Mars—National Geographic’s six-part miniseries airing in 171 countries and 45 languages around the world—depicts the imminent possibility of traveling to Mars. The message is sent by splitting the action in two: a 2016 documentary featuring contemporary scientists, entrepreneurs, and astronauts explaining the present-day science of space travel, and a 2033 fictional rendering of the first crew to travel to the red planet. This hybrid docufiction creates an onscreen synergy that crackles with possibility. •Availability: Premiering on the National Geographic Channel, November 14. •Thanks to Susan Engel, PMKBNC, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Everardo, what was your first thought when you were asked to direct this project, and what convinced you to say yes?
EG: I was a little bit hesitant to take it on. I thought I wasn’t the right director if they wanted to do a docudrama, because I don’t understand the re-creation, vignetty language very well. I’m into longer format, developing characters, making something that’s more dramatic. Then Ron [Howard, Imagine Entertainment] explained to me that the goal was to do a hybrid where we would have a miniseries with characters you would look for and follow and develop, but it was up to me to find a secret sauce on how to incorporate documentary into it because that would advance the show so much faster. And because it’s National Geographic and it’s science-factual and we had this amazing array of collaborators on the project like Elon Musk, and Andy Weir, and Stephen Petranek, and NASA, it would be a shame not to use all of that knowledge in a format that would make the drama go forward. That really got my attention.
The final person who pushed me into doing it was my ten-year-old daughter. When I explained the project to her, she was mesmerized by the idea and said, “Let’s go to Mars, Papa.” From my father’s side, there would always be talk of explorers in the house, people like the first white man to enter the kingdom of Bhutan, or a painter who traveled on a little raft through the whole Amazon. I was always inspired by those stories of exploration and discovery of a new world. On my mother’s side, she’s an astrologer, so she gave me great respect for the stars. She led me to acknowledge that somewhere, somehow, we are all connected. Of course the stars have an influence on us, because if we believe in gravity, and the rock where we stand is being pulled by the sun, why do we think stars woudn’t affect us as well? Mars was a perfect combination of the two universes, so I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
DT: The format of Mars is a little bit like the structure in your film Days of Grace, with interwoven stories that jump back and forth in time, except in Mars you jump between documentary in 2016 and fiction in 2033. What does that format offer you as a director?
EG: Every director brings a chain of rules and knowledge and cinematographic grammar that he applies to different projects. Those are the keys that will unlock the different doors in the narrative of that particular show. The way I approach fiction, I like to create a fictional space, then go and document inside. It’s the way that I shot Days of Grace; I would create a fictional space for my characters and I would tell them, “From here to here to here is our world. Feel free to inhabit it. I will follow you with my camera and do a documentary of you guys living in this universe.” Maybe that showed in my previous work, and that’s why the producers recognized me as someone who would bring some of that into the narrative side of this project. There are other techniques I like to use—I always interview my characters. I map out the emotional arc of every character and do fake in-character interviews with a two-camera setup: the actors tell me how they feel and where they come from, in the goal of creating memories for their characters for when we do the scenes later on. We create this fantasy and this imagination background that they keep with them, like a backpack of emotions. I was talking about that with Justin [Wilkes, producer from RadicalMedia] and said, “Why don’t we do that for this show? I’m sure that’s going to be helpful along the line.” We didn’t know how, but it proved to be one of those magical little weaving cords that makes us go organically from documentary into fiction in Mars.
DT: I love when you interview the fictional characters in Mars.
EG: For once instead of doing it and keeping it on my laptop for my own personal work, it actually made the show.
DT: You just said that you like to create a fictional world and then do documentary inside it, but this was in fact the opposite: you had a real world of science, then created fiction out of that.
