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Interview: Duncan Jones on "Moon"

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/18/09 15:33:58

The debuting director of the most impressive and thought-provoking sci-fi film of the summer talks about getting it to the screen, directing Sam Rockwell and being the son of you-know-who.

Much of the advance publicity for the new science-fiction film “Moon” has revolved around the fact that its director, Duncan Jones, is the son of rock legend David Bowie. However, once people get a look at Jones’ brilliant directorial debut, it is likely that many of them will regard him less as the son of music royalty and more as a potential savior of a genre that has largely abandoned the intelligent ideas that it once trafficked in favor of expensive special effects sequences that add virtually nothing to the story. In the not-too-distant future proposed by the film, the world’s energy crisis has been solved by the discovery of a clean-burning energy source found in abundance on the surface of the moon and Sam Rockwell plays Sam, an ordinary man living alone on a lunar base to supervise the retrieval with the aid of an all-knowing robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). As the story opens, his three-year shift is about to end and he is prepared to head home when some strange things begin to happen. Since much of the impact of the film depends to a large extent on not knowing what is in store, I will say no more except to say that the story spins off into an amazing and thought-provoking work that will remind some viewers of the likes of such masterpieces as “2001,” “Solaris,” “Alien” and “Blade Runner” while still serving as a completely original work in its own right, that Sam Rockwell’s increasingly complex performance is the best work that he has ever done and that Jones displays such an original and unique vision as a filmmaker that I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Recently, Jones visited Chicago and sat down with me to discuss the film and how it came to be. In doing so, we touch upon things that viewers should probably not know in advance so that they can have the greatest impact. Although I have included spoiler warnings at a couple of points throughout the interview, those who want to know as little as possible about the film might want to put this article aside until they have seen it for themselves.



What was it that first got you interested in filmmaking?

I started very young, when I was about five or six. My dad and I, one of our father-son hobbies was shooting Super-8 animations and things like that. I have some pretty bizarre home movies from when I was a kid of us floating through the house and things like that--I used to do animations with Smurfs. That was where it started and I had always kept my hand in and then I took a big detour by going off to academia and moving away from it for a long time. Then when I was in graduate school and I was really miserable and not enjoying it at all, my dad suggested that I came back and work with him on something that he was doing with Tony Scott at the time, which was this TV show. They had done a film together called “The Hunger” and there was a TV show based on it--my dad was asked to come and do the pilot episode for Season 2 and then do all of the intros for the subsequent episodes. This was a two-week shoot and I joined that. Tony Scott was incredibly cool and spent a lot of time and effort talking to me and telling me about his enjoyment of film and what he was doing while he was directing his films. It got my enthusiasm rekindled and I decided to go to film school and that is where it all happened.

During the time when you were looking at films primarily as entertainment, were there any that particularly stood out for you? Based on “Moon,” of course, I would assume that you were a sci-fi buff.

Anything where they created a really believable world on the science-fiction side--things like “Blade Runner” were massively influential to me because being within those worlds was really exciting to me. When I was a kid growing up, I was on the sets for films like “Labyrinth” and the sets for those were extraordinary. I loved the fact that as a filmmaker, you could actually create a world, document a story in it and then destroy it so that no one else could ever shoot there again. I think the uniqueness of having that experience was kind of cool.

Watching “Moon,” it is easy to notice the influence of any number of sci-fi classics but one of the things that is so fascinating about it is that comes across as a fusion of two very different and very specific variations of the genre that are rarely seen these days. On the one hand, it fits in with the more intellectual examples of the genre like “2001,” “Silent Running” or “Solaris”--things that were more interested in dealing with ideas than with lavish special effects. On the other hand, it also fits in with the kind of industrial, blue-collar sci-fi represented by the likes of “Alien,” “Outland” and “Blade Runner” in which all the machinery was old, beat-up and in constant need of repair.

You certainly named a few of the films that were really influential and the ones that we wanted to pay homage to. “Outland” was definitely one of them and “Silent Running” was another. Because of the comparison between GERTY and HAL, “2001” was obviously one of them. The whole habitation zone came from “Alien,” the first half of the movie. Those were definitely areas that we were drawing from. It is funny--the way that you divided up the science-fiction movies is interesting to me because I hadn’t really thought of it that way. There was that period of films that I really loved that were about people as opposed to going from one effects-driven set-piece to the next. I think that was really what we were hoping to capture and if we were straddling different types of science-fiction, that was unintentional. It was just that those were a group of films that I really loved and I wish that there were more like that now.

