Tag Archives: Mars

Out of this world

The Red Planet is the setting for National Geographic Channel’s ground-breaking new series Mars. DQ meets the cast and director as well as the author of the book that inspired this visionary docudrama.

The dusty deserts of Morocco, littered with red and black rocks, have long served scientists as a suitable setting to recreate the desolate landscapes of Mars.

So when National Geographic announced plans for a six-part docudrama that sends the first crewed mission to the Red Planet, it was only natural that the North African country would be chosen as the filming location.

Set in both the future and the present day, the simply titled Mars combines scripted drama with documentary sequences and talking heads to tell the story of mankind’s quest to colonise the planet.

In 2033, the crew of the spacecraft Daedalus set off on their mission to Mars. Their story is presented against the present-day quest to reach the planet, shown through interviews and documentary footage featuring scientists and innovators who are leading research to make such a mission possible in the future.

The series is based on the book How We’ll Live on Mars, written by Stephen Petranek, who was approached by RadicalMedia’s Jon Kamen about optioning the rights before it was published. Nat Geo then stepped in to fund the project, which mirrors the book’s exploration of a fictitious future mission to Mars set against real-life science and research that could prove to be the first steps towards making such an ambition possible.

“They were very dedicated from the beginning to get everything right and make sure it could be real,” Petranek says. “That was an important part of the drama and is what makes it very different from being fiction, because it’s anchored in reality. There’s nothing you see on screen that makes me uncomfortable it couldn’t happen. In fact, it’s very probable.

“This is the greatest adventure anyone will undertake in our lifetimes. It’s like going to the Moon, magnified 1,000 times. That’s literally true. It’s a thousand times farther than the Moon, it’s a thousand times more difficult to do, yet we’ve had the technology to do this for probably 30 years. It’s just that nobody has chosen to do it.”

Mars is executive produced by Brian Grazer alongside Ron Howard, who has been into space before as the director of 1995 feature film Apollo 13. Kamen, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg and Robert Palumbo also executive produce for Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia.

And it was Kamen and then Howard who headhunted Everado Gout (Days of Grace) to helm the series. But the Mexican director said he would only take charge if he could make “Das Boot on Mars” – a drama that focused on the human beings endeavouring to reach the Red Planet, rather than the rockets that would take them there.

“If last year they’d told me I would do something about space, I would have laughed,” Gout says. “I love astronomy, I love watching the stars. Every day I try to look at the stars and I teach my daughter to look at the stars, if only to put things in perspective. If you look to the heavens, it puts whatever problems you might have in perspective.

The Moroccan desert doubled as the Red Planet
The Moroccan desert doubled as the Red Planet

“Green screens aren’t usually my thing but this sounded really interesting, partly because of Stephen’s book, and we embarked on this journey. I had [the audiobook] on a loop every time I was location scouting all over the world looking for our Mars. It was such a fantastic revelation to hear him talk about it and, at the same time, to look out at the landscapes and start forming the bigger picture of where it could be.”

Pre-production was “brutal,” however, if only due to the amount of Mars-related information Gout had to absorb before he felt comfortable with the subject matter.

He continues: “We’re used to seeing shows with spaceships that are huge and luxurious and have showers. That’s not the truth. We’re sending six people to Mars in a tin can like we did when we went to the Moon. They’re going to be floating for six or eight months to get there and it’s going to be brutal. They will be filled with radiation, stress and other problems, and that makes great drama. That’s what I’m interested in.”

Filming for the interior scenes took place on sound stages in Budapest, while Morocco was the perfect choice to replicate Mars.

“We picked part of the desert close to Algiers, where nobody has ever shot before, but NASA has tested their rovers there so it made absolute sense,” the director notes.

“And because it’s Nat Geo, I wanted to have more than one look for Mars. These astronauts will explore different landscapes – where they set up and then the mountains and deserts. That makes it sexier for everyone and Morocco gave us that opportunity.”

Musician Jihae plays identical twins in the show
Musician Jihae plays identical twins in the show

And, as if a space drama playing out on the surface of the Red Planet wasn’t challenging enough, Gout says the structure of the docudrama proved to be his biggest headache as the creative team looked for a way to seamlessly merge fiction with fact. The series comprises about 80% drama and 20% documentary.

“That was a truly special recipe we had to invent for this show so one hand fits the other,” he explains. “You are entertained by the drama and then get your facts right and that propels you through the story. That was the biggest challenge but I think it sings – it’s beautiful. It’s really organic and it flows from one to the other. You aren’t jarred by the documentary segments, you feel engaged. Everything the documentary is doing is expanding your mind so you can enjoy the drama. It’s a really nice balance.”

