Over the last 20 years, Matt Damon has arguably the highest batting average of any actor of his generation. The critical and commercial hits, from “Good Will Hunting” to “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” from the “Oceans” franchise to the “Bourne” movies, from “Syriana” to “The Departed,” far outnumber the less-remembered (but still solid) works.
Hey, even “We Bought a Zoo” ended up grossing over $120 million worldwide, and I still say it’s not THAT corny.
In Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (opening Oct. 2), Damon plays Mark Watney: botanist, astronaut, University of Chicago grad, Cubs fans, deep-dish pizza lover and all-around good guy who’s part of a crew on an expedition to Mars. Once they reach the Red Planet, they go about their daily business of collecting samples and monitoring the atmosphere and compiling data — until a massive storm hits, and by the time the dust clears, Mark is alone on Mars.
In a telephone interview, Damon talked about the challenges of filming a movie epic in scope and yet in same ways deeply personal, whether he would ever go to Mars — and what a certain political candidate would say about an astronaut who was left behind on the Red Planet.
“The script came [to me] before Ridley was even attached,” says Damon. “Drew Goddard, who wrote it, was attached to direct. But then he got offered a big comic-book movie he’d been dying to do for years [‘Spider-Man vs. Sinister Six’]. So he left the project and I thought it would just get postponed. But then I heard Ridley was interested, so I jumped in my car and raced over to his office and, five minutes later, we had agreed to do the movie together.”
Scott, of course, is the director of “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Thelma & Louise,” et al. Recent films such as “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Counselor” have landed with a thud with most fans and critics — but I think they’re kinda great, albeit in a slightly loony fashion.
“I’m like you, I love Ridley’s work,” says Damon. “I’ve been a fan since ‘Alien.’ As a young guy, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ were formative movies for me — movies that made me want to make movies. So [making a film with Scott] was at the top of my bucket list.”
In the opening scenes of “The Martian,” Mark is bantering with the crew and it looks like a prototypical ensemble space movie — until the storm hits.
“It’s about a mission to Mars in the very near future that goes horribly wrong,” says Damon. “There’s a storm and one of the astronauts, the one I play, is struck by a piece of the communications tower, and his teammates think he’s dead, so they perform this emergency evacuation and they leave Mars. The presumption is he’s not alive — but they subsequently find out he is alive and he’s on the Red Planet. So it’s about this one guy trying to survive on an inhospitable planet.”
For most of the film, Damon is acting alone, on location in Jordan or on a soundstage, playing a man who will spend the rest of his days or at least a couple of years (the time it would take to send a rescue team) by himself.
“It was a little nerve-wracking going in, a little odd not to have a scene partner, not have someone to bounce things off of. But it was really fun. Ridley was never more than a few feet away. And all those monologues are pretty much from the book and they’re really entertaining and funny. …
“The surface suit I wear on ‘Mars,’ when I put that on in Jordan, it got toasty pretty quick. Luckily Ridley doesn’t do too many takes.”
Even though Mark is alone for most of the story and he has moments where he breaks down, he’s never on the verge of losing touch with reality, a la Tom Hanks in “Castaway.”
“Unlike in ‘Castaway’ or ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ he’s alone but he’s behaving with the expectation he’s being watched,” says Damon, “Because cameras are on him all the time, and he’s leaving a log or a journal for other scientists. It’s a weird thing because it’s like, he’s self-aware because people are probably going to watch this video of him some day. … He’s behaving with the expectation they will some day.”
“The Martian” is really three movies: Mark’s ingenious efforts to live on a planet not designed for human life; the rest of his crew on a ship bound for home, deciding whether they should in effect turn around and go back for Mark, which will take months and months and will endanger their own lives, and the international effort on Earth to figure out a way to bring Mark home. Nations and cultures unite to save one man.
“It’s a very uplifting movie, a nice thing to put out into the world right now,” says Damon. “As another presidential campaign ramps up and everyone works to divide us all, this is hopefully an antidote to that …”
Imagine what Donald Trump would say about an astronaut who needs so much help.
