Duncan Jones, one of film's hottest talents, talks about his directorial debut, Moon, prior to its Dubai screening.
Promising the moon
It really started at Sundance last January. The legendary US film festival is generally regarded as the breaking ground for the finest in independent cinema from around the world. For a first-time feature director, seeking not only the magical word-of-mouth buzz only a positive Sundance can generate, but also, more prosaically, a US distribution deal, the pressure was immense. Before the screening, the 38-year old Duncan Jones (christened Zowie Bowie) was probably best known, if known at all, for being the son of the rock legend David Bowie and for directing a brilliantly bizarre UK television commercial for oven chips.
After the 97-minute screening, he was being feted as one of the hottest new talents of the year and his film rated an instant sci-fi classic. (And he got the distribution deal, too.) Nearly a year later, a mildly jet-lagged Jones is in an LA hotel room, talking to me at 6am, through our laptops, in a final piece of promotion for the film, which is scheduled to screen at the Dubai International Film Festival's Cinema of the World programme this month. The intervening 11 months since Sundance have been a frantic blur of activity. Today, he is preparing for a round of meetings in LA as he crews up in preparation for his next project, a Jake Gyllenhaal ("a very lovely guy") film called Source Code that was offered to him complete with Hollywood star power, facilities and budget. It's a giant step for the director, who is cheerfully embracing the Hollywood machine with the good-natured air of confidence he has been nurturing over the past year.
"It's interesting," he says, of his first megabucks, all-singing, all-dancing project. "It's a much bigger budget, it's a Hollywood film, there are a lot more people involved in the decision-making process. I think my background in advertising is a benefit - I'm somewhere between trying to please everyone else and trying to maintain the integrity of what it is I would like to do as a director. So it's not too different to doing a commercial, to be honest, but it's definitely a different beast to Moon."
Moon, like the best science fiction, is not only a study of the myriad interfaces between man and machine, it's a complex and dynamic spin into deep human inner space too, exploring identity, loneliness and the sinister power exerted upon us by global industry. It is also a great story that will keep you guessing and gasping in disbelief throughout. It's the story of Sam Bell, an ordinary guy who at some unspecified point in the near future is nearing the end of a three-year stint manning Lunar Corporation's base station, on the far side of the moon. His job is to oversee the extraction and earthbound dispatch of Helium-3, a precious mineral that has saved the world from a global energy crisis.
Following an accident during a routine expedition in a lunar rover, Sam awakens in a sick bay, back at the base. And soon, what he believed to be hallucinations take on a scary reality as he realises not only is someone in the space station with him, but it happens to be a version of himself, three years younger, just arrived from Earth. As the two Sams circle each other warily trying to work out just what is going on, a deeper story unfolds - and things really start getting strange.
In the lead role - just about the only role aside from Kevin Spacey's pitch-perfect, deadpan voicing of Sam's minder, a pernickety computer named Gerty - is Sam Rockwell. A long-time fan of the actor, Jones initially approached him to propose a bit-part in another project. Rockwell politely demurred and instead, the pair began bonding over their shared love of classic sci-fi cinema. "I was already a big fan of his," remembers Jones. "I've always found him a really engaging, charismatic actor and during that meeting, we started talking about the kind of roles Sam would be interested in playing and the kind of films he loves. And there was this period in the Seventies and Eighties, especially films like Outlands with Sean Connery and Silent Running with Bruce Dern, or Ridley Scott's original Alien, where you got sort of blue-collar, working people in space. And we thought, how cool it would be to make a film like that -"
Having recently read Robert Zubrin's, Entering Space, in which the author makes a convincing argument for future human colonisation of the solar system in search of vital energy resources, Jones began toying with the idea of a giant power corporation, setting up mining facilities on the lunar landscape. Jones also drew on some particularly unhappy memories of life studying for a postgraduate degree in Nashville during his late twenties. Given that the experience formed the basis of Sam Bell's mental maelstrom in Moon, Jones must have had one hell of a miserable time. ("That three-year period gave me an insight into what it must have been to be alone for that period of time.")
