The Lessons of Loneliness

The Martian’s Drew Goddard explains how the story of a man stranded on the Red Planet was a personal tale for him and why choosing a project because it’s a “smart business move” can lead to trouble.

© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film
Matt Damon in The Martian.
November 13, 2015 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Jeff Vespa/Getty Images Drew Goddard

If you’re always intellectualizing things, analyzing whether one things is a good business decision and the other thing might not be, you can end up in a lot of trouble.

If there is anything alien about Drew Goddard, the 40-year-old, 6’5”, award-winning writer of this fall’s warmly received, box office smash The Martian, he probably owes it all to growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Supernaturally hushed, surrounded by a volcanic mountain range, almost impossible for casual travelers to find, settled more than 1000 years ago by Native Americans and then, under veil of extraordinary secrecy, transformed into headquarters for World War II’s Manhattan Project (which produced the world’s first nuclear bombs), Los Alamos is a Land of Enchantment hamlet that is sufficiently remote and placid to hear one’s own thoughts, even if those musings are preoccupied with the ghastly desolation the town’s chief export once wreaked.

For a young boy with a ravenous appetite for reading, an activity not reliant on central location and also undisturbed by the decibel-shattering screech of, say, the occasional falling star or cricket concerto, Los Alamos was almost perfect. Until, that is, said young boy – the son of a medical doctor and grade school teacher – saw The Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner before his age had turned double-digits, inspiring in him an exigent need to tell his own stories.

In a narrative almost too easy to be credible or instructive, Goddard wrote short story upon short story throughout his teen years, shipped off to Colorado to study creative writing and filmmaking at university, then skipped over to La La Land where his servitude in the land of production assistants lasted barely a year before his Six Feet Under spec script landed him a plum gig, working with the Joss Whedon team, then hard at work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. His fan-favorite work on those shows earned Goddard entry to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, where he penned episodes of Alias and Lost (the latter earning him, and the show’s entire writing team, a 2006 Writers Guild Award for Dramatic Series) before seeing his original screenplay, Cloverfield, hustled to the silver screen by Abrams and company where it became an enormous commercial success. Goddard was also one of the credited writers (alongside Matthew Michael Carnahan and Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof) on World War Z and made his feature directorial debut with Cabin in the Woods, co-written with Whedon.

Two years ago, Goddard – still more likely to give you one of his kidneys than surrender whatever book he happens to be reading – devoured a serialized e-book about an astronaut’s desperate bid to survive, utterly alone, on the Red Planet. The Martian was published online, one chapter at a time, by Andy Weir, a computer programmer who helped develop both AOL and the Warcraft 2 videogame. The story moved Goddard profoundly, quite possibly, he says, because struggling through a solitary day on Mars might possibly be a reasonable corollary to being a teenager stranded in a town almost impossible to find and best known for birthing the bomb that annihilated an entire Japanese city in 1945.

Recently released to critical kudos and exuberant box office, Goddard’s adaptation of The Martian, starring Matt Damon, directed by Ridley Scott, is, the screenwriter says, a very personal story for him – even if he won’t be able to tell you exactly why for another decade or so. (More on that in a moment…)

Despite the isolated youth and parlous bibliophilia, Goddard in recent conversation, exudes a buoyant energy and a radiant sense of gratitude. When asked how he’s doing these days, he misses not a beat: “Man, I could not be better!”

It’s so nice to hear someone appreciate his success on such a sincere level. Perspective is everything, right?

Definitely. Perspective and gratitude. Absolutely.

Speaking of perspective, The Martian would be a very different story if its astronaut hero had considered himself “fucked” or “completely fucked,” instead of “pretty much fucked.”

Completely! I absolutely agree. There is such remarkable optimism in those words. He’s not fucked; he’s pretty much fucked. There’s a big difference there, at least to my ears. “Fucked” is resigned; “pretty much fucked” implies, to me, that this guy’s going to do something about it, that he’s going to take action, which is attractive to me. It’s also kind of vital to writing a great character.

What is it that draws you to a project? Is that opening line from The Martian one of the things that pulled you to that project?

