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Contemporary science fiction is in pretty sorry shape, but Duncan Jones is doing his part to bring smarts back to the genre. His debut feature, Moon, was an elegantly creepy story set on a lunar outpost populated only by a stir-crazy Sam Rockwell. Source Code is a bigger-budget affair, and unlike Moon, which Jones co-wrote with a longtime collaborator, it arrived as a greenlit project under star Jake Gyllenhaal’s wing. Even as work for hire, though, Source Code is clearly the work of the same hand, even if the other hand is busy setting off explosions. Jones met up with The A.V. Club to talk about why he’s fascinated with identity, his long-gestating Mute project, and the Grand Theft Auto homage he slipped into Source Code. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)
The A.V. Club: Looking at Source Code and Moon back to back, there are a lot of parallels. There are practical and opportunistic concerns that led you to take the job, but on a personal level, what about it spoke to you?
Duncan Jones: In all honesty, although I understand and I can see the similarities now, when it was introduced to me, I read the script and I got very excited about what I thought were the differences: How it was going from a much slower pace, a more thoughtful film, into something faster-paced. Jake [Gyllenhaal] and the producers he was working with at the time, they probably saw the similarities and thought, “Duncan would be a good person to take a look at this.” Now that I’m being reminded, there are obviously similarities, whether it’s questions of identity, or of authority powers taking advantage of individuals.
DJ: Yes, repetition. Sam Rockwell. [Laughs.] No, he’s not in there.
AVC: Is that him playing the Michelle Monaghan part?
DJ: No, but Scott Bakula is in there. I don’t know if you picked that up.
AVC: Your father [David Bowie] has made a career out of reinventing himself. Does that play into your fascination with identity?
DJ: I would say that the question of identity was one which was much more personal, because I felt I was the one who was having real difficulty finding out who I was and trying to work out where I fit in the world, rather than him, because even if he was away for a long period of time, I never had felt any particular confusion as to his identity. He was always just Dad to me.
AVC: Once we understand that Gyllenhaal’s character isn’t really talking to Vera Farmiga, it’s always in the back of our mind what she actually hears, but you leave that reveal until very late in the movie, and it turns out to be surprisingly poignant.
DJ: That definitely I feel is part of my generation: social networking, communication over the Internet, whether it’s Skype or IRC or some form of text-based chat, text messaging. There is this whole level of communication that I think our generation and younger is used to that does have this weird effect on people. It creates a familiarity that is possibly not always justified. I think that’s interesting and I think it’s nice to be able to incorporate it into films, because most of us can relate to that now.
AVC: You have a background in gaming, and you’ve mentioned that the scene where Gyllenhaal jumps off a moving train and rolls is an homage to Grand Theft Auto. How did that find its way into the film?
DJ: When I was reading the script, there were so many references and ideas that I was having reading it, whether it was the science-fiction ideas that were behind it, the fact that there was a Quantum Leap moment, a 12 Monkeys moment; there were all of these things that I could identify. The whole nature of the science-fiction aspect of it, the fact that a guy has multiple opportunities to fulfill a mission objective, that’s just straight gameplay. I thought it took itself quite seriously, trying to make this highbrow, which it doesn’t need to be. So my initial concern was to lighten it up, inject it with some humor, and as a part of that put in all of these little moments where I have a little tip of the hat to Quantum Leap and computer games and things like that to really let everyone know: It’s okay, have fun with this, don’t take it too seriously, just enjoy it. That was my approach.
AVC: Was it before commercials that you worked in gaming?
DJ: Yes, I worked on a game called Republic, which did not do very well. It was an Eastern European political simulator.
AVC: Really, people didn’t want to do that for fun?
DJ: They didn’t want to play it. [Laughs.] It was like Grand Theft Auto without any of the violence. It had that kind of world, lots of walking up to people and negotiating with them and threatening them and trying to work your way up through the hierarchy of Eastern European politics until you became a despot.
AVC: What aspect were you working on?
DJ: Originally, I was brought in as the in-game cinematics director. The idea was that I would work with the programmers to generate an in-game camera tool, which would, over the course of gameplay, make the camera move in a cinematic way. So that was my first objective, and then when they had things like E3 coming up, they wanted trailers cut using the in-game graphics, so we did that. Then, basically, we came to a stumbling halt when they realized that the game engine was going to take longer to develop and the whole development cycle was going to be much slower, so they asked me to start working as one of the additional designers. My job became basically writing scripts, writing missions and backstories for stuff. It was kind of cool, in a sense; certainly with the in-game camera aspect of my job I got to start playing in a virtual way with some of the big tools that I wasn’t going to be able to do in low-budget music videos, like giant cranes, all sorts of camera moves that I wouldn’t be able to afford in real life.
