Awards Daily TV talks to Justin Wilkes, a co-creator and executive producer of National Geographic’s MARS which details the intricate detail behind journeying to Mars.
Taking a unique format execution, the Ron Howard and Brian Grazer produced space exploration program MARS is exclusive in its predominantly documentary structure. Yet it also carries a weight of acted drama depicting the highly researched journey to Mars. Told in 6 parts, the TV series is a production of National Geographic and is available to stream.
I recently spoke to one of the creators and executive producer of MARS, Justin Wilkes, who had a huge hand in steering the ship to its inevitable success. We talked about the planning of the project before its launch, the highly collaborative process, and balancing the facts with non-fiction and dramatic story-telling.
Justin Wilkes, the first thing I quickly wanted to say, and I don’t know if it is intentional, but at the start of each episode you have the “Previously on MARS.” I found that quite fitting as it is literally on Mars.
Yeah, a little double meaning I guess.
So tell me a little bit about the concept and birth of the project?
We obviously do a lot of documentary and non-fiction programming, and we got a call from a mutual friend of ours at SpaceX and Elon Musk interested in doing a documentary or documentary series based on some of the work they were doing there. That lead me to have an in-person meeting with both Elon and some of the members of the team, and over the course of what was a truly fascinating 45-minute conversation, it became clear he had no interest in making a documentary about SpaceX or himself. What he really wanted to do was tell a much bigger story as to why we, as a species, need to become inter-planetary. And how SpaceX was going to help facilitate that.
That just sets off all kinds of builds in my head as to how we could actually bring that story to life. It was a much bigger challenge. How do we make this exciting for an audience? That led us to partner with our friends at Imagine [Entertainment], we got Ron [Howard] and Bryan [Grazer] involved right after that first meeting. We have worked with them before, and I instinctively felt they would be great partners. We started to endeavor to make a documentary series about the subject – being on the front line of engineering a Mars mission. There are people out there not only talking about going to Mars, but also laying the ground work as to what that mission would be like.
When we started to shoot the documentary, we realized we had to come up with some other storytelling device. We wanted to take the audience to Mars and see what that experience would be like. That’s where this idea of a hybrid, if you want to call it that or like a re-enactment, came into play. We thought taking the audience on that journey would be a really powerful tool.
With the actors, there are a couple of familiar faces there. If you were not familiar you probably would not know a lot of that is fictionalized anyway. Especially the talking heads stuff.
Yeah. As part of the casting we wanted to have a multi-national cast, which was realistic to what we thought would take place on mission to Mars. Many nations coming together to facilitate that. To your point, the scene work, the action, the dialogue, is all based on what could and perhaps would actually happen on that first human mission to Mars. And what some of the challenges would be that a crew might encounter. All that came from the documentary work we were doing in that field. It was an interesting thing to produce something like that as it started as one thing and morphed into something else along the way.
What was your role as executive producer? What were your main responsibilities?
I really ran the show from the beginning, through the delivery, overseeing the project both creatively, and through a production and logistics standpoint. Obviously we had a fantastic production team. We pulled together from our director to all the documentarians that were out in the field. When we got into the visuals effects side of things, we partnered with old friends of ours at Framestore, which is a fantastic Oscar-winning visual effects company that worked on The Martian and Gravity. We just felt we needed the visual effects to be as realistic as possible and as cinematic as possible. So my job was really kind of the mission commander to get us to Mars and back.
Yeah. Obviously you mentioned The Martian, and there are direct similarities, particularly the agricultural side of it. So what do you think makes it different from other space exploration productions?
I am a student of space, not just in entertainment. The subject matter is always something I have been fascinated by. The program that has historically inspired me and people on the team, Cosmos, did an amazing job taking the audience on a journey. The Martian was a great reference for us in a lot of ways helped us set the stage for our story. The Martian was a kind of rescue mission, and what we wanted to imagine ours was the next mission. While it does take place in space, what it is ultimately about is humans trying to migrate setting up a colony.
