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Interview with Duncan Jones, director of "Source Code"

It's the elephant in the room when you're talking to Duncan Jones: this guy is Zowie Bowie -- Ziggy Stardust's son! It's uncool to bring it up, but how can you not at least mention it?

Very easily, as it turns out, because the affable, self-proclaimed geek has accomplished enough on his own to make his pedigree a mere footnote. A couple of years ago his chilling, brain-twisting "Moon" (2009) joined the canon of the greatest cult sci fi movies. Now he's promoting "Source Code,"  a higher budgeted, more mainstream thriller about a guy who wakes up on a train and discovers he's in someone else's body and has just a few minutes to save the world. Over and over again. 


Like "Moon," it will leave you scratching your head. Nice guy that he is, Jones patiently provides answers to the dumbest questions about what's going on in the movie. Too bad they're all spoilers.

Q: At your Q&A last night - did you have any MIT students asking questions?

A: Yes, yes we did. There was one guy who said he was a physicist, he was very generous with his appreciation of what we had done. I tried to make it clear, when I read the script for the first time, I know that Ben Ripley who wrote the script had an earlier draft that had a lot more explanation and exposition in there about how the source code might work, and then he himself and the producers had kind of pulled a lot of it out. When I got involved, I pulled out the last few vestiges and I think we were left with the bare rules that we wanted the audience to understand, and then ask them to take a little bit of a leap of faith.

Q: I just started a book, "The Hidden Reality," is that kind of what the  movie's concept is based on?

A: I'm not sure, I can't speak for Ben. I know that his wife and father are both scientists and he did do as much research as he could and I must admit, at the DGA in Los Angeles right now, they're bringing scientists in and doing this great panel discussion, I think once a month they come in and explain what the state of the art is in various disciplines of science. I have been surprised by what the actual cutting edge is scientifically and what is possible. There was an amazing scientist who was there doing retinal work where they've actual been able to put a 60 pixel grid in the retina of blind patients, completely blind patients, which now allows them to literally see a 60 grid image of what's in front of them, which allows them to read. If they get their eyes close enough, they can make out letters. That's one aspect of the future. There was another scientist there who was involved in corporating during the pupal phase of bugs, hard wiring and physical wiring that would allow them to remote control this bug when it finally sort of metamorphosed and come out of its pupil. Using an iPhone, they could actually fly him around the room, you know, for department of defense reasons.

Q: That's very sadistic.

A: It is. But it makes you realize that the cutting edge of science, I think in some ways, because science is moving so fast, exponentially fast what's being developed, science fiction is almost playing catch up some of the time.

Q: So it's a two-edged sword. There's benefits and then the dark side of science, like in "Moon."


A: Absolutely. I think "Moon" was in some ways a little bit more philosophical about the implications of the technology. I think there are some discussed in "Source Code," but I think in some ways we are as interested in the entertainment value of the conceit of the situation.

Q: I'm not a big gamer, but it is sort of the ultimate gamer's dream, isn't it?

A: Yeah, having multiple opportunities to fulfill the mission objective. There is a little homage to that in the film as well. There's a scene where Jake jumps off the train, which is a straight riff on the computer game "Grand Theft Auto" where the same thing happens and the camera never cuts away. As your driving along at high speed, you can jump out of a car and go rolling down the street.

Q: I was surprised that you hadn't written or introduced the story because it seems to be similar to the themes to Moon, the nature of identity and so forth. Is this something that's a concern or interest of yours in your film making?

A: I think the nature of identity is something I find fascinating. The fact that the person that we think we are is so different from what other people see us as. But I have to admit when I was reading the script for "Source Code," I was mainly drawn to the differences from "Moon." Because the script was passed on to me by Jake, I think it's more likely that Jake and the producers he was working with at the time, they were probably the ones that saw the similarities and how "Moon" and "Source Code" were kind of a similar ilk. So I think that's maybe why they thought of me when they gave me the script. I was immediately reading it and thinking of all the opportunities to do something different when I read it. You know, subconsciously I think those similar themes must've been affecting me because obviously I think I must be drawn to that kind of material.

Q: So you don't consciously say...

A: I really didn't. I saw the opportunity to do a fast paced, energetic thriller with a mystery, with a few science fiction ideas, a bit of romance, working with Jake Gyllenhaal, some big explosions (laughs) and then my own sensibilities I think came into it as well.

Q: The video game aspect is interesting to me because you get both, two kinds of computer relationships, an avatar with an adventure with a girlfriend, and a relationship with another woman, which is sort of like social network, Facebook, Twitter kind of thing.

A: Yeah.

Q: Is that something ...

