***Update: Duncan Jones Interview Part 2 now available***
First of all, Duncan Jones is my new hero. He took $5 million dollars and made Moon, an amazing sci-fi film starring Sam Rockwell in multiple roles. The film is better than almost anything currently being made for hundreds of millions of dollars. And just to make him that much more amazing, he is a complete sweetheart to talk to.
I showed up late for my interview (I hate LA traffic) and Duncan had already finished his day and although most directors would have been long gone, he was sitting in the press room signing away Moon posters (his contribution to the marketing campaign) and welcomed me despite the time. I was originally scheduled for 15 minutes, but Duncan and I ended up chatting for nearly 45 minutes and if I’m honest the time flew by so fast I didn’t even notice.
Due to our extremely long interview, we’re making this one a two part-er! Check out more below…
In the first interview one we’ll talk about how the following:
- How Duncan Jones started in the film industry as a director for commercials
- Calling up the big names in film and asking for a helping hand
- Getting Clint Mansell to score his film
- Tackling the special effects in the performances
- Why Sam Rockwell was the man for the role
- Asking Sting’s wife for help
- Talking about his next film, where he wants to make his Blade Runner
Let’s get to the good stuff…
It is very rare that an independent filmmaker who is starting out says “I want to do Sci-Fi!” And then actually does it. Normally they start out with something that is much easier to do. What made you say, no matter what I am going to do a Sci-Fi film?
Jones: I’ve been working my way to doing my first feature film for about ten years. So I went through the commercials route and some people come from a theatrical background and some people come from a writing background, but I directed commercials. So I had a real comfort with being on a set and in particular working with special effects and because of that background, it became much easier for me to base a first time feature film on a low budget cause I was sort of already knew how to do that. When I said that something was going to cost a certain amount of money, I actually knew what I was talking about. The biggest problem that we were having on the financing front was people with lots of money saying “you need more money to make this film,” and us saying “no this is the first feature film we want to do it at a budget where we sort of prove ourselves at the starting end of making feature films; we can do this for $5 million.” That is where the convincing part between me and Stuart came, we had to convince people with money that we could do it for that budget.
Normally it’s the other way around.
Jones: I’m really glad that we didn’t, it would have been very easy for us to say, ‘You are right, we need more.’ But at the same time it wouldn’t have been the same film and it’s also the wrong move for a first feature film. When we first made this whole idea this was going to be calling card film and it was going to give the opportunity to make my first feature film. But it turned out a lot better, we just couldn’t stop ourselves from going into it, and we are very proud that it turned into something that people wanted to see.
This is a Sc-Fi film that transcends it’s genre, how would you categorize it?
Jones: I think we tried to make a film that was about human beings as opposed to going from one special effects set piece to the next one, which is what a lot of science fiction films these days do. The films that I loved growing up were the science fiction films from the late seventies and early eighties [films], which were more about the people and how they are affected by the environments that they are in. Whether they are sort of futuristic or alien of whatever they are; that was the science fiction that I loved. So that is what we tried to make, the sort of film that felt like those old films.
I was amazed because you referenced all of these old films, but you didn’t reference 2001. When I saw the trailer immediately popped into my head.
Jones: Absolutely! I think that for everyone who does science fiction films that is like the granddaddy of them all. To me that is such a touchstone for everyone and there is a particular similarity between the character of Gerty and HAL from 2001, but other than that I think we were sort of more appealing to those later films because it was like sort of a generation of films that were definitely looking at 2001 and we were looking at those films because that film was like over 40 years ago.
And just like in 2001, the music played a huge part. Was that important to you to have such a strong score?
Jones: Well it was Clint Mansell that usually works with Darren Aronofsky. And I had met him once before and we got on pretty well, but he was going to be way out of our budget range. When it came to sort of doing the offline cut part of the film I kept using bits of his music from the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack and all of these pieces of music we were using. I just couldn’t get away from it and Stuart Fenegal (my producer) and I were like, well we can’t afford him, but instead of going through the usual way, I sort of went directly to Clint. And He got so excited about the project and loved what we were trying to do and he said he would find a way to make it work. So, we did it!
How involved were you with the music process. Did you allow him to just go and do his thing?
Jones: It was more about standing back and letting him do his thing because he is very talented. But if there were points where he wasn’t going for the mood that we were going for, or if something wasn’t quite working, I would be there to sort of just give my little two cents and try to steer things whenever I thought they needed steering. But he knew what he wanted to do and it was perfect, very happy with it.
There were a few times, that I noticed that you chose to go with no score, which was silent and beautiful. Was that your choice to leave our Clint’s score? And was it hard telling someone you respect that it is better without music?
Jones: Yeah, it was. Clint is incredibly talented and I asked him to score the film wall-to-wall and he was willing to do that. It was sort of an interesting thing; he was willing to score it wall-to-wall, with the understanding that I was going to be taking some stuff back out. But I wanted to have everything covered and kind of judge the mood of it. So, he basically scored the whole film. And through the quite moments, it was me saying, as much as I love this piece of music, it works better without it. It worked out really well.
What did you see in Sam that made you know that he could literally carry this entire film?