EG: Yes. It was a back-and-forth, as you say, because the science was thorough. We knew that the science would inform the drama in the fictional world. We wanted to do docufiction, not science fiction. We knew the ship had to be like this and like that, and that the constraints on going to Mars had to be specific and the reality of the mission had to be specific. We had a lot of rules of what is factual that we had to play with, but that only makes better drama in my view, because you are already inside those boxes; then you can focus and concentrate on the human aspect of it and really go deeper into the characters, and what they feel, and think, and fear, and love, in the drama.
On the other hand, I could also do the same with the drama. In the reentry sequence, we actually timed the gimbal of the spaceship with all the computer graphics inside and all the lighting outside so that we could shoot that scene in real time, based on the science. The reentry sequence in fact would last approximately seven and something minutes, so we timed the gimbal to that. We timed the lighting to that. We timed the graphics inside the computer to that, so every time I shot that scene, I could shoot it in real time for seven and a half minutes, and it would be documenting that reentry.
DT: In a promotional video on the National Geographic website, you said that space travel is not doable by one government and that an international coalition is needed for this kind of endeavor. The film was an international endeavor, too—the cast, the crew, the fact that it’s going to be distributed internationally. How did that internationalism affect the atmosphere on the set, as well as the series’ content? Especially in light of the fact that U.S. law currently prohibits NASA from working with China, for instance. So there is an international aspect to space travel, but then there’s all of this political BS.
EG: Which is going to be great content for season two, by the way. For me the international aspect was one of the big hooks about making the series. When I said that I consulted with my child, that’s what I wanted—finally we have a show that brings out a little bit of the goodness of our society, that doesn’t depict dystopia, which is what sells right now and which I love and consume. I love Narcos; why not? But it’s also refreshing to see the opposite, which is not a dystopia but something that we could pull together. I think that ultimately the message for the show is, If we can imagine, we can do it. We can reshape our society and our government and our tools, because we’ve been on this rock for a very little time creating this huge society that we think is rock solid but it’s actually not, because we invented it, and as long as there’s imagination and power in the human brain, we can invent something else, something better, and that’s what we have to strive for. You turn on TV and there are attacks and corruption and pain all over the place because that sells, and I get it. But it’s also nice to look at what we can do when we come together, and that’s the hopeful message this show gives. That’s why I said, “I need to do this for the future, for my child, for humanity.”
In order to do that, we needed to look at the science, and the science says that for the moment there is no one space agency that could achieve a mission to Mars. A coalition is needed, not only of governments but also entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and their capital. That made it a more universal project, so that the species is going to Mars, not country x or y going to Mars. That informed the script and how we were going to approach the series. From then on we started to build on top of that. In terms of the sets, we in our fictional world assumed that the ship was built by the Americans but the Rover was built by the Japanese and the habitat was built by the Russians. If you look closely, you’ll see that all the graphics represent all these different nationalities.
As far as casting . . . what is National Geographic? For me, coming from a pre-Google era, National Geographic was one of the biggest windows on exploring the world. They did it beautifully, with not only breathtaking landscapes and photos but studies of the people who inhabit those landscapes. Mars is great because it’s not one country looking at the world; it is all of the world looking at another planet, so we thought, “Let’s go and find people from all of those different nationalities and see what they can bring to the table.” We live in a world where more and more people travel in between countries and between continents, so we said, “Let’s embrace the accent instead of having to fake it or casting people who look Latino but are actually not. Let’s go and cast somebody who actually comes from that world, that country. Let’s go find the best from France and from Romania and from Korea and from the States and pull all of those people together and embrace the way they speak and their mannerisms because that would reflect the show and the truthfulness of not only the script and the sets but also the people who are making this mission possible.” I’m lucky to say that National Geographic was the best partner who embraced that and didn’t go against us.
This allowed us to open a market that is usually not that open for other actors, who were interested in exploring this market and this exciting project with us. People like Anamaria Marinca, who won the Palme d’Or for Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days and who we could bring to Mars with us. The crew was also from all over the world. We had a production designer from the UK and a wardrobe designer from Italy and we were shooting in Morocco and Hungary, so Hungarian was part of the mix, and Arabic was part of the mix. It was just a melting pot of cultures and religions, human flesh from all over the world who just got organically woven into this beautiful mix, and I think it shows onscreen.
