Drew Goddard Interview: The Martian, Daredevil, World War Z

From Buffy to his latest film, Ridley Scott’s The Martian, we talk with screenwriter Drew Goddard about his work to date...

If you’re a fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Marvel’s Daredevil or the superb horror comedy The Cabin In The Woods, you’ll almost certainly have heard of Drew Goddard. Beginning as a staff writer on Buffy and Angel before gradually building his way to directing Cabin In The Woods (which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon), Goddard is now one of Hollywood’s most sought-after writers and filmmakers.

His latest project to reach the screen is The Martian, adapted from Andy Weir’s best-selling novel and directed by Ridley Scott. A visually captivating account of an astronaut’s survival after an incident leaves him stranded alone on Mars, it features a superb central performance from Matt Damon, and is arguably Scott’s best film in years.

As The Martian opens, we got the chance to sit down with Mr Goddard to talk about everything from the process of adapting Weir’s book to the success of Daredevil, the possibility of a sequel to Cabin In The Woods and much, much more. Here’s what the very warm, generous Drew Goddard had to say.

The Martian’s very much a feel-good survival movie, isn’t it? The Mark Watney character’s so upbeat, which really transforms the tone of the story.

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That’s really in the book. That optimism’s all on the page, and it’s something I really responded to. I love science fiction, but this felt like an opportunity to do something different.

What was the process of adaptation like, because obviously the book’s long and complex. And also you’re cutting between three locations.

The big challenge was, the book’s just really good. If I’d picked out everything I’d loved and put it in the movie, it would have been nine hours long. So at the end of the day, I had to make some tough decisions. There are some scenes in the book that I just love, but we didn’t have time for them. Again, we should all be so lucky to have so much good stuff to choose from.

I read in another interview that you saw Alien when you were very young.

Yeah, Alien and Blade Runner. Both of those.

So what was it like to finally meet the engineer of all that childhood trauma?

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[Laughs] I don’t know. I guess it keeps coming out in everything I do! It’s fun, you know? To have Ridley here and pick his brain about the trauma he inflicted on me over the years!

So you told him about it?

Oh yeah. A lot of the times, our relationship’s me asking him about his movies, and him going very politely, “That’s enough talk about Blade Runner for today.” [Laughs]

It’s interesting, looking at Ridley Scott’s films, and they have the theme where characters are trying to avoid death, to buy themselves more time. In this film, that defiance is a positive.

It’s funny. I hadn’t noticed that either about his movies, but I’ve been thinking about it while I’ve been doing this. And you’re right; so much of it is the struggle to stay alive. It’s in Blade Runner, it’s in Alien, it’s in Thelma and Louise. I don’t know if he even realises it. I think that’s sometimes the thing with directors — sometimes they just respond at a gut level to a story.

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Also, he’s a very optimistic man when you hang out with him. He’s very optimistic and warm, which I don’t think people would expect, because he makes these big, quite scary films sometimes. But it’s funny, because now I watch the movie, I think, “That’s your personality!” I think it captured his personality very well, which is something I don’t think people are used to seeing. 

I sometimes wonder whether he shares Mark Watney’s work ethic as well. Ridley’s an incredibly hard worker isn’t he?

I know. And there’s a faith in it, if that makes sense. If you do the work, then the work will save you. I certainly see that. I’ve never seen anyone work more than Ridley.

At one time, you were going to direct, weren’t you? So what approach do you think you would have taken, or can you not even imagine that now you’ve seen Scott’s version?

The good news is, when you get a director like Ridley, he made it way better than I would. It’s Ridley Scott! Look, I couldn’t be happier with the movie. I think it’s the best combination of all of us that got to work on it. We worked together well. It’s hard to even think of the movie being any different now that I’ve seen it.

Frustratingly, Cabin In The Woods took ages to come out. Then there was Sinister Six, which for one reason or another, simply hasn’t happened. How frustrating is that creatively, for you as a writer and director?

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Well, I’ve picked a very volatile business. I think I’m very lucky, given that I’ve got more made than most people do. The tough part is that I love all these things. I’ve loved every project I’ve ever worked on. You learn to be patient; with Cabin, I knew sooner or later that it would work out.

Do you think Sinister Six might resurface?

I’ve learned in Hollywood to never say never. I hope so. It’s a project I loved, so we’ll see.

Going right back to the beginning of your career, you started as a staff writer on Buffy and Angel. Do you think that was a good grounding for you in terms of learning the craft of storytelling?

