Over this past weekend Ridley Scott’s The Martian pulled in $55 million in US box office, nearly toppling the October opening record Gravity set two years ago. A love letter to science and the people that practice it, the film serves as proof that audiences are eager for movies that are smarter than your average blockbuster. Much of the credit goes to novelist Andy Weir, who wrote and self-published the story in the first place, but it’s also largely due to the work of screenwriter Drew Goddard.
Goddard’s IMDb page is a highlight reel of cultural impact points: he worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Lost before moving to features with Cloverfield. He then stepped behind the camera to direct cult favorite The Cabin in the Woods (which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon) before creating Netflix’s Daredevil series. And somewhere in there, he fell in love with Weir’s novel and signed on to write and direct The Martian (he later handed off directing duties to work on the now-defunct Spider-Man spin-off The Sinister Six).
It’s the kind of resume that warrants some real swagger — but as I sat down with the affable filmmaker on the eve of The Martian’s release, it was all too clear that’s not Goddard’s style. What began as a conversation about his latest movie turned into wide-ranging discussion about science as faith, the optimism deficit in today’s movies, his inside look at the Sony hack, and how the internet has stopped being fun.
There’s been some big news recently, so I have to ask: If two years ago you found out there was water on Mars, what would you changed in the movie?
It’s funny, I need to educate myself a little more. This has all happened while I’ve been traveling [to promote The Martian]. What we would do is, Andy and I would sit down and talk about what are the realistic implications of this. The truth is, in the movie he has his own survival water. The thing that may have to change is how he generates lots of water to farm. But we may not [have changed] it, truthfully, because I’d have to study where that water is on Mars, how quickly he can collect it, and how he could use that to water crops. It may be that synthesizing water with hydrazine still is the smartest thing he can do.
Unless there’s something immediately nearby.
A river. But we know there’s not a river, so it may still be hard. And even that’s a minor plot point, so on the big scheme of things he has water in the movie. Food is a much bigger problem for him. If they suddenly discovered potato mines on Mars, that would change our story substantially.
"If they suddenly discovered potato mines on Mars, that would change our story substantially."
There have been rumors. It could be coming.
I don’t know that there’s not potato mines down there. I don’t know that.
I’m really interested in the process of adapting this story. It was just an ebook when you started, right?
Andy was giving it away for free. The way Amazon [Kindle] works, is you have to charge at least a dollar. But before that he was just giving it away on his website, chapter by chapter, over three years I think. So my friend Aditya Sood, who’s a producer over at Fox called me, and he said "You know, I found this book. It’s special. Check it out." And I’m like, "Wait, it’s an ebook?" He said "I know, but I think you’re going to like it." And he sent it over and I did, I knew from the first sentence.
The first sentence is, "I’m pretty much fucked." Which is a great first sentence, because it’s not "I’m fucked." It’s "I’m pretty much fucked," so weirdly, the whole movie to me is in those four words: I’m in trouble, but there’s some hope, you know? And it’s funny! The optimism and the humor is in those four words "I’m pretty much fucked." And I just responded to that right away. And then I kept reading, and the book kept getting better and better, and I saw these themes that interested me coming up over and over as I read it. And you know you’re just looking for something that haunts you. You’re looking for something to connect on a deeper level. And I was just being haunted by the book.
It seems like something that could be a hard sell for a studio. Because of the math, because of the science…
And it was an ebook! It’s a best seller now; it was not a best seller then. It didn’t even have a publishing deal. So it’s essentially like going to a studio and saying: Here’s a very complicated movie about science that takes place on Mars, which traditionally is box-office poison. It’s not based on anything; there’s no IP, as it were, that studios seem to get all excited about. But I loved it.
And that’s what we did. I went in and said, "I’m going to tell you all the reasons you’re going to say no, and if at the end of that you still are interested, I’m going to tell you all the reasons why you should say yes." And [president of production] Emma Watts over at Fox just got it. We started talking about it and she voiced her concerns which were all very fair — the main one being in order to sell something like this, we’re going to need a movie star. And I said that’s fine, I think we’ll get one. [Mark Watney] is a great part. When I read the book, that was one of the big selling points to me, was we’re going to get a great actor because it’s such a phenomenal part.
