With The Martian, Ridley Scott has landed the biggest global hit of his career. The director tells Jeremy Kay about his initial reservations, working with Matt Damon and why he keeps so busy

Ridley Scott The Martian

Ridley Scott is creating worlds again. As he talks on the telephone he is drawing ideas for Prometheus 2. “I do telephone doodles, but actually they’re pretty good,” he says. “I doodle everything and it becomes the actual blueprint for the movie.”

Now 78 years old, the UK director remains as vital as ever and appears, grudgingly at least, to be enjoying the hoopla surrounding his latest film The Martian. Not only is it generating serious awards heat but the stirring slice of planetary escapology from the director of Blade Runner and Alien has become the biggest box-office hit of Scott’s career: it is closing in on $550m worldwide for 20th Century Fox, his long-time studio partner.

Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded after a storm on the Red Planet, who combines limited resources with seemingly infinite resourcefulness in his bid to get back to Earth. It sounds familiar territory for Scott though he says it was anything but. “The story in this one is, in a funny way, not my kind of thing,” he admits. “It’s ― to use that phrase which I don’t really like ― it feels good at the end of it.”

Discovery mission

Scott loved Drew Goddard’s script based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, which started out as a cult e-book. Goddard had initially been in line to direct the film himself before departing for the ill-fated The Sinister Six, which is when Scott became involved.

He liked how Goddard weaved together pure survival adventure with a wry, existential commentary courtesy of the protagonist’s daily feedback to the mission’s GoPro cameras. This device enabled Scott to translate the book’s first-person narrative in a way that was believable, based on the notion astronauts need to document everything they do for the sake of posterity. Crucially, it allowed Damon to talk. After all, in the cinema no-one can hear you think.

In one of the film’s most memorable utterances, Damon, playing a world-class botanist, explains he is going to have to “science the shit” out of his situation. The director recalls how Goddard described his script as a “love letter to science”. Scott cheerfully confirms that, while he may not be able to science the shit out of anything, he can use his visual flair to portray someone else doing just that. He also worked with NASA during pre-production to advise on various details (NASA suggested the scale of the storm Scott wanted to create as a way to sever Watney from his mission was unrealistic, but poetic licence won the day).

Scott knew within 20 minutes of meeting Damon they understood each other. “He’s one of the most user-friendly actors,” says the director. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great team player. He’s a very, very talented actor as well as having a great sense of humour, which isn’t used often enough.”

As a writer and producer himself, Damon brought problem-solving skills and a directness to the production without ego or drama. “You don’t get anywhere with people being polite to each other,” says Scott.

The film shot for 72 days, starting on soundstages in Budapest in late 2014 before relocating in early 2015 to Wadi Rum in Jordan for Mars. “I’d been there in spirit and sent a helicopter unit to shoot for Exodus,” he says. “I knew it existed because of David Lean and Lawrence Of Arabia. But then I’d also sent the crew there to get me shots of the landing sequence in Prometheus, so I knew it was pretty spectacular and thought I’d better visit. When I went in, I had this immediate [thought] that this should be Mars.”

Scott also worked with London-based effects house MPC on the Martian skies and dust storms. “The great thing about this film is there’s no monsters, there’s no bad guy; it’s really about self-help, helping yourself to survive and later being helped to survive,” he says. “I realised it’s actually OK to feel good when you walk out of the cinema as opposed to dragging your feet thinking, ‘Oh my God, that was a wonderful, miserable ending.’”

The next orbit

Now Scott is in Australia scouting locations for Alien: Covenant, the first of his three planned Prometheus sequels/Alien prequels. The film will shoot at Sydney’s Fox Studios Australia facility for 16 weeks from March 2016 (Australia enhanced the value of its production incentive specifically to entice the films). Covenant will pick up precisely where 2012’s Prometheus left off.

“It’s like a cliffhanger,” Scott enthuses. “They go to where the Engineers came from. Most of it is spent on the Engineers’ planet.”

The new film will focus on the crew members of colony ship Covenant, who mistake a remote planet for an undiscovered paradise, until they encounter ‘synthetic’ David (Michael Fassbender), the planet’s only occupant and a survivor of the ill-fated Prometheus expedition. Fassbender will play two roles and Prometheus star Noomi Rapace will also return.

As for the Blade Runner sequel, Scott and the original’s co-writer Hampton Fancher came up with the story, with Michael Green joining Fancher to deliver the final draft. Harrison Ford will reprise his role as Rick Deckard, with Ryan Gosling also starring.

Denis Villeneuve is directing as Scott was committed to Alien: Covenant. “We wanted to get this made,” he explains. “If you get it on paper, don’t wait. I had to let it go, which was a bit of a bugger but there we are.”

For Scott, the man too busy to direct his own Blade Runner sequel, the mantra seems to be, ‘Never stop’. He pauses. There is silence down the line. He’s doodling, perhaps. “What am I going to do? Walk the dogs? Love dogs. Lo-ove my dogs. But that’s only good for half an hour.”