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How ‘The Martian’s’ Ridley Scott Replicated Mars in the Middle East

The director used the vast landscape of the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan (and the world's largest soundstage in Budapest) to realistically portray the planet and put his cast (including Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor) into 80-pound space suits. Says Ridley, "I wanted to get it right — the way Stanley got it right on '2001.' "

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In early summer 2014, production designer Arthur Max placed two photographs on a table in Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles office. Both looked much the same, revealing vast, desolate, reddish-coppery landscapes that seemed equally hostile to human life. One picture was of Wadi Rum, the high desert in southern Jordan. The other, shot by the Curiosity Rover, showed an even more remote location.

“Which one is Mars?” asked the director.

“Exactly,” answered Max.

Damon in his Mars habitat, or “hab.”

And that’s how The Martian, Scott’s $108 million sci-fi drama (or comedy, if you’re a voting member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association), starring Matt Damon as an astronaut marooned on Mars, ended up shooting its third act on the location that Omar Sharif described as “the sun’s anvil” in Lawrence of Arabia. “I’d gone to Jordan before, when I was making G.I. Jane,” says Scott, 77. “In summer, it’s 120 degrees. But there’s a perfection to the simplicity of the environment. There’s no vegetation. It’s crisp and magnificent. I knew it was the one place to do a strange planet.”

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“Over the years, I got pretty good at casting,” says Scott, who spent years making ads before moving into directing features. “I was never trained in drama school and was very nervous about actors. I didn’t understand their language.”

This particular strange planet has been done by Hollywood before. Val Kilmer landed on it in Red Planet, as did Don Cheadle in Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head almost exploded on its airless surface in Total Recall. But this time, with The Martian, one of Hollywood’s most successful sci-fi auteurs set out to create the most scientifically realistic, visually accurate replica of the planet ever put on film. “I wanted to get it right,” he tells THR. “The way Stanley got it right on 2001.” Yes, as in Kubrick.

The film’s authenticity is likely one of the reasons it’s performed so well, earning nearly $500 million as of Nov. 20, making it the biggest hit of Scott’s career. But that verisimilitude required more than just shooting at inhospitable locations in the desert; it also meant building true-to-life Martian landscapes inside Earth’s largest soundstage — located in the suburbs of Budapest — and trucking in thousands of pounds of red-tinted sand and rocks. It meant putting the cast into 80-pound space suits so realistically designed, the actors needed oxygen pumped into their helmets in order to breathe. “Sometimes the air supply would get shut off if you turned a certain way,” notes Jessica Chastain, who plays one of Damon’s fellow astronauts (along with Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Michael Pena; Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor play members of the ground crew). And if all that weren’t difficult enough, it was impossible to find potatoes in Budapest during the winter. Those space spuds that Damon’s character grows in his Martian greenhouse? They had to be cultivated in a special high-tech hothouse on the set.

“It was more difficult doing this movie,” says Max, half-joking, “than actually going to Mars.”

Damon’s journey to Mars began with a blog. In 2009, an ex-AOL programmer named Andy Weir began posting chapters on his website of a novel he was writing about an astronaut left behind during a mission to the planet. The blog kept going for three years, with Weir adding more and more research on what, scientifically speaking, living on Mars really would be like. Eventually, the book drew a small following, and Weir got requests to put it on Amazon. He did, selling it for 99 cents a copy. Within six months, he’d sold 35,000 copies. Within another year, Crown Publishing had put it out as a hardcover (which spent 55 weeks on the best-seller list).

Damon in his space suit.

But in early 2013, while The Martian was still a cult e-book, a young producer named Aditya Sood downloaded a copy and shared it with his boss, Simon Kinberg, a producer on X-Men and a creative consultant on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “A studio’s fear is always that science fiction will be cold and alienating,” says Sood. “But this was a real character story.” The producers took the e-book to Fox, where Kinberg’s Genre Films is based, and convinced the studio to make Weir’s story into a movie. They hired Drew Goddard — who previously had penned Cloverfield — to write and direct. In October 2013 Goddard submitted his first draft, which Kinberg rush-delivered to Damon (the two had worked together on Elysium). The actor, who had just finished being rescued from an alien planet in Interstellar, loved what he read. Just as important, he had an opening before he started shooting his next Bourne movie in September 2015. He signed on as The Martian‘s star in April 2014.

Damon and Scott in the Jordan desert. The director says he became interested in sci-fi in 1977, after seeing Star Wars at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. “I’ve never seen an audience connection like that in my life.”