I definitely love Andy’s line. Definitely. But honestly, I never know what it is that makes me want to write a movie. I can’t guess at what it is, and I’m terrible if I try guessing about it. I think it comes down to being inspired by something, as silly as that sounds. If you’re always intellectualizing things, analyzing whether one things is a good business decision and the other thing might not be, you can end up in a lot of trouble. Or maybe it’s just me. In my career, doing things because they’re “smart” business moves, that gets me into trouble. But if I’m saying yes because something really moves me or inspires me or haunts me, then that’s usually a pretty good thing. If there’s any “process” to the way I choose projects, it’s probably that. So with The Martian, I was so drawn into this story, this character, and then the whole way that Andy was telling his story almost like he really had to. He didn’t have a book deal. He was publishing this thing one chapter at a time as an e-book on his website. Those are not the kinds of projects Hollywood studios are dying to finance, usually.

Not unless it’s so-called “mom porn,” like 50 Shades of Grey.

Right! But I read The Martian, and I just couldn't stop thinking about it. So if the question for me is, “Does it haunt me,” then the answer with Andy’s book is, “Yes, absolutely, this book haunts me.” Sometimes after I’m done writing or after the movie’s released and been out there for a while I can look back and see maybe a little more clearly what drew me to a particular project, but when I’m deciding yes or no, it’s a gut reaction, not an intellectual thing.

Best to leave the heavier analysis to those who know you or film critics?

Both work, right? They’ll both tell you you’re terrible! Then, like I said, sometimes a few months or 10 years later, I look back at something I wrote, and I can learn all sorts of things about myself. A lot of times, it's your subconscious, rather than your conscious, that's writing something, and it only becomes clear what your subconscious was saying when you have some distance.

Since you opened up this can of worms, let’s look at what your subconscious was saying on some earlier projects. Cloverfield was your first feature screenplay. Is there anything you can learn about yourself from watching that film?

Definitely. When I look at Cloverfield now, I go, “Oh, it’s so clear to me now; that movie’s all about me meeting and falling in love with my wife [writer Caroline Williams]. Even though it’s got this giant monster in it, it’s really about two people finding a really meaningful connection in a world that’s kind of scary sometimes. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing when I was actually writing it, but it couldn’t be clearer to me now.

How about something like Cabin in the Woods, which was your feature directorial debut and a screenplay you co-wrote with Joss Whedon?

Again, I wasn’t meaning to do this when we were writing, but that’s totally a movie about me growing up. It's about me reaching a point in life where I'm still kind of in love with my youth, but I need to accept that it's time to sort of surrender to adulthood. Of course, my youth does not go quietly! When I look at some of the work I did on World War Z, it’s so obviously about becoming a parent for me. That’s what was going on in my life then – I was becoming a father – and this is a story about a father trying to get his children back, you know?

Definitely. Then there’s the film of the hour, The Martian.

I look at The Martian and I think that it's a continuation of that theme, or maybe all of those themes to some extent. What I’ll do next, I have no idea. It’ll be interesting to have this conversation again in 10 years and see what I’ve learned. I might have completely different answers then about the movies we’re discussing now, but those are the things I see in those films now.

Abandonment is a theme that recurs in virtually all of your work, interestingly. It’s certainly key to The Martian, of course, with Matt Damon’s astronaut being left behind on the Red Planet.

Yeah, without question. Maybe not so much abandonment, but loneliness is definitely a theme I see in my work over and over and over. And there are always people trying to make connection amidst that loneliness. Those themes are there in the early stuff I did for television, even – Buffy and Angel. That’s basically what those shows were about – disparate people coming together amidst troubling times.

Is that sense of loneliness a strange “gift” from growing up in Los Alamos, which is almost textbook “middle of nowhere”?

I don't know, but I think so. All of that said, one of the things I really loved about The Martian is that Andy wasn’t depicting some standard version of loneliness. In Andy’s book, loneliness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s this kind of weird combination of loneliness and optimism, which are two things we don’t ordinarily put together, you know. I’ve never really seen loneliness as a negative thing. For me, it’s sometimes just a very natural state of emotional being, and maybe it’s a necessary one for those of us who sit by ourselves and tell stories to our typewriters. So I don’t know if these things come from growing up in Los Alamos. Probably. It’s certainly an isolated town; there’s one road in and one road out. It’s tucked into the mountains so no one can find it. It’s a town that was established to be hidden, really, which is interesting to me. So we were isolated when I was growing up, for sure, but I was never sad about it. I don’t think being lonely means you’re sad; you can be lonely and happy.