AVC: There’s a sense that as the technologies grow closer, the movie and gaming industries are basically going to converge, the way that The Road director John Hillcoat was hired to make a half-hour movie out of “footage” from Red Dead Redemption.
DJ: In my opinion, having worked in the games industry and still keeping in touch with a lot of those guys, there was definitely a time when they saw themselves as the little brother of the film industry. But they kind of went off in a different direction and now see themselves, I think, as being far more interesting and ahead of the film industry. They haven’t just caught up. They’ve gone off in a different direction and exceeded the film industry.
AVC: Would you like to do a movie that was more largely CG, even entirely?
DJ: I really don’t see CG as a goal in its own right. I really do believe it’s a tool, and for me it was great fun to work with that tool in a more fully developed way on Source Code. We did actually use a fair amount of CG on Moon. The character GERTY, in most of our wide shots where you see him moving around the moon base, that was a CG version, and then obviously in the close-ups it was an actual live-action model.
AVC: So you didn’t have to build all the armature and so forth.
DJ: Absolutely, because we’d have just had to paint it out and move it around anyway, so that’s how we approached that. In the advertising industry I did a fair amount of CG as well, so I appreciate it for the tool that it is, and I think technologically where it’s at now, you really can achieve most of your visual goals with either it or a mixture of it and practical effects.
AVC: Had you done a commercial with a larger budget than you had for Moon?
DJ: No, the biggest probably would’ve been around a million and a half dollars, and Moon was for $5 million, and then this one was a step up from there. But you only have to do a 30-second commercial. The power, the raw power you can throw at that 30 seconds is very different than stretching it out over 90 minutes.
AVC: You seem like someone who thinks in very specific terms about where he wants his career to go.
DJ: It’s been a very, very long-term goal, right from as soon as I finished film school I was thinking about, how do I get to feature films? It took about eight years, and I’m still working. Feature films was not the end goal. Feature films was one of the stages. Getting to the point of the Coen brothers or Tarantino, where you’re writing your own material and have the budget to do it properly, that’s the end goal, and I’m close to that.
AVC: So not just any feature film.
DJ: Yeah, I’m close to that now, and hopefully film number three, I’ll write it myself and be doing it at a comfy budget.
AVC: Is that something like Mute? That goes back even before Moon, right?
DJ: Yeah absolutely, that’s the one I showed Sam Rockwell that he turned down.
DJ: [Laughs.] And that’s the one that Jake turned down, too. People say, “Maybe it’s not a very good script,” but I’m convinced it’s good.
AVC: Part of what allows people to be successful in the film industry is a level of persistence, because projects can take so many years to get made. What keeps you interested in Mute?
DJ: It kind of picks from some of my loves of past movies, not necessarily science-fiction ones. It takes a character who’s kind of my spin on, or caricature of, Lee Marvin from Point Blank. That’s my driving protagonist through this story of Mute, and then it takes these villains who I think are an amazing pair, these really good buddies. It’s kind of like buddy villains as opposed to buddy cops, and they see themselves as being so high above everyone else around them intellectually, as surgeons working in Berlin doing cybernetic work and enhancements in the black market, helping out bodyguards, getting them all wired up so they can tear people’s heads off. They’re just really rich characters, is what it is. I’m particularly excited about the characters because I don’t feel like anyone has done any characters quite like this. You do look at a lot of movies and many characters seem to be interchangeable, and what I love about this film is that I really believe that its core cast of characters is unique and that to me is very exciting.
AVC: You’re thinking of doing Mute as a graphic novel now?
DJ: I think so. Yes, we are. We’ve started talking to a number of different publishers. My producer back in L.A. is taking lots of meetings and we’re trying to work out what that landscape is because we’ve never been involved with it before. So we’re going to look into that.
AVC: With Moon you were very attentive to the nuts and bolts of the situation, to the extent you ended up showing it to people at NASA. Source Code is a little softer.
DJ: A little more loosey-goosey with the truth. [Laughs.]
AVC: “Quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus.”
DJ: [Laughs.] See, you understand it.
AVC: It initially wanted to take itself more seriously, and you dialed back on that.
DJ: Yes I did, but to be honest, the more I’ve lived with it now—it’s not that I feel that it’s possible, but I understand more deeply what it was Ben [Ripley] was drawing from to try and make it logical, give it its own internal logic. I probably didn’t give it as much credit as I should have when I first started working on it, but we were moving so fast, I didn’t really have time to dwell on that aspect of it. I was literally trying to make sure the production was coming together properly. Having talked to Ben a little bit, and having a little more time to think about it, I understand what the suggestion is, and I guess it is that that the source code allows you access to this parallel reality. Jeffrey Wright’s character isn’t aware that that’s what’s going on; he just thinks it’s allowing you to re-experience, through the brain of a corpse, those last eight minutes of someone else’s life, so that’s where the miscommunication and the misunderstanding of the power of his own program comes in.
