The look of the Fox reality competition show Stars on Mars is uncanny. Of course “celebronauts” like Ariel Winters, Porsha Williams, and Adam Rippon aren’t actually in space. But watching the crew complete mission after mission on a rust-colored tundra only to return home in their space suits to an accurately-designed space station makes it easy to second guess. The stars themselves, some of whom have now spent weeks isolated in “space,” talk about their experience as if they truly are lightyears away from Earth.
That response to the experiment makes series creator Chris Culvenor practically giddy — his goal was always to make sure the entire simulation was as realistic as possible. For him, it was obvious that now was the time to pretend to send celebrities to space. “When you look at what Elon Musk is doing or what Jeff Bezos is doing, it’s very much in the zeitgeist right now, this idea of space exploration or Mars colonization,” Culvenor tells Primetimer. “So it kind of seemed like the perfect time to do an experiment like this, to do a simulation like this.”
Culvenor spoke with Primetimer via Zoom in early July (just before SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA on strike) to talk about the inspiration for his specific version of Mars, the challenges of taking celebrities away from their luxuries, and how he kept the crew safe from Marshawn Lynch’s flamethrower.
Where do you even start to create Mars on Earth?
The idea itself came from an inspiration of ’90s and early 2000s movies, those kind of amazing sci-fi movies that I grew up watching and loved and were kind of big box office smashes, so it was really that that inspired the world. I’m from Australia, and my production company in Australia actually produces the Australian version of The Amazing Race. A few seasons ago, the race went through Coober Pedy, and I remember being there and seeing it on screen and it felt so Mars-like, literally like another planet. It’s obviously dry, very little vegetation, even the soil looks Mars-like. In terms of immersing the stars and the celebronauts in that environment, it was the perfect opportunity.
What we wanted to do was effectively build the HAB, the environment they lived in, and do that in a way that as closely as possible could replicate the designs and a lot of the thinking that’s gone into Mars colonization. So our designers, our production team, our executive producers looked at a lot of research into what sort of Mars colonization planning had been done, the sort of speculation drawings, and then we developed it off that.
Then there was a level of just having a lot of fun with the show as well. The show is trying to be a realistic and authentic simulation and we wanted everything that our stars experienced to be real in terms of how they were feeling from an emotional or mental or challenging standpoint. But equally, we wanted the show to have a level of fun and not take itself too seriously when it came to the comedy of it all. Because it is, albeit an authentic simulation, it’s a completely ridiculous idea.
What are some of the movie and TV inspirations that you drew from for this and what details were important to include?
Total Recall was just this really fun futuristic setting on Mars. It had a little bit of campiness and nostalgia about it, so that was definitely one of the inspirations. I think Spaceballs takes the comedy probably further on the spectrum, but the fun and not taking itself too seriously was another inspiration. And then if you’re looking at a more contemporary one, The Martian with Matt Damon. I think what was great, both the book and the movie obviously explores Mars colonization, but also explores the gritty reality around it as well. It’s not about ray guns in space, it’s about survival, so that was a large inspiration as well.
That direct influence is noticeable in the ways that the celebrities are tasked with gardening their own food, which they may not have been expecting.
I think there were some who did expect that and there were others who were like, “Where’s my hotel room?” It’s like, no, no, this is legit.
When we see the celebronauts going through caves and over these hills, is that part of the natural landscape or is that something you created for specific missions?
Primarily it’s part of the landscape of Coober Pedy. The area is the opal mining capital of Australia. A lot of the caves and the tunnel systems and literally the holes in the ground were man made over many many decades by opal miners. But what that did is it beautifully replicated the lava tunnels that really exist on Mars. You talk about this sort of red earth, dusty location, and then you have these beautiful tunnels, you couldn’t have asked for a better location.
When it came to adding more of the technology to replicate what was predicted to exist in these colonies or what you’ve seen in movies — the robot dogs Marsha and Eartha, for example — how did you go about planning and incorporating those in a way that bordered that tone between reality and camp?
I think what’s great about the Mars simulation is, when it comes to reality shows, often as producers we find ourselves making up rules, whether those rules be on Survivor or Big Brother or The Voice, and those are all great shows but the rules are made by producers and that’s the format. What’s great about Mars is, there are certain rules that you must adhere to to survive on Mars. You need to put on a full helmet and suit to go outside, you need to ration your food, all of these different aspects of what you really need to do to live on Mars has sort of informed our format.
When it came to the technology, when it came to the suits they wear, when it came to the dogs that are their pets, it really had to be things that could only exist on Mars. You know, you couldn’t have a real dog on Mars. You have to wear your space suit when you go outside otherwise you’ll die. Just allowing us to set those kinds of parameters allowed us to build out the world in a realistic way. We just use the reality of living on Mars to inform those choices.
We see things like Marshawn Lynch with a flamethrower and detonating explosives. What prep did the contestants go through to use some of these more dangerous tools on the missions?
We didn’t really prep them for what the experience was going to be at all, so I think they all came to the simulation with very different ideas of what this Mars colonization or this Mars simulation would be. Everyone comes to it with their own idea of how to play the game or what is too hard or too easy. I think the different perspectives and the different points of entry from the contestants is something that’s really fascinating to watch.
When it comes to just the practicalities of driving rovers or shooting flamethrowers, we had a fantastic safety team who was always there to make sure they didn’t light each other on fire or fall down a Mars hole or crash rovers. But those safety teams were literally in hazmat suits and went out of their way not to burst the bubble of the isolation. Any interactions that our celebronauts had was always under the guise of this being a simulation with minimal producer input and minimal cast input.
So they almost acted as the Martian population watching from afar.
That’s right. The idea was that never were we saying we’re really on Mars, but this was as accurate a celebrity Mars simulation as we could possibly do.
What were some challenges you came across once the celebrities were actually interacting with this world you created?
One thing that is super challenging is just the mental challenges that it takes to be really isolated from your world, really isolated from your luxuries, and really isolated from your family and friends. You see that play out particularly in the first episode as people realize what they’ve signed up for. But equally I think what I love about the show is in those moments of isolation you see these real connections that are happening within the cast, and connections that feel so unlikely and people that may not have even crossed paths in their everyday world forming true bonds through the experience. We underestimated just how tough and difficult it was to be isolated and away and really in this remote location, and then we were so pleasantly surprised by the friendships, the bromances, the frenemies that formed.
That really does make it great as a celebrity hangout show that’s occasionally interrupted by a fire or some other mission.
And that’s the truth of what living on Mars is truly like. Yes, they’re doing tests and trying to survive, but more than anything, it’s just a lot of hanging out together.
Stars on Mars airs Mondays at 8:00 PM ET on Fox and streams on Hulu the next day. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.