Q & A with Director Duncan Jones

“Moon” star Sam Rockwell

“Moon” star Sam Rockwell

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to first time feature director Duncan Jones about his sci-fi thriller “Moon”, opening June 12 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics.

Directed by Jones, “Moon” was written by Nathan Parker from a story by Jones and is told in the classic filmmaking tradition of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The Liberty Films production in association with Xingu Films and Limelight stars Sam Rockwell (“Frost/Nixon”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) and features Kevin Spacey as the voice of the robot Gerty. Produced by Stuart Fenegan and Trudie Styler, it was executive produced by Michael Henry, Bill Zysblat, Trevor Beattie and Bil Bungay.

In “Moon”, which is set in the near future, Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut assigned by Lunar Industries to a three-year mission mining Helium 3 on the moon, the earth’s new energy source. About two weeks before his contract is to end, Sam’s health starts to deteriorate. After he finds himself suffering from painful headaches, hallucinations and a lack of focus, Sam has a near fatal accident. While recuperating, he meets a younger, angrier cloned version of himself, who says he’s there to fulfill the same contract Sam started nearly three years earlier.

After enjoying an early look at “Moon”, I was glad to be able to focus on how it reached the screen with Jones, who’s well known in the U.K. as a director of commercials and for being David Bowie’s son.

Q: Sci-fi is such an expensive genre that to do it the way filmmakers did back in the ’70s and ’80s has got to be very difficult today. And yet, as I understand it, you managed to make this movie for only $5 million.
A: That’s right. Absolutely. That was kind of the cap. We didn’t want to go over $5 million and we didn’t.
Q: Well, let’s talk about how you were able to do that because the film certainly doesn’t look as though it was made on a shoestring. How did the project come about?
A: I wrote (the story) specifically for Sam Rockwell. I met up with Sam to discuss another project that we ended up not doing, but we got on very well. We just started talking about the kinds of films that we both loved and the kinds of performances that Sam really wanted to have a chance to do that he hadn’t (been able) to do yet. And the idea of those blue collar guys back in those old science fiction films like “Outland” (Peter Hyams’ 1981 film starring Sean Connery and Peter Boyle) and “Silent Running” (Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film starring Bruce Dern) and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1981, starring Sigourney Weaver) really appealed to both of us because we were both big fans of those (vintage sci-fi) films. So I said, “Look, if you promise to read the script, I’ll write something for you.” And that’s kind of how the movie started.
Q: When was that?
A: That was about three years ago. It took about nine months from that meeting before I had a script to give him and then it took him about another three months to actually agree to do it and to sign on. So it took about a year until we were ready to go.
Q: Was it a script that you wrote or a treatment?
A: I wrote the story and then I wrote an extensive treatment, which was about 30 or 35 pages. I direct commercials back in the U.K. I would have written it myself but I didn’t have time. My regular collaborator is a guy called Mike Johnson, who just wrote the new “Sherlock Holmes” film that Robert Downey Jr.’s doing. (Check out our Zamm Cam Preview of Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow’s “Sherlock Holmes”, opening Dec. 25, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Downey, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong.)

He wasn’t available because he was working on that at the time. So I was looking for a writer. I was put in touch with a few people and the one writer that I really sort of felt was right for this project was a guy called Nathan Parker. Nathan wrote the first couple of drafts. I was happy with that. He took my treatment and did a really good job with it. I took it from that point and did the subsequent drafts.
Q: As you were writing did you have in mind that you were going to make the film for only $5 million?
A: Absolutely. Even when I was writing the story in the first place, we were thinking about how we could keep our costs to a minimum by keeping our cast small, by shooting everything in studio and by using very specific special effects. Because of my commercial background I had a good understanding of the costs of different kinds of effects work. So the fact that we used model miniatures and decisions that we made like that were partially fiscal and partially aesthetic.
Q: What happened after Sam Rockwell agreed to play the lead?
A: Well, it was desperate times. He took about three months before we got an okay and he signed on. Stuart, my producer, and myself had pretty much made a commitment that we were going to make the film with or without him because there was this unique opportunity in Shepperton Studios, the studio where we ended up shooting the film. With the writers strike coming up there was this small pocket of time where the studio’s base was available and they were going to be able to cut us an amazing deal to shoot there. So we’d just move ahead. We were going to start building and we were going to shoot this film no matter what. It was kind of last minute there. We really needed Sam to make a decision or if he didn’t do it we were going to have to find someone else quickly. But we’d been waiting for Sam and we were just going to wait until he said yes.
Q: Your other star, who’s heard but not seen, is Kevin Spacey as the wonderful voice of the computer Gerty. How and when did you bring Kevin on board?
A: Around the same time as the script was finished and we sent it off to Sam. We were getting close to the point where we were going to be making the film. There was a small pocket of money that we needed for some of the special effects in order to close out our financing and Trudie Styler became involved with this closing finance. Trudie is very supportive of young British filmmakers. She’s Sting’s wife. She’s very well connected in the U.K. And she was able to get the script to Kevin Spacey knowing that I really wanted him to do the voice.

