Q&A with Moon director Duncan Jones

aaa rockwell in spacesuit.jpg
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Sam Rockwell in "Moon."

Moon, which opens on Friday, July 3, at the Mayan Theatre, is a low-budget science-fiction film that shoots for the stratosphere using ideas, not computer graphics and flashy effects. That it does so well with so little is a testament to the performance of Sam Rockwell, as an astronaut (or two) trying not to lose his marbles while working on an isolated mining station with no one to keep him company but GERTY, a robot programmed with the voice of Kevin Spacey. But it's also a tribute to first-time feature director Duncan Jones, whose father, rocker David Bowie, named him Zowie -- a moniker he chucked faster than you can say "Apple Paltrow-Martin." Jones' background may be in television commercials, but his film isn't slick or superficial, and neither is he, as he makes clear in the following Q&A.

The conversation begins with Jones talking with delight about his early sci-fi favorites -- and with less enthusiasm about thematic similarities between Moon and two of his father's projects, Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth and the Bowie song "A Space Oddity." From there, he talks about moving from helming spots for potato chips to shooting for Moon, which he wrote with Rockwell in mind; his decision to go old school and use miniatures for most of his lunar scenes; the differences between GERTY and HAL, the malevolent 'bot from 2001: A Space Odyssey; a trip to NASA, film in tow; the odds of Helium 3 mining on the moon actually becoming a reality; the risks involved in telling his tale at much more leisurely pace than that of the typical space opera; and a new project inspired by another director who got his start in commercials.

Beam him up, Mr. Scott.

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Sam Rockwell with Duncan Jones.

Westword (Michael Roberts): How old were you when you became a science-fiction fan?

Duncan Jones: As a youngster, we were one of the few families in the neighborhood I was living in where we had a U-matic tape player. It was kind of an old video player, and we had sort of a pirate copy of Star Wars. It was such old technology that we had the film on three tapes. That's what it took. So I was kind of cool at school. Kids used to come 'round my house and we used to watch Star Wars. So that's sort of my earliest science-fiction memory.

WW: And yet Moon is very different from Star Wars. Much more in the vein of more intellectual science-fiction. Did you pretty quickly move beyond the action and excitement of Star Wars to films that explored topics in a deeper kind of way?

DJ: Absolutely. As I got older, I started to see other films, and the films that more obviously influenced Moon were films like Outland and Silent Running and Blade Runner, of course, and Ridley Scott's original Alien. Those were kind of the films that I think are the things I feel quite nostalgic about and miss in this era of science-fiction films. I think you're right: Right now, the science-fiction films that get made tend to be more in the Star Wars-type vein. It's about the effects and the sort of archetypal heroes, and maybe less about how human beings are effected by technology in the future.

WW: One film you didn't mention, but that I have to ask about, is The Man Who Fell to Earth. How old were you when you saw that?

DJ: I don't know. It would have been a while after it had been made when I actually saw it. I tended to avoid anything with my dad in it when I was growing up. My parents divorced early and unusually, I was looked after by my dad - I was looked after by him. I guess it's one of those uncomfortable things to go and see your parents work, or be involved in whatever it is your parents do. So I kind of avoided. But I did eventually see it, and I guess it probably would have had some kind of impact on me. But to be honest, certainly nothing direct.

WW: The other thing related to your father that people might think about after seeing Moon is Major Tom, from the song "A Space Oddity." There are similar themes of isolation in space and communication with ground control, and telling his wife that he loves her...

DJ: I suppose I was influenced by the same things he was influenced by just because I was brought up in that environment. But again, I didn't listen to my father's music an awful lot. As a kid, I always felt uncomfortable around the things he was working on. So it wasn't really a reference point for me quite so much. I guess that just says a lot about the influences I was surrounded by - that I would come up with things that were similar.

WW: In recent years, you've been working on commercials. Is that right?

DJ: That's correct.

WW: What are some of the campaigns you've been a part of?

DJ: Well, everything's been pretty much U.K.-based. I did some Carling beer commercials, Heinz tomato ketchup, French Connection, McCain Oven Chips, which is like a potato/french-fry product. But always trying to find the opportunities to do visually interesting things. So a lot of my work was quite special-effects heavy.

WW: Were the companies open to letting you have some creative elbow room?

DJ: Not originally. Originally, I was the same as any other director. I was brought in to pitch on a particular job, and they knew very much what they wanted. And if they liked the approach that I had, they let me do it. But after directing commercials for a little while, I started to develop a relationship with the head of an advertising agency, a guy called Trevor Beattie. He left an agency in the U.K. called TBWA and went off to start his own agency, and asked if I wanted to join him and work as a creative with him for a while. I ended up doing that, and that was an opportunity where I actually got to write some commercials and direct them myself. Which was a much more creative and freeing opportunity.

