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Moon - Duncan Jones interview

Duncan Jones (right) directs Moon

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DUNCAN Jones, the son of music legend David Bowie, talks about his directorial debut Moon, the inspirations behind it, coping with a $5 million budget and why there’s nothing more annoying than a Chesney Hawkes alarm clock…

He also reveals his delight at being praised by the likes of Ridley Scott and Peter Hyams and why he’s seeking to pay homage to the visual style of Blade Runner with his next project.

Q. The success of Moon is kind of a testament to your dedication, perseverence and budget managing skills?
Duncan Jones: Yes! But I had a terrific producer that I used to work with on commercials and the two of us have always said we want to do feature films. So it was kind of a long-term plan that we’d eventually do a feature film together. And we took a bit of a plunge really, by saying: “Right, it’s now or never!” We’d made a little bit of money in commercials and we decided to put that into the film to begin with. We also had a very strategic plan about how we wanted to put the film together. I talked to Sam Rockwell about another film, which ended up not working out, but we got on very well. So, I knew that I wanted Sam to be in the film and so I built the feature film around Sam Rockwell and around this hypothetical budget [$5 million] that we thought we could probably raise. Everything kind of stemmed from that.

Q. Sam Rockwell is an amazing actor…
Duncan Jones: He is and in Moon in particular. So far, he’s won one acting award for Moon at the Seattle Film Festival but I’m really… I’ve got my fingers crossed that he might win a few more and maybe get some bigger ones. Or at least a nomination.

Q. A Bafta?
Duncan Jones: Yeah, a Bafta would be wonderful if we could get him that. What I really want is to find somewhere we can get a best actor and a best supporting actor for him. That would be pretty cool.

Q. You’re a huge fan of Alien
Duncan Jones: Well, Ridley Scott in general to be honest. He is the man!

Q. And you’ve worked with his brother, Tony. So have you ever had chance to meet Ridley?
Duncan Jones: I did. I met him once. I met him after he’d seen Moon actually. It was after the Bfi lifetime achievement award they gave him. I was there for that, and they brought me back to the VIP thing afterwards and he had seen Moon and he said: “Yeah, I thought it was alright.” And I was like: “Wow! That’s amazing!”

Q. Has Tony seen it?
Duncan Jones: Not yet. It’s funny actually, I was doing the promotion for Moon in LA at the same time that Tony Scott was there with [The Taking of] Pelham 123. But obviously he was so concentrating on his own film that he didn’t even know I was doing a feature film. I bumped into him at the same press junket and we had a little chat. He was like: “So, what are you doing here? It’s great seeing you again!” And I was like: “I’m doing my film… I’m doing a press junket.” And he looked back in surprise and asked if I’d done a film, and I had to tell him: “Yeah, we’re coming out on the same day.”

Q. So how was being able to shoot on the same sound stage as Alien at Shepperton?
Duncan Jones: It was amazing. In fact, while we were there doing Moon, Ridley was supposed to be next door shooting Nottingham. But because of the writers’ strike, their film folded and we kept going. But I love Shepperton anyway, it’s an amazing studio with so much history. We used Bill Pearson, a models miniature guy, who is actually based on the Shepperton lot. He worked on Alien and Outland as well, so it was a fantastic experience.

Q. Did he have loads of anecdotes for you? And did you pick his brain whenever you could?
Duncan Jones: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Bill Pearson is definitely a man to talk to, especially in the afternoon when he’s had a couple of drinks because he’s got so many stories and anecdotes.

Q. I guess it was a happy accident that you could utilise his skills because of the writers’ strike?
Duncan Jones: Absolutely. The writers’ strike was terrible for the film industry but really good for us [laughs] because we were already going ahead. We’d already built our sets and any of the re-writes that needed doing I was doing. So, we weren’t really restricted by the writers’ strike in any sense. But all of these crews were around and became available. So, we were able to pick people like Bill Pearson and Peter Talbot, who ended up being our cinematographer for the model miniature shoot. We had some great people who ended up working on the film.

