This week in theaters you’re in for a real treat, Duncan Jones, the director of the 2009 Sci-Fi masterpiece, Moon is back with his mainstream action-thriller, Source Code (read review) starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film won’t disappoint those who came to love his first work, but definitely appeals to a much wider audience. There was a lot of pressure on Jones to deliver after his first success and thankfully he’s done so. Though this his not his Blade Runner, something he’s been talking about making since our last interview with him two years ago, he’s definitely taken a strong step towards it.
Find out how he stays away from falling victim to the usual action/thriller cliches, why taking a detour in life helped him as a filmmaker and some fun extras to look for in the film below…
Tackling the Project:
What did you learn? You’ve taken a big step from Moon, in a lot of ways, but at the same time there’s a certain essence that you have certainly established as your tone, your filmmaking style. What have you learned from making this film?
Duncan Jones: From making this film, I think it’s on a production level. When you’re working on a bigger budget and obviously this is a bigger one, you have a huge responsibility because you’re speeding millions of dollars of other people’s money, and you have to find a way to really bring everyone with you. Obviously you need to make sure that your cast is with you, that’s not a problem, and obviously there’s your core — heads of department and crew who are obviously by you and with you. But there are producers and the money side of things, and there’s this bigger group of people that you have to deal with, that I didn’t have to deal with on an independent film and I had to learn quickly how important it was to not fight them, but convince them. I think that was what I learned on this and I got there pretty quickly, but still it’s a learning curve that you have to go through.
Is that something that you enjoy? Is that something that you’re looking forward to? Are you already envying the days of Moon?
DJ: No, no. It’s something I actually went through a lot when I was working in advertising because in advertising you have clients and you have agencies that you’re working with and you do that all the time, you’re always having to explain things and bring them on and make sure that they feel excited and happy with what you’re doing. But when I did Moon I felt like, oh you don’t have to that on movies, this is great, this is like you do whatever you want. and I had that very fortunate experience on Moon and then Source Code was kind of like a reality check that, in the real world, when you’re working with bigger amounts of other people’s money, you do still have to that. I had to put that hat back on. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to do, you just have to keep on top of it.
Were you overwhelmed at all by this script, because it does repeat itself over and over and over again, even though it’s a different “Source Code” and it’s slightly different, that it could be boring?
Duncan Jones: Absolutely. That was my biggest fear when I read the script was the repetition is intimidating. How do you get through that without the audience halfway through feeling like, ha, I know what’s coming, I’ve seen this before? There was a few things that we had to do, that I felt I had to do: one of them was making sure that I broke down the repetition on a chart to ensure that visually we were able to distinguish each recurrence from the other, so that there was no repetition visually, and also narratively that there was always something new happening.
Once I’d broken it down and been able to decide that we were going to shoot on a set for a train instead of on a real train because I wanted to be able to move the cameras in different ways and have access to angles that we wouldn’t have had on a real train, I think all of a sudden I felt much more comfortable, that it was possible to tell this story even though it was the same event in a different way every time, and sometimes even move it to different parts of the train, so when you watch the film at the end of it you don’t feel like you’ve actually seen the same thing twice.
Is it enjoyable for you to know that I walked out of the film with five different people and we all saw, in a way, five different endings? Is there one answer?
DJ: I believe there’s one answer. It’s great for audiences to talk about the ending. I never followed up to actually see — I remember everyone being so excited about the ending for Inception and discussing what it all meant. I can’t remember if [Christopher] Nolan actually ever addressed it or ever tried to clarify it for anyone.
I don’t think he ever did….
DJ: Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting. I definitely know there’s a correct interpretation, in my mind.
(Jones then went on to tell me what he believes is the true ending, I’ll have this posted in a few weeks once everyone has had a chance to see the film!)
Being an Actors, Director:
You did a great job of that. Can you talk about working with Jake? You got the script because Jake said he wanted to work with you. How did that feel?