Petranek cuts in: “They reinforce each other. The drama gives you visualisation and the documentary gives credibility to the drama. They feed back and forth on each other. You can’t imagine what it’s like just from the facts and the talking heads but they can make the drama seem real.”

The drama, which is scored by Nick Cave, was often real enough for the cast, who had to shoot in the sweltering Moroccan heat while wearing space suits as they played out scenes set on Mars.

“I’d never been to Morocco so standing out in the desert was just so incredible,” says actor Ben Cotton. “There was a moment partway through shooting where we had to hike around and with the helmet on, it’s hard to breathe and it’s too hot. You just think, ‘Why aren’t we doing this on a green screen?’ But then you look around and you know why. The authenticity is amazing.”

Cotton plays American mission commander Ben Sawyer, the leader of the six-strong crew sent to Mars aboard the Daedalus. Travelling with him is Korean-American mission pilot Hana Seung, played by musician Jihae in her first screen role. She also plays Hana’s twin sister Joon, the capsule communicator who is left on Earth as part of the Mars Mission Corporation control team based in London.

“The story is about the first manned journey to Mars to colonise the planet,” Cotton explains. “So what they’ve done is create a wonderful story that has some of the possible troubles and successes we might go through on a real mission to Mars, so there’s a lot of drama, and some romance involved.”

Jihae continues: “Ben as the commander is our gang leader. As a team we really revere him and his passion that we all share. This isn’t just exploration – we’re doing this as a sacrifice and taking a one-way ticket out of here. There’s nothing glamorous about it. Every moment of our journey is fighting for survival.

“I’m so excited about this show, and not only because it’s genre-breaking with one of the best filmmakers around and the most amazing network. Personally, I’m also really sick and tired of the amount of violence I have to see in anything I appreciate. There are shows and movies I really like but I really can’t stand the violence and the gratuitous sex. There’s no other show that really merges science and entertainment. Enough of the Kardashians – give us more knowledge. Let’s celebrate that more.”

Left to right: Stars Jihae, Ben Cotton and Clementine Poidatz at Mipcom last month
Left to right: Stars Jihae, Ben Cotton and Clementine Poidatz at Mipcom last month

Jihae carried out research for her dual role as identical twins and helped to create a backstory for Hana and Joon, which is explained in further detail in a scripted prequel series called Before Mars. http://dramaquarterly.com/highlights/journey-towards-mars/

“[Showing the twins on screen together is] something they do with technology,” she says. “But the biggest challenge was starting with one character and going to the next and then going back to the first one.

“As far as defining the differences between the two characters, I started coming up with a backstory for each from their childhood all the way up to their present day, 2033 – considering everything from which one would come when mother called them for dinner and who would still be playing with a model rocket, to which one was more popular, their different personalities, who had more boys at school, who was more studious. It was a challenge but an exciting one.”

Mars – which launches in the US on November 14 and will air in 171 countries and in 45 languages – is a thrill ride, Jihae adds. “I don’t think there’s any other show in the world where you can mix science and entertainment the way they do. You get so much out of it.”

Gout also believes the show’s appeal lies in its factual grounding, with contributors to the factual segments including Petranek, former astronaut Charles Bolden, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, The Martian author Andy Weir and NASA scientist Jennifer Heldmann.

Revealing that Mars has been designed as a returnable series, the director concludes: “It’s about people; I want to see how they suffer and bleed and sweat. And if it works, it’s just the beginning of a greater adventure.”

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Victoria’s reign extended by ITV

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

In one of the least surprising renewal stories of the year, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a second series of ratings hit Victoria from Mammoth Screen. Scripted by Daisy Goodwin, the show has had an excellent first season – even managing to hold off strong competition from the BBC’s returning hit Poldark.

Series one launched in late August and is currently averaging around 7.7 million viewers, which makes it ITV’s top-performing drama of the year so far. ITV director of television, Kevin Lygo said: “Mammoth Screen and Daisy Goodwin have brought the characters so vividly to life in this series and we’re thrilled with the reception for Victoria. We’re pleased to be able to confirm Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes will return to continue the story on ITV.” Just as significantly, Goodwin will again be writing and executive producing the series.

Season one starts with the young Victoria’s coronation and explores how she becomes increasingly sure-footed in the fields of politics and diplomacy. It also looks at her close relationship with Lord Melbourne and burgeoning romance with Prince Albert, her eventual husband. As with series one, the new season will be a coproduction with PBS Masterpiece.

