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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”