Then, a snafu. Goddard, a comic book fanatic, got another offer — the Spider-Man spinoff Sinister Six — and left The Martian just as Damon was coming aboard. With the clock ticking before Damon’s window closed, Fox executive vp production Steve Asbell hurried a script over to his good friend Scott — the two had worked closely together on Prometheus — who had just completed Exodus: Gods and Kings. Although suspicious over Goddard’s sudden exit from The Martian (“Is there something I’m missing, is there a problem here, why aren’t you doing it?” he grilled Goddard before taking over), Scott fell for the material. He agreed to replace Goddard and wished him luck on Sinister Six (which didn’t do much good; the Spidey spinoff ended up getting killed).

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From left: Damon and fellow astronauts Chastain, Stan, Mara and Hennie. “I really used this film as an opportunity to geek out as much as I could,” says Chastain.

Even if Scott had been inclined, there wasn’t time for a rewrite of Goddard’s script, not with the Bourne start date looming in the fall. But Scott did make some changes. For instance, he added the bit about Damon’s character keeping a video diary, which functions not only as a plot-propelling voiceover to the film but also as a sidekick. “He suddenly starts treating the camera like a buddy, having fun with it like a companion,” explains Scott. Meanwhile, his longtime production designer (Max and Scott have been working together since 1997) took a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to learn everything he could about traveling to Mars. “[Max] must have taken several thousand pictures of Mars habitats, rovers and space suits,” recalls Dr. James Green, NASA’s Planetary Science director (everyone calls him Mr. Mars), who advised on The Martian. “He clicked everything he saw for eight hours.”

Max used those pictures to assemble his sets outside Budapest at Korda Studio. The flight deck of the Hermes spaceship that takes Damon and the others to Mars occupied one soundstage, while the world’s biggest stage — larger than a football field — was transformed into the Martian surface. “We had to bring in about a thousand metric tons of custom-colored sand and soil,” says Max. “It took three weeks just to deliver it all.”

Damon dug into some of the 1,000 metric tons of red-hued soil shipped to the Budapest soundstage where much of the movie was shot.

One of the first sequences Scott shot on a soundstage was the storm at the beginning of the film that forces the other astronauts to lift off while Damon’s character is left behind. Ironically, it’s one of the few parts of the movie that is scientifically impossible (according to Mr. Mars, no such storm could exist on the planet). But the space suits the cast wore in the scene and for much of the rest of the movie certainly looked authentic enough. Originally, in fact, there had been talk of using NASA’s own prototypes of Mars suits — bulky contraptions nicknamed by the agency Zed 1 and Zed 2 that weigh more than 160 pounds — but there were problems with the designs. For one thing, the helmets made the faces of the actors hard to see. For another, says costume designer Janty Yates, “Zed 1 is a dead ringer for Buzz Lightyear.” Instead, Yates crafted a slightly less cumbersome costume loosely based on the Zed models. “The most difficult thing for me was getting them on and off,” says Damon. “I’m not as flexible as Jessica.”

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When shooting wrapped in Budapest, all the actors but Damon were dismissed as the production moved to Jordan to shoot the scenes where Damon’s character marches hundreds of miles on the Martian surface. For the star, the hardest part wasn’t wearing a space suit in the desert or learning to drive the zippy Mars Rover designed by art director Oliver Hodge (“We got two crop dusters and stripped them down,” he says). The most difficult thing was being the only actor on the set. “Actors are notorious for getting in a huddle and complaining,” he says. “Instead, I had to call home and complain to my wife.”

Damon in the lab. Says The Martian author Weir, “The whole film is a faithful adaptation of the book. I was really impressed with how much effort they put into the technical accuracy. Usually, Hollywood doesn’t care much about it. Scientific accuracy was one of the reasons the book was so popular.”

Scott wrapped the production in 70 days, three days early. And postproduction was accelerated as well when Fox decided to push the release of The Martian from its original Nov. 25 date to Oct. 2. But there wasn’t a huge amount to do in post, since the only CGI in the film — aside from inserting Damon’s head on a skeletal body double in the scenes where his character is starving — involved coloring the sky butterscotch and adding mountains and some carbon dioxide clouds.

The new debut date turned out to be fortuitous. Just days before the film’s release, NASA made the startling announcement that liquid water had been discovered on Mars. There were cheers at the Johnson Space Center — and inside Fox’s marketing department. But all Scott could think about were possibilities missed. “He would have found the edge of a glacier, definitely,” he fantasizes about reshoots. “It would be fascinating …”