The Martian: Bring Your Script Home
By Jacob Krueger
The success of The Martian is extremely exciting if you’re a screenwriter, especially because it breaks so much of the traditional Hollywood dogma. Often, as screenwriters, we think that our movies have to exist within some kind of orthodoxy: that there are certain things that you are just not allowed to do, and if you do them somehow you have no chance of writing a movie that’s a hit. And yet, The Martian seems to throw all of those cares to the wind.
If you’ve taken the average Screenwriting 101 class you’ve probably been taught a couple of concepts that are supposed to be the rules for all movies.
You’ve probably been taught that structure is always built on characters’ change. Yet, here is a character who doesn’t change at all.
You’ve probably been taught that screenplay structure is built primarily around the relationships between characters. That you simply cannot leave your character alone on a planet, that he has to interact with somebody. That even Castaway was kind enough to give Tom Hanks a volleyball to interact with! Yet, here is a movie in which the character is primarily relating to his environment, and in which his only interactions with other characters, beyond the first few minutes of the movie, take place over email!
You’ve probably been taught that a movie must have an antagonist, and you’ve probably been taught that that antagonist is some kind of bad guy. Yet, in the world of this movie we don’t have an antagonist. Or at least not one that is human. In fact, every character in the movie is trying to do the very best they can to solve an extraordinary problem with limited resources. Even the most overtly political character, the head of NASA, played by Jeff Daniels, is truly just trying to protect his space program and the lives of his crew.
So, we don’t have a traditional bad guy. We don’t have a movie that’s built primarily around relationships. We don’t have a character who changes. And yet, we do have an extraordinarily successful movie. So how did writer Drew Goddard make all that work?
The structure of The Martian is an unusual structure, but one we do see from time to time. And, strangely, we see this unusual, very challenging structure most often in big blockbusters.
I like to call these movies Test Movies. And the way a Test Movie functions is exactly the opposite of the way a traditional film functions.
Most films start off with a character with a problem, and that character must usually go through a painful and tumultuous journey in order to be forced to confront that problem and ultimately change.
This is the easiest way to build a movie, because the truth of the matter is, every human being in the world has a problem, and every human being in the world wants to change, and every human being, when we go to see a movie, has a part of us that looks up at that screen and says “that’s me up there.”
So, there is a natural identification that happens when we see somebody who is like us, making the kinds of changes in their lives that we wish we could make in ours.
But a Test Movie like The Martian is built on exactly the opposite principle.
A Test Movie begins with a character with a very strong sense of themselves. It could be a character like Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, in The Martian, whose dominant trait is his unflagging belief in himself and in science, characterized by his competence, his positivity, his lightheartedness, and his can-do attitude even in the hardest situations.
These are obviously highly positive traits. But in a different kind of test movie, structure could be built around a negative trait, like a character who will always make the most selfish choice.. If you wanted to write a series like Curb Your Enthusiasm, you could think of it as a “Test Series” in which Larry David is tested and tested and tested by normal social situations that any other human being could handle, but which he would always find a unique, self-obsessed way to screw up.
The structure of a Test Movie takes a character with a very strong dominant trait, a very strong sense of themselves, and assaults them with obstacles under which any other human being would break or change. The structure exists to test them in order to see if they can hold onto who they are, in the face of those extraordinary circumstances.
For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a Test Movie. Indiana Jones never changes. He is Indie at the beginning, and he is Indie at the end. But he is tested. His desire to get the ark is tested by circumstances under which, honestly, most of us would turn around and go home. In order to get the ark, he has to confront the ex-girlfriend that he wronged, the scary Nazi dude with the amulet burned into his hand, the force of Hitler’s army, his fear of snakes, the face of G-d and ultimately the meaninglessness of his own work.
He has to confront all of those things in order to get the ark. And in a situation in which any of us might have said “You know what? Screw this. I’m going home…” Indiana Jones just keeps on going.
