National Geographic's six-episode miniseries about the mission to colonize Mars is its most ambitious project to date. Through a hybrid of scripted drama and unscripted documentary footage, Mars details the human struggle—and potential cost—of intergalactic colonization. The world's foremost experts, such as Elon Musk, NASA administrator Charles Bolden, astronaut James Lovell (of the Apollo 13 mission), and Neil deGrasse Tyson weigh in on the real-world implications of attempting to sustain life on the red planet. Together, the imagined 2033 mission and the present-day science paint a picture of what could, in turn, become mankind's only hope for survival.

With a $20 million budget and Ron Howard attached as executive producer, Radical Media partnered with National Geographic to hire Mexican director Everardo Gout as director. "I wanted to help Nat Geo embrace drama, to create a format that was driven by drama," Gout, an experienced producer who previously directed an indie feature and some successful short films, said. "But it’s not science fiction. The core of the show is based in reality."

"We decided with Ron Howard to search for an independent film director to give the story attention, grit, and emotion."

No Film School spoke with Jon Kamen, CEO and co-founder of Radical Media, the studio responsible for the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War and Emmy-winning pilot of Mad Men, to discuss his decision to hire an indie filmmaker, the production's insane turnaround, and the challenges of mixing science and drama. 

No Film School: How did Radical get involved in Mars to begin with? 

Jon Kamen: We do a lot of documentaries. It's something that we have a passion for here, and we're always searching out new topics and subjects that we think would be fun to follow. In this particular case, we started hearing more and more about private industry pursuing Mars missions. Of course, one thing led us to another, and we were talking to the folks at [Elon Musk's] SpaceX about the possibility of doing something. 

"Many more thousands of people are working on a mission to Mars than you can ever imagine." 

We bumped into a friend of ours, Stephen Petranek, who happened to be preparing for a TED talk, but was also writing a book called How We'll Live on Mars. "We've been following the activities of SpaceX." He looked at me with great authority and said, "Well, Elon Musk is likely the guy who's going to get us there." That, of course, just kicked in all of our curiosity. We started doing our research, and looking into what activities are taking place today towards an eventual mission to Mars. Lo and behold, it's widespread; many more thousands of people are working on a mission to Mars than you can ever imagine. It looked like it would be rich material, not only for a documentary, but also for the fictionalization of a scripted drama anticipating what it would be like, based on the current day theory of what it would be like for a team of astronauts to first land on the red planet. 

"As explorers ourselves—film explorers—we were definitely treading on new ground." 

NFS: How did you conceive of the idea of weaving in the non-fiction with the fiction? 

Kamen: That goes back to our thinking of who the best partner would be for broadcasting this. National Geographic Channel seemed like the most logical place, with the repositioning of the channel towards the very DNA of exploration. This is perhaps one of the greatest explorations of humankind. The idea was being able to create both an authentic show on National Geographic in which the scientists are doing that research and engineering and combining it with a drama that would create the entertainment and engagement that everybody's seeking today in their television viewing. We thought the combination of two would be quite unique and groundbreaking for the channel. It's a pivotal event for them.

The-dust-storm-that-lasts-months-confirms-that-mars-poses-physical-and-psychological-dangers_2'Mars'Credit: National Geographic

NFS: Was it a challenge balancing the narrative drama with the cold, hard science? 

Kamen: Very challenging. There was a tremendous amount of internal debate from the get-go about getting that balance right, figuring out the structure of the show. As explorers ourselves—film explorers—we were definitely treading on new ground. Getting that format right was all important to us. We developed a device to clearly mark the time stamping of the periods so that we can take an audience forwards and backward. The escapism of the drama allows for the imagination to begin to ask questions, and conveniently we have our experts and big thinkers available to us to answer some of those questions. Putting the story into perspective was part of the pleasure of the project. For a series like this, from a channel like National Geographic, to provide the authenticity and the history of the subject, combined with the drama and the fiction of the scripted segments... it's truly a privilege. 

We also had amazing folks working with us on this project. We mixed up at Skywalker. The folks at Framestore did a sensational job of visual effects. World-class visual effects artists worked on this project, people who had done other space-related movies. Obviously, the benefit of that experience was incredibly valuable to us. Our director, Everardo, was also a tremendous addition to the team. He is a friend of Radical's; we've worked with him before on his first independent film, Dias De Gracias

NFS: It's interesting that you sought an indie director to helm the series. What compelled you and your team to do so? 

Kamen: We collectively decided with Ron Howard to search for an independent film director, to give the story attention, grit, and emotion that we felt a great independent filmmaker could contribute. He did a sensational job of helming it, both with the cast that he brought to the party, and the enthusiasm and the excitement that he brought in the filmmaking aspect of it. 

"The turnaround was insane: from inception to first airing, it was almost all within a six month period."

Early on in our own learning of the subject, we realized this was going to be a very claustrophobic mission. A lot took place inside the space colony, as well as the Daedalus Capsule, etc. One of our earliest references for a look and feel was Das Boot, the great submarine movie that took place almost two decades ago. We were looking for that type of energy, that type of spontaneity. The camerawork was really important to us. It was an ambitious project from a timing and budget standpoint. We needed a crew that could work quickly and nimbly without requiring too many major setups. We were very, very fortunate to not only have Everardo to contribute to that process, but his cinematographer Damian Garcia, who did a stupendous job of the practical lighting that was built into all of the sets, along with our production designer. It amazed me constantly.

And when I watch the series myself, and I think of the documentary footage.... I'm just so proud of our team that covered that subject. That coverage is equally as sensational as the drama. 

Screen_shot_2016-12-18_at_7On set of 'Mars'Credit: National Geographic

NFS: When you look back on the scale of the production, what was most difficult to pull off?

Kamen: National Geographic is in 140 countries and 440 million homes. We wanted this to appeal to a global audience. From the conception, this was an international space mission—which in fact, it will need to be, from a resource standpoint going forward. It required us to search high and low for this unique cast to be able to build a diverse team. That was a challenge; finding that talent, and being able to discover some new talent. Jihae, one of our leads, didn't necessarily come from the acting world as much as the music world. She was a great discovery.

"National Geographic is in 140 countries and 440 million homes. We wanted this to appeal to a global audience."

Another challenge was getting into the science. In order to do this with a certain level of authenticity, we all became students of the subject. That became an early requirement: to tell the story intelligently, we had to do the research.

Schedule was the probably the biggest challenge. We learned that we deserve to give ourselves more time the next time. The turnaround was insane: from inception to first airing, it was almost all within a six month period. We had been developing the project much earlier, but as things happen with green lights and all the necessary approvals, it wasn't until the beginning of last year that we really began in earnest. It really wasn't until the spring that we assembled our final crew and began our ascent of this mountain. Timing-wise, fortunately, everybody was so enthusiastic about the project, that no one was willing to say no; everybody said they could accomplish their task. It was incredible how we delivered everything on time.

The season finale of Mars airs tonight at 9/8c on National Geographic channel.