When the new “Star Trek” movie came out, I didn’t particularly like it and one of the main reasons why is because where the original version was as much about ideas as it was about the hardware, that aspect was almost entirely jettisoned for endless effects-driven set-pieces. In fact, I had seen “Moon” before “Star Trek” and when I thought about it, it struck me that “Moon” did a much better job of approximating what “Star Trek” used to be than its own newer incarnation.

I did enjoy the new “Star Trek” but I did miss certain things about the original “Star Trek” that weren’t in it. I think the whole idea of adventure and discovering new places--that side of it wasn’t the focus of this one but I am hoping that if J.J. Abrahams decides to do a sequel, and I am sure he will, it will evolve and start to draw those things back into it.

Can you talk about the development of “Moon”?

It was a real puzzle--it was a matter of having all of these pieces and trying to fit them together. Basically, I wrote this for Sam Rockwell, so writing a role that would be interesting and challenging for Sam Rockwell was the starting point. Keeping the cast down, obviously, was another building block because we were a small, independent British science-fiction film and we couldn’t to have a big cast with a lot of names. We had a particular idea about set design--we were going for this retro aesthetic that was cost-effective and also kept to the roots of the films that we loved. There were certain special effects that we knew were cost-effective and would give us more bang for the buck than others--I had a certain amount of experience in the commercials world doing effects-heavy work, so I had my head wrapped around that and knew where we could save money.

There were also some personal elements. I had a period in my life where I felt very lost and didn’t know who I was and was kind of quite angry growing up. I am a very different person now than I was then and I think everyone wishes they could go back and talk to their younger self and say that things are going to be okay and to just buck up. I though that was kind of an interesting premise for a film--the idea of a person facing themselves and seeing themselves for who they are. The final piece of that puzzle was that during the period of writing and shooting the movie, I was involved with a long-distance relationship with a girlfriend on the other side of the world. All the feelings that you go through when you try to maintain a long-distance relationship and all the paranoias were good material for a human drama. They all got incorporated and it was really just a matter of making everything work. We knew that we wanted to shoot everything on a soundstage because we wanted to spend our money on the screen instead of on going from location to location and we didn’t want to be affected by bad weather--we wanted to have as controlled a shooting environment as possible.

ENORMOUS SPOILER WARNING #1!!!!!

When I first saw “Moon,” I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it had Sam Rockwell in it and that it took place in space. Of course, at a certain point in the film, there is a dramatic revelation that sends the entire story into new and unexpected directions. The only trouble, though, is that it makes it difficult to discuss “Moon” in any significant way without revealing that which should not be revealed ahead of time.

It is tricky--when I was writing it, I wasn’t really thinking about how you guys were going to have to deal with it. There is a large change in the plot at the end of the first act, a revelation that changes the dynamics of everything. I have been willing to let people talk about the fact that Sam plays multiple parts because one of the things that I am so proud of about the film is that Sam’s performance is fantastic and one of the things that makes Sam’s performance so fantastic is what he is able to do with playing multiple parts when he had such an incredible technical challenge in how we had to do it. He was still able to create this incredibly nuanced and believable performance as many people. If that comes out, it isn’t the most devastating thing in the world to me. It would be a shame for some people who like to see films with absolutely no idea about what they are about--I happen to be one of those people--but I don’t think it spoils the film to know that Sam plays multiple versions of himself. It just means that you see things from a slightly different starting point, that’s all.

END ENORMOUS SPOILER WARNING #1!!!!

In doing some reading about the film, I was surprised to discover that in at least one regard--the notion of mining the moon for clean energy--there is a sound scientific basis in what you are showing.

