Ron Howard on 'Mars' Series and Why He Won't Go (but You Should)

11-2-16 Ron Howard
Ron Howard is an executive producer of National Geographic's upcoming miniseries "Mars," a blend of documentary footage looking at current efforts to get humans to Mars and a scripted drama imagining the first manned mission to the red planet in 2033. The series premieres on November 14. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Before public and private enterprises send humans hurtling through space in the hopes that they'll land on Mars and start building an extraterrestrial settlement, it's perhaps worth reviewing why that might be worthwhile. One important reason? So our whole species doesn't die out.

National Geographic's new miniseries, Mars, from executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, explores the public and private efforts underway to colonize the red planet and imagines the first manned mission a decade and a half into the future.

"We need to go to Mars because it protects us from extinction," Andy Weir, author of The Martian, says in the first of six episodes. "There's all sorts of things that could happen on Earth that kill all the humans on the planet. But once humans are on two different planets, the odds of extinction drop to nearly zero."

The episode—premiering November 14 on TV but available now on NatGeo's website—also features interviews with figures like SpaceX founder Elon Musk, astrophysicist and science icon Neil deGrasse Tyson and NASA Planetary Division Director Jim Green. These documentary scenes are interspersed with a fictional scripted drama—the spacecraft Daedalus and its international crew are en route to Mars in the year 2033.

Newsweek spoke with Howard about the series, what keeps him coming back to space projects and why the election matters for the future of space exploration.

This isn't the first time you've worked on a project related to space exploration. What keeps bringing you back, most recently with Mars?
It's probably one of the most dramatic, romantic and cinematic realms that we could be dealing with as storytellers, and so it really stimulates my imagination and the audience's as well. I thought this was such an interesting creative experiment as well. Both Brian Grazer and I really jumped into it.

One of the most striking things about Mars is the mix of scripted and unscripted, fictional and documentary, present and future. Can you talk a little bit about that creative experiment?
It was an interesting notion because, on one hand, attempting to do a miniseries about going to Mars and having it be 100 percent scripted would have a) been prohibitively expensive perhaps and b) it would quickly exist as science fiction, no matter how well-researched. That's not really what National Geographic stands for, no matter how authentic the portrayal might be. So the idea really began as a documentary, even though in back of our minds we had an idea that wouldn't it be great to do a miniseries.

It quickly became a desirable idea to use the documentary material to inform the scripted material, and use the scripted material to engage audiences and relate to what might be involved in going to Mars and colonizing it. We thought the two could work together. There are lot of re-enactment shows…. Those are sort of low-budget re-enactments just meant to give a little energy to the talking heads. And this was something else. [We wanted to] create real, powerful, scripted dramatic material that is, of course, conjecture, but to make sure that it's informed by the facts and the audience can trust that we're not making things up here. We're not creating heightened sci-fi.

Unlike most television shows, it had to be discovered in the editing room, more the way experimental feature films are and the way long-form documentary work is. We had outlines but didn't really know when we were going to cut back and forth between scripted material and documentary materials. We had estimates, and sometimes we were right, and usually we were wrong. That eventually allowed us to find this balance.

What were you most surprised to learn in the process of making this series?
As a storyteller, I was really relieved that it worked as well as it did. I like to make all kinds of shows and films, whether it's fantasy or big-popcorn, big-screen escapism or dramas based on real events. I was thrilled that this worked. One of the things that gave me hope that it could is once we decided to go beyond the mission and just getting to Mars. We began focusing on dramatizing the colonization portion, which wasn't in initial plan. I got really excited about it. It wasn't until I began gathering information, talking to Elon Musk, reading the book [Steve Petranek's How We'​ll Live on Mars], that I began to really embrace the idea of colonization and eventually even terra-forming. That, I thought, gave us something fresh and exciting to explore.

One theme that keeps coming up in writing about space is the way astronauts and space agencies are trying to engage the public, from social media posts by astronauts to a collaboration like the IMAX documentary A Beautiful Planet, which was filmed by astronauts on the International Space Station. Can you talk a little bit about the role of documentaries, movies, shows, etc. in space exploration?
I think it's vital, and I think it's one of the reasons we gained the cooperation we did in making Apollo 13, being allowed to work in the vomit comet and [film the] weightless scenes where [astronauts] do their training. [NASA said,] "We don't know how to sell ourselves to the public." The real dirty secret there is that once space exploration was no longer a Cold War tactic, once fear wasn't fueling the program, once it was really about exploration, it was tougher to fund.

There have been more and more channels—the internet can reach more eyes, ears and minds. This flow of footage and images and sounds has been really important. What I think has been most important is entrepreneurs led by Elon Musk. There are others doing things in exploration and rocketry, [Jeff] Bezos and [Paul] Allen. I think that the American public is a little less skeptical and more inclined to have government space agencies stay involved. They see that it's not bureaucracy at work, it's not political, it's a big societal idea. I think there's sort of a tipping point that has appeared. There's a tremendous amount of agreement and individuals and governments willing to invest. I hope the Mars series helps fuel it. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it.

If given the opportunity, would you want to go to Mars?
At this point in my life, I wouldn't want to invest the years. It's not my dream. I'm excited about what technology is offering storytellers and movie- and TV-makers. I'm a huge advocate of going, but my adventures are identifying these various stories, whether it's a Beatles documentary or the Dan Brown-Tom Hanks Da Vinci Code movies.

What do you think might be the consequences of this election as they relate to space exploration and this goal of getting humans to Mars? Or around science and climate change, which several of the panelists at the series premiere in New York referred to as one of the reasons we should be heading to Mars?
I think a conservative vote at this point, meaning Donald Trump or most on the GOP side, is probably not a vote for this kind of progressive thinking and exploration. Bush said we were going to go to the moon and Mars [and nothing happened]. Obama said we were going to do it, and suddenly Scott Kelly is up there testing human viability for a year. NASA is putting more focus on the possibility. That's one of a number of reasons I'm going to—well, I already voted, I already sent in my absentee ballot. It's Hillary Clinton for me. That's where the future is.

You haven't exactly hidden your feelings about Donald Trump in your tweets and elsewhere.
[Laughs.] Oh, you noticed that, huh?

What would you say to voters as we head into the final stretch?
Whatever your political leaning, vote. This participation is vital. I feel the same way about issues like the space program, education, the military. The more the public focuses on these things, thinks and forms opinions, I think the better we are as a democracy. Look, this is a theme in the Dan Brown movie Inferno that I directed that's coming out. This is not really a plug.... [Inferno is] about overpopulation. It hasn't been addressed, and it's a looming problem. Into that vacuum comes a very real threat—a solution propagated by a brilliant fanatic with the wherewithal to act. If we don't participate, we create vacuums. Into those vacuums come individuals with an agenda that may not be ours. We have an opportunity to try to participate, to try to be influential.