After last night’s premiere of National Geographic Channel’s Mars, you finally know what the series is all about. A blend of science fact and fiction, the scripted narrative, with accents of documentary, revealed itself to be a drama about humanity’s hopes -- as well as the quest (and fear and excitement) of the individual carrying those hopes to another planet.
The show, produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, likewise represents the hopes of NatGeo to rebrand itself as a destination of prestige, high-quality programming. The mission to move away from reality TV, and towards cohesion with the respected 128-year-old publication, involves big thinking and bold storytelling.
While the big thinking portion is served in documentary segments featuring SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Cosmos co-creator Ann Druyan, astronaut Scott Kelly, and more, the storytelling is the responsibility of series director Everardo Gout.
Gout is not the first director you’d expect to helm a show set on another planet.
The former television commercial and music video director made a big entrance last year at Cannes with his feature film debut, Days of Grace. Blending together three stories set in Mexico City during three subsequent World Cups, the movie was described by The New York Times as, “flashy and entertaining, but also earnestly concerned with the collapse of trust and integrity at every level of society.” Gout is also working on Again, a thriller about the events leading up to the murder of a rock star through the eyes of four characters.
So how did Gout get from a tale of urban violence and a thriller to sci-fi? Because Mars is about human nature, not about space, he recently told me. Rather than a stylized docudrama, Gout said the National Geographic miniseries is an emotional story – which happens to have a little documentary added in.
I spoke with Gout about this further, and in the following conversation, we discuss how he approached this unique challenge, and where he encountered challenges in blending the science with the drama.
I must admit, I had concern approaching this, and wondering how you would pull off this scripted/documentary hybrid. What was your first reaction when they pitched the idea?
From the very beginning, when they offered me the series, I was very clear that I wasn’t into doing a docudrama. I am not interested in that format. But, after speaking with them, it gave me the confidence that this is the correct landscape to create something new. That it would be a miniseries based on characters, based on emotion, and an emotional journey. And the documentary side would be to fulfill that, instrument that, so you can have a knowledge to better enjoy the drama. We scratched our heads a lot, but managed to find a balance where it works, against all odds. It’s an entertaining show, but at the end of the day you still get your proteins, your knowledge, and I feel a little less dumb after watching.
You always approached it as a narrative first, then adding in the documentary later?
Absolutely. We had teams all over the world covering everything going on globally, in terms of a Mars mission. We had these amazing interviews, and created this great library of knowledge and subject matter that speaks about Mars. Therefore, we were able to build a narrative, then go to the library, and pull the book pertinent to whatever we’re talking about at that moment. That was the key for this to work.
Were the scripts written before the documentary interviews took place?
It was in parallel. What we knew was, by speaking to these amazing, talented brainpowers – we had roughly two hours with each of them, individually – we would cover a spectrum of subject matter. We had an idea of what the series could be, and that I knew I wanted to make a story about the humans, not about the ships. I wanted to make Das Boot in space, and see how they bleed, how they love, how they die – that’s interesting to me, not the science of the rocket, and how it lands. But if we asked them enough, they’d give us a spectrum of answers to vocalize into bits of the story.
Was there a moment where you were asked to pull back on the drama because, after all, this is National Geographic, and there has to be a focus on the science?
Not really. From the very beginning, we were really thorough on the science. There was a dance to be made between our advisors and the writers. On a daily basis, we were re-writing the story based on the science. At the very beginning, it was a bit of sniffing each other, and feeling it out, but it was great to see how it all evolved into an organic dance. At the end of the day, scientists would come up with creative, dramatic solutions, or writers would have enough knowledge to double check with the scientists that, “this is how science would fix this, right?”
As the series progressed for you, did it become easier to blend the voices from the past with the 2033 crew’s story?
As the series advances, it is easier and easier. The first episode is always hard because you have to do heavy lifting on explaining the characters, mission, and world. But you’ll find we really break our heads to make every episode a mini-movie that’s very different from first to second to third.
Are you a fan of the sci-fi genre?
I do love science fiction. I love to watch it. But in all honesty, if you had told me last year I’d be doing a show of sci-fi, I would have laughed. Especially in space. Especially because Cuaron did Gravity; that’s perfect. What can I do? But I really enjoy this, because we focus it on the human nature and psyche.
Is it a goal of yours for Mars to be part of a hopeful, optimistic phase of science fiction?
Yeah! I think, in this world – I’m from Mexico, where the violence is out of control – to be able to do something that turns to the sky, and gives a little bit of hope? And teaches us? I did this for my daughter, who is my northern star of hope. It is a love letter to humanity. It is not about getting to Mars, it is about coming together as a species with a common goal, and to think outside the box. It is not about what can I not do, but what can I dream of doing?
What was your connection to National Geographic before becoming attached to the series?
I am really honored to be part of this rebranding of National Geographic because I come from the pre-Google era where, if you wanted to discover the world, that yellow rectangle was your window. Coming from Mexico, I was religiously waiting for the magazine every month. The November issue would probably come in February, but it didn’t matter. I opened it, and discovered the world. Not only wonderful landscapes, but also the insight of the people inhabiting those places. So it is important for me to thank them for what they brought to me.