Similarly, The Martian finds Matt Damon’s character in a situation in which most of us would give into despair,and loneliness, and hopelessness, and the overwhelming belief that we are going to die. Most of us would not decide to “science the shit out of it.” Most of us would resign ourselves to our fate.
From the moment the big dust storm hits early in the film, we get to see every other character around him make that decision. We get to see them leave him for dead, never imagining that he could have somehow survived his injuries. Even the brave Captain, played by Jessica Chastain, is persuaded to take off without him. There simply is no hope, from those characters’ perspective, of surviving alone on Mars.
But Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, is possessed of dominant trait that we actually see from the very beginning of the movie—his unflagging belief in himself and science, with his light hearted, can-do attitude, his playful ingenuity and his relentless sense of hope.
If you’re going to build a Test Movie, there is really only one thing that is important. You’ve got to know what your character wants. And then you’ve got to make it hard.
And I don’t mean a little hard. I mean mercilessly hard. At every turn the character must be tested and tested and tested. You have to be cruel to your character.
This is actually an extraordinarily difficult thing to do as a writer, especially if you’re doing the writing for real, and you’re actually connected to this character. Because the truth of the matter is that you’re going to fall in love with your character.
Just like your audience sees your character up there on the screen and a part of them says “that’s me,” so too are you going to see your character and think “that’s me, that’s my baby up there.”
And what happens when we start to identify with a character like this is that we don’t want to hurt them.
We don’t want to hurt them for a couple of reasons. First, we don’t want to hurt them because we don’t want to hurt ourselves. We don’t want to put ourselves through the emotional pain, the emotional loss, the hopelessness that comes with real obstacles, and complications even worse and more devastating than the ones we anticipated when we first sat down to write.
We also sometimes avoid making things hard because we’re afraid of writing ourselves into a corner. We’re afraid of actually testing ourselves to solve problems that we don’t know how to solve, to put our characters in situations that we don’t know how to get out of.
And so, sometimes what happens to us as writers is we end up pulling our punches rather than letting the very worst, the most unexpected, most painful or most ironic thing happen. We avoid the biggest test and grade on a curve for our characters. We allow things to happen easily.
And the truth is whether you are building a Test Movie, or a Change Movie, letting things happen easily is usually death to the structure of your film.
So, let’s just talk about the structure of The Martian for a moment. And just a warning, there are going to be a couple of small spoilers ahead.
The structure of The Martian in many ways is a lot like the structure of reality television. In fact, in many ways we’ve been prepared for The Martian by our obsession with reality shows. It takes its structure directly from reality television, beginning with the idea of the video log: the interview common to nearly every reality show, in which the character speaks directly to the camera, interspersed increasing challenges that make things go wrong.
Whether you’re talking about Survivor, or The Amazing Race, or Project Runway you can see the same structure in reality show after reality show. You check in with the character about who they think they are, where they think they’re going, what they think they want, and then you create a challenge to make sure things don’t go the way they expect.
Whether it’s a scripted challenge like in a film, or a game challenge or a “twist” challenge like in a reality show, you create a challenge that is going to force the character to come to terms with the fact that what they though was going to happen just isn’t going to happen that way.
You set the rules that allow things to go wrong.
It’s exciting to think that a movie that is as high end and classy as The Martian is actually built on reality show bones. It goes to show you, you don’t have to be a sell out based on your genre. If you are writing in a connected way, if you’re writing in a truthful way, the reality is you can steal your structure from anywhere! And you should steal your structure from anywhere that works.
It makes sense to steal a reality show structure for The Martian because you have a movie built around a guy who’s primarily alone.
But that’s not the only way to build a structure like this. Just because you have a character whose alone on a deserted planet does not mean you have to have a video log to tell the story.
For example, if you think of the opening of There Will Be Blood, that 25 minutes of silent story telling, you can see that that’s built on the same structural ideas, just without the interviews. At each moment that we watch Daniel Day Lewis’s character, Daniel Plainview in that silent movie sequence, we know exactly what he’s going for.
