By LYNN BARKER
Front Row Features
SANTA FE, N.M.—Before it was a very successful film, “The Martian” was a popular novel by Andy Weir, a computer programming techie who first posted the novel on his website, chapter by chapter. The snowball effect from that point can only be described as a modern computer generation miracle. The film, starring Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut on Mars, has grossed more than $347 million worldwide since its Oct. 2 release.
Weir was here recently to sign his hardcover book and its paperback movie tie-in version at the famous Jean Cocteau Cinema, an old movie theater that author George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame purchased and refurbished. Before a sold-out crowd of diverse fans, Martin and Weir engaged in a lively Q&A onstage at the historic venue.
The quirky authors appeared dapper in their signature newsboy caps as they explored Weir’s admission that his overnight success was a long time coming. He had given up on being a professional writer after multiple rejections until—in true modern-age style—he started posting his work on his own website. Fan input corrected some of his technical errors, and the creation of E-book and Amazon versions garnered more readers. Eventually, publishers and a literary agent caught notice. Once the novel became a success on Amazon, movie studio 20th Century Fox came a-knocking to adapt it into a film. The rest is top-grossing movie history.
Martin was first asked about his latest page to screen adventure.
Q: George, can you talk about your novella “The Skin Trade” appearing on Cinemax?
Martin: Yes, “The Skin Trade” is a werewolf novella that I wrote in 1987. It was originally in the (compilation) “Dreamsongs.” It’s a pilot script at this time. It’s sort of werewolf noir. We have a wonderful young writer Kalinda Vasquez (who wrote and produced for the “Once Upon a Time” TV series, “Nikita” and “Prison Break”) writing the script. It is for Cinemax, the little sister of HBO. We hope to see it on there in a year or two, but development takes a long time.
Martin: Andy, you were on the verge of giving up your writing dream at a certain point?
Weir: Well beyond the verge. I had completely given up. I had always wanted to be a (science fiction) writer ever since I was a teenager but I also like regular meals and not sleeping on park benches, so when the time came for me to choose a career I picked computer programming. I was fairly good at it. Then I went to college for four years and didn’t finish because I ran out of money, but it was 1994 and the software industry was beginning to spin up, so it wasn’t hard to get a job programming computers.
Martin: Was this because of what you read as a child? Did you cut your teeth on Asimov and Heinlein and Robert Silverberg and Arthur C. Clarke?
Weir: Yeah, pretty much you just nailed it. My dad had an inexhaustible supply of classic sci-fi books that he’d collected over his life so I ended up reading kind of Baby Boomer science fiction. Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov are my favorites, my holy trinity or the ones I aspire to be like. I was writing short stories, although crappy ones, when I was fifteen, always science fiction.
Q: Women in these novels usually didn’t come off as more than two-dimensional accessories.
Weir: These old classic sci-fis you have to grade on a curve when it comes to (the treatment of) women. Okay, this was written in the 1950s, so you can’t expect them to be as gender equality-enlightened as our society is now.
Martin: Heinlein was one of the first science fiction writers to give us female starship captains in “Starship Troopers,” when all of the authors preceding him were keeping women as housewives or they were scientists who turned out to be beautiful when they took their glasses off. So you read those science fiction stories and said, “I wanna write this stuff too!”
Weir: Yeah, and while I was in college learning how to be a computer programmer I did write a book, but it sucked and I knew it was bad so I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. It was a dystopian nightmare kind of story. Fortunately, that was in the era before the Internet, so it’s never going to get out there. Nobody is going to find it. My mom has a hard copy and won’t tell me where it is. I will deny any association with it.
Martin: Watch what you leave in your drawers!
Weir: Later on in life I was one of the programmers on “Warcraft 2”—to show you how long ago that was. Then I was working for AOL and they merged with Netscape in 1999 and I was laid off along with 800 of my closest friends. I had a lot of AOL stock options I had to sell. I sold them at their all-time high.
Martin: So you were forced into wealth.
Weir: It wasn’t some huge, massive amount of money but enough that I could go several years without having to work so (I thought), “Right, here’s my shot. I can be a writer. I could spend the next three years writing a book and trying to get it published.” So I wrote a book and I couldn’t get it published, couldn’t get an agent, couldn’t get a publisher interested. No traction at all. It wasn’t that good a book but better than the first one. After that I said, “Okay, I don’t have what it takes” so I’m going back into the software industry.
Around that time the Internet was getting more popular, so I thought I could write as a hobby. I could have a web page. I could have readers that read my stuff regularly and I could post whenever I want. “The Martian” was one of several serials I was working on at that time. There was “Jack,” about aliens invading earth, and there was “Bonnie Mackenzie” a children’s story about a mermaid in the 19th century. But, “The Martian” got popular, just posting it chapter by chapter on my website.
Martin: Like you would post chapter four but there was no chapter five written yet?
Weir: Right, but I told all my readers that I reserved the right to go back and make changes to earlier chapters if I need to. This stuff isn’t set in stone. You are watching me slowly write a book.
Martin: You had a website when you were completely unknown. You had never published anything. What drew people to your website? You had 16 visitors, and then they talked to other people?
Weir: Yeah, pretty much. It was about 10 years of writing fiction and web comics, a lot of short stories (and) then my serials.
Martin: Did you ever send anything out to editors?
Weir: No, at this time I had completely given up on being a professional writer or getting published. I had plenty of rejections on my second novel that I spent three years on. “The Martian” did well but it was 10 years of writing for my website before I even started “The Martian.” It slowly built up a mailing list of about 3,000 people. They were my regular readers and that was cool because they were all nerds like me.
