Some filmmakers plug away beneath Hollywood's radar for years before they get their shot at crossover success; Duncan Jones did it with one movie.
The English science fiction lover—who just happens to be the son of rock 'n' roll giant David Bowie—took the genre community by storm in the summer of 2009 with the independently made Moon, a psychological drama set on the titular satellite. Both directed and co-written by Jones, Moon starred Sam Rockwell as a man assigned to spend three years alone on the moon to oversee helium harvesting machines. Shot on a reported budget of a measly $5 million, the slow-burning mind scrambler wowed critics with its stunning visuals and complex narrative structure. Jones had officially arrived.
Off the strength of Moon, Jones quickly found his second feature film project: Source Code, which hits screens this weekend. With a larger budget, a bigger star (Jake Gyllenhaal), and a wide theatrical release, Jones’ latest is his first time playing in the big leagues.
Gyllenhaal plays a military captain taking part in a radical government program that supplants a person into the body of another; in his case, Gyllenhaal goes back in time to become a passenger on a doomed train. His mission is to figure out the bomber’s identity before he or she strikes again.
Rapidly paced and full of glossy special effects and trippy sequences, Source Code is thinking man’s sci-fi action thriller, as well as proof that Jones is ready to compete with the studs of the business. The highly in-demand auteur checked in with Complex to break down Source Code, explain why he thinks Jake Gyllenhaal should be Hollywood’s next go-to action hero, and how he nearly had the chance to give Clark Kent a Watchmen-like makeover.
Complex: After the success of Moon, were there a lot of offers on the table?
Duncan Jones: Well, it was interesting. There were a few offers, but the overlap was strange. We did Moon, and we were struggling to get the film released theatrically, and then we did and were so relieved by that.
Then it was a long process for the film to make its money back, since it was such a small independent release. That was something my producer and I were really concerned about for a long time.
And then I started to meet actors who’d seen Moon; these were film people that I’ve been a huge admirer of, and Jake [Gyllenhaal] was one of those people. Jake had loved Moon, and he was already attached to this project called Source Code, so he said that he wanted me to direct it and read the script to see what I thought, and I snatched it.
I thought this was a great opportunity; I love Jake, I think he’s a terrific actor, and I wanted to develop a working relationship with him so hopefully he’ll come and work on one of my films in the future. I got on board that way.
After that, we won the BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television and Arts] award [for Moon], and all of these other awards. So any opportunity I may have had off the back of Moon, I kind of didn’t really get the opportunity to take advantage of it because I was already head-long into working on Source Code, which ended up pretty well. I liked the script, and I saw a lot of scripts for other films, but I was already concentrating on Source Code.
Were all of the scripts you saw science fiction? Hollywood loves to pigeonhole filmmakers.
Duncan Jones: Well, you’d be surprised. It started off that way, absolutely. When Moon first came out and started doing well, that was all I was getting, and then off the back of the BAFTA—obviously, if you win an award like that, you start getting put on a level where all of a sudden other options become available. I was being given a much wider variety of different scripts to look at, so that was very exciting.
That happened a third time, more recently, when I was on the Superman shortlist. After that, all of a sudden there was a whole bunch of stuff that came in, like big sequels and things like that, which were probably not right for me, but it makes you feel good. [Laughs.] All of a sudden you’re up there with the big boys and you’re being offered the projects that directors I admire are all looking at.
Were you totally gunning for the Superman project?
Duncan Jones: It wasn’t up to me. I think Chris Nolan and Warner Bros. put together a shortlist of about six or seven directors, and I was on there.
I had my meeting with Chris Nolan. It was a really exciting opportunity. It was terrific for me just to have a chance to meet Chris Nolan and talk about filmmaking. He asked me a lot of questions about Moon and about Source Code. Then we talked just in general about things, but I think Zack Snyder is going to make a terrific Superman film.
It all worked out, though. [Laughs.] It probably worked against me, but my pitch for a Superman film would be to take the Dr. Manhattan character from Watchmen—which I think is the best encompassing version of what Superman should be, this incredible sort of alien presence with superhuman powers who is so over-powerful compared to the rest of humanity that he doesn’t understand how to relate to people. And I thought that’s what Superman should be, but they got Zack Snyder in there and he already knows how to do that. [Laughs.]