I am a big fan of hard science-fiction over soft science-fiction and for me; hard science-fiction is about trying to extrapolate from science instead of using any crazy stuff that you make up in your head. I read a book by a guy named Robert Zubrin, who used to work with NASA, called “Entering Space” that was all about how you would go about colonizing the solar system and doing it in a way that was financially viable since we don’t have a Cold War anymore and we aren’t going to spread out across the universe out of the goodness of our own hearts--we would do it either because we have to do it or because it would be profitable to do it. One of the early chapters in his book is about going to the moon and setting up mining bases in order to acquire this resource called Helium-3, which doesn’t have any sort of intrinsic value right now but theoretically, once we make fusion power work into a viable energy source, it will be an incredibly useful fuel for it because it is clean-burning. The incredibly bizarre coincidence is that the Earth has a very small amount of Helium-3 on it and it is very difficult to obtain whereas there is a vast amount of it on the moon that is very easy to obtain because it is impregnated into the first few inches of the lunar soil by the sun over billions of years. If you go up there and just scoop up the first few inches of lunar crust and bake it at high temperatures, the Helium-3 gas is released and it can be harvested.

How difficult is it to get the financing for a science-fiction film, even one as relatively inexpensive as “Moon,” that trades more in hard science and ideas than in flashy effects?

I think it would be difficult anywhere but in England, it was particularly difficult because it is a conservative country when it comes to financing films--if it isn’t a period drama or a rom-com, it is very difficult to get a movie made there and there is a bit of a closed loop as far as how you break in to get financing. There are a lot of people who make a lot of films who get financing on a regular basis and not so many of those who haven’t made films are able to break into that circle. It was difficult and we found that we had to go independently and do something called an EIS, which is a method of funding films in the U.K. where you get private investors, and that got us most of the way there. I had a lot of people who wanted to invest in the film because of my commercials background and that was also a good starting point.

One of the interesting problems, though, was that we set a cap for ourselves of five million dollars--as a first feature film, we thought it would be crazy to go any higher than that until we had proven that we could make films at a smaller budget. One of the problems was that people would read the script and look at the concept artwork and their natural concern was about how we could make something that looked like that for only five million dollars. We had to do some work convincing people but we had great concept artwork and I had the benefit of a good show reel of commercials that I had done with heavy effects work so that I could vouch for myself on that front.

Having come from the world of commercials, in which you are telling a story or selling an idea in 30 to 60 seconds, was it a particular challenge for you to figure out how to work within the more expansive narrative frame of a feature film?

It wasn’t too bad for me, I guess, because I have always been a writer and that has held me in good stead. Also, on the commercials front, commercial directors tend to get pigeonholed in the way that feature directors do and for my sins, I was sort of pigeonholed as a narrative commercials director who was more interested in telling stories than in doing sexy, fashion-type work. Moving into feature films worked in my favor in some ways because it felt like a natural progression.

You mentioned earlier that you had written this project specifically for Sam Rockwell. Can you talk a little about him and what it was about him that made you want to tailor a project especially for him?

I met Sam about three years ago--I had sent another script to him through his agent that he very much liked. Being slightly naïve, I had wanted him to play the smaller role of a villain in it and he had enough of playing villains and if he was going to work on some kid’s first feature film, he wasn’t interested in playing a part like that. He wanted to move out of his pigeonhole of playing eccentrics and villains. We met up in New York and he was trying to convince me that he should play the lead and I was trying to convince him to play this other part. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out because we were both very set in what we wanted but we got on really well. We started talking about the kind of films that we loved and the kinds of roles that he wanted to play. We both loved science-fiction films from the period of the late 1970’s-early 1980’s and the fact that those movies focused on blue-collar guys and what they were going through because of the environments that they were in. I think that is the difference between stuff like the new “Star Trek” and “Terminator,” which is basically about moving from one set-piece to the next, and these older films that were about how human beings survive when they are put into such a bizarre setting while maintaining their humanity when it is attacked.

ENORMOUS SPOILER WARNING #2!!!!!

Can you talk a little about the process, both from a performance and a technological perspective, utilized to get Sam Rockwell to act opposite himself? Having actors playing multiple parts is nothing new, of course, but for the most part, those performances usually wind up stressing the differences between the characters and not the similarities and a lot of the time, you wind up paying more attention to the obvious tricks used to create the illusion than to what is going on with the story. Here, neither of those things happens and in a funny way, Rockwell’s performance and your approach to getting it reminded me of Jeremy Irons and his similar dual role in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers.”