First, he’s going for silver, then he’s going for oil. And we watch him go to the well each time with a different plan, and each time he goes to the well something terribly wrong happens.
We watch him break his leg, we watch his partner die, we watch him inherit his partner’s son. And you can see it’s the exact same structure, just without the reality show element. It is a Test Structure.
Ultimately, There Will Be Blood will go on to become a Change Movie, but that early part is built totally around a Test Movie Structure. It’s asking its audience the question,”If you were Daniel Plainview, would you go back to that well if these bad things kept happening to you? Would you go back to the well after you had broken your leg? Would you drag yourself across the desert and then go back to the well again?”
The Martian accomplishes the same ideas by eschewing the silent movie route, and building instead on this reality show structure. The purpose of that reality show structure is the same purpose of the silver, or the oil in There Will Be Blood. To establish the character’s goal: the one thing the character wants right now, and exactly how he plans to get it!
If we don’t know what the character wants, if you don’t know exactly what the character wants, there is no way to test the character.
Fortunately, in The Martian, Mark Watley’s want is very, very clear. His big want is taken right from plain old “Gilligan’s Island.” He wants to get off of the island. And just like the old Gilligan’s Island TestStructure, every time he’s about to get off the island, something goes wrong.
The reality show segments simply allow us to focus this little portion of the journey, one act at a time. It’s a way of kind of checking in with the character and saying “Hey, this is what this movement, this act is going to be about.”
This act is going to be about growing potatoes. Look at what he has to go through to grow the potatoes. He’s got to go into the latrine and make fertilizer out of human feces. Would you be willing to do that? Well, he is. And look at that he keeps a good attitude.
Now he’s got to create water. And yes, he keeps blowing himself up, but he keeps going back. Would you go back after you got blown up?
Then he finally creates the potatoes that are going to save him, and it looks like he’s actually going to survive long enough to get rescued, and then he accidentally blows the door off of his structure and all of his crops die.
And if that happened to you, would you keep going? After all of the things he went through to make those potatoes, if all your food was gone, would you hold on to your belief in yourself? Would you keep plugging away with that positive can-do attitude. Or would you give up?
This is the question that this Test Movie asks its character, and this is a question that a Test Movie asks its audience. What will it take for you to actually get to where you want to go? And are you willing to do what is necessary to get there?
This is the structure of There Will Be Blood, this is the structure of Gilligan’s Island, this is the structure of Indiana Jones, and this is the structure of The Martian. It all begins with figuring out what does the character want. And then you must make it harder and harder and harder. Whatever can go wrong must go wrong. Whatever the answer should be, must turn out not to be the answer.
If they’re going to send up food in a rocket and it’s the hardest possible thing to do and they’ve gone through everything to build that rocket, the rocket must blow up.
If they’ve figured out the perfect way to rendezvous with the crew and save the day and the crew has risked their lives and defied NASA in order to do it, the procedure must go wrong. He must end up in too low of an orbit.
If you’ve got a space craft on Mars that is the hardest thing in the world to get to and he’s somehow going to make it all the way across the Martian desert to get there, you’ve got to make him dismantle the space craft before he sends himself up in it. You’ve got to send him up in a tarp rather than a nose cone. And at the end whatever choice leads your character to win the day, to complete their task, to earn their happy ending, it must be a choice that they make themselves, not one that is made for them.
Can you imagine what a let down this movie would be if at the end of the day, Jessica Chastain simply flew down and picked Matt Damon up?
In order to earn his happy ending, Matt Damon has to go through one last test. Is he willing to puncture his own space suit, his own life support, in order to fly himself back home? He has to make that choice. And he has to do it alone.
Test movies are built around tests. And if your test isn’t strong enough, if the worst thing doesn’t happen, what happens is you lose drama.
If your favorite contestant on Project Runway doesn’t screw up, you’re going to lose the drama. If your character on your favorite reality show doesn’t think their plan is the one that is going to work before it totally falls flat, you’re not going to get to where you want to go.
