'Martian' Screenwriter Drew Goddard: "We May Not Have Had a Movie" if Matt Damon Passed

Drew Goddard - H 2015
AP Photo/Nathan Denette, Canadian Press

The 40-year-old explains why his plans to direct fell through and his first reaction to being asked to tackle the space novel: "You're asking me if I want to write and direct a blog?"

A version of this story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Drew Goddard's geek bona fides are more than solid: His first writing credits were on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Lost; his feature scripting debut was the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield, and his directorial debut was the meta-horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods, which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon. And if creating Netflix's Daredevil series didn't launch him into a new geek stratosphere, adapting Andy Weir's man-stuck-on-Mars novel The Martian did. Goddard was asked by his friend, Aditya Sood, a producer at Fox, to write and direct an adaptation of Weir's then-self-published book. "I thought: 'This sounds crazy. You're asking me if I want to write and direct a blog?' " says Goddard. "But then he told me the basic concept, and it sounded just crazy enough to interest me. By the time I read the first chapter, I was hooked." The 40-year-old writer spoke to THR about the scene he wishes he could have kept, why his plans to direct got derailed (blame Spider-Man) and the challenge of making big science work for the big screen.

When you're writing, do you imagine actors who could play the part?

In general, I don't when I'm writing because I like to just think about the characters. But once we got the first draft done, then real casting discussions started, and Matt Damon was always at the top of our list. Honestly, if he hadn't said yes, I don't know what we would have done. We may not have had a movie, quite frankly.

How much did you work with Andy while you were writing?

A lot. I talked to him early on to just tell him how much I loved the book and how much I loved his writing. And to let him know I didn't want to do this without his blessing and his involvement. Then I said, "Now, having said all that, I think the best thing to do is I should go in my cave and write this first draft. I'm going to do everything I can to protect this book, but there's going to be a part of making the sausage that's not going to be fun for you as an author."

Did you have any contact with him while you were writing that first draft?

As I was writing it, I was calling him constantly with science questions and logic questions because he's a genius, and I'm pretty dim when it comes to the science. Those conversations were the best because he had not quit his job yet; he was still working as a computer programmer. He was still doing that even after Matt Damon had signed on. I kept saying, "Andy, I promise you, you can quit now."

Did you feel a responsibility to the book?

The way I approach adaptation is, I try never to say yes to anything I don't love because if I love it, I will protect it. And then once I know that, the second rule is: My job is not to protect the book — my job is to make the best movie. Those two things sort of are at odds with one another. But I don't like watching movies that are just transcriptions of a book; it's a great way to make a mediocre movie.

After you turned in your first draft, how quickly did you hear back from the producers? 

Pretty quickly. They were pretty excited. They didn’t have a lot of notes. Mostly, the discussions turned very quickly to, “How do we pay for the thing?” because it was clear there’s no cheap version of The Martian — there’s no $20 million version.

There is a lot of deep, deep science in Weir's book. How difficult was it to make that work for a movie?

It was tricky. It was definitely something I struggled with a lot. I never wanted to dumb it down; I never wanted to strip it all out. I trusted that even if you don't understand the specifics, as long as I kept it personal, we'll get through it. You may not understand how he's synthesizing water, but you understand that he needs water. You may not understand exactly the process of how he's creating food, but you know that he needs food. That was the mission statement: Keep it personal.

You initially were supposed to also direct The Martian. What happened?

I had a situation that no one is going to feel sorry for me about where I had three projects all get greenlighted at once that I was signed on to direct. So I had the Daredevil show, the Spider-Man [spinoff, Sinister Six] and this. And I signed on to the Spider-Man movie first, and the idea was that that was going to go in 2018. Then they moved the production date up. I had to make some hard decisions. At that point, Matt Damon had already signed on, so we have a window. We sent it to Ridley [Scott], and he said yes that day. It made the decision pretty easy.

Is there still hope for Sinister Six?

It's certainly not going to happen anytime soon, but I always have hope.

NASA worked very closely with Ridley. Did you also talk to experts?

Yeah, I talked to JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena] because they're close by, and then I could just go over there. But Andy's book is so well-researched. It's always been my approach, going back to the TV days: Focus on getting the story right, and then we get the research stuff later. Later I can show it to Andy and JPL and NASA, and they can tell me where I've gone egregiously wrong.

Is there anything you had to cut from earlier drafts that you wish could have stayed in?

The answer is no, in the sense that I believe that the best version of the movie ended up onscreen. There was a sequence that I loved that was in the book where the canvas rips and the [habitat] explodes at night. The book essentially flashes back and shows how that HAB canvas got made, starting with how it's being built to how it's transported and how it gets to that moment and then what goes wrong. I loved it. I had written this five-page flashback: The moment that it rips, it cuts to five years earlier, and you see technicians talking about it. I remember early in the process, even when I was still directing, our producers all said, "Drew, that's going to get cut because it's really expensive and there's no movie stars in it." But I loved it, so I kept fighting for it. In my first meeting with Ridley, he said, "We can cut that." And I went, "You know what, Ridley? You're right."

Did you go to the set? 

I only went to Budapest, but mainly I just wanted to go to watch Ridley work. It’s not like he really needed me. We worked really hard on the script beforehand, and then once he started shooting he didn’t change much. I’m a director — I understand you want to be able to change stuff on the day. But bless him, he is very protective. 

What are you working on now? 

We’ve got Daredevil season two. And I’m just writing my next project on spec. My hope is to get a draft done by the end of this year so I can have something fun to announce early next year. 

What’s your daily process as a writer? 

I’m very slavish to the process. I like to get started as early as possible, so I tend to get up around 6, 6:30. I go have breakfast in one of the coffee shops in the Valley, and start writing. I’ll just sit at the same table and write and listen to music. I hand-write everything, so I’ll just hand write until about noon. Then I’ll come home and type up what I’ve handwritten in the afternoon — that gives me a chance to edit it. Then I do business stuff — phone calls I tend to do in the afternoon. In general, it’s rare that inspiration strikes after 5 p.m. for me. 

Do you have a special writing tablet or pen?

I’m really sort of anal about all of this. I use a Uni-ball Deluxe black fine point. And I use Five Star Mead college-ruled notebooks. That’s how the magic happens, right there.