DJ: It was fantastic. I was actually on the international part of the press tour for “Moon” at that time. I had the chance to stop here in L.A. and meet some of the people I really wanted to work with and Jake was on the top of my list. Fortunately he’d seen “Moon” so he took the meeting. We discussed projects that we could work on together, and he was the one who suggested I read “Source Code” and I got very excited about it. My interpretation of the script was that it’s got fantastic premise and science fiction conceit to it, and I loved the pace of it. I felt that maybe it took itself a little too seriously and I would love to lighten the tone and inject some humor into it. Fortunately Jake felt the same way, so we knew that from that point on we were approaching it collaboratively and from the same perspective.
We were talking with Jake Gyllenhaal about what differentiates your films from a lot of the other genres is that you actually let your actors act, and you actually give them full scenes to act in; it’s not about catching a line. Can you talk about the importance of why that makes such a different experience for the viewer, and why that’s important to you?
DJ: I can’t remember who I heard talking about this, but directors don’t actually get to see other directors direct, which is really an interesting thought. A lot of actors who become directors have the opportunity to work with other directors and see how they work. I just assumed that this is what you do, is that you let actors act. You try and give them as much freedom to get into their rhythm and their groove, and do what they do, and then when you get to the edit that’s where you pick out the best bits and put it together. I did talk to Jake about this, and he said, “Not everyone works like that. Some people just want one line or one movement, and then cut, and they’re on to the next thing.” But I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. I work with actors I respect and admire because I want to let them do what they’re good at.
In these stories that you do it seems like the actors doing human emotions are your special effects in lieu of the spectacle that we might see in some blockbustery movies. Is that the approach that you want to continue taking, or would you like to have all those whiz-bang toys that say, Michael Bay gets to play with one day?
DJ: Why Michael Bay? Why not Chris Nolan? I think you can do them both. I think you can have great performances from – I think you can spend time getting the right cast and getting great performances from them, and then back them up with a vibrant and exciting visual world. Ridley Scott does it. I respect those directors who are able to do that. I love “Twelve Monkeys” by Terry Gilliam. I love Luc Besson’s “The Professional,” “Léon”. I like visual storytellers. To make films, you want to make characters and have performances that the audience is going to relate to and care about and empathize with, so I think that has to be the priority. The rest of it is making it seamless and a world that the audience feels captured by.
I was so happy when the SXSW poster for “Source Code” was put online and I saw a new poster for “Moon”. Is it nice to see that “Moon” is having this next life along with this film?
DJ: Wow. That is great. I had an extraordinary piece of luck in that I was able to work with Sam Rockwell and he was willing to give everything to that film. I really feel like I got the best of Sam Rockwell. I feel bad for everyone else because I think I sucked out some of the best out of him in that film. He’s an amazing actor and a fantastic guy. It wouldn’t have worked with anyone else.
Becoming a Director:
Does having all the accomplishment in your family add to that, trying to figure out that one thing you’re supposed to be doing so well?
DJ: I think I probably could have let it go if my dad hadn’t said, “You’ve got to find the passion in your life,” which was a gift and a curse, because I completely agreed with him, but it meant that I really had a long hunt to try and get the right thing for me. It’s a real struggle; I know how difficult it is. Some people are very, very lucky and they find the thing that they really want to do early on in life. It took me a long time to come to terms with it and actually go with it.
When did you decide to become a director? What inspired and influenced you?
DJ: It started at a very young age, but I took a big detour. My dad and I used to make short films when I was a kid; little one-stop animations with an old 8 mm film camera, and he actually taught me how to splice and tape together film when I was a kid. I was 7 or 8 years-old, I was doing that. Then I went off into academia for a very long time, went off to college and graduate school studying philosophy. I reached a point where I either was going to become a teacher or I was going to leave graduate school, and that was the point where I decided to take an opportunity I had to work on a shoot that Tony Scott was doing in Montreal to come and work as a wild-cam operator; a camera operator who doesn’t have sync sound.
