Duncan Jones Unscrambles the Source Code

Source Code driected by Duncan JonesGround Control to Duncan Jones

Ground Control to Duncan Jones…

Duncan Jones, the son of rock icon David Bowie, is obsessed with science fiction. In a good way.

With a background in making commercials. Jones, 39, made his 2009 directing debut with Moon, an attention-getting indie for which he also fashioned the story. Sam Rockwell was nearly the only actor in the entire film, playing an energy miner who experiences psychological problems as he nears the end of a three-year stint on the moon. Kevin Spacey supplied the unnerving voice of a mobile computer named Gertie who sports more than a passing resemblance to the Hal 9000 of 2001 fame.

The critical reception for the crafty, intelligent, low-budget Moon got Jones—aka Zowie Bowie—the assignment of directing Source Code, a crafty, intelligent $25 million Hollywood production. And once again, science fiction plays an important role in the story.

In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a man waking up on a Chicago commuter train to find a beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting next to him and another name on the ID in his wallet. A huge blast occurs, incinerating the train and waking Gyllenhall in an enclosed cabin that resembles a fighter plane. He soon learns that he’s a veteran being of the war in Afghanistan used by the U.S. government in a cutting edge scientific experiment to halt terrorism. And in order to complete the mission, he must once again return to the train and in eight minutes ollect enough information and stop the bomb from going off.

It’s a heady premise, even without all the particulars laid out, but one that Jones proves up the task. It’s taut, exciting, witty and well directed.

MovieFanFare recently sat down with the bearded Mr. Jones to discuss his burgeoning filmmaking career and, not surprisingly, found him sharp, articulate and, well, geared to science fiction. Obviously the interest in the genre runs in the family with father David appearing in the classic The Man Who Fell to Earth and recording the song Space Oddity.

MovieFanFare: You worked on the story and script for Moon, but someone else (Ben Ripley) wrote the screenplay for Source Code. Were adjustments necessary on your part?

Duncan Jones: I didn’t work closely with the screenwriter. He was working with the production company for a long time and a number of other writers had worked with it, including Billy Ray (Breach). It was different than working on my own material because you can look at it objectively and say what works and what doesn’t work.  When I read it, I felt it took itself very  seriously and I felt it was important to lighten the tone of the film, inject some humor in it and get the rules set as early as possible so the audience will know what the premise is and ask them to take a leap of faith on the logic and enjoy the ride. Rather than take it too seriously and basically have to spend huge amounts of time on explanation and exposition which really doesn’t matter when it’s really about the characters and what’s happening to Calter Stevens (Gylenhaal), our main protagonist.

MFF: How did you get involved with Source Code?

Source Code starring Michelle MonaghanDJ: I am a huge fan of Jake’s. I think he’s a terrific actor. I always thought he was great even if the project didn’t fit him like a glove. He’s an incredibly brave actor if you look at his choices in the past. And I’ve always thought he’s been a tremendously empathetic actor. Audiences immediately  get behind him and bond with him and I thought this was an opportunity to work with him. I thought the script was good. There were things I wanted to change about it and things I liked about it. I saw the differences with Moon and Jake introduced me to the script. He saw the similarities with Moon and this script and he brought it to me.  I thought there were so many challenges with this film—there’s a puzzle to solve, so many balls to juggle. There’s a romance to it. There’s a thriller, a mystery. There’s action scenes, there’s special effects, there’s a sci fi conceit. It has some obvious some under the radar references to other science fiction and tv shows like Quantum Leap and other things. I thought I could have some fun with it.

MFF: What was the biggest challenge to making Source Code since the budget was quite a bit larger this time compared to Moon?

DJ: On Moon, myself, my producer and Sam Rockwell were able to make decisions and changes on the fly, even wholesale changes on scenes even while we were shooting because it was a small enough budget and we were kind of in control of it. on a bigger project like this, you are working with millions of dollars of someone else’s money, and it’s somebody else’s script and they’ve been working on it for a long time even, before I became involved. I have my approach to it and hopefully I can convince everyone involved that my approach is the right one. It’s like driving a speed boat and captaining an oil tanker. You have to make small movies and its going to take time before you can get anything through. That was really the challenge of Source Code– making the producers and the people who controlled the money comfortable with the changes I needed to make and that I was able to convince them and steer them fast enough so that it would have an impact on the production. So that was the big difference between the two.

MFF: While you use special effects sparingly in this film in important dramatic scenes, what is your stance on using them in general? Particularly after the relatively quiet film Moon?

DJ: I do believe in special effects when it is an essential part of the story telling. I don’t think it matters what the scale of them is as long as they are there to do that job. I think you can go to films like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and (see that) all the effects did the job of engaging you and bringing you into the story that’s being told. I’m not trying to compare us to those films but that’s how I approach it. You can get huge with them in the right circumstances.

MFF: Do you see both Moon and Source Code as science fiction films?

DJ: Moon is closer to a hardcore sci-fi film if you split it to hard and soft sci fi which is Source Code, At least the technology and idea of the science fiction conceit is the grey area between the two. Time travel to me is one of the ideas where I understand it can be the internal logic that’s being set up, but I didn’t understand where we get from the technology we have today to actually having access to that (time travel). So it’s not purely soft sci fi or hard sci fi either. With hard sci-fi you can at least see the world we’re into can incrementally build to the point of this future sci fi idea. Time travel and parallel realities is kind of in that grey area in between. That’s one of the reason to lighten the tone (in Source Code), Inject some humor and, rather than trying to beat the audience over the head with explanations, ask them to take the leap of logic. This is the idea, please come along with us and enjoy the entertainment of it.

MFF: What movies influenced you when you were younger?

DJ: As a kid I enjoyed good adventure movies. Good romps like Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and Jimmy Cagney movies…Angels with Dirty Faces. I was later introduced to all sorts fo films beyond science fiction. All the David Lean films like Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India. Then, as I grew up, all the Ridley Scott films, Blade Runner and Alien. I have quite eclectic tastes.

MFF: While watching Source Code, audiences may think of Alfred Hitchcock and, because much of it takes place on a train, North By Northwest or Strangers on a Train.

DJ: I was not a Hitchcock fan until I was older. I was introduced to them by a girlfriend. I was surprised at the sense of humor in them all. That was one of the things…having read the Source Code script, the Hitchcock connection made sense.  It’s a  classic thriller in some ways—an average guy who finds himself in a unusual circumstance with a mysterious dame sitting across from him. It felt like there was an opportunity there. Where we could, we tried to have little elements that reflected that tradition.

MFF: Cam you tell us about the next project you will be working on? Will you stick to science fiction?

DJ: I;m going to do another science fiction film, something I’ve written myself, but closer to the hardcore side again. It’s something I’ve aspired to do with a science fiction film, but didn’t have the budget to do on Moon. Hopefully, after this (Source Code), I will be able to do it next. Then I will take a break from the genre and there are some other films I want to do.

MFF: One last question. We’re sure you are asked this on a daily basis: What’s it like being the son of David Bowie?

DJ (laughing): That’s not fair?