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The Making of NatGeo’s ‘Mars’: Inside the Out-of-This-World Mission

Making a documentary with crews in 19 locations around the world is tricky. Making that doc intertwined with a drama set on two planets and over two decades is out-of-this-world complicated.

Mars” is National Geographic Channel’s most ambitious solo project. Premiering Nov. 14, it features scientists explaining how humans will colonize the Red Planet. Dramatic scenes are set in 2033 when a diverse crew lands.

It’s a tough voyage. The show’s journey was almost as challenging.

RadicalMedia initially wanted to do a documentary about Elon Musk, the visionary behind Tesla and SpaceX, who is making rockets to go to Mars.

“Elon wanted to tell a bigger story about why, as humanity, we need to leave this planet and become an interplanetary species,” says Justin Wilkes, president, entertainment, RadicalMedia.

Musk suggested Ron Howard and Brian Grazer become involved in making this a major production. Luckily, Jon Kamen, RadicalMedia CEO, and Wilkes are friends with Imagine Entertainment’s Academy Award-winning team.

Take-off was fast. “I love world creation,” Grazer says.

A longtime admirer of Musk, Grazer didn’t need to be persuaded. Howard was instantly in, too, Grazer says.

Grazer, who normally dislikes pitching over meals, still mentioned it to Peter Rice, CEO, Fox Networks Group, over lunch. Grazer recalls the conversation: “‘Would you be interested in doing a limited series on Mars?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Just yes?’ ‘Yes, I would love to do it.’

“It was literally, in my whole life, the fastest production thing I have ever done.”

From there, it was onto the making of it.  But what was it? Grazer refers to “Mars” as a “documerative.”

Nat Geo’s CEO Courteney Monroe calls it a “drama-doc,” to differentiate it from docu-dramas, which usually showcase actors in period dress while historians explain what happened.

“The scripted part is not cheesy dramatic recreations,” Monroe says. “The scripted drama takes place in the future, and the documentary takes place in the present. If you were to watch the scripted part, it looks like the stuff of science fiction and there is no way this will ever happen. Then we take you out of that and say, ‘Yes, it will.’”

Besides bringing “Mars” to 171 countries in 45 languages, National Geographic Channel is harnessing the brand’s resources, promoting it with the iconic magazine’s November cover, an extensive social platform, a children’s book, and educational outreach.

The project boasts multiple agendas. For the network, it was to transform itself.

“How do we redefine the network and storytelling and where do we go with those abilities?” Monroe says. “‘Mars’ is the epitome and embodiment of how we are redefining storytelling.”

for the production companies, the agenda held the challenge of turning what sounds like science fiction into a science-based series. And for those working toward colonizing the fourth planet from the sun, “Mars” became a mission.

“Having humans on Mars is one of those things centuries from now that people will point back to, just like we point back to Galileo or Michelangelo or the building of the pyramids,” says Robert Braun, a former NASA chief technologist and a series adviser.

The series aims to explain to a worldwide audience why colonizing Mars is a vital step in man’s evolution and how people are hard-wired to explore.

“We can build a constituency and educate them about why we can do this now,” Wilkes says.

“Making a film about humanity’s quest to go to Mars, this is bigger than just a documentary. I love documentaries; we do a lot of them, but even a feature film would not allow us to tell as much of the story.”

We meet the crew helmed by Capt. Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), and get a feel for the unbreakable bond between twins. Singer and actress Jihae plays Hana Seung, the mission pilot, and Joon Seung, the Earth-bound capsule communicator.

“Just creating the narrative is different because television is very character-dependent, particularly when you do a longer limited series, in this case six hours,” Grazer says.

“You have to make them compelling, so they themselves are interesting and you care about the journey enough so it will compel you” to keep watching.

A film, on the other hand, Grazer says, has a “short fuse, really delivering to the concept so it has immediate propulsion and an end with a resolution whereas television is not driving for a resolution.”

tremendous care went into making everything look accurate. That ranges from the costumes, what fashionable astronauts are wearing in extra vehicular activity suits in 2033, to the 18-story set of a rocket ship landing on the Red Planet. Erfoud, a desert in Morocco, stands in for Mars.

Filming was brutal as temps climbed to 122 Fahrenheit. Under their spacesuits, actors wore special pants and shirts with tubes pumping cool water.

“It was tough as hell because it was very demanding, very long hours in Morocco shooting in the middle of Ramadan,” says director Everardo Gout. “It was really intense.”

A week before the first screening, the theme song was still being worked on at Skywalker Ranch as final special effects were added.

Making “Mars” clearly touched those involved on a deep level. They talk about learning from it and how close we are to changing humanity’s destiny.

“The making of ‘Mars’ is an organism onto itself,” says Tim Pastore, network president, original programming and production. “The complexity of marrying the feature quality scripted [material], with feature documentary scenes, requires an army behind the scenes, a very diverse cast pulled from around the world, a brilliant executive producing team with Ron and Brian and Imagine and Justin Wilkes and Jon Kamen, and Everardo Gout who came to the table to generate the scripted portion.”

Pastore also cites the TED speakers, including Stephen L. Petranek, whose book, “How We’ll Live on Mars” was the impetus for the series, and Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space, who advised on the making of “Mars.”

Jemison, who logged 190 hours in space, put the actors through tests to ensure they understood how to move and what they were saying. All of this, Pastore says, only adds to the realism of the series.

Whether “Mars” returns for more episodes, is still, well, up in the air. “It was conceived in the beginning as a limited, six-hour series,” says Monroe, “but the story of Mars will persist and the series ends in a way that we could continue following these characters. And the science is a living and breathing thing. So the door is certainly open.”

Grazer, too, is on board. “I am a producer that produces TV and movies and I do it with the freedom of not thinking of release dates or heights and shapes,” he says. “If Courteney says, ‘Let’s go further,’ I am down with going with it.”

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