We’ve already talked to Duncan Jones twice before, once about Source Code and Mute and once about just Source Code. Well, we enjoyed talking with him so much that we decided to sit down with him one more time before Source Code opens. Last time we talked to him was when we caught up with him at SXSW. This time it was at the LA press day for the film.
Born in London, England, Duncan Jones is the son of famous rock star David Bowie. After dropping out of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he was pursuing a PhD, he enrolled in the London Film School, where he graduated as a director. After dabbling in commercials, he went onto make Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey. The film won acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. It put Mr. Jones into the spotlight and eventually led him to the directing job on Source Code.
Source Code hefted some great directorial skill and creativity in Jones. Jones’ last film, which was also his first, Moon, was a plodding introspective sci-fi with a great edge of touching humanity. Source Code is another hard sci-fi with heart, as the emotional journey of the main character Colter (Jake Gyllenhaal) is as important as the sci-fi elements of the story.
Question: I know that you love sci-fi. What sparks your interest in films like Moon and now Source Code?
Duncan Jones: I guess sci-fi was like my candy growing up. My dad always thought it was important for me to read an hour or two every night. And if I got stuck or didn’t want to read, sci-fi was sort of the thing you’d give me to spur me on to read that evening. Whether it was short stories or George Orwell’s Animal Farm or something like that. And my dad was a big film buff as well, he introduced me to a lot of sci-fi films I kind of became enamored with. I watched the German version of Baron Munchasen and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at a young age. Star Wars was also a huge thing when I was a kid. I was the only kids to have Sony Umatic tapes of the old Star Wars. It was such an old technology, you needed two or three tapes to show one movie, so the kids used to come over to my house and we would watch Star Wars.
Question: How difficult is it for you writing/directing your own vision and then taking someone else’s script?
Duncan Jones: It’s very different. I think the difference is that you can approach it very objectionably. When it’s your own project, you have your babies in it and sometimes you save things which maybe you should’ve let go or you fight for them just that little bit harder, because it’s not necessarily about it being the right thing. It’s something you just really love. And I think the beauty of working on someone else’s script is you’re very objective about it. You can look at it from all angles and say “this doesn’t work.
Question: Jake said you did different versions of different scenes, how hard was it to filter it down to the final choices? Was there one scene you had regrets about later?
Duncan Jones: (laughs). No, there’s two things I can say about that. One, is that Jake and I decided early on before we even started shooting that what we wanted to do with this script was lighten the tone and put some humor into it. There was some in there, but it took itself quite seriously. We thought there’s such a crazy sci-fi conceit here that it seemed better to set up the bones, set up the rules at the start. Then ask the audience to take a leap of faith and just go with it.
Question: Jake said you kept coming up to him saying “make it weirder”. I love the ending, but did you have the impulse to give it a “Sopranos” finale ending?
Duncan Jones: Ok, that’s a very interesting question. Do you think it’s a happy ending? It feels like a happy ending, but there’s all these paradoxes at the end and these ambiguities left to discuss. So it’s really up to the viewer.
Question: You open up a huge Pandora’s box as to what’s going on and how far does science go and where does humanity begin and end.
Duncan Jones: I think there’s some really great ideas that have been covered in different science fiction films and comedies like Groundhog Day, Quantum Leap and 12 Monkeys. But I think what Ben Ripley’s done, and what I love about it, is he’s drawn together all of these ideas and put it in this engine, this fast paced entertainment. Through the amazing performances we have, we’ve been able to inject it with this humor. I’m really proud of it. As you can see, there’s a little bit of discussion you can have at the end of it if you choose to.
Question: Was Scott Bakula the father’s voice because he was the best voice or was there a wink to Quantum Leap?
Duncan Jones: Well, there were options we could’ve gone for. My first instinct was that it was a great tip of the hat. I was thrilled that he took it so seriously that we were able to get a great performance. My first priority is to make the film as good as possible. It’s not just putting in “in jokes”. If it didn’t work, I would’ve had to lose it and find the right one, but Scott Bakula is a great actor and he took it very seriously and we got the performance we needed.
Question: You listed all those films you saw as a kid. What about The Man Who Fell to Earth? Did you see it when you were a kid?
Duncan Jones: I didn’t. I saw it when I was older and I have to be honest when it comes to music or films my dad’s in, I immediately find myself much more distanced from it, because of the fact that I’m seeing my dad or hearing my dad. It must be like if James Earl Jones has a kid and that kid listens to Star Wars , do you really think he thinks of Darth Vader like everyone else?
Question: Were you able to experience the joys of Labyrinth?
