Edit This!: 'The Martian'
Issue: October 1, 2015

Edit This!: 'The Martian'

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi adventure, The Martian, is holding strong at number one in its second week of release. Already at $37M, the film tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his will to survive on a hostile planet Mars. Having made it through a storm on the red planet during an expedition his fellow astronauts believed he died in, he’s left behind as the sole resident of the planet, and is forced to rely on his training, ingenuity and wit to stay alive, while also figuring out how to get a message back home. 

The Martian, which was shot on-location in Jordan and a greenscreen stage in Budapest mainly on Red Dragon cameras, generated between 100 to 200 terabytes of raw files (stored on an Avid ISIS) that needed to be carefully cut and edited (Avid Media Composer Version 7). Here, Post speaks with film editor Pietro Scalia — who has a long-time working relationship with Scott, collaborating on such films as Gladiator and Black Hawk Down — about the demands of editing the sci-fi thriller and his love for having put all the pieces together to create the hit drama. 

How early on did you get involved in the film?

“I started this one four weeks in, when they started principle photography. I was finishing up The Sea of Trees, so I couldn’t start right away but I started right at the beginning of the year, in January.”

Were you on-location?

“In January, I joined them on location in Budapest.”

Where did you do the editing?

“We started editing during the shoot, for three months, editing right behind camera and then from there, when production moved to Jordan, we moved to southern France and edited there in some country homes we rented. It was near where Ridley lives and he wanted to do the director’s cuts there. So we moved for most of the editing and then after that, I had basically split cutting rooms — I had a few people in London, in editing rooms, and I had a visual effects editor and his assistant on-location. We did a lot of moving around until we had screened the director’s cut several times and made a permanent move to London. There, we were very close to everyone else — visual effects, sound designers. We really were on an accelerated schedule, so we really needed to be close when trying to finish the film.”

What kind of direction did Ridley Scott give as far as the editing style he wanted on the film?

“None. Ridley loves to shoot. He shoots amazing material and coverage. He just lets me edit. We worked for so long for so many films — we have our own shorthand and way of communicating. I just get the material and I cut it. I also get involved in designing and visual effects and trying to understand. As a project evolves, I like to figure out where things go. It’s a natural, organic outgrowth of the material that’s shot. It comes in and then I get inspired by how the movie is coming together.

“I knew [this film] was going to have a lot of humor. When I spoke to Ridley, after reading the script, I said, ‘This is probably going to be your funniest film. I think what really is going to make this work (and this is the conversation that we actually had), is we really need to be very accurate.’ Meaning, ‘I hope you shoot everything very specifically.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ My concern was, we had to be specific in the science. But what came to mind was, also, when we worked on Black Hawk Down, it was also very specific in action. We couldn’t just have assemblage of explosions — we had to be very specific. And that’s very hard to do in being specific enough so that you can understand the cause and effect. And I think we had to be very meticulous and precise in the thought process that goes into Mark Watney’s character and how scientifically he thinks in order to survive. Those were the general things — to be precise and keep the humor. And you can see from Matt Damon’s performance that he really captured the character.”

How involved in the editing process is Ridley? Did he work closely with you on the editing?

“Oh yeah, he’s involved. What happened was, as soon as we had completed photography a week or so later, we screened the cut. It was long, but it definitely worked. [At that point], he had seen sequences in parts of the film already, and throughout, so he was very familiar with how scenes were coming together. He was totally happy — we had a long film, and he was okay to start tightening without really losing most of it. We didn’t need a lot of fat, we just focused on story and character, so during the editing process we realized we had to lose certain scenes and we had to do some restructuring, specifically in the first act, like moving the flashback to the beginning of the film and things like that. But he’s present during the day, follows the cut. We get continued feedback from visual effects, too, trying to incorporate those shots in. Ridley conveys his thoughts about what visual effects should look like and what he wants and that’s when he gets really specific with people. 

“In terms of story, I think once he responds and the story works, he’s hands off. Is it the best it can be? Let’s make this tighter. This works. Do we really need that one? So it goes back and forth until it settles into the shape it is.” 

Can you talk more about the shorthand you and Ridley have established while working on a film?

“Absolutely. There’s definitely a shorthand. I like to have the creative liberty to do what I want and to interpret the material and move things around and have the blessing from Ridley to do it because it’s worked for us — it’s a good working relationship. He doesn’t have to worry about things.”

What did you find most challenging about editing this film?

“It’s kind of unusual — the film came together fairly quickly. We didn’t have to struggle with the narrative itself. It was engaging from the actor’s point of view. It was a lot of fun. It reminds me of Gladiator in a sense. It was fun to work on. I was looking forward to Matt Damon’s performance. The material that was being shot, when it came in from Jordan, we were like, ‘Oh finally, we have great locations,’ and the comp of visual effects with the backgrounds was coming alive and it was really enjoyable. Maybe in the third act, in the final rescue sequence, it was complicated because we dealt with previs. I didn’t have all the material at once, I had bits and pieces from the Hermes crew and then finally, I had all of Mark Watney’s material. That sequence took a very long time. So, the last part, even with a day of reshoots where we picked up more action sequences, was the most complex one to come together. That was a challenge to make it tense and emotional and not make it boring. 

