How An Anxious Space Geek Became Hollywood’s Most Unlikely Star
Last year, Andy Weir was a software engineer who wrote sci-fi in his free time. This week, one of those stories, The Martian, comes to life in Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster.
Speaking at a spacious movie theater in Southern California back in early August, Andy Weir found himself sharing the stage with Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, NASA bigwigs, and even an honest-to-god astronaut.
Weir was promoting the upcoming film The Martian, based on his novel of the same name, to an audience of science journalists. After a glowing introduction, he grabbed the microphone with a wry smile. “So yeah... This is a Cinderella moment for me.”
In 1999, when he was 27 years old, Weir was laid off from his job as a software engineer at AOL and took a three-year writing sabbatical to see if he could make it as a writer. He finished a manuscript, but couldn’t find an agent to represent it. He figured his dreams of becoming a novelist were as far-fetched as an astronaut stranded on Mars returning to Earth alive. Now 16 years later, Weir has managed to write one of the most talked-about science fiction stories in a generation. Not only that, but he’s risen to fame with grace and humility, all while managing a fear of flying and other manifestations of an anxiety disorder.
After his disappointing sabbatical, Weir went back to software engineering. But over the next several years, just for fun, he started putting serialized sci-fi stories on his blog, which had built up a small but loyal following. One of those stories was The Martian. “I posted a chapter once in awhile, whenever the hell I felt like it,” Weir told the movie-theater crowd. He had accumulated about 3,000 readers on an old-fashioned email list. But that was about it in terms of exposure.
So when, in 2012, he posted the final chapter of The Martian to his personal website, he figured that it was simply time to move on to a new project. But then he started getting emails from fans.
“They said things like, ‘Hey, I really loved your story … but I hate your website because it's crap,’” Weir said, admitting to the audience that the site truly was crap. His fans wanted a simple e-reader version of the book, so he made one. The book slowly climbed the Amazon best-seller lists.
Unbeknownst to Weir, an agent named Julian Pavia at Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, took notice, and passed it along to his colleague, David Fugate. Weir, whose inability to land an agent had once crippled his writing dreams, eagerly signed with Fugate.
Remarkably, Random House was not the only media corporation interested in Weir’s story. “While David and Julian were negotiating the deal for the book rights, Fox came for the movie rights,” Weir told the crowd. The two deals, each north of six figures, were made four days apart.
The print version of the book was published in February 2014 and ultimately jumped to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Later, Fox greenlit the movie project after Ridley Scott agreed to direct the film adaptation starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain.
This was a crazy deal. Simon Kinberg, the producer who developed The Martian for 20th Century Fox as well as several X-Men films, told BuzzFeed that it is extremely rare for a studio to make a film from a book that, when optioned, hadn’t even been published yet.
“Big movies tend to be based on sort of a well-known underlying material, whether it's comic books, or a remake of another movie,” Kinberg said. “It's rare that something comes from a truly original place, and that's what Andy's book gave us.”
Weir, who said he gets anxious even driving to meet his friends for a meal, was thrust under a jarringly hot spotlight.
The Martian’s protagonist is astronaut Mark Watney, who after an aborted NASA mission to Mars is left wounded and alone on the surface of the cold, dusty, red planet. After regaining consciousness, Watney finds himself with two months of supplies and no way to contact anyone on Earth or his fellow crewmates on their long flight back home.
What follows are a series of problems — problems for Watney, but also the same kind of scientific problems that NASA engineers are paid to solve. Watney, among many other challenges, has to figure out how to maintain oxygen levels, produce water, grow food, contact mission control, and modify rovers for travel — all while maintaining his sanity when the only source of entertainment is a crewmate’s fully stocked library of disco tunes and a collection of '70s television shows.
Each of these problems is meticulously described. Weir, through Watney, shows his work as if he were in a series of graduate seminars dedicated to orbital mechanics, mission planning, chemistry, and biology.