A lot of the inspirations was drawn from past human history, which we were hoping would make it much more relatable. What Elon describes the Mars mission echoing the European migration to the new world, and the idea you had these reusable sail boats that became the economic vehicle to be able to bring people back and forth. In our second season, we jump ahead and really start to see the colony come to life.
A couple of other things I like: the music and that each closing titles the story was still visually being told.
The titles were interesting as we had access to an orbiter which is currently going around Mars, and there’s a high resolution camera there. We had access to that, and we had thee images that were so surreal, almost like paintings. You weren’t really quite sure what you were looking at with the sand dunes and rock formations, but also it almost felt like you were looking at cells on a molecular level.
Musically, we were very fortunate to partner with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. They obviously do amazing work but specifically for film and TV. They were friends of our director, Everado Gout, and they were fascinated by the subject matter. So we tried to figure out with them what the soundscape would be, what does Mars actually sound like.
The music was understated, but I think it had to be. Like you say, what it sounds like on Mars, but it was also a little bit emotive as well.
We tried to embrace a much more mechanical, organic feel to the whole thing. Our point of view was these humans going on this adventure, but the ship itself almost becomes a bit of a character. We reference Das Boot quite a bit as that was kind off what it was like to be in these enclosed spaces. That you couldn’t just go outside. There were these claustrophobic environments. Essentially for the early settlers of that planet, you are living underground. And there’s a vastness and a loneliness that can come from that as well. The cinematography, which was often hand-held, echoes that claustrophobia, moving around these tunnels. And when we were on the surface, we tried to shoot it more like a western with wide, panoramic shots.
So the big topic is the split format: part fiction, part documentary. Where you worried about what audiences would think? And how did you end up in the Documentary or Nonfiction category regarding the Emmy® race?
As a producer and a storyteller, you are always concerned about who is going to watch it. I think the beauty of being on National Geographic is what that brand represents in terms of exploration and adventure. And it is based on fact, real people trying to do very real things right now. We didn’t set out to create a hybrid format from the get-go. We believed it was the best way to tell this story, to take the audience on the journey with you.
In terms of being in the non-fiction category, to be honest we always believed we should have been in the non-fiction category. It began as a documentary series, the reading process, the creation process, and even editorially, although there were scripts there was a basic structure we had going into it.
It must have been tricky where to put everything in the duration of 6 episodes, and in what order – the footage, the photographs, the acting. That must have been a collaborative process.
Highly collaborative. And a lot of trial and error. Even if it looked good on paper, then you would watch it in the editing room, and it doesn’t quite play. Each episode has a slightly different format to it. When we’re a drama. When we’re a doc. That just came from watching it, screening it for people, testing it and really seeing what works – the most engaging way to tell the story.
Any other challenges you faced while you were on MARS?
In general it was a huge show, a huge production. The biggest challenge for us was that you can’t go to Mars right now. So you do have to kind of pressure test with yourself what is going to come across as believable. And as National Geographic is a non-fiction platform, there’s a requirement of authenticity and accuracy. It all had to be born out of, “Can this really happen? If it was played out that way, do our experts agree?” And that is one more level of due diligence and research work that has to take place.
But the pay-off, for everyone that worked on it, was tremendous, because we felt like we were about to accomplish that. We’re actually proud of the fact that people from the European Space Agency watched this and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it is going to go down.”
Well that’s a great recommendation.
Maybe we’ll start to see a little bit more of this hybrid format. It really works on this occasion. I’m no expert on space travel, but this certainly did not feel like I was watching a drama the whole time.
Great, I’m glad you felt like that.
Good luck with the second season. I’ll be tuning. And the upcoming Emmys. It’s a good time, what with The Martian and Interstellar, films like that. It’s a good time to be making this stuff.
Very timely. It’s a subject people are interested in. And I commend the Television Academy for being so forward-thinking, enabling these kind of projects to exist. Being open to new formats.