The Martian’s Screenwriter Drew Goddard on Adapting What he Loves

The Martian began its life with a cult following on the internet, then became a bestseller and ended up as one of the biggest movies of the 2015, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Screenwriter Drew Goddard (World War Z) talks to The Credits about adapting Andy Weir’s page turner about surviving being stranded on Mars, handing over the directing reins to Scott and telling Weir it was time to quit his day job.

Having enjoyed the book, it was interesting to see how it was brought to the big screen. What was your initial approach to writing this screenplay?

For me, especially with adaptation, it always starts from a place of love. I try not to say yes to these things unless I love them, because I've learned that it makes your job really hard. Your job is to protect them, and then at times make hard decisions about the material, or you have to sort of do both. If you don't love it, it skews that balance. You'll either be too protective or not protective enough. If you love it, it tends to give you a sort of guideline in your own gut to approaching these things. I read Andy's book and I loved it. I started from that. I tend to write down all that I love about it: sometimes that's scenes, sometimes that's moments, sometimes that's themes, and then you just roll up your sleeves and get to work and say, ‘Now, let's forget all of this and concentrate on making the best movie.’

I understand you wrote the first draft of the script quite quickly. Is that normally your process?

Yeah, well, it's a little bit disingenuous because I take an abnormally long time outlining things. I tend to be really hard on outlining. I like to fail in outlines before a script as much as I can. For whatever reason, that process works better for me. The outlining, which is I think a lot of people would consider part of the script process. It's all semantics I suppose, but that took me a good two, two and a half months for The Martian before I even started writing. Then the script itself wrote pretty quickly, but I was only able to write quickly because of how much I toiled.

What was the most important element of the book to you to retain for the film, and what did you feel comfortable throwing out?

To me, it was about the soul. I know that's hard to describe, but I realized it's not just a book about a series of scientific experiments. What happened to me as I was reading is that the process became the point. The process of how this character, and the supporting characters as well, solved problems—that became my world view. So I kept thinking of it in terms of the scientific processes but of also life. How do we apply this to our story?

Then, as I started writing the screenplay- screenplays are about economy. You have to have your scenes doing triple duty. Any time a scene wasn't about that theme, I would cut it because then you're just trying to serve a plot and plot bores me, and I don't have room for it anyway. That sort of was my mission statement. That was the soul of the book to me, and that's what I tried to protect as best I can.

Then you just have to make hard decisions. I knew after my very first conversation with Andy… I told him all the stuff I loved about it, and then I wanted to sort of give him a sense of my gut in terms of what I was going to have to change, so that nothing would shock him. Before I even could get the words out of my mouth, he said, ‘Well, it's the ending that you're going to get in trouble with. The journey from the Hab to the MAV is 100 pages in the book.’ Andy said, ‘That can probably be three minutes of montage in a movie.’ I laughed and said, ‘That's exactly what we may have to do.’

It must've been a relief to get his seal of approval?

It was, for sure.

Did you have much discussion with Andy along the way?

Yeah, absolutely. There was a point in the process, and I think it was during the actual writing where I said to Andy, ‘Listen, I'm going to go into my cave now, and I'm going to struggle with this and I'm going to go argue with the studio and you don't want to hear any of these arguments’. Because I'm a writer and I know particularly when it's your baby it can be really hard, especially if you've never dealt with the Hollywood process before. I said, ‘Let me just go argue this and you don't want to see how the sausage is made for these five weeks. Then, when we're done, I will give it to you and you can tell me all of the things that still bother you, and then we will fix them. Just trust that this needs to happen.’ He got that. I think he was grateful to not have to deal with the nonsense.

It all happened quite quickly for him. He's been thrown into the whole Hollywood machine without a lot of preparation.

One of the fun parts about this was I got to call Andy and say, ‘Listen, your life's going to change. They're going to make this movie and you're going to go through something that very few people ever get the chance to do’. I believed this movie was going to be a success and was going to work. I didn't believe that this was going to be this big of a success. I think that's caught all of us off guard, but I believed that it was going to change Andy's life. I absolutely believed that.