Speaking to BuzzFeed by Skype (with sporadic interruptions by his two cats), Weir said that when he started, he didn’t know anyone at NASA or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA facility behind the unmanned missions to Mars that’s featured prominently in his book. Given the remarkable scientific accuracy and spot-on description of the political environment at NASA, this fact is almost as remarkable as Weir’s precipitous rise to fame.
In fact, at a Comic-Con panel back in July, NASA’s head of planetary research, Dr. Jim Green, described The Martian as “required reading” at NASA. Perhaps because nearly all of the technology in the book is already feasible, the story plays a prominent role in NASA’s efforts to build public support for its plans to get a human on Mars — an effort that, for now, is not much more than some beautiful posters and cool ideas that lack congressional funding.
Green, a veteran of NASA’s Mars program and also the scientific adviser for the film, told BuzzFeed that The Martian’s scientific details provides “a very heightened opportunity for us to talk about Mars and talk about how we're going to get there.”
Many space policy types have suggested that The Martian and its movie adaptation could reinvigorate the space program. But Weir, with his characteristic humility, isn’t comfortable taking credit for that.
“Everyone's just assuming and kind of saying that The Martian is increasing public awareness and interest in space,” he said. “I think they're not considering the other possibility, that maybe The Martian is popular because public awareness and interest in space is increasing on its own.”
Without professional contacts in the space industry, Weir did all of his initial research for The Martian using Google — that, plus his massive bank of knowledge garnered from years of watching pretty much every documentary ever made about human spaceflight. If he needed to write something about physics, he’d run questions by his dad, who had worked as a physicist for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
With a physicist dad and an engineer mom, Weir’s childhood was steeped in science. His dad was also a science fiction buff, and Weir grew up reading his seemingly inexhaustible supply of '50s and '60s sci-fi novels.
Weir always wanted to be a writer, but was skeptical of turning these passions into a career. "I wanted to eat regular meals and not sleep on a park bench," he told BuzzFeed. So he turned his professional interests toward software engineering. And he was good at it — he was first hired, at age 15, as a programmer at Sandia National Laboratory.
Eventually his career led him to AOL at the height of the first Silicon Valley tech boom — and the subsequent bust. In 1999, Weir was laid off and forced to cash in his very lucrative stock options at a time when, unbeknownst to anyone, they were at their peak value. “I had a bunch of money,” Weir said. “I realized I could go about three years without having to work.”
This three-year sabbatical was his first, and largely unsuccessful, attempt at becoming a professional writer. Without any interest from major publishers, he went back to work as a software engineer in 2002.
“I kind of decided, well, what I'm going to do is just write for fun and post stories to my website,” he said, one chapter at a time. This piecemeal approach to writing allowed Weir to stick to the stunning levels of scientific accuracy that characterize The Martian.
By releasing his books to a devoted and informed fan base, he pretty much had every chapter peer-reviewed by engineers, scientists, and other hardcore science enthusiasts. He’d receive friendly emails pointing out that he may have gotten a couple of minor details wrong, and he would change the book accordingly.
Unlike during the sabbatical, when he was focused on getting the attention of an agent, this time he was able to relax and follow his bliss. “I wasn't trying to please anybody but myself,” he said.
In press appearances Weir has often admitted that his protagonist, Watney, is an extension of all his good parts, without any of the bad parts — a sort of aspirational version of himself. Intellect and wit, for example, are shared by both character and creator. “I'm a smart-ass,” he told BuzzFeed, with a sly grin.
But there are striking differences, too. Weir told BuzzFeed that he has struggled with generalized anxiety disorder for most of his life. “[Watney’s] me without the anxiety disorder in a large part,” he said, “He's calm. No matter how bad things get, he doesn't freak out. He can handle what life throws at him, and I can't always.”
For example, Weir is deeply afraid of flying — until April of this year, he hadn’t boarded a plane since 2007. He’s also struggled with more amorphous anxieties, such as ruminating on seemingly inconsequential things. “Things bother me a lot more than they should. When something minor goes wrong, it's very upsetting to me,” he said.