So Kevin read the script, had a meeting with me and basically said that he loved the script, that he loved the fact that Sam Rockwell was doing it, but he wasn’t sure I was going to pull it off for that much money. He said, “So why don’t you come back to me once you’ve finished the film? Because it’s just a voice, we can always do it afterwards.” That’s kind of what we did. We just sort of assumed (he’d do it). There was a chance that he might not want to do it, but we would go ahead anyway. We made the film. We had a really good offline cut of the film when we finished with some temporary special effects in it. We showed it to Kevin and he was so blown away by Sam Rockwell’s performance that he said, “Yes, I’ll be involved. I’ll do it."
Q: How did you work with Kevin to record his scenes?
A: It was a very quick process. The benefit was that Kevin was aware of the film before we shot it. He’d read the script and he knew what to expect and then when we finished the film he was able to see what we had created. So he had an awareness of the film through its creation. I had the chance to talk to him a little about what the character of Gerty was and the fact that we were paying homage to an awful lot of science fiction films from the past and that people were going to be making this association between Gerty and HAL (the spaceship computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey").

(SPOILER ALERT: Skip the next sentence if you haven’t seen “Moon” yet and don’t want to know too much about Gerty.)

Really the idea was to take people’s assumptions about the character of HAL and let them believe they knew where we were going and then take them off in a very different direction.
Q: With animation, typically the voice talents are seeing footage projected while they’re recording. Was Kevin seeing Gerty’s scenes?
A: We had the offline cut of the film. Actually, it was pretty close to being cut by the time Kevin did his voice recording. In order for us to do the offline cut I had recorded, myself, all of Gerty’s lines to give him some decent timings on how they needed to fit in. But then we just kind of went with it. It was a fairly organic process. It was very fast. We did it in about half a day with Kevin Spacey.
Q: Did you record him at Shepperton?
A: No. We had a sound recording facility in central London in Soho called Molinare and that’s where we recorded it.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: It was 33 days of live action photography with Sam Rockwell and then there was eight days of model miniatures that we did a couple of weeks later. That sounds like a reasonable amount for an indie film —

(SPOILER ALERT starting here if you don’t want to know too much in advance.)
Q: Well, no, it sounds lightning fast!
A: I was going to say. When you consider the fact that there was over 450 effects shots and the fact that an awful lot of the shooting that we were doing with Sam required us to reshoot the same scene with him playing the other character really ate into our time.
Q: I wanted to ask you about that as Sam’s playing himself and his cloned self.
A: Yeah. He plays multiple versions of himself. He does a magnificent job. Sam Rockwell has always been an actor I’ve been a huge fan of, but even he, himself, believes that this is one of his best performances. It is so nuanced and I think he is able to really create such a distinction between the different versions of himself. They really are different people and it’s an amazing job.
Q: Did you use a green screen?
A: No. No green screen. We basically built this beautiful set at Shepperton Studios, which was the interior of the lunar base. It was a completely 360 degree set so when we went in in the morning we went in through the air lock. They closed the air lock and then we were basically on location in the base. It was great for Sam and it was great for us as a crew because a lot of the lighting was already pre-existing in the construction of the base. So we could just walk around and shoot in there as if we were on location.
Q: And when we see Sam playing opposite himself onscreen?
A: That’s all done in the same place and, basically, it’s done with various forms of split screen. Some of them with moving mattes and some of them using motion control rigs. Basically, on a shot by shot basis we had different techniques. But there were particular things that we did where we were really pushing the envelope as far as what you could do with that effect. We had a couple of two shots where Sam would actually be physically interacting with himself in the same shot and that was something that they hadn’t done in “Dead Ringers” (David Cronenberg’s 1988 thriller starring Jeremy Irons) and they hadn’t done in “Adaptation” that Spike Jonze did (2002, starring Nicolas Cage, Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper). Those were really kind of touchstones for us as far as films that had done that effect (with one actor playing two roles) in the past. We wanted to do something more that they hadn’t done before.
Q: Had you ever done anything like this in shooting commercials?
A: Not having one actor playing multiple parts. I’ve done some fairly heavy effects work, but not that particular effect. So that was very exciting for me, as well. Exciting and nerve wracking, I guess. I had some really good people surrounding me. I had a video effects supervisor on the shoot called Simon Stanley-Clamp and he was the same gentleman who brought Oliver Reed back to life in “Gladiator”. You know, the famous scenes where Oliver Reed had already died and they needed to bring him back in the film. He’s an incredibly talented guy and he was wonderful to work with. (Reed died May 2, 1999 in Valletta, Malta of a heart attack while filming “Gladiator”. It reportedly cost the production $3 million to recreate his face to use in scenes he hadn’t yet done.)