It’s sort of a Rockwell overload. He’s a fantastic actor and I’ve been a fan of his for years. I saw him Charlie’s Angels and I loved him in that. I loved him in Lawn Dogs, The Green Mile, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Galaxy Quest — I mean everything I’ve seen him in, he just steals the scene. I think it is because he is incredibly charismatic, he’s very funny, but he is also very empathetic and you feel for him when he does things. And he has this quirkiness that keeps you watching. And there aren’t many actors who have that magnetism to their performances that even though he had just done a couple of lead roles, I feel he is one of the most underrated American actors. He is incredibly talented and it doesn’t hurt that he is also and incredibly nice guy. And as a first time director I needed to work with someone that I felt comfortable with, and that I could get along with. It was a perfect match; I am so thrilled I got to work with him. He is a really nice and incredible guy.
How did you actually cast him? Did you say I want him?
Jones: I didn’t cast him; I did the film for him. That is why the character is called Sam. We met three years ago to discuss another film, but that one didn’t work out and I knew that I wanted him in my first film so I said, ‘Look if you just please read the next script I write, I’m going to write something just for you.’ I’m sure he was a little unsure if I would get around to doing it, but I did. I left that meeting and that was my priority was to get that script written. And nine months later it was ready for him. One of the reasons why I wanted to call the main character Sam was because it was for him, but also because of what happens in the film; I wanted him to feel uncomfortable reading the film, of actually seeing his own name when he was reading it. I thought it was a good way to immediately put him into this unusual mind set.
What were some of the challenges on set because many times he is acting with himself?
Jones: Yeah, it was a very technical shoot and like you said it was a very small budget and we were doing some very technically ambitious things in it. We had two sources of information basically, on how we did the effect of Sam acting with himself. There are actually a lot of different effects in the film for different things, but for the two Sam effects; there is a film called Dead Ringers that Cronenberg did and it was a criterion edition with the DVD, with a lot of special features in it about how they did that particular effect. So Sam and I both watched that a lot and I watched it in particular for the technical side, and that was sort of a first step.
Then, I also watched Adaptation by Spike Jones and he did a sort of similar effect and I had the good fortune of talking to him about it. One of the pieces of advice that he gave me was “when you are breaking down the film into scenes work out which of the characters is actually driving the scene and film that scene first.” So that is what we did when we were actually shooting the film, we would break down the scene and work out which of the Sam’s was driving the scenes and we would film that one first.
And Sam would have a real sort of freedom at that point and sort of improv a little bit, while he was doing that first take. Then, we would choose a particular take that we liked and Sam would go up into makeup and he’d have a little iPod that we would basically put that take unto while he was getting his makeup on, and then he’d come downstairs and he would wear something called and earwig, which is sort of a speaker in his hear that you cannot see on camera, but we gave him the audio from the take that we had chosen. Because he has a really good sense of rhythm he would be able to time his answers and to sort of correspond to the conversation and we would give him an eye line and that’s how we did it.
Did you have any time to rehearse before shooting?
Jones: We rehearsed for a bit for an Indie film, which is kind of unusual, we had a week of rehearsals before we actually shot the films so we were able to really break down the script and kind of work through all of the improvisational things that he wanted to do, so he had a chance to really feel his way through before we actually shot it and I think that helped a lot.
How did you get Kevin Spacey on board?
Jones: We were very lucky, Stuart and I, with our financing where we were like 90% of the way there, but we still needed this pocket money for our effects and Trudie Steinler who is Sting’s wife became involved, and she basically closed the financing for the film. And getting her on board, she is very supportive, in particular, of the young British directors being British herself. She was able to get the script to Kevin Spacing knowing that I would really love him do the voice. That was what Trudie was able to bring, she is very well connected, very well thought of, and was able to get the script through to him.
He kind of has the perfect voice doesn’t he?
Jones: It’s kind of smooth and at the same time you don’t know if it’s malevolent or not. I knew that I needed that because anyone who is into new Sci-Fi is going to immediately think of HAL from 2001, and rather than trying to void that, I wanted to play with the audiences expectations about what the robot character was going to be and then sort of surprise them and take them a different direction and the great thing about Kevin Spacey’s is that he helps reinforce the new idea in the minds of the audience of what to expect of Gerty.
There are all of these huge movies: Terminator (200 million dollars), Wolverine (150 million dollars), and yet, who spend so much money on special effects and yet you were able to do so much with so little. What do you think about all of these enormous budgets? Would you like to some day want to have that kind of a budget, or do you think that people are just wasting there money on things that are not necessary?
Jones: I think that I would like to have that kind of a budget and I think the reasons for it are it gives you more time and it gives you the opportunity to be more ambitious with what you want to do with the camera and also how a scene works. I wouldn’t want to direct those kinds of scripts. My biggest difference with our film and those kinds of science fiction films is that they are going from one special effect set piece to the next, what we were doing was more of a character study. And I think that is the freedom that you get by doing an Indie film. You can only really do that with a lower budget. So I understand where the conflict is between those two priorities. Maybe there is a sort of a sweet middle ground there, where you can do something with something with like 20 to 40 million and do something which is much more character driven, but still create a sort of visual spectacle around it. That is what I’d like to do.
Is that what is next?
Jones: Hopefully, I’m trying. I want to do my Blade Runner, which is like a future Berlin film, which is like a thriller, but it’s much deeper characters, I think.
Are you writing that?
It’s already written. It is by a guy called Mike Johnson and I. Mike Johnson wrote the Sherlock Holmes script that Guy Richie and Robert Downey Jr. are doing right now. But we went to film school together so way before either of were successful we’d already written this film.
Check out the second part of our exclusive Duncan Jones interview tomorrow on ScreenCrave where we talk about how he almost broke Sam Rockwell, making the special effects look real on a budget, and a whole lot more!