Q. Some of the effects are amazing, especially on a £2.5 million budget. But one of the most amazing – and seamless – is Sam Rockwell playing ping pong with himself…
Duncan Jones: We used a ping pong game soundtrack. Sam Rockwell has a fantastic sense of rhythm, which helped us throughout the film, because an awful lot of his job would be… obviously he’d perform one side of the conversation and then he’d go on the other side, but having rehearsed and having an earwig, which would play the audio back of the last take, he would basically have to be able to predict when he would have a gap in order to do his performance in a back and forth conversation.

With the ping poing it was a similar thing. He’d have the soundtrack of a [mimics ping pong ball noise], so he’d hear the game and perform to that. The ball itself was obviously CG. But that was the real bugger… was getting the physics right on that ball. We went back and forth and back and forth to actually get that ball right. Getting the timing right of the movement of the ball was really, really tough.

Q. The themes of the film are actually really intimate for a sci-fi movie. But I’ve read that you feel that too many contemporary sci-fi blockbusters are more about spectacle now…
Duncan Jones: Do you think I’m wrong [laughs]? I think it’s true. I think they sell themselves a little bit short because there is actually so much you can do with science fiction. The beauty of science fiction is its open canvas. You can hypothesize about any element of the world. It doesn’t have to be laser battles and things exploding, you can be JG Ballad and maybe just change one little thing about the real world and that becomes science fiction.

So, there’s so many things you can do with it. I understand why it happens… the studios have said: “Right, special effects are what the audience wants. They cost a lot of money. We can’t tell particularly smart stories if we want to keep our audience big enough to pay for these big spectacle films that we want to do. So, we’ve got to dumb everything down.” And that’s what they’ve done. And as much as I appreciate the visual experience of going to a Transformers 2, it’s not the smartest film in the world, and that’s the sacrifice that they’ve made. I’m hoping there is a happy medium somewhere. For me, two of my favourite science fiction films are Blade Runner, which is fantastic, and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Both of those were smart science fiction films hitting more of a medium budget, and I desperately hope there is an audience for that kind of film because I would love that to be my next film, on that kind of scale.

Q. You’ve been talking about something in the style of Blade Runner
Duncan Jones: Yes, hopefully my next film will be this film called Mute, which takes place in a future Berlin. It’s very much a love letter to Blade Runner. It’s a very different story but trying to create a world that’s as believable and as vibrant as what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner.

Q. Do you think the success of Moon and the awards you’re starting to pick up will help with that?
Duncan Jones: I hope so. To be honest, the first and best thing it could help with is getting the actors that we want. The budget is not going to be huge – $15-$20 million, which is still tiny by sci-fi standards, but if we can get that kind of budget, it’ll require some fairly well-known actors to get that kind of investment. But hopefully, if Sam wins some awards, the audience comes to see Moon, and we get the critical acclaim that we’re getting, that will convince the actors that they’ll be in safe hands.

Sam Rockwell in Moon

Q. Going back to Moon‘s themes, they’re quite personal to you because aside from the science fiction aspect to it, there’s also a very low-key love affair going on for Sam’s character…
Duncan Jones: Absolutely and I’m glad you picked up on that because the audience for Moon has been broader than maybe Sony originally thought. Originally, everyone was thinking it’s hardcore sci-fi and will be this particular genre, niche audience. But because there is this romantic element, and a humourous element, and it’s a very human story, there is a much broader audience. And there is this romantic side to it as well, which comes out of both my own and Sam Rockwell’s experiences that we had with our respective girlfriends that we had long-distance relationships with. I think that idea of being far away from the people that you love is something that everyone can relate to.

Q. And there’s a sibling love, too. They’re not brothers. But they become like brothers…
Duncan Jones: Absolutely. They do become like brothers, you’re absolutely right.

Q. You also have fun toying with the conventions of sci-fi. I think everyone watches and waits for Gerty to go bad…
Duncan Jones: There’s all sorts of things that people expect to happen that hopefully we find ways to twist and subvert.

