Brea Grant is a filmmaker/actress best known for her roles on Heroes, Dexter, and Friday Night Lights. Her first feature, Best Friends Forever, an apocalyptic road trip movie, premiered at Slamdance in 2013. She is currently writing and acting in the series Real Housewives of Horror on the Nerdist channel.
First, I need to admit something. As an avid reader of all things sci-fi and fantasy, I started reading The Martian when it came out but I never finished it. I want to make an immediate apology to Andy Weir:
Dear Mr. Weir,
I did not finish your book and I’m sorry. Problem is, it was just too damn good. I truly felt like I was on Mars trying to figure out how the hell I was going to feed myself and breathe and survive, and all of those details overwhelmed me. The well-researched, extraordinary, over-thought minutiae of survival took over the side of my brain that was already dealing with the extraordinary, over-thought minutiae of my own life and I just couldn’t handle it. But I promise at some point to revisit your book when I am on a vacation in Cabo (or somewhere equally as unstressful) and to devour every page as it is meant to be devoured.
OK. Now that I’ve admitted to my faults, I think we can move on.
Leaving the theater after seeing The Martian, I was chatting with a friend who is in postproduction on his movie (Hi, Jackson!) and he said he felt like The Martian basically captured how he felt right now in the filmmaking process.
The parallels are certainly there. Think about it. You’re alone. You’re trying to do this thing because if you don’t do it, no one else will (sure, the stakes on The Martian are a bit higher but when you’re making a film, it sometimes feels like life or death). And you constantly have to deal with all these crazy details – the aforementioned extraordinary, overthought minutiae – because you need to be on top of all those things too when you’re making a movie.
You need to trim this shot by three frames. The light from this angle to the next doesn’t match. You haven’t even started on your list of deliverables. (And in the world of indie filmmaking, it’s time for you to pick up and drop off another drive.)
Thanks to my Google Calendar, I can look back and see what I was doing at the time I purchased and started reading The Martian. I was going into production on a small project that was taking up way too much of my time because I decided I needed to produce and cast and star and raise money (because I’m a controlling person, but that’s a subject for another day…). I was also shooting Pitch Perfect 2 in Louisiana, trying to get another feature off the ground, shooting a short as an actor, and had several auditions. All in one week.
So it’s not terribly surprising that when reading about the problems this astronaut was having trying to figure out how he was going to survive his own insanely challenging situation, I felt like I was somehow in the same boat. Hashtag firstworldproblems or whatever.
Going back to filmmaking, what’s nice is that you know Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard are both very, very familiar with the exhausting day-to-day details of making a movie – the constant switching gears, the feeling of having no time to yourself, the decision fatigue that starts before you even begin production and ends long after when you’re trying to pick out what to wear to your premiere. And that is reflected very well in The Martian. Of course, neither of those men has actually been to Mars but they have put out some damn good movies, and doing that often feels as difficult as going to Mars.
I believe that good filmmaking (and good writing) makes you think about where you are. My filmmaker friend saw in The Martian a reflection of his creative difficulties, just as I had seen in the book a reflection of mine. (Maybe if I had actually finished the book, I would have seen there was an end in sight for my struggles…)
Watching Matt Damon’s astronaut, Mark Watney, trying to figure out his survival was much easier for me to take than when I was reading about it in the book. On screen, I could relate to the character as an outsider looking in. When he made a poor decision or, say, something kept Watney from being able to do something important like grow food, I cringed, I felt bad, and cheered him on. I actually started to feel better about it. I mean, my life is easy when compared to being stuck on Mars with no food or water. But when I’m reading something, I tend to internalize it. The main character’s struggles become my struggles. I can give you notes on your edit or help you with your screenplay, but I don’t know how to survive on Mars!
So while I left the theater thinking that maybe I should learn more about botany in space, I also left feeling good. I mean, if some regular (astronaut) dude can survive on a planet 34 million miles from Earth, then maybe the minutiae of my comparatively easy existence shouldn’t feel like it’s going to break me every day. And that’s the thing about a great movie (Did I mention it’s great?). It can make you feel small in a good way. It makes you take a step back, look at your own life and realize you are doing OK, despite your struggles. It’s like the opposite of escapism – it’s a reality smack to the face right when you need it. Because is it really so hard to pitch a television show when you could be freezing to death on another planet?
So yes, while The Martian is about man vs. nature, the vastness of the universe and the thoughtfulness of humanity, it’s also about the trivial day-to-day details of survival. And while all that first stuff is important and probably what most people will get out of it, the film proves itself as quality art because it can hit on so many different levels for so many different people. It allows you to leave your current world (as all good sci-fi should do) only to return to your reality to reflect on it in a different way. And that’s what we should all be aiming for.