There’s “lonely” or “alone,” of course, and then there’s “lonesome.” And then there’s The Martian’s Watney, whose “predicament” in the film – being all alone on another planet with all of that real estate to himself, not to mention more potatoes than Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters would know what to do with. It seems almost sexy, being all alone 250 million miles from Earth.

It's weird, but I agree with you totally! I do think there's a bit of a wish fulfillment there. There's part of that character’s situation that is terrifying, of course – there is despair and fear that come from being trapped by yourself on another planet. But we’ve all had moments in life where we wished we’d been the only person on this planet!

That kind of journey, the aboriginal walkabout for example, it’s been around for millennia. It’s a coming-of-age process. You’re dropped into the middle of nowhere, and if you can make it back home, excellent. If you never come back, then that’s more guacamole and prospective mates for the rest of us.

Yeah, totally! That’s right.

Generationally and culturally speaking, we don’t really have that coming-of-age experience anymore. If Matt Damon hadn’t been stranded on Mars, he may never have “grown up.”

It's so interesting to hear you say that, because you're absolutely right. When I first pitched this to the studio, it’s one of the things I was talking about. I wanted The Martian to be this sort of old, religious movie almost, where it’s, like, man is trapped in the wilderness by himself with nothing but his faith – except in The Martian, the faith is actually science. Maybe in this day and age the only way to truly get introspective is to isolate yourself because there's just so much noise in the “real world.” You almost have to go to Mars to have some peace and quiet.

Some critics and industry analysts have commented that many of this year’s Oscar frontrunners, including The Martian, are about characters surviving under extreme conditions. Do you think that’s a Zeitgeist thing, or maybe it’s something more timeless?

I don't really know. I always want to be careful of industry bias when it comes to analyzing box office performance or awards stuff because sometimes a bunch of films with similar themes come along at the same time and really connect with an audience. It’s not that there’s some big conspiracy in “The Story Factory,” where the All-Powerful Storyteller decides only this kind of story is going to be told right now; sometimes it just happens. But I also think at times there are things that we are all dealing with as human beings that inspire a certain kind of story to be told maybe a little bit often than it usually is. If I look at Cabin in the Woods, for instance, whether we were conscious of it or not when we were writing it, there was an element in it of reacting to the Bush years and the amount of war we were seeing on our television screens at the time. So I don’t really know. I think a lot of these things, they simply come and go in cycles. But I think, also, that there will always be a meaningful place for survival stories, maybe because for so many of us life is just so hard sometimes.

You’ve said that watching Ridley Scott’s Alien when you were 6 or 7-years-old may have done some necessary damage to you…What were some other early stories or films that informed – or scarred – you?

Well, there was only one movie theater in town, so you’d just go there and watch whatever was playing, and usually you’d do that over and over and over until the next movie was booked in. I also read. A lot. There was nothing else to do in Los Alamos. You kind of had to figure out ways to entertain yourself, so I mostly read. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t reading anything I could get my hands on. I still read every single night. So it was books first for me, and then movies and television came along after that.

Are there specific films or TV shows?

Because I'm the age that I am, I was very much a George Lucas child. I can so clearly remember walking out of Empire Strikes Back and not understanding that a story was, like, allowed to leave you with a cliffhanger. I just didn't understand that. I was 5-years old, you know. And then, two years later, I saw Blade Runner. I still can hardly believe my father let me see Blade Runner when I was 7. But that film took the whole sci-fi things into an entirely different direction. So when I look at what I’m doing now, I really think it was the one-two punch of Empire and Blade Runner that have had the most profound influence on me creatively. Talk about analyzing one’s work, when I look at Empire Strikes Back today, as an adult, that entire movie is about characters being told to give up on their friends and then they completely, adamantly refuse to give up on their friends. I just described The Martian to you, didn’t I? I didn’t do that intentionally, but those themes, they’re ingrained in me. Those stories are in my DNA.

In your professional life at least, it seems you’ve found a tribe of collaborators who share the loyalty and love and vision you’ve found so appealing in Empire Strikes Back. Gentlemen like Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, your friend and frequent collaborators, they seem to be your own personal Rebel Alliance.