“When you work on a film, I noticed on this one, you do get a feel of the vibe, the mood and the energy of everybody that’s working on it. I noticed that with Gladiator and with Ridley and the excitement of the crew that was working on it. And I noticed that with this film as well. It was well prepped, it was a short shooting schedule, but there was a lot of good energy on the set. I think it’s proof that it’s really a collaborative effort. When you work on a lot of films, there’s always difficulties and challenges and problems, but with this particular one we were somehow blessed. I think it reflects the story of [novelist Andy Weir] and selling the script, and Drew Goddard writing an excellent screenplay, Ridley getting on board, and the studio getting behind it. I think it parallels the story of The Martian and of people coming together. It was a good vibe and the film came together well.”

How did you edit that final sequence you described earlier, with the Hermes spaceship coming to rescue Mark Watney?

“I worked with the footage as it came in — in pieces. And the good thing was, Ridley did shoot the entire scene completely, so I went through it, was very familiar with it. The whole narrative was built in three major, let’s say, locations — NASA, Hermes and Mars. I just worked on, for example, the NASA parts with a lot of the reactions and the actors reacting to some previs material that was shot that describe the action. So they were just reacting to figures, animations and temporary dialogue. So I just have the reactions. I know what the drama is, they’re just placeholders, no need to cut away from it. 

“Then, when the Hermes crew was shot, I started incorporating that, to make all the selects, all the dialogue back and forth and figure it out. I had all these pieces, I knew individually where everything was and then Mark Watney was shot and he was reacting to the Hermes dialogue I precut the whole scene. They would play it back into his hear and he would react to it.

“So, it was just putting the pieces together and, since I knew the material, once I got the last pieces, it was really wonderful to be able to choose not only where I wanted to be, and if I wanted to have a reaction and where the dialogue happens, but be able to move around and condense it that way. 

“What I wanted to say was, knowing the material and having it precut, the reactions and all the dialogue and having done that, when it came to the last piece together it was a pleasure to put it together because with the multiple cameras that Ridley shot and the multiple angles, I could choose which angle I wanted to use. For example, on Mark I would balance the cut back and forth by composition, by size, by movement of cameras so you see that there is link and connections that are not evident as part of storytelling but it is the kind of visual, cinemtatic language that helps make things flow and connect on a more subliminal level. That’s the beauty of having the craft of editing to do that; it’s not noticeable, but you feel it.”

Any scene in particular that stood out for you?

“Yes, one of my favorite scenes is a very fun and emotional montage with [the David Bowie song] Starman. I really liked how that came together — slowly getting all the pieces and seeing this visual ballet of the probe docking with Hermes — the movement, the music, I really like the feeling both emotionally and musically how the montage came together.

“My favorite scene is really the sequence when Mark Watney leaves his HAB and preps the rover and crosses Mars to reach the crater. There was some restructuring in there. We tried different pieces of music. But really, I think it was about trying to convey the distance that he needs to travel, the passage of time, the scope of Mars and this unknown planet and combining it and then putting it in between sections that were shot earlier. For example, the dialogue, ‘wherever I go, I’m the first man to be on this planet,’ lying underneath the solar panels. That scene was intended for his earlier travels. So combining all those elements in that part worked for us really well because the dialogue and being reflective earlier on didn’t make sense. There needed to be some balance between Mars, as his nemesis, and himself, conquering and making these giant steps scientifically and being able to move and coming to respect the planet. It’s a good balance; it’s a good feel. 

“I love the cut to Mindy in NASA and Vincent Kapoor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, saying, ‘How’s he doing?” To me, that really encapsulates the feeling that they are with him. We as viewers are also with him. We have the luxury to be on Mars and travel with him and being on Mars, see how he feels, and see the vast expanse of the planet. But it’s also very intimate and personal for the other characters of the movie and I think it combines both the intimate personal success journey and that feeling and the larger picture of space and exploration and the unknown. So, both vast and intimate.” 

Are you happy with the final version of the film?

“Yes, very much. I love it — I’m very proud of it. I think the best feeling is when we play in front of the audience and they are with the film from the begining to the end and they respond the same way every time. It’s wonderul to witness and be present and see what star quality really is. When Matt Damon is on-screen, the room lights up. The audience is with him, they are with the character. Matt Damon is engaging. They love him — I’m really happy about that. I had some friends tell me that they didn’t know it was so funny. I’m very glad we retained that humor. It gives it a kind of bounciness that it needs to get through two hours and 20 minutes of film.”

For more on the Visual Effects of The Martian, CLICK HERE.