My good friends, artists extraordinaire, José and his brother Rey Parlá – who have both been in BLAG, recently posted some photographs from an event they'd gone to and expressed how proud they were of what their friends had made. I love keeping up with what my friends are up to and seeing them being ambitious and making things happen – it's pretty much the basis of everything Sarah and I do with BLAG and intuition is often how we choose who we work with. There was something that really caught me about this particular story, their friends had created something unprecedented, authentic and groundbreaking with a brand new TV format for their mini-series, MARS. 

The show has since premiered on National Graphic and has become the highest performing new series for the channel since April, it's also the second highest rated new series premiere in the network history. In the UK, MARS became the highest rated series in the network history. 

I contacted Rey and asked him to introduce me. And with big thanks to him, I'm delighted to share our exclusive interview with Justin Wilkes, President of Entertainment at RadicalMedia and MARS, Co-Creator and Executive Producer. 

Please give us a quick intro, elevator pitch-style for MARS. Tell us how you got involved in the series and your role as producer in it? 

MARS is an epic six-part series currently airing worldwide on Nat Geo. It is set both in the future and in the present day and combines feature film-quality scripted drama and state-of-the-art visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences to tell a cohesive, edge-of-your-seat story of mankind’s inevitable quest to colonize Mars. The show depicts the thrilling story from the vantage point of a fictitious crewed mission to Mars in 2033 and also flashes back to present day documentary segments showing the great minds, the big thinkers, who are currently working on making this future mission to the Red Planet a reality.

RadicalMedia is known for our Oscar- and Emmy-winning non-fiction films and television work (What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), Stan Against Evil (IFC)) and the upcoming design series Abstract(Netflix). And being geeks at heart, we have collaborated with NASA for years on various projects, including last year’s Telescope for Discovery Channel, exploring the James Webb Telescope, capable of illuminating the next frontier of space.  So as producers, you could say that we are often gazing up to the stars for the next great story to tell. For us, the journey to Mars, began when we were looking at the possibility of doing a documentary on SpaceX, which is making extraordinary progress towards that end. However, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, while extremely passionate about the subject, was not necessarily ready for a documentary on just the company itself. As we were thinking of where this conversation would lead, we bumped into our friend, author Stephen Petranek, who was literally writing the book called “How We’ll Live on Mars.” That’s when it became obvious to us to create a hybrid series of both a documentary on the big thinkers, engineers and innovators, who are actually working on that mission today (including Musk, Space X, NASA, etc.) and combining it with a dramatic story set in the future, inspired by the facts that we’ve learned from these experts.

We presented this idea to our collaborators at Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (Apollo 13) and they signed on right away. Then visionary Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout (Days of Grace) came on board to Executive Produce and direct all six episodes. We felt this project was perfect for Nat Geo, and when we met with them, they quickly agreed.

TV is becoming more and more innovative and this is right up there, for research did the actors work with the astronauts, scientists and authors and vice versa?  

We were working with National Geographic - a network that not only appreciates a high level of authenticity and accuracy, but demands it as their standard of quality in the content they distribute. So, whatever serves the narrative has to be backed up by science. Industry experts weighed in from start to finish-on scripts, production design, and costumes. We even brought in Mae Jemison, engineer/physician and the first African-American woman to travel in space, to lend her insight into all aspects of the production and to put the actors through training.  And not just superficial training, but real challenges and schooling, which included real written tests at the end! This way, the actors could more accurately connect with what their characters would have to go through on a trip like this and portray the psychological and physical toll such a mission would take on even the most experienced and well-trained astronaut.

The scripted aspect is set in 2033, was there specific research or reasoning for the time frame and storyline? 

This date is in the ballpark of when the science technology, preparation and training could be ready for a manned mission to get to and start colonizing Mars. It is also a phase where Earth is closest to Mars, so the trip would take less time.


Please can you introduce us to the talent playing the crew, casting them and what traits they may have that really helped build out their characters? 

A real mission to Mars will only happen with the support of many nations, and so our cast represents that.

Olivier Martinez, (Unfaithful, Revenge), plays French CEO of the Mars Mission Corporation Ed Grann.
Ben Cotton (Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, The Killing) plays American Mission Commander Ben Sawyer.
South Korean-born singer, composer, and multimedia artist, Jihae makes her acting debut playing Korean American twins Hana and Joon Seung. Hana pilots the maiden voyage to Mars while Joon stays behind on Earth, supporting her sister from Mission Command.
Anamaria Marinca (Sex Traffic, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) plays Russian exobiologist Marta Kamen.
Sammi Rotibi (Django Unchained, Batman Vs Superman), plays Nigerian mechanical engineer Robert Foucault.
Clementine Poidatz (Marie Antoinette, Shut In) plays French physician Amelie Durand.
Spanish hydrologist and geochemist Javier Delgado, portrayed by Alberto Ammann (Narcos)
British nuclear physicist Leslie Richardson, portrayed by Cosima Shaw (V for Vendetta),
Richardson’s husband, world-renowned experimental botanist Dr. Paul Richardson, is portrayed by John Light (Father Brown, Atlantis, The Lion in Winter).

If you were to go, what home comforts would you want to take? 

Photos of my family, my camera, my turntable and vinyl, a case of red wine and my ukulele.

Now that you've got so leading edge with TV, would you apply this mix to another show? 

YES! We’re currently in production on another soon-to-be announced series that also combines the scripted and non-fiction hybrid technique that we successfully experimented on with MARS. We think this type of hybrid storytelling, where facts and science drive the scripted narrative is thrilling and the most interesting because it is real and possible. 

What's next for TV and you? 

We have several interesting projects in the works, but we are particularly excited by Abstract: The Art of Design, a docuseries that demystifies the contemporary creative experience for a wide audience by bringing us inside the lives of some of the greatest designers working today. Abstract was just picked to have its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the whole series will launch worldwide on Netflix on February 10, 2017.

The entire six-part series will be shown in the UK on Boxing Day, 26th December from 1pm on National Geographic, or MARS will be available via Sky, Virgin and BT on-demand next week for 30 days.

Interview: Sally A. Edwards

Photography courtesy of National Geographic and FOX

Justin Wilkes portrait: Paul Bozymowski/RadicalMedia