WW: At the same time you were doing that, you were writing and developing scripts. Were they in a variety of genres, or did you tend to specialize?

DJ: They were definitely in a variety of genres. There was a sort of contemporary thriller. There were some historical things, and one or two little science-fiction projects I was working on as well.

WW: Making a low-budget film is challenging under any circumstances, but especially making a low-budget science-fiction film, considering how high the bar has been raised special-effects-wise...

DJ: Absolutely.

WW: Why did you decide to take on that challenge for your first feature?

DJ: The reason Moon got written in the first place is because I wanted to work with Sam Rockwell. Moon was written for Sam Rockwell; I'd had the chance to meet with him and discuss another project. It was a feature film I wanted him to be in, and I wanted him to play one role, and he was interested in another role. We'd met up in New York to try and convince each other, but we hadn't been able to, because we both had a very strong idea of what we wanted to do. But we'd gotten on very well and we started talking about the kind of films we liked. And that's when we started having this conversation about what had happened to science fiction, and why science-fiction films had moved away from the kinds of things we remembered loving when we were younger. Sam was telling me a little about the kinds of characters he'd loved from those films, and how they were seriously just blue-collar guys doing a job - and it was about how they were effected by these alien worlds and these alien environments. That's kind of where we kicked off for Moon. I said, "I really want you to be in my first feature film, and if you promise to read it, why don't I write something specifically for you - sort of incorporating these things and these ideas we both sort of miss in science fiction?"

WW: What you just described is a more character-driven form of science fiction, which I'm guessing made it more possible to do on a low-budget.

DJ: Absolutely. It helped focus things, and like you say, because it's about the people, it should make it less special-effects heavy. Obviously, I kind of screwed everything up, because I made it a very special-effects-heavy people film (laughs). But I think because of the style we wanted to go for, and because we were paying homage to these films from the late '70s and early '80s, we knew that we were going to try and use certain special effects that would give us the most bang for the buck. And if we could write a story that limited our exposure as far as the things we'd have to spend money on... We kept our cast small, we kept our crew in basically one location. We had two sound stages at Shepperton Studios and built two very unique sets - one for the interior of the Moon base and one for the exterior, of the lunar surface. And we basically kept the story limited and intimate and within these shooting parameters. That allowed us to really control where we were spending money.

WW: Was it simply a financial decision to do most of the effects using miniatures? Or was it also a benefit that the look you get with miniatures tends to recall some of the films you've mentioned as well?

DJ: It was a bit of both. We were aware of what the savings would be of shooting model miniatures, but at the same time, there are films from that era that were really pushing the boundaries of what could be done with physical effects and model miniatures, and some of that stuff just looks fantastic. It still looks great. No one would remake Alien, because it still looks beautiful. No one would remake Jim Cameron's Aliens, the sequel, and there's loads of model-miniature work that looks fantastic. So it was really trying to capitalize on what made those films so great, and recapturing the look of those films, but doing it in a more modern way. We do have post-production techniques available to us that they didn't have available to them. So we had much more of a hybrid look, where we would shoot as much as we could in camera, and then on top of that, we would beautify it and improve it using post-production techniques. Digitally set-extend the lunar surface and add lens flares and dirt and dust coming off the back of the rovers. There were things we could to make it look even better.

WW: Given your experiences, do you think the fact that miniatures are used so rarely these days may be due to trendiness, as opposed to the quality of the images?

DJ: I think it's due to the fact that we're beginning to lose a lot of the artisans and the people who can actually make that work. You can't just do model miniatures from scratch not knowing the way it used to be done. There was that generation of filmmakers who'd been working on practical special effects and model miniatures for decades to get to the point where they could do them the way they did. And we were very fortunate. We were able to work with some of those old-timers. We had Bill Pearson, who actually was one of the guys who built one of the original Nostromo models, for the original Alien. And he was available and worked on our film. And we had Peter Talbot, who's a model-miniature cinematographer who works on the James Bond films. These are all guys who have huge, huge amounts of experience, but who are basically the last bastion of these effects, which are starting to disappear. It's a real skill, a craft that we're starting to lose.

WW: And the people who would have gone into that particular specialty are now going into computer effects instead?

