House of Cards creator Beau Willimon joins the space race with Channel 4 and Hulu coproduction The First, but as DQ discovers, this eight-part drama keeps its feet firmly on the ground.
Mars has fascinated writers of fiction for more than a century, from the outlandish late Victoriana of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac to the recent CGI extravaganzas of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Julien Lacombe’s French series Missions and Ron Howard’s blend of documentary and drama for National Geographic, Mars.
The most ambitious of them all, however, is also the one most grounded in realism and minutiae. The First – co-financed by Channel 4 in the UK, US streamer Hulu, IMG and AG Studios and created by House of Cards nabob Beau Willimon – barely leaves the planet for its first eight-episode season, set in 2031, with Willimon determined to honour both the efforts that go into making any space mission a success and the human costs.
“We wanted to delve deeply into the lives of the crew, the ground team and the aerospace moguls to see what their motivations were for embarking on this journey and the sacrifices required,” says Willimon. “Our focus is how hard it is to get to the starting line. When you talk to people in NASA or the private sector, who devote a decade of their lives just to getting a rover to Mars, it would be irresponsible not to explore that side.”
The series was, in a sense, decades in the making. Willimon was inspired by his father’s years as chief engineer on US navy submarines: the space-age technology of subs, his father’s necessarily lengthy absences on tour and the concept of epic journeys all fed into The First. “I see this as an ancient story that happens to be set in the near future, rooted in a little kid fascinated by his dad working on a submarine,” he says.
Willimon recalls how, ater a snatched coffee at a Tribeca bistro with C4’s now-outgoing head of international drama, Simon Maxwell, three years ago “I said, ‘how do you feel about a show about a mission to Mars?’ and luckily he leaned forward rather than said, ‘I’ve got a plane to catch.’”
The scripts began to take shape and the cast was assembled, headed up by Sean Penn in his first TV role, playing rugged but troubled Mars mission leader Tom Hagerty, and Natascha McElhone as distant, cerebral aerospace CEO Laz Ingram.
McElhone signed up after an eight-hour coffee meeting with Willimon (“For all future actors I may work with, they need not worry, it’s not a requirement!”); Penn took a little longer, Willimon explains. “His rep said he was unavailable, but I’ve been around long enough to know you should always ask at least twice. We got the scripts to him and he responded well, so I flew to Dallas to discuss the story and character, and eventually he came on board. Actors who take their careers and craft seriously take the time to be sure this is where they want to invest their talent. It’s why they have the careers they have – they’re rigorous.”
Underpinning the series is research perhaps even more rigorous than Penn’s quality control. Not every show, for example, features ‘futurist’ among its credits for helping to make tangible and feasible the technology on display.
“The difficult thing about the near future us that it’s near,” laughs Willimon. “If you were setting something 100 years from now, you could have warp speed or teleporting and the audience will accept as a given that these things will be figured out between now and then.”
The solution came from looking back, explains The First executive producer Jordan Tappis, documentary-maker and co-founder with Willimon of Westward Productions; The First is the company’s debut drama series. IMG is handling worldwide distribution of the series, which launched in Hulu in September and comes to C4 on November 1.
“Step one was going backwards into what the world looked like 15 years ago, before trying to predict what happens 15 years from now,” says Tappis. “We focused on communications and cars, two areas where the eye can see the evolution of technology. The big prediction we made is that people could use smart technology built into earbuds and glasses. We effectively took the same idea that Google Glass represented, but made it cool and integrated. The aesthetic was, in some ways, as important as the technology itself.”
The space travel elements needed to look absolutely accurate to the people whose job it is to do it for real. NASA was “extraordinarily forthcoming,” says Tappis, as were the veteran astronauts and representatives from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who were consulted.
“From the jargon to the designs, you won’t find many liberties taken with tech and science,” says Tappis. “But when we’ve had to make a narrative choice that doesn’t chime exactly with the research, it’s never by accident. For example, the rocket used is an original design, but derivative of the SLS rocket that NASA will likely use for their first manned missions. The capsules are technically accurate, but we also needed bigger cameras so we changed the dimensions a little bit.”
Ditto the presence of Laz Ingram, a female leader in an industry many might assume to be male-dominated. “There are loads of women in senior positions in aerospace,” says McElhone. “Julie van Kleeck is a VP at Aerojet, Gwynne Shotwell runs SpaceX, Leanne Caret is CEO at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. I’m sure the ladder isn’t straightforward, but we did a screening at JPL and every gender and ethnicity was represented. The show reflects that rather than altering reality.”
Even the selection of New Orleans as the centre for the launch was carefully thought through, with NASA having built a manufacturing facility there. Aesthetic and financial incentives also played a part, of course.
“New Orleans is an incredibly diverse and vibrant city,” says Tappis, “which makes a nice contrast to the surface of Mars. It’s also custom-built for the film community. There are incredible tax incentives, the state rallies behind productions and there are wonderful crews. The only challenging aspect is the unpredictable weather, but the looming danger of a hurricane or rainstorm is thrilling and in line with some of the themes we’re exploring in the show.”
In short, the psychological and physical peril of such a mission is placed front and centre, yet Tappis is convinced the appeal of the red planet will endure. “Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why did ancient humans see birds flying over the horizon, seemingly towards nothing, and decide to paddle in that direction? Mars is the great unknown, the ultimate antagonist. It’s staring at us, daring us to give it a shot, and I guess that’s what we’ve done with The First.”