Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard combines drama and documentary in a unique format with the likes of Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Andy Weir in all-new series Mars on National Geographic. All About Space caught up with the producer to find out how his TV mini-series captures the true peril and logistics of landing humanity on the Red Planet…
What have the challenges been for you, as the executive producer of Mars, making narrative congruence between this contemporary science- fact documentary footage and future-set drama?
Yes, that is what’s daunting about it and what’s attractive and exciting. Given that our bosses have embraced the experimental side of it, I think they want to make sure that audiences also understand that this is going to unfold in an unconventional way. That’s part of what’s exciting about it. But I think the reason it made sense to try it was because if you just to do a mini-series about colonising Mars, you’d research it thoroughly and so forth, but in people’s minds it would be like Ridley [Scott’s] The Martian. It would be near-future sci-fi…
Or another Ray Bradbury adaptation…
Yes, right. And so we wanted it to run a little deeper than that. It’s National Geographic, after all. We wanted the research and the level of acknowledgment of the real-world science to be more evident. So we initially began talking about just doing a documentary about what seems to be a sort of tipping point, in 2015 and 2016, where the world [is looking to Mars], kind of led by Elon Musk in a way, but also it has been revealed that NASA has, over the past few years – so from President Obama’s statement onwards – been focusing more and more of their resources on Mars.
We felt this was kind of a tipping point in terms of initiating the impetus to really do it. To finally just throw down the gauntlet and make it happen somehow, and that was interesting, but pure documentary. And then [Executive Producer] Brian Grazer really had this idea of the adventure of going, and how we would depict that. And the further we went down that road, as conversations with Courteney Monroe [CEO, National Geographic Global Networks]began to evolve, this notion of approaching it in a new way came into focus. And that was to do the documentary portion, led largely by this really good documentary producer Jonathan Silberberg, through RadicalMedia and us, and do that research, with an eye toward what the episodes might be – we didn’t really define what the drama was going to be, we just estimated. Then we looked at the big picture and asked a lot of questions.
We did that and then we let the research, and the answers to the questions that the big thinkers were giving us, help guide the episodes. Then [Director] Everardo Gout did a wonderful job of letting it all be more than exposition and clinical re-enactment. Instead, he found the heartbeat of those situations, in those crises, and I’m very excited about it. I think it’s going to deepen an audience’s sense of the viability of the dramatised material, as it’s going to be supported by these big thinkers and what they have to say. In fact, they did guide us in many ways.
What could you utilise from your experience of making Apollo 13?
Well, the belief and the knowledge that the audience are far more interested in the details than you might expect. And those details don’t actually detract from the drama and suspense – they can enhance it. So I think it gave both Brian [Grazer] and I confidence going into it. And then a few little tricks – a few little ideas about how to allow an audience to really understand what’s going on onscreen while not betraying the authenticity and veracity of the details that you’re depicting.
Are there some movies about Mars that you like or have been inspired by?
The Martian was great. But there’s no one… I can’t think of a movie that was actually inspiring us to believe in this, any more than The Martian, which I thought was a terrific movie. Director Everardo [Gout], the production designer, our research teams, the scientists and the astronauts who helped – they’re the ones that helped us shape the drama. And Stephen Petranek’s book, How We’ll Live On Mars, was sort of the first foundational narrative jumping-off place. Because while he didn’t go into a lot of detail, he also became a part of the production and had all of his research about the kind of crises that humans are very likely to face. We made a big list of all the things that could kill you up there and there were far more than we could put into this six-hour series! ‘Number 45! Rock slide!’ We could do years of this stuff based on the punch list of expected threats to colonisers.
Considering films of yours such as Apollo 13, Rush, In The Heart Of The Sea and A Beautiful Mind, are you driven to explore what makes humans want to push themselves to the edge, and beyond, possibly at the risk of their own sanity or life?
It really fascinates me. To me, it’s the supreme exploration of what people do when they come together as groups and ad hoc families and try to survive. I always find that pressure to be emotional, dramatic and very relatable. In most of our lives, the big pressures are coming together to deal with some sort of problem in the family, neighbourhood or at work – or helping one another survive a whale attack, Apollo 13 or a return to Mars. It is what I liked about the Beatles project I just did. It’s about a group of guys who have to lean on each other in order to get through something, which they had no idea could be as tumultuous as it turned out to be.
Why do the public have to watch Mars?
I think that the Mars series is going to stimulate the imagination and the intellect of an audience. So it’s kind of two ways of really engrossing you and entertaining you. I think the documentary portion reinforces the drama, while the drama underscores the emotional content of the documentary material – I think that is what’s so unique about it and really makes it something [special].