After I finished “The Martian,” I thought it was done and was going to move on to my next project but I started getting e-mail from people saying, “Hey, I love ‘The Martian,’ but I hate your website,” which was fair because the website was just ghetto. They’d say, “I hate reading a book on a web browser. Could you do an E-book version?” Then people would say they weren’t technically savvy and couldn’t download the E-book, and can I just post it to Amazon? So I figured out how to do that. Amazon makes their money from the book sales. You have to charge at least 99 cents. Any idiot can put their stuff up there after Amazon checks it out for two days. So, I told my readers they could read it off my website or pay Amazon a buck to put it on your Kindle.
Martin: So you got some income after years of writing “The Martian”?
Weir: Yeah, a cool 30 cents a copy! It was just rollin’ in. I went and bought some coffee and a sandwich maybe. It made it into the top sellers list on Amazon, and that gets it on Amazon’s “You might also like” list. Then, if it’s on the top 10 of sci-fi, then people looking for sci-fi can find it, and it snowballs quickly.
Martin: So how did it go big time from there?
Weir: That got the attention of an editor named Julian Padilla at Random House who wasn’t sure if he wanted to give it a read or not. His colleague, a literary agent, said he’d read it and he did, and liked it and signed me on as a client. Then, he turned around and said, “How much money are you going to give us for this book?” Then 20th Century Fox came for the film rights. Everything was backwards. I had completely given up after years of no traction, working hard and getting nothing. And then I end up with a literary agent coming to me, publishers coming to me and a studio. It was really weird.
Martin: What inspired you to write the story?
Weir: I’m a space dork. I have been all my life. My dad is a particle physicist. My mom is an electrical engineer so I was doomed to be a nerd from day one. I’ve always been into space flight, spaceships and satellites. In 2000 or so, I was sitting around wondering how we would do a manned mission to Mars. How do we get the astronauts to Mars? How do we keep them alive when they’re there? What do they do when they’re there? And, how do we get them back? I wanted to come up with my own Mars mission project.
I knew any mission must account for problems and failures and accidents. You can’t have the first thing that goes wrong kill the crew, so what is the back-up plan? What if this or that thing breaks? No one thing can break that will cause a plane crash. It has to be a whole bunch of things. What are those bunches of things that could break and ruin a mission? Then I thought that could make a pretty interesting story. So, I created an unfortunate astronaut protagonist and tortured him for 350 pages.
Martin: So did you just sell your baby to Fox or want to be a producer and the screenwriter of the movie?
Weir: I just sold my baby. I don’t have any clout. I’m not bargaining from any position of strength at that point. I’m a completely unknown author. We were actually selling the rights to Fox before the print edition had come out. This was a “take it or leave it,” offer so I took it. The print deal and film deal were four days apart.
Martin: Later, they came to you and said, “We’ve got Matt Damon?”
Weir: They got Drew Goddard (“World War Z”, “Cloverfield”, “Cabin in the Woods”) who wrote the screenplay adaptation and wanted to direct as well. They got Matt onboard and Drew left to work on the next “Spider-Man” movie. So Ridley Scott came in and said, “I’ll direct it,” so the studio was like “Oh, really?” and started taking it seriously. All the while, I’m still sitting in my cubicle working as a computer programmer and fixing bugs. It’s a surreal life.
Martin: Did you talk with Matt or Ridley about the movie?
Weir: They chose to involve me but my only actual contractual thing was to cash the check, and I did that fairly well. Drew did call me with technical and creative questions. While they were filming, Ridley would send technical questions since, unlike NASA and JPL, I could answer immediately. I was a good source. I was paired with Ridley for the Toronto Film Festival press day interviews, so I was honored to hang out with him.
He’s interesting but he speaks quietly and speaks with an accent and slurs his words. I was like, “I can’t understand what he’s saying.” I told Jessica Chastain (who plays starship Hermes Commander Lewis) that I couldn’t understand him and she’s like, “No one understands what he’s saying. We’re all on set and he’s telling us what to do and we have no idea what he’s saying.”
Martin: Have you ever tried to grow a potato in a jar of shit?
Andy: I’m the anti-Watney (Mark’s astronaut character and a botanist) when it comes to that. There are little seeds going “Nooooo!” I’ve never been able to keep a plant alive.
Q: Is there something you wrote that you wish had been in the movie?
Weir: There are a few things, some gags and jokes. I was sad that the Aquaman joke didn’t make it. I love that. It’s one of my favorite things. I really wish that had been in. Ironman made it but that wasn’t as funny.
Q: Are you pretty happy with the movie?
Weir: It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book so I’m really happy with the film. They pulled some stuff out because otherwise it would be a six-hour movie but the things they pulled out were things I would pull out too if I had to trim. The Hab (habitat) looked exactly like I imagined it. The rover pretty much looks the same but the Hermes looked totally different than I’d imagined. As for people, I just had blobs in my head, no visual concept of what they look like but I had Commander Lewis as being older in her fifties, maybe even sixties, so I was a little surprised when they cast Jessica Chastain but now when I think of Commander Lewis, I see Jessica Chastain. I’m easily programmed.
Q: If this mission were round trip and not a suicide mission would you personally go?
Weir: Nope. I write about brave people but I’m not one of them. I don’t even like flying. To come out here from Oakland, California to Albuquerque, I took that two-hour flight but I do not have the right stuff.