When writer-director Duncan Jones visited town for SIFF recently, we didn't want to ask about his famous father, David Bowie, or how the song "Space Oddity" might bear upon Moon (review), which opens Friday at the Harvard Exit and Metro. With an accent that's not entirely British or American, educated in the U.S. and abroad, Jones resembles a friendly, scruffy grad student--as he once was at Vanderbilt University. Subsequent work in the U.K. film industry, generally in commercials (for "beer and ketsup"), honed his longstanding interest in sci-fi, he explained. Blade Runner remains his touchstone, but his influences extend back to Silent Running and other space movies of the pre-Star Wars era. Read our Q&A, which includes potential spoilers, after the jump....
Seattle Weekly: It's refreshing to see a sci-fi picture that's not space opera--cowboys and Indians in space. Was that an obstacle or a hindrance in getting the film made today? As opposed to 30 or 40 years ago?
Duncan Jones: Well it's funny that you say cowboys and Indians in space, because one of the films that was definitely [an influence] was Outlander, which was basically High Moon in space. But there was a certain periods in films in the late '70s and early '80s that I think maybe treated the subject matter a little more seriously. Dealt with the human being as opposed to the special effects and the whiz-bang of it all. As an independent film, that makes sense--for the sensibilities that I had, and also Sam Rockwell had. We wanted to focus on the guy as opposed to the craziness of it all.
SW: Is that difficult to achieve now, when people want space monsters and ray-guns?
Jones: At my budget, the subject matter wasn't a challenge. Because it was an independent film, I actually had the freedom on the subject matter. The nerves came in when producers were like, "Yeah that's great, but how're you going to do it for $5 million?" So it was almost the antithesis as far as what our problems were. We made a good case though: There were going to be special effects, and visually it was going to be engaging and keep the audience watching.
SW: Moon's prologue, about the environmental problems back on Earth, is a reminder of how the sci-fi and ecology movements overlapped in the '70s--Soylent Green and all that. And also the first fuel crisis.
Jones: It was very tongue-in-cheek that the villain company, the bad guy if you will, Lunar Industries, is a green energy company. I thought that was kind of a nice little dig there. Even companies with the best of intentions, if they're running for a profit, they're always going to find places to try and cut corners. And Sam [Rockwell]'s character was going to be one of those corners. The opening promotional [a fake advertisement] is very much based on those kinds of commercials that those big petroleum companies are making to try and prove that they use Earth friendly strategies. Chevron was definitely an inspiration.
SW: Is Sam Rockwell's character made more paranoid or mentally unstable by the solitary confinement within his lunar mining station? Like on a submarine?
Jones: We kind of went against that in some ways, because the base is quite light and airy. It's not an incredibly claustrophobic environment. Although it feels that way because, it's so empty. And I think that's almost what gives you the same vibe--these these big, wide-open rectangular spaces. And you have this one little guy all on his own in there. It creates a sense of loneliness, which is really what we wanted to achieve. And the fact that this space is on the far side of the moon. I think it adds to him just being out of touch. But it was really important, beyond the title, that it actually took place on the moon. Because I wanted it to be somewhere close enough that people could actually really relate to it. You can look up to the moon every night ... and you can imagine it what's going on up there. And even though we may have been there for the Apollo missions, people don't really know much about it. It is science fiction to me, looking at the moon, and imagining what it would be like to be there.
SW: Yet we know it from the moon landings on TV and NASA archives of the '60s, not long after all the sci-fi stories and movies on the subject.
Jones: Yeah, absolutely. But I think it's like a lot of fiction that was written when it was still difficult to travel around the world [in the 19th and early 20th centuries]. And you would hear stories about guys going out to India, or even just traveling across the United States, before it became so easy to do. That kind of idea of getting away, of going out into foreign climes--that's what the movie is in some ways.
SW: What else did you look at for sources? Not meaning other movies...
Jones: There was a particular book by Robert Zubrin called Entering Space. It was all about the practical ways that you could actually go about colonizing the solar system, doing it in a way that would be fiscally viable. And that's really what the key was in his book: No one's going to pay for this just out of the goodness of their hearts; the Cold War didn't exist anymore to make it happen. So how do you actually colonize the solar system? You do it because it becomes profitable. And step one is make fusion power work. Then you will need to go to the moon, because there is a really, really valuable resource there called Helium 3. So that was the hard science behind it, which gave me the inspiration for the structure of the film. How you go about mining it is also incorporated in the film. You'd concentrate the gasses into a liquid form, and then you'd send that back to Earth. It would be an incredibly valuable resource for the petroleum companies.
SW: What about the self-awareness on Sam's part that he's a clone? Does that come from Philip K. Dick or other reading of yours?
Jones: To be honest, it was a very, very personal approach. I had been to graduate school for three years in Nashville, Tennessee. And it's no coincidence that the three-year contract that [Sam] has was the same amount of time I spent at graduate school. It was quite a lonely place, and I wasn't happy to be there. When I was writing and talking to Sam about this story, and the long-distance relationship that he was going through, that whole kind of alienation and paranoia that you go through during long distance relationships, feeling out of touch with everything... you feel like being on the far side of the moon. So that kind of already fit in from a very personal level.
SW: We're seeing Sam at two stages of development as well...
