Duncan Jones took his time bursting onto the motion picture scene. Having directed television commercials for years, he is well versed in visual effects and working with tight time and money constraints. In this sense, he’s kind of like the king who dresses in rags to walk unnoticed around town. He’s also David Bowie’s son, but no one would know it if people like me wouldn’t continually slip it into opening paragraphs. In some ways leading man Sam Rockwell is a similar case. He has been acting since the late 80s, mostly playing villains and supporting characters, and has a small cult of followers who recognize him as one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. He’s had plenty of great performances but nothing has made him a consistent top-of-the-bill actor. In Moon, he’s impossible not to notice.
Duncan Jones penned a script with one character, knowing full well he wanted Sam for the part. He even used the name “Sam” in case there was any doubt. Moon tells the story of a man who works for a company called Lunar Industries that harvests Helium-3 off the moon. At the end of his three year solo stint on a lunar mining outpost, his psyche turns more than a little schizophrenic. Struggling to keep sane, he battles a personal demon or two and learns that his mission is more than a contract job.
With absolutely stunning visuals, a beautiful theme from Clint Mansell, and seamless effects, Moon takes independent science fiction to new heights. Jones stamps his place into the canon and Sam Rockwell shines as a leading man (in the purest sense of the term). It’s a story that’s human and entertaining more than anything else, but science fiction fans can delight in its reverence for classics like Outland, Silent Running, and Alien.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Duncan at the Hotel Vitale to ask him a few questions about the film. He is quick, exuberant, admittedly geeky, and extremely friendly. It works better to say his parts in your head with a British accent:
Me: Movie is awesome.
Duncan Jones: Oh, thank you so much. Glad you liked it.
Me: I’m a big sci-fi fan.
Duncan Jones: Excellent. Let’s go to work.
Me: Outland and Silent Running are obvious points of reference here. They’re the other space station movies. Why do you think people stopped making this kind of film for so long?
Duncan Jones: I would need to be more of a film junkie like a Tarantino or a Scorsese to really know what the trajectory was there. I feel recently in feature films, science fiction seems to have become a little bit embarrassed about doing anything too serious or which delves too deeply into important human questions. I don’t know what it was exactly that made that happen but it certainly feels like that’s the way it has gone – the inquiry into really human questions and how human beings fit in the future as opposed to being fetishistic about the technology itself. The burden seems to have shifted to TV with shows like Battlestar Galactica, where they really do seem to be more interested in the human questions. But hopefully there’s a new group of science fiction films coming, films that will take science fiction in a different direction. Maybe some will go slightly retro like I did, maybe others will find new ways to explore.
Me: Sometimes in other genres it feels like films are battling against similar works of the past, but with sci-fi there’s no shame in using and commenting on past films. Why is that?
Duncan Jones: I don’t really know. I think science fiction films appreciate the fact that they are a community. I think science fiction people appreciate the fact that it almost works as a network. Other scientific films are really a foundation for new stories. Whereas maybe with horror or westerns, that kind of use of preexisting movies might just seem to be purely derivative and that just doesn’t happen with science fiction as much.
Me: It’s very much about building on ideas. I guess that’s what science is.
Duncan Jones: Yeah I think there might be something to that. If you latch onto something that works in science fiction and really makes sense, even if it doesn’t work in the real world today, it’s okay to re-use that because it’s so logical. What a space station looks like or how you would set up a colony on another planet, once you’ve got a grasp on it, it’s crazy to try to invent a human habitation on the moon in a beehive or do crazy things just for the hell of it.
Me: You were a student of philosophy for a while right?
Duncan Jones: Yeah.
Me: Did you, maybe when you were writing the script, have to curb tendencies to just go really Tarkovsky on the whole thing? Make it too deep, go too into the identity questions, too into the technology?
Duncan Jones: It wasn’t hard to fight that. To be honest, as much as I appreciate films like Solaris and obviously 2001, those are hard films to watch sometimes. They’re not necessarily there to entertain, or entertain alone. I wanted to talk about things which I thought were important and interesting questions, but at the same time, at my level of filmmaking, I wanted to do something that was entertaining first and foremost. And if I was able to shine a little light on what it was like to be face to face with yourself and why it’s worth looking at yourself and seeing how other people see you, which I think we kind of touch on in the film, I was glad to do that, but only as a secondary aspect of the film. People pay their money to be entertained, not to be lectured to. I mean, take a college course. Go to night school.
Me: You mentioned how ambitious Moon was and how your next movie might be even more ambitious and I thought about The Fountain, which is maybe the most ambitious movie I’ve ever seen.
Duncan Jones: Mmm. I don’t know how you feel about this but for me with The Fountain, it’s very difficult to summarize what the film is trying to be. What I hope I’m doing right with Moon is that you know what kind of film it is you’re going to be seeing and I hope with the next film that that comes across as well. You won’t have to work out whether it’s the kind of film you’ll want to see. You’ll know immediately.
See a full transcript of the interview on my personal blog, where he discusses the film in greater depth and tells me more about some of the visual effects tricks.
Moon opens in San Francisco Friday the 19th at Century Centre 9 and the UA Stonestown Twin 2.