DT: In the series there seemed to be two types of people who were interested in going to Mars; people who were looking for adventure, and people whose motivation was saving humanity. That was vaguely problematic for me, and I wanted to get your take on it.
EG: It’s not a show that is trying to say we are going to Mars because of this or that. We’re trying to show everybody’s opinions, and then people should figure it out on their own. I don’t like to be a moralist. I like to raise questions, not give answers. That’s the goal of whatever show I do. Personally I don’t know if we have the right to claim a planet that is not ours. I also don’t know if Mars is our ticket to survival as a species or if we even deserve a second chance, because we’re not doing such a great job [with this one], but that’s more a philosophical reflection that everybody has to ask themselves. I know that we will go to Mars, and I do celebrate that as a species in the sense of exploration. And why not? If we can get together to do that instead of building bombs or creating more oil rigs or destroying the Amazon, which we are already doing, and if more visionary entrepreneurs would put their money into space exploration, like Elon Musk, instead of people in the arms business who do horrors in the world, I think we have a better chance to survive as a species with vision and with care. And through the process of that exploration I think we will learn new technologies and will be able to take better care of our planet. I think it would be a game changer if we finally looked at how tiny and how fragile Earth is in the universe and how hard it is to find a different home, and decided to start taking better care of this one. I think the process of exploring other worlds would give us that information and that technology.
DT: That was ultimately my philosophical and political problem with Mars. I love the series and find it totally captivating and innovative, but the thrust of the content seemed to be about leaving the planet as a means of saving the species rather than fixing the planet.
EG: If there were two sides of this I would stand on your side, but I don’t think that one thing excludes the other. I think that if there are people investing money and doing something that’s for the better rather than trying to be president when they don’t have the capability—which is the other side of entrepreneurs who spend their money on greed more than progression—I think the better we are as a species. I believe it’s good they spend money on that.
In terms of the show, I think that the first thing is to show the planet. The show is called Mars. It’s not, Why are we going to Mars? or Do we need to leave Earth to go to Mars? It’s more like an explorer’s adventure; that’s why we fought hard for the show to be contained to those first years of exploration on Mars, not picturing once they have CDs on Mars and are terraforming the planet. It’s more about the camera being with those seven passengers in that little tiny spaceship and breathing with them and having that adventure with them. Once you have people captivated by that and they trust those astronauts and bring them to their heart, then you can start talking about other stuff. As you will see the progression of the first season, you will see more and more the humanity side of it and little pieces of conflict within that. There are great scenes in episode 4 where the actors start a battle of Are we right? Are we not right? Is it good? What is it we are doing? slowly building up into those philosophical questions that I believe are really important to ask ourselves and the message to give to our children. That’s why we’re doing the series. So it’s a small, slow burn, but I think it’s going toward—we’re so lucky to do a season two—an angle that would be more into those geopolitical and social philosophical challenges. Now that we have an audience and now that they love these characters, we can start speaking about other stuff. That was our first challenge.
DT: This is a huge enterprise about an enormous human endeavor. Was that feeling palpable on the set?
EG: I think so. Everybody got into it with their eyes open and their hearts open. It was great to have Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, training all our actors in a space boot camp, as we called it. We spent time with her to learn what space is all about and how to train for it.
Even the interviews that we talked about earlier are not completely scripted. The actors are improvising what those characters feel about the mission, and their humanity goes in between their lines. Alberto Ammann, the actor who plays Javier Delgado, engages in many causes. In his private life he’s very active in fighting climate change, and I believe that when he talks about us coming together as a species, it’s him saying it. It’s the character, obviously, but some of Alberto’s thoughts are projected into the character. Everybody did their best to do that. And it was great.
Copyright © Director Talk 2016