It’s taken Duncan Jones 38 years to finally step out from underneath his dad’s shadow, but he’s stepped very much into David Bowie’s world with the lonely astronaut drama Moon. “I should have spotted the connection,” he tells Paul Byrne
One of the few awkward moments Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones experienced with his father growing up was when the latter sat the former down to listen to his new album.
It made for an hour Duncan Jones today refers to as “massively embarrassing”. Finally, though, he can return the favour. By getting David Bowie to sit down and watch his son’s debut feature, Moon.
“I was excruciatingly nervous,” says Jones, “but the thing is, my father is a far kinder man than I am, so, when he saw the film, he would have loved it, no matter what it was.”
Thankfully, Moon is a damn fine slice of sci-fi drama, Sam Rockwell playing the lonely astronaut who’s just two weeks away from the end of his 3-year manning mission onboard a Helium-3 mining station situated on, yep, the moon. Unsurprisingly, our boy is starting to go ever so slightly bonkers. And, before you can say ‘Hang On To Yourself’, he finds he’s not alone after all.
For Jones, the success of the movie, first on the festival circuit, and, more recently, at the American box-office, means his first step into feature film making – at the tender age of 38 – means it won’t be his last. Already scripted, Mute, another sci-fi thriller, should be going before the cameras before the end of the year, and Jones recently committed to direction an adaptation of Alex Kershaw’s novel, Escape From The Deep: The Epic Story Of A Legendary Submarine And Her Courageous Crew. Which is about a submarine. And its courageous crew. I think.
PAUL BYRNE: You’ve referenced a lot of movies that inspired Moon, such as Outland, Silent Runnings,Solaris, 2001, the Criterion Edition of Dead Ringers – was it difficult to make this movie your own, to bring something new to the sci-fi genre?
DUNCAN JONES: Well, I don’t know if maybe I was just naive, but just because there was there so much personal stuff that I wanted to put in the film anyway, I didn’t worry too much, because I thought there would be enough of that to offset any of the films that we were trying to pay homage to as well. The whole idea of long-distance relationships, and being away from people you loved, was something that was coming out of very much personal experiences, rather than being a reflection of other films. And also the whole idea of a person meeting a different version, or a younger version, of themselves was something of a thought experiment that I had always been wondering about, because I knew that I had been so different as a younger man than I am now. So, just the idea of meeting yourself was something I thought would be a really interesting thing to make a film about.
Sam Rockwell, your leading man, spoke of how sometimes the stress of making such a technically complex little move – a $5m shoot, over just 33 days – kicked in, and he’d say to you, “This is crazy! Will this work?”. Was there a time when you knew this was going to work, that this jigsaw was all going to fit together?
There was lots and lots of little victories, but the actual shoot itself was very stressful. There were compromises, and for me as a director, my job was almost to battle my way through the various compromises that we were having to make on a daily basis. You know, five million dollars for a science-fiction film is not a lot, and, as Sam was saying, thirty-three days is a pittance as far as the amount of time that we would be needing for such a technically challenging shoot.
Sam is playing multiple parts, we had fight scenes, we had loads of special effects, we had a combination of modern miniature and CG, and all of these other things that we’ve got in the film, and it’s incredibly ambitious, but there were these small victories every once in a while, and after the first week of shooting, I know Sam was incredibly nervous about how it was all going to work and come together, and we had this amazing visual effects supervisor on board, called Simon Stanley-Clamp, who’s famous throughout the effects world because he’s the guy who brought Oliver Reed back to life in Gladiator. And he basically was on set with this little laptop, and he was able to do a mock-up of the footage that we’d shot to show Sam what the final footage would look like, when Sam was talking to himself. And I think as soon as Sam physically got to see what the finished film would look like, there was a huge, palpable sense of relief on set, because all of a sudden, he just freed himself up, and loosened up. And he wasn’t having to worry about the technical side of things. He knew it worked, and he’d actually seen it work in front of him, and from that point, he was just looser, and more willing to just enjoy himself, and actually get into it. And that was a real victory point for us.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and many filmmakers are thankful, in hindsight, for being forced to use their imagination. Nonetheless, was there a part of you wishing that Jerry Bruckheimer was on board?