Duncan Jones: I was actually on the set when it was shot. Part of my passion for filmmaking was being on Jim Henson’s set and actually being able to experience what it was like to work on that scale of a project when you’re actually creating worlds to tell one’s story. That’s an amazing thing to be on a set like that.
Question: Were you able to absorb any lessons from Henson. Were the mechanics of your brain already turning?
Duncan Jones: I don’t think I was at that point grasping what he was doing on a filmmaking level, but I was just enfused with the whole idea of being able to take somebody’s imagination and make a film out of it. Make a spectacle that other people could see.
Question: You’ve got some interesting visuals in the film. Who’s your VFX guy and how did you design the look of the pod?
Duncan Jones: I was working with an amazing guy from Canada called Louis Morin. He was my visual effects supervisor and he worked on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He’s a perfect balance of technician and artist and he had both of those sensibilities. We had a lot of fun with it. It was obviously a step up on budget from Moon. We were able to do more, but there was always more that we wanted to do.
Question: I read that you filmed a lot on the train, but everything else was green screened.
Duncan Jones: Basically, my biggest concern reading the script was the repetition of events and the fact that we were going to have to be in that train for a long time. Not only were we going to be in there a long time, but we would have to revisit the same moment for most of the film. So, I needed to be able to visually differentiate those moments and move the camera around and not be restricted by a real train. So, we needed to pull walls out and get the camera outside. There were moves you couldn’t do on a real train that forced our hand into building a set and greenscreening everything outside of the windows.
I was on the Superman short list and I had the chance to meet up with Chris Nolan and he was the one who really drilled into me how important it was that we got the horizon level right. He said people always put the horizon too low. We needed to raise it, so it was something that I was bearing in mind. Louis Morin had it in mind, but I would always remind him “Chris Nolan said you should make sure the horizon…” (laughs).
Question: One of the challenges on a film this complex is you’re getting spending months and months on the twists and turns and the complexities become second nature. Talk about the challenges of conveying that.
Duncan Jones: Again, I have to give credit to Ben Ripley’s script. I think what was great as a read of his script is that I felt that I was discovering things at roughly the same pace as Colter Stevens. I think that’s the good sign of a thriller. If you’re too far behind and he’s solving everything, you’re like ‘what?”, then that’s a bad sign. If you’re way ahead and just waiting for him to catch up, that’s no good either. I think the pacing was already there on the page. Getting the chance to work with Paul Hirsch, we were able to play with the rhythm of the events. It’s eight minutes every time, but in the edit, those eight minutes might be four or five minutes when something is really dramatic or pacey or twelve minutes when something’s more emotional. You can play with pacing in that way.
Question: You elected to shoot this on high def, right?
Duncan Jones: That’s not exactly true. We shot the sequences inside the train, all of the helicopter stuff, and the lab environment where Goodwin and Rutledge were based in 35 mm. Inside the pod, that’s where we used the new, enhanced RED cameras.
Question: How challenging is that for you as a director?
Duncan Jones: Other people may find the nuance in the detail and the difference, but I feel that you can do so much and you can manipulate images so much when you get to post production that the capture of the image is much less important than the final projection. To me, the biggest issue is whether you’re going to project from film or project digitally. I personally prefer projecting digitally. I guess I’m of that generation where I like that clarity. When you compare them side by side, projecting from film looks blurry. It just doesn’t look as good. To me, how you capture an image, you can film on a phone camera. I think that’s not really that much of an issue to me.
Question: If you could go back maybe not 8 minutes, but 8 months to a younger Duncan, what would you tell him as far as making this movie? Any advice?
Duncan Jones: I would tell him not to sweat it too much, because I was obviously very stressed out. It was a big challenge going from a little British independent film to working on a Hollywood film with these incredibly talented and experienced people like Don Burgess, my cinematographer and Paul Hirsch. It took some time for everyone to gel. It took some extra time for everyone to feel comfortable that I knew what I was doing and you have to be patient. But I think I already was so I didn’t need reminding. It’s always nice to have a little hand on your shoulder telling you it’s going to be ok.
Question: Going forward, do you want to keep getting bigger? Do you want to go back to small independent? Will you write the next one?
Duncan Jones: I’m a huge admirer of the Coen brothers and Tarantino and people who are able to put out their own projects and do it at a budget that feel that they can really make the films that they want to make. I’d love to be in that position.
Question: Are you approached with a lot of remakes?
Duncan Jones: Yeah, I’ve been approached with a few things. Some of them I’ve turned down thinking “I wonder what that would’ve been like” and some of them I’ve turned down thanking my lucky stars.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Duncan very much for talking with us. Be sure to check out Source Code when it hits theatres on April 1st.
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