suit design to Damon early in pre-production, and the actor says the final result was “exactly as she designed it. While reading the script I was thinking, ‘This story is great, and it probably means 80 days in some really cumbersome outfits.’ But the surface suit was actually pretty comfortable, given that it was as skintight as a wetsuit.”

Prior to designing the costumes, Yates met with a curator of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., which houses a fascinating collection of spacesuits dating back to the beginnings of the Mercury program, and conducted research at Johnson Space Center and JPL. The experience left her “mesmerized.”

Adds Yates:  “I saw the rovers, I saw them building satellites…It felt like I was already in a science fiction film. They sent me so many images that were incredibly useful. We saw the designs of the suits that they are planning for missions extending beyond even 2030.

“From the start, Ridley said he wanted the surface suits to be slender and allow for movement, yet still offer a nice silhouette. NASA’s suits have the helmet built in, which wouldn’t work for our purposes, so we had to change that design. We also needed to make some changes for aesthetics and practical needs of filming, and I think we hit the mark between function and form.”

Form is much less a consideration with what’s known as the “EVA” (Extra Vehicular Activity) costume – what’s commonly recognized as an ‘outer space’ suit. (Or what Ridley Scott refers to as the “doughboy.”) Worn when conducting zero gravity activities outside the Hermes, the EVA is bulky and heavy. The core is made of carbon fiber backplates, with eight bolted 3mm steel rings that attach to stunt wires. Damon’s stunt rig alone weighed 55 pounds, which, when added to the weight of the suit and helmet, required him at times to support 100 extra pounds.

More than a dozen vendors were employed in creating the helmets and 15 surface/EVA suits.

Yates designed a third look for the astronauts that she describes as “like a track suit. It’s for their day-to-day activities aboard the Hermes. They’re sleek, formfitting and comfortable, and, as they are only worn inside the pressurized space ship, don’t require life support systems.”

The Hermes provides its own life support, sustaining the Ares III crew during its nine-month journey to Mars. (The length of the trip can vary, based on the orbits of the respective planets.) The Hermes was constructed on Stages 2 and 3 at Korda Studios, based on design properties of the International Space Station, which utilizes a series of interlocking modules. The exterior of the craft is equipped with solar panels, oxygen and water storage cells, heat dissipation fins, communications modules, and other vital life support mechanisms.

Based on NASA advanced design plans, the Hermes is powered by a nuclear powered ion plasma propulsion engine, which Arthur Max says has yet to be depicted in a movie because the technology is so new. The design incorporates a large telescopic arm that places the heat-emitting reactor a safe distance from the ship.

“We’ve tried to stay close to practical reality and cutting-edge technology while creating an eye-catching aesthetic,” he says.

Max grew up in the Sputnik era during the intense space race between the U.S. and the USSR, and had a childhood obsession with science. “I was in the rocketry club, and we used to make fuel on the kitchen stove, with sometimes near disastrous results,” he recalls. “THE MARTIAN was a chance to rekindle my interest in space exploration while being part of the telling of a classic adventure story about a trip into the unknown.”

The Hermes’ gleaming white interior, a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, extends from the flight deck down a long corridor that stretches hundreds of feet.

Roughly halfway down the corridor is a right-angle connection tunnel referred to as the knuckle, which leads to the Rec Room. Inside, a rotating drum known as the gravity wheel spins at a sufficient speed to generate a centrifugal force that simulates the effects of gravity.

Rudi Schmidt, a scientist with the European Space Agency and an on-set technical advisor, says the gravity wheel was first experimented with on the Skylab missions in the 1970s, a forerunner to the current International Space Station.

“It’s highly desirable for the astronauts to be exposed to these gravitational effects to keep bone mass and the muscular system intact,” says Schmidt. “The gravity wheel theoretically can generate roughly half the force of gravity on Earth, which is sufficient for health purposes.”

The Rec Room is equipped with exercise bikes, treadmills, and other fitness equipment. Constructed as a separate set on Korda’s Stage 4, it was mounted on hydraulic lifts that tilt the contained gravity wheel a full 30 degrees to each side.

Depicting the astronauts’ movement aboard the Hermes’ zero gravity environment required cast members to be harnessed to wire rigs that lend the impression they are floating from one spot to another.  Stunt coordinator Ron Inch and his team designed a massive square 2D winch system, suspended from above the Hermes roofless set, allowing them to fly the actors anywhere within a squared spatial area. The wires connect to a spin rig attached at the waist, and also to leg and shoulder cuffs. The system was computerized and mechanized, but also required stunt team members to pull harness ropes to create vertical movement and “puppeteer” the actors.  The use of winches and aluminum heads enabled movement in all directions, as well as 360-degree turns.

“We had to work out a lot of rather complicated shots getting our cast down the corridor and into other rooms,” Inch states. “For instance, in one shot we have to travel Jessica and Michael down the main (fuselage) and then right-angle turn them down a corridor leading to the gravity wheel. And it had to be a fluid motion. It was a complex and tricky thing to pull off.”

According to stunt rigger Lenny Woodcock, 150 meters of truss, 90 meters of track, 70 pulleys and some 400 meters of Tech-12 rope were required to construct the rig.  “I don’t even know how much scaffolding,” he says. “More than I can count.”

Jessica Chastain prepared for the zero gravity work by drawing on her days as dancer to mimic the physical movements of weightlessness. Well known for her meticulous preparation, Chastain also spent several days visiting NASA facilities, and read up on the lives of astronauts, such as Sally Ride.

“In the 2014 Interstellar my character was Earthbound, and I remember at the screening thinking how much fun it must have been for co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to do the space stuff,” Chastain recalls. “I thought it would be really cool to play an astronaut. A couple of weeks later I learned Ridley wanted me to play one in THE MARTIAN. So I went all in. I visited JPL and the Johnson Space Center, and saw some amazing things. I went inside a MAV and a mockup of the space shuttle.