“Right,” says Damon with a chuckle. “ ‘It’s not my fault. He shouldn’t have been left behind. I like the guys who don’t get left behind.’ ”
The 44-year-old Damon has four daughters with wife Luciana. Asked if he’d jump at the chance to actually go to Mars, he laughed.
“I don’t think I can bring that one up at the dinner table. Yeah, that’d be a non-starter.”
Thanks for the ride.
Like an iconic Chicago athlete taking a victory lap at the end of a two-decade career, Navy Pier’s Ferris Wheel performed one last spin on Sunday night, while a full moon weaved and bobbed behind the clouds and the confetti and fireworks stood ready to dance in the sky the moment the last person exited Gondola #23.
That would be me. Coming full circle, so to speak.
When I boarded Navy Pier’s brand new Ferris wheel on a Thursday evening in June of 1995 and enjoyed a seven-minute spin that included breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan from some 150 feet in the air, I predicted that within 10 years, it would be “hard to remember what the lakefront was like when the Ferris wheel wasn’t a key part of the scene. It’ll be an institution.”
Since then, more than 10 million people have taken a ride in one of the 40 gondolas nestled within the spokes of the wheel, which glimmers and pops at night with more than 16,000 light bulbs.
A few weeks after the Wheel debuted, a couple got married in a gondola. There have been numerous marriage proposals. (And let’s be real here, probably one or two amorous adventures that extended beyond kissing.) Recently a company conducted job interviews on the Ferris Wheel. A deliberately weathered and ominous-looking Ferris Wheel was the centerpiece of the “Capture the Flag” scene in the hit movie “Divergent” (2014). Earlier this year, during the Stanley Cup Final, the gondola boxes were painted with the names and numbers of Chicago Blackhawks players.
Untold thousands of selfies and Insta-pics have been snapped aboard and around the Ferris wheel. When you’re flying home or visiting Chicago, or cruising Lake Shore Drive, or looking out the window of myriad apartments and businesses, you can’t avoid it. Whether you bemoan the Ferris wheel as a regrettable monstrosity of modern kitsch or it puts a smile on your face every time you see it, there’s no denying its prominence on the modern face of Chicago.
On Sunday night, it was time to pull a reverse Neil Armstrong (because of course it’s not hyperbole to compare an amusement park experience to walking on the moon). Over the weekend, an estimated 30,000 took free rides on the wheel; at one point on Saturday night, there was a four-hour wait. We always want to give one last embrace to a familiar part of our lives when we know it’s going away forever.
Twenty years and change since I was the first journalist to ride the Ferris wheel, I was the final human to “deboard” the wheel, which will be dismantled and replaced by new, taller ride on Memorial Day of next year, in time for the Pier’s 2016 centennial.
Boarding the gondola on a warm, almost sticky early autumn night, I was reminded of what it was like to take a ride on the wheel more than 20 years ago. The first view of Lake Michigan and the skyline from the high point of the ride; the slight sway to the gondola in the wind; the feeling you could reach out and almost touch the buildings along Lake Shore Drive.
The city’s physical profile as viewed from the Ferris Wheel has changed quite a bit since 1995. So many more residential buildings. New hotels. Old hotels with new names. Chicago is a living thing, never sitting stagnant for 20 days, let alone 20 years.
The 1995-2015 Ferris wheel was never the biggest in the world. The 394-ft. London Eye and the 550-foot High Roller that opened in Las Vegas last year would dwarf our wheel. (Even the original Ferris wheel, built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was 68 feet taller than the ’95 wheel.)
The new Ferris wheel will cost $26.5 million. (Public funds will not be used.) It will feature blue, temperature-controlled gondolas with padded seats and TV monitors, and it will crest at nearly 200 feet.
Two decades ago, the Ferris Wheel was the centerpiece of major renovation of Navy Pier. Now the Pier is undergoing another transformation, reportedly morphing from a bustling tourist attraction with far too many borderline tacky features to more sublime, classical integration into the lakefront personality. We’ll see how the giant spinning wheel plays into all of that.