Goodwin added: “Even though she reigned in the 19th century, Victoria is a heroine for our times. In the next series she faces the very modern dilemma of how to juggle children with her husband and her job. As Victoria will discover, it’s hard to be a wife, a mother and ruler of the most powerful nation on earth.”

Tom Selleck in Magnum PI
Tom Selleck in Magnum PI

Mammoth Screen’s Damien Timmer, another executive producer on the show, said: “Following the audience response to Victoria, we are delighted that Jenna Coleman will be returning to her throne for a second series. The next few years of Victoria’s reign are packed full of extraordinary real-life events, with constitutional crises, scandals at court and personal challenges aplenty for the Queen and Prince Albert. God Save the Queen!”

Meanwhile, in the US, the trend towards TV drama series revivals seems to be picking up pace. After CBS launched MacGyver this week with a decent 10.9 million audience, there are now reports that ABC is lining up a spin-off series based on the 1980s classic Magnum PI, which starred Tom Selleck. Echoing another recent trend in US TV, the plan is for the show to have a female lead – with Magnum’s daughter moving to Hawaii to take over the business.

The reboot business is in full swing now with The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, 24 and Prison Break all having been revived, or coming up. The new Magnum will be written by John Rogers, whose TNT series Leverage ran for five seasons from 2008 to 2012. Rogers also created TNT’s hit scripted series The Librarians.

Still in the US, there’s good news for fans of Atlanta, the new comedy from Donald Glover that airs on FX. The network has just announced a second season. It has also revealed that it is returning Better Things, another comedy that has been performing well. “It’s really gratifying to launch two new comedies that have received overwhelming critical acclaim right out of the gate and that are emblematic of FX’s award-winning brand,” said Nick Grad and Eric Schrier, heads of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions. “It is clear to us Atlanta and Better Things have struck a nerve with viewers.”

Donald Glover's Atlanta will return to FX
Donald Glover’s Atlanta will return to FX

Atlanta follows two young, black cousins as they try to make it rich out of rap. International buyers will get to see what the fuss is about when Fox brings the show to the Mipcom market in Cannes next month as part of its slate. Better Things is co-created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. Adlon plays Sam, a woman trying to raise her three daughters, while also attempting to hold down a career in Hollywood. Still with Fox’s international ambition, the distribution arm of Fox Networks Group is also heading to Mipcom with Ron Howard’s forthcoming space epic Mars. The six-part series, about a fictitious mission to colonise the red planet in 2033, will receive its world premiere in Cannes ahead of its debut on National Geographic later this year.

Also in the US, The CW is developing a new supernatural series called Stick Man with Cameron Prosandeh (Helix) and Tim Kring (Heroes). Stick Man is about an amateur documentarian who returns to her hometown to chronicle the events of her brother’s murder and the ensuing trial. While there, she discovers evidence linking her brother’s death to supernatural events.

Designated Survivor stars Kiefer Sutherland
Designated Survivor stars Kiefer Sutherland

There was also more evidence this week of Netflix’s considerable clout in the international rights market following news that it has secured international streaming rights (excluding North America) to ABC drama Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The deal was done with rights holder Entertainment One (eOne). Last month, Netflix also secured the rights to CBS’s highly anticipated new iteration of Star Trek, which is coming some time in 2017.

In one of the week’s more intriguing commissions, Verizon has greenlit a political comedy for its streaming service Go90. Executive produced by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the 6×30′ show is called Embeds. It explores five reporters covering the US presidential election and has been created by Scott Conroy and Peter Hamby. Go90also also recently commissioned a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise.

Back in the UK, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films is developing a crime thriller based on Graeme Macrae Burnet novel His Bloody Project. The book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, explores the sanity of a teenager convicted of a brutal triple murder in 1869 in a remote Scottish crofting community. Early discussions are underway with a major UK broadcaster, with screenwriters currently being considered.”

Claire Mundell, creative director at Synchronicity, said: “We are delighted to have discovered this wonderful novel on our own doorstep. It’s also great to work with an indie publisher [Saraband Imprint Contraband] that believes in backing undiscovered talent as much as we do.”

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Journey towards Mars

Drama on National Geographic Channel will go out of this world with the launch of Mars later this year. As DQ’s Digital Drama Season concludes, National Geographic Channel’s Andy Baker discusses the show’s online drama spin-off Before Mars.

While television networks are embracing the internet as a place for viewers to catch up on single episodes or whole seasons of a particular show, there are few examples where they have launched a series entirely online.