At this stage, it’s difficult. I think I’m still a little too close to the actual production of the film to feel totally happy with the budget we had. I would have loved to have had, not millions more pounds, but just a little bit more time. Like, three or four more days would have made a huge difference to me. Just to get a couple of extra shots here. Give Sam the opportunity to do a few more takes there. Those things would have made a real difference, but I’m very proud of the film we achieved with the time and money we had.
The ping-pong scene is almost like a drum solo when it comes to the special effects…
Absolutely. That’s a perfect analogy…
Feel the need to flex a little muscle, impress the girls?
I think it was important that, throughout the film, we always tried to have a little moment, here and there. Some of them were so subtle, but so technically challenging, that the audience probably didn’t even realise what we were doing. But there were shots like that throughout the film. One of the technically most ambitious ones was just a regular two-shot, where you see Sam talking to Sam, and actually physically interacting – he gives him a high-five. And those kinds of shots, if the audience is engaged in the story, they’re not paying attention to the fact that, technically, that’s incredibly difficult. That was probably our most difficult shot in the film, but it’s the one that slips past a lot of people.
Of course, when technical wizardy is done well, it doesn’t stick out.
Like so many stories set far out in the galaxy, this is more about inner space than outer space. How much of Sam Bell’s experience should we believe?
Does it matter, Paul?
No, I guess it doesn’t.
I think there’s a certain amount of room there for the audience to both make their own assumptions and also to imagine, and make a decision themselves. How much is real, and how much is in his head? I can tell you what I think, but I don’t want to take away from what other people might take away from the film.
One of the main inspirations here, you’ve said, is the notion of meeting yourself. You seem like a pretty content guy these days, so, I’m guessing that meeting yourself wouldn’t be too harsh an experience. Given how much of your life was spent living under the radar, are you happy to present yourself to the world now?
I was definitely a very, very different man when I was younger than I am now, and I’m glad you sort of think that I’m content now, because I do feel content. Certainly on the professional side of my life. I feel very comfortable that I found the career that I was looking for. If there is such a thing as a career that you’re meant to do, I feel as though I’ve found it. And I think the person that I was when I was in my late twenties was very angry, very frustrated, and very lost. And I think the me now meeting the me then, it would have been like Sam 1 and Sam 2 meeting at the start of the film. They were very, very different people, and one of them was very angry, and one of them is a lot more relaxed about things. So, I don’t think the younger me would have necessarily liked the me now, but I know that I would love to be able to put my arm around my own shoulder and say, ‘You know what – just relax a bit. Everything’s going to be okay’.
Now that you are in the public eye, are you bracing yourself for a change in your social life, in the attention paid as you stumble out of a bar?
I’ve seen how my dad dealt with it, and I’ve seen how other people in my situation have dealt with it, and I think I’ve learnt certain lessons. I think there’s a certain honesty that really helps. If you’re a good person, and you’re honest about yourself, and who you are, and what you’re doing, there’s not really an awful lot that people can attack you for. I am who I am, I work hard. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, and people will either like it or they won’t like it. Hopefully, they’ll like what I do, because I try hard, and I think I’m pretty good at it.
Met up with a fellow journalist recently, the firm-buttocked Chris Tilly, and he was still getting over the fact that he’d known you for some years and wasn’t aware of who your dad was until only recently. Has that secret life been difficult – did you feel like Clark Kent? Biting your tongue when someone starting ripping on mid-’80s Bowie?
Well, you know, what can you do [laughs]? I turned 38 years old recently, and if I had been wielding my name around like a club, I could have made my first feature in my mid-20s, but I would have been a poorer man for it, and I think the film would have suffered as well. I wouldn’t have been the person that I am now. So, I’m more than happy to have lost those ten years to a life of human experience than just jumping the queue.
I read that you had an early dream of becoming a professional wrestler – what went wrong?
[Laughs] That’s not true.
I thought that sounded a little freaky. Your dad is quoted as saying that you had great “natural strength”.
That’s on Wikipedia, right? I have a nasty suspicion that someone’s playing a bit of a prank on me.