A: That's my life (laughs). I'm a pretty hardcore gamer. It's come up only once or twice before, but I think it's very much true. I think there is a generation of filmmakers now who don't feel embarrassed to use the computer games and the games industry as a cultural reference, you know, it's a touchstone for us. Some of them are more obvious, if you look at Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim," he has a very, very good sense of what the game's industry's history has been and he draws from that. I think younger filmmakers, that's part of the culture that we've grown up in. We have a familiarity with it and we draw from it and I certainly felt comfortable doing that in this film.

Q: There was an alternative ending I heard?

SPOILERS!

A: There was. We tried out a couple of things when we were cutting the film. We tried out another ending. I would call it the producer's ending. It was sort of [spoiler!] a romantic happy ending where Colter Stevens and Christina, Jake and Michelle's characters sort of walk off romantically into the sunset. But there was this hanging thread of logic that really frustrated me. I felt it was far more important to address that and leave the film with a, you know, you've had your happy ending, you've got that, that's in the bank, you can take that home. But, there was this thread, which was what are the implications of [spoiler!] Colter Stevens going into a parallel reality and stopping the train blowing up? What happens in that reality? In that reality[spoiler!] there was [a Colter Stevens who was at the facility where Goodwin works who has not been sent a mission] because a train didn't blow up.

Q: Spoilers.

A: Massive spoilers, I'm sorry.

Q: It's like a minefield, I don't know how you can really discuss it.

A: It really is.

Q: Do you feel concerned that too much of it is going to be given away?

A: I kind of resign myself to it a little bit, I mean when we first started cutting trailers, well, when trailers first started being cut, I was obviously concerned, but I'd been through a very similar thing with Moon where I felt too much information was being given away, and I was wrong. By the time that film came out, funny enough, a weird thing happens. People see the trailers, then they go and see the film, and they kind of forget what they know, and they just get into the movie. There's always going to be a segment of the audience who's trying to second guess things and they will be aware of things from the trailers. But there's also a vast majority of people who watch a trailer, go and see a movie, and forget everything they've seen in the trailer.

Q: Did you find any other compromises that you had to make, going from a small budget independent film to ...

A: I went into this with my eyes open. I hadn't written the script, so immediately I felt like I was approaching this from a different mind set. I wanted to bring my sensibilities to it and try and inject it with what I thought it needed, which was a lighter tone, inject it with some humor. Obviously, I was always going to try and give my interpretation on things. I think on the whole I was able to do a lot of the things I wanted to. The biggest constraint against me wasn't really any sort of decision making, it was time. We were limited on time. We had obviously, Jake is in most of the film, 80, 90 percent of the film and he had just finished "Prince of Persia," and had to disappear to do the press for Prince of Persia worldwide, so that window of opportunity to work with him was non-negotiable. We couldn't slip, and we weren't going to get more time with him. So that really kind of restrained us to fitting the film within that time frame. We knew it ahead of time, so we had planned for it, but that imposed restrictions.

Q: When did he do the film with Anne Hathaway?

A: "Love and Other Drugs?" I believe, shooting wise, I don't know, I think it would've been afterwards, but I'm not sure about that.

Q: It took a while post-production to put it together?

A: Yeah, there was over 800 special effect shots, so it was a lot of visual effects. The edit was fairly quick, but it had to be quick because the visual effects were going to take so long. I had an amazing editor, obviously Paul Hirsch and the two of us had a fairly tight time frame as far as editing. There was so many special effects that had to be put into the film and those had to be worked on and we had to know what they were going to be within a few frames so that the cost didn't get exponentially too expensive.

Q: You kind of have a Hitchcockian retro rear projection thing with the train going on.

A: There's a few Hitchcock kind of vibes to the film I think. Even from the opening title, "Source Code" comes up in this nice graphic line that splits off at an angle, you know, is kind of our start. When I was reading the script, it did, other than the science fiction conceit, it did feel like a fairly classic thriller in that respect.

Q: "Stranger on a Train," but the stranger and the hero are the same person it turns out.

A: Yeah, all that cool stuff.

Q: "Moon" is probably more political in its subtext, but this one seems to brush on some important issues. As is the case in "Moon," it's the dehumanization of an individual. In this case the military is responsible, in that case corporate interest.

A: Yeah.

Q: Am I reading too much into it?

A: I think it's there. I would say even though it's brought up, I don't feel, well it's hard to say. I could still make a case for Rutledge's side of things. I totally get his, you know, there are situations where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of one, or the desires of one. Colter Stevens is a military man, he's been asked to perform this mission, and by doing it, he's saving the lives of tens of thousands of Chicago residents and I think that's Rutledge's thinking on this event.

Q: Why didn't they tell him in the first place? There wouldn't be a movie I guess.

A: I think the problem would be, the feeling would be the less he knows, the more likely he is to concentrate specifically on the mission and not worry about his own predicament. The more he learns about himself, the more he's going to focus on his own predicament and the mission that they have such a short time to resolve is going to go out the window.

