Ridley Scott gets back to his sci-fi roots with ‘The Martian’
British director Ridley Scott has worked in pretty much every movie genre except Westerns. There have been, among others, historical pieces (“The Duellists,” “1492: Conquest of Paradise”), thrillers (“Black Rain,” “Hannibal”), a fantasy (“Legend”) and a comedy (“Matchstick Men”). But a large chunk of Scott’s fans are always waiting for him to return to what he’s best known for: science fiction, having made “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Prometheus” and that very cool “1984”-style TV ad for the Apple Macintosh computer in 1984. In “The Martian,” based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel about an astronaut (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and the NASA folks trying to rescue him, Scott spends most of the film on the Red Planet, but he keeps the story flowing with plenty of drama happening on Earth and on a ship heading home. Scott spoke about the film and his career at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: Is there something about setting a film in space that allows you to tell more truths about life on our own planet?
A: No. I think the fantasy of space, which is also now a reality, is a marvelous platform for almost anything goes. And when you do anything goes, whether it’s a play or a book or a film, you’ve got to make your own set of rules, and stick within the confines of the rules that you make. So if I’m doing space fantasy, whether it’s “Alien” or “Prometheus,” I’ve got to draw up the sidelines of my rulebook. And within that it’s still a fantasy, because it’s never really going to happen. This film is a lot easier, because you can lean very heavily on the science in the novel, and the way the characters are, the way the NASA people are, the way the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) people are. So to me this was a much more realistic movie.
Q: Could you share your thoughts on the science fiction genre?
A: The big daddy of science fiction really was Stanley Kubrick. I remember sitting down in this big theater in London in 1968, watching a 70-millimeter version of the newly released “2001” at 2 in the afternoon. There was no one else in the room, which was shocking to me. Because to me that was then the threshold regarding what we do as theater. Film is theater, really. And it made me think, “OK, now I want to do a science fiction movie.” Never forget Stanley. Stanley was very much in cahoots and in competition with NASA. He was concerned that they were going to beat him to the moon before he could get out his bloody movie. So he was using [NASA] designer Ralph McQuarrie, who was designing NASA’s suits and the interiors of their ships. He was styling them, and Stanley took all that styling. That definitely influenced George Lucas in “Star Wars.” And my “Alien” was definitely affected by Stanley. So it’s all gone down the line.
Q: It’s interesting that “The Martian” isn’t just about the Matt Damon character. The film has lots of different stories going on.
A: I had four universes revolving: Matt on his own on Mars, JPL, the spaceship and NASA. They were the four quadrants, and I knew if I got slow somewhere, I could always cut to somewhere else. But we never got slow. That’s why I think the film has got a great engine.
Q: You have quite a résumé of films. Do you ever look back at your career and think about how far you’ve come?
A: I started off as a director when there was no film school. I was a designer who one day, for some bizarre reason, was given a script by the BBC and told, “OK, you’re on in three weeks. You’re going to direct that.” I was given an office with a middle-aged war horse of a production assistant who had been through every conceivable evolution of making everything. So I sat down with her and with two [casting] books. One was male spotlight and the other was female spotlight. I’d say, “Is he any good?” She’d say, “Nah.” I’d say, “Is she any good?” She’d say, “Yeah.” So that’s how I cast my first TV show, and I was on live with six cameras. From that I got into traditional rehearsals, where you’d have an old church hall or a factory marked out with sets on the ground in tape, with a chair, a table, and a glass of water, and all of that. I know there’s a moment where you can over-rehearse, and kill the evolution, kill the natural instinct of the actor. If you cast it right, then let ’em free. And I always shoot the first rehearsal. The actors know they’re on. I’ve got four cameras on, and there’s a natural intuition – a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of fear – and invariably, you get one or two great takes. I cast great, and turn ’em loose.
“The Martian” opens on Oct. 2.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.