We’re very, very close. I really got lucky with those guys, in that I sort of showed up around the time when they all had a foot in the door. They were all still coming up in the industry, but they had something going on – which I didn’t! It was a fun time. When J.J. and Matt and I talked about doing Cloverfield, we had this one really predominant feeling about making that movie: it never felt like we were making a movie. It felt like we were in the garage, just making entertainment with our friends, having fun. It had that really special feeling for us, and we try to all keep that feeling going even today. It’s important to keep the feeling of, “Hey, we're just playing in the backyard and we're having fun.”

It may be exactly that type of guileless exuberance that distinguishes a lot of the comic book, superhero, and fantasy projects you and those filmmakers have done from the glut of like projects in the marketplace.

You may be onto something there, but I can’t really say for sure. I only know the reasons I do the work I do, and sometimes my friends tell me why they’re doing the work they do. I'm definitely not smart enough to understand trends or to analyze the big picture of what’s popular and what’s not and why those things are true. I just do what I love. For me, it’s really this simple: if I love it, then I'll do it, and I have to trust my love will carry over to people who will one day have the opportunity to see the story I’m telling. I just do my best every day and hopefully that connects with other people.

Many writers, when they’re just starting out, they learn their craft by imitating the writers and stories they’ve loved. Does that resonate for you?

Oh, definitely! It’s funny, I equate it to a sort of garage band thing, that covers band thing that all young musicians go through. You might want to write your own songs, but you need to learn how to play the guitar first and the easiest way to learn how to play guitar is to play songs that you love that other people have written. That’s probably true for a lot of writers – though our “cover songs” are almost never read by anyone in the industry or turned into movies. Thankfully.

Who were you “covering” in your early days?

Oh, Douglas Adams, for sure. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the thing when I was growing up. Adams had a profound influence on me in my teenage years. When I looked at the writer I wanted to be back then, it was Douglas Adams…For a lot of writers – the ones who don’t grow up in L.A. or New York or bigger cities – that’s really the only way to figure out how to tell stories. There’s no one to teach you how to do it when you’re growing up in Los Alamos. Most of us probably don’t even know that screenwriting is a job someone can have! It sounds stupid, but I had no idea how movies got made or how they got written or any of that. It wasn’t until college that I realized that movies were written down first – like books sort of, but definitely not books. But that’s always the thing, right? You have to write it down. If you want to be a writer, there’s just no substitute for that. You have to write it down, and you have to do that every day.

That sounds like some “craft advice.” Sticking with the nuts and bolts of screenwriting, is adapting something like The Martian different than starting from scratch for you?

No, not for me. My approach is the same for everything. I always start with, for lack of a better way of expressing it, “What’s the soul of a project?” Or, like I said, “What’s the thing that’s haunting me here?” With Andy’s book, it was the optimism in the face of loneliness, combined with this enormous love of science. That was the soul of that book to me, and so that’s where I start. Once you have that nailed down, it’s about trying to find the simplest way to tell that story and to maximize the moments – physical or emotional – that you’ve got. With The Martian, I made lists. Lots of lists. What are the moments? What are the things I need to do in order to serve both Andy’s readers and people who have come to the theater who never even knew The Martian was a book first? What are the things I want to try to do? How do we take all of that and string it together into a two-hour movie. Simplicity is key. The simple way is very often the best way in telling stories, at least for me.

Of course, the simplest way is almost always the hardest, right?

It is the hardest thing. You’re right. It's the lesson I keep learning over and over as a writer: it's so much harder to write a simple story than a complicated one. It sounds counterintuitive, but it couldn’t be truer.

Our ears are always open to words of wisdom or advice. Is there anything that’s helped guide or drive your career?

One of the most important things I was told when I was an aspiring writer was, “Whatever you’re working on at any given moment, you are going to read the papers and they’re going to be reporting on three other projects that are in development that sound exactly the same as yours, but don’t spend a second worrying about it. Just write your screenplay.” That’s been incredibly good advice for me. You can always get sad when you read something like that in the trades. You’ll probably want to ditch whatever it is you’re working on, but the trick is: you cannot worry about it or you’ll never, ever get anything done. You can’t worry about what other people are doing or not doing. All you can do is tell the story your way, with all of the things that are unique about you, and you’ll be fine. That’s worked for me.

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