Interview: Duncan Jones Talks Everything from ‘Source Code’ to ‘Superman’

In 2009 a minimalistic sci-fi film called Moon found widespread critical success. It was, however, only released in 252 theaters and only garnered $5 million at the domestic box-office. This meant that while those that kept up-to-date on the latest movies on movie websites such as this one may now be familiar with writer-director Duncan Jones, the majority of America was left in the dark.

Jones is now stepping into the light with his latest feature set to be released by the house that Twilight built. With Source Code, Jones directs a script by first time feature film screenwriter Ben Ripley, telling a story of a government experiment able to send a person into another man’s identity for only a few brief minutes. In this case that person is Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and he’s inhabiting the body of a train passenger only minutes before the train is engulfed in flames due to a terrorist bomb. His job, to find the bomber and relay the information to his superiors in hope of catching the bomber before they strike next. After all, the event Stevens is witnessing has already happened. The train has exploded and time is running short.

Two weeks ago Jones was in the middle of his press tour and stopped over in Seattle for interviews. He and I sat down for nearly 30 minutes to discuss the nature of Source Code, the myriad of films and filmmakers that influenced it, his upcoming work, passing on the latest Judge Dredd adaptation and his meeting with Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) as he was one of the directors on the shortlist to direct the upcoming Superman reboot before the job went to Zack Snyder (300). Names like Hitchcock, Tarantino and Gilliam all came up during our conversation, which I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.

You’re quite active on Twitter. When the poster for the film was released you wrote, “For those asking… No… Source Code does not take place in an exploding Kinkos.” Did you catch any grief from Summit for that?

Duncan Jones (DJ): You know, I have a sense of humor and sometimes it gets me into trouble.

The South by Southwest poster had to make you a little happier.

DJ: Oh, the Olly Moss one I think is beautiful. I really love it. He’s great. I’ve admired his stuff for such a long time, I was actually the one who introduced Summit to him and said, “You guys should really get Olly to do something.”

Working with a studio on this film must have been much different than going the independent route you traveled with “Moon.”

DJ: One of the reasons to [work with a studio] was to experience what it’s like to make a film in the Hollywood system. A major difference, obviously, is I didn’t write the script. I’m working with other people’s material, and in a sense it was interesting — that experience — because I can be a lot more objective about what it was we had and what worked and what didn’t work.

But it sounded like the script for “Source Code” was a little bit of a collaborative effort based on some of the things I’ve read.

DJ: It was written. But I think the director’s job — even if you’re a director for hire — you still have to interpret words on a page and make it a film. There’s always going to be a transition between those two mediums. So a lot of things I suggested were going to be different than the ways they had been originally interpreted. Obviously, I come in, I have my own interpretation, a lot of that’s going to be different from what they were expecting and that’s just the nature of filmmaking.

There’s a lot going on in “Source Code” that had me thinking back to older films and filmmakers that may have influenced you. To me it seems obvious what some of your film influences may be. “Moon,” for example, is extraordinarily Kubrickian to me.

DJ: Well, to a certain extent, I think for that film he was someone whose films — well 2001 was an influence as was Outland as was Ridley Scott’s Alien and Silent Running. All of those films were sort of part of that world. I would not pick out 2001 any more than those others. I think, visually, Moon probably owes more to the first half of Alien and Outland than it does to 2001. The character of Gerty is obviously a straight rip-and-riff on HAL.

I actually saw a little bit of HAL in “Source Code” with the close up shot of the camera eye.

DJ: It seeps out, that would be a subconscious thing. Maybe after a few more films you’ll be able to say definitively.

There were other things, such as the pod Jake is in and a lot of his interaction in there gave me a distinct “12 Monkeys” vibe straight down to some of the production design. And I’d say on some level the two films closely mirror one another.

DJ: I think that’s a fair assessment. I love 12 Monkeys, I think it’s probably Terry Gilliam’s best film and the pod itself is an environment where I could certainly see similarities, but we had some very different ideas on what that pod was supposed to be and how it’s supposed to work.

Is the score at the beginning a conscious Hitchcock reference?

DJ: Absolutely.

Source Code is the second film this year to really give off some Hitchcock vibes. It’s great to see new directors bring a bit of the old into the new. Were all the Hitchcock references a conscious effort?

DJ: It was. We talked to all of the departments about how, in one way or another, we can make some references there. So obviously the way that [Jake’s] dressed, in his slightly old fashioned teacher’s jacket and tie, that was the wardrobe department. On the production design we had the clock tower at the station we stop at and the other clock on the station platform so we had that shot of the two clocks. And then, obviously, the score, which is the other main component.

So this is now your second sci-fi film and from what I understand you have more on the horizon.

DJ: I’m going to do one more sci-fi film. This next film will be sci-fi and that will be it for a while. I’m going to take a sabbatical from it. There are other genres that I’m very — I got hugely excited and jealous when Tarantino did Inglourious Basterds. The idea of a guys on a mission, World War II movie. I was such a big Dirty DozenWhere Eagles DareA Bridge Too Far — all those kinds of movies I loved. So I would love to take a shot at one of those. A Western obviously, everyone has to do a Western once in their life. I’d love to do a Western.

So what kind of career trajectory are you looking at then?

DJ: I don’t know. I know it seems like it’s not a natural comparison, but I’m a huge fan of what Tarantino does, and I’m not comparing myself to him in any way. But I would love to write my own material — the Coen brothers, guys that put together their own projects, they do it at a really reasonable budget and are able to deliver beyond people’s expectations.

