DUNCAN JONES - Interview
Two things happen when you watch filmmaker Duncan Jones’ first feature, MOON:
1. If properly attune to the vibes the movie is giving off you can sense greatness dripping from every scene. It’s a one man show of not only the abilities of Sam Rockwell as he dominates that film with the kind of talent that deservedly had him nominated for award after award.
2. You wonder what a talent like Jones could do with a little more money.
Thankfully, that latter problem has been solved with Source Code, a sci-fi thriller that attempts to bend space and time with a yarn that supposes that a man could travel back in time and stay there for eight minutes at a time in order to solve a crime involving an explosion aboard a commuter train. The pacing is fast, the editing is tight, and Jones is now out promoting the film with the movie’s star, Jake Gyllenhaal, who actually was the one to put the script in Jones’ hand. We talked about getting the film made and discussed the nuances of what it was like to go from low budget to full-on craft services.
SOURCE CODE opens today.
CS: About Source Code, I didn’t know what to expect and I am glad I went in there as cold as possible. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’m a fan of David Mamet, his filmmaking style is great at keeping details away from the viewer and keeping people out of the loop of what they could know…“I could tell you but I’m choosing to keep something back.” How is it, as a director, and certainly Moon is a great example as well as Source Code, how you were going to disperse the information within the film?
JONES: I was actually introduced to the script by Jake. It was already sent to Jake and he was intrigued. He saw Moon and was a fan of that and asked me if I wanted to take a look at it and I did. I very much wanted to work with Jake and thought the script was great and thought I could really get my teeth into it.
One of the things I felt about it though, as a science fiction fan myself, there is soft sci-fi and hard sci-fi, and to me hard sci-fi is science fiction where you can see how we get from present day technology to this future that we’re talking about. And, soft sci-fi is where you sort of start here and talk about dragons and magic and stuff that doesn’t make any sense. And time travel is kind of in that grey area.
I kind of understand the theory of it and how it might work but I don’t necessarily see exactly how the technology is going to get to the point where it’s possible. So rather than get bogged down in the details of technology and try and somehow give a lecture to the audience through unnecessary dialogue about the technology, I wanted to set up the rules and quickly as I could and lighten the whole tone of the film, inject some humor into it so the audience feels OK to take that leap of faith with me, jump into the story, it’s going to be a great ride. That’s what I wanted to do.
CS: Did you find in being able to tell that story that this movie presented itself, obviously instead of Sam Rockwell, you have….
JONES: More than one actor?
CS: Right….exactly. You pull up your resume and you have Moon and Source Code. That’s it. It’s a huge leap. Was there a learning curve?
JONES: Working with actors wasn’t a learning curve. That was great, that felt very natural. I really enjoy working with actors and understanding what they are trying to do and give them my suggestions and try to steer them when I see something is not working and then try to reinforce them and give them the confidence to go with it if it really is working. That’s kind of what the director’s job is, you know? You get these amazing talented people. Let them do what they are good at. And then help them find the path to make it even better. So working with the actors wasn’t the problem. Learning about making a film through the Hollywood system, where there are the levels of bureaucracy and the teams of producers you have to deal with. That was all expected but a new experience for me.
And fortunately, I came off a small British independent film so it took time to convince them that I knew what I was doing. But by the time we were shooting I think I had won everyone over and was able to just get on with my job but I kind of learned a new skill doing that. And that was the skill of being able to justify my decisions. When I made Moon, it was just myself, my producer, Stuart Fenegan and Sam Rockwell. The three of us just decided what we wanted to do and we would just do it. I didn’t have to convince anyone. And in Source Code there was that initial inertia of just having to find ways to convince these huge groups of people – understandably because of the millions of dollars of other people’s money that I’m making decisions about. If it were a company I sure as hell would want to know that this person knew what they were doing. And as a director that’s pretty much what I’m doing. So it was a slow process at first fortunately but by the time I came back to London with my BAFTA I had everyone on side and we were all working together.
CS: And to that point, getting to the bureaucracy of things, the material itself – Jake presented it to you as a story – what leapt out at you and said – never minding that you probably had directors, producers, actors, what have you, tossing you scripts left and right - what leapt out at you where you said, “I need to make this one?”
