Duncan Jones was born to explore. When he was three, dad David Bowie cited him as an inspiration, saying, "He's such an inventive kid." Jones has made a point of striking out on his own. Instead of pursuing celebrity, he enrolled in a Philosophy PhD at Vanderbilt. And when he traded intelligentsia for indie filmmaking, it was the strength of his debut movie Moon, a claustrophobic space thriller starring Sam Rockwell, that made his reputation—not his famous father. (The $5 million Sundance film won him two British Independent Film Awards and a BAFTA prize for Best First Feature.) Jones' second feature, Source Code, is a step-up in profile with a budget seven times larger and starring roles for Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga. The tricky time travel drama follows a soldier who has eight minutes to defuse a bomb before it blows up a commuter train in Chicago—and if he fails, time rewinds and he has to try again. Jones talks to Boxoffice about wild military Psy Ops, the difference between Hard Sci-fi and Soft Sci-fi, and Source Code's funny blink-and-you'll-miss-it secret cameo. (Shhh—don't spoil the surprise.)
I heard that you signed on to shoot Source Code because you wanted to work with Jake Gyllenhaal. His career's been so diverse—which role was it that really impressed you?
The first film I saw him in was Donnie Darko, like a lot of people, and I thought he was really interesting even back then. Then I saw Jarhead and a couple other films, and I've just always found him really empathetic. The same thing that I love about Sam Rockwell is the same thing that I love about Jake—he's one of those guys who you can actually care about, and it happens quite fast. He doesn't have to do much and you're immediately on his side. And I think that's really important for a leading actor, male or female.
Those big blue eyes can't hurt.
That's all it was. Absolutely—I'm a sucker for blue eyes. I have little tiny eyes, so for me, just to see those big blue eyes was good.
What's interesting about the films you've done so far is that they use Sci-fi to ask big questions that would fall flat if a drama tried to ask them.
Absolutely. That's one of the things that really appeals to me about Science Fiction is as a director, I feel like I can be more personal in some ways because the audience doesn't think I'm entitled. There's a certain distance between it and the audience because it's Science Fiction and I think that they're willing to allow things to just wash over them. They're more guarded if it's a regular, contemporary kitchen drama.
As a genre film, you're approaching them at an angle.
They don't expect it. I guess that's what it is—when it's Science Fiction, they don't expect the film to hit them on a personal level.
You're one of the only directors I know with a Philosophy degree.
[Laughs] I don't know if it's helped or not, but I've had a certain responsibility to follow through on my academic career as long as I could hack it. Then I was like, “That's enough! I'm going to do the thing I really want to do: Film.”
One of your first paid gigs was a risque commercial for the clothing company French Connection UK that got 127 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. Did that toughen your skin right off the bat?
Britain is a very strange place, and it's a tricky marketplace of ideas because one of the few ways that you can generate a career in Britain is to be controversial. I had a mentor in the UK named Trevor Beattie, who is very, very well known in the advertising community. He offered me this opportunity to do this project almost as a calling card. In the same way that Moon was my calling card for feature films, French Connections was really introducing me to my brand new world of advertising in the UK. And it was great publicity for French Connection, because that brand had built up a reputation of being controversial for their FCUK logo. But they wanted to steer what made them controversial away from the name; they wanted to have a whole new reason to be controversial. So it kind of worked out for everybody—it was good for them and it was good for me.
I don't want to give away too much about the plot, but in Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal is used as a military weapon. How crazy do you think the world of Psy Ops actually is?
In the news right now, there's this crazy story about a general in the Middle East who was using his Psy Ops team to convince American senators when they went to the Middle East to vote in order to finance his Psy Ops requirements. There's this whole story going on which is really interesting and it kind of falls in the same ballpark of what we're doing in Source Code. The military is both an incredibly important aspect of protecting the American way of life, but it's also a business. That contradiction and those two very divergent responsibilities to both protect the American people and run at a profit while keeping enough money within the company that it can keep growing, that's interesting. We touch a little bit on it, but not in too big of a way. Our focus is really on the dilemma of Colton, the character that Jake plays.
Did you see The Men Who Stare at Goats?
Yes, I did! Kevin Spacey and George Clooney—that was a great film.
And it was based on a non-fiction book by UK Guardian writer Jon Ronson about the US Military's crazy secret projects, but what was funny in the reactions to the movie is that the true stuff was so wild, no one believed it was real.
It had a real goofball, strange sense of humor which I think did detract in some ways from being based on a true story.
