Interview with Dani Milton, Writer, Director, and Producer of The First Martian
If I ran into you on an elevator and asked you what The First Martian is about. How would you describe it?
The First Martian tells the story of a secretly pregnant Black scientist, Dr. Eva, in an early Mars colony, where pregnancy is not allowed. It raises questions about choice and bodily autonomy, within the high-stakes, dangerous environment of Mars.
Wow. I’m so taken with your pitch that now I want to have coffee and ask you how the film came to you. What sparked this story for you, and which films have inspired your vision for this story?
The inspiration for The First Martian came from terrifying headlines a few years ago about state governments restricting our choices about continuing or terminating pregnancies. And then Roe fell, which was unimaginable and has unleashed a wave of stories about women forced to endure life-threatening pregnancy complications or bearing the trauma from carrying non-viable fetuses to term. This is horrible and unacceptable. I wanted to confront these injustices but through an elevated genre like sci-fi, which can pull people into a story they didn’t expect.
In terms of inspiration from other films, our story sits in such a unique space where it’s really a drama within a sci-fi setting, and more like a courtroom drama as each side presents their case back-and-forth and the balance of power constantly shifts. People who have read the script aren’t quite sure who’s going to “win” and that keeps them engaged until the very end!
In terms of production look and feel, the tv show The Expanse has been a helpful reference point because it feels very-near future. People aren’t teleporting, there aren’t aliens, and so forth. Daily living is very recognizable even though it’s a sci-fi future.
Sci Fi films created by women of color that put women of color front and center are hard to find. You are creating such a film. Why do you think we continue to leave those stories behind, and why does it matter that audiences get to accompany women like Doctor Eva on their journeys?
With studio films, the current hesitancy to finance anything not based on already existing intellectual property like novels and previous franchisesIP limits the types of stories that can be told. ; hHow many comics, video games or classic books center women of color? Then you get to old, prejudicial ideas about casting and which lead characters help a film “travel” overseas. So these two concepts alone already eliminate more diverse stories. So we needIt takes independent filmmakers willing to make our own art that disregards those outdated ideas and proves that we can draw audiences. That’s what I’m doing.
By centering Dr. Eva in a story like this, it opens up sci-fi to audiences that assumed it wasn’t a genre for them. Since embarking on this film, I’ve had conversations with Black friends outside the industry who watch a lot of films and TV shows. A couple had to ask what actually counts as sci-fi, because when we think about classic sci-fi films or shows, the lead characters aren’t very diverse. They had subconsciously tuned out of sci-fi content because it didn’t seem welcoming. This can change with more inclusive stories.
You’re currently running a Seed & Spark campaign for funding the production of The First Martian. What would the campaign cover, and what are the most creative and fun incentives you developed for donors?
The campaign covers crew wages, as well as equipment, production design/art, and location costs. The worldbuilding of the story is super important to us, so we designed our incentives around being part of our Eden Colony on Mars. We have a custom Eden Colony badge where people can send their headshot to us and receive a badge of their choice from Engineering, Science, Administration or Operations. If you’ve ever wanted to pretend to be an Engineer somewhere, now’s your chance!
I’ve known you for three years now because we’re both members of Women and Hollywood’s Girls Club, and you are always one of the most together and thoughtful women in a group that is filled with together and thoughtful women. I think part of that comes from your years working as a corporate CPA and also from your ability to keep track of what’s happening in the entertainment industry. How do those experiences shine through in this film?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to share that. Based on my corporate experience, the film’s branding was very important to me. It needed to quickly draw people in to learn more about our great story while feeling cohesive, fresh, and atypical of popular space/ Mars design aesthetics. The latter tend to be (scientific and austere, cyberpunk, or dystopian). Our fantastic graphic designer, Justin Monk, created our title treatment, which definitely catches people’s attention. I’m really excited by our plans to build on that during the actual shoot.
Your bio says, “It was only as an adult that she learned how TV and movies are made: they start with writers.” I love this, and it resonates with one of the key messages of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. Why do you think Hollywood continues to devalue the work of writers and what avenues do you think we have for addressing it?
Because writing has such low barriers to entry, there’s often the thought that anyone can do it and it must be easy. I find the WGA’s asks to be very reasonable, and necessary for the future of the profession. The guardrails around AI are imperative. It’s already infested art and photography, and we cannot allow that to happen with words. At a minimum, we need disclosure and opt-out requirements. I am tired of looking for pitch deck imagery or reference photos and being unable to find what I need, because Google photos/stock photo websites have been overrun with poor quality, AI-generated stuff.
And while we’re on the topic of devalued contributions, the exclusion of women from film crews has plagued the industry from the very start. Your film has an all-woman (mostly of color) crew. Why is it important for filmmakers to put together teams that feature women in front of and behind the camera?
I think you should look for the best people for the job, and in that search, not just ask for referrals from your personal network. Nearly everyone who has joined our team responded to an ad or post made somewhere outside my own network, and I got to check out their work. Also, because our early concept art displayed a Black woman as the lead, I think it helped a wider pool of people raise their hand and think they might actually have a shot at working on a sci-fi film.
Additionally, because my lead character is a Black woman, it was important for me to assemble a crew that could support what that looks like, from her being lit well on camera, to important considerations for hair and make-up. I don’t believe that only certain people can help tell certain stories, but you do need to bring either lived experience or professional experience to help bring those stories to life. I’m really proud of the crew I’ve assembled.
What are your next steps for the film once you have completed the campaign, and how can people continue to follow The First Martian on its journey to the screen?
We are set to film in early July, so we’ll be going straight from the crowdfunding campaign into production.