JONES: Well, the initial draw for me was Jake because it’s so important to me to work with actors who I respect and who I believe can carry a movie. I knew that about Sam Rockwell. I knew that he could and knew that he had the potential to be a leading man. And with Jake, he already was a leading man but I felt like there were things I could bring out of him which I hadn’t seen in a particular way and I think to me that sort of Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones rough on the edges normal guy who’s frustrated with the world around him but he gets the job done. I felt like Jake could do that and I think that’s where hopefully the Jake you see in Source Code. I really wanted to work with him. And, there were elements of the script – the fact that it starts with a bang and it just keeps going. It’s so fast paced. I love that! And it was so different from Moon. And, for me, it was exciting to have done Moon and then go on and do something that was so different in that respect.
CS: The movie itself – it’s set in Chicago and the film is very place specific when it comes to saying as such. Was that intentional? Somehow it felt like Chicago or Illinois, that geography played a part in this story being told. Or was it just random chance?
JONES: I have to be honest. The original script was set in New York.
JONES: Because of sensitivities to New York’s terrorist attacks, they needed to find a different city to put it in. Totally justifiable.
We considered a number of different places and Chicago is geographically middle of the country – east and west coast could relate to it. And for me there was a specific thing, the Anish Kapoor sculpture, the amazing mirrored thing in the park there – I love that. It looks sci-fi and it’s real. It’s really there. It’s a new and growing landmark for Chicago.
There was this element in the original script that wasn’t in the film that I made. It was this weird abstract shape with spokes on it and over the course of the film in nightmarish segments you sort of move out and see more of it and eventually you see that it’s a bicycle next to a train tunnel and the film would end with a train going through the tunnel. I thought, well I think there is something I can do that’s a little different and I think that might work better and that was to use the sculpture as this nightmarish image because if you get close enough the reflections in it are all strange and distorted. That’s what I used as a replacement for what was in the script. The payoff is that you end up looking at this landmark of Chicago.
CS: The development process itself – they say a movie is made three times – on the page, making it, and in the editing room. Can you talk about how you went from the script and you’re thinking about it in your head, how you had it storyboarded out, how you worked with your other directors and saying “This is what we need to capture” – how did that process evolve from what you thought it was going to be to what it ultimately ended up being?
JONES: It was fairly organic. I had fantastic people to work with. Don Burgess was my cinematographer – he did the first Spiderman film, Forest Gump, he did The Book of Eli, which is a great looking film as well. Don is a really experienced guy, very calm, very practical. He just knows how to get on with things, and, very experienced in working with special effects. We had many special effects in the film so there was a lot of stuff that someone like him had to bear in mind. You just couldn’t get a cinematographer. You had to get someone who could deal with special effects as well. So he was terrific to have on site. My editor, Paul Hirsh, is a true Hollywood legend. He edited Empire Strikes Back, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He won an Oscar for Ray. He did the first Mission Impossible film. He’s an institution and to have him on my side as well. I was surrounding myself with incredibly talented, experienced people and that made things much easier.
CS: How does that process work? Like a job posting saying “I need help with this film, come apply”?
JONES: I did interviews. It was crazy. I did interviews with people who made films I watched as a kid. It was intimidating but it was fantastic. Paul Hirsch sat across a desk from me and told me why he should edit this film. It’s very strange thing making a Hollywood film. You don’t do that when you are an indie director. When you are an indie director you desperately plead people to come and work with you. When you do a Hollywood film, they come and make an argument on why they should do it. It’s very unusual.
CS: Is it alluring in a way? I’m thinking of Soderbergh and his process – big, small, big, small – he has found a good balance. Do you see why it’s so alluring to be a big time director versus indie independence?
JONES: I know on a very practical level that I want to work at a budget that allows me make the crazy stories that I have of my own. I want to make them the way I see them and I know I can’t do that for $5 million the way I did Moon. Moon was designed as a calling card to say, “Look, I can do something interesting if you give me a chance.” Source Code was the opportunity to work in Hollywood, to work with Jake and to make a fun film that shows, hopefully (we’ll see how the opening weekend goes), but I can make you films that will be successful and be interesting at the same time. Hopefully with those two I can make my own projects with some more money and do it through the Hollywood system. We’ll see how it goes.
CS: Final question: Sci-fi – I know we have Moon, Source Code, Mute is now going to be a graphic novel, bringing that to life the same way Darren Aronofsky brought The Fountain to life. Sci-fi – is that going to be your wheel house?
JONES: I’m going to do one more sci-fi film next and then I’m going to take a sabbatical break for a while and go do some other genres which I really want to do and then I will, one day if I get the chance, I’ll come back and do Mute just because I have to. It was the film I tried to make from the very beginning so I’d just like the chance to make that film. It may be small – make it as a little film but I’ll come back to do it.
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