There was no better school than working for Joss [Whedon] and having to figure out a new story every eight days. There’s no better place than that. Especially because, on the feature side, it can take three years for a feature to come together, whereas with television, you just keep going. You’re doing a lot of reps. I look back, I can’t believe it sometimes. I couldn’t have landed in the better spot. When you look at the titans of the industry — Joss and JJ [Abrams] — I really got to come up at a good time with those guys.

What was it like to work on Lost, because it was so big-budget and so labyrinthine.

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I was only on it for four seasons, but it was great. I think between Joss and the stuff I worked on up to that point, it had all been very niche. We liked our small corner, but then Lost exploded, you know? Just exploded. That was when JJ was exploding, and it was fun to see this weird thing we like starting to catch on on a global scale. It was fun with Lost because of that. We can actually push things, and do a crazy time travel story. It gave us all faith that we continue to do this on a larger scale. 

Do you think those shows you worked on helped bring in the current golden age of television we’re experiencing? The notion that TV can be cinematic?

The truth is, if you went back, TV’s always been pretty cinematic. I think in the 90s, once you had digital editing, you can see what they were able to do. You didn’t have eight days to cut, you know? To me, it’s The X-Files. If you look at The X-Files, that was the first time I remember noticing camera moves, really pushing the visual boundaries of television. That was certainly our influence on Angel in particular. I remember Joss saying, let’s push it visually. It was exciting to be able to do that.

Do you think there’s more room to innovate in TV than in film for certain projects? When you think about Marvel, they have their structure established, but then on something like Daredevil, they can go somewhere far more dark.

It was very gratifying for all of us. Because the comics are very dark. The thing about Marvel is, as a comics company, it has a wide range of stuff. They have stuff that’s for kids, they have stuff that’s for adults. It doesn’t have to be one or the other — we can have both. It was fun to push it a little darker.

You’re working on season two, aren’t you.

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Oh yeah. If people liked season one, they’re really going to like season two. We’re really pushing it. [Laughs]

Do you think that’ll feed back into Marvel’s cinematic output? Could we see a more adult Marvel movie in the future, do you think?

Look, it’s to Marvel’s credit that they’re not playing it safe. They could do that for 20 years and they’d be fine. But you look at something like Guardians Of The Galaxy, because it worked so well, we all take it for granted. But that was bold. At the time, I was like, “You’re making a movie about a talking raccoon and a tree? That’s crazy.” But it worked. It’s nice to see them still taking chances.

Do you think you’d get involved with directing a Marvel film?

I hope so. They know what a fan I am of theirs. It’s just a case of finding the right project.

Some directors don’t necessarily thrive in that environment, though, working collaboratively with producers. Some seem to find it frustrating.

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Yeah, I can understand that. But it’s true of every project, not just Marvel — it’s all about the right alchemy. To me, it comes down to, do I love the characters? If I love the characters, then we’ll figure it out. The thing I know about Marvel is, they love the characters. Like on Daredevil, we all love Matt Murdoch, so we figure out the best story. It’s when you don’t love the characters that you get in trouble — you get cynical. You make cynical decisions. We’re all coming from a place of love, so it tends to work itself out. 

Going back to Cabin In The Woods, the thing I liked about that was that it parodied a certain strand of horror really well. What do you think about the state of the genre now?

There’s so much good stuff. Did you see It Follows?

Oh yes. Great film.

That was spectacular. There’s an example of the tropes we were making fun of in Cabin In The Woods, certain archetypes, they’re all on display in It Follows, but they’re done so well. It sort of proves the point that these stories are timeless. These archetypes are timeless. It isn’t a parody. When you do it well, the results can be spectacular. What else did I like? Oh, The Babadook. That was incredible. I couldn’t believe how good that film was. Really, really powerful. I think horror will always be what it is, which is this thing that perseveres. Some times it will spill into popular culture, and sometimes it will stay on the edge. But that’s how it should be, you know?

It’s finding new voices in horror, new angles isn’t it? The thing about The Babadook was that it was about a taboo subject — a woman’s strained relationship with her young son.

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Yeah, and the nature of grief. That’s where the metaphor is more powerful than any of the plot, you know? That’s what you’re looking for, man. That’s what’s exciting. I loved that movie, man. Not since The Exorcist has a movie had such a powerful metaphor. That captured the soul of a human being. It’s more than just a horror plot.