Jones: I had a really hard time when I was growing up, as an adolescent, and even in my 20s trying to work out what it is I wanted to do with my life. I was quite an angry person, very frustrated. I went through that thing most people go through, where you ask yourself the question, "Well if I could go back now and talk to myself then..." I'd probably give myself a slap, or give myself a hug, and tell myself not to be so hard on myself. And that was kind of what Sam [Rockwell] and I had talked about: This same guy from two different periods in their life, both being forced to meet each other, made to realize what was actually good about themselves. So that was the root of the question: What would it be like if you met yourself in person?
SW: Is Moon somewhat a therapy movie in that regard?
Jones: Oh yeah, I think so. I think it's optimistic in some ways, because [both Sams] are kind of down on themselves. And it's not until they meet that... they realize what they're really like as people. They realize that they are good guys. Sam Bell is a good person, but he's just had issues that he needed to deal with, and he dealt with them. It took three years for Sam 1.0 and just a couple of days for Sam 2.0 to get to that point.
SW: What was the challenge of getting that duality out of one performer?
Jones: It was very complicated. Sam Rockwell is a phenomenal actor. He's hugely underrated, and I hope that changes. We had the chance, and it's unusual for an independent film, but we had the chance to do rehearsals for about a week in New York, with one of his acting buddies. We really worked through the script and broke it down, and tried out some improv on some things, and started talking about the character Sam and how we could differentiate between Sam 1.0 and Sam 2.0, these two different personalities. And the fact that one of them had had these three years of experience of living on his own, and what that had done to him.
When it came to the actual shoot, there were huge amounts of technical issue that needed to be addressed. We'd have different solutions depending on what the shot was. We were constantly working out with the post-production guys what the budget was, where I could afford to have these more expensive money shots, and basically trying to make sure that there was a development of shots over the course of the film, so that as the film unfolds, you actually see more and more spectacular affects, even though they play quite subtly. Most people hopefully are so sucked into the story at that point that they don't realize what they're seeing has actually never been done in a film before. That kind of two-shot with the physical interaction [between the same actor] is something we did that Spike Jones stayed away from in Adaptation and Cronenberg certainly stayed away from in Dead Ringers. It's something we're very proud of.
And I'm quite familiar with effects anyways. I come from commercials. But we were able to work out if I don't use the special effect now, will I be able to use that money for this shot later on? It was kind of bartering throughout the filmmaking process, which is unusual, very stressful.
SW: At the same time, there's the rather charming, old-school use of models--just like in the '70s and '80s. Which lend their own texture to the film.
Jones: Yes! Absolutely... paying homage to films of the past and the way they had done the effects. Its kind of interesting because the techniques, and the ability to do those effects, was really reaching a real zenith, a high point in practical effects [in '70s and '80s]. And then there was the introduction of the CG monsters, like the Jurassic Park movies, where all of a sudden this whole skill set just disappears. And you don't have that many guys who have the [practical effects] expertise they had reached at that point, but we had a couple of them. They don't get to do whole lot films anymore. For them it was like a return to their youth, so it was very exciting for them.
We had this creative hybrid where we would shoot as much in-camera as we possibly could, and then [the computer-effects team] would be able to beautify it, and clean it up, take out all the fishing lines, digitally extend the lunar landscapes, and just give it that extra bit of polish audiences really need now to feel convinced that they're seeing something that is a proper future film.
SW: Do you think filmgoers are a little tired of the expensive, perfectly burnished CG image? There's a lot of dust and detritus on your moon base.
Jones: It was supposed to look gritty and real, but ...it had to look like it was real and not a mistake. We designed and built it, but not in the way a traditional commercials director would--where everything looks so photographically perfect. But there are directors I think who are able to use special effects; Ridley Scott knows how to use special effects. Maybe some of the other guys who are making the summer blockbusters are not utilizing them to the best of what you can do with them.
SW: Do you think that, as in your film, corporations will be leading future expeditions into space? Instead of for purely national or scientific purposes?
Jones: Absolutely. I think those nations like China that have this strange hybrid of capitalism and government spending are going to have an advantage in some ways. If they decide that getting to the moon is important for their national energy needs, for their security, they'll make it happen. They'll put in the money that's necessary to do it. Whereas I think in the West we're ...going to have to find ways to make each incremental step to fiscally pay for itself or be profitable. And I think something like Virgin Galactic is a good first step. It's going to move things forward, to improve our ability to do that for a cheaper cost.
SW: Will you continue in the sci-fi genre?
Jones: I know that my next project, should I be fortunate enough to make it, is something that feels like it fits in the Blade Runner genre. Mainly because I'm such a huge fan of that film. I think Blade Runner was one of a kind. I don't think anyone has every captured the vividness of that world and believability of that world the way that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner.
SW: That was a big, costly film, of course. Is it possible to find a middle ground between the older, cheaper sci-films and the blockbusters of today?
Jones: We're moving in very small, independent steps to do smarter sci-fi. But at the same time, I enjoy big popcorn movies just as much as anyone. So I would hope there would maybe be a spectrum of science-fiction movies, and it won't be kind of limited to one sort of science fiction. I don't want to see a Transformers film every year; I hope that there are going to be other kinds of science fiction out there.