“I’d never met Ridley [Scott], not even in passing,” Matt Damon star of ‘The Martian’ tells Yahoo Movies, wearing his trademark grin / tousled hair combo.
“I went in to meet him, then I signed on really quickly. I went in and I said, I really love this script, but my only hesitation is I’ve just done ‘Interstellar’, in which I played a dude stranded on a planet, it might be weird if, after taking a year and a half off, I played another dude stranded on a planet.
I explained ‘Interstellar’ to him, and he said ‘The movies are totally f***ing different, this is going to be f***ing fun. Let’s do this!’ He was so infectious, I couldn’t really say no to him.”
Cut to December, 2014. Beams of light pierce the foggy darkness covering the surface of Mars, making the space-dust floating in the air look like VHS fuzz.
We see the source of the beams, lights fixed to helmets part of space-suits reminiscent of ‘Alien’, or ‘Prometheus’. The strange figures move towards us, and we see Jessica Chastain’s features start to form, seemingly floating in mid-air — the lights on her helmet making her face look ghostly white.
We’re in Budapest, standing in the centre of a large hanger currently doubling for the red planet. It’s the set of Sir Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’, and the atmosphere is intense.
A voice from amongst the crew - all impossible to identify, their features covered in dust masks - cries out: “Get these people out of here, get back!”
We move quickly on the soft red sand, as a dust machine starts to charge, sounding like a plane taking off. The actors are hit with a fierce storm of dust and rock. It whirls around them at speed, making us take a breath - it feels like we’re witnessing a real-life disaster.
“Watch out,” Jessica Chastain cries out.
“I can’t see anything,” Kate Mara replies.
They move slowly, their hands reaching out, trying to find a path through the fog and dust. There’s a problem with Jessica’s suit, she shakes her head, the machine whirrs down and the scene stops.
“Rocks hit my neck,” she says. “All I can feel are rocks on my neck.”
The moment’s so powerful, the dialogue so fiercely delivered, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s script. There’s no green screen here, we walk off the set gazing at light-balloons floating like alien zeppelins as we go, stopping to sift red dirt through our hands, and genuinely feel like we’ve been on the surface of a dangerous planet.
When we next see Chastain, she’s in far greater spirits. She enters the interview room with her helmet off, and the only thing lighting her face is a huge smile.
“So, did you see the thing where there were either rocks inside my helmet, or I couldn’t breathe?” she laughs.
“There’s air that comes in through the vents in the helmet on the side, to circulate. So rocks were coming in through the vents, to where my face is. So we closed up all the vents, which meant no air! And once they put it on, I can’t take it off. So I was just trying to be zen, hoping people would be around to be able to take it off. It’s a different experience for me!”
Chastain was also in ‘Interstellar’ of course, but she didn’t have the same fears as Damon reading ‘The Martian’ script.
‘Interstellar’s Murph is a contrasting - and very earth-bound - character com-pared to Melissa Lewis, the central supporting astronaut in Andy Weir’s original novel. In fact, Chastain was talking about how excited she was to take her turn travelling across the universe for ‘The Martian’ during Interstellar’s press tour.
And, despite the presence of suit-invading space-rock, she doesn’t regret making the trip.
“Not at all, I’m so stoked to be here. I’m actually wearing a cool-ing suit underneath the suit, which is advice I got from Anne Hathaway on ‘Interstellar’. Someone asked Chris about his favourite directors, and he mentioned Kubrick and so on, then he said Ridley was his favourite. How cool to work with Chris and then Ridley? It’s just so rad. They’re both guys who are making their own rules, in the way that they’re shooting and the visuals that they’re using, they’re always pushing the bar and challenging something, and also they make things on a epic scale.”
But ‘Interstellar’ isn’t the only elephant, or should we say ‘ghost,’ in the room - Mars movies have traditionally struggled to find an audience at the box office.
We ask Damon what makes ‘The Martian’ different to ‘Mission To Mars’, ‘John Carter’, ‘Red Planet’, ‘Ghosts Of Mars’ and the rest…
“One of the biggest differences is it’s primarily me on my own for a lot of it,” Damon says. “That’s the big challenge. It has all the bells and whistles of NASA and the b-side of the story, the rest of the world trying to get this guy back. But the other half of the movie is me and Ridley on Mars, so that part’s different. You start there, there’s that mystery - what happened, how did he get left there? The mission part is the b-side, trying to figure out how to get back. So, structurally it’s different to anyone that’s ever been done.”
Chastain agrees. “The book is great, it created an amazing character who’s such a problem solver. He has such a great sense of humour that you route for him. It has a similar character to other films we’ve loved, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, like Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s a character that’s lost at sea somewhere and is trying to find their way back home. I think we can all imagine being lost somewhere and trying to get back, we can all relate to that.”
One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t hard to relate to the struggles facing the actors we saw during our trip. If the finished film’s anything like the scene we were lucky enough to witness, it’s going to feel very grounded and very, very real.
And, with the recent teaser trailer demonstrating the humour Chastain mentions (“I’m gonna science the s*** out of this!”), hopefully audiences will find Ridley’s ‘The Martian’ as difficult to turn down as Damon did.
‘The Martian’ is coming to cinemas in 3D later this year.
Image credits: 20th Century Fox