Speaking of The Exorcist, I remember reading that when Friedkin started adapting Blatty’s book, he went through it with a marker, highlighting the scenes he liked. What was your approach to The Martian?

Very similar to that. I read the book several times, just to let it get into my DNA. Then, the same thing: I went through with a highlighter. I marked the things that just had to go into the movie, now let’s see how long it is! And it was far too long. I had to trim it down.

How long was the first draft, roughly?

Probably 180 [pages], which is just too long. But I like to start from a longer place and cut down.

Was there anything non-spoilery that you wanted to put in but couldn’t?

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There’s a back half of the movie where Mark Watney goes on a journey to get from point A to point B. It’s this beautiful journey in the book. It’s him confronting his existential state. I  loved it, but the problem is, if you put it in the movie it would have been three hours long! So you have to make these decisions. The good news is it’s in the book, so it’s always there. 

What’s the secret of a great book to film adaptation? Have things changed a little with the internet, because fans of books can react instantly about what they do or don’t like? Does that affect how you work?

I think it can. I’ve done two adaptations now. I said to Andy, “Listen, I love this book.” I tried to explain all the things I loved about it. Then I had to go away and make a good movie. My job isn’t just to take the book and karaoke it for the screen. You have to make hard decisions. I said, “We won’t do it without your blessing. You don’t have to worry about how the sausage is made — let me worry about it, then you can tell me whether I’ve screwed it up.”

To his credit, he totally got it. You’ve got to be fearless about adaptation, otherwise you get a boring movie. The truth is, after I said all that, what I ended up was very close to the book. It was more about what I had to cut than what I had to invent.

If you go back to the days of, I don’t know, Bonfire Of The Vanities, they took a lot of liberties with that book. If it happened now, the web uproar would be deafening.

If the movie’s good, there won’t be an uproar. Or a minor uproar. If the movie’s no good, they’ll be a real uproar. My favorite adaptation of all time is Trainspotting. Everything that’s in that movie is in the book. But they did a beautiful job of finding these moments and connecting it all together. I remember at the time people were saying it was unadaptable. It was exciting to see, it’s like, no, if you find the soul of something, you can get it on screen. I looked at that a lot when we were talking about The Martian. It’s all about the soul, if we just get the soul right, the rest of it will take care of itself.

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It’s true that cinema and literature are two very different things. In your experience, what things work beautifully on the page but don’t work or have to be adapted to work on the screen?

Part of the challenge is, the book’s told from a first-person point of view. A guy who’s all by himself. That’s hard, you know? You can’t have too much voice-over. That would just be weird. And he doesn’t have anyone to talk to, so you have to get a lot of his internal conflict and make it visual. That’s where casting someone like Matt Damon makes it a lot easier. Because all of that complicated emotion just comes through the screen.

Good Will Hunting’s an obvious one to go back to — he’s good at portraying intelligence without seeming above everybody.

That was key, finding an actor who could do that without lording it over the audience. There’s an effortless intelligence about Matt that comes through that is crucial to the character.

I really liked the way the film uses his video diaries as a way of using those first-person passages.

That was the challenge, because we needed him to talk. So it almost became the audience he’s talking to rather than giving him a volley ball or something.

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Wilson!

Yeah! [cries plaintively] “Wilson!”

The audience becomes Wilson for us. Because of that, it’s an intense connection the audience feels with Matt. He’s talking to us, so we get the sense that we’re the ones keeping him alive, which is nice. 

What you said about not having too much narration, that reminds me of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. You know, the scene with Robert McKee. “Don’t you dare use a voice-over in your work!”

I know! Believe me, I watch Adaptation and I get panic attacks. [Laughs] There are moments when I watch it and I think, “Ohh, I’m doing exactly what they’re making fun of!” [Laughs] But that goes with the territory I suppose.

You’re adapting Robopocalypse as well, for Spielberg. How’s that going?

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It’s good. These things are all about timing. When you’re Steven, you have one great movie after another, so it’s a case of slotting these things in. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen. But it’ll be awesome when it does, that’s for sure.

Ridley Scott has lots of people around him that he works with multiple times: Dariusz Wolski and Arthur Max and so on. Do you think you’ll hang around with Ridley Scott and do some more stuff?

I hope so. There was a really nice moment at the end when we wrapped, and we just looked at each other, shook hands and said, “Let’s do it again!” Which was nice. It’s all about finding the the right project. Believe me, nothing would make me happier than to work with Ridley for the rest of my career.

Well, he has three more Prometheus films in the pipeline for one thing.

