It is 2033. The first human mission to Mars enters the planet’s atmosphere. It is a moment decades in the making and while it may sound like science fiction, National Geographic’s new miniseries Mars aims to convince you it’s actually more akin to science fact. Executive-produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, Mars presents the mission to settle the red planet alongside documentary interviews with the leading minds making that predicted first voyage a reality. As Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout — who directed all six episodes of the Nat Geo project — told Remezcla, “It’s a chance to see how close we actually are to making that dream a reality.”
He admits, though, that this ambitious take on space travel (which has echoes of Battlestar Galactica and will no doubt elicit comparisons to The Martian), may not strike one as a natural fit for a director who made a name for himself with Días de gracia (Days of Grace). That film, which was likened to Amores perros and City of God for its unflinching look at the violence and kidnapping epidemic in Mexico, screened at Cannes and gave the director the type of exposure that you’d think would make getting his future projects greenlit a tad easier. Not so much. As with many other up-and-coming filmmakers nowadays, Gout found his attempts at getting projects off the ground increasingly hard.
After many false starts (“Some of them we have financing for but no cast, some of them we have cast but no financing”), he got a call from Jon Kamen from Radical Media. Kamen, who knows Gout’s brother, Leopoldo Gout (writer of the hit YA novel Genius: The Game, Days of Grace producer), asked if he’d be interested in directing this miniseries. “If, when I last talked to Remezcla you’d told me that in a few years time I’d be doing something in space and Mars I would’ve laughed.” That’s how crazy it sounded to him back then too.
But talking to Ron Howard and learning that the people at National Geographic were hoping to create a new type of genre — where the documentary aspects of the miniseries would, as he says, help audiences “better understand the reality of the show” — is what convinced him to take on directing duties. Having grown up in a pre-Google era when the famed magazine was your window into the rest of the world (offering “not just spectacular images of the world you could never imagine but the intelligent insights of the people who lived there and how they lived there”), Gout found himself increasingly excited about what they could do with Mars.
“I wanted to make something as truthful as possible and as far away from The Martian as possible.”
And so he got to reading, plowing through enough research to feel he could accurately lend his vision to what will be the most scientifically-minded outer space project ever. Yes, even more so than that other movie set in our neighboring planet that boasted an Oscar-winning director and actor. Indeed, for much of our talk, Gout discussed how he and his crew went out of their way to make their Mars look decidedly different from that of The Martian.
Turns out all they had to do was follow the science. Not wanting to shoot in Jordan, where Ridley Scott had shot his Matt Damon movie, they looked at other places like the Canary Islands and Namibia. “But again because it’s Nat Geo and because I wanted to make something as truthful as possible and as far away from The Martian as possible, the Moroccan desert gave us the opportunity to show very different landscapes of what Mars is, which is organic to the brand and to the show. And so Mars becomes a character and every episode you’re gonna discover new scenery that you haven’t seen before, because it’s a huge planet that has valleys and mountains and deserts.” As it turns out they shot in a location no one had yet used before — no filmmakers at least. The site had been used by space agencies: it was where they had tested the rovers they’d planned to send to Mars because the landscape was as close to that planet as they could find on Earth.
Mars, which features interviews with leading scientists and engineers as well as people like Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX) and Ann Druyan (the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Mission – NASA) also boasts quite the diverse cast when it comes to the future roster of people leading the Mars mission. This is helped by the way the show explains how all of the space-going nations have, by 2033, merged their space programs into the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), resulting in a welcome multicultural team. It also opened up the casting process. “We were able to go look throughout the world and see people from around the world,” Gout noted. That’s how they ended up with actors from France (Olivier Martinez), Argentina/Spain (Alberto Ammann), Romania (Anamaria Marinca) and even South Korea (Jihae) taking on pivotal roles in the miniseries. It is these actors who carry the bulk of the drama in the show — after all, no pioneering mission goes off without a hitch, and that is no different here, with the tight-knit group needing to fend off engineering, biological, and even human error at every stage of their journey.
While the science-heavy documentary segments may seem rather heady, it’s the aspirational tone of the overall miniseries where one finds the humanity, like when a character puts the mission in terms both poetic and pragmatic, arguing that when they arrive at Mars, “We will no longer stare in wonder at those planets we named for our gods, but take our place among them.”
Mars premieres November 14, 2016 in the US on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo Mundo at 9 p.m.