Now, building a movie in this way, whether it’s a Test Movie or a Change Movie, does not mean that you have to have a character speaking directly to the audience, telegraphing their moves in some kind of a reality show format in order for it to work.
In fact, Francis Ford Coppola was a master of this technique back in the 70s, before reality shows were even in people’s minds.
If you think about each act of The Godfather, you probably remember how each act begins in a way where the characters decide, through their ACTIONS, exactly what the act is going to be about. What’s the big thing they’re going for in that act?
This is the act where we’re going to get Johnny his gig in Los Angeles, This is the act where we’re going to stay out of the drug business. This is the act where we’re going to figure out how to kill a cop, and on and on and on.
And you can see how, in this way, the underlying structure of The Godfather is built on the same principles as the structure of The Martian.
You figure out what the character wants, you figure out what the plan is going to be to get there, and then you test them, and test them, and test them.
And in this way, The Martian is not just a movie about being lost on Mars. It’s also a movie about screenwriting.
There is a fabulous monologue at the very end of The Martian in which Matt Damon’s character talks to a room full of young astronauts about what it actually means to be an astronaut, and how to achieve the things that others think are impossible.
He talks about the idea that these problems are going to come up. That in many ways– just like a writer confronting the blank page– you are alone in space, you are alone in an uninhabited planet, that you need to inhabit yourself with the force of your own will.
And the journey of being a writer is figuring out what you want, and testing yourself at every turn. What are you actually willing to do to get there?
Many writers make the same mistake that Matt Damon’s character warns his students of at the very end of The Martian. You cannot think about how you’re going to get home. You have to think about this task, and then the next task, and then the next task, and then the next task. One task, one obstacle at a time.
Just like Mark Watney up in space, you have to trust your art: what you have to say as a writer, and the fact that you are going to hold on to who you are, to your own unique voice, in the face of whatever obstacles your screenplay throws at you.
And you have to trust the science of writing, the craft of writing. You have to develop the skills that allow you to overcome those challenges.
But the most important thing is, you need to remember that the obstacles to writing, the things that make your script hard, the things that make you feel lost and alone on a deserted planet, that make you feel like giving up, that they are supposed to be there. That they are part of the job. Part of your own personal Test Movie.
When you are writing yourself into those kinds of obstacles, allowing the worst thing to happen again and again and again both to your character and to yourself as a writer, you also take yourself on a journey that shows you who you really are.
That may be a journey that tests you, that challenges you to hold onto the best parts about yourself, to hold onto your art and your craft, to say what you really want to say, in the face of all the obstacles of populating the universe of a blank page.
Or it might be a Change Movie. It might be a journey through which you learn not just who you are, but who you can be, by facing the obstacles one at a time– this task, then this task, then this task. Not focusing on how you’re going to get home (because the end of a script seems so far away at times that it is impossible to navigate towards). But instead, figuring out how you are going to solve each problem, one problem at a time, by developing your art, and your craft.
So, if you’re working on a screenplay I challenge you to test yourself. Don’t write the screenplay that you know you can write. Write the one that you wonder if you have the skill to write.
Don’t put yourself in a situation where it’s easy to get home. Put yourself, and your character, in a situation where it’s hard to get home.
Look at the resources around you, even if it looks like you’re on an empty, deserted planet, and ask yourself: what are the resources that you can use to develop your art? What are the resources you can use to develop your craft? Who are the people in your corner who you can reach out to? What are the resources that you have in yourself, and what are the resources you need to look elsewhere to discover.
Think about the ways you’re going to repurpose the things that you already know, whether it’s how to farm a potato or how to structure a reality show.
Look at the things that you can repurpose and use in different ways.
Look at the ways you can reexamine your scene that doesn’t work and turn it into one that does.
And most of all, look at what it means to hold onto who you are, in the face of a challenge that causes most people to give up.
Most people who dream of writing a screenplay never actually end up doing it. So, ask yourself what’s it going to take for you to be one of those people who actually make it all the way home?