The good news with Ridley is, that man likes to work. He’s always shooting, so you don’t have to worry about him taking a couple of years off.

I do sometimes wonder where he finds his energy.

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It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. I have half his energy, and he’s twice my age! It’s really inspiring to be around him, for sure.

I read somewhere that there’s a possibility of a second Cabin In The Woods.

The studio wants to do it. They’ve come to us. The funny part is, I don’t think we planned that movie to do a sequel you know?

It doesn’t exactly leave a lot of open ends, does it?

It doesn’t. But that being said, the fun thing about Cabin is, the rules are pretty crazy. We get away with a lot of crazy stuff. So I’m sure we could figure it out if we got inspired to. I know Joss and I both feel like we don’t want to tarnish what we did with the first one. With a sequel, we’d only do it if it made us laugh hard enough, I suppose.

So it isn’t at a stage where you have concrete ideas for it.

Yeah, we don’t know. There’s nothing in the hopper right now, but who knows? The way Joss and I work, we might wake up tomorrow and go, “Let’s go do that,” or whatever.

Another film you worked on was World War Z. What was the process of writing that like, because that was an unusual project, to say the least.

That was a strange one. It was a very strange one. They’d already shot the movie, and then Damon Lindelof came in to rewrite the ending, which is not what normally happens. It was fun, getting to work with Brad [Pitt] and Marc Forster. When you get to the point where you have Brad Pitt fighting zombies, life’s pretty good.

It was an interesting ending. It ran counter to what most writers might do, which is for the film to keep building.

I have to say, if I was writing it first time around, I’m sure I would have written a smaller middle and a bigger end. But when we watched the movie, that Jerusalem scene is just so huge, so big, we thought, “We’re not going to be able to top that. You can’t go bigger than that. Let’s go smaller and more intimate.” That worked out pretty well. But look man, that was just circumstance. Had they not already shot it and had that Jerusalem sequence, I don’t know that anybody would have thought of it.

Do you know what you’re doing next?

I’m writing my next project on spec. Hopefully when I’m done, they’ll let me do it. 

What do you think about Blumhouse Productions, and what they’re doing with horror and giving filmmakers creative freedom?

I really like it. They know their audience, they know how to make movies and release them quick. I certainly like that aesthetic, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and put on a show.” They’ve got that spirit, which is fun.

They get some great work out of established directors as well as new ones. James DeMonaco, Scott Derrickson, M Night Shyamalan with The Visit. I wondered what your thoughts were on that kind of low-budget filmmaking, and why more production companies don’t take that approach.

I think the recent Blumhouse is so successful is because Blum loves horror. Each studio head, because it comes down from the top, they’ve got to make what they love. And if they don’t love those types of movies, it tends to not to work, for whatever reason. So you look at each studio, they have different personalities — as they should, because if you try to do everything, you’ll be a failure at everything. The lesson we could all take from Blumhouse is, do what you love. Right? He clearly loves horror. It’s not cynical. It’s not, “Let’s go make money off of this.” It comes from a real place of love.

Do you think Marvel, or Warner with DC, could they make a $10 million superhero movie?

It’s hard. I think the smaller ones are going to end up on TV. Because what we talked about with Daredevil — early on, we were talking to Marvel about it as a movie, but I kept saying, and they felt the same way, “This movie doesn’t want to cost $200 million.”

Like, Matt fights real crime on the streets. He’s not saving the world. There’s no demons falling from the sky for him to fight. He’s fighting criminals. That’s how it should be. In a weird sort of way, cheap superhero films don’t really fit the pattern of what is successful. They’re these big summer events. It’s hard. But the good news is, there are outlets. There’s television. You’ll find the right home. But believe me, no one would love a cheap, gritty superhero movie more than me. That would be awesome!

The thing about both Daredevil and The Martian is that they’re a reminder that small stakes are often much better. We don’t have to have the whole world at stake.

No. I think certainly, in this day and age, I’ve seen a lot of worlds get destroyed. Now that visual effects have caught up and you can do these things, people did them a lot. Now, at least for me, I start getting tired of it. Because I can’t really relate. It’s not something I see in my daily life, worlds getting destroyed. But I do understand guys trying to keep their neighborhood clean. That was certainly my instinct with Matt in Daredevil. He’s got his little corner of the city and he’s trying to do his best. And I responded to that, for sure.

Drew Goddard, thank you very much.

The Martian is out in theaters on Friday (October 2).