Speaking of trajectory, you were on the shortlist for the new Superman movie. Did you ever take meetings on that?

DJ: Yeah, with Chris Nolan. That was pretty scary.

Oh yeah?

DJ: Well I’d met him once before, socially, I think it was after he’d done The Prestige. I was there at the after party and I was like [*cracks his voice*], “Oh it’s very nice to meet you.” [laughing] But this was the first time I’d met him on a professional level and [he’s a] very, very lovely man. Very smart guy. Didn’t talk about Superman once.

We talked about what was it like doing Moon? What was it like doing Source Code? And then he told me what it was like doing Memento and what it was like doing Insomnia, and about that move from small independent film to kind of a bigger one. After that I got the idea, like Oh, okay, I kind of see how this meeting is. [He was] kind of feeling me out as far as where I am in my career and whether I’m ready for it.

And, you know, I think Zack Snyder is going to make something visually spectacular and with Chris Nolan really hands on there, and his keeping the script where it needs to be, I’m sure it’ll be fantastic.

Had you drawn those comparisons between your career and his before then?

DJ: Oh yeah! Absolutely! I’ve been strategic in that respect. Trying to find a way to get myself into a position where, like him, he’s now in a place where he can make big budget films based on his own material. That would be a dream to get myself into that place.

He went from “Memento,” to “Insomnia” to “Batman Begins” after that. Are you hoping your third film will be on the “Batman Begins” scale?

DJ: I tried to mirror myself, career wise, on his first two films. Third film I think — You know, Superman was kind of a “Hail Mary” a little bit. It was like If that happens, I’ll go for it.

You would have taken “Superman”?

DJ: I think I would have taken Superman. I didn’t get to read the script, so obviously it would have all been depending on the script, but I had faith. Obviously it’s Chris Nolan who’s involved. He thinks the script’s good. I’ve got to read it, but I feel it’s worth reading. I didn’t get that opportunity so obviously they had made some decisions at that stage which were right for them. I don’t think there are many other projects like that I would jump into.

Also the big difference are times are very different from when Chris Nolan made the first Batman film to where they are now.

Because of him.

DJ: Because of him, absolutely. In fact, you’re absolutely right, because of him there are opportunities for directors in my position, which he didn’t have. I have the opportunity to make a film, which I’ve written at much bigger budget than I probably would have when he was making that decision. So I have some options he didn’t have, which may change what I do compared to what he did.

I read one film you passed on was “Judge Dredd“, which is a film I honestly look at as rather silly.

DJ: It’s a tricky one. I understand that perspective over here, but in the UK the comic book that Judge Dredd is based on is fantastic. “2000 A.D.” is more than “Heavy Metal” over here, it was formative in my appreciation of sci-fi. There are some amazing characters that came out of it. The problem is that they don’t have an audience beyond the UK. Over here it’s a very select group who’ve even heard of “2000 A.D.”

On a purely story-telling level I could do a Judge Dredd film — I know I could have — that no one could have ever seen coming. They had a great script. It was in the ball park of what one might expect from a Judge Dredd film. I know that had I been able to do something completely independently no one would have expected it.

Are you a big comic book guy?

DJ: Some comics.

Do you have a favorite? Like if you were to say, “This would be my comic book film,” what would it be?

DJ: I’m utterly realistic about the fact that it’s just not big enough to be made. There are a few British ones, “Rogue Trooper” — they all sort of come out of this “2000 A.D.” collection and they’re great characters and great worlds, but I don’t know if you could make a comic book film out of a character no one has even heard of. And I think for the American audience no one is ever going to have heard of the peripheral “2000 A.D.” characters, so that’s not realistic.

“Mute”, which at one time was going to be your next project, has run into some problems. Is it a problem getting across what kind of film it actually is?

DJ: Mute is almost free of a science fiction conceit. Mute is a dark, dirty thriller that just happens to take place in the future and one of the biggest problems we’ve been having with it — well there’s been two — a lot of people don’t understand that you can make a science fiction film that doesn’t rely on some big science fiction idea. The other problem is we need a leading actor that’s going to be able to get us the money to make the film, but out lead in Mute doesn’t talk, he’s mute, he doesn’t say a word and that asks for a huge act of bravery from any star who’s big enough to get us the money. We’re asking a lot of them to say “and you’re not going to talk.” That’s been the trouble.

I’m excited about the potential of making it into a graphic novel where people can really see it. Both the people who are interested in seeing it who’ve known about Mute for a while and those people hopefully we can pitch to in the future and say, “Look, this is really it, this is what the film could be.” And show that it really reads well as a story beyond just the script. I know the script is good. I’m very confident in that.

I’ve read “Mute” exists in a “Blade Runner” world and based on other interviews with you it sounds like you have a “Blade Runner”-esque film in mind.

DJ: Yeah.

You’re scripting this I’m assuming.

DJ: Yes.

How far along are you?

DJ: Well, I’ve had to take a big meaty pause in order to do the press and build-up for Source Code, but the outline is done and I’ve started working on the script and feel confident we have the financing to get the film made.

I’m very optimistic the idea I have for this next sci-fi film is different from what everyone else is doing right now, and I’m also very confident it’s going to get made. I’m feeling good about it.

Jones and I discussed more about Source Code throughout the interview, but a lot of it I had to cut in order to make sure not to spoil the film. I have, however, edited those portions of the conversation together and posted them on the second page of this interview. My suggestion is to see the film first as reading this will certainly spoil pieces of the film better left found out while watching, but I didn’t want to not include them since I found the conversation to be particularly interesting as well as revealed a little more about Jones and his filmmaking process.


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