Duncan Jones interview: Source Code, science fiction, Superman, Wolverine and more

With Source Code out now in cinemas, we met director Duncan Jones to chat about the film’s making, sci-fi influences and Wolverine…

I always feel a faint sense of apprehension before heading into any interview, whether it’s a well-known actor, director or writer. What mood will they be in?  Will they be tired? Jolly? Angry? Will they smile indulgently at my odd questions and faltering delivery, or simply throw a coffee cup at my head in irritation? 

I can honestly say that, in every case, every interviewee I’ve met has been utterly lovely and pleasant and that, so far, no one’s ever thrown a coffee cup at my head. But still, the fear remains, particularly in the case of Duncan Jones, who’s the director of two of my favourite films of recent years, Moon and Source Code.

When I met him on an unseasonably hot April day in London, though, Mr Jones proved to be both good humoured and generous, talking eagerly about the making of Source Code, sci-fi literature, and what he’s up to next…

Spoiler warning: the final question in the interview deals with the ending of Source Code. If you haven’t seen the film yet, we’d suggest you stop reading when you see the words “spoilers begin below”.

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It struck me that Moon and Source Code are quite similar. Was that what attracted you to it in the first place?

It really wasn’t! And funnily enough – I’ll tell you the story – I was doing international press for Moon, and stopped off in Los Angeles. I had the chance to meet a few of the people I really wanted to work with, and Jake Gyllenhaal was one of them. We met up, and started talking about things we could do together, and he had been given the script for Source Code.

He said, “Why don’t you read this? I think it’s something that’ll be up your street.” He’s not a dummy, and he’d seen Moon and was a fan of it, and I think he’s the one who saw the similarities between Moon and Source Code.

I read Source Code and I was completely oblivious. I was really excited by how different it was. It’s got all these actors in it, it’s got action, stunts and an interesting science fiction story at the heart of it. Plus, I get to do a bit of romance.

I got excited about that and called Jake with what my take was, my pitch. Fortunately, he liked the sound of it, which is how it all took off.

Did you add much to the script once you became involved?

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Structurally, the script was in really good shape. They’d been working on it for a long time. My big addition to the film was the tone.

Originally, the script was very serious, and kind of like an episode of 24 with some science fiction ideas in it. One of my suggestions was to lighten the tone, and inject a little bit of humour into it, because the audience is going to have a heck of a lot more fun if we let them know that it’s okay for them to enjoy themselves. I think the humour really allows them to do that.

Mute‘s a project you’ve been trying to get made for a while now. Does the success of Source Code make that more likely to happen?

It’s been hard work trying to get that made. In all honesty, I’ve been doing press now since South by Southwest, which is the film festival in Austin, Texas, and that was before the film got released. So, solidly from then until now, I’ve been doing a lot of this, to be honest.

So, I don’t yet know if I have any leverage, as far as getting my films made.

Until all this is done and I go back to Los Angeles and start taking meetings, I don’t know how seriously I’ll be in a position to get the films made that I’d like to make. We’ll have to see. Hopefully, it’ll happen, and hopefully, it’ll help that Source Code‘s been as successful as it has.

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You’ve said elsewhere that Mute‘s your personal Blade Runner.

Yeah, yeah. The original inspiration for it was – Blade Runner‘s what’s gone on in Los Angeles in the future that Ridley Scott envisioned. What’s going on in other parts of the world? Berlin’s always a city I’ve found fascinating. I lived there for a little bit when I was a kid, and I went back again more recently, after the reunification of Germany, and it’s a city that’s changing so fast. Just because of the reunification, and the fact that the Soviets no longer exist, as such, so all the old socialist buildings are being repurposed – night clubs, residences, gyms. It’s a city that’s constantly on the change.

So, I was thinking, if Berlin has changed that fast in the last fifteen years, what will it be like thirty or forty years from now? Again, it’s comparing Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles. What will Berlin be like in that same future?

It got me very excited and I wrote this film, Mute, a while ago, that was based on that idea.

Is it still as existential as the last two movies you’ve made?

I don’t think so. I may be wrong, but I think, in the tradition of Blade Runner, it’s a really gritty film noir that happens to take place in the future. And I think, in that respect, it’s more story-driven than philosophically-driven.

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What attracts you to sci-fi? What are you most influenced by?

I love the ‘what if’ nature of sci-fi. I love incredibly imaginative, speculative sci-fi. I love Star Wars, things like that. I also love the more mainstream sci-fi. I love J G Ballad. I love authors who take the world as we know it, and just tweak one thing, and say, “What if the world were like this?”