Q: When you put together a movie with a budget of $5 million, it sounds as though the prospect of doing a deal to get it made and into the marketplace must be better than if you were trying to make a much more expensive independent film.
A: I’m guessing and hoping that it all works out well. The good thing is for us to break even we don’t have to do millions and millions of dollars of business. We’re at a very good point already. We made the film as responsibly as we possibly could financially and there seems to be really good buzz about it. We’ve done well at the festivals (such as Sundance, San Francisco and Tribeca). The film comes out in a couple of weeks (from when we spoke) and we feel confident and hopeful that maybe as a first time feature maker on a little independent film we might be able to make our money back — and that would be fantastic.
Q: How did it come to Sony Pictures Classics?
A: When we were putting the financing together, there’s a particular scheme in the U.K. called an EIS, which is a way of financing a film through private investors. We managed to get a good chunk of the way through our budget doing it that way — my producer Stuart Fenegan and I. There was a certain point though where we needed still quite a big chunk of financing in order to close things out or, at least, get closer to closing them out, and we sold all of our English language territories up front to Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group. And with them on board, basically, it was going to be through them that we found out who was going to be distributing the film in all of the English language territories.

We kind of knew that Sony Classics would have been the ideal partner for us, but we didn’t actually know and they didn’t make the decision until Sundance (in January 2009). Because Sony Worldwide already owned the film for English language territories, we were very much in their hands as to who was going to do distribution and whether it was going to get a theatrical release at all. Sony Classics were in a very powerful position because they didn’t really have to compete with anyone. They just had to decide whether they wanted it or not. At Sundance they basically waited to see what the audience reaction was and when they saw that it was very positive that’s when they said, “Yes, we’re going to do this film.”
Q: Coming back to production, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
A: There were a couple of things. One, obviously, is where we wanted to push the technology. It’s a two-shot where we had Sam physically interacting with himself. We planned to do that shot fairly early on, about a week and a half into the shoot. Sam was still feeling his way into having to deal with the technical side of the filmmaking and on the effects side we were still trying to work out how to do it. We actually had to walk away from that scene and come back to it about a week later because it was such a challenge and it was so difficult. But, fortunately, we nailed it when we came back to it. That was one instance that was an interesting and very stressful experience on the set.

We did this scene where there’s a ping pong game between two versions of Sam. There were certain technical considerations that I don’t think Sam was completely aware of and one of them was that you couldn’t touch the table tennis table. We filmed one side of the scene and it went fine and Sam went up to do his makeup change and came back down and on the very first take where Sam was playing the other character he leapt onto the table and screwed everything to hell! Simon, the video effects supervisor, (and I) ran off to the corner and we were absolutely stressed out of our heads about what we were going to do. Very incredibly and fortunately we had a little laptop and we did a mock-up of the two takes and matched them up and it actually worked really well as a scene. So we got that very complicated effects shot on the first take.
Q: Just finally, sci-fi is such a great genre that it’s a shame we don’t see it much these days the way we did in the ’70s. The same way that Hollywood has turned the thriller genre into horror films today, the sci-fi genre has been turned into a kind of large scale fantasy genre.
A: Sci-fi’s kind of turned into the opportunity to do sort of big special effects set pieces one after the other. That’s unfortunate because I think what science fiction, especially in literature, has always been about (is) trying to create situations where you can really get at human nature and explain why human beings are the way they are. One of the beauties of science fiction is that you can tell a very human story and you can take a detailed look at what a human being is and why they are the way they are. The alien or the science fiction backdrop is what really gives you that contrast so you can see what it is about the human being that makes them the way they are. I think those kind of films were getting made in the late ’70s and ’80s. And that kind of very inquisitive human smart science fiction just doesn’t get made that much any more.
Q: Looking ahead, are you going to do more sci-fi?
A: Well, there’s lots of things I’d like to do, but it does seem like the next film that I’m hoping to do is also going to be science fiction. I’m kind of thinking of it as a companion piece, but of the other side of the coin, of “Moon” and that’s going to be a very different feeling. “Moon” is quite a lonely quiet film about alienation. This other film called “Mute” is going to be a much busier and in some ways more commercial thriller that takes place in a future Berlin.
Q: And, presumably, on a budget that will be more than $5 million?
A: I hope so. Not a huge budget, but definitely a step forward.