Only an elite few group of filmmakers get offered a chance to meet with Christoper Nolan to discuss potentially directing the new "Superman" film he's producing, let alone first time filmmakers, but that's exactly what happened to Duncan Jones. Though he bowed out of the running on his own volition and Zack Snyder got the gig, it's a rather huge testament to Jones' unique filmmaking aesthetic that he was even allowed in the front door. But after Jones' low-key sci-fi debut "Moon" hit at Sundance 2008, the British director (and son of David Bowie), became an instant auteur and a cause celebre for the geek crowd who felt his melancholy and textured lunar-based drama did not receive the mainstream push that it deserved.
The acclaim from "Moon" launched Jones into the stratosphere and while he tried to get his "Blade Runner"-ish sci-fi follow-up "Mute" off the ground, all the buzz in the world couldn't help find financiers to take the risk of featuring a leading actor that doesn't talk in their movie (though Jones is confident that with the right actor, one day, the project will happen). Jones had been talking to Jake Gyllenhaal about the part when the actor thought of Jones to direct "Source Code," a trippy, time-jumping sci-fi picture written by Ben Ripley and one that had been featured high on the 2008 Black List. Jones jumped on, an excellent cast of Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright signed on and the rest as they say is history. "Source Code" stars Gyllenhaal as a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he's part of a top secret military mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. We already talked to Jones and writer Ben Ripley at SXSW, and recently spoke to the director again by phone in Los Angeles. The affable and thoughtful filmmaker discussed coming onboard a project he hadn't written, finding his own way into the story to make it his own, the challenges of mounting a much bigger film with many logistical constraints and much more. Candid to boot, Jones admitted that "Source Code" is also a bit of an early career stepping stone. While "Superman" was offered and people are already asking him about filling Darren Aronofsky's shoes for "The Wolverine" (thanks, but no thanks), Jones' heart lies in his original writer/director works.
You didn't create the source material for this project like "Moon," but came onboard after Jake Gyllenhaal was already attached and he pursued you. Was that a different experience for you, not originating the material? Was it liberating?
It is liberating. I mean it’s a little intimidating as well because the one concern is do you understand it as well as the person who wrote it? That’s the differentiation as well. But to your first questions it was a very different experience but kind of fun though. When you’re working on your own project you do become very protective of it and it’s kind of like it’s your baby you don’t want to mess with it and when you’re working with someone else’s project you can be objective. And you can sort of see, this works, this doesn’t work so you can focus on the good and cut away the stuff that you’re not quite so happy with so I think there is a really different approach that I found myself having when working on someone else’s material.
"Source Code" obviously was Ben Ripley's script, and had done really well on the Black List, so did you work on the script at all? How did you inject yourself into the material?
When I first read the script I was very excited about it, I thought it was very tight and worked very well. They had been working on it a long time, as you said it was a Black List script and I know that Ben and the people he was working with, the producers were really trying to hold it down to the bare essentials. The big interpretation that I had on it which maybe changed a little bit was that I felt that it was quite serious the script that I read and I wanted to find a way to lighten the tone and to inject it with some humor.
Did you have Ben on set for those kinds of questions?
I didn’t actually. Ben came to one or two visits along the way but really when I signed on board it was kind of in my court to interpret it and to get it right.
When you making the picture did it ever feel like you were making two films; one set in the here and now and one set in the "Source Code" world?
Yeah I think so, I think the mystery, the adventure that Colter Stevens [Jake Gyllenhaal] goes on has definitely got an approach to it which is very different then the experience you go through in between missions. When he’s trying to work out what he’s doing in the first place. I think you’re right. Both tonally and narratively there’s two things going on at the same time.
I like that you call it a mystery, there's a lot of Hitchcock-ian elements to it.
I hope so, that was certainly something that we were hoping to draw from, old Hitchcock films, "North By Northwest" or "The 39 Steps," you know, normal guys who find themselves all of a sudden in the middle of a crazy mystery and trying to work out who they can trust. I felt that when I was reading the script and it was kind of fun to try to find ways to just sort of make it feel like one of those old classics.
Was that tone written on the page or something that you brought to it?
Well I felt it was on the page. I certainly felt there was something classic about the situation and how Colter deals with it. I guess as a director you sort of take the script and you find ways to interpret it. There were certainly lots of ways there for me to kind of put my own spin on things.
Were you instrumental in getting the rest of the cast on board?
Well, Jake was already in place and he and I sort of worked together right from the start. We both, we both felt very strongly that we had to get the casting right for everyone but in particular for the woman on the train that he’d be performing with, his fellow commuter. We discussed it and I’d seen "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" by Shane Black and got very excited about Michelle Monaghan from having seen that film. I thought she did an amazing job sort of not only sort of working at the same level as Robert Downey Jr. but giving it all she had. She was funny and smart and it really worked. And I, I was very excited of the idea of getting a performance like that in our film.
Speaking of Michelle, the film is so technical yet at the same time you’ve got all of these actors, like her, she’s a really good example of someone who you likely have to direct in a very atypical kind of way.