You are right in that there are two schools of approaching one actor playing multiple parts--you either go comedic and accentuate the differences like they did with Michael Keaton in “Multiplicity” or you go the route of something like “Dead Ringers” or “Adaptation” and that is the direction that we wanted to go. There is an amazing Criterion edition DVD of “Dead Ringers” that has a huge sequence of raw footage showing how they achieved the effects. Both Sam and I were watching that DVD religiously--me for the technical stuff and him to see what Jeremy Irons was doing and how he differentiated the characters. I think that both technically and performance-wise, we have moved it forward from “Dead Ringers.”

Sam and I spent a lot of time trying to work out what the differentiation was between those two different versions of Sam. One had obviously been on the base for three years and the hermit life he has lived has had a serious impact on him, but it has also mellowed him out and made him socially easier to get along with than the Sam that has just shown up and who has had these problems with home life that have led him to believe that he needs this three-year break from home life to sort things out. These are very different guys to begin with and throwing them into conflict was easy but what was more interesting was figuring out how Sam 2 would evolve as a character and change from being this aggressive anti-social man into a more sympathetic type who would want to help Sam 1.

END ENORMOUS SPOILER WARNING #2

The casting of Kevin Spacey as the voice of the all-seeing, all-knowing robot GERTY is also interesting because the idea of such a thing, especially one possessing the kind of blandly menacing voice that Spacey has, is clearly designed to remind viewers of HAL in “2001” and to perhaps suggest the direction that the story might be going.

What you just said is exactly the reason why I wanted Kevin Spacey to do it. I am well aware that anyone who sees “Moon” is going to think of HAL when they first see GERTY--we have the iris in there and everything. What I wanted to do is play with those assumptions and let them think that GERTY is going to turn out like HAL--I would rather use that to my advantage than to try to deny it altogether. The idea was to get a voice that had that same ambivalence--you know something is up but it is so smooth and honey-coated that you don’t know what side he is on--and let the audience make their own assumptions so that as the movie goes along and GERTY goes off in a different direction, it comes as a surprise to them.

The score from Clint Mansell is also pretty spectacular as well.

I had always wanted Clint but my producer and I were convinced that we never going to be able to afford him on our budget because he does bigger films now and he works with Darren Aronofsky all the time--I think he was working on “The Wrestler” at the same time that we wanted him. My producer sent the script to him through proper channels and I went around and got it to him directly because I had met him before and between our pincer movement, he responded to the script and was excited by what we were trying to do. He is English as well and I think there was little bit of patriotism there in doing this little independent British film. He got involved and we sorted it out so that it wouldn’t cost half our budget to have him work on the film.

When you have seen the film with audiences, either at festivals or at promo screenings, what has the reaction from them been like? I ask because unlike a lot of first-time filmmakers, the fact that you are the son of David Bowie might cause some viewers to have preconceived notions of what to expect from you as a filmmaker.

So far, it has been very positive. The screenings have always been full and the Q&A’s have kept most of the audience there for them. As far as my dad goes, people on the whole have been pretty cool about not making a big deal out of it. Once in a while, someone will ask an obvious question like “Did you ever think of using any of your dad’s music?” or stuff like that, which I completely understand. I didn’t and I wouldn’t, mainly because I have spent a long time trying to build up a career of my own based on my own work. Having finally reached the point where people are willing to invest in me based on my own merits to make a feature film, to then turn it all on its head and put my dad’s music in it seems counter-productive. Maybe one day I will, once I have built up enough work of my own so that it doesn’t matter anymore. The screenings have been fantastic and the response has been really good and there has been especially good buzz on the internet

I understand that you have a new sci-fi project that you have begun work on entitled “Mute”--can you say anything about that at this time?

It is sort of the other side of the coin from “Moon.” “Moon” was inspired by films like “Silent Running” and “Outland”--films that dwell on the loneliness and isolation of some aspects of the future. “Mute” is the opposite in that it is a future city film based on a future Berlin. It is a thriller with a busy and buzzing vibe to it. It is kind of my homage to “Blade Runner” and if “Blade Runner” were going on in L.A., “Mute” is a story that feels as if it is going on at the same time in Berlin.

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