And I’ll still tell the young and the newly visiting the big Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier was of course named after “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Because it’s a Ferris Wheel, after all, and it’s all in good fun.
LOS ANGELES — It’s lunchtime for all three branches of “Modern Family.”
Chattering happily and casually, they file into an obelisk-shaped room, carrying their paper plates of salads and healthful-looking side dishes, and they take their seats at a long, long table.
Alex and Haley Dunphy sit side by side, as do Phil and Claire, Cameron and Mitchell, and Jay and Gloria. (The younger kids — Manny and Luke, Lily and Joe — aren’t here today.)
They work on their lunches — and they get to work.
Scripts are opened, eyeglasses are put on, and the story unwinds. Soon the room is rolling with laughter as Gloria gives Jay the business about a certain personality shortcoming, and Alex and Haley bond over each other’s romantic follies, and Cam and Mitch banter as only those two can.
Last Wednesday, one week before the Season Seven premiere (8 p.m. Wednesday, WLS-Channel 7) of ABC’s groundbreaking and five-time Emmy-winning “Modern Family” (which lost out on a chance for a record sixth-straight best comedy win to “Veep” on Sunday), I visited the “Modern Family” set, watched a full table read of a work-in-progress episode and sat in on a taping of a scene in another upcoming show.
While edgier fare such as “Louie,” “Veep” and “Girls” have stolen a bit of the thunder from “Modern Family” in the last couple of years, let’s remember how groundbreaking this show was when it debuted in 2009 — and how strong the writing and acting remain after some 144 episodes.
I believe it’s one of the Top 10 half-hour comedy series of all-time.
Joining Ariel Winter and Sarah Hyland, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara for the table read is an iconic comedic actress who will be guest-starring on this particular episode. She is introduced to enthusiastic applause, and the table read begins.
Even in this relatively early stage of the creative process, the writing is so sharp and the actors are so comfortable with their characters, it’s easy to envision the episode that will eventually air. All the cast members are engaged and generous with their attention, even when they’re not involved in a particular scene.
After the table read, I’m given a tour of the “Modern Family” sets.
In the real world (and in some exterior shots on the show), the home that serves as the Dunphys’ is on Dunleer Drive in Los Angeles; Cam and Mitch’s duplex is in Century City, and the Pritchetts’ place is in Brentwood.
Of course, that’s not how it works when it comes to cranking out a TV show.
The magic must be consolidated.
So on Stage 5 on the Fox Studios lot — an enormous building that has housed everything from segments of “The Grapes of Wrath” to “L.A. Law” — the Dunphys’ living room and Lily’s bedroom and Alex’s dorm room and Luke’s bedroom and the Pritchetts’ entranceway and Mitchell and Cam’s living room are all connected.
(Surprisingly, though, the staircase in the Dunphy house set doesn’t lead to nowhere, as would be the case with most TV shows and sets. The bedrooms are literally upstairs.)
Every photograph on every wall, every knick-knack tucked into a corner of a kitchen or dining room, every poster on every kid’s bedroom wall, every award is specific and true to the history of the show.
The lighting and background set detail (and post-production editing) on “Modern Family” are among the most creative and ambitious ever seen on a sitcom. Think about your favorite comedies, from “Cheers” to “Friends” to “Frasier” to “Seinfeld,” and how the primary sets have few windows — or static background images. That makes it so much easier to light and to maintain a consistent look. On “Modern Family,” nearly every episode includes multiple daytime scenes with open windows in the background. Morning feels like morning.
This afternoon’s shoot is taking place at the “Pritchett house.” Gloria answers the door, Mitch and Cam enter, there’s a bit of byplay among the three of them about a previous plot thread and then Mitch and Jay have a scene together.
It’s more of a setup situation than a payoff — but as the cast goes through one, two, three, four, five takes, subtle shifts are made, line readings change, and it gets better each time.
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