I did that and was working with him in Montreal for three weeks, and had an amazing experience there. He was very, very generous with his time and talked to me in-between takes about how he got involved in the film industry, and the fact that he started off in commercials, and he was actually the one who suggested, “You obviously don’t want to do philosophy, why don’t you go to film school and work in commercials?” So it was like an epiphany; it was like an explosion in my head and I said, “Yeah, why am I doing this?” And I went back to London and I went to film school and I worked in low-budget music videos and commercials and ten years later I made “Moon.”
Do you think there’s another Duncan Jones in another dimension that’s still teaching?
DJ: I think he’s probably already killed himself. [LAUGHS]
How did you get the job with Tony Scott?
DJ: He was working with my dad at the time. He had a TV show called “The Hunger” and the first season I think Terence Stamp did the first episode and then he would do the joining pieces between the episodes, and then the second season my dad did the first episode and then the joining pieces. So they were going to be shooting up there for three weeks and Tony and my dad said, “Come take a break from graduate school.”
There’s a level of intelligence in your films that aren’t in a lot of other thrillers. Is that just your background? Is that your experience?
DJ: I don’t want to be — I don’t want to be stuck in being — I try to make the films that I find interesting and I can’t help getting excited about ideas and hopefully they’re entertaining. I don’t want make smart films [laughs], I just want to make films that I film interesting. Sometimes it works out that way, sometimes — I have a pretty dumb sense of humor as well, so sometimes, it’s just really that balancing act. You have to try to find the things that make you excited and make you laugh and make you say, “Wow! I haven’t seen that before.”
Working Towards His Blade Runner:
The last time I spoke to you, I asked, “What’s next?” And you said, “I’m making my Blade Runner.” Is this your Blade Runner?
DJ: Source Code? No. Source Code isn’t my Blade Runner. No, no, no. Absolutely not.
So you still have your Blade Runner in you?
DJ: Trust me, you’ll know it when it’s my Blade Runner [laughs].
So what is this step with “Source Code”?
DJ: This step was a unique, perfect -time opportunity — a perfect time and place. I met up with Jake [Gyllenhaal]. I really wanted to work with him. I think he’s a fantastic actor. I really can’t state that enough. I really really wanted to work with him. He was the one who introduced me to the Source Code script and I thought, you know, there’s something I can do with this. I think there’s a lot of opportunities to show some things visually, to work with an ensemble and to work with Jake on something, and I just had to grab that opportunity. Now that I’ve had that and I’ve experienced it and enjoyed it, I would love to do my Blade Runner. So hopefully now I’ll get the chance to do that.
Do you know how you’re going to do that?
DJ: Oh yeah. It’s going to be so much fun.
So have you had it in your head this whole time?
DJ: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually, while we’re doing this press tour, I’m busy writing the script right now.
That must be keeping your creative imagination going.
DJ: It’s fun. I’m very excited, it’s going to be great… I think [laughs].
Fun Trivia to Look For:
This is a little bit of arcane trivia, but Scott Bakula did the voice of Jake’s father. Was that an intentional nod to “Quantum Leap?”
DJ: Oh, massively, yeah. In fact, if you pay close attention to the dialogue, and we actually managed to slip in there him saying, “Oh, boy.” I think the fact that we got away with that is probably the thing I’m most proud of all in this film.
Does anybody pick up on that?
DJ: Some people do, some people don’t. It’s subtle, and like I said, the “Oh, boy” was the thing that I was not sure about, would we get away with that, but he did a few versions and I think we got it just right, that it just slips past most people.
Are there other little nods to other things, like maybe “Groundhog Day?”
DJ: No other films. That was the only show. There’s a little nod to “Moon” in the ringtone that Christina has. There’s a song that plays, and that’s the same song that Sam Bell’s alarm clock is in “Moon.” That’s it.
Check out Source Code in theaters April 1st (no fooling!)