Long ago, in a galaxy right here, popular science fiction become usurped by pricey, special effects-heavy spectacles that were, if not brainless, then light on thought. With his two features, British director Duncan Jones has made a strong case for the brainy. His low budget Moon trapped audiences with a worker (Sam Rockwell) on the back end of a three year solitary stint on a lunar station, exploring the nature of identity while drowning in existential dread. His inevitable Hollywood debut, Source Code—in which a pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself having to thwart a terrorist plot using a kind of time traveling technology—is sprightlier, but retains the smarts and concerns the same unpleasant issues. Jones, who also made the short Whistle, looks to one day break out of the sci-fi genre, but hopefully not before encouraging others to follow his lead.
Oh, and his father is David Bowie.
Jones, who no longer goes by the name “Zowie Bowie,” spoke with PW while in town to promote his first decent budget.
In addition to directing your first two films, you wrote them as well. Source Code, however, came from an already-existing script by Ben Ripley. What was the appeal of directing someone else’s work?
“First and foremost it was about the opportunity to work with Jake Gyllenhaal. When he gave me the script, there was something kind of fun about being able to look at a script in a very objective way, and not have the sense of wanting to protect everything about it. I was able to be much more brutal and focus on what was really working and move away from the stuff that wasn’t.”
The job of director on this script is a tough one: You have to maintain a consistent pace and, since the same eight minutes keep happening, you have to keep things fresh visually.
“That was one of the challenges of the script. I’m a natural puzzle solver. I enjoy coming up with solutions to those kinds of things. Reading the script and seeing the repetition of events, it immediately got my creative juices going. I wanted the audience, at the end of the film, to know they’ve seen the same event repeatedly, but feel like it’s been fresh the whole way through.”
One thing that’s very important to the two features you’ve made are the performances of the actors, which is not usually an aspect tended to in the sci-fi genre. Moon is basically a one-man show for Sam Rockwell, and here the supporting performances by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright are a lot richer than it seems they were written. Is acting one of your major focuses?
“Oh, massively. I think one of the biggest jobs of being a director is getting the casting right. I was very fortunate that actors of incredibly high caliber had seen Moon and wanted to work with me. It was a tremendous opportunity to bring people onto a project like this who might not agree to do a film like this. My job becomes very easy in this situation, because it’s not about telling them what to do. It’s about giving them an environment where they’re able to do what they’re already capable of.”
Wright particularly seems to be having the time of his life. Was using the cane as a prop his idea?
“The cane was actually an unfortunate accident, in that he had had an injury, and we were really unsure if he could walk properly. We didn’t want to take that risk so we incorporated it into his performance.”
Can you speak about the viral advertising of this film? Were you involved in the Source Code game that’s on Facebook?
“I can’t take credit for that. I think all studios right now are looking for ways to get the word out in ways that attract the audience who they believe is their core demographic. I understand hitting the audience over the Internet. I think the best way is to incorporate that into the pre-production planning and make those things work in a holistic way. I will say that with my next film I would certainly want to have a strategy for how those mixed media approaches would be done.”
Given that your father is a professional musician, were you naturally drawn to a career making art?
“Well, I took a very, very long, circuitous route to making movies. I went to college and graduate school, studying philosophy. I really did think I was going to wind up being a lecturer or professor of some sort. I avoided a creative career till it became so frustrating not doing it that I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I was in my 30s when I finally went to film school. It was kind of always going to happen, but I did try to keep it suppressed for awhile.”
Do you think that studying something else before film made your art better?
“Absolutely. I think that’s absolutely the case. It’s kind of crazy to want to be a filmmaker and have no experience in life. I think the job of a director is someone who has a sensibility to share with the rest of the people making the movie. It certainly helps working with actors: You want to get them to empathize with what the characters are going through. And if you haven’t had any life experiences, if you’ve never really loved, if you’ve never really been through any difficult circumstances, it’s very difficult to know when you’ve got it right. It’s really beholden to directors to have some life experiences to draw upon.”