There’s loneliness, and there’s being the sole inhabitant of a red rock 200 million kilometres from Earth, as Matt Damon discovers in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which is out on September 30. Olly Richards meets them both in the Jordanian desert…
“Isn’t this cool?!” says Matt Damon, beaming like a toddler at Disneyland as he hops out of his space truck. It’s been about 18 months since Damon last spent any real time on a film set, following a self-imposed break, and he’s evidently rather enjoying his return. And he’s right, this is pretty cool.
We’re on the set of Ridley Scott’s new film, The Martian, which tells the tale of Mark Watney (Damon), an astronaut who is left for dead on Mars during a botched mission, forcing him to survive for hundreds of days with minimal supplies while his colleagues on Earth try to work out how to rescue a starving man 140 million miles away.
Damon’s hiatus from filmmaking slowed down a career that had been hurtling since he broke through in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, as he searched for projects he could engage with. “For about a decade straight I knew what I was going to be doing two years out,” he says. “I just got off that merry-go-round and then the next cycle [of scripts] came around and there wasn’t anything I liked, so I let it go again. So it became 18 months… My life became about my kids’ schedule… I was in no hurry to get back. Then this came to me.”
What tempted him back was the opportunity to work with arguably the greatest living sci-fi director. “I was watching [Ridley Scott’s breakout] Alien again recently and it’s just incredible,” says Damon. “It’s not like ‘cool space travel’; it’s blue-collar – they’re coming back from a salvage trip and these guys have shitty jobs… it’s about how to get people to connect to something that is so different from their own experiences but actually has something that’s universal.”
Although there’s no monster in The Martian, it shares some DNA with Alien. Both are films in which one ill-suited member of a space-travelling team (Watney is a botanist) has to survive all alone in the blackness. They are both primarily about one person’s fight against impossible odds. “Actually,” says Ridley Scott, “The last script that landed on my desk that I didn’t have to work like crazy on, until this, was Alien. Everything else I’ve worked like stink on for months. This script by Drew Goddard was in great shape… Any survival story is always fascinating.” Scott has a comparison he considers more apt than Alien: “It’s a 21st-century Robinson Crusoe”.
Scott occupies a peculiar place in film. He is, to a large degree, flop-proof. His last major critical and box-office hit was Gladiator, 15 years ago. Yet he has no trouble securing jobs. This is largely because Scott is constantly developing numerous films, and he can take ideas to studios instead of waiting for them to come to him. The notion of him taking 18 months off in the way Damon did is unthinkable.
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“It’s in case I miss something,” Scott says of his piling up of projects. “I love to do this. Retirement is out of the question and as long as they keep letting me do it then I’m happy.” At the same time that he’s directing The Martian, Scott’s also pootling away on numerous other things. He’s confirmed his next film as director will be Prometheus 2. Then there’s development on another Alien movie, to be directed by District 9’s Neill Blomkamp, and at least two TV series. “Well, how long could you realistically go on holiday for? What’s the point? I can do a few days and then I’m twiddling my thumbs… I want to work. I love it.”
Reaction to its trailers and whispers from early screenings suggest that The Martian might be the biggest hit either Scott or Damon has had in years. On set, long before even the first teaser has been seen, Scott seems confident. A director known for sometimes being a bit gruff, he’s strolling around smiling. A crew member nudges me: “He knows this one’s good.” In the middle of nowhere, with a man millions of miles from safety, Ridley Scott may just have found his way home.