You have the look. And I’m sure you could borrow some of your dad’s old glam costumes, go out there on the Mexican circuit. You’d fit right in…
[Laughs] I might give it a shot. If the directing thing doesn’t work out, I might give it a shot.
Aladdin Pain. The sci-fi bug seems to have bitten pretty early on – your College of Wooster, Ohio study thesis was called How To Kill Your Computer Friend: An Investigation Of The Mind/Body Problem And How It Relates To The Hypothetical Creation Of A Thinking Machine. Your next movie, Mute, is also a sci-fi thriller, and there are murmurs about a Moon sequel?
No, I don’t think I would ever do a Moon sequel, but Mute is another science fiction film, and it will take place within the same apparent timeline. The same universe as Moon, but a completely separate story. And I have talked to Sam Rockwell about maybe coming back and doing a little cameo in that film, so, you’ll get a little idea of… Well, you’ll get a little bit more of Sam in the next film, but it will be a totally different story.
Taking Tony Scott’s early advice, you’ve built up a strong reputation in the commercials world, progressing to a half-hour short, Whistle, in 2002, before finally venturing into features with Moon. That idea that, after all these years of avoiding any reference to your dad, you then go and make a movie about a guy marooned in space. Where the planet earth is blue. And there’s nothing he can do…
I can’t account for my own ignorance on that point. I made Moon not even reflecting on or thinking about the fact that it was similar to the work that my dad had done.
You know your dad is from Mars, right? He didn’t tell you?
[Laughs] It just didn’t occur to me. I was so wrapped up in my own ideas, and what the story should be, and what I wanted to do with Sam, and loving science fiction films from the late ’70s and ’80s – you know, that’s what I was thinking about. And it wasn’t until the film was finished that people mentioned, ‘You know, this is kinda similar to the things your dad was doing when he was younger’. And I was like, ‘Ah, you idiot! What were you thinking?!’. But, what can you do? As I said, I am the man I am, and I was brought up surrounded by the things that he was interested in, because I was brought up by my dad. So, it’s not surprising that, subconsciously, there’s a little bit of cross-pollination going on there.
So, eventually, you’re going to make a film about a cheeky gnome, who just keeps going around laughing at everyone…
[Laughs] Absolutely. If I ever do work with my dad, it’ll be on the cheeky gnome film.
Your French Connection spot for ad guru Trevor Beattie was pretty much a frame-by-frame remake of the video you’d done for The Groove Cutters’ take on Go West’s We Close Our Eyes – were you being cheeky? Or did you just want your fine idea of having two well-dressed women beat the crap out of each other in a basement to reach a bigger audience?
Ah, you know, that’s not really my responsibility. I made a very low-budget music video, which I paid a lot of money to do, for the Groove Cutters guys, and then, years later, Trevor Beattie was obviously aware of it, and had seen it, and he was already doing an advertising campaign that involved fighting women, and he said, ‘Perfect! I want something like that!’. So, we made something like that [laughs].
You must have known that a certain amount of shit was going to hit the fan, the band being none too happy about the, eh, homage. Did you just put your head down?
Yeah, well, as I said, I was new to advertising at the time, and I was employed to do a job, so, I just got on with doing the job.
With Moon getting such a great critical response, do you feel satisfied with it, or are you more concerned now about the box-office?
Well, you know, it’s interesting. Obviously, the film came out first in America, and it seems to be doing quite well out there, so, that gave me a little bit of a sense of confidence about things. I think if the film hadn’t come out anywhere yet, and we were still waiting to see if people were going to pay to go see it, I would be very nervous right now, but because we know already that there’s an audience for the film, I’m just optimistic for the film, and enthusiastic to see how it does in the UK and in Ireland. Hopefully, there’ll be an equally interested audience over here as there was there.
Do you love the film? Or do you need time to judge it?
I think so. Even though I can see all the faults in it, and I know what we could have done better, at the same time, I would find it very difficult to know how we could have improved it, with the time and money we had. For that sake alone, I give it a certain amount of grudging respect. I know we did an awful lot of good with a very small amount of resources.