Getting Nathan Parker (the son of the veteran British director Alan) on board to work on a script, he and Jones refined the story through a few more drafts before Moon was complete. The arduous process of raising funds began. They managed to raise just under US$5 million (Dh18m). "For a first feature indie," says Jones, "$5 million is quite a lot. For a science-fiction feature it's tiny. But it gives you a certain amount of freedom - expectations are lower in some ways. We knew the very best way to squeeze the best value out of the money we had."
Jones and his crew used a tiny enclosed set at London's Shepperton studios, deliberately retro in style, reminiscent of the space station interiors of his favourite sci-fi films. "It was very claustrophobic," he remembers. "It certainly put you in the right mind-frame, with the limitations of the set and that definitely gave the film a style -" Coming from an advertising background, Jones' fluency with special effects and visual trickery was translated into Moon's determinedly low-key feel. Far more nerve-racking for the director was the prospect of working with Rockwell, who played both incarnations of his character - the befuddled, tired man and the younger, sharper aggressive Sam, both of whom appear and interact together on screen for long stretches of the film. Co-ordinating the two, without over-reliance on effects, saw some inspired choreography and meticulous planning.
"We had a couple of techniques. We'd get him to film one side of the scene to the point where we could say, yeah, that's the take we're going to use. And as he went off for a make-up and wardrobe change, we'd put that take on an iPlayer and he'd listen to it again and again and rehearse to those timings. Then, when he came back downstairs, we'd give him an eye-line and explain where he needed to look and we'd put an earwig in his ear, so he could hear the audio of the take. Then he would have the conversation with himself, with the audio being played back to him through his ear. So it was technically incredibly complicated and must have been very difficult for him, but he did an amazing job."
The result is a film with a deep understanding of the questions and philosophical conundrums that beguile each and every one of us. "Even people who aren't science fiction fans like it," says Jones. "But it's a really human-centric story, the sci-fi is just a dressing for the story. It's what it's like to be alone and what it's like to meet yourself in a literal sense. I think that's something that everyone can relate to."
Before Source Code, Jones had been enthusiastically preparing the follow-up to Moon, a dark, noir-ish thriller, again set in the future, but this time in a scarily bleak, dystopic Berlin. The city holds a special significance for Jones, as it was there he spent some time with his father in the late 1970s as the latter recorded his legendary album Heroes. The grim, sinister atmosphere of the then-divided city served him perfectly when it came to imagining the setting for Mute, which Jones considers a homage to another of his favourite films, Blade Runner.
"I remember Berlin from when I was a kid. We were there when the wall was there and back then Berlin really was isolated and really scary. My dad was recording at the time, and his studio was right by the wall. You could hear the gunshots going off as you could hear the East Berlin police shooting at people as they tried to escape. It was a strange place. "And although the geopolitics of the Berlin I will be showing will be different to that, it will still have that vibe, which I'd like to capture."
Of course, growing up the son of one of the most charismatic and influential figures of the past 50 years leaves a mark. Jones remembers childhood games with his father, making stop-animation home movies of the pair of them leaping around the house, and conversely, poor Bowie's desperate attempts to interest his son in a musical career; "I just wasn't interested." But being caught up in his father's omnivorous web of cultural influences and obsessions left its mark. "Well, when I was a kid growing up I was seeing the same films he was watching," says Jones. "I think film was something we really bonded over - he introduced me to Kubrick's 2001 and all those films, and they affected me as much as they affected him. So I guess it's just that subconscious same pool of conscience that we have."
Jones' close relationship with his father is evident - Bowie even unexpectedly appeared at Sundance to support his son - but Jones quietly makes it clear he is his own man. Resigned to being known as the rock legend's filmmaker son for a little more time yet, he still jokingly predicts that in the future, David Bowie might be asked whether he is really the father of Duncan Jones. Given the quality of Moon and the busy months ahead, that scenario might not seem so far-fetched after all.
Moon is showing tonight at 7pm at Mall of the Emirates 3. For more details and tickets see www.dubaifilmfest.com.