What’s great about it is that, by making those subtle changes, an audience steps out of themselves a little bit, and looks at the world anew. All of a sudden, it’s like spot the difference. You’re looking at this world you know, and a sci-fi world, and saying, “Oh, my goodness. It really is different. I really would have to react in a different way if the world were like this.” I like that aspect, the hypothesising in science fiction.

JG Ballad is just an example of the writers I like. Philip K Dick is obviously one of them. I’m a big fan of William Gibson, as well. He started cyberpunk with Neuromancer. I’ve come to know him a little bit over Twitter, of all places, and I was always a huge fan of his. It’s very cool to know he even knows I exist. [laughs]

There’s been talk of you directing Wolverine.

There has been talk! [laughs] I will say that, because Source Code‘s been successful, there are going to be meetings and opportunities that I’m going to have that I didn’t think I would before Source Code came out.

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And although I’m passionate about doing my own project, I have a certain responsibility to at least take the meetings, and see what’s out there. And then we’ll see.

I don’t know what the situation is with Wolverine. I know my agents want me to see some people about a couple of different projects, so we’ll see.

Superman was another project your name’s been attached to.

I was on a list. I was on a shortlist and it was very exciting to me. Source Code wasn’t out yet, so poor old Chris Nolan was having to base his judgement on Moon, this director who’d done one little British independent film. Do you really want to throw him into a big superhero franchise? I totally, legitimately understand the reason why I wasn’t chosen, and why Zack Snyder, who’s had an awful lot of experience doing big-budget stuff, and can obviously deliver visuals pretty much like no one else, was the choice.

Obviously, it would have been fantastic to have had that chance. For that project, in particular, I would have gone for it, I think. Yeah, I was on that list, and it was very exciting for me.

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Source Code was an interesting proving ground for you, then, to see if you wanted to make larger, more action-oriented films.

It was funny, because one of the things I insisted upon was that I bring my producer, Stuart Fenegan, who did Moon with me. Stuart, myself and Sam Rockwell, were the people who made the decisions on Moon.

The situation on Source Code was very different. It had a large number of producers, many of whom weren’t sure if I was the right guy for the job at the start. But I was brought on by Jake. They had to accept that. It was part of the package.

And it took me a while to win them round, but fortunately, I had this background in advertising, where you have to do that on a daily basis anyway. A lot of adverts, when you shoot them, you have the advertising agency and the client, whose product you’re trying to sell, sitting there on the shoot. Every shot you do, you go over to them and explain what you’re doing, and make them feel comfortable about what it is you’re doing.

It was kind of like going back to advertising, at the beginning of Source Code, where I was constantly going over to these producers, whose money I was responsible for, and explain what I was doing and why I was doing it. If I was changing something, this was the reason why I was changing it.

I just had to switch my frame of mind from how we did Moon, where we just did what we wanted to do because we knew it was right, back to advertising mode, where we had to bring this big throng of people with me all the time.

But they came to trust me, and over the course of the shoot, they were just willing to let me do my thing.

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[Spoilers begin below]

I was intrigued by the ending of Source Code, which I thought could be perceived as a bleak ending, as well as a happy one. Was that something you had to encourage the producers to let you include?

I totally agree with you, and thank you, because you’re one of the few people who realises that it’s not necessarily a happy ending.

I really pushed for the ending that we’ve got right now. In fact, I felt that there was a payoff to the science fiction set-up, a paradox that wasn’t in the script. And it really should be there, because if you’re going to do all this work, coming up with a science fiction conceit, make sure you’ve got the payoff at the end of it.

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The idea is, Colter Stevens is sent from one reality into a parallel reality, and because he stops the train blowing up in that parallel reality, he’s never sent on the mission in the first place, which means, in this new reality, there’s the Colter Stephens at the place where Goodman works, who is basically a prisoner, because he’s never been sent on a mission yet.

And he sends that Goodman an email saying, “Please, help him.” And obviously, Sean Fentress is dead, because Colter took his place.

So, you’re right. There’s a bleakness to that, that some people have completely missed, and they say it’s a cop-out and a happy ending. I don’t think it is.

The happy ending the producers were originally talking about, where Colter and Christina are at the reflective statue, and they live happily ever after, that would have been a cop-out for me, having set up that science fiction conceit.

Duncan Jones, thank you very much!

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