Chastain was fortunate in being able to spend some time with astronaut-chemist Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a Mission Specialist on Space Shuttle Endeavour flight STS-118 in August 2007, and who was part of the Expedition 24 crew on the International Space Station in 2010.

Dyson briefed Chastain on both the technical and human elements of being an astronaut.  Chastain says Dyson and other female astronauts are true role models.  “They inspire women everywhere to pursue careers in science and mathematics,” the actress notes.

Another favorite part of Chastain’s preparation was donning Oculus 3D glasses and experiencing panoramic images of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover.  “It made it feel as if I were actually there,” she says.

The Curiosity rover served as the model for the Rover in THE MARTIAN, although the latter is even larger and more stylized. Based on designs by Arthur Max and overseen by Ollie Hodge, the six-wheeled, high-clearance Rover features a trapezoidal cab and chassis built by Szalay Dakar, a Hungarian outfit that builds racecars for the grueling Dakar Rally.

Two full-scale versions of the Rover were made by a team of 22 crew technicians, along with the 15 members of Szalay. Essentially a very advanced all-terrain agricultural vehicle, the Rover is equipped with huge industrial tires designed to travel rough, rocky landscapes. The design includes hydraulic gull-wing doors and running gear, and a two-liter diesel engine, although the exterior is dressed with solar panels to make it appear as though it runs on solar energy.

Says vehicle FX technician Glen Marsh:  “The solar powered engine plays an important role in the story, as it limits the vehicle’s operation to 40 kilometers at a time. This poses yet another challenge to Mark Watney when he has to make an epic journey to get to his point of departure for a possible rescue attempt.”

The panels and hatches on the Rover were designed for quick and easy removal to facilitate the insertion of 4K cameras on spigots, which capture Watney’s communication with NASA, and provide interior images of him driving the vehicle.

As Marsh mentions, the Rover was designed to travel over rough terrain, and was put through its paces in a Hungarian quarry prior to filming in Jordan.

Before that, the Rover was used in several scenes shot on the Stage 6 Martian landscape. Four thousand tons of soil and other materials went into creating a topographical palette that would match that of Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert. Arthur Max notes that Wadi Rum is uncannily similar to Mars in its reddish orange hues, and that the goal is to achieve a seamless integration of the stage and location visuals.

Greensman Roger Holden mixed three types of Hungarian soil by machine and by hand to find just the right color. And while the surface of the Martian set was being perfected over a period of two months, Holden was also growing the potatoes that Watney raises and tends to in the Hab. Holden grew half-cut potatoes following the same procedures seen in the film.

“We built a nursery at the studio with a completely artificial environment, including lighting, heating, and fertilizing,” Holden says. “Our fertilization process was, however, far less challenging than Watney’s.” Altogether, Holden grew some 1,200 potatoes, at an average of about eight spuds per plant.

Surrounding Holden’s well-tended Martian landscape on Stage 6 was perhaps the largest greenscreen ever assembled. Measuring 312 feet in length and 65 feet in height, it encompassed about 21,000 square feet of greenscreen surface. Visual effects supervisor Matt Sloan explains, “Ridley likes a lot of scope, and we have a full 360 degrees of backdrop on this stage, where we can add plate shots from Wadi Rum, as well as above-the-horizon sky and moons.”

To help match the stage shots with subsequent shooting in Jordan, Sloan and his team studied solar path charts in Wadi Rum so that he and director of photography Dariusz Wolski, ASC would always know the proper lighting direction. Wolski employed a mounted portable key light source that extended upward up to 65 feet, allowing him to match the appropriate angle of the sun.

Both the camera and VFX departments utilized an innovative visual reference tool that projects onto a portable screen the precise background that will be seen from any particular shot, which helps enormously in framing. Says Sloan: “If Ridley or Dariusz wanted to widen or extend a shot on the soundstage onto the greenscreen, they could see exactly what VFX elements will exist in the shot, as well as what particular landscape features in Jordan will be visible from that angle, such as bushes, rock formations, small sand dunes, etc.”

Alone on Mars

Sitting among the rocks and dirt on Stage 6, Matt Damon is about to complete the final days of shooting at Korda. It’s late February, and every other cast member wrapped two weeks ago. “It’s just been me and Ridley on Mars,” Damon jokes.

The unusual dynamic of working alone in nearly all of his scenes was a new experience for Damon, who comments, “This movie is essentially three separate but connected storylines. Watney is a Robinson Crusoe figure. I really like the character and admire the way the story celebrates the courage and ingenuity of these astronauts. As Drew (Goddard) said to me, it’s a love letter to science.”

Working in the gravitational orbit of Ridley Scott was another irresistible lure for Damon, who says Scott has elicited performances from actors that are “too good to be an accident. He’s willing to break a rule if it buys a bigger emotional connection from the audience. He paints on a much bigger canvas than most people, and it’s exciting to do things on that scale.”

Damon mentions that Scott essentially had the movie in his head before shooting began, so was able to walk him though specific camera shots, coverage and setups. “He allows his actors to see the movie as he envisions it, which is incredibly useful for performance.”

Throughout nearly five weeks of solo acting, Damon had been asked to not only carry the story but at times a substantial amount of astronaut gear on his back. His unfailing high spirits and good humor buoyed the entire crew during some intense and strenuous moments.

Through much of shooting he says his mind would reflect on the touching lengths that people go to save Mark Watney.

“He represents more than just one life. He embodies humanity’s pioneering instincts and our hopes for the future. It’s been a privilege to play this character.”