Q: I thought that the Rutledge character was an allusion to "Dr. Strangelove,"  with his cane and so forth, but I guess that was because Jeffrey Wright had a bad ankle.

A: (laughs) He did. We were a little bit concerned that it wouldn't be repaired in time and he would have to  have the cane or have a limp to begin with and it would disappear over the course of the shoot. So rather than take that risk, we just went with it.

Q: You're the second film director I've interviewed in the past week who majored in philosophy, the other was Thomas McCarthy, who did "Win Win."  

A: I was, yeah. Two and a half years in philosophy at Vanderbilt in Nashville Tennessee. The specific was applying ethics to potentially sentient machines. So I was very sci-fi to begin with. It was very applicable to "Moon." There was a lot of stuff I was sort of playing around with, with Gerty [the computer in "Moon"].

Q: You never got the degree?

A: I didn't. Two and a half years was enough for me. I just really couldn't justify why I was there. I really enjoyed studying philosophy as an undergraduate, thought I might enjoy studying it as a graduate, but didn't have any grand plans as to what to do with a graduate degree in philosophy. The longer I stayed in graduate school, the more clear it was to me that there wasn't really a reason to be there and I was wasting precious time.

Q: I think the purpose of graduate school is to avoid confronting life.

A: I think so.

Q: You went from there and decided to get into film?

A: Yes.

Q: How easy a path was that?

A: Well, I had always had an interest in film and it was kind of a passion which I had taken a detour away from to go through academia. There is a wonderful film school in London, which is where I'm from, called the London Film School, which is just off Covent Garden right in the middle of the city. It's a two year program, quite short, very intense; you get to work in all the different departments. You don't go there wanting to be a director, you go there for two years and you work on a ton of short films and you do every job under the sun. You really get a rounded experience of what it is to make a film.

Q: So you've been a gaffer?

A: I've been a gaffer, I've been a lighting man for someone else's film, I've been an operator, sound recorder, every thing.

Q Studio head?

A. No.

Q: And then commercials?

A: I did commercials for a few years. I left film school, ended up working at a computer games company where I was a games cinematic director, which was a new job title at the time. I was also doing something called assistant designing, which is where you sort of light the backgrounds in mission objectives, so I got to work there for a while. The money I was making there, I was investing in short films and music videos, built up my show reel doing that and then eventually worked in low budget, medium budget and high budget commercials, ended up at an advertising agency working as a creative, where I wrote commercials and directed them, and after about a couple of years of that, I took a leap into doing my first feature film.

Q: A lot of directors go that way, British directors especially, Ridley Scott for one.

A: Yes. Absolutely. Well Tony Scott was the one who suggested that plan of action to me. I had the chance to work with him briefly up in Montreal, just after graduate school for three weeks on a TV show he was doing called "The Hunger." Between takes, he would spend time with me, he explained how he got into film and how he started out in advertising and that's sort of what triggered my desire and need to leave graduate school and go to film school.

Q: Must've been interesting to watch your old man do his stuff on the screen. [David Bowie was in the Tony Scott 1983 film "The Hunger"]


A: Yeah, well "The Hunger" that I worked on was actually the TV version that was many years later, but my father was on it.

Q: You were pretty young then I guess, it was 1980 something.

A: Yes. I wasn't ready for a career just yet. I was born in '71.

Q:  You're now working on a science fiction trilogy that includes "Moon?"

A: What I would like to do is three science fiction films that take place in the same universe. But they will not be continuations of one story. The idea was to have characters or events reflected in all three films so they would be able to tie together, even though they are all three independent stories.

Q: Kind of like a sci-fi Kieslowski "Three Colors Trilogy."

A. Right

Q: The second movie in that trilogy is "Mute?"

A: Yes, it's "Mute," which is Berlin based. That film has been very, very difficult to find a way to get made. So in the short term, what we're going to do is release it as a graphic novel. It worked for Darren Aronofsky when he did "The Fountain." http://portland.thephoenix.com/movies/28149-fountain/ We're going to do two things I think. It will allow me to get a gauge if it's as good as I think it is, I'll be able to sort of show it to an audience who read graphic novels. Then hopefully, if it is as good as I think it is, we'll able to use it to convince financers that we have a really strong visual story and that they shouldn't be so scared of it, it'll actually work very well.

Q:  There have been a couple of articles about  directors who like you were popular at South by Southwest and are hot properties. had been very popular, like Zack Snyder,  profiled by the "New York Times," and Guillermo del Toro profiled by the "New Yorker." Do you feel like you too could be a geek icon?

A: I don't know. I love South by Southwest, I have a great time down there. The first film I did, it was just a wonderful experience to go with no expectations and have an audience really react so well to it. It was scary sort of going down to South by Southwest with "Source Code" because there was a lot of fans in that audience who really loved "Moon."