Q. I gather you had to work hard to get Kevin Spacey on board as the voice of Gerty?
Duncan Jones: It was a funny one. It wasn’t so much that it was hard, it was just that he was being very practical and very pragmatic. He read the script, he loved the script, he knew that Sam Rockwell was in it. He was a huge fan of Sam’s and wanted to work with him. But he knew what our budget was and was like: “I don’t know how you’re going to make it for that money, so why don’t you just go and make it first without me and then show me what you’ve made.” That’s totally understandable.

The thing about actors – and it’s one of the reasons why I’m forever going to be grateful to Sam – is their entire career is basically in the balance with whatever film they do next. They can completely crush their own careers by doing a bad film. Sam Rockwell basically… the whole film was going to rely on him. It was a huge challenge for him as an actor. He was going to be working with a first-time director. The danger that he put his career in by working with me on this film was huge and I’ll always be incredibly grateful to him. And I’ll be grateful to Kevin Spacey as well but he was obviously a lot smarter about it. He took a step back and waited until we delivered a copy of the rough cut to look at. But he was so blown away by Sam Rockwell’s performance that he said: “Yeah, absolutely, I’ll do it.”

Q. I’ve got to ask… Chesney Hawkes’ The One And Only on Sam’s alarm clock. Why?
Duncan Jones: [Laughs] Well, it’s this whole thing about having lived in different countries. For me, again, that was a natural little joke that I thought worked. It kind of works in America… it’s played twice. But the first time American audiences don’t really know what’s going on. They don’t get it and some of them get it the second time. But here in the UK the audience immediately reacts and they get the fact that: “What would be the most annoying thing in the world?” A Chesney Hawkes alarm clock! I think it worked really well.

Q. You weren’t tempted to put a David Bowie track in there?
Duncan Jones: I wasn’t. I’ve worked really hard to build up a career on my own. I turned 30 recently and it took me a long time to get the chance to make a feature film and do it on my own terms. So, to have got so far and then fall back to that on the last hurdle would have been a wrong move to make.

Q. A bit too cheesy….
Duncan Jones: A bit Chesney [laughs].

Q. We’ll probably see a career revival now for Chesney…
Duncan Jones: It was terrifying actually because we’d already put that into the cut of the film and then I think Big Brother was on and there was a whole Big Brother episode about Chesney Hawkes and we were like: “Oh no, they’re gonna think we stole this from Big Brother!” Fortunately, no one has made that connection.

Q. But I gather that David Bowie is very proud of the film…
Duncan Jones: He is, he is. He came out to Sundance in January, which is where we premiered the film, and was sitting there like any nervous dad worrying about how everyone was going to react to it. I think he lived through it with me a little bit. He was as stressed as I was, and as relieved as I was when it went down so well. And then he came out to Tribeca, which was much more recently, and we were both much more relaxed at that point because we knew that people liked it and we were able to just enjoy it, which was lovely.

Q. What’s been the most pleasing reaction you’ve had to it then? And how daunting was it taking the film to a special NASA screening?
Duncan Jones: To be honest, my favourite response so far was Peter Hyams, who directed Outland. Obviously, there’s a big homage to Outland in Moon. I obviously had Ridley Scott’s response, which was great. But Peter Hyams really loved Moon and was really enthusiastic about it. He was also enthusiastic about the fact we’d remembered Outland and had remembered it fondly. I think, for him, it was like some kind of edification that there were people out there who loved his film. So, that was a really lovely feeling.

Q. And NASA?
Duncan Jones: That was fantastic. It came completely out of the blue. I got an email from this professor at the NASA Space Center and I assumed it was just going to be a screening at the Space Center, as if we were doing something at the Science Museum. But it ended up being an audience of NASA employees – about 80% of the audience were NASA employees and there was an actual astronaut in the audience as well. We had an amazing Q&A afterwards, which was incredibly intimidating beforehand, but I’d swatted up and I knew what my answers were going to be. But it was a great Q&A and really enjoyable to do.

Read our review of Moon