True. All the reviews said it was over-the-top—they didn't believe that a lab where men tried to kill goats with their minds actually existed, which is almost a tragedy.
Stranger than fiction!
There's this very funny line that Jeffrey Wright, who plays the designer of this military technology, nails. He's asked to explain how Source Code works and he waves his hand and says, “It's quantum mechanics—you wouldn't understand it.” Such a toss-away explanation!
It's just a MacGuffin! [Laughs] Ben Ripley who wrote the script did do a fair amount of research on his own half before I even became involved in order to craft this film and this story and this world. There are definitely some enticing, intangible facts as to how this could work. But for me, as a Sci-fi junkie, how have hard Sci-fi and soft Sci-fi. Hard Sci-fi is more like Moon where you can see how the world we live in today could evolve into the world in the movie. Soft Sci-fi is a lot more fantastical and you don't necessarily see how the two worlds would have to relate. Source Code, for me, is between the two in a gray area, mainly because of time travel. For me, time travel is an idea—there are some interesting theories about how it could work, but I've never been completely convinced about how we actually get to that point where we have any control over time travel. I kind of felt like I was treading on two different territories here: trying to stay true to the script and make sure that the audience could take the leap and go with the story, but not trying to get too bogged down in the technology of how Source Code works because I still think that time travel is one of those things that is yet to be proven.
Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap plays the voice of Jake Gyllenhaal's dad. Did you ask him to explain?
No, I didn't! But I'm glad you picked up on that. I hope the geeks out there like myself pick up on the fact that Scott Bakula is Jake Gyllenhaal's dad in the film! Quantum Leap was such an obvious reference for me, at least—though most of the producers didn't know what it was! When I was discussing it with them, I was like, “We can't pretend that there isn't a similarity between this and that old show, so I think it'd be fun for us and fun for the audience who would get the joke to get Scott Bakula involved.” And he was willing to do it. It's a very emotional and delicate performance that he needed to do at that moment, and I managed to get him to say that great line from Quantum Leap: “Oh boy!”
He's not even credited on IMDb.
To be honest, I'm hoping we can keep that a little quiet until the film comes out and then people will have fun finding it out.
You had to fill the train with small, reoccurring characters. That must have been fun to cast, especially when they only have a line or two to come to life.
It was. One of our cast is the comedian Max Denoff, who's played by Russell Peters. It was good fun to work with him because it's a successful stand up comedian. We had this idea that at the end of the film, we'd let him do his schtick, his stand up, on the train and the audience would be cracking up. We let him do it and some of it was so blue and so rude that there was only a small amount we could get away with in the end to keep our rating. There's so much stuff—I don't know if it will be on the DVD or not—that we couldn't use from his comedy routine that would have been great to put on there. It was just too rude.
Towards the end, Source Code almost seems like it could get really dark—very morbid and existential.
Yeah, a couple of people has asked me why we ended the film the way we did because it it's kind of an unusual ending. Not to get too spoiler-ish, but there's a moment in the film where everyone freezes. A lot of people said, “Why didn't you end the film there?” To me, I felt—again, as a Sci-fi geek—there was a certain responsibility to follow through. We'd set up some ideas of how this world worked and once you've established those rules, there's a logic that I felt we had to go through and explain what the repercussions of this event are. The fact that Colter was able to stop the explosion on the train meant that somewhere at the facility where Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright worked, there was still a guy who had not yet been sent on a mission. It was this weird, kind of circular logic, and to me, it felt very important for the audience that they'd know that we had through that through and they could kind of see how things might have worked and what might have happened next. I'm pleased with that because the producers supported me on that and I thought it was important to do.
Did Inception prove to studios that there's an audience for popcorn films that are also intellectually engaging?
I think so. We were excited when Inception came out because we were already well into making our film. We were all holding out breaths to see how people responded to it because we knew we were in a similar ball park. Obviously, the reaction was terrific and everybody become incredibly especially the producers. This is the kind of film that there is an audience for. We're obviously very different than Inception, but I think you're right that people do respond to that kind of thriller with a slight cerebral tweak. And on the other side of it, here, there's also a lighter tone, a sense of humor and an really interesting and believable relationship between Christina (love interest Michelle Monaghan) and Colter—I'm feeling good about it.
And going forward, hopefully studios will continue to be encouraged to take more risks.
You look at the articles online about how many sequels are coming out this year, and how many already established franchises are just doing a revisit or a remaking. There aren't that many films that are origianal as Source Code—or Inception.