DJ: Absolutely. It's kind of interesting, because computer graphics are also pushing forward and trying to set new limits. But those practical-effects guys were doing the same thing, and I think they were maybe further ahead in their way of doing things than computer graphics is now. We're starting to reach a really interesting point in computer graphics now, where we're starting to get much more organic and more interesting-looking images. But we're still learning a lot, and I think with practical effects, that generation of filmmakers have established really amazing ways of doing things. They were able to pull off amazing tricks.

WW: One of the films that I suspect gets mentioned most by people who've seen Moon is 2001: A Space Odyssey. And probably a lot of that is due to the prominence of the robot, GERTY. But GERTY is no HAL...

DJ: Absolutely not.

WW: It struck me while watching that you seemed to be expecting that reaction, and you used people's expectations to make GERTY's behavior seem more surprising and unexpected. Am I on the right track?

DJ: Completely. That was the key to casting Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY. He brings his own baggage. People who go and see a film and know that Kevin Spacey's in it can't help but think about the films he's done in the past and whether he's going to be a good guy or a bad guy. He's got this beautiful, silky, syrupy voice, but there's still this hint of malevolence to it, so you don't really know where he's going as a character. And I thought that was perfect. You play upon people's expectations, like you say. People bring their own thoughts of HAL and other robots to Moon, and they immediately make assumptions up-front about GERTY and what part he's going to play. And hopefully we're able to surprise them.

WW: The film revolves around mining operations on the moon for Helium 3, and as I understand it, such projects are theoretically possible. Is that true?

DJ: Absolutely. It was very exciting. When we were finishing off the film, I got an e-mail from a professor at the NASA Space Center in Houston. He had heard about the film and heard about the Helium 3 mining element of the story. He asked if I'd be interested in doing a screening at the NASA Space Center, and I thought that would be fantastic. But I didn't realize until we got done there that he runs a lecture series for employees at NASA, and they were the ones who were coming to the screening. We did a screening of the film and then we did a Q&A afterwards, and the majority of the audience were people who worked at NASA and in the space industry. We even had astronaut Tom Jones in the audience. He came down and we had a chat about things afterwards. But the Q&A at that was fantastic. They started out asking me a few questions - asking me about the reasons I made the decisions I had for the way things worked and the way things looked. And then I started asking them questions about, "Did I get this right?" and "How would you do that?" And they were really open, and seemed to really enjoy the film, and liked the way that I'd portrayed how industry would work on the Moon - how Helium 3 mining would work on the Moon.

WW: What would it take to give industry a reason to seriously consider Helium 3 mining on the Moon?

DJ: There's a couple of things. First of all, we don't have cold fusion down yet. We don't really have fusion down yet at all. We need to have a need for the natural resource of Helium 3. It's a very rare element here on Earth. It's in fairly plentiful supply on the Moon, because the Sun deposits it on the lunar regolith. So there must be a need for that raw resource and the harvesting that's required of it. For decades, the word has been that we're ten to twenty years away from making fusion power work. If we can get that working, Helium 3 is this clean-burning fuel that all of a sudden would become this incredibly valuable resource. And the reason you get a sense that there's some validity to this is because there are many nations that have space programs, and they have specific programs dedicated to setting up Helium 3 mining.

WW: How important is it for you that the story has that level of reality? Or are these elements, including the cloning aspect of the story, more of a means to an end for you to explore this character, whose isolation only ends when he gets the opportunity to meet himself?

DJ: I needed a certain amount of scientific basis for the story just to make me feel comfortable, so when I'm trying to talk to Sam, or I'm trying to construct the story, that there is some kind of validity to it. There's this differentiation out there between soft science fiction and hard science fiction, and we're more in the hard-science-fiction camp. It's about taking potential scientific breakthroughs and extrapolating based on those. And that's the kind of science fiction I find more interesting. I think it's interesting to investigate possibilities as opposed to completely fictionalizing what the future might be.

WW: You talked about the blue-collar aspects of the characters in the movies you and Sam liked - and certainly the Sam of the movie is very much a guy just doing his job...

DJ: Absolutely.

WW: What was it about Sam Rockwell that made you think he'd be able to pull off a part in which he's either alone or interacting with himself for a huge chunk of the movie?

