Space. Once film’s final frontier, over the years sci-fi has sometimes been the domain of cliche and inferior riffs on past glories. All the more surprising, then, to discover a new film that doesn’t just pay lip service to the classics, but rather captures the spirit of its predecessors to create a refreshing angle on the genre. Such is Duncan Jones’ Moon, the directorial debut for the British filmmaker that also ranks among 2009’s best films. Set in the near future on Earth’s lunar satellite, Moon explores the strange plight of a lone mining station caretaker — Sam Rockwell, giving the year’s most impressively frayed performance — a man who’s either made a puzzling discovery about his existence or… is completely losing his mind.
For Jones, who had an eclectic upbringing before graduating film school in London and moving into special effects and commercials directing, Moon represents a confident debut that announces a talent to watch. His proposed next project, Mute, is set to be a future-Berlin noir which he suggests will cultivate a Blade Runner-like atmosphere.
And yes, Jones’ dad — the star of The Man Who Fell To Earth, for anyone who’s been off moonage daydreaming — also had a thing for sci-fi. Perhaps it’s in the genes. Or maybe, as we discovered, it has a little to do with a shared passion for Smurfs…
Have you seen it?
[still laughing] I did see that. I absolutely love Ren and Stimpy as well, so that was a real pleasure. And before you ask — no, I did not rip off that Ren and Stimpy episode [laughs].
Well we’re out of questions then! Do you feel that you’ve pretty much said everything there is to say already about the film?
Well I’m trying to do everything, you know. [laughs] There’s a limited number of people who can actually do press for this film, because there’s Sam, who’s the main cast, and then there’s me, the director, and other than that there’s Kevin Spacey, who did a voice and who’s obviously a very busy man. Sam’s been doing Iron Man 2 and a number of other films, so he’s been able to do a little bit of press, but really it’s been up to me to do as much as I can to promote the film — because if I’m not willing to do it, who will be?
And now you have to do it all over again.
Oh god, I’m sorry you’re gonna hear all the stuff that you’ve heard before then… [laughs]
Well, we could just talk about The Naked Gun 2 1/2 for the next 10 minutes…
Absolutely! Maybe for my next film I’ll just do a vehicle for Leslie Nielsen.
Is that an exclusive — Leslie Nielsen is the star of Mute?
[laughs] Absolutely. How old is he now? He must be in his 80s.
But with the heart of a child… Okay, we should talk about Moon.
Take us back to the original idea. You’d first written another film for Sam — which turns out to be your next one, Mute — but it was too expensive at the time?
Yeah, it was a funny one. Sam absolutely loved the script. I absolutely loved Sam. But I had sent Sam the script asking him to read for a particular role in the film, and he read the script and wanted to play a different role to the one I’d wanted. He suggested that we meet up in New York and have a conversation about it, and I think he was hoping he could convince me, and I was hoping I could convince him. And it didn’t work out. Basically, we both got on really well and we both loved my script, but we just couldn’t convince each other as to what role he should play. I kind of wanted him to play a villain and I think he’d done enough of that; he didn’t want to be pigeonholed in these roles. So it was totally understandable.
But we got on well. We’re roughly the same age and had a lot of similar interests and similar upbringing, and we just started talking about, you know, what kind of films we liked and what kind of characters Sam would want to play as an actor. Sam was talking about wanting play a real kind of blue-collar, working class person, and we started talking about this period of science fiction films in the late ’70s and early ’80s and how all the protagonists were those types of characters. We then started talking about all the characters and films that eventually started inspiring Moon. So we talked about Sean Connery in Outland and Bruce Dern in Silent Running , and how you had this crew of blue collar working people in the beginning of Alien , before it turned into a horror film — and how you got this real, believable sense of what it would be like to work in space, if you were just a normal working Joe. That’s really how it all kicked off.
You couldn’t decide on one role for Sam, so you just wrote him every role?
[laughs] Well, yeah. The thing was, after that conversation, I said “Look, I’m gonna go away and write something for you” — not knowing what it was gonna be. All I knew was that I had to write a role that was so bloody good that he couldn’t pass it up. So that’s basically how it started. It became a bit of a puzzle, in that I had to come up with a role that Sam would want to do, and I knew I was gonna have a limited budget, and I had a background in special effects from the commercials I’d done and I knew which kind of special effects were the most cost effective, and there were certain story elements and things that I knew I wanted to do… so the whole idea of having Sam play multiple roles did sort of answer a lot of the different questions and problems that I was trying to resolve.
It’s great for fans of Sam who see him in supporting roles and think, “There’s never enough of him on screen”. Because here—
[laughs] This is definitely a decadent dessert for Sam Rockwell lovers.
Did you like him in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy ?
Oh yeah. He was great in Hitchhikers and I really liked him in Galaxy Quest as well. His two previous sci-fi roles had both been comedy, so I think he enjoyed the opportunity to do something a bit more serious.
But there’s inevitably humour when Sam’s involved — as there is in Moon.
Absolutely. To be honest, he says that he wanted to do a more serious role but he was the one who brought the humour to Moon, because the script itself — although it had slightly humourous elements — he definitely brought a lightness of touch to it. When we were doing rehearsals — because we got to do a week of rehearsals before we shot the film — a lot of the improv work that we did ended up with him wanting to bring lighter moments to the film, and it worked a treat. What he brought to the film, I think, helped bring a balance to the lighter and darker moments in the film. I think it really did the film a lot of good.
Without revealing too much about the film — when Sam is performing opposite himself, was he acting against a stand-in, or a tennis ball on a stick?
