Back From The Moon: Duncan Jones Interviewed On Source Code

In Duncan Jones' Source Code Colter Stevens has only eight minutes to diffuse a bomb on a Chicago train. Lev Harris is given two minutes more to interview the fast-rising director on his new film

Duncan Jones is creating quite a stir. His debut feature film, Moon, was the cult movie of 2009, and Jones fast became a hero for sci-fi aficionados wearying of CGI overload and hyperspeed, ludicrous plots. Now, with second movie Source Code under his belt, Jones is threatening to break into the mainstream, to an extent anyway – promotional posters for the film still refer to him as "the director of Moon" rather than by his actual name, which is tucked away with the other credits down at the bottom. Still, this does serve to highlight the success of that debut feature, which was one of the finest pieces of non-Hollywood sci-fi in years.

It marked a return to the period of classic late 60s-early 70s movies a la Silent Running and 2001 with an otherworldly storyline and clean, effective special effects that were in turn kept grounded by a deeply human core. These themes are continued in Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, an army general stationed in Afghanistan who has been deployed on a mission to go back in time and stop a terrorist attack on a commuter train to Chicago. The twist lies in the conception of this new mechanism, the titular source code, which gives Stevens the ability to re-visit the scene of the attack again and again, in an eight minute span, until he successfully stops the bomb from exploding. Overcoming its Speed meets Groundhog Day trappings, Source Code manages to stand up not only as a competent sci-fi thriller but also a humanely portrayed character drama.

Thanks to the critical and commercial success of his second feature, Jones’ fledgling career and reputation has continued its steady progression towards the Hollywood elite. As such, I am given a strict ten minute time frame in which to couch him with my questions, and as if I need more proof of his burgeoning stardom, I am greeted in the interview room by the voice of his PR is reading out the hotel’s menu to him.

In both of your films you seem to have a certain fascination with mortality and the nature of the human condition, why is that?

Duncan Jones: I have always been a sci-fi fan and some of the best sci-fi tends to ask some pretty fundamental questions and attempts to get at the heart of what it is to be a person, to be a human being, to be mortal, and I found that an interesting starting place for science fiction ideas.

The theme of isolation and loneliness also crops up. Was this just a coincidence or intentional?

DJ: I had studied philosophy before I went into film and it was these ideas from philosophy that I wanted to find a way to put into a story as well as some personal experiences that I was trying to channel all of these things into one film and that came out in Moon. Source Code was written by Ben Ripley, so a lot of the subject matter of that film was pre-existing, but I guess I was attracted to it, I found it interesting, but there are similarities between the two films.

After Moon, you hinted that your next film would be Blade Runner-esque. What moved you away from that idea?

DJ: It still exists, and I’m still trying to find a way to make that film. It’s not an easy sell; it’s a difficult one to get made. Originally, it was an idea I had before I even made Moon, it was based on me thinking about Blade Runner, which is one of my favourite films, and if Blade Runner is what LA looks like in this world that Ridley Scott had created, what would other cities look like? And for me, Berlin is one of the more interesting European cities. It is changing really fast, and it has this remarkable history and I actually spent a few years living there, back when it was still pretty scary when the Cold War was still on and the wall was still up, so I thought that would make a great setting for a sci-fi movie.

So is that the next film you’ve got in the works?

DJ: I don’t know if it’s going to be the next film I make, just because Source Code seems to be doing quite well and is quite successful, it has opened up a few different opportunities, and I was already working on a script for something else which I still feel really strongly about, so when I get back home I’m going to have a think about what I want to do and what’s the right film to make next.

Colter Stevens is not the most perceptive of heroes, and in more than one case he follows a red herring. When you were moulding the character, was it a conscious decision was it to make Jake’s character a regular guy who is not necessarily cut out to be a hero?

DJ: Absolutely, yeah. When I read the script for the first time, one of the things that it really struck me, it reminded me of a Hitchcock movie. And a lot of the time in Hitchcock movies it is about an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. And I think that appealed to me, the idea that he is not a sleuth, he is not an investigator, he is a normal military guy, who finds himself in this crazy situation. And even if he is a trained sleuth, the fact that he is in this bizarre science-fiction thing where he is getting called back and forth, that muddles his mind as much as anything else, and I like the idea that he was struggling through this with half his brain tied behind his back.

Before you started with films, you worked on commercials. What was the most important thing you learnt from that experience?

DJ: That’s a good question. Working in commercials was actually advice that was given to me by Tony Scott. He worked in commercials before feature films and he said that it’s the best training ground you can get for making movies. You learn the technical side of telling a story and you have to do it within a tight frame of time. And I think that makes you creative in far as how are you going to tell a story in 30 seconds or a minute if you’re lucky, or sometimes 15 seconds for Japanese commercials. And I think that’s a useful tool, how to tell stories in short hand, and I think that’s something you can apply to feature films.

Source Code comments on the power of corporate organizations with Rutledge’s character as well as the war on terror and the deployment of troops in Afghanistan. How deliberate was this?

DJ: I wasn’t making a comment, but it grounds the film in a relevancy. Afghanistan, that’s happening now. Terrorism, that’s something we’re worried about now. That, and that the whole film takes place on a commuter train heading to Chicago, a place that does have commuter trains that look like this, it just reinforces the idea that this is a contemporary-set film, and this helps establish that.

How do you feel about the pressure to succeed in Hollywood and how, if you make a good film, you are expected to top it with each subsequent effort?

DJ: Thank you for that because I thought I’d just got over the pressure of the second film! I haven’t felt it yet, but I do feel a weight of responsibility. I’ve been working hard to get the stage where I can make the films that I want to make and make them at the budgets that I think they need to be made at, especially my own films, things that I’ve written myself. So now, I need to be absolutely sure as to what film I’m going to do next, that’s the most important thing right now.

So do you prefer to work from your own scripts?

DJ: It’s different, when you’re working on your own project, the beauty of that you understand it 360 degrees, you understand how everything fits together and you can change it because you know how everything works. If you’re working on someone else’s script, the benefits of that is that you become very objective and you can see what works and what doesn’t work and if it doesn’t work you can just cut it out; you don’t become precious about things. That’s the problem with your own film; you want to leave things in because you love them so much, even if it doesn’t serve the story. So they both have their pros and cons.

Are you afraid that you may only be viewed as primarily a sci-fi director?

DJ: I think I’m in a very fortunate position, in that although both of my films have both been sci-fi, in the industry most people know me for and are reacting to, is that I seem to work well with actors, and I seem to get good performances out of people. And because that is a very transferrable skill, I can do that in any genre, and I think the people who finance movies know that. So if I was known strictly as the guy who was good with SFX, then I’d be much more pigeon-holed in sci-fi than if I was someone who worked well with actors.

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