Superman is a property that really needs a convincing leading actor, which can also be said for Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal has to carry the movie—what made you think he’d be able to pull a film like this off?
Duncan Jones: Most of the time when you see Jake, he’s kind of doing the big doe-eyed, “Everything’s amazing” look, or a thing where he seems overwhelmed. What I love about Jake is that there’s so much more to him.
I think what we did in Source Code is really capture this sense of him as a guy in charge, a leading man who actually knows what he wants and is going after it. And that’s not something you see from the roles that Jake has taken in the past, so I like seeing that side of him. It’s more like a Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones kind of thing. There’s a wink and a humor to it, but he’s definitely a leading man. I truly believe that this is the kind of role that Jake really can shine in.
One of the things I dug about the movie is that, even though the content is pretty cerebral and complicated, it’s still really accessible. It’s easier to digest than most films of its type. How important was it for you to make sure it doesn’t go over people’s heads?
Duncan Jones: Absolutely, that was important. Moon was a project that was specifically designed to be what it was, and Source Code, when I read the script, took itself very seriously at first. It was much more serious than the film we ended up making; I sort of wanted to lighten the tone and try and make it more accessible—that’s the right word.
We wanted the audience to be able to enjoy the thriller aspect, and not beat them over the head with the science fiction elements. This is a contemporary thriller that has a few science fiction elements that are necessary to set up the story, but it’s all about Jake and Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga, and then the action that ties it all together.
With both Moon and Source Code, you’ve made films that pretty much take place all in one central location. That seems like it’d be difficult to pull off—does it just come easy to you, though?
Duncan Jones: It’s one of those things where Hollywood sees you one way and that’s what they give you. And, in a sense, Source Code is kind of like that. They’d seen that I managed to shoot this film where Sam Rockwell was on his own in this one environment for the entire film and they liked how I dealt with that puzzle.
We sort of did that again on Source Code, but I think we found a way to keep it always changing and visually stimulating over the course of the film. There’s only a limited number of locations in the film, but there’s always something new to see, something to keep the audience engaged and excited, wondering where they’re gonna be next, and that’s a product of the story, I think. Jake’s character is constantly discovering new things.
We didn't want to beat people over the head with the science fiction.
Duncan Jones: I think that was always the balance of it, to make sure that there was enough of a mystery there to keep the audience going, but then use that as a hook and then get them engaged with the characters and with the fun and action of it all. The film has a very fast pace; I think it keeps things moving all the time. For this kind of film, that was the right way to do it.
How was it working with a bigger budget this time?
Duncan Jones: I wish it felt that way, but it really didn’t. We shot Source Code in almost the same number of days as we did Moon. It was about 32 days of shooting. It was a compressed shooting schedule because we had to fit into Jake’s availability. He’d just finished Prince Of Persia, and he had to go off and do all of the press for that, so there was no way of sort of moving that shooting schedule around; it was locked. We had to shoot in that pocket of time.
That really compressed things, and meant that we had to get on with it and make things work. Normally when you’re making a film, when you feel you need more time, there is leeway there and you can let things slip, but in this sense that was very much concrete. So it felt as restrictive as Moon did in a lot of ways, even though the budget was bigger.
You’ve said recently that your next project is something in the Blade Runner realm. Are you just naturally attracted to science fiction movies?
Duncan Jones: I’m very much open to doing everything, but, for where my head’s at right now, there are a couple of science fiction projects that I’ve had for a while and I would love to just get them out there into the world. I think that they would make really cool films.
Moon was my chance to get a feature made, and I made that with Sam [Rockwell] and that gave me my opportunity. And Source Code has been the film that hopefully has proven to people in Hollywood that I know how to make a film that has a decent audience size and will have a good reaction. And now hopefully I’ll be able to do a bigger film that comes from my own idea.
This next one is the one that I’ve been really, really wanting to do since day one. I’ve been waiting to make this film for such a long time. After I make this next one, I’m probably going to have a real think and take a step back and say, “What do I want to do next?” And maybe try a different genre. But it’s definitely a science fiction film, and I’m very excited about it.