Because the story celebrates math and science, it feels like a film that could inspire people to pursue those fields. Was that something you were intentionally hoping for?
Sort of. You hope that the movie connects, and you hope that what you love about it, other people will love. But you can’t worry too much about the bigger place in things or you’ll just do a bad job. It’ll just be a cynical sort of approach. But I did feel like I was responding so strongly to the book because there wasn’t a lot out there like it. It was striking a chord that I felt was important, this idea of science.
One of the things that I said in that very first meeting at Fox when I was talking about what my approach would be to making it, I told them: Think of it as a religious movie, because it very much is. It’s just that the religion in this movie is science. But the approach is the same: a man has a set of beliefs, he gets stranded, and he has to trust his own faith to get him through this. When I was talking about the movie, i was talking about things like The Ten Commandments and stuff like that. There are parallels there, just replace the Christian story with hexadecimals. [Laughs] But structurally, I saw an interesting overlap in a way to approach it.
Even though it’s based on a book, The Martian is essentially original IP in contrast to the larger franchises out there. As a writer and director, you’ve been able to work in both of those worlds. Do you find one more satisfying than the other?
I don’t know, I like both. The truth is I try to just do what I love, and work on what I love. And I love lots of different things, so you just sort of go with it. I love Daredevil, I have always loved that character, so I said okay, that sounds like a fun thing to think about. And then I loved Andy’s book, so I said okay, that sounds like a fun thing to think about. The times that I’ve made mistakes in my career are when I’ve thought, "Oh that was a good piece of business, I should do that." That gets me in trouble, because I don’t love it, and you get tired of it pretty quickly. But when you love something, you just go with it.
The thing that I realized when we were doing the first Martian test screening, the thing that I hadn’t really thought about, is that I do think we’re living in a time where cinema has gotten a little polarized. Where there’s blockbuster movies, and then there’s niche movies for adults. You’re either 13, or you want a gritty, adult movie — and I keep thinking, "No, there’s a middle ground here." There are movies that can be fun and optimistic but aren’t just lowest common denominator storytelling.
You were originally going to direct The Martian but stepped away to make The Sinister Six for Sony. That ended up not happening, thanks in no small part to fallout from the Sony hack. What was it like being on the inside when the hack happened?
It was really hard. Because the story that didn’t really get reported was how devastating it was to the company. I think people got hung up on emails getting leaked and thinking oh, this is just an embarrassing thing, but no — they were the victim of a massive security breach. And so much of their business is based on that security. It really rattled the company. So many people’s jobs were at stake; these were people’s lives. Well-meaning people who have done nothing wrong are now getting brought down because of a crime. I think that got missed; the crime of it. Because there was a salacious side to stuff like emails. It was bad.
I remember it was the Monday before Thanksgiving. And I show up at work early and my assistant says, "Oh, I think the computers are down. It sounds like we might have got hacked." And I thought okay, I handwrite anyway, so I don’t care. So I was just sitting outside, and it had that feeling, like a snow day. "We don’t know what to do because we don’t have computers," so everyone started to leave. And it got quiet. And then I saw all these black SUVs show up, and people just started running towards the main building. And I said to my assistant, "Oh, this is worse. Something much scarier is happening."
We all live in this world right now where we think we can’t be touched. That there’s a secrecy about our lives that actually doesn’t exist. We’re all very vulnerable. It’s definitely changed the way I approach these things for sure. But look, it was tragic. You feel bad for the people involved. That’s the thing that doesn’t get reported.
The projects you work on tend to be internet catnip — Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil, Cloverfield — but you’ve commented that you don’t really spend a ton of time online or on social media. What led you to make that choice, and have you ever been tempted to come back?