Q: Weren't they dressed up?

A: Yeah, there were a few Sam Bells [the hero of "Moon"] in the audience. It was nerve racking, but fortunately they seemed to have gone with it. They seemed to appreciate that it is a very different film, but they enjoyed it. I feel very good about it. I'm a real internet junkie, and I did so much promotion on my own for Moon on Twitter and websites that we created ourselves that I did start to create a bit of a community of people I'd always talk to and hear from and interact with. I think that's, again, fairly a new thing, certainly for marketing and press people to have to deal with.

Q: What are you working on now other than "Mute?"

A: So "Mute" is going to be a graphic novel. I'm actually writing right now what I hope is going to be my third film. It will be science fiction; I'm very excited about it. I'm afraid I can't say anything more than the fact that it's...

Q: Oh come on. You can trust me.

A: (laughs) It will sate my appetite for making a *"Blade Runner" feel film, so it will be future city-based.


Q: Not a prequel to "Blade Runner?"

A: It's got nothing to do with "Blade Runner" other than the fact that I love "Blade Runner and I want to do a film in a future city.

Q: Not "Superman" either. You were offered "Superman?"

A: I was on the shortlist for that. I got the chance to meet with Chris Nolan and talk shop, which was very cool. I believe he's one of the producers for it.

Q: I think his best movie is "Following."  Did you ever see that?

A: I didn't, was that his first first? Before "Memento?"

Q: Before "Memento." Very low budget.

A: Yeah, that was his first, then "Memento," "Insomnia" after that.

Q: I fear that too much money is corrupting. Has Hollywood corrupted you yet?

A: Certainly not. I haven't had the chance to be corrupted.

Q: Have you corrupted Hollywood yet?

A: (laughs) I don't think so. But I do have a grand plan and I would love to get into the position of guys like Tarantino and the Coen brothers who are writing their own material and then have a good enough budget to do it the way they want to do it. That's where I'd like to get myself.

Q: You actually sat down and wrote down a life?

A: I didn't write it down, but my producer and I, Stuart Fenegan  who worked in commercials with me before we did "Moon," we did have a long term plan of trying to find a way, in fact Chris Nolan came up early on, we were talking about how he went from "Memento" to "Insomnia" and that put him into the position to do a film like "Batman." I think the world has changed since Chris Nolan had that path. I think there are actually more options now for a director in my position than there were for him. "Moon" was an opportunity to create a small independent film, like a calling card. "Source Code" was the opportunity to show I could work on a bigger budget, with bigger stars and in the Hollywood system. We were looking at what Chris Nolan did and trying to do something similar ourselves.

Q: So $150 million budget, you think you could handle it?

A: I think I could handle it. I don't think I'm going to be doing that next. But that's what I'm talking about, I have opportunities that I think he may not have had. You do get these cycles where the power goes through the stars to the studios to the directors. I'm feeling maybe it's starting to come back to the directors. I think it is, I really do. If you look at Neil Blomkamp [director of "District 9" ], look at some of these young guys who are coming up with their own material and their own projects and they're getting paid and they're doing well. I think if you look at "Inception,"  all the high end and things like that, I think directors  are in a good place right now.

Q: There also seems to be a trend of inward journey kind of films. You mentioned "Inception," go back to "Avatar,"  now "Sucker Punch..."

A: Yeah, we'll see how that does. I'm fascinated to see that. I think Zack Snyder has got an amazing eye. It's overwhelming when you see the trailers and the posters. I don't know what to expect. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Q: He's doing Superman now.

A: Yes, that's correct.

Q: Sounds like a rivalry.

A: I don't think I'm on that level yet.

Q: We still don't know what the next project is. Is it the comedy version of "Peeping Tom" (1960)  with Simon Pegg?

A: No it's not (laughs) we joked about that on Twitter. I don't think at the time it was considered that funny. I've come to know Simon Pegg, but only online, I've never met him in person. We have a fun camaraderie online and at South by Southwest I was hoping to meet up with him, we just missed meeting each other. We were talking a little bit about how it be fun to work together, and I thought, "You know what be great is if we redid "Peeping Tom." You would be great in that." We had some fun talking about that.

Q: Were you serious about that?  As if the original  wasn't  funny enough.

A: I don't know, it's interesting. It's a great film.

Q: Ruined his career though. So anybody can get you on Twitter?

A: Oh yeah, absolutely. Man Made Moon.

Q: I overheard you're putting this on a blog?

A: Yeah, we've been writing a blog. I can't remember the address, but whenever there is a new blog item, I mention it on the Twitter. That's the best way to find me and all the crazy stuff that's going on.

Q: All the snarky comments about the dumb journalists.

A: (laughs) I'm very well behaved.

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