One of the most endearing things about Andy was that he was still working his day job, and so every time I would call him with a scientific question or to have a plot discussion, he would say, ‘I got to go into the conference room because I'm not allowed to take personal calls at my desk.’ I was like, ‘Andy, you can quit, man. Matt Damon said, Yes, you can quit.’

That's hilarious! One of the things the book does is makes the science and math accessible and interesting, and you can really get into it as a reader. Obviously, that was an important part of the film as well. How did you approach that?

I knew this would be the biggest challenge of the project, protecting the intelligence of the book and yet making it…I don't want to say dumbing it down. Making it have a reason to exist; because I don't think anyone wants to just go watch a scientific lecture. What I said to the studio early on is that part of the fun of the book is, I still don't quite understand what hydrazine does. I still don't quite understand how you can make water out of it, but what I do understand is that Mark Watney needs water in order to grow potatoes. I understand why he needs to do these experiments because that's all tied into human survival. If you tie the science into human survival, the audience will go with it because they feel what it is.

So audiences, like readers, are picking up this stuff as they go?

There's the fun of learning things that you don't know. I actually believe that we worry too much about making things simple for audiences, whereas my experience is audiences prefer to learn. I know I love when I come out of a movie and I now know something that I didn't know going into the movie. And that's fun for me, but the challenge is to make it entertaining. It was trying to find that balance and it was something that we struggled with all throughout. It wasn't until the first test screening with the audience where they asked, ‘What did you like about the movie?’ The first thing they said was, ‘We loved the science.’ I knew that we were going to be okay in that moment.

The humor is also a very important part of the book as well, which I feel translated into the movie. 

Yeah, and I think that's the key. That's why it survived. It's not just jokes. As the book goes on, I felt that you start to understand that the humor is there to serve a purpose. Part of what's keeping him alive is his staying optimistic in the face of despair, and the humor is a part of that. I feel like if we just were telling one-liners throughout the movie, we would cut them. At a certain point, we would just say, ‘These don't have a reason to be here.’

Did Andy give you his final verdict in the end? Was he happy with it?

Yeah, look, he may lie to me, so you may want to double-check with Andy himself, but he's always been incredibly supportive and thrilled with the movie and it has been a joy working with him, for sure. He's such a nice person that if he didn't care for it, I have a feeling he wouldn't tell me.

Also, I read that you were originally going to direct as well and something clashed, so it didn't end up happening. How do you feel about that now, looking back on how it all happened?

You learn in Hollywood that it's a volatile business and I've been really lucky that I get a lot of things made. I was in this weird situation where three things I had committed to direct all got green-lighted at the same time. I had to make some hard decisions, and the challenge for The Martian was we had Matt Damon for a limited window and we didn't want to lose Matt Damon. I just don't understand this movie without Matt Damon. He is so integral to this movie working.

We all just had a conversation at Fox. I've been a screenwriter for 20 years. I like to be a screenwriter and I like to direct, and I like to do both. I said, ‘Let's just go talk to directors that we love and see if anyone wants to do it.’ That's exciting to me as a screenwriter and Ridley was number one on our list. It was a dream and we thought we'd shoot for the stars, and then we sent it to Ridley and he said yes that night. Suddenly, it wasn't that hard of a decision anymore.

If you're going to be replaced by someone…

Yeah, and I look at it now and I think the best version of the movie is on the screen. I think that Ridley's soul is what's up on the screen, too. I think you've got this four-way discussion of the movie. It's between what Andy thinks is important, what Drew thinks is important, what Ridley thinks is important and what Matt Damon thinks is important. The movie is sort of the combination of all of those things and that created the soul that is on the screen and I wouldn't change a thing. It's been the great joy of my career is going through this process with these people and I love it.


Alice Wasley

Alice Wasley is a freelance writer based in Sydney. When she’s not watching as many movies as she can get away with, she writes for a range of publications including GQ Australia and Marie Claire Australia. You can follow her on Instagram: @alicewasley or visit her website:

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