Part of it is just your own personality, and everyone just finds what works best for them. And at the end of the day I’m kind of introverted, and I like to sit in my room by myself and write stories. But I remember a time — and this is going to date me and make me sound like an old man — but back in the Buffy days, the internet was really fun. It was a really fun thing to comment, because it felt like it was private. It just did. We had The Bronze on Buffy, which was our posting board. You could talk on The Bronze and not be worried about being quoted out of context. You could just interact with the fans.
And then it slowly but surely changed. It started happening in the Lost era, where I think frankly, these shows started getting more successful, so the spotlight was on it more. But then technology started catching up, so as soon as things like Twitter came out it stopped feeling like a message board. It stopped feeling like a place to interact with the fans. It started feeling like the place of record. And then that’s not as much fun. I like talking to fans. If we could come up with some secret way to talk to the fans and have an honest conversation and make silly jokes and then not read about it in a paper of record the next day, I would enjoy that. But it’s hard! I say a lot of dumb things. I would make a lot of dumb jokes on The Bronze, but that’s because that was the style.
And then part of it is I started noticing that I would react too much to comments. And it wasn’t the negative comments, weirdly. It was the positive comments. You start to think that whoever you’re talking to represents everyone. And that person loved this thing that I did; that must mean I should keep doing that. That’s just what your brain starts to think, and you stop listening to your gut, which is what got you there in the first place. It’s hard enough to trust your gut anyway, but when you have too many voices in your head you get in trouble, so I sort of pulled back right around Lost.
An interesting dynamic’s developed over the past decade, where fans feel passionately about a show and they have a platform online. This strange sense of ownership develops, where sometimes they feel they know what’s better for the show than those creating it.
Which is true, but that’s always been the case. In a weird way we dealt with that [on Buffy] too. What’s hard is understanding that there’s a silent majority out there that is actually the bulk of your audience. The bulk of your audience is busy; they’re going to their job every day, and they’re picking up their kids. They don’t have time to get on the fucking internet, because they’re busy! They have their own sets of opinions, and just because they’re not yelling about good or bad things, their opinions are no less valid to what you’re trying to do. You’re just trying to seek connection, and you want to be careful that you’re not discounting somebody’s connection just because they’re not talking. I think that’s where the introvert in me has a lot of sympathy for the world, because I tend to just sit in the back and be quiet.
But the truth is, I’ve always just sort of felt trust that if I like it, other people will like it, and that’s worked out well for me.
So what are you up to next? It seems like there’s an awful lot of people that would like to see sequels to Cloverfield or Cabin in the Woods.
It’s funny, because those things crop up every time I go do interviews. Truth is, there’s no plans for any of those. People just ask, and I’m glad people ask, but there’s no real plan for it. Maybe I make a mistake because I leave the door open, but the door is always open. If we wake up tomorrow and we got a good idea, I think we could go get it made, you know? But it took me a long time to understand in my career that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something. And you have to trust that. You go where the inspiration is, even if it sounds like a bad idea.
The Martian is the best example of that. I guess it would be bad taste to show you the things I was being offered at the same time, because they’re all stuff that came out and is successful and good, whereas I was like, "Well, okay I get that. But how about this ebook where our main character is farming in his own shit?" It was a terrible decision at the time from that point of view, but I just loved it. And I found it works better if you love it. You’re gonna get burned if you worry too long about trying to please everyone.
"You go where the inspiration is, even if it sounds like a bad idea."
And where are your passions leading you now — more directing on the horizon?
I’m writing my next thing, and the plan is to direct, and we’ll just see. I’m not done with it yet, so I don’t know.
Can you talk about genre, or anything of that sort?
No, because the truth is I don’t even know. I’m really bad. Like, what genre is Cabin the Woods? I don’t really know. I mean, I guess it’s a horror film?
Horror-comedy-ish. But right away you named two genres, that’s two different ones! I don’t know. I like that I tend to work on things that aren’t easily categorized. And that certainly continues to be the case in what I’m working on now. So I’ll have to finish it and show it to you and you tell me what genre it is.