I think all of our actors had challenges in this film. For Michelle Monaghan it was the idea that she had to create a character arch that would stretch over the course of the whole film but break it down into eight seconds which always had this same starting point. So each time it would change, the A had to be the same but the B had to be different in each iteration of the train journey. And then Vera Farmiga had a different, but also as difficult acting challenge in that most of the time we see her on a screen and she has to communicate and really get her performance across in nuances that can be picked up in that, in that tight shot.
I’m assuming you had to guide them there to the nuance of those performances?
My job is really to… everyone is reading the script and my job is to make sure we all interpret it in as much the same way as possible. And then I give them the freedom to sort of to, get their performance across and then make suggestions where things are not working and accentuate and push things where they really are working.
Was this a challenge visually?
Yeah obviously I had a very good experience on "Moon" and we did probably about 400, 450 effects shots I think and this was a step up to about 800 effects shots but my background in commercials is pretty effects heavy anyways, so I feel pretty comfortable in that world but I worked with a tremendous guy, an effects supervisor by the name of Luis Miranda from Montreal and he had worked with Michel Gondry on "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and he’s great, technically he’s very, very proficient but artistically he has a great eye and a great sense of how to compose shots.
You had been in conversations for the 'Superman' project, are these sorts of projects going to open the door to more of these bigger projects that are being offered?
I really don’t know. That was a fairly unique opportunity and I don’t know if under any circumstances I would have necessarily gone to those meetings. But you know Christopher Nolan is someone I’ve met before and am a huge fan of. He’s a terrific smart guy, a terrific director and to be on his short list was pretty special, that was something worth paying attention to. And I wanted to sort of follow that up and see how that went. I’m also a huge admirer of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino and those directors who have been able to build their own material and get it done on a budget where they feel they can make the films they want to make. So ideally I would like to be in the situation where I’m writing my own scripts and making them at a budget level where I feel I can do them justice.
Will we see you take on other projects from other people?
I think it’s difficult to look too far down the line. All I know is that the next film I want to do will be something I’ve written myself and then I’ll kind of see how things go from there.
You recently Tweeted about "The Wolverine," which Darren Aronofsky just exited from. Were people asking you about it already?
Yeah, people were asking me so I thought that would be kind of funny. My sense of humor often gets me in trouble.
But you're like, not in talks.
You seem to have a good rapport with the audience, is that a good way to shut anything down before it starts?
I don’t know, I started on Twitter back in the post production phase of "Moon" and it was out of necessity because I was really concerned that no one was going to see the film and I wanted to try and do everything I could. From home I used to run competitions, we used to have great competitions online to sort of promote the film and I used to send posters out and do everything myself, just to get an awareness out of what I was working on. Through doing that you kind of create a community of people that you know, they’re not fans, they’re actually just friends. They’re people that you start to sort of know and, and communicate with on a regular basis and I’ve kind of stuck with it and it’s kind of become this much bigger thing, but I still have a lot of people online through Twitter that I consider friends of mine.
It’s a learning opportunity to see how big studios market films I would imagine.
Absolutely, absolutely. I think you’re completely right. It’s all kind of a learning experience, because it is so different from "Moon." "Moon" to "Source Code" has been a real change, especially on that side of things but it’s incredibly educational and I must admit I’m very excited. I think, I think they’ve done a great job and the awareness of the film is out there and the reaction has been good so I can’t complain. I think everything you do whether it’s low budget things when you’re first starting out, or full feature films or when you’re working with Hollywood, you’re always learning, all the time. I think that’s why there are people who last a long time and people who don’t and I think the ones who endure are the ones who learn from their experiences and that’s really what I’m trying to do
Do you think you can do your personal projects in Hollywood like 'Mute' or any of the other personal projects you're working on?
I think so. I mean the reason I mentioned the directors I did, the Tarantinos and the Coen Brothers is that they’re able to do that. You’ve got to get that balance right, to be true to yourself, make sure you’ve got the scale of the projects right and then do something entertaining that’s going to bring an audience in and get the investors their money back. So there’s a responsibility to yourself on the artistic side and there’s definitely a responsibility on the business side to pay back the people who have invested in you.
Do you feel like that more so in a project like this then you would on your own?
Oh yeah absolutely. This was an exciting opportunity but it was also a sensible move and one which will hopefully put me in a position where I can control my destiny.
The project you’ve been talking up a bit sounds "Blade Runner"-esque, what can we expect from that?
Well there’s this script I’ve been trying to make for a long time, "Mute" and it’s like Terry Gilliam’s "Don Quixote" and I have "Mute." I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to make it, but in the meantime we’re going to release it as a graphic novel. At the same time I’m writing what I hope will be my third film, and I can’t talk about that yet. It’s something I’m very excited about and it is Science Fiction and hopefully it will bring together all of the ideas that I’ve wanted to put in a film but haven’t had the chance to.
"Source Code" hits theaters April 1.