He also has problems with uncertainty and transition, he said, sometimes disrupting his sleep. “I feel really, really insecure when things are in a transitional state,” he told BuzzFeed. “I don't mind being at home, I don't mind being at a restaurant with my friends, but getting from home to the restaurant with my friends I'm worried about everything. It's like, Am I going to hit traffic? Am I going to take a wrong turn? Is there going to be enough parking there? Did I get the time or date wrong? Am I going to end up looking stupid here?”
Anxiety medication, something he turned to only recently, has helped him manage these kinds of daily stresses, he added. “I feel like it's really improved my life. It's not like this big sudden change or anything. It's just stuff that used to bother me a lot doesn't bother me as much.”
Given the way that transitional periods and uncertainty bother Weir, his ascension from hobby writer to best-selling author was, understandably, fraught with a great deal more emotional peril than the strikingly calm, cool, and collected version of himself he presented at the movie theater that August morning.
Weir told BuzzFeed that it was one of the most stressful periods he’s ever experienced. “It was really rough,” he said. Every step of the way was a struggle. There was never any “champagne moment” — just a series of updates that made things seem incrementally, and painfully, more likely. “Talk about anxiety,” he said. “Good Lord.”
He said the movie deal didn’t really feel final until the first day of production on the film, because that was the day he got his first check from Fox since the movie was optioned.
Watney’s character requires constant vigilance and Weir’s storytelling relies on a constant supply of problems that need to be solved, so it would make sense that Weir’s anxiety had helped him compose The Martian. But Weir isn’t so sure. “I don't think it's [helped] in a positive way,” he told BuzzFeed, other than perhaps making him “paranoid enough” to think through all of the ramifications of a plot. But ultimately, he said, “it's just been unpleasant.”
Like Watney, Weir has been thrust into a fairly unimaginable situation, and these new circumstances have forced Weir to set out on uncomfortable journeys, too. He has to fly a lot more now, and notes that he has made great progress on that front. Before a flight, he now takes anti-anxiety medication given to him specifically for his fear of flying.
“What I do,” he said, “is I take it half an hour before boarding so it'll be in full effect when I'm getting on the plane, so I'm not, ‘Oh, God. I'm walking down the tunnel to my death.’"
The juxtaposition between the unflinching Mark Watney and the anxiety-prone Andy Weir can seem jarring. Watney is a fearless astronaut at ease with planning a long and potentially deadly journey over unexplored and uncertain terrain. Weir specifically has problems with uncertainty, with transition, and perhaps most relevant, with travel.
But there’s actually much more of Watney in Weir than the author admits. The character’s authenticity is obvious from the very beginning of the novel, and that’s likely a huge part of why Weir has found such success.
“The tone and the voice, to me, is what felt so unique and exciting,” Kinberg told BuzzFeed. “I felt if we could capture that sort of, I call it intelligent optimism, and real humor and humanity, then it could be a really entertaining film, and different from other science fiction.”
Weir comes off as deeply intelligent but also remarkably playful, self-aware, and self-effacing. He knows exactly who he is and what he stands for — just as he knows what he wanted The Martian to be — a work of fiction created primarily to satisfy his own interests. These are the same traits that make Watney such a fun character to root for.
Both Weir and Watney are irreverent, and love speaking truth to power. When NASA personnel were asked at that press event to give their thoughts on the proposed “one-way mission to Mars,” a project known as Mars One, the officials hemmed and hawed. Not Weir. He called the idea “a joke.”
In the face of his rapid success, Weir remains remarkably humble. “It's amazing what you can get used to,” he said. “It's like this has been creeping up for awhile. It never really felt real to me until a couple weeks ago when I saw a cut of the film.” He said that he choked up watching the movie for the first time.
Some things have changed for Weir, though, and he seems just as proud of these more humble achievements as he does his remarkable success. In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Weir said that he didn’t date. “I’m terrible with women,” he said. Now, things are different. He’s dating a woman he met at a press event related to The Martian, and he seems palpably excited about the relationship.
“In typical kind of form for me, she asked me out,” he said. “I'm definitely too chickenshit to ask women out.”