DJ: That was a big challenge. When we were working on it, and when he first read the script, I think he was a little bit intimidated by the responsibility that was going to be on his shoulders. But I knew he could do it, and I guess whenever I'd seen him in a film, there's so much pathos and so much honesty in him. Whenever I see him perform, he just steals scenes. Whether it was The Green Mile or Charlie's Angels or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or even Galaxy Quest: Whatever film he's in, he just tends to steal the scene. And there's always something interesting that he's doing. You never get bored of him. And I saw this. And although in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he had the opportunity to play a leading role, and he'd done it in the past as well, I just had the sense that there were things that he as a performer hadn't really been asked to do, and I wanted to give him that opportunity - to play a bit of a heroic archetype at times. And at times in the film, he gets the chance to play the hero. But at other times, we get the chance to see him in a very sensitive and emotional way dealing with himself. And when he's getting sicker. So there was a lot of variety there for him.

WW: I imagine that some actors given this role - these roles, I guess - would have gone over the top. But in the film, he's very subtle, very unfussy. Is that one of his biggest attributes? The confidence to do less rather than more?

DJ: That's an interesting question. I think that is there. The films he's been in before have not always asked him to do that. A lot of the time, they ask Sam to be more exuberant, more over-the-top, and be quirky. And the thing I wanted Sam to be comfortable with was, well, "You've got an entire film that's full of you (laughs). So you can really select the moments where you want to invest a scene with that slight quirkiness, or bring the humor into it. But there's a whole film here, and we can take our time with it, and be a little more subtle, and really build something more interesting. And not feel you have to grab every scene." And I think it really worked.

WW: Is that something he naturally gravitated toward? Or after the first take, did you find yourself saying, "Okay, that's fine, but you can actually pull back a little"?

DJ: We were very fortunate: We had an opportunity to do a week of rehearsals in New York before we shot the film. And a lot of the improvs and things that Sam really wanted to play around with, and to get a sense of who the two Sams were and play around with their characters - we were able to work it out during that week of rehearsals. And at that point, that's when Sam was really challenging me, asking really important questions to him about "Who is this guy? And where does he come from? And why is he like this? Why is he so angry?" And it was really my job at that point to be there for Sam and give him all the background he needed to be able to understand who the characters were.

WW: The pace of the narrative is very deliberate - very unlike the must-have-an-explosion-every-couple-of-minutes approach of something like Wolverine. Is there any fear on your part that today's viewers are too impatient to let the film unfold?

DJ: There probably was a worry about that earlier on. But since then, we've had the chance to screen the film at a number of different places, at a number of different festivals, and to a number of different types of audiences. We were at Sundance, which is a fairly film-literate audience, which is quite quiet and reserved in some ways, but they really enjoyed the film and got into it. And then we went to South By Southwest, which is all these young, excited students, and they were all really into it. And then we've done screenings for long-lead press, and we've had reactions from Popular Mechanics right through to Vanity Fair. And everyone seems to find something in the film to like. So I'm feeling a lot more confident now. And I think the reason is, even though it's science fiction, and even though we've got all the visuals to keep people engaged, it is fundamentally a very human story, and it's about this question of what would it be like if you met yourself in person? And that's something anyone can understand.

WW: Do you think too many filmmakers today are selling audiences short? Thinking they've got such short attention spans that they won't be able to handle something that requires them to actually pay attention for an hour or two?

DJ: I think what was unique about Moon is, because I was involved in writing it, I felt a real confidence in the story we were trying to tell. So I didn't feel the need to pull the wool over anyone's eyes or dazzle them with effects because I wasn't confident in the script. I wouldn't be surprised that a lot of that special-effects-heavy work or dazzle that a lot of directors find themselves getting into is because of a lack of confidence in the script or the story they're trying to tell. One of the things I've discovered, having made Moon, is that I'm getting an opportunity to read a lot of scripts. A lot of scripts that are sort of backed by studios, so you get a chance to see what's on the horizon, what kinds of films are getting made. And what's shocking is the lack of originality a lot of the time, and just how few risks people are willing to take on scripts. So I think some of the times directors feel it's their job to sort of jab the audience awake if they're telling the same story for the sixtieth time in a row.

WW: So what's next on your agenda? Are you open to possibilities? Or do you have something specific that you're planning to do?

DJ: A bit of both. I am open to possibilities, and because of all the scripts I'm reading, you do find gems every once in a while. So there are a couple of things I'm excited about. But there's also a project that I generated with a writer I used to work with in the past that I'd very much like to do. It's another science-fiction film, but it's kind of the flip-side of the coin. If Moon is about alienation and isolation, and it's quite a quiet movie, then the other one I want to do is kind of my homage to Blade Runner [also directed by Ridley Scott]. So it's a big, busy city film - a thriller, and it's a very different take.

WW: Does it have a title?

DJ: It does. Well, it has a working title. It's called Mute. So I'm going to do only films that start with "M" and are four-letters long (laughs).


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