It utterly and completely depended on what the shot was and how we were doing a particular scene. Sometimes we had our lovely and very talented actor/body double Robin Chalk just off of camera, reading lines to him and being an eyeline for him. Some of the times, because of a technical reason, or because Sam didn’t want it, we would just have an eyeline for him, and it depended on whether the camera was moving or not; there were lots of different technical requirements on a shot-by-shot basis. But one of the things that Sam always did have available to him was something called an “ear wig”, which was basically a small speaker which he placed in his ear and we could play back the audio of the opposite character that he played, so that he would at least have the audio timings to react to. It was very, very tricky. I think that if people realized the complexities of what, technically, Sam was having to deal with, they would realise just how amazing he was to have been able to pull that off.
Having his own voice playing in his head must have really contributed to the mental state of that character.
Oh definitely. The funny thing was, because of the small budget of our film, we weren’t actually able to do a technical test of the effect with Sam before we shot the film, so for the first week Sam was completely stressed out worrying what it was gonna look like and how it would work — and whether it would actually be believable. And we weren’t actually able to deliver a rough-up version of what a shot would look like and what a performance might work like until a week into the shoot. So that first week was very, very stressful, but after that first week we were able to show him a version of him performing with himself. And all of a sudden it just clicked and he was so happy, because he got it, and he became really excited by the potential of what he could do at that point.
What was your formative experience with sci-fi films as a kid?
The very first one, which was sort of one of those repeat viewing ones, was Star Wars . I mean I was of that generation, and we had a video tape of it — a U-Matic, actually; an old Sony U-Matic. We had that very, very early on, so all of the other kids from my school — all of the other nerds — would come round to my house and watch Star Wars . So I was very popular [laughs]. That was definitely very formative. I had lots of Star Wars figures and stuff. And then I guess there were a couple of other ones, but because I was young… like, 2001 was one of those films that I came to much later on because it was a little bit cerebral, a little bit boring, I think, when you’re a little kid. So when I was younger it was more things like, there was a very early version of Baron Munchausen that had a whole trip to the moon thing, you know. I think it was a German version of Baron Munchausen — it was either an early talky or it might even have been a silent movie. I remember my dad having that on U-Mat. We used to watch that as well.
So he had a bit of a collection there.
Yeah there were a few sci-fi films. To be honest, most of the films I was watching were… well, I loved Errol Flynn movies, I loved the sort of big pirate adventure films; and James Cagney movies, The Public Enemy and all those kinds of things.
I have to ask you this because I remember hearing it somewhere — did you and your dad make stop-motion movies with Star Wars figures?
Not so much Star Wars figures — they were with Smurfs [laughs]. Which is probably worse!
We did. It was just one of those hobbies that I had. I mean, my poor dad tried to get me interested in learning musical instruments and it was my big rebellion — I wanted absolutely nothing to do with music. So the hobby that we ended up having as father and son was animation, which is something I absolutely adored doing — and my dad and me really got into it and we had lots of fun doing it when I was a kid.
Do you still have any of those old Smurf films?
I do, yeah. Smurf movies. [laughs] I’ve got a few on a couple of tapes but they will never see the light of day.
Surely at your future career retrospective at the Oscars someone will drag them out.
[laughs] They’d better not!
You did some work with Jim Henson when you were younger, too?
I did actually, yeah. That was just after I got kicked out of boarding school [laughs]. I was very fortunate — well I thought I was fortunate — to be able to land a job at the Jim Henson Creature Shop down in… I think it was just in North London. They were working on a TV show called Dinosaurs that had this little annoying creature that would say [adopts high pitched voice] “Not the mama!” All of those puppets were made at the Jim Henson Creature Shop and were made of latex, and because I was kind of on the bottom of the ladder at the Creature Shop, my job was to basically deal with the liquid latex. My job was to seam all of the puppets, to make sure all the seams were smooth and cover the seams with latex. You’d go home at the end of the day stinking of rubber and finding bits of liquid latex all over your body.
You must have been sick of that baby dinosaur after all that.
I couldn’t stand him! [laughs] But, you know, there were some great experiences. There was a film called
Dragonheart , where Sean Connery voiced a dragon, and I remember the Henson Creature Shop did a big, beautiful test to see whether they could get the job of doing the dragon for that film. They built this massive monster dragon puppet and did some incredible scale work where they built a small forest in the foreground and this giant dragon in the background and an actor performing with it. It was really cool stuff. So I was there while they were doing some pretty cool things.
Is there anything new you can tell us about your next film, Mute, at this stage?
There’s not too much I can tell you about the story or anything — just ’cause I don’t wanna give anything away. It’s gonna be an exciting film to actually explore and experience new things in it. There’s an awful lot of environmental, city-vibe sort of things in there which, like Blade Runner , will hopefully give you a sense of a living, breathing city. The one thing I wanna let people know about is that I’m desperately, desperately trying to get the finance to make it — even though it’s a tiny budget. Some rich person out there help us out, because the film’s gonna be fantastic — we just need to finance it!
See, I would have thought you would have been inundated with offers after Moon…
I am getting offered stuff. I’m getting studio offers and I’m trying my damndest to stall them or turn them down until I can get Mute made. The trouble is, I feel passionately about Mute and I know that if I make that film it’ll be great. It’s difficult for me to invest myself in anything else when I know that’s what I want to do next.
Are they big budget sci-fi kind of offers?
They’re kind of decent, good films. They’ve got amazing people attached to them and, you know, I’m a fool for trying to stall them but I just can’t help myself — I know what I wanna do next. It’s really just a matter of trying to find a way, and if not then I guess I’ll take one of the studio films. But right now I’m still trying to get Mute made.
Moon is in cinemas now.