AVC: Some of the things Wright’s asking him to do aren’t consistent with his own explanations. If Gyllenhaal’s only exploring this person’s memories, how can he get off the train and look at things that person never saw?
DJ: Yeah, you’re right, the questions that he asks don’t make sense if his understanding of the source code is that it’s as limited, unless of course Wright is aware that it does have this ability, but everyone else is under a different impression.
AVC: You did something unusual after the screening, where you asked the audience if they understood the ending of the movie, and then you offered your own quite in-depth explanation of what’s going on in the last scene.
DJ: It’s good for me to know whether it works for people, because it was a hang-up I had with the original romantic ending, and I couldn’t let it go. The ending that we have is because I insisted. I just felt that this is a question too far that we leave at the end here. I really want to have at least something addressed and this is one of the things I wanted to deal with. I think it’s all very well to leave it on a romantic note, but there’s so many questions left and if you leave it purely as a romantic ending, it’s as if none of that matters, and it does matter and that’s what makes the premise interesting. So at least let me remind the audience that the repercussions of his actions are that there is another Colter Stevens now alive who doesn’t get sent on the mission.
AVC: The script of Source Code essentially confines you to two different locations.
DJ: Three if you count the pod. Visual variety.
AVC: So you’re going to move up to four with the next movie?
DJ: Actually I’m going crazy on the next movie. It’s a globe-trotting jaunt.
AVC: Moon was very much about being trapped in a single location as well. There are practical reason for that in terms of keeping the budget down, but is there something about that sense of confinement, physical or existential, that appeals to you?
DJ: Not particularly, but I do enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect of making a movie. Shooting in a constrained environment like that gives you a heck of a lot of problems. Obviously ones for lighting, and in that respect you can try and find ways to bake the light into the set design so you get your base lighting done practically, and then you mold and sculpt with lighting kits that you bring in on a case-by-case basis. All of these things can be engineered and designed, but you’re always looking at your watch. Every time you want to reset your set and pull walls out and reset the lighting, you’re burning up half an hour to an hour, and when you’re trying to keep to a schedule, you’re constantly having to reassess what’s worth it and what you’re going to have to give up in order to keep on schedule. Coming off a small independent film to a bigger-budget Hollywood film, the bond company is very closely scrutinizing if I’m keeping on schedule. For your first week and a half, they could still throw you off as director if you’re not keeping on schedule, so I had to make a lot of tough decisions just to keep us moving.
AVC: A lot of producers consider it part of their job to shield their director from that kind of pressure.
DJ: I brought my producer from Moon with me to be that insulation, and it was kind of frustrating for them, but I really didn’t care. I had enough to worry about. Pretty much all the producer concerns I tried to channel through Stuart [Fenegan], my producer, and then because he knows me well enough, he would know how to approach me and not make me blow my top, and make me know about all the serious concerns and keep all of the crap away from me.
AVC: Was it in the script that it was a double-decker train car?
DJ: Well it wasn’t in the script, but it was in Chicago. When we went down to the Metra, the commuter train outside of Chicago, in all honesty the real trains in Chicago look far more dated. They’re from the 1950s and they haven’t been updated. We were talking about using a real train carriage, but the thing looked so period it looked like it was an actual time-travel movie and you were going back into the ’50s. So we came up with this highfalootin concept that TARP money had been spent on the Metra and had updated it to the point where it actually looked contemporary. That’s how we justified the change that we came up with.
AVC: In terms of lighting, a two-story train car allows you not to have a roof in every shot.
DJ: Absolutely, and also we shot 1.85 aspect ratio. Once we decided that we were going to go with the train with the two levels and the opening in the middle so you could see the height, that was where we went from widescreen to 1.85. Because we were going to be in that environment for so long we wanted to be able to open it up a little bit more, and that was always a concern: How do we not feel too claustrophobic?
AVC: Whereas Moon is more about both the confinement and the expansion.
DJ: Not just that, the actual set for Moon was physically designed to be 2.35, so when you’re looking down the barrel of that hallway in Moon, that room is a 2.35 aspect ratio, which matches the aspect ratio of the film.
AVC: It’s very hard to get a handle on that aspect of set design without being present during filming, but obviously it’s a huge consideration—not just how the set looks, but what kinds of shots it allows you to do.
DJ: I guess in a way, these first two films have been great training for me and a real discipline. Because of the limitations I had, we had to think very carefully about set design and how to—again, not to go back to Moon too much, we had these great little airlock doorways which allowed us to break up the light, so you had one light room, one dark room, and one light room in the background, and all of a sudden when you’re shooting through those three, you get this great depth from light to dark back to light again. Thinking about set design that way will always stay with me having had these experiences on these two films.