Following its move online, former terrestrial channel BBC3 launched psychological drama Thirteen across the digital airwaves, while NBC dropped every episode of the first season of Aquarius online following its network debut.

Mars-3
Mars airs on National Geographic Channel later this year

Until now, broadcasters have largely used the digital space as a way to extend their programmes online, either through bonus footage or mini-episodes, otherwise known as webisodes.

One example is Flight 462, a 16-part miniseries that aired on AMC.com ahead of the second season of Fear The Walking Dead, focusing on a group of survivors onboard a plane in the earliest moments of the outbreak.

In 2013, the BBC also dropped a mini-episode of its hit drama Sherlock, while sci-fi favourites Doctor Who and Heroes have also extended their stories online. The latter launched five batches of webisodes between 2008 and 2009.

National Geographic Channel is now using the same tactics for its groundbreaking drama Mars. Set in both the future and the present day, the six-part series will use a blend of drama and documentary sequences to imagine the first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033.

Andy Baker
Andy Baker

But ahead of its debut this November, when it will air in 171 countries and 45 languages, Nat Geo has also produced its first ever web series that will serve as an online prequel to the main event.

Set in the present day, Before Mars introduces twin sisters Joon and Hana Seung – central characters in Mars – as young girls struggling to fit into their new school in a small rural town. Joon discovers an old ham radio in the attic and eventually develops a long-distance radio friendship with a female astronaut who has grown homesick while serving on the International Space Station. While the friendship between Joon and the astronaut grows stronger, Hana begins to thrive at school and makes her own friends on Earth.

Before Mars is produced by Variable, with executive producer Tyler Ginter and director Lloyd Lee Choi. Mars comes from Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia, with executive producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg, Jon Kamen and Robert Palumbo.

“The way content is consumed now, it’s not just linear TV,” says Andy Baker, senior VP and group creative director of National Geographic Channels. “Things are online, whether it’s YouTube, Amazon or Hulu. We wanted to create something to support that show that they can watch on different devices.

“Very early on, as we started to look at stories and plots for Before Mars, we found we had these two characters in Mars, which is set in 2033. But what motivated them to become these pioneers that would land on Mars [back in] 2016 when they are young teenagers? What inspired them and motivated them to take this giant leap for mankind?”

 Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars
Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars

Baker reveals the creative team read through dozens of potential scripts and storylines for Before Mars. “It was pretty wide open,” he says. “The characters are shown 15 to 20 years earlier than the main story. It starts with Hana on the launch pad. She’s looking back at this one moment in her life so we wanted to make something that lived up to that. There’s a lot of opportunity and options. We wanted to tell a story people enjoy and has a bit of nostalgia to it. We just wanted to write something that feels compelling, interesting, relatable and emotional for the audience.”

With Joon and Hana set as the focal point of Before Mars, the writers were tasked with coming up with a backstory for them that would become an origin story for their relationship in Mars.

“We wanted to create a fairly simple story,” Baker explains. “We’re making a shortform digital series, so we wanted to tell one moment in time from their youth. But you don’t need to watch Mars to appreciate Before Mars. It’s just a shorter piece of content around that same subject.

“In the series, Hana goes to Mars and Joon stays behind. That same theme is in the prequel when one sister goes on a big adventure while the other stays behind, so their personalities become clear.”

Like Mars, Before Mars also comprises six parts, though the running time for the web series is still to be determined ahead of its October launch.

“As we got into the story, the running time got a little bit longer,” Baker admits. “It will total 40 to 45 minutes and each episode will be six to nine minutes. One of the best things about creating a digital series is that running time takes a back seat. You don’t have to cut it a certain way. Longer or shorter is OK as long as it’s compelling storytelling.”

Baker says the look and tone of Before Mars will differ from the main series, simply because one is set on Earth in the present day and the other is in the future on another planet. However, scripts from Mars were used to inform the prequel and ensure the character’s featured remained consistent throughout.

Ultimately, though, whether on terrestrial TV or online, he says the success of any project comes down to the story. “There’s such a proliferation of great content that the single most important focus is to tell a great story, whatever length that might be or wherever the show is consumed,” Baker notes.

National Geographic is pushing further into TV drama next year with Genius, an anthology series that will feature the story of Albert Einstein in season one. Before then, however, viewers will get to journey to Mars in what Baker describes as “the biggest series ever that we have launched.”

He adds: “We’re excited and hope everyone enjoys the story. We’re in the middle of the rough cuts but we’re really excited by where it’s going.”

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